Author: The Coachella Review (Page 1 of 5)

TCR Talks with Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous

By: David Olsen

When I found out that Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous, two instructors I’ve taken classes from at the Stanford Online Writer’s Studio, were collaborating on a YA novel, I was curious about their work. When I heard what their book was about, I was even more intrigued. A book about “mean girls with superpowers,” sounded entertaining and original. The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Laurel Goodwin, wakes up to find her older sister, Ivy, missing from their shared bedroom and is forced to team up with mean girls from Laurel’s high school to find her.

After reading the book and seeing all the amazing reviews online, I caught up with the authors, who graciously agreed to do a brief interview for The Coachella Review.

 The Coachella Review: First, I think it would be great to talk about how Sparked was written. You don’t often see two authors on a YA novel. How did the idea of writing a joint novel come about? Did it make the process easier/harder, more fun…?

Helena Echlin: It began when we went out for a drink a few years ago on a rainy, dark, Friday the thirteenth. I told Malena I wanted to write a YA novel because it seemed like it would be fun and (I naively thought) easy.

She had an idea for a novel:

A girl, Laurel, wakes up to find that her beloved older sister Ivy is missing from their shared bedroom. The next night, Laurel has a dream that she can move things with her eyes—only, in the dream, she is Ivy, and she’s chained up in an underground cell. Laurel is convinced that Ivy has been kidnapped.

Obviously, I was hooked. I started riffing. What if nobody believes Laurel? Now, she’s completely on her own, and only she can save Ivy. I grabbed a pen and took furious notes as we dreamed up our plot. The next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and wrote a scene, then Malena edited it. Before we knew it, we were collaborating.

The joy of collaborating on a novel is that you’re making up an imaginary world with someone that is just as obsessed as you are. That was a welcomed change from our lives as solo novelists. Sometimes Malena and I would be in such a mind-meld that we’d both email each other with the same idea.

Malena Watrous: Not that collaboration is always easy. The challenging part came when we’d finished the first draft and realized the book needed a lot more work and that writing a YA novel is just as difficult as writing an adult novel—in some ways, more so, because the genre restricts and pushes you to be more creative. We’re both perfectionists, so every time one thought the book was finished, the other decided another draft was in order!

TCR: Have you always been a fan of YA, either secretly or otherwise? What are some of your favorite YA books? Favorite YA writers? 

 MW: We never stopped loving the books we fell in love with when we were kids and teens, and we still re-read them. Helena’s British, so her favorites include British writers Joan Aiken, Jacqueline Wilson, and Diana Wynne Jones. I loved Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and the novel Anne of Green Gables. As adults, of course, we fell in love with Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, and Suzanne Collins. We also love Lauren Oliver (Before I Fall is a huge favorite), Gabrielle Zevin, John Green, and Lauren Kate’s romantic Fallen series. One of the reasons [why] we both wanted to write YA is because of the way young readers relate to books—they fall in love with a book and read it over and over.

TCR: The book includes telekinesis, shapeshifting, fire bending (is that a thing?), and other fantasy and Sci-Fi elements. How would you categorize this book? Were these elements of the story part of what you wanted to incorporate before starting, or were they influenced by the narrative? 

 HE: I have a theory that the “big idea” for a novel comes from two things you can’t stop thinking about. They don’t necessarily seem to go together, but that’s how Sparked began. The process of writing a novel is discovering the weird hidden connections between those two things.

 MW: Here are the two inspirations: first, when I was a kid, I had a recurring dream that I could move things with my eyes. The feeling was so real that I always woke up feeling disappointed I didn’t have a power after all. When I had the dream again as an adult, I started thinking about a teen character who wants to have a power but doesn’t. How would she feel if everyone around her was getting a power—including the mean girls who torment her at school? Laurel is a girl who feels that she’s always second best, and I think many of us secretly feel the same.

The other inspiration was the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. Elizabeth was abducted from her bedroom aged fourteen, a bedroom she shared with her younger sister. I was fascinated at the time. How could someone be abducted from her own bedroom and without her younger sister overhearing and freaking out? What would it feel like to be that younger sister—the one left behind?

HE: In the first draft, Sparked, was a supernatural thriller. But as we did countless rewrites, and our characters [became] more multi-layered and interesting, it also became a book about the relationship between two sisters and mothers and daughters and about female friendship.

TCR: I love the concept of this book, “mean girls with superpowers,” and that our reclusive protagonist has to approach these girls to find her sister. How did this idea come to about? 

 MW: When you’re a teenager, your social life feels like the most important thing in the world. Having true friends is so important, but they can be hard to find and hold on to. I switched schools in eighth grade. Having been a real outcast at my old junior high, we moved states—up to Oregon—and I seized the chance to reinvent myself, hoping to push into the “upper levels” of the social sphere. I managed to get in with the “in crowd,” but soon came to realize that being one of the “mean girls” didn’t insulate me from meanness; everyone had vulnerabilities and reasons for hiding behind their masks. I eventually learned who my true friends were, and I’m still friends with them decades later. People hide in their groups. You need to learn how to look beneath the surface of each individual—a quality that makes for a good writer, as well as a good friend.

 TCR: So, you began with a unique and compelling concept. What surprised you the most while writing this story?

 HE: We both published adult literary novels before this. We cherished those memories of how much we loved books when we were younger, but our adult novels were relatively quiet dissections of family and romantic relationships. We never dreamed that we’d have so much fun writing horror or building all those twists and turns into a thriller.

TCR: With All Hallows Eve on the horizon, it’s fitting that this book is going to publish on October 3. The novel, itself, is set around this time of year, and the town in the book is the epicenter of an ancient legend coming to fruition. Is this based on a real legend? Was there a lot of research going into the prophecy?

MW: The ancient prophecy is entirely made up, but we did borrow some ideas about the battle between good and evil from Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions, which is still practiced today. However, we reshaped them [ideas]for our own narratives, which is why the Zoroastrians in the book are described as an obscure sect whose beliefs have diverged from the mainstream.

HE: The story is set the week before Halloween and goes head-on to the night itself because Halloween is our favorite time of year not only because it’s spooky, but because it’s a carnivalesque time when normal rules are suspended; kids

can knock on strangers’ doors and stuff themselves with candy. In Sparked, like many classic novels for kids and teens, the adults are pretty useless, and the kids have to take charge. Laurel, the heroine, can’t make her hippie-dippy mom take her sister’s disappearance seriously or the town cops. It’s up to her to save her sister, Ivy, along with her friend Jasper and mean girls Peyton and Mei. It made sense to set the novel around Halloween when kids step out of their usual roles.

TCR: I saw online that your editor had you remove references to zombies? Was that tongue in cheek, or were there a lot of zombies initially? What was the issue with these zombies, and should writers avoid zombies in YA if they don’t want to get an editor fired up?

HE: We’ve never had many zombies; I can’t say more than that in fear of spoilers. What I can say is that in a book where the main character is trying to prevent the end of the world (as well as save her kidnapped sister), it’s pretty much inevitable that a few zombie references will crop up; however, one zombie was too many for that editor.

MW: I do think editors have certain elements they get tired of because they feel they are currently being overdone. For instance, after Twilight, and its many imitators, few editors are interested in books about vampires. In reality, subjects like that [vampires] are considered evergreen subjects. People always want to read about zombies, vampires, and the supernatural.

TCR: You published this novel in a unique way. It was sort of voted into existence, and it was a contest winner, too. Can you tell us a little about that decision? What was the process with Inkshares?

HE: We’d both published novels with traditional publishing houses, but we wanted to do things differently this time around—after all, we were writing a completely different type of book, so why not try something new when it came to publishing it? When editors at traditional publishing houses informed us that the paranormal romance genre was “down-trending,” we were more than happy to look at indie options.

