Category: Blog (Page 1 of 28)

TCR Talks With Ephraim Scott Sommers

by Leni Leanne Phillips

My friend Linnette and I stopped in at a local brewing company for lunch a while back. While we waited to be seated, we perused a wall of live music posters from the venue’s earlier days. One of the posters was from Siko’s Paint the Town tour a dozen years ago—the first and last national tour of a popular local band featuring frontman Ephraim Scott Sommers.

“Whatever happened to them?” Linnette asked me. “They were really good. I always thought they’d make it big.”

“The lead singer got a Ph.D. in English,” I told her. “He’s a writer and a professor at a university.”

“Hunh,” Linnette said. “I guess that’s another way to go.”

Ephraim Scott Sommers, author of Someone You Love is Still Alive

Today, Ephraim Scott Sommers is not only a creative writing professor, but a poet, a singer-songwriter, and the author of two books of poetry, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (Tebot Bach Press 2017)[1], winner of the Patricia Bibby First Book Award, and Someone You Love is Still Alive (Jacar Press 2019)[2], winner of the 2019 Jacar Press Full-Length Poetry Book Contest. He’s also written a memoir, We Kneel at the Church of Each Other, which he is currently submitting for publication.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ephraim Scott Sommers and to get his thoughts about life after Siko, the differences between writing poetry and writing music, and creating a life in the arts.

The Coachella Review: You have a new book of poetry out, Someone You Love is Still Alive. Your first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, has strong themes of growing up, the places we grow up, the disillusionment of growing up. How is this new book the same or different?

Ephraim Scott Sommers: In the first book, the poem “Shotgun Christmas” begins with the line, “If you don’t believe in heaven, / what then is holy?” I think that first book felt almost like a catalogue of damages that I’d been through growing up in a small, violent farm town in California. And many of those poems are trying to search for something to hold onto and make meaning out of despite all of that wreckage. The first book explores the meaning of that question but never really answers it definitively. The second book, in my opinion, is more hopeful because I land on this ultimate discovery: no matter how shitty the world is or has been or will be, someone you love is still alive (your lover), and you better lean into that love because that’s the ultimate source of meaning and joy in your life. I also like to think of the first book as looking at the past and the second book as looking at the present.

TCR: Describe a typical day for you. Do you have a daily or regular writing practice?

ESS: I’m currently teaching fully online at my university, so this means that I work from home all day, and though I’m grateful for the opportunity to remain out of the reach of COVID-19, this does present challenges. Most of those challenges, for me, are mental, so I have to get out of the house and exercise (biking or jogging) for at least ninety minutes every day, or I’ll go insane. I wake fairly early, work on grading/teaching until about 2 p.m. Then I try to play guitar and write for about two hours. Then I get my exercise, come home, cook dinner, and try to turn off my mind. I consider myself lucky in that my occupation feeds into my art. The students in my classes influence me with new ideas all of the time.

TCR: That segues into my next question. How do the people you surround yourself with make you a better writer?

ESS: As a musician and a writer, it’s always helped me to try and get in a room with people who are vastly better than me, because they can teach me so much more than I’m capable of teaching myself. That’s why a writing workshop and an MFA program is such a hot commodity, because you get a professional writer facilitating the group, and you get to bounce your work off of several other sets of eyes and ears. During my own education, I usually found one or two people in every workshop that I felt were really good critically. And that is something that is so hard to find. In a classroom full of opinions, I’d always try to pay attention to those few people who I could tell weren’t trying to make the poem I’d given them into their own but were instead trying to help me achieve my own vision.

TCR: Now that you’re no longer a student, how do you replicate that?

