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   PRISM internationa
"Between a Rock and a Hard Place" by Gwen Benaway
"Autobiography of an Iceheart" by Kai Minosh Pyle
"It Pays to Increase Your Word Power" by Erin Soros
Alicia Elliott
Andrew Bethune, Sukaina Bhojani, Esther Chen
Robert Colman, Jaclyn Desforges, Jason Emde
Peter Endicoot, Derrick Gravener, Jocelyne Gregory
Laura Anne Harris, Matthew Kok, Lisa Moore
Emilie Moorhouse, Laura Nicol, Shyamala Parthasarathy
Loghan Paylor, Cindy Pereira, Kiri Sawyer
Kyle Schoenfeld, Jocelyn Tennant, Elaine van der Geld
Jen Larsen van Tassel, Arlene Avila
 PRISM digital archive
PRISM international is proud to announce the launch of our
digital archives! With the generous support of the British
Columbia Arts Council, we have digitized over 200 back issues,
bringing 56 years of literary history online. Joyce Carol Oates,
Michael Ondaatje, and Seamus Heaney are just a few names
from PRISMs long legacy. Digitization of our archives is an
important step in preserving and promoting influential literature,
and we are excited to share our publication history with readers
The searchable archives are free for anyone to access, and can be
reached through
PRISM    &
digital archive
for your Poem, Essay, or Short Story
Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest   Deadline: February 28
Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest Deadline: March 28
Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award   Deadline: May 28
Visit to submit now!
Kyla Jamieson
Shazia Hafiz Ramji
Selina Boan
Jessica Johns
Sharon McGowan
andrea bennett
Rosemary Anderson
Jennifer Amos, Cheryl Archer, Mikaela Asfour
Kathryn Barclay, Wendy Bone, Alison Braid
Sonal Champsee, Rhonda Collis, Robert Colman
Bryce Doersam, Lesley Finn, Alanna Francis
Elaine van der Geld, Samarra Goldglas, Mason Hanrahan
Rachel Jansen, Jeff Miller, Emilie Moorhouse
Emily Pate, Deborah Patz, Cindy Pereira
Kiri Sawyer, Kyle Schoenfeld, Jasmine Sealy
Erin Steel, Colin Sterling, Deborah Vail
Carly Vandergriendt, Jackson Weaver, Mormei Zanke
Esther Chen, Emma Cleary, Joy Gyamfi
Juliana Galbraith, Derrick Gravener, Matthew Kok
Hilary Leung , Claudia Wilde, Mormei Zanke
 PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four
times a year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British
Columbia, Buchanan E-462, 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1.
Specific back issues can be ordered from the Executive Editor, Circulation:
circulation@prismmagazine. ca.
Copyright © 2018 PRISM international. Content copyrights remain with
authors. Cover image © Daragh Soden, "Boys Sitting on Roof."
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Our gratitude to Acting Dean Kathtyn Harrison and the Dean of Arts
Office at the University of British Columbia. We gratefully acknowledge the
financial support of the UBC Creative Writing Program, the Canada Council
for the Arts, and the British Columbia Arts Council.
January 2018. ISSN 0032.8790
|UBC|      a place of mind fUBCJ
BRITISH COLUMBIA g8§     Canada Council     ConseildesArts
ARTS COUNCIL <£>   for the Arts du Canada
Printed in Canada
Alicia Elliott
Strength in Survival
Gwen Benaway
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Kai Minosh Pyle
Autobiography of an Iceheart
Erin Soros
It Pays to Increase Your Word Power
Yuly Restrepo Garces
The Decedent
Cason Sharpe
One for the Faeries of Alexandra Park
Jonathan Ball
My Parents Don't Know
Not Doing So Badly
Carolyn Nakagawa
Bren Simmers
Accident, Lions Bay
Jim Johnstone
Self-portrait as Anything at Any Cost
Judith Penner
After I Took Issue with the World
John Sibley Williams
J.R. Carpenter and
Which Way Is West?
Mary Paterson
Roxanna Bennett
R. Kolewe
Quartet (
Doyali Islam
Sites: Mill Road
Daniela Elza
Life as Conceptual Art
 Alicia Elliott
It takes a certain kind of courage to write creative non-fiction—to take
your life, sift through the pleasures and pains, the lights and the darks,
and not only cobble it together into a cohesive narrative, but also offer it
up to the world for critique. Not everyone has the ability to do that—or,
even more challenging, to do that well. To do it well, you have to be
willing to go places that are sometimes dangerous or difficult, that may
shatter your illusions about yourself, your friends and family, the world.
Even that is not enough to write great creative non-fiction: which, in
my opinion, not only tears its readers' perceptions apart, but also puts
them back together, leaving us in a better place than where we started.
All three of the entries that I chose as the winners of this year's PRISM
international Creative Non-Fiction contest were truly great creative non-
Interestingly, all of these pieces deal in different ways with survival.
Gwen Benaway's first-place essay, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place,"
radiates power, resolve, pain, and beauty. She writes, "the truth about
survivors is we come from other survivors, are woven into a history
of violence and rupture as long as we have stories for." She takes an
honest, unflinching look at the ways that family violence and abuse have
reverberated across multiple generations within her own life. How do
you have empathy for the abuse your abusers have experienced, while
still acknowledging the ways they've hurt you? How do you reclaim your
pain? How do you fight back against the notion that survivors are always
less than, in need of saving, having to somehow fulfill this mystical idea
of "wholeness"? Can survivors be loved as we are, with all our pain and
all our scars, or must we withhold that love until we "heal properly"?
These are the questions that Benaway poses in her essay—questions
she answers with nuance, integrity, intelligence, and love. "We're not
damaged goods," Benaway argues. "We are holy in our hurt." Situating
survivors as people who deserve love now instead of after they prove
they're no longer "damaged" is an act of tadical empathy. I'd even argue
it's revolutionary. As if that weren't enough, Benaway's writing has a poet's
precision. Each line builds as though the essay itself were a long poem. It
starts with a quote from poet Ocean Vuong, who asks whether a survivor
6 PRISM  56.2
 is "the last one to come home." By the end, Benaway questions Vuong's
notion, urging survivors to stop looking outside of themselves for home:
"We're already here."
Kai Minosh Pyle's "Autobiogtaphy of an Iceheart" takes a hard look at
the ways that one survives mental illness in a cultural context. Pyle takes
their own history of mental illness; the Anishinaabe legend of the windigo,
an ever-hungry creature that feasts on human flesh; Anishinaabemowin;
and the histoty of the Canton Indian Insane Asylum to weave a narrative
of colonialism and mental health. How did Anishinaabe care for their
loved ones with mental health issues before contact? How have they dealt
with them since contact? Is a person with mental illness a windigo? In
a particularly illuminating, insightful moment, Pyle recounts a story
about two Anishinaabe men arrested for the murder of Wahsakapeequay,
a woman accused of being a windigo, in 1907. She was the daughter-in-
law of one of her murderers—a man who claims to have killed fourteen
windigos to defend his community. "Those fourteen windigos stalk me,"
Pyle writes, later wondering if they would be considered a windigo back
then. "I cannot judge the decision of a hundted years ago. But I can
What is especially remarkable about Pyle's essay is its clever use of
form to mirror content. They tell an Anishinaabe legend about a woman
who was suffering from deep depression and who, after two yeats of
being cared for by her community, came back having learned how to
weave birchbark baskets. "Her people loved her for it," Pyle writes, "and
she began to heal." Pyle structures their essay as though they, too, are
weaving a birchbark basket, and I found that as I read, just as the woman's
community loved her for bringing the birchbark basket back, I loved Pyle
for bringing into the world this intricately woven art. It encouraged me
to think of alternative ways of healing my community, and myself. "I
have gone through crazy and come out the other side," Pyle writes, "but
I have come bearing gifts." And what gifts they are.
Erin Soros's essay, "It Pays to Inctease Your Word Power," is a tenderly
rendered story that, while acknowledging her own survival of her
father's abuse, also dissects how her father in many ways failed to survive
masculinity. Each detail Soros offers about her father paints a picture of
a damaged man coming to terms with how his violent masculinity has,
ultimately, failed him—and, subsequently, caused him to fail his family.
He detests sugar or anything sweet; he was a former boxer; he has such
a loud voice that "even when he answers the phone, he shouts." Most
hearthteaking of all, though, is his claim that he has no feelings—a claim
 he initially makes with pride: "I don't feel anything, he said, thumping
his chest. Don't you worry about me." This directly contradicts the
admission he gives Soros years later as an aging man: '"I didn't have a
place [in our home], you understand ... I'm proud of what I did on the
job. At home I couldn't ... I was a failure as a father."
Soros doesn't need to spend paragraphs overtly explaining how
masculinity has alienated her father from his home and his family. She
shows it with these few, deftly chosen lines of dialogue. Through these
lines of dialogue, Soros shows us the complexity of loving an abusive
person. Though he's hurt her, she hesitates to hurt him: choosing not
to correct him when he's wrong, noticing the ways he seems to crave
her approval, remembering moments of love delivered in the form of
mailed calculators or questions about computers. Accessing a sort of self-
awareness and wisdom we should all aspire to, Soros writes, "when my
father tells me that he is a failure, I understand for once that I am capable
of hurting him—that in my own way I already have—and I do not want
this power." Love does not always look the way we are told it should, but
that doesn't make it any less real.
Each of these three essays carries bravery, wisdom, and love; each
offers insight into ideas I'd either never known, or, conversely, always
known but struggled to put down into words. I hope that when you read
them, they offer you as much as they continue to offer me.
PRISM  56.2
 Jonathan Ball
It upsets me that my friends know the real me,
but I have a hard time expressing who I am to my parents.
I have secret body piercings. I have secret tattoos.
I have secrets. My parents don't know.
What are the secrets they keep? I think of all the things
that I don't tell my parents, and then wonder what they don't tell me.
My father frightens me. I'm just like him, and that makes it worse.
I don't want to keep lying to my mother but she cannot know.
I hate upsetting my Dad. I hate myself sometimes.
I know he'd understand. But when I open my mouth I just choke.
My mother is so self-absorbed. She just isn't rational.
She doesn't listen. She's so needy, it makes me afraid.
I had a child when I was twenty-two. My parents still don't know.
My parents don't know what I need. I want to be left alone,
but I also just want them to hold me. Sometimes I scream for them
to go away and once they do I hate them for leaving.
My Dad can read me like a book, but he still doesn't know
that this book was not written for him. It's different with my Mom,
but not in a good way. It's hard to remember my parents are people.
I'm sick of hiding, but it's the one thing I know.
My parents don't know what they're doing.
My parents don't know where I am.
My parents love me and I love them too,
but they don't know all the hells held inside.
I'm not doing so badly, it's something my friends deal with too.
I'm not doing so badly, all told. I write things down.
Nature is vast and glorious and generous, and mean and small and shitty.
It's important for a man to know himself. He's not doing so badly for a
Korea's not doing so badly. Europe's not doing so badly now.
Artists aren't doing so badly. They suffer only 8% unemployment.
Turn that around, and it's really good news. I'm not doing so badly.
I'm relatively safe compared to my neighbours in Hell.
The poem is not doing so badly so far, but I'm not sure if my ending
will work. I'm not doing so badly in attracting readers to the brand.
They miss their Mom, but they're not doing so badly at all.
We spent many productive hours there, laughing together.
She's not doing so badly in bed, it's a hard job in a tough industry.
He's not doing so badly, not for somebody who's incredibly angered
and endlessly miserable. Things are going better than I feared.
I can't be doing so badly, because I'm president, and you're not.
10 PRISM  56.2
 Kai Minosh Pyle
THE   FIRST  TIME   I   HEARD  A WINDIGO   STORY,   I  was   Still   a  Small   child
living through yet another harsh Wisconsin winter. The storyteller, an
Anishinaabe elder brought in by the school to help young Native childten
connect with out cultures, had a knack for imitating the sound of creaking
trees and howling gusts and for dropping long, dramatic silences at just
the right moments. I wish I could tell you his name, because Anishinaabe
stories always, always come with lineage, and windigo stories especially,
but all I can remember from that day is the way he described the creature.
"It was as tall as the tips of the pine trees that surrounded it," he told
us in a hushed voice. "No meat on its bones, just skin wrapped around
its skeleton. When it opened its mouth, a terrible windy sound rushed
through the forest. It was human once, you know. All windigos were once
people, just like you and me. But this windigo, one cold winter all the
food ran out. One by one the villagers started to die. And the last one left,
that one had no choice but to eat that ripe human flesh."
 We were gripping the edges of our seats, eyes glued to the storyteller,
who needed no picture books to paint an image for us. He let out a long
sigh, and continued, "From that moment on, what once was a man
became a windigo. It was seized by an incredible hunger—a hunger for
more human flesh. With each person it ate, it grew, until it was the size of
the trees. But with each one it ate, its hunger grew just as much. It could
never be satisfied. And so it kept hunting."
The elder bared his teeth with a small growl. Some of us jumped.
"Maybe ... it's still out there hunting now."
I remember feeling like my skin had gone cold all over. My eyes
were wide, and when I looked around my peers had the same look on
their faces. It was nearly time for lunch, and the feeling of hunger in my
stomach suddenly felt ominous. I've kept that story with me for some
fifteen years, carrying it in the back of my mind. Haunted by the sound
of that windigo, by the sight of pine trees, by the feeling of hunger itself.
When I tried to look up Anishinaabe culture and mental illness for the
first time in my university library's catalogue, desperate for some kind
of cultural guidance, I found almost nothing—except the windigo
psychosis. Academics are obsessed with the windigo psychosis. Ever since
it was first noticed by white observers (noted in The Jesuit Relations as
early as 1661), the rare but occasional habit of individual Anishinaabe and
other northern Algonquian people to become disturbed by a deep desire
to consume human flesh has fascinated outsiders.
There are records of individuals taken by this disorder, people who
engaged in cannibalism even in circumstances other than dire need.
In some cases, the person-turned-windigo was only suffused with
an incredibly pressing urge to become a cannibal, but never actually
committed the deed.
Anthropologists have called this a "culture-bound syndrome," a mental
disorder found only in certain, specific cultures across the world. Other
illnesses deemed culture-bound syndromes include the sickness of those
who fall under the evil eye, and susto, a Latin American phenomenon
characterized by a sense of fright due to trauma. Some have debated if
modern eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, may in fact be culture-
bound syndromes found only in modern industrial societies.
I am not sure if the concept of culture-bound syndromes supports or
disrupts the idea promoted by some Indigenous activists, that all mental
12 PRISM  56.2
 illness among our people is caused by capitalism and colonization.
I have combed my Anishinaabemowin dictionary for words that mean
"crazy." Instead of a single word, there are several. In fact, there are four
separate roots, maybe more that I don't yet know, that translate to one
word in English. The first root is giiwashkwe, which by itself means "she
is dizzy, feels unsteady." If you add the suffix that refers to a person's nature
or character, you get giiwashkweyaadizi: she is crazy, insane.
The next root is gagiibaad, which means something like "foolish"
when attached to various endings. Gagiibaadizi means "she is foolish, silly,
naughty." Gagiibaadaanagidoone means "she talks crazy, nonsense." And
gagiibaazinam—-"she visualizes crazy things, hallucinates."
The third root, giiwan, is difficult to translate. The dictionary lists its
meaning as "disordered," but the words that it creates are more varied:
giiwaningwaam, "she has a bad dream, a nightmare"; giiwanimo, "she lies,
deceives"; giiwanaadizi, "she is crazy, insane."
The final root is mamiidaawendam. I've seen this word translated in
several ways: "she is sttuggling with her thoughts," "she is disturbed in her
mind," "she is crazy." When I asked a speaker about it, they said it could
mean anything from having a certain thought that you can't get out of
your head, to being conflicted over a decision, to being mentally ill.
I whisper these words to myself as I read them, turning their meanings
over in my mind. Am I giiwashkweyaadizi, dizzy-crazy? Am I gagiibaadizi,
foolish-crazy? I return to mamiidaawendam over and over again, a self-
fulfilling prophecy. The struggle with my thoughts continues even now.
I knew none of these Anishinaabemowin words when I first went crazy at
age sixteen. Instead what I had was a shut closet door I could hide behind,
and a list of various mental illnesses printed out onto several tear-stained
sheets of paper. The rest of my family was out of town, leaving me to break
down in utter desolation. Aftet lying on the floor in silence for what may
have been hours, I finally sat up and pulled out the phone. I stared at the
numbers for another minute, then pressed them.
My mother's voice was nonchalant, cheery. Mine was ragged, raw.
"I need you to come home," I said, throat scratchy and nose plugged
from the hours of crying.
"Why? What's wrong?"
 "I just need you to come home," I said again, and hung up.
Despite my early flirtations with a rainbow of diagnoses—major
depressive disorder, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, gender
identity disorder—I managed to survive the next five years armed with a
basketful of pills and a revolving door of psychotherapists.
The first therapist who assessed me listened to me talk for awhile, then
informed me, "You're going to need someone with a PhD."
The first psychiatrist who assessed me called me a bitch to my face in
front of my parents, who said nothing in response.