MW: Then Inkshares, a crowd-funded publisher based in Oakland, approached us. The gatekeepers aren’t New York editors but readers, who care less about New York publishing trends and more about finding books they enjoy. These readers subsidize your initial publication costs by preordering your book. Sell 750 [copies], and Inkshares will do everything a traditional publisher does, including help with marketing and distributing the book into bookstores. When we funded the book and it was time for editing, book designs, sales and the rest, Inkshares was truly exceptional. It’s also nice that they’re not a faceless conglomerate, but a tight-knit, super-enthusiastic team of people we have come to know and really like.

We’d initially quailed at the thought of crowd-funding, but we actually loved it because it gave us a chance to connect with so many readers individually. During the presale phase, readers aren’t ordering through Amazon, but through Inkshares, which meant we had their email addresses and had the chance to thank each one. We were lucky that, on top of that, we won the Geek & Sundry Fantasy Contest. The best thing about crowd-funding is that we can still communicate with our readers directly—they can tell us what they thought of the book and be the first audience as we finish chapters of the sequel.

TCR: You are both teachers at Stanford’s Online Writers’ Studio. Did you learn anything through this process that you would like to share with future students?

HE: Write the book you want to read. Don’t worry about writing a book you think the market wants. We confess, as we dashed off that first draft of Sparked, we thought we’d sell it to a traditional publishing house in a heartbeat. At the time we began writing it, paranormal romances were selling like hotcakes, but by the time we’d finished that draft, the market was overcrowded and editors didn’t even want to look at a book with a hint of paranormal romance.

Then we took the time to rewrite the book, the kind of book we wanted to read—a book that had complicated, flawed characters, dark humor, and a sense of mystery. We got rid of some of the “paint-by-number” plot points and preserved the magical and romantic parts that had made writing the first draft such fun.Moral of the story: predicting what’s hot in publishing is as impossible as trying to guess the next hot cut of jeans. If you start writing a book based on what’s hot this year, it will be out of style by the time you publish it. Write the book you want to read, and not only will you enjoy yourself, you’ll doubtlessly be writing the best book that you can write.

Moral of the story: predicting what’s hot in publishing is as impossible as trying to guess the next hot cut of jeans. If you start writing a book based on what’s hot this year, it will be out of style by the time you publish it. Write the book you want to read, and not only will you enjoy yourself, you’ll doubtlessly be writing the best book that you can write.

TCR: This book has been getting rave reviews online. I read one review that begged for a sequel. Are there any plans in the works for that? What’s next for you two?

HE: We’ve had an idea for a sequel in the works for a long time. Now, we’ve received so many requests from generous readers, we feel very inspired to get to work. We wrote the first book not knowing if anyone would ever read it. Now, we have actual readers waiting for the second book; that makes us really excited about writing it.



Book Review: Yuval Noah Harai’s “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”

By: A.E. Santana

Who would like to know the future? To know and understand the coming changes to our environment, society, and the individual? Whereas Yuval Noah Harai doesn’t claim to be omniscient or a fortune teller, his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow paints a picture of what may be in store for humanity in the next fifty or a hundred years. Harai does this not by making psychic predictions but, instead, by carefully examining history, biology, psychology, and technology. With a copious amount of research to back up his claims, Harai gives a detailed hypothesis on the next steps of human evolution—taking people from Homo sapiens to Homo deus. Whereas Harai gives intelligent, thorough explanations, it is through his clear, clever, and often humorous writing that he connects with readers.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is broken up into an introduction and three parts: “Homo Sapiens Conquers the World,” “Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World,” and “Homo Sapiens Loses Control.” Each part delves into the rise and fall of societies, provides an intimate look at biology and psychology, and discusses the growth of technology as it pertains to Harai’s claims. It is by understanding these topics, Harai suggests, that people will be able to understand how society may progress into the next stage of human evolution.

This book is “less a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices.” Harai explains that in the past, people focused heavily on dealing with famine, war, and plague. Society, religion, industrial, and technological advances were designed for keeping humanity from succumbing to widespread epidemics, starvation, and violence. Yet, in the twenty-first century, humans have gained the upper hand on these destructive forces and remain in control. Today, Harai points out more people die from overeating than from malnutrition. This type of control gives people the possibility to create what Harai identifies as “The New Human Agenda,” which is the pursuit of consistent happiness, an elongated lifespan, and ultimate control and power over ourselves and our environment—a sort of divinity. “We want the ability to re-engineer our bodies and minds in order, above all, to escape old age, death, and misery,” Harai says, “but once we have it, who knows what else we might do with such ability?”

Homo Deus brings together history, science, psychology, biology, and technology with a shrewd and vibrant voice. Harai maps out a timeline of what humans have done and, more importantly, why it was done. Understanding why people act and think the way they do is one of the significant clues to what humans will evolve into. He discusses religion, society, and individual desires almost as an outsider—analyzing the “whys” of human actions with a scientific approach, but his tone and voice are anything but sterile. He discounts social norms as outdated behaviors, such as the status of a nice lawn being nothing more than a leftover “trademark of nobility” from the Middle Ages, and remarks on what did and didn’t work for social movements, such as communism, with deadpan one-liners: “Marx forgot that capitalists know how to read.”

Harai is unapologetic in his writing; he is funny but frank in describing humans, at best, as animals and, at the least, a biological algorithm, stripping away any pretenses that humanity is special other than winning the lottery of evolution. He confidently hypothesizes what people may do to themselves and to each other to obtain happiness, immortality, and ultimate power. Narcotics, bioengineering, and cybernetics, Harai claims, will become everyday tools to achieve the New Human Agenda, upgrading humans into gods.

Harai’s theories are explained as a comprehensive dissertation complete with meticulous endnotes. Peppered with smart and amusing exposition, Homo Deus peeks into a possible future by analyzing the past and scrutinizing the human body and mind. The historical and scientific accounts are interesting and eye-opening, and his theories are well discussed with anecdotes and references. For this reason, Homo Deus, at times, reads more like a book dedicated to history, rather than a look into the future, but Harai uses the extensive research as proof to his argument. He offers his thoughts with humorous comments—sometimes silly, sometimes sarcastic—but always with the goal of connecting with the reader.


A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who writes horror, fantasy, and science fiction. She received her bachelor’s degree in mass communications and a minor in scriptwriting from California State University, San Bernardino. She taught fine art, theatre, and writing at the middle school level and writes media content for a non-profit organization. A.E. Santana is also part of a theater group, East Valley Rep, in Indio, CA and is one of their founding playwrights. She has quite an affinity for cats. Publications include short stories in various anthologies and one-act plays. A.E. Santana’s work can be found at, on Twitter (@foxflur) and Facebook (

Book Review: Megan Stielstra’s “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

By: A.M. Larks

Nothing other than fate can attribute to my review on Megan Stielstra’s book, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, which took place a week after the events in Charlottesville (which occurred on August 12, 2017), when I was supposed to have received it a month prior. During the last week, the fear for our country has increased, it is undeniably pervasive and palpable. This fear is in every conversation, every communication, and every action or reaction. Fear is exactly what Stielstra tackles in her book. Stielstra ties the broad and the specific by examining fear at its roots, fear in her own life, and fear in everybody’s lives. Written before the November 2016 election, she comments on the fear rhetoric building at that time (which seems to have reached a violent pinnacle with Charlottesville), claiming that we must work through fear by confronting that which lies on the other side. Her words are startlingly prophetic:

You might want to move on, to turn it off, watch something else—but wait, look again. Look closer. How was it made? When was it made? What was happening when it was made? What are you going to do about it? And when are you going to start?
Now I think.