 ESS: Obviously, after graduation, you can’t always take those people with you because life happens. The place I tried to get to is where the voices of your best editors are having a workshop in your head when you set out to edit. You can hear them making those critiques. You might have one focused more on the level of line and language. You might have another who is really great with narrative. The more experts you can work with, the more you can kind of eat their critical style and use it for your own. Now, though, in 2020, the thing is, I don’t really hang out with other writers, and I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about that. Of course, it helps to be able to talk with other people about writing, but I’m also a rugged individual when it comes to art making. I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I don’t want ever to be in a place where I feel like I’m falling prey to any kind of group think or writing about some subject in a certain way because it’s in fashion or being published. I grew up around musicians and blue-collar people, so I’ve always felt a bit like a fish out of water in academia. No artist gets to decide where they come from, but I’m grateful for all of the people who aren’t artists that are my friends, because each of them has an interesting story to tell and each of them can make me laugh. I’m grateful for academia, but it can get insular and snobby when it’s at its worst, and that’s always made me uncomfortable. I say I don’t hang out with other writers, but the thing is, I hang out with writers all the time through their work, and at the end of the day, what you need is a really good library, time to write, and the drive to continue to make art even if you know it’s not going to make you a bunch of money. Community is great and much needed, but you also have to get your ass in the chair and write and write and write. That’s the hardest part.

TCR: What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to live a life in the arts?

ESS: The best advice I can give is to treat every single other artist (in every single genre and medium) in the world as a part of your community. Find something to learn about every single piece of art you come into contact with, every performance. Support other artists. If you love their work, praise them. Build a community of artists in your hometown and cultivate it. It’s much more fun to celebrate the successes of your contemporaries than it is to get angry. I like to view art as a party where everyone is invited. It’s a waste of time to get jealous or to covet someone else’s artistic achievements. The true artist is only ever in competition with themself.

TCR: You’re a musician, too, and a singer-songwriter. How is writing a poem different from writing a song, and how is it the same?

ESS: The major difference between songwriting and poem writing is that there are many more aspects at play in a song than there are in a poem. I have to think about feel, rhythm, chord changes, and structure before I ever even think about lyrics. Then I have to think about the vocal melody over the basic song structure I’ve begun to whittle out, and it’s then that I begin to think about the lyrics. If it were a poem, I could just sit down and begin to write, but a song requires me to navigate much more information at the same time. There are just more balls in the air by nature of that medium.

TCR: When you get an idea, how do you know whether it will be a poem or a song?

ESS: I’m a writer of momentum, so I like to give myself absolutely day after day to whatever larger project I’m working on. Any stray ideas, any stray thoughts, any reading, any craft books or interviews or videos, all of my creative thinking on my long walks and bike rides is working toward the completion of this larger project. I’m currently working on my second solo album, so that means I’m working at the craft of songwriting five days a week. This is a monumentally difficult process, but what I love about throwing yourself absolutely and totally toward a larger project is that you start to butt up against your own limitations, your own tendencies, and it can allow you to take corrective measures to begin to fix your weaknesses (as a writer we might call these tics), because when you’re at it day after day, you become better able to recognize them.

TCR: Favorite dead poet?

ESS: It would be a tossup between Whitman, Larry Levis, and Philip Levine.

TCR: I’ve wanted to ask a songwriter this question for a long time, and to be able to ask a songwriter who is also a poet and a literature professor is even better. In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his songwriting, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Some writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, thought it was appropriate. Oates said Dylan was an “inspired [and] original choice. [H]is haunting music [and] lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, ‘literary.’” Others weren’t feeling it. Novelist Jodi Picoult asked whether this meant she could win a Grammy now. Do you have any thoughts about this?

ESS: To those who were upset with Dylan as the choice for the Nobel, I would say this: I dare you to find a living contemporary writer whose influence is more wide-reaching than Dylan’s on American and International Culture. I love literature, and I love to protect good art, but people getting upset about Dylan sounded kind of petty and jealous to me. Dylan is such a titan and so inculcated into our everyday lives that it would be nearly impossible for you to be an adult and to never have heard one of his songs or his lyrics (even if covered or recited by someone else). His work in traditional forms is astounding. His ability to change stylistically over decades is never before seen. His complete body of work is voluminous. His understanding of how literature and music have intertwined historically is brilliant. And he is still making new music! I think Dylan knows, too, that as creators, we should always be leery of awards and prizes anyway. Instead, we should all just keep throwing ourselves more deeply into art making. Again, in my opinion, getting upset or jealous about prizes and awards is a waste of time and effort that could be better spent making better art.

TCR: You were the lead singer for Siko, one of the most popular bands on California’s Central Coast, when you were still in high school and throughout your undergraduate years. You’re a talented musician and singer. Your band toured nationally. What was that like creatively?