My first long-term therapist once had me pick "my spirit animal" out
of a book based on my horoscope, and refused to back down when I
complained that it was offensive to my ancestral spiritual traditions. I
stopped seeing her after we fought over my insistence that I shouldn't
have to put up with being ostracized at school for being transgender and
"You can't change the way the world works," she said to me—shouted,
"That's exactly what I'm gonna do," I shouted back, and left her office
for the last time.
I gave up on therapy entirely after my final therapist went on an
extended rant about how dangerous the streets were with people of color
walking around, apparently having forgotten my ethnicity in the face of
my light skin tone.
The stories go on. There was the university therapist who believed I
was faking my mental illnesses because I seemed "just so charming and
put-together" in her office. The one who told me my diagnoses were
wrong after a two-hour session together. The one who threatened me with
Opened in 1903, the Canton Indian Insane Asylum served for just over
thirty years as the single mental institution designated specifically for
the care of insane American Indians. It was finally closed in 1934 after
investigations revealed pervasive inhumane treatment of its Indigenous
14 PRISM  56.2
 patients. The time period during which the asylum, known popularly as
Hiawatha, was functional corresponds almost perfectly with the height of
the Indian boarding-school era in the United States.
In 2016, Carla Joinson published Vanished in Hiawatha, a near-
comprehensive account of the asylum's story from its origins to its
downfall. The appendices list the names of every person who was ever
institutionalized there. When I first found a copy in the local bookstore,
I flipped to them immediately, following the names with my finger,
hesitating for just a second whenever I reached one with the designation
"(Chippewa)" next to it. The list includes the ages and diagnoses of each
patient, and I was shocked by how many of the diagnoses were familiar to
me—chronic depression, melancholia, manic-depressive, feeble-minded,
imbecile—whether from my medical paperwork or from whispered
insults throughout my life. I was shocked, too, by how many were the
same age as I was when they were admitted—or when they died.
I would like to tell you about the conditions revealed in the book, of
how the patients, known as "inmates," were treated. I would tell you the
stories of Isabella Portet and Gaagigeyaashiik Martha Smith, Anishinaabe
women whose lives were cut unthinkably short. I would tell you how over
half the patients were under the age of thirty, some as young as sixteen.
But I cannot bear to recount their pain, can barely stand to look at it
What I will tell you is that in 2012, the first Honoring and
Remembering Ceremony was held for the 121 people who had died while
in the "care" of the Canton Indian Insane Asylum. It was held on the golf
course that today encompasses the graveyard where they are buried.
Though threatened with it on more than one occasion, I was never
actually put in a mental institution. Instead I was placed in what is known
as "intensive outpatient therapy," a process in which you attend group
therapy every day for approximately eight weeks, plus individual sessions
with both a psychologist and a psychiatrist.
The psychologist was, unlike most psychologists I had encountered, a
relatively young Latina woman who kept an impressive rapport with the
constantly shifting array of patients. Early on she pinned my motivation,
or lack thereof, to the wall and forced me to recognize it hanging there.
"What did you accomplish yesterday?" she asked me. This was a
reference to the worksheets we filled out every day detailing our intended
 activities and how they would help our recovery.
"Nothing," I said, without emotion. I rarely felt emotion in those days.
Being crazy, for me, was not about sadness, or anger, or paranoia, but an
overwhelming sense of disconnection from reality. Sometimes—often—
that meant days laying in darkness, moving only to use the bathroom.
Sometimes it meant lost time, when I would wake suddenly with no
recollection of the past hours. Sometimes it meant scratching my skin
until I bled, either out of complete lack of care for my body or out of
genuine disparagement for my sheer existence. "Nothing" was my life.
My psychologist gave me a shrewd look. "Why nothing?"
"I don't know," I said, peeved, "I just didn't feel like doing any of it."
"The thing is," she said, eyeing my evasive apathy, "the only way you
are going to recover is if you want to recover. Do you want to recover?"
I thought about it, really deeply, for the first time. And I said, "I don't
think I do."
She leaned back with a satisfied smile. "There. See? You have to be
honest with yourself. When you want to recover, you'll start making
Great, I thought. How do I make myself want to recover? But she had
a point. I felt lighter already, even if I was still shrouded in dark clouds. I
don't want to recover. Not yet. It was liberating.
There's a sacred story, what we call in Anishinaabemowin an aadizookaan,
which I read for the first time in a book called Centering Anishinaabeg
Studies. This time, I can trace the lineage of the story: Anishinaabe elder
Ignatia Broker told it to Kathleen Dolores Westcott, who then recorded it
in an essay co-authored with Eva Marie Garroutte. In the story, a woman
loses her husband and falls into grief so deep that not even the year-long
ceremonial practices of her people are able to touch it. She leaves her village
and spends two years sitting at the foot of a birch tree, Wiigwaasaatig, day
and night, numb to the world.
Her community is confused and concerned, so they do what
Anishinaabe people do in such circumstances: they ask the elders. Garroute
and Wescotte recall the elders' words: "She's thinking. She's thinking on
our behalf. She is working on this carefully within her heart. This wouldn't
be happening if there weren't something coming our way that we need
to be prepared for. She's been called to go out and learn about it. . . . We
have to support her as though she's in a prolonged search for guidance, for
16 PRISM  56.2
 communion. We may not even be alive when whatever it is she's seeking
to prepare us for occurs." And it is said that the community was excited
to continue to support her however they could, even though they did not
yet understand.
And sure enough, one day in the summer of the second year of her
vigil, the woman felt something stir in the tree behind her. Wiigwaasaatig
spoke to her, calling her granddaughter and acknowledging her pain.
Then Wiigwaasaatig taught her how to peel off its skin and to use the gifts
of the other plant peoples to create baskets—beautiful things so tightly
sewn that they could even carry water. Finally Wiigwaasaatig instructed
her to return to her community and to pass on the knowledge she had
been gifted. So she did, and her people loved her for it, and she began to
The first time I talked with the outpatient therapy psychologist, she asked
me about my diagnoses. Looking down at my chart, where my list of
symptoms had been laid out, my body and history gutted open for anyone
to see, she asked, "Have you ever experienced any trauma?"
I thought about it. I thought about the sudden death of my grandfather
in the line of duty as a fireman when I was thirteen. I thought about
the suicide of my good friend, a queer kid like me, my senior year of
high school. I thought about the day I was sexually assaulted, and about
the two terrifying years afterwards, when I had to attend classes with the
perpetrator. But mostly I thought about little things: the girl who had
hit me with basketballs while calling me a sissy, the whispered taunts of
"faggot" and "dyke" and "dirty squaw," the kids who cheered "Retard!
Retard!" while pelting me with sticks on the playground.
"I got picked on a lot as a kid," I said simply.
The psychologist looked at me carefully for a long moment. "You
know," she said gently, "a lot of new research shows that bullying can have
the same kind of effects on a person that a single, major traumatic event
has. It's called C-PTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The little
things compound on each other and build up over time."
I didn't know it then, but research suggests that the rates of PTSD
among Native children are about the same as the rates among combat
veterans. I didn't know it then, but my bones did.
In 2014, police killings of American Indians briefly got media attention.
Though it was unfortunately often framed as being "the police killings
no one is talking about!" (as though African Americans were needlessly
taking up all the space available, as though there is a limited space and
time to discuss police violence), it spurred a bout of research that revealed
that Native people, especially young Native men, are killed by the police
at one of the highest rates in the United States.
It was the names and the stories I was obsessed with. Jeanetta Riley,
Suquamish, "pregnant, homeless, and threatening suicide." Mah-hi-vist
Goodblanket, Cheyenne and Arapaho, "diagnosed with oppositional
defiant disorder." Christine Tahhahwah, Comanche, bipolar and off her
medications. Paul Castaway, Rosebud Sioux, shot while holding a knife
to his own neck. Karen Day-Jackson, Eastern Shawnee, a bipolar woman
who allegedly shouted "shoot me" as the cops did just that. Philip Quinn,
Anishinaabe like me, schizophrenic and suicidal, killed in the city where I
now live.
Researchers at Claremont Graduate University estimate that fully half
of all Native people killed by police had some form of mental illness. The
news reports brim with stories of Indigenous people, young and old, of all
genders, killed after their families or even they themselves called for help.
The stteets fill with Native activists crying their names. My loved ones and
I wonder if we will be next.
I was sitting in the office of the school's emergency therapist. She tugged
on my arm until it was extended, forearm upwards, to reveal the marks
that showed just how crazy my illness had made me. The room was silent
except for the scratches of her pen on paper as she assessed the damage.
"Do you know why you're here?" she asked me. Her voice was low and
tired, like she'd done this a million times before.
"Uh," I said, and shook my arm a little. "Yeah. I guess." The night
before I'd made a blog post about wanting to kill myself. Then, frightened
by my own desires, I sent it to a friend who forced me to go see the
emergency therapist.
"Look," she told me. "I'm not going to mince words. If you post
anything else like that again, I've told your friend to call 911. The police
will come and take you to the hospital. You'll have to stay there until they
clear you to leave."
18 PRISM  56.2
 I said nothing. I was wallowing in the unfairness of it all, the fact
that I couldn't even have an outburst of honest emotion without being
threatened with law enforcement. But I accepted the anti-infection cream
and bandages she offered, and I didn't post anything like it ever again.
The attempted suicide rate for Indigenous people is double that of non-
Indigenous people.
Of transgender Indigenous people, over half have attempted suicide.
The day my life turned over went like this:
I lay in the darkness all night. All day, too; my room was adjacent to
the bathroom and I had a not-insubstantial stash of nonperishable food
that could be eaten without the use of kitchen appliances, so I could
pretty well avoid leaving the dark imposed by my heavy blinds. I knew it
was night mainly because when I refreshed my online news feeds, no new
information appeared. I couldn't sleep, though. Mental illness traditionally
fucks up one's sleep schedule, but on top of that I had a diagnosed case of
delayed phase sleep disorder to deal with. So I tossed and turned for hours
and hours.
Sometime before the birds began to do their damnedest to wake up
the neighbourhood, I got out of bed. My bones seemed weighted, but
there was this anxious feeling throughout my limbs that made lying down
for even one more minute seem impossible. Without turning on a light, I
groped my way down the hallway into the kitchen.
Instead of a cupboard, we had a rickety plywood shelf that some
previous inhabitant had installed. This was where we kept spices, sugar,
flour, soup cans, and most importantly, tea. I wandered over to the
shelf and squinted at its contents until their labels became clear; I had
forgotten my glasses. The tea declared itself to be something called lapsang
souchong, a new addition my roommate had recently brought home to
try. Figuring it probably couldn't make anything worse than it already
was, I set the kettle to boil and brewed the tea. Thankfully, none of my
roommates stirred.
As I sipped that smoky tea, light started to come into the kitchen. I
followed its source to the living room, where sunlight had just begun to
crawl over the tips of the Chicago rooftops and through the large east-
facing windows.
 I had been up for over twenty-four hours. Feeling more awake than
I had in days, I curled up on the couch and gazed out the windows
with interest. The birds were chirping clear as day now. Once in awhile,
unusually early risers walked down the street past our front door. I cupped
the mug of tea in my hands and began to hum a sunrise song.
My favorite aadizookaan is one not very easily told in polite company. It,
too, is a windigo story. The most well-known version was told by a Bois
Forte Anishinaabe man, Midaasoganzh, to the Meskwaki anthropologist
William Jones, but I have heard it slightly differently: So it goes that a
windigo was once again terrorizing the Anishinaabe people. They had
done everything they could to destroy it, but still it continued to devastate
their villages. Finally, our culture hero Nanaboozhoo reached the land
where it was rampaging. He called on his friend Zhingos, the weasel, to
help him hatch a plan. At the time, Zhingos was pure white and tiny. The
perfect size for Nanaboozhoo's bright idea.
"Listen, my friend," Nanaboozhoo said. "I know how to kill the
windigo. Its power is controlled by its heart, which is made of ice. If only
we can destroy its heart, its power too will be vanquished."
Zhingos frowned. "But how do we get to its heart without being
And Nanaboozhoo grinned and grinned, and told Zhingos the rest of
his plan.
They waited until the windigo was nearby. Just as they expected, it
came barreling into the village, looking for humans to devour. It barely
noticed the tiny white weasel that scurried up behind it.
Zhingos looked at Nanaboozhoo, as if to ask, are you sure about this?
Nanaboozhoo nodded and gave a thumbs-up. And without hesitation, that
Zhingos leapt up, grabbed the windigo with its little claws, and crawled
his way right up that windigos asshole! Yes, up through its intestines he
crawled, chewing his way through until finally he reached its icy heart.
When he did, he chewed with all his might, until the windigo faltered and
Zhingos came creeping out the dead windigos mouth at last to find
Nanaboozhoo standing there. Around him the villagers were slowly
coming closer to see who had defeated the dreaded windigo.
"How about that?" Zhingos exclaimed, proud of his deed. He went to
preen, but realized at that moment that his beautiful white fur was now ...
20 PRISM  56.2
 well, less than pristine. Nanaboozhoo noticed too. With a chuckle, he
picked the weasel up by the tip of his tail and, without hesitation, dipped
him in a nearby stream of cold water. When he came out, Zhingos was
shining and white again. All but the tip of his tail.
In 1907, the North-West Mounted Police of Canada arrested an
Anishinaabe man for the murder of a windigo. Zhaawano-giizhigo-
gaabaw, or Jack Fiddler as he was known in English, was famed throughout
Northern Ontario for his spiritual power and, in particular, his skill at
detecting and killing windigos.
The Mounties were the first whites most of the community had ever
seen. Looking for an excuse to impose Canadian law on the Indigenous
north, they arrested Zhaawano-giizhigo-gaabaw and his brother for the
murder of the latter's daughter-in-law, Wahsakapeequay During a brief
trip outside of their jail, Zhaawano-giizhigo-gaabaw escaped—and hung
Fourteen windigos, he claimed to have slain. A hero of the community.
Three years after his death, the Anishinaabe people of northwestern Ontario
agreed to sign a treaty with the government and accept Canadian law.
Today, Indigenous people look back on it as a moment when sovereignty
was lost. But those fourteen windigos stalk me. I see Wahsakapeequay,
who never succumbed to cannibalism, who was only delirious with illness
before her father-in-law killed her. The laws of my people sanctioned this.
I cannot judge the decision of a hundred years ago.
But I can mourn.
I have heard many windigo stories, and many stories of windigo slayers.
Only once, I heard a story about a windigo who was cured. Like the
story and its teller's name, the instructions for the cure are lost to me.
Only once, I dreamt of windigos. There was no cure for them there,
either. But there were windigos who no longer wanted to be windigos.
There were windigos who learned to fight their own natures, and there
were windigos who learned to love again.
Some days, I am deeply bothered by not knowing exactly how my
ancestors would have treated me, a crazy transgender Metis-Anishinaabe.
Would they have scorned me? Cared for me? Told me stories about others
like me? Would they have had a name for me? Would it have been a
good name, an affirming name, or an insulting one? Would they have had
ceremonies for me? Would the ceremonies have worked?
I joke with my friends that I have gone through crazy and come out
the other side. This does not mean I am no longer crazy. Maybe recovery
works like that for some people, but I am not one of them. I will be crazy,
in some form or another, for the rest of my life.
As I learn my language and my culture, these things weigh heavily on
my mind. When I am mindful, however, they are not just questions of
the past. They are also urgent questions for the future. If we revitalize our
language, how will we talk about mental illness? How do we want to treat
people with mental illnesses within our culture? There are things we bring
with us from the past, things we come from in the present, and things we
imagine for the future. We are creating the next world, one thought, one
action, one movement at a time.
I have never woven a basket out of birchbark, but I can learn. I have
always spoken English, not Anishinaabemowin, but I can pronounce
giiwanaadizi one syllable at a time. I have gone through crazy and come
out the other side, but I have come bearing gifts. Come, let's sing a sunrise
song and melt the heart of a windigo.
22 PRISM  56.2
 Carolyn Nakagawa
All summer you looked for shade, coughed out
cottonwood puffs and adolescent goose down.
The same movie was playing on repeat,
pushing glare into the moving heat.
The parks were filled with strangers
whose hunger was different from yours.
It seemed worthwhile to befriend those
nine o-clock pink clouds, that vanished
before you finished your smile.
Cheap flowers, the laziest hour for romance,
sky still sherbet-flavoured, far away,
whole days of the week written over.
You said goodbye to the people
you didn't love back. It was familiar
as the waxing moon, this pulling together
of plans. You worked on a new definition
of the eighties, summoning smells
of teen trials and hairspray, inured
to a glowing screen. It wasn't like this
when you cried for Molly Ringwald at two a.m.,
soaking your candy necklace; imagined the person
you could kiss tomorrow, and wished
the day, the month, the night would never end.
 Bren Simmers
Tell yourself a happy story
driving S curves in hydroplaning
rain—no one wants big feelings
at a party. Step back and experience
your emotions as a wave. Repeat:
you are not your emojis.
Heart eyes, banana grin say
the opposite of what you mean.
Put on your public face, outfit
armour, prepare for the evening
ahead. Been a busy fall, a blur really
—no, no, had a great fall, lots of hiking,
your rehearsal cut short when traffic
halts. A line of cars that sirens part.