Steilstra’s examination of fear begins at the origins of her own fears, her childhood: her fear of heights, fear of wiener dogs, fears that bleed into dreams; like the failure to speak in front of a crowded room or failing at her job. When she writes of her childhood nightmares featuring the 1978 TV series Hulk, she simultaneously conveys the hysterical absurdity and intense emotions of childhood. Hulk was her boogeyman. She feared that he would drag her down, down under the bed, down to the basement (where he, of course, lived). This fear seems less naïve when Stielstra describes Banner (Ferrigno) by the open voiceover, “Until he can control the raging spirit that dwells within him.” The Hulk may have had an unconscious influence on Stielstra’s childhood, but in this book, he serves as a representative of the battler we all face: the one to control our own raging spirit. By reflecting on her fear of the Hulk, she is speaking to every uncontrolled raging monster.

Our fears are irrevocably tied to our experiences, especially those we had as children. As Stielstra points out, we become fearful from being stuck in a tree or watching the scary movie with the evil-minded seaweed. Stielstra shares her idiosyncratic fears, and by doing so, queries ours.

Our adult fears take on a different caliber than those that originate in childhood. Stielstra lets the magical world where “a pile of dead bunny popsicles” arise anew after being commanded, where you can speak to the character on the TV, and where alternative realities are easily envisioned by simply pretending, fall away, which is indicative of the collective experience of growing up. In her adult world, her fears have multiplied, and admitting them and getting to the root is more difficult because those fears are obstructed by anger. “Anger is easier than fear,” Stielstra says, as she explores the complications of this anger in her own life that leads her to yell at loved ones and use the wrong words. Her in-depth reflection causes the reader to reflect on their own life when anger had negative consequences, when the underlying emotion was concern and fear. Stielstra and the audience consider the consequences of failing to live like Bruce Banner and control the rage.

The understanding of the heart is Stielstra’s true aim. It is a universal quest. Dissection of the heart is an effective and gruesome metaphor for her self-exploration. Stielstra literally becomes obsessed with understanding the heart, resulting in a need to surgically dissect and, therefore, understand her loved ones. It is through Stielstra’s confessions that she bonds with her audience, illuminating how easy it is to express ourselves when the emotional stakes are lower. This also reveals how quickly we, as people, bond over tragedies, death, and decaying of bodies. This book is yet another representation of Stielstra reaching out to bond with the reader over death, over the shared fragility of our human bodies, and the inability to cope with those choices that are out of our control.

Among the thematic fears that resonate throughout her book, Stielstra emphasizes the imagination as a part of fear. “[W]e learned to fear our own imagination.” No point is more poignant than Stielstra’s recollection of a school shooting that possibly involved her father, which certainly involved her alma mater, her previous teachers, and people she knew in her small interconnected town. Though her father was spared that day, Steilstra’s rage, stemming from the fear embedded in her by the shooting, is tangible as she argues for stricter gun control: “People are dying. That man should not have had eleven guns. That man should not have had a gun. His right to a gun is not greater than outright to walk through this world, alive and living.” It is a rage propelled by her fears, her inner Hulk bubbling to the surface. While Charlottesville required no gun, Stiestra’s observation about what we say in the wake of tragedy is all the more devastating. “Our hearts are with the families, we say and nothing changes.”

Stielstra deftly reaches out across the generations by pointing out bridging behaviors. She may have listened to a boom box Casey Kasem, and now teenagers listen to their phones and Pandora/Spotify/Jango/Slacker/etc. It’s not just teenagers that haven’t changed. People are still the same, still searching for how to deal with the heart, that powerful and fragile organ. Stielstra banishes the distinctions that often separate us: gender, race generation, political party. Her book is about what affects everyone: fear.

It is her own battle with rage and fear and change that prevails throughout the book. She examines her rage at key junctures, like high school, college, and adult life.

High school was complicated. I imagine that’s the case for most people.
Where do you put the frustration?

In college:

I went off, ending with the typically exasperated: “It doesn’t make sense!”
Patty nodded. She sat her book on the floor. Then she leaned forward and said the simple most important thing I heard in college, if not ever, “You don’t get to hate something just because you don’t understand it.”

As an administrator:

“How do you keep it together?” I demanded. “I want to stand on a chair and scream.”
“I hear you,” he said.
“I agree with you,” he said.
“Will any of that help your students?” he said. I sat.

Stielstra stumbles upon her own answer to channeling rage and changing through this examination and this book. It is an answer everyone should employ and it is an answer the world should hear:

 “I was all guilt and rage, I stood in my kitchen and yelled the
understatement of the century: “IT ISN’T FUCKING KIND.”
“It’s not,” my mother said. “How can we make it right?”
Sometimes kindness means showing up.
Sometimes it’s trying.
We have to try.

For Steilstra, “making right” involves several actions, beginning with and centering around listening to each other:

And I think that’s the most important thing I ever learned from
my grandfather. No matter how set in our ways, we still have much
to learn. We can Listen. We can try. That is possible.

Listening requires a test of fortitude. When was the last time we stopped talking and listened to one another? When was the last time we felt our “true” feelings? Stielstra advocates that the honesty we have with the world begins with the self:

“It’s okay if a story makes you sad,” I told him. “It’s okay if it
makes you angry or afraid. These feelings are real. Let’s live them.”

Stielstra then implores us to be daring and channel those feeling into making art:

I want to be better for him: better mom, better writer, better
human being on this planet. I want the world to be better, too. I
believe art has a place in that. So what am I going to do about it?
What am I going to make?

She further petitions us to utilize our assets to make a difference, even a small one in the world:

It’s made me look very closely at how we use our platforms, whatever the size. The seemingly smallest gestures can mean the world to someone else.

Finally, Stielstra presses upon us the need to be brave by not giving into fear:

“You know what this guy is doing?” Dad says.
He pauses.
He’s a great storyteller- building tension, landing the punch.
“Selling fear.”

Stielstra argues vehemently for a change in perception, and being an educator, she believes this begins and ends in the classroom. While using her own eye-opening experiences as the touchstone, Stielstra’s commentary shakes the reader in a post-Charlottesville world: “Perhaps, it’s idealistic to think that what happens in a classroom can make a dent in identity-based violence and white supremacy.” Perhaps, it is idealistic, but one cannot help but wonder “what if?” Like Stielstra’s teenager self-wonders: “What if [we] jump? What if [we] fly?”

64) Then I had-
65) Let’s call it an epiphany.
66) It doesn’t matter if the work is personal or political.
67) It doesn’t matter if it’s a story or an essay.
68) Some people will come after us no matter what we say.
69) We might as well say things that matter.

Stielstra’s book stands up and confronts the reader, just as she confronted her class: “Everyone sat there, waiting for me to say something, and finally I looked up and asked, ‘Are you afraid?’” So then, let’s start to deal with that.


 AM Larks currently resides in California. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts from University of California Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She reads submissions for The Coachella Review nonfiction, poetry, and drama sections. 











Film Review: Frank Vitale and Cris Mazza’s “Anorgasmia: Faking It in a Sexualized World”


By: Ashley perez

A few years ago, I wrote one of the most terrifying pieces of writing in my life. I wrote about how sex was painful for me, how in eight years of sleeping with one partner, I had never achieved orgasm, how sex felt like a duty instead of a pleasure. I was sure that I was alone and that there was something wrong with me.

Shortly after, I was introduced to Cris Mazza via email, where I spoke with her for The Nervous Breakdown about her memoir, Something Wrong With Her. We talked about the repeated phrase (and its internalized trauma) “there’s something wrong with me,” as well as our distaste for our own bodies, amongst other things.

Since Cris lives in Chicago and I live in Los Angeles, I never got to tell her in person how much our candid conversation meant to me. When I heard that she was making a documentary that continued the conversation in Something Wrong With Her, I was eager to watch the film and see how she used her distinct voice to highlight a topic that is still not getting enough attention.

Anorgasmia, Mazza’s follow-up to Something Wrong With Me, is a further exploration of her body, gender, and sexuality and continues with the premise that Mazza is not being sexually authentic with herself—that she’s unable to orgasm because she’s conforming to roles that don’t feel true to who she is. Anorgasmia blends fiction with memoir as Mazza experiments by presenting herself as a man to understand the differences between gender and sexuality, all while navigating her relationship with her partner, Mark. Mazza’s docufiction highlights an important aspect of the conversation around gender, sexuality, and identity.