ESS: Thanks so much for your kind words about Siko! Playing original music in a band is one of the most unique creative experiences I’ve ever been a part of. As a writer, imagine how hard it is to just to finish a story you’re working on, or a poem, or an essay all by yourself. Then imagine that you’re writing that story or poem or essay with three other people collaboratively, each with equal say but with a little bit different taste and tendency. It’s difficult, of course, but it’s also much more rewarding to create something new with your friends, to see people dancing and having a good time to that new thing, and then to take that on the road to new places and new cities. We were together for eight years, and to see that thing we’d built grow over time, to watch it improve each of us as musicians and as recording artists, was awesome. I learned so much about art-making, about the value of community in artistic communities, and about the business side of art-making from that experience.

TCR: You could have gone a different way, a way that some might consider more tempting insofar as fame and fortune. But at some point, although music is still a huge part of your life, you decided to pursue an education and a career focused on writing. How did you come to the decision to pursue writing as a career versus pursuing music as a career?

ESS: I’ve noticed that, sooner or later, if you’re trying to make art into a living or into a business, you will run up against what I call “the gap.” In music, there is this absolutely gigantic gap between the types of bands who play regionally and who might do some occasional touring and the bands who are actually making a living out of playing music (and do not have to work other jobs). You might also call it a recording contract or major label support, but that gap in music for me seemed insurmountable at the time, in 2008, and I realized that I needed a backup plan. I’d always loved writing, and I thought that if I got my MFA degree in poetry at San Diego State University, it would allow me the ability to teach when I got out, and it would also help me get better at songwriting. While at grad school, I continued to play shows with Siko, I recorded a solo album, and I moved back to San Luis Obispo in 2011 after graduation, but for all sorts of life reasons, the band didn’t play much after that. I felt that I could work hard enough to be successful in the field of poetry if I was willing to sacrifice comfort, so I moved to Kalamazoo in 2012 to get my Ph.D., not knowing a single person in all of Michigan. At the end of the day, I don’t think fame and fortune in music was ever on the table for me, and when I thought about it realistically, I wanted to find a career that would allow me some financial security while still allowing me the time and space and support to pursue my creative interests. Being a creative writing professor offered me that opportunity, and it’s only now, after all this time, after having published two books of poems and gotten a job that I love doing, that I’m trying to put enough songs together for another solo album and starting to put together a band. I’m excited to begin that process again. I like the process. I like throwing myself into the work.

TCR: What are you listening to these days?

ESS: I’ll list a few musicians who’ve had a really profound influence on me recently: Tyler Childers, Lake Street Dive, Morgan Wade, the Marcus King Band, Phoebe Bridgers, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson.

TCR: What are you working on now?

ESS: I finished a memoir (We Kneel at the Church of Each Other) and have been submitting that for publication to presses and prizes with no word back yet. Also, I hope to have a new album written and hopefully recorded by next summer.

TCR: Any last words you’d like to share with our readers?

ESS: I’ve gone the last four weeks without social media of any kind (other than Facebook Messenger for music booking), and I recommend a social media cleanse, especially if you’re into making art. I’m surprised at the way [social media] had kind of altered my thinking about things, how it found its way into my dreams, and the ways in which it could deeply affect my personal emotional life. I feel much better so far without it. I hope you will too! Other than that, thanks so much for reading!

You can keep up with Ephraim Scott Sommers at his website:

Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at

Book Review: The Blue Ticket

by Ioannis Argiris

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh is set in an alternate reality where teenage girls are sent to a lottery building to receive a white or a blue ticket. If the ticket is white, the girl is destined to marry and have babies. If the ticket is blue, the girl has an IUD installed, and she is not allowed to have babies. Instead, blue ticket women are free to live their lives, becoming independent.

We lined up, waiting to pull our tickets from the machine, the way you would take your number at the butcher’s counter. The music popular that year played from speakers on the ceiling. Just gravity enough. Just ceremony enough. Not necessarily such an important thing, after all.

Blue Ticket is about free will versus societal control. The idea of tradition versus progress in ideals and values is at the heart of the story, and at times it will have you rooting for and against the protagonist.

We meet Calla, a blue ticket woman who can work whatever job she wants, be with whomever she pleases, and is free to live whatever lifestyle she chooses. But Calla is curious about and wants something she cannot have—a baby. We see her struggle to grasp her identity as a blue ticket woman, yet we hope that she can break through at times to grow.