One by one idling engines cut.
Sedans glow blue. Incoming texts
whistle: accident in Lions Bay.
Car flipped into oncoming traffic.
Moments ago you were absorbed
in the wall you built to keep
others out, now this physical closure,
both lanes north and south. Is this
what it means to attend to self?
Firefighters' reflective coats
direct traffic, CRAIG in white letters
advises to head back to Squamish.
Alive. It all comes back to that.
You're not in an ambulance
speeding towards emergency.
All the wet way home your brake
lights tell a different story.
24 PRISM  56.2
 YulyRestrepo Garces
since i got sober about two years ago, I've had these visions, and the
one I have today, as I wait for her in the middle of the Sabaneta square, is
of the two children whose corpses I worked on a couple of days ago. I see
them, a boy and a girl, as I try to decide whether to risk dirtying my skirt
by sitting on the lip of the fountain that adorns the middle of the square.
It was hard to tell from the state of the bodies, but our paperwork said he
was eight and she was five. She was smaller and thinner, and the face on
her charred body unrecognizable. Now the vision shifts to my boss sitting
in our stuffy office, telling the parents that their children's faces are not
suitable for an open casket. I wasn't there for it. I'm never in the office
when he breaks the news. But I see the mom in a floral housedress she
probably sewed herself, her eyelids pink as radishes, and the dad, a big,
round man, pursing his lips so hard his whole face quivers. If Rodolfo,
the guy who cremates the bodies, had seen him, he would have called
him "grease fire material."
It's Saturday night, and because this is no longer a little town, like
 when I was growing up, the square is teeming with people. Some are
flocking out of mass, and as I stare at the white church I visited so many
times in my school days, I am afraid she will get lost in the crowd, and
I will never meet her. Others from out of town—La Estrella, Itagiii, and
even Medellin—sit at tables outside of bars, or on any friendly surface,
drinking beer or aguardiente and eating all kinds of steaming pork they've
bought from stands around the square. So, if she doesn't get lost in the
church crowd, she might just find herself a friend to share a skewer with
and call it a night, and I'll go back home, and I will never meet her.
This vision, though. I see it through. I wait. I tty not to take it further,
to the thought of this rotund man dying of grief. This time I succeed, but
I don't always, and on those occasions, I start thinking it might just be
easier to start popping pills or drinking myself to sleep again.
I watch the church tower clock until my stomach starts to do a familiar
juggle. Tonight it's especially bad because church bells are about to ring,
and carrilera music blares from the bars, and the air smells of well-done
meat and the faintest trace of horse shit. And I'm waiting for someone I
don't know. I let my friend Paola set me up with this girl because, to put
it in her own words, "Yo dummy, you can't be only around dead people
all the time." She thinks my past bullshit doesn't mean I can't find a nice
Paola didn't even show me a picture of this girl, but reassured me she
was gorgeous. She might have been exaggerating because she loves me,
but I love Paola too, and I trust her, so here I am. All I know about this
girl is that her name is Azucena, that she does something with computers,
which is how Paola knows her from work, and that she'll be wearing
"head-to-toe black."
I'm about to start biting my thumbnails when a voice, a bit nasal,
sweet and vibrating, calls my name. I turn around, and she says my name
again, this time a bit lower, and I nod. Sure enough, she's wearing tight
black jeans, black steel-toed boots, a black shirt, and a black leather
jacket. She is very tall. She smiles right away and stretches her hand out
to me, saying how nice it is to meet me, again in that high, vibrating
voice. The rumbling in my stomach stops.
I say I've heard so much about her, and she says likewise. I wonder if
she's lying too, and then decide it doesn't matter. This is what people do.
At least this is what American TV tells us, and the fact that we both are
here, doing something Americans on TV do, because unlike our straight
friends we don't just meet women at work or on the metro or whatever,
26 PRISM  56.2
 probably means we should follow those American TV rules.
Had the vision of the burned children sent me to a bottle of pills, I
would have taken them so I could keep the numbness going at a steady,
uninterrupted pace until I ran out. Maybe at one point, my parents would
have cried and told me I needed help. At another point, they would have
said nothing. They would have locked the front door, leaving me to come
out of my stupor on the stoop, or find my way to Paola's house, or some
other place I couldn't remember if I tried. Now what has me thinking of
the pills is the smell of those children, of their burned flesh, which until
about an hour ago I could still smell in my urine.
Maybe the Americans would just come out with it, say, "I have these
visions of the dead, and every day I think about using again, but I haven't,
and I don't know why." Probably not. So I tell myself not to be nervous
about that. This is what I do have to be nervous about: Paola was right.
Azucena is beautiful. She's a whole head taller than me, thin and tanned,
though fairer than I am. Her long dark hair shines in the glow of the
street lamps. She's styled it in loose ringlets, and it reaches her shoulders.
There isn't a drop of makeup on her face. She has long eyelashes and thin
eyebrows, and I have to stop at the eyes because they're huge, and I swear
to God, they shimmer. I don't think I've been so close to a woman like
this since rehab, and right now, as Azucena looks at me and smiles, all I
want is this loveliness.
"I thought you would be taller," she says.
"Why is that?"
"Ah, I don't know. Maybe I thought people in your profession have to
be larger than life or something."
Of course, Paola would've had to tell her what I do. She's still here,
though, wanting to know me.
"In that case, maybe you should try it," I say, gesturing in the general
direction of her tallness.
She smiles. Her outer incisors jut out just a little bit. Her cheeks
bloom and her eyes disappear. My chest twirls.
"The closest I've been to death is a good metal song," she says, "but
you never know."
She looks around. From one of the cantinas blares a song about a man
who insists this love didn't die, this love didn't die, this love didn't die.
"And speaking of which, not that I don't appreciate our popular song
tradition, but do you like rock music?"
I say I do, which is true. This is how all of us girls our age grew up
 in this town, going to private schools from the time we were barely old
enough to dress ourselves, finding a way to rebel when we were older—in
Kurt Cobain, or maybe in her case Metallica or Iron Maiden or something
like that. Most of us outgrew those tastes and became adults with careers
and babies. Or drug habits.
"Great," she says, and puts a hand on the small of my back, nudging
me to start walking.
We walk towards the church, then turn right into an alley with small
food joints and bars on either side. Azucena asks me if I like those giant
bunuelos they sell on the corner, and I tell her no.
"One of those is like five regular ones," I say.
"But they're so cheesy. Plus everything's better deep fried."
"Until you have a heart attack."
"I guess you know what that ends up looking like."
She buys the giant bunuelo anyway, and we walk down the alley, past
the small mural of the priest who founded the school I used to attend,
painted from the only photograph I've seen of him, in which he is already
an old man with white hair parted on the side, wearing black vestments
and looking kindly at the camera through thick glasses. Maybe to him
the two of us would be just as wicked as those girls who got pregnant in
secondary school.
Azucena tells me how weird it is that somehow we've never met
"I know a bunch of girls from your school. I still talk to some of them.
I'm sure I'd remember you. I have a good memory for nice faces."
My cheeks feel hot as just-fried bunuelos.
"I don't remember much from that time, to be honest," I say. I don't
add that she must have known my classmates when I was starting to get
so deep in pills I was barely at school.
She walks in long, wobbly strides, like there's too much limb for one
body. Her lips glisten with grease and gluttony. The tip of her upper lip
upturns to align itself perfectly with the tip of her nose, which, like an
arrow, points the way forward.
At the end of the alley, we enter a bar, and I am afraid. The place is
hardly bigger than a garage, and the only light comes from a red light bulb
and a projector screen, which is currently showing some eighties music
video. She goes straight to a corner table. We are the only ones here. It
smells of floral air freshener, which vaguely reminds me of bouquets at
the foot of a casket.
28 PRISM   56.2
 A man comes around from behind the bar and puts a bowl full of
popcorn on our table. He's short and muscular, with hair gelled into
irregular spikes.
"Hello then, girls. What do you want to drink?" he says, looking at
Azucena. They know each other. He likes her.
"I want a beer—do you want a beer?" she asks, with a mouth full of
bunuelo. "Can you tell her what beers you have?"
The guy rattles off the usual list of domestic beers and a couple of
imported ones. Azucena orders a Club Colombia.
"Do you have any non-alcoholic ones?" I say.
Sometimes the things you want to guard the most are the ones you
have to give up first, and I guess it's no use pretending I don't have a
problem. The Americans on TV can't help me with this one. It's almost a
good thing that I'm used to people running.
He says Buckler, like I thought he would, and I nod, without taking
my eyes off Azucena. Something passes over her. I don't know what
because I don't know her, but I brace anyway.
"I'll have one of those too," she says. "Solidarity."
I tell her she doesn't have to do that. She sends the bartender away.
Maybe she's smirking. It's dark.
"Booze was never my biggest problem anyway. It didn't help, but it
wasn't really the problem."
"But what if I stay sober with you anyway," she says, "and I get to
remember everything you say perfectly."
A fiery current gallops inside my chest and my stomach. I don't
answer. I don't know how.
The bartender brings the beer, slips Azucena a piece of paper and a
pencil, and walks away. I imagine them in the past, him asking her to the
cinema and her smiling, telling him she would check to see if she was
free and never being free somehow. Another synth-heavy song starts, and
on the screen appears a group of thin, blond men with white blazers and
heads full of hairspray
"I'm joking," Azucena says, after a sip. "I seriously don't drink that
much, but I do like a beer when I come here. This tastes the same anyway."
"What a fucking liar," I say. "It tastes like something real beer pees."
We laugh, and for the first time I see her dimples.
"I'm not lying. That's not how I want this to be."
"I don't know. Getting to know each other. It's not something I've
 ever done."
"How do you want it to be?"
"Ah, well. On this piece of paper we are going to write five songs we
want to hear and watch on the screen, and if we're still having a good
time after the songs are done, we can stay longer." She pauses. "Or we can
go somewhere else."
I have to wonder if the music is going to turn into some kind of circus
tune, and this guy's going to come out from behind the bar and tell me
there was a mistake. Azucena is here, in fact, to meet someone else, to like
someone else.
I slip into a vision of a man from a few days ago, who got shot in the
chest and the head. I see his wake. When we got him, he was so skinny
everything jutted out of his torso, but lying on our table he looked like
he might just melt onto the metal, no oven required. I don't know what
he smoked or put up his nose, but I could tell he'd been at it for a while
before he ended up in front of my boss, who, after examining the flap of
skin covering his skull, sighed and said, "We just have to do it, I guess.
Peel it back, like the skin of a chicken."
In the end, we had to wrap his head so only his face would show.
Though I'm still in the vision, I'm aware of Azucena's eyes glued to me.
I see that windowless room with carnations at the foot of the casket, the
lady handing out coffee in small plastic cups, and the people filing in to
see what kind of mess this man ended up as.
At work we get a cause of death, but not how or why a person dies.
This vision shows me how this man, whose name was Justo, died. He
was looking for a fix. He knocked on some doors, asking for a few coins.
Some saw him so dirty and emaciated that they couldn't feel anything but
pity, and slid him money through the grilles on their windows. Others
saw him so dirty and emaciated that they thought he couldn't be anything
but a junkie, and sent him on his way. So he wandered a neighbourhood
he knew from days when his wife and daughters were still by his side, but
he went too far, and some gangstets guarding their territory saw him, and
they couldn't wait to try their new guns, so they put one in his chest and
one in his skull.
Grief is like drinking an entire bottle of wine in one sitting. It
inebriates you to the point that you could easily be taken advantage of.
But sometimes those who grieve are the ones taking advantage, and so I
don't see the dead man's wrapped head anymore. I see his mother, your
typical dignified matriarch in a tailor-made broom skirt, on the night
30 PRISM  56.2
 of the wake, saying this funeral has to happen now. I see his wife and
daughters the next day, huddled in the back of a bus, travelling from
a small town four hours away, trying to get to the funeral. It's too late.
By the time they got the message of his death, the morning after his
body was claimed, he was already three metres underground. That's what
they'll find out after they get off the bus and go to the funeral parlour.
This funeral had to happen quick because the sweet old lady just never
forgave her daughter-in-law for letting her son fall into this bad life,
when really, if she was honest with herself, her son had started to fall
when he was fourteen, and some kid handed him a folded notebook page
with some white powder inside. He did what one does with it, and did it
again, and again, because he wanted it more than he wanted any of the
people crowding around his casket.
Now everything is red light and eighties synth pop and Azucena's face
"You really don't have to drink that beer," she says.
"What a waste. We have to pay for it now," I say, my head still buzzing
with the hell being branded into my brain.
A group of teenagers walks in, making a racket that rivals the music.
I try not to think of Justo's girls asking their mom why they can't go see
their dad. At some point I must have grabbed the pencil on the table, and
I'm trying to think of a song, any song, but all I can think of is the little
girls crying.
"You look like you just swallowed the acid inside a car battery,"
Azucena says.
"Oh, but look," I say, pointing at my belly. "All my guts are still
I take a swig, and for the first time, her face is serious. The jutting
incisors hide behind her lips, and she touches my arm, whose hairs have
been on end since the vision. The spot she's touching crackles.
"Ah, don't," she says.
"Don't what?"
"Don't waste time. Don't drink this beer you don't want or pretend
you don't look like you're about to puke. I'd rather you gave me a bad
pickup line. At least you'd be doing something productive."
"I'm here, spending time with you. Why are you in a rush? Are you
dying or something?"
She squeezes my arm, but doesn't smile or talk. She just frowns, and a
straight vertical crease appears between her eyebrows. I open my mouth
 to say I'm sorry. On the first days of rehab, I felt like I was in some
nightmare where I had been lumped together with people with poor
grooming who cried at all hours of the night. I still washed my hair and
shaved my legs every day—I mean, I was the only one allowed to handle
a razor!—and, yes, I was withdrawing hard, but I didn't have to scream
about it like a goddamned savage. I made these little jokes and comments
so people would know I was fine and I was going to be out of there
any minute, back to eating salads and fish and steak, instead of beans,
beans, beans—I never wanted to see another bean in my life. That was,
of course, until I realized I was right where I belonged, and then I swear
my parents could've heard me wail in the middle of the night all the way
from Sabaneta if they had paid close enough attention.
I want to say sorry, but some loud metal song comes on, and the
teenagers start whooping and howling. The red bulb above them might
as well be a bloody moon. Azucena retrieves her hand, leaving my skin to
crackle on its own. I've heard of going without this kind of human touch
for so long that your skin is hungry for it. I can say right now it's real. Of
course, Paola won't ever let me say "See you later" without pulling me in
for a hug. My parents hug me once in a while too, but it's hard for them
to know if I'll welcome it. In rehab, I had to be stone-cold sober for the
daily parade of hugs and kisses in group therapy, and by the time I left, I
didn't want to be touched by anyone, not even my parents, who took the
bus to the ends of El Poblado to welcome me back, hoping to never again
see me slumped over the toilet bowl, telling them to fuck off between
fetching fits.
Azucena reaches into a back pocket of her jeans.
"I'm just going to walk you home," she says.
"I'm feeling better."
"Better than me, since I'm apparently dying?"
The crease between her eyebrows disappears, and so does the flash of
whatever had drawn her to this place, to me. The kids are asking for half a
bottle of aguardiente. Azucena glances at them and rolls her eyes. It's too
late for sorry, for telling her about the death show playing in my brain. I'd
like to say that, even if she and this bar are another vision, all the others
are a small price to pay for it.
Instead, I give her what must be the smile of a lunatic and say, "Is that
why you wanted to meet me? Because I know all about death?"
She tilts her head and sighs, giving me the look many people before
her have. The giving-up look.
32 PRISM  56.2
 "You might know something about dying," she says. "But I'd bet a
billion pesos you know as much about death as I do."
It's Friday night, and I'm on the bus from Itagiii, when she gets on. Late-
night buses honk and blow their noxious plumes as they snake to their
destinations, but it feels like everyone, except those of us on this bus, has
been home for hours. I remember our quiet walk back to the square a
month ago and the way she told me to take care of myself after I said she
didn't have to walk me all the way home.
She fishes some coins out of her bag, gives them to the driver, and
pushes through the turnstile. The driver takes off like a maniac, and
she starts a wobbly walk to the back. When she sees me, her focussed
expression doesn't change.
I hope she walks past me. That way we won't have to make small talk,
and I won't have to think about how that night, when I told her she didn't
have to walk me home, what I really wanted to say was that if she stayed,
I could at least try to be as good to her as she'd been to me.
She stops next to me, but the bus is so fast that she almost slides all
the way to the back, like Bambi on ice, before plopping down in the seat
next to mine. I have to smile at that.
She's been at work. She's wearing slacks, a button-down, and some
shiny shoes that remind me of the ones we used to wear with our school
uniforms. Still head-to-toe black, though. Some lavender-scented
perfume wafts from her.
She asks how I am, and we make small talk, about her job and how
she and Paola are the only girls in the office, but it peters out quickly. I
remember what she said that night at the bar, about not wasting time.
Maybe small talk isn't a waste of time if it keeps me from flinging myself
out the window. Anyway, it doesn't matter because we stay quiet. The
radio plays vallenatos as the bus stops to pick up and drop off people, or
at traffic lights that feel like small punishments for offenses we must have
It's still a long way to Sabaneta, and though I try not looking at her,
not remembering the way looking at her made me feel that night, I still
get a whiff of her perfume. She might as well be the only other person on
this bus.