The film starts with Mazza taking a photograph of herself while describing the parts of her body she doesn’t like. Mark comes in, and she explains this is part of her “transgender experiment.” Mark is visibly confused and upset, but I was with Mazza from the beginning. The ultimate concept of the film is less about orgasms and more about her trying—for the first time in her life —to figure out who she really is. She explores the idea by cutting her hair, shopping for men’s clothes with Mark, and wearing these clothes in public.

As the film continues, Mazza struggles to find the words for what she is feeling. When Mark says repeatedly, “I don’t think you really have it in to be a man,” Mazza is frustrated at the sentiment. But she brightens when she meets a person she connected with on a trans website, who explains the difference between gender and sexuality. Mazza smiles and laughs when she realizes, “Yes, I don’t think I’m a man, but I’m just not a woman.”

The scene that easily wins for the most awkward segment is when she goes to her colleague’s house for dinner wearing traditional masculine clothes. His family is visibly uncomfortable interacting with someone who is not what they expected. As Mazza (introduced as David for this dinner) is leaving, she overhears her colleague’s wife, Molly, explain to their kids that they did not treat David nicely while admonishing her husband for bringing a trans friend home without warning. Molly expresses that David was probably asexual and not trans. I was getting a little heated while watching, wanting to reach through the screen and say, “You’re mixing gender and sexuality!”—but cue the next scene, where Cris learns the differences between terms describing gender versus sexuality.

It was gratifying to watch Cris gain the words to put to her feelings: that she can be gender nonconforming and asexual but feel hetero-romantic toward her male partner. In an earlier scene, she talks to friend, colleague, and writer Gina Frangello about her confusion about the precise, current phrases to describe sexuality, and Gina leaves Cris with the idea that maybe “it doesn’t matter where they land” as long as it’s “somewhere more authentic.”

“Writing was the way I expressed myself to the world. Writing was the way I existed. Maybe writing was the me I was going to know,” Cris says when talking about her work. I share her frustration near the end of the film, when she discusses the small reception of her memoir, and feel this is a writer who speaks for many and that her work should be more widely known.

Throughout the film, Mazza’s relationship with Mark is intricately explored and developed. He was an early part of her sexual life, and after thirty years apart, they reconnected. That connection came at the crucial time when Mazza needed to do this experiment and put words to those feelings inside her—feelings you can see written across her face as she puts a binder over her chest and buttons up a men’s shirt. The viewer feels her pain acutely when it seems like she is being forced to make a choice between being authentic to her true self or comforting and assuring her heterosexual male partner that this won’t affect him, which, at times, comes off as almost a punishment for her honesty and vulnerability as he progressively grows cold and distant with Mazza.

Anorgasmia is one of the best pieces of blended memoir and fiction I have ever seen. It’s educational, especially about an older generation of gender nonconformists, yet it also leaves the audience under the spell of good fiction in terms of what will happen to the characters of Cris and Mark after the cameras stop rolling. I highly recommend the film for its vulnerable and honest look at how identity is perceived and the impact identity can have on sexual desire and fulfillment. Let’s keep this conversation going.

Information about and viewing of Anorgasmia can be found here



Cris Mazza is also the author of Something Wrong With Her, a hybrid memoir published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014, a companion piece to Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls.  She has authored over fifteen books, mostly novels and collections of short fiction. Mazza now lives in the Midwest and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Ashley Perez lives, writes, and causes trouble in Los Angeles. She has a strong affinity for tattoos, otters, cat mystery books, and actual cats, but has mixed feelings about pants. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She runs the literary site Arts Collide and does work of all varieties for Women Who Submit, Entropy, Jaded Ibis Press, Midnight Breakfast, and Why There Are Words. Her work can be found at The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, Red Light Lit, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @ArtsCollide.

Book Review: Laurent Binet’s “The Seventh Function of Language”

By: John Flynn-York

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH (short for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which, translated, means “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), was a fictional reconstruction of the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. The novel’s narrative fluctuated between past and present, history and story. In the past, Heydrich rises to power in the Third Reich, committing unspeakable atrocities along the way, while two operatives—the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík—plan to kill him. In the present, the narrator grapples with this story and how best to write it, drawing on books, museums, and other references to recreate it in detail. The brilliance of the book came from the tension between these perspectives. What does it mean to recreate history? Can we understand the way historical figures understood things—that is, can we get inside their heads? Can we ever know the truth? In other words, HHhH was as concerned with what it means to tell a story about history as it was with the historical events themselves.

Binet’s new book, The Seventh Function of Language, similarly takes its inspiration from a real event: the accident that claimed the life of the semiologist Roland Barthes. Out of this incident, Binet spins a madcap tale of intellectuals run amok that is by turns wildly entertaining, mildly frustrating, and intellectually captivating—and only sometimes faithful to the historical record.

It is 1980, and Barthes, after leaving a lunch in Paris with French presidential candidate François Mitterand, is hit by a laundry truck and badly injured. At first, it appears to be an accident. But Superintendent Jacques Bayard, a no-nonsense policeman charged with the investigation, senses that there’s something amiss. And so, he investigates. Barthes is taken to a hospital, put on a ventilator, and thronged by fans, professors, and fellow intellectuals. Meanwhile, Bayard visits one of Barthes’s contemporaries, the writer and philosopher Michel Foucault, who is lecturing at the Collège de France, a school that is open to all and offers no degrees. Bayard suffers through a lecture on “the meaning of the repetition of penitence,” and afterward tries to get a few simple answers out of Foucault, who is hostile and flippant. Sensing that he needs a guide to this alternate world where people discuss “normative principles” and “systems of thought,” Bayard recruits a young professor of semiology, Simon Herzog, who teaches at Vincennes, “a university swarming with work-shy lefties and professional agitators.” Those thoughts are Bayard’s, of course. Simon (who, in contrast to Bayard, is always referred to by his first name in the book) sees it differently—he’s one of those lefties—and resists being dragged into the investigation. He has classes to teach, a thesis to finish writing, a book to return to the library. So Bayard requisitions him. “You strike me as being less stupid than the rest of these long-haired louts, and I need a translator for all this bullshit,” Bayard tells him.

From there, hijinks ensue. Following an unsteady chain of clues, Bayard and Simon begin to uncover layers of the mystery. Who ran over Barthes, and why? They discover a secret debating club, in which losing a debate results in the amputation of a finger. They travel to Bologna and Ithaca. Their search winds deeper and deeper into academic and political networks. Various luminaries of philosophy, linguistics, and other disciplines appear: Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva, Noam Chomsky. Friends turn out to be foes, and foes turn out to be friends. There’s a dramatic reversal or two, wild sex, sudden violence, more sex. Roman Jakobson’s theory of the functions of language is explained and discussed.

Bayard and Simon are comically and strategically mismatched, and their interplay is often amusing—think Sherlock and Watson, with a healthy dose of Inspector Clouseau. For the reader who is unfamiliar with post-structuralism and semiology, Binet provides two aids: short chapters that discuss the history of these ideas with humor and pith, and Simon himself, who is always ready to explain a complicated concept to the more practical-minded Bayard. (What is semiology? Binet’s narrator is there to help the unacquainted reader by quoting Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of modern linguistics: “a science that studies the life of signs within society.” The narrator quips, “Yep, that’s all,” before providing more detail.) It’s an appealing medley of detective story, satire, and theory. Binet, who is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on literature, gets the balance among the three mostly right, although there are moments when the satire becomes so outrageous (although not necessarily implausible) that it begins to grate. Other times, the humor depends on a literary game of spot-the-reference, and will be lost on the reader unfamiliar with, say, who Judith Butler is, or the intricacies of the French political landscape circa 1980. But spotting these references is also fun, and there’s always that international conspiracy to push things along.