I saw this sort of woman everywhere once I started to look. I had counted myself among their number, and then one day they seemed like secret agents out to seed the word of independence, of pleasure-seeking and fulfilment. Isn’t this good, they said from beneath the canopies of nightclub smoking areas, from tables where they sat alone, from cars and train carriages and beds, some in elegant suits or other uniforms to show their importance. They made impressive things and spent their time on worthwhile pursuits and I had been one of them, and the togetherness had sometimes felt like being one of a flock of lovely birds pushing through the hot space of the sky, and it was good, that was the thing, it was really so good, but now there was something happening to me, and I found I had little control over it.

Doctors are assigned to neighborhoods to ensure that both white and blue ticket women are staying on course per society’s rules. Calla confesses to Doctor A that she is restless and that nothing and no one seems to fulfill her in the life she’s been given. She later meets R at a bar, a man who takes interest in her, but who also sleeps with other blue ticket women. Calla dreams of settling down with R and being his white ticket woman, having a baby, and seeing him push a pram with their newborn. Calla removes her IUD, continues to sleep with R, and eventually gets pregnant. Calla asks R if he ever wants to be a father, and he dodges the question. She confesses to Doctor A that babies have a power over her. That the first time she saw a baby, she had to run to the nearest private space and hold in a howl until it subsided. She questions: What makes a mother? A father? What was she lacking? She compares herself to a baby—“all sensation, no discipline. A broken engine thrumming with need.”

After she breaks the news to R, he accuses her of scheming and asks why? Calla says he wouldn’t understand, but R counters with, “‘[Y]ou have an emotional disease.’” Devastated by R’s reaction, Calla seeks help from Doctor A to discuss what’s happened. The idea of having a want that goes against society’s structure can be hard to process, but we all face similar decisions in life—whether you want to marry outside of your religion, or fall in love with someone of the same gender, or leave family to travel across many lands to pursue a career. What Sophie Mackintosh shows us in Blue Ticket is the strength of someone who is willing to die to fight for what they really believe in—a commitment tied to values that don’t align with everyone else around Calla.

Doctor A performs an ultrasound and informs Calla that she’ll be reported. It’s unclear what happens to blue ticket women who do get pregnant. Calla is on edge, all alone in her house waiting for the worst to happen. And this mystery creates a tension throughout the novel—on every next page you fear Calla might get caught. The next morning, an emissary drops by Calla’s house to provide her with gear—a tent, a gun, and a map—a signal that she must leave society.

Alone on the road, we see Calla balance survival between two worlds. Her old life draws her into bars only to be found out as pregnant and stigmatized for it. She runs into a young teen who just received her blue ticket and who asks Calla for help. Calla, seeing her younger self, gives the teen her car and sets off on foot into the forest. Calla’s journey continues on the road, along the coast, and finally at a border crossing—as reflected in the book’s sections. Calla is in full blown survivalist mode up against the raw terrains Mackintosh dreams up and continues to be tested for the fate she’s chosen. The tension rises when we learn that Calla has been given no prior knowledge about the transformation the body undergoes during pregnancy and finds both comfort and disdain as it happens. At the border, she’s visited by people from her past and has to make hard decisions to live. The novel’s tone can be lonely and cold, primarily because it’s about enduring in a society structured against the protagonist. However, what the author delivers is the hard reality of what it feels like for women to be given predetermined roles they must play in society. The author challenges us to think about whether we really are in control of our lives.

Sophie Mackintosh’s first novel, The Water Cure, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel. You can find him online on both Twitter and Instagram.


By Paulla Rich Estes

Unlatching Dinah’s red leash, I follow her along the chain-link fence that wraps a rectangle around acres of yuccas, piñons, and patches of pale grass rooted in sand. Dinah sniffs a spot where flora has been cleared to create a path and her canine brain logs previous visitors that stopped to pee here, here, and here. A frigid April wind ripples off New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains and I zip up my jacket to my chin. Tears sting my eyes because of the horizon I can see no matter which way I turn. It’s why I came all the way out here from Maine. So I could see.

Dinah cries out and I spin around.

Several feet off the path, she’s crouched in the grass. A low-grade alarm tightens my sternum as she stumbles toward me, buckles, and falls. A snake bite? I rush to her and drop to my knees. She struggles to stand, yelps in pain, and collapses with panicked eyes I’ve only seen during summer thunderstorms back home.