"Did you ever figure out what was wrong?" she asks. I guess I give her
a confused look because she adds, "With your health?"
"My health?"
 "Well, are you feeling better?"
I guess I must be, since I'm here looking at her and not at the bottom
of a bottle of cheap wine. But it's not as if the visions have stopped. On
the contrary, they've gotten more detailed. It almost makes me laugh
because when they started, they just zapped into my mind, quick as
camera flashes, and I thought my brain was just getting rid of all the
junk I'd filled it with for so long. Now they're full-length movies, full of
explicit violence and suffering and, occasionally, peace.
The ones that stick, though, are of people like the guerrilla guy who,
after getting killed in some explosion, got shipped back to his mom in
separate boxes, or the homeless man whose body no one claimed for
weeks because his family had no idea where he'd been for a year. That
one had been pickling in formaldehyde for so long that I had to change
clothes before leaving work. That night, I thought for sure I wouldn't
make it home sober, but my boss took a pitiful bespectacled look at me,
in my sweatpants and t-shirt, snatched a ten thousand peso bill out of his
pocket, and told me to take a cab straight home and sleep. So I did.
Now the sounds of quick accordion playing fill the bus.
"There was never anything wrong with my health," I say.
She grimaces, and her dimples appear.
"I mean it," I say. I look around, wondering if I should even get into
this, if we're going to end up at another impasse with at least twenty
minutes of bus ride still left.
"Sometimes with work I'm around these chemicals," I say. "I just felt
woozy. That night."
"And I was making you drink beer."
I would drown in it if it meant you'd want to go out with me again, I
almost say, but even I know how crazy, how addict, that sounds.
It's also not what I want either, not really.
I say it wasn't real beer anyway, and she didn't make me do anything.
Even if she doesn't talk to me again after this, I want her to know that.
"Isn't that hard for you? Being around that stuff?" she says.
"Formaldehyde makes you feel shitty, but your thoughts are still
yours. I've been more interested in having thoughts that don't feel so
much like mine. Or in just not having any at all."
No sooner do I say it than I get it. The visions. They're what I get
for not wanting my own thoughts for so long, for wanting the fix, the
fantasy the drugs gave me. I feel as though someone's wrapping a heavy,
scratchy blanket around me, tight as a newborn's swaddle. Now I know.
34 PRISM  56.2
 The visions will consume me until, at the end of this journey, there are
no more of the thoughts I want to think. Only the dead.
My cheeks get hot, like they used to after a few aguardientes, and
when my vision gets wet and blurry, I turn my face to the open window
and let the wind whip the silly tears off my face.
I've given so many people so much grief. My parents, for instance,
had to drag me out of a dive downtown and hold me under the shower
half unconscious a few times before I decided to finally get sober. Now I
always come home to them sober, silent, unable to talk about the horror
swirling in my head and the way it makes me crave those pills again—they
see my silence as resentment for making me get sober, for not knowing
how to handle a daughter who came back unafraid to tell them she didn't
want to love a man.
I've wasted so many people's time, and now I'm just trying to catch
up, but what do you know? It won't matter. I guess that's what I deserve.
A weight lands on my thigh, soft and buzzing. When I turn, she's looking
straight ahead, but her hand stays on my leg, twitching, like her brain is
trying to decide whether the hand really belongs to it.
"When Paola set up our whole thing, I got really excited and really
scared," she says. She looks around. Everyone's got earphones in. No one
cares who we are.
"The way she described you was so ... intriguing."
"And really I'm a mess with a drug problem that hangs out with dead
"That's the thing," she says. "I was so excited and I didn't understand
why. And then you called me out, just like that, within the hour."
I don't know what she's talking about. I know I said something stupid,
but all I can remember now is her hand on me, like it is now. It feeds this
hunger so well I might just fall dead asleep from fullness.
"When you said I went out with you because you know all this stuff
about death, you got me."
She laughs, throaty and cool.
"People don't want to know about that," I say. "They don't want me
to talk about it."
"Look, we all have to deal with it somehow. It's this fucking country,
all these people blowing up entire towns and strapping bombs around
people's necks. It's inescapable, but you've chosen to live with it every day.
I couldn't resist that."
Ah, yes, this life I chose. Not long after I left rehab, Paola had shown
 up at my house with a call for enrollment in the thanatopraxy technician
program at the SENA. It was a year-long thing, and it only required a
minimum ninth-grade education. In other words, it was perfect for me,
someone who's wasted so much time, whose secondary school classmates
had left her in the dust. That's what you think about every day that your
parents watch you from the other side of the room with pity they used to
reserve for other people's fucked-up kids.
"You should walk in my irresistible brain for a minute," I say.
We laugh. The bus roars under our feet, and the wind whips my hair
around. I almost forget what's coming.
"I've spent some time thinking about calling you," she says, "so I
could come clean and say how sorry I was."
She takes her hand off my thigh and says she's sorry, but it's the other
stuff she's said that I want to keep after I go home, until all my thoughts
are replaced with the dead.
It's easy to tell her I'm sorry too. I've spent the last couple of years of
my life apologizing.
We get off at the Sabaneta police station. We start walking the same
way. It's a miracle we haven't run into each other in a month.
The square is as packed as the day we met, if not more. Only the
church is dark and silent. Outside, a man wearing a ruana is closing one
of the front doors for the night. The last time I went to church I was still
in rehab, and I don't remember if I prayed for anything. Usually, I just sat
in the pew hearing the voices of the priest and my fellow addicts rising
like a river current in a downpour. I didn't know what to ask for or be
thankful for. It was all the same to me.
Now I look at the immaculate white building, and a humming starts
deep in my chest. The left front door is closed. The man has disappeared
behind it. Soon he'll appear at the middle door and close it too, and then
the right. My chest is a beach where furious waves lap without rest. I
don't know what I'm doing, but I grab Azucena's hand and pull at it and
walk. She doesn't budge. Her face is a question she doesn't have to ask out
loud. The answer is I don't know.
"Let's go in," I say.
"They're closing. There's nothing more."
Let s go in.
She slackens and lets me guide her to the open door. The man,
occupied with the middle door, doesn't see us. We get in, and I stop so
he doesn't hear us. The middle door is a tall, heavy thing, and when he
36 PRISM  56.2
 pushes it closed, I pull at her hand again. The man steps out to close the
barred gate outside. We get into the confessional and wait. He comes
back inside and closes the final door.
Now it's completely dark, except for the light coming through a
doorway next to the altar and the man's jerky flashlight. I can see the
faint silhouettes of statues, the curves of their saintly capes and the jagged
tips of their thorny crowns. I have a vague picture of the suffering and the
ecstasy on their faces.
The man makes his way to the altar and closes the door, letting it
swallow the remaining light. Now it's just her and me with our shallow
breathing, the beating of our hearts, and whatever else is settling in this
church. Her lavender perfume smells like it's just touched her skin. I
don't know what to say to God or to her. I just want to sit here, breathing
in the flowery, sacramental air.
She grabs my wrist. Maybe the statues scare her, or she's wondering
how we'll get out of here. I think of her lips glistening with the grease
from that giant bunuelo, of her white teeth biting into it, like she was
never going to eat another bunuelo in her life. She says something, but
I can't hear her because my head starts to buzz, and I can feel myself
plunging, plunging.
I'm standing in a doorway leading into a viewing room with French
windows. Soft daylight spills in. It doesn't smell like stale coffee or wilting
flowers because there are none. Only spotless marble floors and a lit paschal
candle at the foot of the open casket, which is some dark wood with silver
handles and a simple straight line carved all around it. Something pulls
me out of the vision—Azucena next to me in the confessional, her fingers
interlaced with mine, squeezing as she says something I can't hear.
Now another hand on my back, back at the wake. The room is full
of old people sitting and standing around in their black shirts and pants
and skirts and heels. The hand slides up to my shoulder and squeezes as
a woman's voice says, "What are you doing standing here, fool? Step in."
The voice sounds like the pebbly, well-used version of a voice I know,
and lo and behold that's just what it is. Nudging me into the room is
Paola, her wiry hair like ash and the corners of her eyes and mouth
mouth full of lines. It's still her, but fuller and dimpled, like a sack of
coffee beans bursting with fragrance. I want to hug her and tell her she
looks wonderful and ask her where we are and how she got old without
my knowing it and why I don't know anyone.
I don't have to. The room fills with the sound of her laughter.
 "Listen to this one!" she says, and laughs some more. "It's for you,
I don't have to look in the casket. It's me in it, and these people
mingling and talking like friends at a bar are my people. I recognize some
now—distant cousins and neighbours, wrinkled and droopier than I've
known them.
I want to tell Paola that I love her so much, but she's already let go of
my hand and moved on. I want to tell her I know she loves me too, and
not to worry that things didn't work out with Azucena.
And Azucena, well, I feel her, though I can't feel anything else from
the church anymore. I've plunged and the whale that is this vision has
swallowed me, but somehow even here, at my wake, I smell her perfume
and feel her hand squeezing mine and suddenly that's just what she's doing
right in front of me. Azucena is here, in the vision, smiling like she's just
thought of something mischievous. She looks older, like everyone else at
this funeral. Her knee-length black dress almost drips off her and her hair
is wavy and white as a bride's veil. She pulls me to the casket without a
"I don't want to see that," I say.
"But you need to," she says.
"I'm dead. I don't need to see it."
She gives me the same look she did right before she said she'd just
walk me home.
"Fine," she says.
She lets go and walks to the door. Everyone else follows. I follow.
"You can't leave," she says. "You're the decedent."
People shuffle out, and she almost makes it through the door before I
gather the strength to say fine, I will look in the casket. I will look at what
I have done with myself.
The me in the box has wrinkles around her eyes and jowls that make
her look like no one's daughter but my father's. And my parents? I want
to ask, but I know the answer: long gone. Here I am, a waxy version of
myself in a white dress, looking like I've reached this point, not after the
loss of my wits, but a calming evening tea and a good night's sleep.
"This is not me," I say, even though I know it's not true.
"It's not you now."
I don't understand. She puts a bony hand under my chin to make me
look at her.
"What are you waiting for?" she says.
38 PRISM  56.2
 I don't know what she means. She walks away. I follow.
"No," she says.
"So many apologies you've offered. And so much forgiveness, even for
me, and you don't even know me that well."
1 want to.
"Just ask for forgiveness."
"You just said I've apologized. I apologized to you, and I've forgiven
"And so many others, and only one you haven't forgiven."
"I want to get out of here."
She cradles my face, and it crackles.
"Come back," she says. "Come back to me."
I don't know how, and she knows.
"Forgive, Lina," she says. "Forgive."
 Jim Johnstone
Consumed by greed
even my family doesn't recognize me:
eyes set close,
prey squared up
in rays
unrolled like film from a long-distance
Developed, mania splits
the mind's roof,
the sclera where I swoop down
for a look,
swoop to feed on anything at any cost:
lost love,
the furnace made hot by another's
square pupils stilled
until the seas part
part and parcel with what I've become.
Parasite. Threadworm.
40 PRISM  56.2
laced tentacles licking the dirt.
It's plain I'm desperate,
slaver for more,
slobber to appear everywhere—
hail helmeting the world
Each time I exhale
I unlearn land, sea, and air,
the sword iris
the heath until gluttonous guts spill
and consequence,
always dependable,
like a body bent over its walking stick-
done to a turn, done too
done to death.
after Charles Baudelaire
Come down. Let's reclaim
the night's straight-
edged stutter, the decline
that coffins the city's
alleyways where we cut
ourselves for peace,
for pleasure. Let's meet
at the border, unseen
from balconies that open
on the sea, the harbour,
our prototypes defenceless
against the water's
blur of waking eyes,
the reminder that we're sober.
42 PRISM  56.2
 Judith Penner
After I took issue with the world,
because of the interference with my bearings,
wouldn't bear anything for me, had to do it myself,
and I cried, yayaayay, because I was sorrowful,
I was sore and stirred up a row, not the movement of a boat
but a conflagration, a mess big enough for a celebration
all for my own establishment
to be here and to matter to someone
oh how selfish and I knew it know it
but I've given up being good being here
for anyone else I'm just a lost puppy
looking for a bone
But I got better ... I grew up a little
... fatter anyway and my teeth ate longer
ears fall to the floor, chin rises to eye my hairline
nose finds anything it can to be excited
so better is relative here, not so smooth,
smoothish, but not a fine sand unless the hand
as it moves over the surface trembles with the
slightest complication a shiver of ah ah ah
before reclining, before picking up a purse
baked a pie, raked a grassy yard, flew a plane
(not alone, but everyone needs helpers now and then)
drew a little something for the fair
I hate to say I'm moderne but there has to be something
to call me and bourgeoisie is so early Marxist and late
fashion of the cool and edgy, I'm advertising now for meaning
pulling in the retro language now it's worth a little more
 help me help me is better in italics donut you think?
not so needy mustard on a pillow and pennies in the trough
Fling these words off the page
I'm so mad or happy
oh for the soft light of my hiding place
the forgiveness the shy ignorance the
battle subsiding into wonder
so out you go out you go or they'll
qualify this dementia loss of interest
shake off the wet responsibilities
even this one now the biggest one
what I create becomes the world
U PRISM  56.2
 Gwen Benaway
"Maybe a survivor is nothing but the last one to come home.
-Ocean Vuong
i am a survivor but I don't know how. My father and mother were
also survivors, but they are what I survived. People imagine survivors
as lonely trees in an empty field. They combine stock images of snow-
covered fields and a single leafless maple tree with an inspirational quote
on resilience. The truth about survivors is that we come from other
survivors, are woven into a history of violence and rupture as long as we
have stories for. I want to write about our survival, but I don't know how.
My father was a half-breed like me. Born in Northern Michigan, he
lived in five different towns before he turned ten. He was the youngest
sibling with one older brother and three sisters. His mother worked three
 jobs. His father worked one job but often missed work for days or weeks
because of his drinking. I never saw any photographs of my father as a
child, just one image of him at fourteen with a mustache in a leather
coat by a blue Buick. When I think of him, I think of a cold distance,
like a snowstorm between buildings, a presence you felt but couldn't see
My mother was a hillbilly. She was born in West Virginia in a city
that I now realize is just a hospital and a few buildings scattered around
a main street. She was the youngest girl, with two brothers and an older
sister. Her mothet did not work until my mother was almost an adult.
Her father worked in a coal mine until it closed, then he moved his
family to Michigan to work in the automobile factories. He worked for
General Motors Company until he got cancer from the factory pollution
and died. I have photos of my mother as a child. She looks like me. We're
both blond girls with soft rounded faces and sharp blue eyes.
They met in high school. She said he rescued her from her family, but
I think he stole her. They married at seventeen and my father joined the
Marines. They moved from military base to military base across America.
My father left the service and managed a grocery store with my uncle
before becoming a Baptist missionary. They moved to Canada with my
brother and two sisters. I was born three years later in a small farming
town in Ontario. This is the story of us but it only tells the facts and
nothing of how it felt.
My father never talked about his family. We went to my gookum's house
every summer to see my grandparents and my aunts. My grandfather
never spoke to my father or his grandchildren. He sat in a leather
armchair, chewing tobacco and spitting into a metal can. The television
and his audiobooks were the only things he spoke to, swearing at the
tapes when they wore out or cursing the giant metal antenna which fed
him the rodeo channel. I have one memory of him speaking to me, he
slipped me dollar bills and told me to buy whisky at the candy store.
From my aunts, I heard the stories of my grandfather. He beat my
gookum. He was a mean drunk, the kind who stumbled into the house in
the middle of the night and woke everyone up with his yelling. He tried
to kill his family with a shotgun more than once. My aunts remember my
gookum waking them up so they could run outside to hide in the field
while he loaded his gun. Shots were fired in their general direction but
they survived. My father's oldest sister had a plan to kill him, by setting
46 PRISM  56.2
 up ttipping hazards by the basement stairs.
My father never said anything about his father, except for once. He
told us about his dad waking him up to beat him with a leather belt.
He turned it into a funny story about how he leapt from the third-story
window to the ground below, breaking his leg. How frightened does a
child have to be to jump out of their bedroom into darkness? His fake
laughter as he told the story rings in my head. This is something Indians
and survivors have in common, the way we pretend the worst is just a
The story of my father's family sounds like a Native trauma cliche, but
it is what I have of them. I can problematize the story, tell you that my
grandfather listened to an average of twenty audiobooks per week from
libraries across Michigan. He dropped out of school at age seven, but
managed to train himself as a machinist, a kind of mechanical engineer
before the field existed. My aunts thought he drank because he was bored,
tired of the cycle of poverty, racism, and escaping from the rapid-fire
speed of his thoughts.
Who do I blame? Colonization, my grandfather, my gookum for
staying with him, or none of us, just people caught in a history decided
by whites? I do blame my father. If he hadn't pretended it was a joke,
if he hadn't ignored the warning labels on his love, maybe we would
be different. Maybe I would be different. This could have been fixed,
right? Or maybe he tried but failed, like I try and fail. The assumption of
trauma-based therapies is that people can heal. What if we can't? What if
a survivor can only be the one who survives?