The Seventh Function of Language, then, succeeds in creating an intellectually stimulating milieu and delivering an entertaining narrative set within it. But this novel misses a mark that HHhH hit squarely. Where HHhH was concerned with the question of what it means to reconstruct history, The Seventh Function revels in blurring the lines between fact and fiction. HHhH’s narrator wrestles with what should be included in his story: “If I were to mention all the plots in which Heydrich had a hand, this book would never be finished,” he writes. In another passage, he attempts to determine what color Heydrich’s car was—a detail that is simultaneously incidental and momentous because it reveals so little and so much at the same time. However, the narrator of The Seventh Function is far less present in the text, and far less conflicted. Referring to the accident that takes Barthes’s life, the narrator writes: “they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very good reason that, until today, no one understands anything about it.” That is to say: the narrator knows, and will tell us, even if the details are occasionally hazy. A novelist is free to invent at will—this is fiction, after all. And every novel that incorporates historical detail (which is, essentially, every novel) signals a tension between history and story, a grounding in “real” life that is also a departure from it. But HHhH’s exploration of the space between what actually happened and what can be said about what happened gave it a depth and a seriousness that The Seventh Function lacks.

Ultimately, what makes The Seventh Function worth reading is the interplay between its wild plot and its discussion of ideas drawn from semiology, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and linguistics. There’s an intellectual playground in this novel, and if some (or most) of the stories turn out to be inventions, well, that’s part of the point. The epigraph, a quote from the philosopher Jacques Derrida (who also appears in the book), reads: “There are interpreters everywhere. Each speaking his own language, even if he has some knowledge of the language of the other. The interpreter’s ruses have an open field and he does not forget his own interests.” One way to read Derrida’s quote is as suggesting that the link which leads from sign to referent is always contextual and always contains some invention. HHhH is the better novel for its deeper and more nuanced exploration of this idea. Its tensions are more enduring, and its struggles are more heartfelt. Still, The Seventh Function’s madcap take is welcome, too. It’s less serious, but there’s way more sex.

Bienvenidos a Pilsen

By: todd Gastelum


I was used to rebooting my life: CTL+ALT+DEL and voilà, tabula rasa.

About to turn thirty, it was time for me to move. Once again, I was leaving a boyfriend I’d taken up with in a previous life. Once again, it was me who fucked things up. Now I needed my own place. I was hoping for the top floor of a brick three-flat, preferably with hardwood floors, a bay window, and crown molding. Somewhere near the 18th Street stop on the Blue Line with a view of buckled chimneys, waltzing antennas and the Baroque twin towers of St. Adalbert’s.

That’s not the apartment I found.

My new place was the rear unit on the top floor of an architecturally featureless building, whose ground floor taquería would eventually add another ten pounds to my frame. The apartment had been recently remodeled with a coat of white matte and cheap beige linoleum that still reeked of glue. There were just three rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen/dining/living room too cramped to qualify as open concept. All the doors were standard-issue Home Depot as were the kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures. The tiny window over the kitchen sink gazed into a narrow air shaft, and the double-paned windows behind my futon framed an alley with a backbone of splintered utility poles and drooping cables. If I lived a dozen floors higher, I’d have been able to see the lake, but I didn’t and I couldn’t. I had no link to the natural world—only the constant rumbling of big rigs speeding toward the Stevenson Expressway.

I moved to the longest street within the city limits: Western Avenue. It cut a wide swath across a patchwork of urban neighborhoods that went from south to north affluent Black, middle-class Black, poor Black, working-class Black and Latino, poor Black, working-class Latino with white gentrification, middle-class mixed and, right before you cross into Evanston, working-class Indians and Pakistanis, with a spattering of Russian Jews. My stretch of Western sat in the middle, inside a tourniquet of railroad tracks amid derelict brick factories and social service agencies. My block was halfway between Flappers, an adult bookstore, and Fairplay, a dismal supermarket where shoppers bought dented cans and two-liter bottles of Faygo soda pop. My neighborhood also housed dollar stores, the city kill shelter, and Fun Wash, a 24-hour laundromat best avoided after 10 p.m. to prevent violent run-ins with bored teenagers.

It was neither a stylish apartment nor a great neighborhood, but none of that mattered. I was just happy to have moved to the barrio, Pilsen.


I’d come to Chicago in 1997 after an aborted attempt to live the good life in Nashville. My boyfriend Andrew was from Tennessee, and he’d sold me on the charms of the South. Said it was so much cheaper than Seattle, that we’d live like kings.

Instead, we became paupers on Music Row, where we rented a roach-infested apartment that could’ve doubled as a crematorium during the smokehouse summer. Just six months in, I was already plotting our escape north. I would’ve settled for any big city north of the 40th parallel, but a long weekend in Chicago sold me on the City of Big Shoulders.

I counted down the days to the end of our lease, drunk on bourbon while studying a map of Chicago. I spent hours analyzing statistics to find the best neighborhood, and since social scientists have been studying the city for generations, there were mountains of qualitative data I could play with. I used highlighters to color census tracts by poverty and homicide rates. Starved for diversity after a year among Nashville’s two-tone population and its perplexing racial codes, I established where immigrants clustered. I crossed out areas that were too far from El stops or that didn’t have a decent grocery. I plotted the locations of Starbucks—that poster child of late-90s gentrification—and made sure that there were no mermaids in any of the places I shortlisted.

The winning neighborhood was Logan Square.

It was unlike any other place I’d lived, and I fell for it the same way I’d fallen in love with Thai food a decade earlier. Why hadn’t it been a part of my life sooner? Andrew and I were elated to find a comfortable two-bedroom in a solid block of flats along a tree-lined boulevard, just a thirty-minute El ride from the Loop. Sure, the neighborhood was scruffy, with tagged storefronts up and down Milwaukee Avenue, litter blowing around the namesake square, and too few places for late-night eats—but none of that mattered. I fell in love with my new home because, for the first time in my life, I lived among Latinos.

The neighborhood was home to an established Puerto Rican community, and the corner bodegas sold jíbarito sandwiches and stocked yuca, plantains, and every Goya product known to humankind. But there was more to the neighborhood than Boricua pride—it was a microcosm of all of Latin America’s people and commerce. Cubans sold stringy ropa vieja in a dancehall-cum-restaurant that attracted middle-aged men in fedoras. Guatemalans sold long-distance phone cards in tiny storefronts blasting techno-cumbia remixes of the Spice Girls. Colombians sold bandejas paisas piled high with fried pork, beans, and eggs served on broad wooden platters. Mexicans sold everything else: fruit, second-hand clothing, pan dulce, cell phone accessories, garish chrome rims, tamales, pirated DVDs, and pink cushioned toilet seats.

Logan Square’s in-your-face ethnicity mocked my non-identity. My Latino-ness rose to the surface, emerging from my skin like a cicada crawling from the earth after a lengthy slumber. Until now, I looked into a mirror and saw nothing more than short black hair atop a freckled face.

I never saw Latino.

I never saw Hispanic.

I never saw Mexican-American.

But Logan Square swapped out my mirror while I slept, and when I awoke, my reflection was dried beans and corn husks.


Home was suburban California, and although my mother was Mexican-American, I’d never applied that label to myself. After all, Dad was a blend of English and German. I identified more with the natural environment of my home state—poppies and sourgrass, lizards and toads, sycamores and coyotes—than with a marginalized ethnic group. Me Mexican? Not a chance.

What are you? The interrogation begins. I’m eight years old.
American, I reply. God, I hate this schoolyard question, but those of us with black hair, dark skin, or almond eyes are used to this game.
No, you know what I mean. Where are you from?
California, I say. I’m from San Jose.
Your family. He presses on. Where’s your family from?

I think for a minute. I can continue, explaining that my family’s lived in the United States for generations, or I can end the interrogation and tell him what I know he wants to hear.