“Stay,” I say. She bites at a front paw, then the other, and noses the back ones. Her toes are covered in cactus spines, each protruding about a half inch. Some are deeper. All four paws look like pin cushions.

I hold her still and try to think. The car is a three-minute walk. I could try to carry her, but she’s a squirmy, sixty-five pound German shepherd, not used to being held. I’d probably drop her.

“It’s okay,” I say, rubbing her soft ears. “Good girl, you’re alright.”

How could I let this happen? We’re at this ridiculous dog park thousands of miles from home because of me. A year ago, I’d have squeezed my eyes shut and asked for supernatural help, and if a modicum of things had gone my way, I’d have chalked it up to answered prayer.


This trip out west began with a phone call New Year’s Day. My daughter Molly had found a job east of Los Angeles and needed her car—an old Volkswagen parked in my Maine garage. I’d recently blinked awake after decades of clinging to religious dogma. Sessions with a therapist helped me see how fear and a glaring lack of self-confidence imprisoned me in beliefs I no longer subscribed to. In a flustered grab for a rewind, I left my church and church-related job and lost my community in the process. Then I got this dog I can barely manage.

All the changes made me want to run. I’d grown up in Colorado and later took my children to visit the mountains and deserts of the Southwest, only to have all three of them migrate there as young adults. Maybe leaving Maine for a while would cure my angst.

Dinah and the author, Paulla Estes, at home in the Maine woods.

It’s a Tuesday morning and hardly anyone is here. Gravel digging into my blue-jeaned knees, I lean across Dinah’s midsection to pin her down and inspect her front feet. Her paw pads are hard and sand-papery, the cactus spines buried deep and close together. It’s hard to get a grip. With a needle tight between finger and thumb, I pull, but she thrashes and yelps. I lose my grip and she flails.

“Dinah, no!” I use my scariest voice. “Stay.” I lean harder, grab another cactus spine and try to wrench it out. She whips her head around and grabs my hand in her teeth. She doesn’t bear down but it’s a warning. “No!” I yell and stare her down. My dad calls it the dog-eye. I feel mean, but she’s got to hold still.


I told my therapist about my impulse to run west and she asked, “How is Colorado so different from Maine?” I wanted to roll my eyes, but I played nice. Do unto others and all.

“For one, the climate,” I said. “It’s dry. And the mountains are bigger and there aren’t any bugs. Not like the bugs in Maine.”

“I understand.” She shifted in her seat. “But don’t you think the things that are bothering you here will be out there too?”

I sighed and looked away.

Then Molly phoned again from the California coast. “Bring Dinah,” she said, as fat snowflakes floated onto my Maine backyard. “Stay a couple of months, what’s stopping you?”

My pulse quickened. It was impractical. But everything had changed. And the dark winter days felt depressing. I called Molly back. “Tell me again why I should go to California.”

Her voice grinned across the miles.

The Volkswagen crunched down my icy driveway on a frozen February morning. Dinah rode shotgun through sixteen states as two hundred thousand miles crept up on the odometer. I didn’t know our final destination; I only knew what I was leaving.


The cactus spines are thick. I think I have tweezers in the car, but they might as well be miles away. An older man power walks toward us. His boxer mix flares its nostrils and the man shoots a sympathetic glance, but his elbows continue to propel him down the path. Not far behind, a woman and a teenaged boy walk a furry black Chow. The woman lifts her sunglasses and frowns.

“Oh no,” she says. “Wish I could help, but …” She flicks her thumb at the boy. “He has an appointment.”

“We’ll be alright,” I say.

But I don’t believe it. I can’t hold Dinah still and pull out cactus needles at the same time. I need more hands. I rest my head on Dinah’s soft black fur and groan. She smells of warm sunshine, pine needles, and sage. She rolls her eyes up at me, impatient to get back to exploring. This feels impossible. What the hell am I doing out here? My family is far away, as are the few friends I’ve held onto. And God?

I don’t even know anymore.