Whenever someone learns that you are a survivor, they want details, a
dramatic event or series of violent occurrences. I can remember specific
events, but I don't know why these moments stick out from the rest. I'll
forget what happened until something in my life reminds me, a sudden
rush of information coalescing behind my retinas. Most of my childhood
blurs together, like how a landscape rushes past you through the windows
of a Greyhound bus. You know you were on the bus, but you can't explain
what you saw in any more detail than trees, towns, highways. This answer
never satisfies anyone but it is the truth.
I spent my life caught between my mother and father. My sistets were
there, but they existed in another universe, away from me. My father
used to start fights between my sisters and me, push us into debates at
the dinner table until someone started crying. He didn't let you leave the
 dinner table until the fight ended and there was a victor. When I think of
my sisters, I think of enemies.
I learned in therapy that abusive fathers often try to isolate family
members from each other so they can keep the attention on themselves.
They create and reinforce dynamics of conflict between their children
and spouse. They control every interaction. My father used the threat of
violence to keep us at each other's throats. If I tried to leave the dinner
table, he slapped me. I had to stay and fight until I wanted to vomit.
The cycle of family violence is rooted in displays of actual violence.
My father never hit my mother, just his children. I was the one who was
struck the most. Public displays of violence were his preferred method,
he'd hit me in front of my siblings or pull me out of rooms to beat me
before pushing me back in front of people, tear-stained, sniffing. From
my father, I learned to survive men, how to alchemize their violence on
my skin into power in my bones.
I would push him. I can't remember how it started. One day, I decided
to draw his rage like a tall pine draws lightning. This was our love. Every
time he came for me, I went for him. Rolling my eyes, defying him with
my actions, always doing the opposite of what he wanted. He tried to
beat the girl out of me. From him, I learned to please men by voicing
my pain. When he beat me, I would make my cries louder and louder.
As if the sound of my hurt could drown out the sound of his hate, as if
winning was losing.
Lee Maracle, a noted First Nations novelist and elder, once told me a
story about how she outran the waves as a small child. This is my origin
story, she said, how I know I can handle anything that comes at me in
life. She asked what my origin story was. I lied to her, but I'll tell you
the truth. It was the time I bit my father's hand. He was yelling at me
for taking too long at a drinking fountain, standing in front of me and
waving his hand angrily in my face. I can't remember my age, but I was
small enough that he towered over me.
Something happened in that moment, some spark of power moved
through the universe at collision speed. I lurched forward and bit his
fingers. He leaped back, his eyes flashing in panic. We stared at each other
for the span of a breath. Then, with the hand I didn't bite, he backhanded
me across the face. A blossom of pain in my body. I remember falling
down to the concrete floor, wounded but exhilarated. Even now, when
men hurt me, I don't pull away. I run towards it. Fearless, mad, daring
them to kill me.
48 PRISM  56.2
 My father saved my life many times. Not in actual flesh, not by doing
anything, but by gifting me the legacy of the war between us. It taught
me to be hard in the face of violence. From his hands, I learned how
to survive the unimaginable. After I transitioned, a guy choked me out
during sex without consent. I remember feeling his weight over me and
the crook of his arm around my throat, thinking I was going to die. I
thought of my dad.
He tried to make me into a boy by forcing me to wrestle with him and
my older brother. Every night, he'd flip me over his shoulders, choke me
underneath him, tell me how to throw him off. I hated it. I used to cry
when I was younger in the suffocating dark of his body and as powerless
as I've been. These wrestling matches taught me one thing I've always
carried with me. If you stop fighting a man, it stops being exciting for
him. They lose interest. Masculinity only lives in opposition.
Resistance is foreplay for men. I learned this when I transitioned,
fucking with straight boys. Lean in, pull back, let them overcome you.
Don't be eager or too responsive. Keep tension in your body. When they
kiss you, hold back. Don't bite their lips, run your fingers through their
hair, or pull them closer. It scares them, turns them off. It's not their
fault. They've been taught that the proof of their desirability, the power
between their legs, only exists when they hunt you. Being a seductive
woman is learning to be prey.
This is why I thought of my dad when I was underneath that guy,
losing consciousness, naked and as powerless as I could be. I stopped
fighting, went limp. He finished and left. Here is my father, returning as
a ghost to save me from other predators. The remnant of his love for me
lives in how I survive. He never turned me into a boy, but he made me
one fucking tough girl.
My dad was a boxer. Boxing was another one of his methods to make
me strong. His voice in my ear, telling me to hold my right hand close to
my face, my left underneath it. Turn your body towards your opponent.
Be loose, light, lean in slightly Move with a drag. Weight in the balls
of your feet. Exhale on a swing. Small, tight movements. Protect your
face with your other hand. Don't watch their hands, watch the eyes.
Anticipate, react.
He used to drill me in this dance in the backyard. I played along but
I hated violence. I couldn't muster enough force to punch anything. It
made me nauseous, how he'd egg me on and I'd try to make him happy
with my pretend anget. I've never been in a fight, nor do I want to be in
 one. I don't think his lessons would help me much, but they did teach me
something. The one who wins in a fight is not the strongest guy, but the
smartest. You can't fear the blow but you have to think past it. Survivors
raise other survivors.
My father was saturated with violence. He was angry, hard, and
lashing out with his hands without warning. Some nights, he would
break into my room, rouse me from sleep, and beat me. Some days, he
would suddenly turn dark and go silent, retteating into another world.
He liked to buy me french fries, liked driving me out to the tiny airport
in our town to watch the planes land. He loved planes. Sometimes I
think he loved me.
People think survivors must be filled with tragedy, sad stories we can't
tell anyone without bteaking apart. Maybe I am, but my stories aren't
secret or sad. They're just what happened, facts lined up in a corridor of
my mind. I wonder what other fathers were like, what it would mean to
have a different history. One of the boys I dated told me about smoking
up with his dad evety Sunday night. I can't imagine a father like that, soft
with his children under pot's languid haze. If I could choose, that sounds
like a good dad to have.
But I have what I have. He is more than his violence. A violence given
to him by another man, just as he gave it to me. He used to jump at any
loud noise, would spring up with his hands over his face. What did he
live through? How did he learn to fight and why? We imagine ourselves
as free, deciding who we will be in every moment. We are not free. Some
parts of us, what kind of father we will be or what kind of boys we will
fall in love with, are decided for us. We inherit our survival.
The assumption people make about trauma is that we must overcome
it. Learn to identify out triggers so we can stop our patterns before they
replay. I'm not interested in overcoming. It reminds me of conquering,
of colonization and white men raping while they cut open borders. I
used to go to sweats for survivors run by an Anishinaabe woman with
tattoos of snakes around her wrists. She told us not to ask for healing or
strength, but to let our spirits move. This was Anishinaabe healing, the
point of ceremony, to enter another landscape where you could integrate
your body, mind, and spirit. Not overcome your body, but stand inside
it. Learn to breathe again.
50 PRISM  56.2
 Even in my writing, my mother comes second to my father. As in life, so
in memory. I find it easier to write about my father, because I hate him.
I don't know that I ever trusted him enough to love him. My mother is
more complicated. Can you love someone and hate them at the same
time? Fear them, not for their violence, but for their softness? Hate them
because you failed them, love them because you want them to be free?
The most disturbing part of my transition is watching my face slowly
become my mother's. I make jokes about becoming her, but it terrifies
me. I don't have any pictures of my mother beyond childhood. No one
in my life knows how much I resemble her. Our hair, dirty blonde and
falling in waves around our faces, is the same. My smile is her smile. Our
eyes, deep blue and sparking when we see someone we love, are each
other's echoes. She is in my body in a way I can't escape.
My mother was the most sensitive person I've ever met. Her softness
was constant. She used to read romance novels on the living room couch
while eating peaches in the summer. She dressed in soft corals and blues.
She went on crash diets. She tried to exercise but ended up buying tubs of
ice cream. She considered herself dumb, but she taught me to read. She
was always alone, except for her children.
When she was my age, her mother died. By thirty, my mother had
four children and was living in a tiny yellow house in a small town,
thousands of miles from her family. My father ignored her, her moods
and her crying. She swung between being happy, a bubbly girl who
laughed like wind chimes, and being sad, locking herself in her bedroom.
To be her child was to be caught between warm love and a sudden storm.
I was closest to her. Anyone who knows me can see the obvious
parallels in our personalities. She would tell me of her dreams, visions
that came to her sometimes. West Virginian superstition, she'd say,
refusing to explain the omens she saw in birds, clouds, and the wind.
Her grandparents were faith healers who anointed oil on people in the
Appalachians to cure their sins. She sounded like Dolly Parton, her sister
and her calling each other on the phone to whisper in low Southern
My father drove her crazy. She would chase him around the house,
asking him to solve every little problem. When he turned violent, she'd
disappear into herself, crumbling. She never stopped him. She never
said a word against him. Whatever he demanded, whether he told her to
change her clothes or stop whining, she would listen. Then cry when he
left the house. She would turn to me, wanting comfort and someone to
 listen. Her fears suffocated me. I used to hide from her as a child, scared
of being asked to answer for my father's crimes and powerless to change
the situation.
I hated her softness, her grovelling for my father's love. She told me
once she was touched by a neighbour as a child and everyone blamed her.
I wonder how much of her was in this moment, replaying throughout
her life. Do we ever escape our shames? Or do we chase the one who
shames us, trying to win their love to redeem ourselves? My mother is in
me, her weakness passing through blood and spirit to my heart.
Generous with everyone, she would cry if someone told her a sad
story. She went out of her way to help strangers. When she worked retail
in our town, people would come by just to see her. She would listen,
affirm, and comfort. The well of her compassion was infinite. Every small
wound in the world was a wound for her to heal. From her, I learned to
be soft in the presence of hurt. This was her gift to me.
Kindness betrays you. It lets you stay in bad situations longer than
you should. You try to save wounded boys, like my father. You convince
yourself that the honey of your body and love will teach them mercy,
cover their wounds until they return to themselves whole. You let yourself
be abused. You take their pain as your own. You wait for their love. It
never comes, mom, it will never find you.
I want to go back in time and talk to her. I'd say, "He may love you but
he can't love you, he doesn't know how, mom. Walk away. Save yourself."
She wouldn't listen. The cycle would repeat, locked in our surviving.
Would I listen if someone came to see me with the same words? No,
my mother and me, we're softness in a hard place, dissolving our love.
If you leave honey out for too long, it hardens, becomes a solid rock.
My mother could be a rock. When my father would try to disappear,
caught up in some memory, she'd lash out. Sharp and flying true, she
would fracture his walls. I'd watch her turn on him, her sweetness
becoming saccharine. She almost killed me and my sisters in the car
several times, by slamming on the brakes while driving the highway and
veering on the road. Unpredictable, sudden emotion breaking through
skin. Me at my worst, at my most dangerous.
When I see a photograph of myself, I see her. My mother, soft and
smiling, in memories of sunlight. Standing by a lake, gardening in the
backyard, her lilting voice, a touch of her accent lingering. I think of
honey, golden brown flowing in sweet waves, sticky to the touch, sugar
52 PRISM  56.2
 from flowers, from spring and growth. No one knows this, but my
mother and I share another trait. Whenever you walked into a room and
she was there, she'd find you through the crowd with her eyes. A smile, a
wink, her eyes connecting to yours.
I have the same instinctive look. All the women on my mother's side
have it. The sudden eye contact, shy and flicking away but holding love
for a moment, saying, "Yes, you. I see you. Always."
My parents are what I survived. Their parents are what they survived.
West Virginia diaspora, colonization, disenfranchisement from culture
and land, poverty, family violence, a fear of being loved, and a desperate
want. We are the children of survivors and the ones who survived. A
thread of us spreads through my veins, coursing alongside estrogen and
nicotine, bringing me back to myself.
My therapist says we try to relive our family patterns in an attempt to
heal them. A boy I hang out with says I'm a girl with a rock in one hand,
darting behind a wall to chuck a stone. I like this image, but not for the
reasons you'd expect. The rock is my mother, the wall is my father. Both
of them, their love and unlove, in my hands, turning over. Between a
rock and hard place is me, the child and the woman.
What I love in this image of me is what is not seen. I like the agency
in the rock, how I've taken pain and made it into a weapon. I even like
the burden of the wall, my disappearing act when I feel scared. It's easy to
reduce me to a simplification of my trauma: a dangerous girl, unlovable
and violent. But I'm outside of the wall. It's only one rock. My other
hand is reaching out. I'm still moving toward my possibility. I'm more
than my trauma. All survivors are.
People are afraid of survivors. Afraid to fuck us, to love us, to hold us
when we break apart. I don't agree. We're not damaged goods. We are
holy in our hurt. When I became sexually active, I discovered it excited
me to replay the violence I'd experienced. The world has told me this urge
is dangerous, something to overcome through healing. What they don't
understand, not being survivors, is the beauty in reclaiming your pain.
How powerful it feels to surrender to a man's violence and then come
back to his love. To be hurt within love and reclaim my body, my capacity
to be more than my wounds.
Survivors are the ones who go deeper than anyone else. We push into
the world, reach out to the sky as we heal. Pain can close you off, but
 as anyone who likes rough sex can tell you, pain can open you to love.
Survivors are the ones who value every small mercy. Who make art, who
fill the world with our brokenness but also our wholeness. We are the
duality of love. To fear our wounds is to fear your own.
I have a memory of my mother and father driving me to the lake. It's
summer. I don't know how old I am. I see the two of them in the front
seats, talking in low voices. There is music on the radio. We speed past
fields of green, past fatms and forests. It was a spontaneous decision of
my parents to go on this road trip, to escape our town. Here is their
possibility allowing them to be more. There is no violence today, just us
and the road. Moving towards water, towards each other.
If a survivor is nothing more than the last to come home, we're
already there. We carry home with us. Every day, we return to the place
that made us, save it, repair it, fill it with light. It's easy to forgive when
nothing has happened to you. How softly other people love. Not me, not
Is it wrong to find beauty in our hurt? When I forgive, when I love, it's
driving in that car with my parents. Between a rock and hard place is the
light. I am the light. I'm home, Ocean, I have always been home. Maybe
a survivor is nothing more than nothing. Just these hearts, bending to the
road, moving together, mistakes and scars, but Ocean, full of possibility
and power.
May we all be more than our wounds. I am more than my mother
and father, but yes, I am their daughter. A survivor, a miracle, a girl with
a rock by a hard place surrounded by love stronger than history. I don't
speak to my parents anymore. I haven't in years. I won't know when they
die. They don't know I've transitioned, changed my name, my body, my
entire being. I took my mothef's middle name, Fay. I have my father's
stubborn pride. To carry those you love is to carry yourself.
Who would want to be anything more than this complicated beauty?
I am drawn to othet survivors. I populate my life with survivors,
wildflowers gathered from the world. My closest friends, my lovers,
wounded animals. Other survivors are the only ones who can see me.
Who can hold me. The world says it's not healthy to seek out other
survivors, that together we replicate our traumas, but they are wrong. I
tried to be normal once.
I loved a boy without trauma for years. We had a house, a small life.
54 PRISM  56.2
 I loved him and he loved me. It wasn't enough. He couldn't hold the
wild in me. He never fucked me like I wanted to be fucked, to the edge
of pain inside love. He'd turn away when I fell into a dark memory. He
could wrap his arms around me, but couldn't find the place that ached.
He didn't know how to find me, how to understand what I came from.
This is not his fault, but mine.
It is convenient to pathologize my desire. I was afraid of it for many
years, convinced I needed to kill the wounded animal inside me. What
I've learned is that the wild in me is where I heal. I do not want a repetition
of my trauma with my lovers, to re-enact the violence I've experienced.
I do not want to make them into substitute fathers so they can redeem
him for me. What I do want is for them to touch the wild animal of me,
to hold hunger with me and love through it. Not replaying trauma, but
choosing different outcomes inside the same events. To fuck my wildness
for its possibility, not my pain.
What I want is a love that knows me. To press my wounds against
another's wounds and hold their wounded heart so I can be held in my
wounded heart. To be loved for my hurt, not in spite of it but because
of it. Loved for how I reach through my history, for what makes me
powerful. To love another, his scars, his failures, the fucked up shit he
doesn't tell anyone. One of the gifts I've always given my lovers is the
freedom to be more than male. I let them move past their masculinity
with me because it wounds them as much as my femininity wounds me.
This is a survivor's gift, embracing complexity. Opening to the possibility
of others, letting all of us heal.
It is only with other survivors that I feel whole. We share a language
of hurt, an understanding of why and how we do what we do. Survivors
are isolated by the world, sent to retreats and yoga classes. I watch other
survivors push deeper into therapy, into therapeutic touch, witchcraft
and crystal healing, chasing their wounds. I want to tell them to stop. To
come back. To turn towards, not dart away. To face each other, to hold
each other, to fuck and love each other. To relearn how to be human, to
never surrender our wild.