My great-grandparents are from Germany, England, and Mexico.


This slur never wounded me; it only left me perplexed. God knows my mother tried to cultivate a strong ethnic identity in me, but it never germinated. It’s not that I was ashamed of my Mexican ancestry; it simply seemed irrelevant. Though my childhood friends mirrored the Benetton rainbow, none were Mexican.

Besides, I was just a half-breed who didn’t understand Spanish, let alone speak it. Mom’s forebears were pioneer settlers from a beach town barrio near San Diego, but I’d never lived there. And while I loved the flour tortillas Grammy made from scratch, there was nothing particularly exotic about Mexican food. This was California after all, where my junior high school served tacos, burritos, and churros in the cafeteria; it was hard to find anyone who didn’t douse their food with hot sauce.

All I knew about Mexico was what I’d gleaned from my family’s road trips to Baja. My dad behind the steering wheel of our boxy Volvo, we passed the exit for Camino de la Plaza —LAST USA EXIT—and crossed into Mexico without ever having to speak to customs officials. It seemed a land with no rules. We traced the border fence, driving past Tijuana’s vertical shantytowns until we reached the security of the coastal toll highway that would deliver us to the beach rental where we’d rendezvous with the Wojtkowskis. We’d spend the weekend eating homemade pierogies and guacamole, us kids buzzing from chugging Mexican Cokes out of chipped glass bottles while our parents surrendered themselves to blender margaritas the color of disinfectant.


The white walls wouldn’t do. My new apartment screamed for an extreme makeover. Inspired by a coffee-table book on hacienda interiors, undeterred by clashing color palettes, I painted my apartment the most garish, tropical colors I could find. I splashed the walls of the main room with sunflower yellow, which brightened the dark shoe box. My turquoise bedroom suggested the Sea of Cortez, whereas the bathroom screamed lime and cilantro. I delighted in my home improvement efforts, though I never did like looking into the bathroom mirror because the green walls appeared to reflect pond scum onto my face.

The Mexican handicrafts emporium on Ashland became the depository for most of my paycheck. Desperate to purchase my identity, I bought Talavera pottery, punched tin frames, tiled mirrors, hand-woven serapes, and jeweled pendant lamps that reflected a galaxy of tiny stars onto the ceiling. I pinned a massive street map of Mexico City above the TV. I hung antique photos of my immigrant ancestors from Sonora and Guanajuato, while purposefully ignoring those who hailed from Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Even my pantry shelves screamed Mexico, laden as they were with bags of dried masa, cans of pickled jalapeños, and tetra paks of Doña Maria mole. I blasted Café Tacuba singing roc en español while downing shot after shot of cut-rate tequila. My Anglo inhibitions on the floor, I’d dance alone beside the dining table, mistaking my drunkenness for Mexican pride.

I felt proud almost every night in the faux-fiesta atmosphere of my Pilsen apartment.


He approached me with a flyer in his hand.

Oye, he said as he handed me the paper. Soy Oscar. Quiero invitarte a una party el próximo sábado. ¿Te gusta la música house?

Um, I stammered. ¿Qué?

Oh, you speak English.


Well, I’m Oscar. He smiled.

Yeah, I got that.

I never seen you around here. What’s your name?

I loved that he first spoke to me in Spanish. It made me feel authentically Mexican instead of the North Side poseur I was, with my white boyfriend and white-collar job. He was striking—his shaved head topped by a backward Sox cap above cocoa eyes. An Ecko jersey drooped over his sagging khakis. He was street, and I was smitten.

Imma give you my number in case you want to come. You got a cell phone?

I passed him my Nokia, and he punched in his name and number. Then he disappeared into the shadows of the bar just as the first notes of a Selena song began. It raised cheers from the crowd.

Girl! What the fuck? Armando had been watching the whole thing go down, and he was thrilled to have caught me in the act of flirting with a random guy. Now, I know you didn’t just give your number to that thug. You tell him you have a boyfriend?

No, I said. He’s cute. Why the hell would I tell him about Andrew?

Don’t go cheatin’ on your man just ’cause you want to get a taste of some verga mexicana. Whore, you know that all dick tastes the same.

He invited me to a party. I’m never gonna see him again so just chill. I need another beer.

My friend Armando had brought me to the Chesterfield, a South Side bar where you got frisked at the door. I’d never been to a gay bar like it. The clientele was 100% Latino—working-class Mexicans drinking buck-fifty MGDs in a dank cavern an hour’s drive south of the phony glamour of Boystown. There were construction workers and meat cutters, coked-out drag queens and scowling chola dykes with painted eyebrows ready to throw down. No one spoke English it seemed. Why hadn’t I come here before?


Though my apartment was on a shitty stretch of Western, I was only a ten-minute walk from 18th Street. I’d set out with my backpack and Discman as I headed into Pilsen’s bustling commercial heart. My feet took me past revolutionary murals, record shops blaring tubas and accordions, and fruterías atomizing papaya, mango, and lime onto the sidewalk. The foreignness of the neighborhood mesmerized me, and I could spend all afternoon wandering, taking photos and notes to document everything I encountered.

I was in my second year of college, and I’d switched my major from sociology to geography. This was a natural progression from childhood, when I poured over back issues of National Geographic and never missed an episode of Big Blue Marble, a PBS program that featured biopic shorts about real children in exotic places, like Bophuthatswana and Prince Edward Island. The show promoted the utopian ideal of world peace and understanding, which I believed to be perfectly attainable. Together is a word we must learn to understand, went the theme song, if we ever want to get to know each other better.

There was no better place for fieldwork than Chicago. The cliché was true—it was a city of neighborhoods, most of them as distinct from one another as the Midwestern seasons. On Saturdays, I’d ride the El to distant stations, where I’d surrender my feet to the pavement, melting the rubber from my soles as I walked five, six, seven miles through ethnic fiefdoms that transformed with every major arterial, viaduct, or bridge. My curiosity led me to Georgian bakeries, Vietnamese supermarkets, and Pakistani gift shops that sold plastic mosque alarm clocks that chimed five times a day.

Pilsen was as foreign to me as Little India or that stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that smelled of kielbasa and kolacky. I approached the neighborhood as a geographer, as I’d done with Chicago’s other immigrant enclaves—the only difference was that here, it looked as if I should speak the neighborhood’s lingua franca. My newly purchased Aztec calendar T-shirt, and primitive Spanish language skills, however, weren’t enough to grant me insider status, though I hoped that with time, I’d crack the Pilsen code. I had Mexican blood, so, wasn’t it my birthright to claim Pilsen as my own? 


In the beginning, the fact that he smelled of potato chips was a plus. He arrived at my apartment in his blue work shirt, name embroidered upon his chest. He wasn’t fat—not exactly—but a diet of junk food and pop filled out his short frame. I could taste the salt, the rancid oil, and his sweat as he wrapped his arms around me and placed his fat lips on mine. I loved that he was a forklift driver at the potato chip factory. A union forklift driver. It was so authentic, so unlike my prissy legal secretary job in the Sears Tower.

Him: Hey, Papi.

Me: Butter in a hot skillet.

In the beginning, I lapped up his smell—pure South Side—and I’d tell him to fuck me before he showered. He pulled away, embarrassed by the fact that he smelled of hard work, but I’d always get my way. I’d strip off his uniform and surrender to the fantasy that exists only in the minds of white middle-class gay men. Naked, he’d pummel away at my ass, shaking his head back and forth as he tried to delay his orgasm.

Oh, Papi! he’d scream as he tensed his muscles and lubricated my insides.

I was somebody’s Papi.

He lived with his mother in a brick bungalow in the East Side, a city neighborhood so far south it hugged the Indiana state line. He spent his Sundays with her at a floating casino, where the poor flushed their earnings into Lake Michigan. He smoked Newports and drove a blue Pontiac Sunfire with a massive dent on the passenger side. He’d bought the car new with money he’d won in an insurance settlement from yet another car accident. In Oscar’s world, lawsuits, like gambling, were a toehold to the middle class.