My exit from religion wasn’t cavalier. Long ago, I’d been educated to be a thinker, an analyzer. But a pregnancy at nineteen, a controlling mother, and later an unhappy marriage, stunted my belief that I knew anything. A move to the Maine woods left me isolated at home with three small children, but I found solace and belonging under a white steeple. I taught Sunday school, led Bible studies, and worked at a pro-life pregnancy center. But deep in a hidden corner of my brain, I knew I’d sold my soul out of fear.


Breathing deep, I concentrate on the training I learned with Dinah while I extracted myself from the church. I grab her front paw, feigning confidence she needs to sense. My fingers are numb from the cold, but I pull out thorns one at a time, sometimes two. Several are stuck in the tender clefts between her toes, and when I yank them, she yelps and growls. I pretend I’m not afraid of her teeth.

Dinah is way more dog than my last shepherd. Pushy, growly, dominant. At first, it was hilarious, this sassy puppy strutting around my house with brazen confidence. But she lunged at cars. Once, with the leash wrapped around my arm, she nearly dislocated my shoulder. So I hired a trainer and watched the Dog Whisperer.

“Be the alpha,” the trainer said. “Show Dinah who’s in charge.” But I’d never stood up to anyone.

“So fake it,” she said.

That I could do. Dinah responded, but I felt she could see through my weak façade. And honestly, I found unexpected joy in her naughtiness. My last dog was obedient to a fault, but Dinah was wild and unpredictable, and it spoke to the hidden rebel inside me. She ran after deer, squirrels, and foxes in the woods. She ignored me when I told her not to chase my cat, but that cat had always been a little neurotic. Maybe he needed to lighten up.

Now at a year and a half, Dinah is hardly civilized. I continue plucking cactus spines with my stern, commanding voice. I don’t know if she’s threatening me or just asking me to stop with the only means she has—her cries and her teeth. But I can’t. We both have to get through this.


Driving west from Maine, we stayed with friends in Tennessee and Colorado and with my son and his wife in Phoenix. Dinah was a model co-pilot. In Southern California, Molly ran her past No Dogs Allowed signs on the beach. At every cheap motel and sketchy dog park, Dinah’s tongue hung out, jaw squishing up and down on her tennis ball. She didn’t know where we were and didn’t care. She jumped in the car, jumped out of the car, and by God, chased the ball anywhere I threw it. I considered staying in Arizona or Colorado permanently.


The minutes crawl and Dinah flinches and cries with every tug. Tears tighten my throat. Am I making any progress? A thought flashes and I wonder if this is my punishment for leaving Maine in the first place—punishment from the vengeful God I’m pretty sure I no longer believe in.

I finish one paw, I think. Many of the barbs are tiny as hairs. As I pick up the other front paw, I see a tall woman walking five or six Chihuahuas. I don’t look up. No more fake pleasantries. But she hovers, kneeling beside me. I smell her flowery perfume before I look up at her.

“Stay,” she tells the Chihuahuas over her shoulder. Miraculously, they sit on the sand, multicolored leashes lying loose, each pink tongue curled in a pant. “You need some help, honey?” Her voice is low and gravelly.

I don’t know if I answer or just blink at her desperately. She grabs Dinah around the hips and puts an arm across her middle.

“I’ll hold her, you do your thing.” She gives me a self-assured nod.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice her long blond hair and fuchsia lipstick. I sense something unusual about her, but I’m too focused on Dinah to place it. She oozes confidence and calm, two things I’m in need of. Dinah’s as surprised as I am. She looks up at the woman and then back at my fingers on her paw.

“Stay,” I say again and give her the dog-eye. The woman coos in a throaty voice. She calls Dinah a good girl and me a good mom. Later I’ll think of the potential danger. Dinah could have bitten her. Our vet would’ve used a muzzle.

I finish the second front paw and we shift. As I move, Dinah kicks out her back legs to get up, but I press against her and order her to stay. Wordlessly, the woman moves to Dinah’s front end, the end with the teeth.

The back feet are worse, spines buried deeper. Dinah doesn’t yelp as loudly; now her sounds are high-pitched, watery cries with each extraction. The wind whips and I push my hair behind an ear as I grip the second back paw. I continue to grab and yank. The tips of my fingers hurt but my new savior holds Dinah and doesn’t flinch.