We are not wrong. No one is. My father, my mother, not wrong. Me,
the fucked up shit I've done, not wrong. The woman yelling on the street,
not wrong. The boys I fall in love with, not wrong. Wounded, sure. But
wrong? In need of fixing? Of saving? I don't want to be without trauma
because it feels like a form of premature death. The people I know without
trauma can be sweet, but they aren't driven like a survivor is. They stay
 safe, comfortable. Not like us, tracing the skin of the world, touching it's
ruptures, licking each other's blood, finding salvation in surrender.
I'm tired of running from my survival. Of hiding my power. Denying
the sweet rush of pleasure when my lover squeezes my throat. Of speaking
back, of holding a rock. I wish other survivors could come home, not to
therapy or full moon ceremonies, but to each othet. To stand in loves
which hold them. How often have I watched survivors fall in love with
people who don't know how to survive? How can we love across the
borders of our past? Why do we think we have to?
What's normal or healthy for a girl like me? Who decides? Me or
people who haven't lived through what I've lived through? Why be less
when we're already more? What if finding yourself is as simple as doing
what compels you? Follow your instincts. Be the animal you are. The
wounded deer, the quiet wolf.
I remember standing on a porch in the Annex of Toronto. The overcast
sky, wind in the trees, moving past me. I'm falling into a memory of my
parents, thinking of where I come from, smoking. Here in this space,
rupture and intimacy and pushing into the open air, I feel a temporary
wholeness. This is coming home.
Not healing, not good, not a perfect love. Just listening to the leaves
dance, the smell of rain, nicotine in my throat, feeling scared of falling
in love, escaping a moment, hiding behind my wall, clutching my rock,
being an animal again. I love this feeling. This moment, between pain
and pleasure, between love and rejection, between myself and the world,
Maybe a survivor is nothing more than an animal trying to be human.
Maybe that's enough, Ocean, maybe we're enough right now. I will not
tell my therapist this story, but I will tell you.
Don't listen to Ocean Vuong, survivors. Stop looking for home. We're
already here. It's inside us, in each othet's eyes, how we fuck up and fuck.
In our unity, our dissolution. Our need, our mercy.
In the skies, the earth. Every rock we meet, every hard place we
become. Our breath, our ghosts, our small moments. Our possibility,
dancing between a rock and hard place. Everything is holy, Ocean.
Even survivors, the people we survived, and the ones who will survive
56 PRISM  56.2
 John Sibley Williams
Whatevet it was returns to shadowy
forest, & everything is mine, alone, again,
for the night. But I can't keep my eyes
from the neat distance, out beyond my
grasp, where the world eases calmly to
nowhere. Broken by a brief act of witness.
Like a mother glued to a monitor, as the
beats still: as she rubs her emptying belly:
as a breeze does odd things to the trees: as
if what chains them to us is more than air.
Each body is an outpost, populating, on
its way to becoming a city. How the lights
multiply, the surrounding darknesses
swell: how the moment speaks in future
tense: if I'm being honest, how we miss
what we never quite had, holding the
light up to it-self, saying this is what we
needed you to be.
 Whatever it was we needed returns in
unrecognizable forms. The tear in a screen
door, letting winged things loose inside.
The white-tailed deer on a field's edge,
closer, so close it dissolves in my hands.
Spilled glass of expired milk. How we
can't stop drinking it off the kitchen floor.
On all fours, as if in prayer, drinking up
the pale face, rippled, looking back.
58 PRISM  56.2
 JR. Carpenter and Mary Paterson
On July 10, 2017, a collective of artists, writers, performers, and
filmmakers met near Bristol, UK, to discuss walking, writing,
landscape, cartography, geology, materiality, temporality, GPS
tracking, and drone photography. This poem is composed of questions
born of that conversation, posed by Mary Paterson, with replies from
a delayed train, byJ.R. Carpenter.
Where is the ocean. In relation. To the moving body. To the
migrant. Where once was land now low sun sets into vast water.
How slow is a curve?
The delayed train slows its way around the wide bay.
How many paces are there in your name?
No places. A name displaces. A word before a body. After a
great-aunt. By a father who left. His mother a ghost neighbour.
His widow a side-step. After the facts. After the math. What is
the name for a great half step queer fracture?
What will you leave behind?
An archive. Of half-truth versions. Draft fragments. Files folders
failures. The bay as the train slows onwards. The notion that west
is landward.
What are you waiting for?
Something recognizable. Something familiar, to hold against
so much newness. A sense. Of belonging. Of home. Quiet. An
 open-ended structure. Within which to ...
When are you going to slow down?
When will it feel safe to? When belonging happens? When quiet
commences? When sun setting not rising setting over vast water
starts to feel normal?
How fast is a line?
The train slows its way along a line of coast. On course. But
not on time. Of course the body slows with it. But the mind
races ahead. Along lines of flight, of code, memory, of poetry,
of inquiry.
Who is missing you?
This we can never know. The shape we make in the mind of an
othet. A lover missing the point, tone, intonation. Is no longer
loving listening. A mother who does not will can not say, and
so creates an absence. Years of missing messing with me. Who is
missing in me?
What is a trip hazard?
Trip up off. A slip of. The tongue twist. Her words. Trip over
sight look load bearing. Too left. Feet seem the least of it. A pre-
occupational hazard. The delay. The train. The curve. The bay.
The displacement. The half step fracture.
Where is the base line?
The tide goes out and keeps going. Horizon line as far as eye
can sea. And still the waters. The tide comes in again and keeps
coming. Over the sea wall. Over the train line. The cliff face
falls. Red in the. Wide bay eats its way into. Strata of Triassic
sandstone. Where solid meets sand. Where the now sea meets
the once desert.
60 PRISM  56.2
 What is beyond your body?
The spoken word escapes the body as breath and immediately
it is captured. Thing-like it hangs frozen in the air on a cold
morning, carves a path on a wax cylinder, wakes waves on water,
displays green peaks and valleys on digital monitors, tickles the
stereocilia of another body. Spiralling toward an inner ear, the
spoken word becomes part body again—mingling air, hair, fluid,
and flesh.
What is off the scale?
The fish.
The castle wall.
What, in its scant imperceptible inchoate unpleasant uncertain
unstable abject insistence, consistently evades register? The
whisper. The gesture. The glance. The gaze. Longing. The scales.
Fall from our eyes.
What is too small to be seen?
A moment. A movement. A process occurring with the spectrum
of the already invisible. A change of temperature. A quickening
of pace of pulse of breath of wind. An electrical current. A flea in
the dark can be as hard to see as a circus elephant.
What is traceable from above?
Where does above start?
With the wind blowing above the ocean's currents flowing
above tectonic plates floating above liquid magma encircling
the Earth's molten core? With our planet's orbit around the
sun? With the sun's slow ate in a dark galaxy still unfolding its
incomprehensibly ancient wings?
 What is triangulating your data?
The Home Away From Office has my fingerprints. The dog
knows the sound of my computer shutting down. My phone
suggests a shorter route.
Who is watching?
The fox who lives in the wood beyond the back garden has
been twice now startled to find me quietly reading. The women
who work at the Post Office have noted my recent purchase of
brightly coloured envelopes. My downstairs neighbour says he
only ever sees me in the rain.
Who is practicing?
Our lips move. Practicing silent speeches. Arguments knock
about in our heads.
Who is prevented from being here?
The unaffiliated. The un-abled to pay the train un-fair. To
navigate the stair un-well. The full time worker carer child
minder. The zero hours. Contact her. The aforementioned great
half step queer. The lover. The mother. The missing.
Are you too poor to fall in love with a foreigner?
Who wins in this scenario?
Could it not be about winning please just this once?
What is happening in public?
Walking, whiling, working away.
Money, memory, meaning making.
Space, time, train taking (a slow curve).
62 PRISM  56.2
 What is a suspicious activity?
Speaking up out back. A foreign language. Reading. Writing.
Migrating. Dining alone.
What is a tetritory?
Childhood. Friendship. Family. Marriage. Memory. A shared
language bed.
What is an empire?
An uncommon wealth. An uncivil service. A paper work. A
paper trail. An accidental accent. A tongue not my mother's.
Rivers in my mouth.
What is a privilege?
Not having to ask this question. Not being asked this question.
Not answering this question. Not questioning.
What have you punctured?
A blister from walking. A tire from driving. A bubble from
wishful thinking.
What have you stitched up?
Hems. Haws. Guffaws. An abscess in my lower jaw. A sliver of
glass in my left thumb.
What is left to the last minute?
Inaction is an action. Indecision is a decision. The last minute is
a hostage situation.
 What is left to be seen?
The erratic after the glacier. The dew after the night's cool. The
short after the list. The tourists after the ruins. The sound after
the wave. The wave after the shore. The time of arrival after the
delayed train.
64 PRISM  56.2
 Erin Soros
the morning light is sharp—a thousand small blades cut across the
water. We are standing on the Gibsons ferry, my father holding his paper
cup of coffee with both hands as if he is trying to heat his fingers, although
it is mid-summer, the salt air warmed by the sun. I've taken off my jacket
and tied it around my waist. He told me I would need it, with the wind,
the spray from the ocean, so I'd grabbed it from the backseat. Did you
lock the door? Roll up the window? I had turned around to double-check,
although I knew a car thief wouldn't be able to leave the ship. Early this
season a man had tried to escape the scene of a crime by travelling on this
ferry, his stolen car tucked behind a tour bus. The police simply had to
drive up and wait for him on the other side.
My father drinks his coffee black. In the cafeteria he asked for no
cream and no sugar and I'm reminded how surprised I still am to meet
any man who admits he likes sweets. To enjoy chocolate or cake seems to
me a sign of weakness, or femininity, like a hug or a kiss, something only
 a mother would want. My father is not sweet. What my father wants is
hard bitter strips of licorice, sold as pipes or cigars, manly shapes that we
bought him for Christmas and hid without temptation until the 25th. At
my friends' birthday parties I'd pick the icing off the cake, proud to be
like my father. Disdaining the sweet pink fluff, I'd tie my coat around my
chair and fill the pockets with fistfuls of icing that my mother would have
to wash away when I got home.
We are travelling back to the shore of my father's boyhood. He does
not understand my curiosity, but I have learned how to make my wishes
sound like practical concerns. I need to do some research, I tell him. This
is how I request love from my father: I ask for a favour—some small chore
he can do for me, something he can build or fix, or perhaps an object,
something cheap he can pick up on the way home from the lumber mill
or crab shop. Stamps, paper clips, a metal doo-dad that will hold a book
as I read. Do you have Liquid Paper, Dad? You mean Wite-Out?he asks, and
buys me two bottles, plunking them proudly on the table so I can erase
my mistakes.
I am visiting British Columbia from New York City, where I have
been living for the last several years. When I first moved, I received calls
from my father about my computer. How's your computer doing, he asked.
The hard drive, how's that working? What about the floppy drive? Any trouble
with viruses? I heard there are some doozies down there. Yes, Dad, I told him,
answering him in code: the hard drive is working fine. The floppy drive is
fine. My computer is starting to meet other computers.
I have just begun to translate his gestures, the distance of geography
and time helping me to understand that a calculator sent through the
mail—the broken cover duct-taped together and then the entire object
bubble-wrapped, twice, so it wouldn't bteak further as it crossed the
continent—this small black plastic thing, was my father's love. Everyone
needs a calculator, he said. He told me it works without batteries, needs
only light, will never let me down.
When I was a child, I thought what my father loved were these small
objects, plastic whiz-bangs—gizmos, he called them—that promised to
save time and increase productivity. A red plastic doo-dad cut an onion.
A white plastic gadget wrung a diaper. A blue plastic gizmo washed hair.
When he bought the hair washer, I was still young enough for him to
bathe me. I peered at his new purchase and understood that, for my
father, touching my hair was a chore comparable to touching an onion or
a diaper.
66 PRISM  56.2
 The hair washer was a round disk covered with pointy blue knobs that
ended in a long hose. He showed me how it worked, attaching the hose
to the tap and turning on the water until it sprayed out the middle of the
hair washer and made the knobs spin round and round. He held it above
my head and pushed it down. It spun my hair into a hundred knots.
Today my hair is damp from sea spray. My father and I are the only
ones on deck. We could sit down—there are large gray boxes that look like
coffins but are full of lifejackets. We stand. We look not at each other but
out over the water, my father nodding occasionally at a seal or heron he
wants me to notice.
He is shorter than I am. His shoulder below mine, I am aware of this
now, although I outgrew him when I was fourteen. It was wrong then, to
be a girl and taller than a man. My fathet still seems bigger to me than he
is, always barking orders or criticisms, his voice like the fur that stands up
on small animals to make them look dangerous to prey.
As a young boy he was embarrassed by the thickness of his hair, the
way it puffed above his head, disproportionate to his height, and he used
to stop by mirrors to pat it down. When he saw pictures of me as a girl,
he shook his head. He tells me I have his hair. Otherwise, he is often
surprised that I am his daughter. I was trouble, he tells me. A dreamy girl.
A dramatic child, always trying to kill myself with bottles of vitamin C.
Today he explains how hard it was to keep me under control. He doesn't
talk about hitting me. He talks about the pillow he used to wrap around
his head when he'd lie down after he'd lost his temper. I sense that the
pillow provides a buffer now, just as it did then, something for him to
hold, as if his body and not mine were what most needed comfort.
"Afterwards, I wanted to lie in the dark. I couldn't face myself. Couldn't
face you kids."
Steam rises from his cup.
"I didn't have a place, you understand. I'd come home from work and
Pearl would be with the thtee of you, and I don't think she wanted me to
interrupt, see, I think she was laughing and playing with you kids all day,
and there I was, the big bad guy coming home."
He blows away the steam.
"I'm proud of what I did on the job. At home I couldn't ... No place
for me. I was ... I was a failure as a father."
I stand against the railing, the metal cool on my hands, and am glad
that he is telling me this story on the ferry and not at home or in the small
confines of the car, his fingers tight on the wheel. The wind brushes my
 hair across my face. The ocean flows past us, and when I look down, the
water appears to be travelling back to where we left. The clouds, the birds,
the sea, everything is moving as he speaks to me on this ferry where we
stand open and yet enclosed, his words contained and without escape.
"That chili," he says, crunching his coffee cup. "Downstairs, you
should get some. It would be good for you. Roughage."
When we reach the front of the line, the announcement comes that we
are approaching the dock and should return to our cars.
"I'll pay for it," he says, rummaging in his pocket and smiling
awkwardly at the cashier. "I've got it. I've got the change. I'll pay for it."
I grab several napkins as the cafeteria empties out. I'll eat the chili in
the car. My father doesn't say anything. He keeps his hands in his pockets
as if to stop them from swiping the container away.
Down and down we go, hundreds of us clamouring through this
narrow chamber of stairs, the metal railing leading us round the tight
corners, patter of feet above and below, clang of metal steps, crush of
bodies, stale smoke and the clammy wet smell of coats. My father is ahead
of me, underneath me on the stairs, my father grows small and smaller as
he descends, small enough to fit within the place he says he never had.
Dizzy from exhaust, we find our car. Once inside, I spill my chili, of
course I spill my chili, and he is angry, but even his criticism is softer now,
my small father. "I told you to be careful," he says, his tone restrained,
artificial. There is a red stain on the seat. We wait for the ferry mouth to
open. The chili left in the cup burns my tongue.
Yell at me, Dad. Please. Just yell at me. Find your place.
The red stain is beside the white smear I left on the seat from my
sunscreen and I feel embarrassed now at the slick goo I spread on my
arms and legs, these same limbs that used to ache with shame when he hit
them, dumb things, girl things.
My father is talking, but the cars are rolling out, thump thump on
the metal floor, criminals and all we motor toward the whale mouth wide
open to the blue sky, we are free.
He is cramped behind the steering wheel. My father has the body of a
boxer; he used to be a boxer, and he watches boxing every Friday night, in
his white undershirt, yelling at the TV. Come on goddammit, give it to him.
Hit him for chrissakes. He has such a loud voice that it makes my mother
angry. Even when he answers the phone, he shouts.
"Dad?" I said, when I phoned from New York the day the towers fell,
"I'm just calling to say I'm okay."
68 PRISM  56.2
 "I knew you would be," he shouted. "That's what I told your mother.
That's what I said. There's no way in hell that girl would be up and out and
productive at eight in the morning."
So what I heard, his booming voice too loud even on the crackling
long-distance line, was his criticism, half-hearted, half-joking, and I failed
to hear a father's desperate attempt to assure himself that his daughter was
You wouldn't think he was short, looking at him now, big-shouldered,
gripping the wheel as we drive up the coastal road. The white Honda
vibrates around us. I roll down the window. He is quiet but drumming
his fingers. I sit on napkins on the red stain. He used to tell me he had
no feelings and I believed him. On the day his father died, he mowed the
lawn in the morning and then my mother and I looked out the window
in the afternoon and he was mowing the lawn again.
I don't feel anything, he said, thumping his chest. Don't you worry about
me. Now the Honda seems too small to contain him. Our family car
used to be a Pinto, a yellow hatchback, the kind that explodes if it gets
hit. When my mother drove it, she made us sit in the front seat, my
grandmother and I sharing a seatbelt, my sister sitting on the safety brake,
my brother on the floor. She thought this would protect us, that if the car
got hit, only the rear end would blow up. My father always seemed to me
like that Pinto, half-crowded inside and half-empty and ready to explode.