In the beginning, I thought we could bridge our class differences. I spoke Standard American English and was raised by parents who understood the power of reading and education. Oscar spoke a vernacular language, with muddled verb tenses and rough slang that would have felt unnatural in my own throat. He believed more in social capital than saving money and relied on a long list of friends he’d hit up for cash whenever one paycheck didn’t make it to the next.

After a few months, his conjugation, like his greasy scent, grated on my nerves. It was a constant reminder that our differences were tangible and irreconcilable. The class divide was real. I wanted to move forward in life. He wanted to keep it real.

Not that I left him.

Being desired by a tough from the wrong side of the tracks was too delicious a sensation to throw away. I may have considered myself a progressive Mexican-American, but I was no different from those despicable colonialist white boys who wanted to fuck an exotic trophy.


It’s midnight when I step off the bus at Western and Blue Island just a few blocks from home. The abandoned railroad viaduct casts a shadow onto the cracked asphalt and the corner of a Hennessey billboard flaps in the warm wind. June often brings strange weather to the Midwest. Just a few hours earlier, the moist air now embracing me collided with a cold front over Wisconsin, causing an outbreak of deadly tornados. There are no storms predicted for Chicago, but it feels like it could rain at any moment. My anxiety rattles as I move past the adult bookstore and walk down the alley away from these crossroads of post-industrial blight.

White people won’t come here after dark. The men who cruise the alleys are Mexican immigrants who don’t speak English. They work jobs I’d never do and live in too-small quarters in neighborhoods worse than mine. I crave sex with these men. They offer me something I need—a link to my Mexican identity. I’m not even Catholic, yet I view the act of taking their bodies into my mouth as a sort of Holy Communion. I may be imperfect yet they love me. I know their love is real because they flood my throat with their cum. I don’t believe in God, yet here I am, again surrendering to desire—the only higher power I know.

The alley is lit harshly to stave off perverts like me. I see him standing in a shadow under the eaves of a vinyl-sided garage. He’s attractive enough, but that doesn’t matter. As long as he fits the profile—dark eyes, black hair, nut-colored skin—I’ll suck his dick. I walk past him two times, returning his stare, but I don’t linger. On the third pass, he nods and mutters ¿Qué onda? We both know why we’re here, so I move into his shadow and lay my hand on the buckled crotch of his jeans. There’s no need for small talk or games.

¿Qué onda?

We kiss.

We grope.

We moan.

I drop to my knees and take his cock in my mouth.

The body of Christ. Amen.

When I’m especially anxious or horny, I set out sober from my apartment. Usually, though, I’ve numbed my senses with tequila and weed before stumbling downstairs to prowl for Mexican dick. Sometimes I drag my prey into my home. Sometimes I suck them off against an alley dumpster. Sometimes we fuck among the broken glass and cinder blocks of the abandoned factory across the street.

I should probably fear for my safety.

I never do.

It’s not about love. It’s not about desire. I’ll have sex with anyone—even the homeless. All that matters is that they speak to me in Spanish.


I lived in that apartment on Western Avenue for two years. I felt certain that living in a real Mexican neighborhood would help me find my true identity—the one I’d backshelved my entire life. Instead, I faced surging anxiety while pursuing a life of drinking, drugs, and risky sex with strangers. By the time I left, I didn’t feel particularly Mexican. I hadn’t even learned how to speak Spanish. Chupé tanta pinche verga, pero aún no podía hablar español.

 A year after I left Pilsen, I went to Toronto for a month-long teacher training course. I loved being out of Chicago and in a foreign metropolis, with new neighborhoods and immigrant enclaves to explore. One evening, I arranged to meet up with a guy I’d met online at a gay bar on Church Street. His name was Iksandr, and he was a Sudanese physicist who’d been in the city for a couple of years. As we drank our pints, Iksandr poured a small puddle of ale onto the table and began to explain the principles of fluid mechanics.

Look at the pattern of the splash, he said, still holding his glass. See the coronet? Tell me what you see when the droplet of beer hits the surface.

Aside from diving cannonballs into our backyard swimming pool as a kid, I’d never thought about splashes or drop impact, but his discussion held me rapt as I dabbed at the edge of the puddle with my index finger. He was intelligent and engaging—so unlike my unlettered boyfriend back in Chicago. Several pints later and our conversation paused when we brought our faces together to chew on each other’s hoppy lips.

Arm in unsteady arm, we left the bar and were making our way to College Street when his cell phone rang.

Walaykom alsalam, he answered. He spoke quickly in Arabic—a series of raspy consonants and glottal stops.

When he finished his call, Iksandr apologized, explaining, That was my brother. He wanted to know where I am.

What do you mean? I asked.

I honestly didn’t get it. Here was a grown man living in Canada, choosing to report his whereabouts to his older brother. He saw that I found this confusing and a bit unsettling.

This is Canada! You can do whatever you want here!

You don’t understand, he told me. You can take a man out of Sudan and put him in liberal Canada, but he does not stop being Sudanese. You inhabit a different city than I do. When I go home to the apartment I share here with my brother and mother, I am not in Toronto—I am in Khartoum. Our identities are not as fluid as you think.

Our identities are not as fluid as you think.

His words have stuck with me to this day.

As for my old apartment on Western, it was destroyed in an electrical fire just a couple of months after I’d moved out. Faulty renovation. My past erased. I was free to try and reinvent myself once again.


Todd Gastelum writes memoir and nonfiction that explores place, ethnicity, sexuality, social class and mental health. He was a 2015 Lambda Literary fellow in nonfiction and has published essays in LuminaThe James Franco Review, and Emerge: 2015 Lambda Literary Anthology. He lives and works in Mexico City, where you can usually find him walking the streets and dodging traffic, in his kitchen, or making comics.

Book Review: Kendra Tanacea’s “A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees”

BY: Catherine M. Darby

A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees by Kendra Tanacea is a haunting first collection of poems released this year by Lost Horse Press. Tanacea is a master of the moment—not straight-on moments, but rather, ones full of visuals and emotions that transport the reader into Tanacea’s world. In this world, the reader becomes a lover, beloved, betrayed, friend, child, and want-to-be-mother, all while ruminating about life and the fullness it can offer.

Her poems intelligently meander on corners of braided rugs and peep through keyholes to see what life is beyond that usual existence of life, her words intoning the mysteries and science of the universe.

In “Keyhole,” the narrator looks through the keyhole of a locked door, straining to see “what is out of sight.” The words deliver full sensory experiences of an ever-widening life:

There is the scent of man, of woman, of cedar.
The eye shifts, straining in its socket.
French doors open onto a veranda
overlooking an ivy-walled garden.
The round moon is rising, giant and yellow.
Star jasmine, star jasmine!
An eye can see far beyond
its scope: solar systems, galaxies,
the Milky Way’s skid of stars.
All atoms, revolving around one another.

In many of her poems, such as, “Perspective,” “A Strange Explosion in Scorpio,” Tanacea evokes celestial and astronomical phenomena, as if looking through a telescopic eyepiece; but she brings the reader light years closer to her concentrated images by connecting the intimate and infinite space while life is lived passionately through her language.

The temporality of life is another aspect of her poems. In “The Past: A Working Hypothesis,” the narrator wrestles with this concept and the weight of analyzing life and decides not to return to the past:

Getting to the bottom of things assumes a bottom.
Just getting to the heart of things assumes its fixed position.

The narrator has discarded “shovel” and “trowel,” as she is not “even sure where the heart is located anymore.” She has decided not to go back to places

where my heart expanded
and the places where it staggered.

Because distance is always divided in half, you get closer
and closer to the threshold, but ultimately, never reach it.