Dinah at the Dog Park in New Mexico

I knew better. The desert with its Christmas cactus, varieties of prickly pear, and the multi-armed, cartoonish chollas that drop their dry, spiny tubercles to reproduce. More species than I can count. Inside the false safety of the dog park, I figured there wouldn’t be any low-lying cactus plants. I’m pretty sure the spines I’m pulling out of Dinah are prickly pear, but either way, I knew better. This southwestern chunk of the country from Denver to the Pacific is full of barbed plants and venomous creatures that bite or pierce or stab.

Pulling out the last needle, I run my fingers over each paw, in between toes, and over Dinah’s soft black lips where she bit a few out of her feet.

I think they’re all gone.

The woman brushes herself off, picks up the red leash, and latches it to Dinah’s collar. Dinah stands, shakes, then sits to lick at her sore feet. I stand too, a little dizzy, and take the leash when the woman offers it.

“You alright, Mom?” She flashes a big, toothy smile.

“Who are you? My guardian angel?”

She laughs. “No, just a gal who loves dogs.”

She’s taller than my five feet ten inches. A little older too, maybe mid-fifties. Her hair hangs in wind-defying curls halfway down her back and it’s held with a pink scarf. She takes off her sunglasses as we chat and blinks clumped mascara over pale blue eyes. Then I notice her Adam’s apple.

Oh! She’s a transwoman. I feel so ignorant—is that the correct terminology? In my old church, anyone who diverged from traditional gender roles was lumped into The Gays. If someone wasn’t clearly cisgender and straight, everyone assumed they dabbled in unspeakable deviance. I knew of churches that subjected LGBTQ people to violence and emotional cruelty masquerading as rehabilitation and therapy.

A residue of hard-taught homophobia that came from years of nodding along to sermons like it was my job lingers inside me. I want to claw it out with my fingernails. Thanks to logic and my newly deconstructed faith, I know better. But paradigms don’t topple easily. This woman’s kindness and generosity is like a gentle shake, as though someone has me by the shoulders.

She’s smiling. Can she read my thoughts?

“I’m an idiot.” I look down at Dinah.

“Oh honey,” she says. “You couldn’t have known.”

I babble about how I’m from out of town, how I’ve come a long way and have a long way to go. Boy, if she only knew.

“Do you think I got them all?” I swallow down tears. If she notices, I hope she’ll think I’m teary-eyed about Dinah.

She looks at Dinah licking her paws and presses her lips together. “She’ll probably lick her feet for a while. If she’s still at it tomorrow, maybe get her checked out.”

I nod. “I guess I’ll just watch her.”

“Yeah girl, you keep going.” She winks. “You’ve got this.”

Still dazed, I thank her as one by one she picks up the leashes of her well-behaved dogs. Dinah would never sit and wait like that. She limps over to sniff the Chihuahuas and they politely look away. For once she’s too weary and sore to assert her bratty dominance.

As the woman turns to go, blond curls bounce down the back of her black jacket, pink scarf fluttering under her hair. She walks away in black platformed boots below pink leggings, and the Chihuahuas glide in sync like a flock of birds. I squat to hug Dinah and again run my fingers over each paw.

We walk slowly back through the wind and I watch Dinah closely. Is she limping? I’m afraid I missed cactus spines, but maybe she’s just sore.

In the gravel parking lot, I grab a jug from the floor of the backseat and pour a bowl of water in the car’s shadow. She laps it up and looks at me. Her tail wags and I want to cry. I hold the door open wide and she leaps in and curls up. The wind is cold, but the car is warm from the desert sun, so I crack open a window and close the door. I want to thank the woman again, but I don’t see her. The other car in the parking lot was here when we arrived. She’s nowhere in sight.

I never asked her name.


Heading north, I tap my sore fingertips on the steering wheel and shake off a shiver that flutters into my sinuses like a sneeze. I feel overwhelmed with a conglomeration of feelings—concern for Dinah, sorrow for leaving the Southwest, trepidation about going home to Maine. I miss the Maine woods where I can let Dinah off leash without scanning the path for rattlesnakes or scorpions. She’s safer in Maine. And I’m ready to face the life I left. I can start over there as well as anywhere, and it’s best for her.

As we pass through Taos and north to the Colorado line, I wonder if the whole cactus incident was a sign, even though I’m not sure I still believe in signs. I crammed my Bible into the back of a closet months ago, but a lifetime of memorized verses and warnings and rules are etched on my brain. Trying to walk the impossibly narrow path is over, but I still struggle with the guilt. And although the woman who helped me and Dinah would be ostracized in most churches, I realize she might be the best example of Jesus I’ve ever met.