In his old age he is almost gentle, soft as the pillow he used to hold. I
want to argue with him, in this tiny white rumble of a Honda; I want to
box with him mean and tough. I don't say anything. I let him talk. I keep
my hands tight around the container of chili though there's nothing left
to spill.
"Some men," he says, mote quietly than usual, "get a second chance.
They remarry, have another family. Do it right the second time."
Suddenly I feel jealous of these imaginary children who would spend
time with this second man, my father number two. I had him first. I was
his first chance.
Once when I was a young girl, my father took me to discover fire. He
woke me in the middle of the night, tucking my nightgown into his down
coat, my slippers into his rubber boots, and he walked me to the end of
the block, the edge of the world, where men were clearing away a forested
lot. Into each of my pockets he'd tucked a potato wrapped in tinfoil and
I remember feeling big that night, in his boots and coat, the weight of
potatoes knocking my shins. When we reached the bonfire, we baked the
 potatoes and watched the flames, my father's eyes sleepy and content. I
sat with my feet close to the embets, and even through my fluffy slippers
I could feel the fire heat the rubber boots. Doubly warm I was inside pink
fur and flannel inside black rubber and down, somehow both girl and
man. I watched my father break the blackened skin of a potato, steam
rising to cloud his eyes.
In the years that followed, I would return to this secret vision of my
father, flames leaping up to lick the sky as one piece of wood collapsed
to accept the weight of another. He did not believe in Santa or God, but
he had taken me to see fire. When I thought of the flames, I sensed some
knowledge spark inside me like the bits of tin foil caught in my teeth with
the potato, a feeling I was not expecting and could not digest.
It is this secret man whom I now imagine would be the second father,
with a second chance, his new children eating all their meals by open
"This is it," he says now as he parks the car, meaning this is where
he played as a boy. It's not a real beach, or not one for swimming. A
logging boom roofs the harbour. Men sort logs here: Douglas fir, cedar,
balsam, hemlock, spruce. My father explains each tree's different use and
value, although he's told me many times before, the entire coastal forest
divided into dollars per board feet. Bordering the beach are cement pits
for bonfires, empty now, each one white with ash. A man in a hard hat
waves at us, and my father leans over to whisper that when he was a boy,
a logger wouldn't be caught dead in a yellow plastic hat.
"Why do you want to know this stuff?" he asks me. He's explaining
the term "widow maker"—a dead tree that is still standing and can fall in
the wind to crush a man.
He continues without giving me a chance to respond. "All I can say is
that it was violent work, you wouldn't believe the violence of the woods,
the crashing, banging, trees falling and men getting cut up, that's what I
knew as a kid, those woods, just the violence of it, you wouldn't believe
what I tell you, that's the only word for it I have."
I look up at the forest surrounding the beach, the trees tall, almost
noble, chevrons heavy and fragrant in the heat. I pull out my pen and
notebook. Violent, I write.
"It was like that scene," he says, "the one from Faulkner's Red Badge of
Courage. That's the book. That's the only time I've read anything like it.
Just the wreck of the place, bodies torn up."
My father often talks about Faulkner's The Red Badge of Courage. This
70 PRISM  56.2
 novel has helped him understand so much of his life. He mentions it to
my friends and colleagues, each boyfriend I've brought home—I think he
is trying to impress them. It's the only book of literature he describes. I
once thought of a badge of courage as something a man had to carry, not
small like the badges that Brownie troupes sew on uniforms or the gizmos
my father brought home, but red and cumbersome and large as a shield.
I wanted to be big enough to read this book, just as I wanted to know
all the words from Reader's Digests that my father had memorized. "It
Pays to Increase Your Word Power," he'd announce as he used his word for
the day. Peanut butter keeps you going because it "cathects" in your stomach.
Indigestion after two bags of salt-and-vinegar chips is "ineluctable."
I'm not sure when I realized that Faulkner didn't write The Red Badge
of Courage or when I first decided not to correct my father's mistake. I've
since read the book, the one not written by Faulkner, and it doesn't seem
to match the story my father describes. I've also read many of the books
that Faulkner did write, and can't find my father's tale in any of them.
I even read All Quiet on the Western Front because it sounded like the
sort of book that someone might confuse for Faulkner's The Red Badge of
Courage, but it led only to more disappointment. If I was going to correct
my father, tell him that his remembered version of things does not in fact
exist, I wanted to offer him something in exchange.
"I'll take your picture, Dad."
He poses stiffly, hands in pockets. But before I've snapped the photo,
he breaks his pose and walks up to me to take off my purple sun hat. He
places it on his head. He walks back to where he was.
"I'll be the writer," he says.
Through the viewfinder I can see him delicately holding the floppy
wide brim with one outstretched hand, pinkie extended, the othet hand
cupping his hip. Logs to the left of him, logs to the right.
I sense pride in his teasing appropriation of my role: he is a man who
memorized words from Reader's Digest and now his daughter is writing
them herself. But today I would rathet be the small one, the one who
asks her father questions and who once believed that Faulkner must have
written The Red Badge of Courage simply because my father said it was so.
That I do not offer clarification on this title is my way of protecting him,
but it is also how I shield myself. I don't want to see his eyes when I tell
him that all this time he has been wrong.
It's got this harshness, my father once said of my prose style, it's kind of
 This same discomfort I experienced when my father first showed me
the renovations on the house: the weight of my authority seemed too
large, the changes to the floor and walls too small to warrant his impatient
desire for my praise. Everything is different, he announced, waving at his
carpentry, nothing is the same. I found myself wanting to criticize the
house rather than admire it. I complained that as a teenager I had always
been unhappy about the location—so far from the city, nestled in a dark,
wet clump of trees. I never liked the wide, blank windows that allowed
everyone to see me inside and caused me to lie on the floor to hide from
passersby I announced that I wouldn't want to inherit this place. When
I walked away down the hall in my rubber flip-flops, my father became
agitated. Those aren't spiked heels, are they? You can't walk on this hardwood
in spiked heels.
He could see my flip-flops as well as I could, the soles flat and soft, but
somehow he believed that with these inadequate tools his daughter could
poke holes through his wooden floor. When I sat down to eat breakfast,
he again became nervous. Pointing at the artificial sweetener I'd poured
over the cereal, he warned, You be careful with that. Those white grains. It
floats all over everything. You don't spill that, you could track it on your shoes
and into the living room, and it could scratch the hardwood. He looked
awkwardly down at the table, the threatening box of Equal. It sounds crazy,
but it could happen.
Now I look at the Douglas firs surrounding us, trunks thick as rooms,
and then at the inlet full of the dead floating trees that make a boom man's
job the most dangerous in the industry—logs knocking together in the
water to snap a leg in two—and I wonder how a sweet powder could ever
harm the wood that is cut hard and strong from these trees.
I once read aloud a piece that detailed the ways my father had hurt
me, and in response a friend suggested that my father's power was nothing
compared to what I wielded on the page. He can't do this, my friend
said, and by "this" he meant write. My father can memorize words from
Reader's Digest, but I can capture him on a ferry, give him a cup of coffee
and some steam to blow, and have him confess to an audience, to this
audience, that he failed. What would my father feel if he heard my words
When I narrate my father's stumbling confession, I can't stop long
enough to recount my own verbal response, skilled or unskilled: instead
I hurry us to chili and to the car, that tight space in which I am once
again daughter to father, not equal to equal, not a grown woman hearing
72 PRISM   56.2
 a man's reckoning, a man's pain. Even in prose, even when each word is
under my control, I lack the courage to pause in that moment. When my
father tells me that he is a failure, I understand for once that I am capable
of hurting him—that in my own way I already have—and I do not want
this power.
What can I give my father now? What place?
That day, he did walk outside my photograph. And I returned to New
York. I forgot the film, of course I forgot the film, but because film is a
black plastic object, my father had no trouble taking care of it, and he
had the pictures developed for me, and sent them along. Together with
the photogtaph of him wearing my purple hat—my father, the writer—
he included one that I've never seen. It is a picture of a young man—
seventeen or eighteen, tanned, lean and strong, standing beside a stack
of rocks on a beach. On the back of the photo, just the place: "Nassau."
With this prompt I immediately recognize the story, if not the man. The
year my father graduated high school, he stowed away on a ship, escaping
his coast and his life in the logging camps, with plans to tour around the
world. He got as far as Nassau, in the Bahamas. When I was a child, this
mischievous adventure itself seemed like a great distance, as good to me as
circling the globe, just as I once thought Reader's Digestwas the height of
literary power. My own father had hidden himself aboard a ship, had lived
on a beach for months, had even stolen a manhole cover to build a grill
and cook his meals. I imagined him running with that big metal shield,
leaving behind a hole in the road.
I later understood that this end of his voyage represented for my father
a failure—he had reached only this far, and he would return, and work
with his hands, just as his father had done, just as he had sworn that
he would not. Now I look at these two photographs—the young man
hopeful and far from home, the old man gentle and near the home he
almost escaped—and I wonder what kind of image could capture the man
who existed with so much force in the troubling years between the first
picture and the second.
"You know, Dad," I say casually to this young man who is less than half
the age that I am now, "Faulkner didn't write The Red Badge of Courage"
"He didn't?" he asks, with curiosity, with patience, listening to me,
although he seems a bit distracted—by the fire he is trying to start and the
sun that falls in his eyes to make him smile. "Are you sure?"
 Roxanna Bennett
after "Compatibilist" by Ken Babstock
Remembrance is inconsistent. It stutters.
And much of the time I have been
asleep. So trying to appear well
I tell the doctors: 4 upon waking,
but a steady incline to 7, 8, 9, please. It started to snow
a gentle ash of cremated cripples: I
want out of that queue. To walk
where I have walked and might
well walk again if—though it isn't
a certainty. Nothing is. In this iteration
called being, of all possible alternate outcomes
to materiality, to measure time
in breath is ludicrous. 7, 8, 9, please
and god, the cramp. I want
to be singular, free from pain, not
blamed for feeling. I saw a field of sun
flowers desiccate face down toward
the mud they die in. I felt good. At noon
I pulled into a test stop, gilt-edged
sandwiches glowed in refrigerator light I wanted to live in
but instead went home. I choose to remember my brother
over whom I wish I'd worried, in small doses.
I admit I lacked his absence. He stole
and cashed our grandmother's cheques. They
74 PRISM  56.2
 jailed him for effect, long distance.
I heard after the fact and on the mainland
I ignored the portent, immediately, without choosing to
because neglect is reflexive. Later,
I will cry myself to sleep. In that gas station
near Dijon, in the packed parking lot
a gasoline puddle teflected wind turbines
in a line like sentinels on the horizon and
in Geneva the Large Hadron Collider
accelerated particles into more questions
no one knew to ask. A hooded crow landed
in the courtyard in front of the Louvre. The river's bridges
thick with traffic. An act of terrorism
imminent, teenage soldiers with submachine guns.
I haven't repaid my debts
and have acted in ways I am ashamed of.
Am ashamed of what I would not do.
He should have been held and forgiven.
 R. Kolewe
It wasn't much. A bird speaking. A thrush
kingfisher or killdeer in the distance.
I wrote letters that were answered.
We spoke for hours. We still see each other sometimes.
It doesn't have to make sense like a welder
or Kensington or Copenhagen, a QR code dark
matter implied by its effect on observables
"old fires to ashes, & ashes to the earth."
At a certain point in time the cost of memory
exceeds the cost of never knowing & everything—dishes, scissors,
perfume bottles, shoe racks, magazines, Chinese rugs, salt, luggage,
silhouettes, leaf rake,
the I don't know & that's the point —
2:22 p.m. Rain stopping. Subtle edges of fast clouds.
To acknowledge nothing there or not much still writing
imagined light tracking abstract across white walls
how much hope doesn't matter. A crystal palace collapsing
sun on glass siren distance no longer simply connected.
76 PRISM  56.2
 Cason Sharpe
i grew up in a place that doesn't exist anymore. I guess there's
reminiscence underground in the dirt or whatever but it's gone. They're
calling it a revitalization, which is a fancy way of saying death.
The area was officially named Alexandra Park after Queen Alexandra,
who was the first future monarch to visit Toronto, but most people called
it PO because of the Project Originals. The Project Originals is this gang
that started out of Alexandra Park during the crack era of the late 80s
and early 90s and continues to exist in the city to this day. In reaction to
the growing crime and violence in the area, the residents of PO lobbied
for a self-governing public housing co-operative, the first of its kind in
Toronto or anywhere else in Canada. The success of the initiative depends
on who you talk to. There were a few shootings while I lived there, but
an exaggerated journalistic spin and an active police presence in the area
made it seem worse than it was.
 Alexandra Park was walled in like all good ghettos, Queen Street to
the south, Dundas to the north, Spadina to the east, Augusta to the west.
Growing up I had the best the city had to offer all around me—I could
get a beef patty in Kensington Market, wash it down with a bubble tea in
Chinatown, and then go shopping along Queen. Everything was within
a stone's throw. There were no streets for cars to drive through Alexandra
Park, only a labyrinth of concrete paths, each with a row of identical
brown townhouses lining either side. It was a little anomaly right in the
centre of things, a small island in the heart of downtown. It was easy
to spot the people who didn't live in PO—they'd wander in all clever,
thinking they'd found a shortcut from Dundas down to Queen, only
to find themselves lost in the maze of intersecting paths, one dead end
leading straight to another. These people were usually white.
My mom lived in a townhouse on Whitecourt Place, which was at
the northeasterly corner of the projects. My dad lived in an apartment
building on Vanauley, which was on the southwesterly edge. To go
between their houses you had to walk through all of Alexandra Park,
which my sister and I did a few times a week because our parents had
joint custody. I could never get lost in those non-streets even if I wanted
My dad was born in another ghetto, one that still stands today: Chicago's
South Side. Larger and perhaps more infamous than Alexandra Park, the
South Side is often portrayed as one of the more dangerous places in the
United States (Chicago has been referred to as "Chi-Raq" because of all
the reported shootings), but again the actual threat of violence depends
on who you ask. Unlike Alexandra Park, with its clearly-defined borders,
the definition of the South Side is more porous, encompassing a large
portion of the city. Conflicting census data puts the Black population of
the South Side at upwards of 70 percent. It's where Kanye's from.
My dad grew up in South Side during the 50s and 60s, from
segregation into the Civil Rights movement. His parents sent him to a
Catholic school on the other end of town because they said the schools
were better there. His cousin drove him to class each morning with a
shotgun on his lap so no one would bothet them as they drove through
white neighbourhoods.
My dad came to Canada in the early 70s to dodge the draft. He was
in his mid-twenties, around the same age I am now. He wasn't expecting
to stay long. He thought he would lay low until the war ended and then
78 PRISM  56.2
 head back down to Chicago. He visited Montreal for awhile. Lived in
Vancouver for a bit. Toronto he liked the best. He got a job stacking
books at the university library. He started playing flute in an Afro-funk
quartet. He met my mom, had my sister, then me. He and my mom
separated. He lost his job at the library. He got a one-bedroom apartment
in Alexandra Park, swapping one ghetto out for another. He lived in that
apattment for the rest of his life. The South Side was still there, but he
rarely went back to visit.
My mom left PO a few years before the revitalization happened. When
the city started tearing down Regent Park, a housing project across town,
everyone knew that we were next and people started leaving before
developers could kick them out and move them away from downtown.
The year I moved to Montreal to go to university was the same year that
the city brought the first redevelopment plans to the members of the
co-op board. When my father passed away in the spring of my third
year in Montteal, the first townhouses had started to come down so I
double grieved, once for my father and then again for the concrete paths
where I learned to ride a bike. Every time I go back to Toronto I visit the
construction site at Alexandra Park like a grave. The last time I was there,
new townhouses had been erected, the paths had been demolished, the
streets were being paved and reconnected to integrate PO with the rest of
the city. The new units would be mixed, some rent-geared-to-income and
others available for market rate to encourage a blending of the classes. Or
so we were told by the city.
No more small island. No more little anomaly.
There are many ways I could eulogize this death but what I want to talk
about is boys. There were many little black boys who lived in Alexandra
Park, and even a few other faeries. Alexandra Park wasn't really that big—
most people were familiar with each other, if not by name then at least
by face. These other little faerie boys, I can't remember all of their names
but I can see their faces so clearly like they'te standing right in front of
me. There were at least three faeries my age in PO that I can remember—
Robert, Marcus, and Darell.
I remember Robert, at least I think his name was Robert, or I'm
going to say his name was Robert because I can't think of what it might
have been. I can see his face really vividly because even as a young boy I
remember thinking he was attractive. He had these baby fat cheeks and a
 big diamond stud in each eat. His enetgy was quiet and gentle. We never
spoke but I would see him on the Dundas streetcar sometimes in the
mornings in junior high when I went to school in Little Portugal. I think
Robert went to Western Commerce, or maybe a Catholic school that was
close to Western Commerce because I have an image of him wearing a
uniform. Around that same time my mom told me that he had joined the
air cadets and for awhile she was really adamant that I should join the air
cadets too but I didn't.