And I’m not going back means circling overhead,
some say like a bird, but I say like a Blue Angel.
There are high speed loops and sophisticated stunts.
And no purpose or mission whatsoever.
Just white circles temporarily scraped in the air.

The simile of the temporary contrail depicts an aimlessness as “scrap[ing]” one’s way through life for meaning.

Another aspect Tanacea expresses in her poems is the tension of energy and love, like in “Photosensitive” or “Instructions from the Sun.” In the latter poem, it is the winter sun’s “slant-light” warmth, not a direct summer heat that the narrator expresses. Although the lover’s time is waning, there is still heat and muscle memory that seem to extend far beyond the human body:

          but remember the eclipse?
We stood facing each other,

 on that narrow path of totality, a new moon
          between us. Even then my corona

 streamed. And my returning flash, a perfect diamond.
            But who knows how long we can

 withstand the forces of this love?
           Some say it’s my death, but even then,

 stay with me, an exploding supernova.
         So bright, momentarily outshining

 the galaxy. Then, no light, just the pull
          of gravity. Still recognize me?

 Spiral in, my companion star.

Yet, there is poetry of the earth, of dirt, of death. In “Thunderstorm,” the narrator surmises before she dies that

After the rain,
everything rises: rocks are bared, seeds
visible. Snails stretch their necks,
are bold enough to cross
my path. The grass is vibrating,
birds feast on named worms. Everything
just under the surface, now exposed.

A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees
delivers poetry of heat, of flame, both scorching and freezing, of life, full and wanting, as in the promised title. Tanacea’s poems release emotional tension, exposes the hidden, explores what is forbidden and what will be remembered after the last page is read.

the wild tiger lilies are opening,

Tangled in the forsythia,
          just where the woods begin.

Kendra Tanacea is an attorney in San Francisco, holds a BA in English from Wellesley College and an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees was a semifinalist for the Washington Prize for Poetry. Kendra’s poems have appeared in 5AM, Rattle, Moon City Review, The Coachella Review, Stickman Review, and Juked, among others. Visit her online at

Catherine Darby holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert. Her work has been published in The Muse Strikes Back: A Poetic Response by Women to Men, The Temple, The Long Island Quarterly, The Sniper, The Salmon, San Diego Writers Ink Anthology, and 5×7: A New York Anthology. A Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference participant and an Italian-American Foundation grant recipient, she was an editor for Vox Populi Anthology/Seattle Poetry Festival and poetry editor for The Coachella Review. Darby, a freelance writer, and gallery owner, lives in San Diego.



Book Review: Alice Anderson’s “Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away”

By: Kaia Gallagher

In Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, Alice Anderson proves she is a survivor no matter what life throws at her. Her memoir recounts a decade-long battle to protect her three children from a vengeful, violence-prone ex-husband. The courts provide little help, encouraging family reunification rather than assuring the safety of an abused spouse.

Anderson is no stranger to hardship. Early in her writing career, she recounted her determination to overcome her father’s sexual abuse in an award-winning book of poetry. Human Nature is a harrowing description of a young girl’s fight for a future despite a childhood filled with incest and violence. It won the 1994 Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers.

Despite her early success as a poet and international fashion model, Anderson is haunted by her past: “Something about [being a model] made me feel used up, consumed, like I was the little girl my father gobbled up all over again, his sexual abuse consuming in a drunken, hungry rage all the best parts of me until I was nothing, but a pretty, performing doll.” She becomes ripe for a relationship with Liam, her ex-husband whom she sees as someone trying equally hard to escape his family demons. Her spiral down into acquiescence is gradual, with an ever-tightening noose that threatens to erase not only Anderson’s very identity but also her life.

After a courageous escape, Anderson finds that the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina mirrors the displacement and chaos in her own demolished life. She hopes for protection from the Mississippi Family Court only to discover that if she reports her husband’s violence to the police, her children will automatically be placed in foster care. Her husband warns her, “If you leave, I’ll have you good ol’ boy’d right out of Mississippi so fast you won’t know if you should scratch your watch or wind your ass.” More ominously, he assures her he will kill her without a second thought.

Despite evidence of her husband’s attempt to strangle her and a psychologist’s assessment of his predilection for violence, the court continues to allow her husband visitation rights. It’s a grueling story as the court battles never cease and the threat that Anderson might lose her children is ever present. Victims of spousal abuse will recognize the familiar themes of domination and control; the linkages between mental illness, alcoholism, and violence; and the difficulty abused women have in enforcing protective orders and protecting their rights.

The personal cost of the struggle is high. Anderson second-guesses her lifestyle choices relative to how they might be perceived by the courts. She wants to fly away, but through it all, her desire to protect her children keeps her determined to fight, “In some ways, I gave up on life. I certainly gave up on the idea of love. I felt like I’d come so close to the edge so many times I couldn’t take that risk again. Every time I tried to have a little something extra, things went terribly wrong. So, I finally accepted that custody of my children was perhaps the only thing I got. And that was enough.”

It’s a cautionary tale of the emotional and legal costs of battling a relentless spouse who is more determined to seek full custody of his children for revenge rather than any fathering instincts of his own. Anderson shows what it takes to rise above it all, despite the odds, despite the discouragement, living with her scars and getting better each day.

Her prose is lyrical, written with a poet’s sensibility as she writes a story she hopes might be an inspiration for other families experiencing the same type of struggle, “I imagined somewhere in the endless crowd there was someone just like me, who carried the ghost of fingerprints around their neck. Somewhere was a mother who’d taken her children and run. Somewhere was a trio of siblings who knew what cruelty meant. Somewhere was a family who’d lost it all.” Through this survivor’s story, Anderson demonstrates the grit that helped her rise above it all and live again. In the end, her memoir is an inspiring tale of determination by a mother whose three children become more important than her own life.

Rubber On Wheels

by jim kelly

Side by side at a stoplight, engines revving, roaring. “Teach them a lesson?” Fat Leonard shouts. My big brother, riding shotgun, nods. Turning, he hollers for me to “hold on.” Fourteen, drunk, I have nothing to hold on to. Below me, cement, the floor having long since rusted out, fallen away. For safety’s sake my feet rest on a single, hopping-around piece of jammed-in two-by-four. Junker with a crap paint job, a scrounged joke of a thing with a monster engine dropped in. Engine with more power than this stripped down, rattly ass car was ever meant to handle. Beside us a shiny new, daddy-bought, big engine Buick. Front seat and back, it’s full up with shouting guys. Pointing at us, laughing, calling names.

It’s summer 1964 and the muscle car is king, faster the better. Late nights in a shut down Shell station. The one Fat Leonard runs. His call when to quit pumping gas, close down, then open up for his friends to work on cars. Allowed, if I keep shut, I watch, all eyes, all ears, as my brother and his buddies turn junkyard finds into hotrods. Dross into dreams. A tiny, greasy front radio with a single, broke-tip antennae plays and quits, plays and quits. Somebody shakes it. Somebody punches it. Off and on rock and roll, at no set intervals, all night long. Ragged bits and howling, truncated pieces. Blue air thick, molten at the top of the tire racks from all those cigarettes, one after another. Drained, stomped flat beer cans kicked out of the way, piling up.

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by jane katims

I find myself on 44th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, in front of a gallery displaying award-winning photographs by students.   I shade my eyes with my hand and peer through the window of the gallery — inside, a reception party is in progress, glasses of wine poured and passed around, animated conversation, laughter.  A tempting sight, but I prefer to look in on it from the outside, prefer to be free to move away, to feel the spring air, and to let my own thoughts encircle me.  For a moment, I stand on the corner, observing life on the street.

I wander down 44th.  At the entrance of the Algonquin Hotel, a doorman nods, opens the glass doors for me.  In the hotel’s large lobby-lounge, a woman with a beaded black jacket with sequins around the collar sits on a couch.  Her legs are crossed, she holds a yellow iced drink.  A man with a martini sits close to the woman, his arm around her.

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