Marcus was the most outspoken one. He was one of those people
that everybody just knew. He was light-skinned and had a frantic, flailing
energy and was really community-minded from a young age. I remember
he always used to say hi to me when we would see each other walking
around even though I kept to myself and didn't hang out with the other
kids from the neighbourhood.
One summer when I was eight or nine, my parents signed me up for
day camp at the Alexandra Park Community Centre. Marcus walked into
the community centre one day while we were eating lunch and asked if
he could have something to eat. Our counsellors said that he couldn't
have any because the lunch was for campers only and he wasn't enrolled
in the camp. That really pissed Marcus off so he started yelling. He was
like, "Isn't this supposed to be a community centre?! I'm a member of the
community!!" At the time I remember thinking, Why is he making such a
big scene? but in retrospect they should've just given the kid some lunch.
I'm pretty sure Marcus eventually joined the air cadets too. I tried to look
him up on Facebook but I couldn't find anything. I always liked Marcus.
I hope he's up to some cool shit now.
Darell and I had more crossover because we had some mutual friends
in high school. We went to different schools but we would see each
other at house parties and stuff. Darell was always sort of wild. He had
straightened-flat emo hair and a septum piercing. For awhile he was
promoting these tacky club nights in the village. He used to invite me to
them on Facebook. I was always curious about them and kind of wanted
to go but I knew that my friends, who were mostly middle-class white
girls I met in my arts-focused high school, wouldn't be interested in going
to some sketchy party in the village.
One time when I was like sixteen or seventeen I ran into Darell on the
Queen streetcar at two in the morning when I was really drunk coming
home from some party. He motioned for me to come sit next to him. I
was too shit-faced to move so I just sort of shook my head.
80 PRISM   56.2
 "What, are you scared of me?" he said.
I was like, "I'm not scared, I'm just really tired," or something like
that. He came over and handed me a flier for a party. He talked about all
the sick DJs that were going to be there and said I should totally come. I
told him that I'd be there and then I got off the streetcar two stops early
which was stupid because Darell obviously knew where I lived because
we were basically neighbours.
The last time I saw Darell was at this big party in a warehouse-turned-
club-space a few years ago when I was visiting Toronto after my semester
had finished for the winter break. We saw each other on the dance floor
and said hey. We started dancing next to each other in this coy and flirty
way. I was really drunk and down to hook up with him but then a friend
pulled me away and was like, "Don't hook up with Darell, he's crazy."
I creeped Darell on Facebook a lot after that night. He was always
posting status updates asking if anyone could give him a place to crash for
the night. One time he posted a status saying that he was in Montreal to
audition for The Voice. I thought about messaging him to see if he wanted
to hang out but then I thought that might be weird because we were only
very casual acquaintances and what if he asked me for a place to stay?
I never had any revelatory coming out conversations with Robert, Marcus,
or Darell, no sexy down-low hookups (although I used to fantasize about
it)—but I knew we were the little faeries of Alexandra Park. We were
all lithe, interior, and soft, devoid of the hard, mucho bravado expected
from boys in the hood. There was just an energy that existed between us
even though we barely spoke, a kind of electricity when we passed each
other on the street that was thrilling but not necessarily sexual. It was the
small nod of someone else who gets it. We were all dealt similar cards
but each of us played them differently. Robert and Marcus joined the air
cadets. Darell went partying. I got straight As.
My parents couldn't afford private school by a long shot but they were
vigilant about enrolling me in specialized alternative public schools with
capped class sizes so I could get the attention required to nurture my
intellectual curiosities, which was a privilege not afforded to most of the
children living in PO. My parents were devoted to the idea that a good
education would give my sister and me the upward mobility necessary
to eventually leave the projects. What they didn't anticipate was that the
projects would leave us first.
I'm grateful for the educational opportunities I had growing up but
 it was isolating. Most of the kids I went to school with weren't from
neighbourhoods like mine. I came up with a lot of excuses not to have
people over. When my friends asked me where I lived, I said I lived in
a condo. Even now in Montreal when my friends complain about how
broke they are, I don't tell them that their Mile End studios are more than
twice the size of that one-bedroom apartment on Vanauley where I lived
for almost two decades with my dad and my sister.
In these moments, I often think about Robert, Marcus, and Darell.
What did Robert think about on those long streetcar rides to Catholic
school each morning? Did his parents send him there because, like my
parents and my grandparents before them, they believed in the power of
education to provide a better life? What wete the other kids at air cadets
like? Did Marcus change the way he talked when he was around them?
What did he eat for lunch? What did Darell do when he was in Montreal?
What was he thinking about while waiting in line outside the convention
centre in the freezing cold to audition for The Voice? Does he ever find
himself standing alone in the middle of the dance floot at some random
club, wondering, Who are all of these people?
The South Side has been undetgoing its own revitalization. In 2006,
the Preservation of Affordable Housing, a nonprofit developer in the
area, boasted that the employment rate in the Woodlawn area of South
Side was at a forty-year high due to the redevelopment initiative, but I
can't help but think about all the people living outside this statistic, all
the faeries trying to navigate their day-to-day lives as their homes are
taken away from them.
I think about my dad in Catholic school, the shotgun on his lap
in the cat with his cousin. My dad was on the basketball team, and
sometimes they played games against white Catholic schools. After they
played a game against a white school, my dad and his teammates had
to wait in the locker room to be escorted out of the building because
white kids would be waiting outside to pelt them with stones. Was it
really a better education? I think about his life in Toronto, how he didn't
have the same Caribbean or African roots as most of his friends—his
slang was different, his food was different—or the way he'd get angry
and flustered when white people talked down to him in that singsong
tone that's somehow both polite and patronizing, and so emblematic of
living in Canada. What was it like for him to be exiled, at first by choice
and then by circumstance, from a place he'd always thought he'd return
to? My dad wasn't queer but a faerie still in his own way: gentle, small,
82 PRISM   56.2
 existing both inside and outside of his context, and playing his cards the
best way he knew how.
I've lived in Montreal for six years now. I wasn't expecting to stay so
long. I thought I'd finish my degree and then head back to Toronto, but
when my dad passed and the ghetto fell I had nothing to go back to so
I decided to stay. With rent prices the way they are, I can't afford to live
in Toronto on my own. I could stay with my sisters, or on the couch
of my mother's one-bedroom apartment, but none of these options are
particularly appealing. In any case, I like Montreal. I'm just starting to
appreciate the quirks of the city, the way people groan about crooked
construction while having a beer on the spiralled back staircase of a three-
floor walkup. There are parts of the city I can't access because my French
is limited, and I still imagine myself moving back to Toronto one day,
but not right now. The last time my mom came to visit I took her to a
restaurant I like. I pointed out the cafes and bars where my friends and I
hang out. I told her about my boring office job, my writing practice, the
podcast project I have with a friend on a local radio station. She said she
was proud of me for making a life for myself here. I guess that's what I've
made. A life.
Last winter I visited Toronto for my birthday. I went out for dinner
and drinks with some friends from high school. I took a long-cut from
the restaurant back to my sister's apartment where I was staying so I
could pass by Alexandra Park to pay my respects. The night was cold,
dark. No one was around. I stood on the sidewalk and looked at my dad's
old apartment building across the street. The building had a new exterior
paint job and the lobby had been renovated but the skeleton looked the
same from a distance. I could even spot dad's old apartment, four floors
up, second balcony from the tight. A light shone through the window
but I couldn't tell if anyone was home.
 Doyali Islam
spring cleaning—and in the great purge i find
a postcard marked jeddah a.p. and stamped
almost 30 years have passed since you left
for what should have been a six-day affair
to the holy sites, calling, i am here,
o lord, i am here: two lengths of white cloth
as your only cover, and your peppered
hair unshorn, now, i imagine you there,
as she must have done in those months before
your return (with beard long and a slim reed
toothbrush in accordance with muhammad's
ways): circling en masse a dark, glittering cube
or passing seven times between two hills.
you must have been on your knees, then, in search
of pebbles to throw at three stone devils
which reminds me, now, like cures like—is that not
what homeopaths say? our world made
doctrines of signatures, light.
84 PRISM  56.2
 today we set out to salvage what light
we can by tramping a path through late
afternoon: you, in brown socks and sandals,
your good trousers, and cotton t-shirt.
our shadows punctuate this road like breath
punctuates our bodies, because i see
your shadow fatten, tumour-like, i say, look,
silverthorn's tree, (one autumn we gathered
the fallen, fly-bitten pears to knock down
better fruit.) we walk, and i want to share
what i wish you had known—that love is built
not found and, like faith, cannot announce, i
am here, without a measure of doubt ...
bread becoming what it is only through
hunger, dare i say it as we enter
your favourite dollarama and you wheel
the catt 'round for biscuits and bread?
one tree and a cheap store: these are the sites
to which we roam—which our feet together
sanctify before pointing us home.
 Daniela Elza
first they take your height
see how you measure
against the universe.
when you do not have access to higher things
you work with what you have at hand.
who does this art
belong to now?
it holds your name
your measurement against a white wall
the date of your sorrow.
and a word
with a padlock on it.
a key you do not have anymore.
the rooms are big and mostly empty—
a kind of refuge
when you have grown heavy enough with
life. here it is
a brick wall cemented windows
the side of a house that has closed its eyes
refuses to look out
but the sun still shifts over
brick concrete hinge.
86 PRISM  56.2
 apostrophes in this landscape
we punctuate our shared lives.
the big neon sign we put up years ago
everything  is going to be    alright
now rubs me the wrong way.
the only truth left in it —
helvetica extra light
the O is a perfect circle.
we are sorely familiar with it.
here it is—
the warehouse of
our together.
we have scratched through enough holes
sought desperate exits —
layers of paint peeled
layers of plywood exposed
it could be nail scratches     here,
it could have been voices
the grief—
painted over,
we recognize what is living
by the re-marks it leaves behind.
the ceiling three stories high
as if escape is upward.
these walls—
 they shape the context of our lives.
we are only three dimensional at the best of times
slowed down with meaning.
somedays we are just glimpses—
shadows of leaves
fluttering against a brick wall.
somedays we are the space between the paintings
turn concepts
give ourselves more importance.
the way we interface each other
like cardboard pieces        this way and that
until we have built a life, until we have
clawed our way up to      the impotent
fluorescent lights.
I have been learning from
the building across the street—
its facade peeling.
5 buddha plants grow on the side wall—
grip the brick
with unlikely root.
bloom purple on dirty yellow.
no one put them there.
PRISM  56.2
 no one wanted the self-
linger      here
in the locus of the undesigned
the unintended.
lowet your conceptual gaze in shame.
you are staring in the face of my unlikely hope.
lately we tend toward monochrome
in our attempts to shed the content we have grown
tired of.
we stop using tempera—
we have become allergic to eggs
we want more texture.
I ask: why did you put these canvases on our walls?
the answer never comes. I sit thus     suspended.
my hand.
I want to be        invisible,
but you are still holding
in time I am hung on the wall
alongside all my questions.
at first I was not
sure. but
the world is easier to observe this way.
 I learn from others. they stand before me
comment on their lunch breaks.
later I will be moved to the basement
of your memory.
where I will no longer interrupt you each day and
you will not have to interpret me.
if you sit behind a vitrine
you will not be
questioned. you will not need to
explain your uselessness
the beauty you aspire to
the flaws that conspire against you
as you laboriously dance on the edge
of your human life.
you will not need to know why
you found yourself
in the basement one day
right across from
the original foundation
with the boulders
left in tact
to serve the purposes of art.
the dark hallway you are displayed in
leads to
your room
with six possible      affordable futures in it
laid out flat on tables for public discussion
and viewing.
90 PRISM  56.2
 you       are the only one that cannot see them.
the plumbing on the low basement ceiling
the copper music keep you
mildly entertained
and the echoes keep running into each other
just like we used to.
Jonathan Ball holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches literature, film, and
writing at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. He
is the author of the poetry books Ex Machina, Clockflre, and The Politics
of Knives, the co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous
Experimental Poetry, and the author of the academic monograph John
Paizs's Crime Wave. Visit him online at, where he
writes about writing the wrong way.
Gwen Benaway is an award-winning trans girl poet of Anishinaabe and
Metis descent. She has published two collections and her third collection,
Holy Wild, is forthcoming from BookThug in 2018. She lives in Toronto.
Roxanna Bennett is the author of The Uncertainty Principle (Tightrope
Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, Existere,
Arc, Vallum, CV2, Cosmonauts Avenue, Qwerty, carte blanche, and many
other publications. She lives in Ontario, Canada.
J.R. Carpenter is a Canadian-born UK-based artist, writer, performer,
and researcher working across digital literature, performance writing, and
media archaeology. Her recent hybrid print and web-based work, The
Gathering Cloud, won the New Media Writing Prize 2016 and was an
Editor's Pick for the Saboteur Awards 2017.
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario, with her
husband and child. Her writing has been published widely, winning a
National Magazine Award and other accolades. She has been named the
2017-2018 Geoffrey and Margaret Andrew Fellow at UBC.
Daniela Elza's work has appeared internationally in over 100 publications.
Her poetry collections are: the weight of dew, the book of It, and milk tooth
bane bone. Her latest manuscript, the ruined pages, is looking for a home
amidst a growing housing crisis. Daniela is writing essays to make more
Yuly Restrepo Garces is a writer and professor at the University of
Tampa. A MacDowell Fellow, Yuly is also the recipient of a VONA/
Voices Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in Zone 3 and is forthcoming
in Natural Bridge.
92 PRISM  56.2
 Doyali Islam is an award-winning poet and National Magazine Award
finalist whose poems can be found in Kenyon Review Online and CBC
Radio's The Sunday Edition. She is Arcs poetry editor and the new editor
of Write magazine. Doyali lives in Toronto. Her second book of poetry is
forthcoming (McClelland & Stewart, 2019).
Jim Johnstone is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The
Chemical life (Vehicule Press, 2017). In 2016, he won POETRYs Editors
Prize for Book Reviewing.
R. Kolewe lives in Toronto where he shares a house with a cat named
Charlotte. He has published two books of poetry, Afterletters (BookThug,
2014) and Inspecting Nostalgia (Talon, 2017).
Carolyn Nakagawa is a poet and playwright based in Vancouver.
Her poems can also be found in publications such as EVENT, CV2,
CAROUSEL, The New Quarterly, and Poetry is Dead. She is currently
working on two plays about Japanese-Canadian identity and legacy.
Mary Paterson is a UK-based writer, artist, and producer working
across text, performance, and visual art. Her most recent publication
is Imagination and Potential (LADA; London, 2017). In 2017 she was
an art writer in residence at Arnolfini and Spike Island in Bristol, UK.
http: //marypatet son. tumblt. com/WRITING
Judith Penner's juvenile attempts at writing were all style and no plot.
As a poet, she still loves narrative thythms when they're evocative but not
tidy. She's been a writer in England and Nova Scotia, but Vancouver is
home. In 2018, Nomados will publish her prose-poem chapbook, The
Bed Half Full: A Landscape.
Kai Minosh Pyle is a Metis and Anishinaabe writer and language
advocate who lives in the Dakota homelands in occupied Bde Ota
Otunwe (Minneapolis, Minnesota). They are currently pursuing a PhD
in American Studies at the University of Minnesota on the subject of
Anishinaabe two-spirit histories.
Cason Sharpe is a writer currently based in Montreal. His work has
appeared in C Magazine, LESTE, GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine,
and Queer Codes: A Journal of Art History, among others. He is the author
of the short stoty collection Our Lady of Perpetual Realness and Other
Stories (Metatron, 2017).
 Bren Simmers is the author of two books of poetry: Night Gears (Wolsak
and Wynn, 2010), and Hastings-Sunrise (Nightwood Editions, 2015),
which was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award.
Daragh Soden is an artist and photographer from Dublin, Ireland
working in London. Newport Masculine is a work about the changing
masculine role in a post-industrial British society. The photographs that
make up the work were all made in the town of Newport, South Wales.
A settler now living in Toronto, Erin Soros has published fiction and
non-fiction in international journals and anthologies, including The Iowa
Review, Short Fiction, ELQ, Geist, and enRoute. Her stories have appeared
on the CBC and BBC as recipients of the CBC Literary Award and the
Commonwealth Award for the Short Story.
John Sibley Williams is the author of nine poetry collections, most
recently Disinheritance. A seven-time Pushcart nominee and winner
of various awards, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review.
Publications include: Yale Review, Atlanta Review, Prairie Schooner,
Midwest Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Massachusetts Review, Columbia
Poetry Review, Third Coast, and Poetry Northwest.
94 PRISM  56.2
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  PRISM is contemporary writing
Jonathan Ball
Gwen Benaway
Roxanna Bennett
J.R. Carpenter
Alicia Elliott
Daniela Elza
Yuly Restrepo Garces
Doyali Islam
Jim Johnstone
R. Kolewe
Carolyn Nakagawa
Mary Paterson
Judith Penner
Kai Minosh Pyle
Cason Sharpe
Bren Simmers
Erin Soros
John Sibley Williams
"What is a privilege?
Not having to ask this question. Not being asked this question
Not answering this question. Not questioning."
—-J.R. Carpenter and Mary Paterson,
"Which Way is West?"
7 ' 72006" 86361' 2


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