I think it was a sign. I am going the right way. Toward home, but far from the dogma that judged and ridiculed people like the one who just came to my rescue.

As my car descends steep La Veta Pass and the prairie stretches east toward Kansas, I glance back at Dinah. She’s curled loosely on the seat, ball between her front paws. Her mouth is relaxed, tongue sticking out a little, and the whites of her eyes flicker in a dream under half-open lids.

Paulla Rich Estes is a Maine-based writer currently finishing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Stonecoast.

Book Review: Daughters of Smoke and Fire

by L.A. Hunt

Author and activist Ava Homa sets out in her powerful debut novel Daughters of Smoke and Fire to describe for the reader what statelessness feels like. She does so with visceral prose and a narrative that never flinches from the harsh reality of living in a country that does not recognize one’s ethnicity, and in fact punishes an ethnic minority for their native regional roots. Homa writes in her Afterword,

Kurds are often the majority among political prisoners and suffer the most vicious torture. Kurdish regions have been intentionally kept underdeveloped, resulting in entrenched poverty and all the trauma and trouble that follow the plague of poverty.

Homa’s work of fiction, an homage to Farzad Kamangar, a Kurdish elementary school teacher, is also a literary event. It is the first novel to be published in English by a female Kurdish writer. The story, set in Iran, depicts how oppression, political persecution, and racism work to destroy one Kurdish family. The narrative focuses on Leila, who dreams of being a filmmaker and giving voice to the story of her people, and her younger brother Chia, a teacher who aspires to a becoming a human rights lawyer and delivering his community from cruel anonymity to an acknowledged existence.

Leila struggles with her university entrance exam scores but is desperate for filmmaking classes, so she makes monthly installment payments on a camcorder. She feels a need to become film-literate: “I had a strong urge to document my little joys, partly because I had an irksome fear that they would be short-lived and partly because I wanted to be able to replay beautiful moments over and over again.” The camcorder also serves to remind her that her dreams are allowed, even when the actions of those around her crush them regularly. Chia, always the supportive and encouraging little brother, tells her, “Dreams matter, Leila gian. Desires matter. Take them seriously.”

When Chia goes missing, Leila fears the worst and sets out to find him. When she discovers he has been arrested and sentenced to death for documenting the government’s crimes against humanity, she sets in motion a series of events that may have a catastrophic outcome. In the middle of the journey however, Leila finds a sense of camaraderie from families of other political prisoners and thus discovers a purpose for her films that she could never have predicted. She is determined to tell Chia’s story, to create a legacy not only for him but for her people.

Homa is a talented storyteller, and her characters are vibrant and complex. Leila’s mother and father are bruised, damaged individuals and imperfect parents, which illuminates Homa’s dexterity for creating characters that are authentic and genuine. In addition, she uses shifting point of view to tell the story of the Kurdish people. While the subject matter is vast and multifaceted, she deftly creates dialogue that is precise without seeming expositional and that always rings true as a reflection of her characters.

Homa doesn’t mince words when it comes to the way Kurdish women are treated. She confronts cultural misogyny head-on by placing Leila in situations where she must suffer the brutality of a society where women have no rights, voice, or power. Leila describes the weight on her shoulders as “heavy beneath the daily cruelties of living as a woman.” Kurdish women must always defer to men and are constantly subjected to a double standard. “Women came in only two types: whores or dutiful slaves to their families.”

Homa also dissects the cultural phenomenon of Kurdish women setting themselves on fire as an act of both bravery and rebellion. That these women have no other recourse but to leave this world to end their suffering is a haunting image that persists long after the last page has been read. Chia explains the self-immolation to one of his students: “Women who lost all reason to live wanted their internalized burning rage to manifest on the outside too. A dramatic death testified to an agonizing life.”

An interesting point about the shifting point of view and the focus on women in the novel: Homa chooses to examine only the men in her story, not the women. Leila is the vehicle through which much of the narrative is developed, but the choice to give Leila’s father and brother a voice with their own first-person point of view chapters feels incomplete. While the chapters shed light on their experiences and offer insight into their characters, not examining Leila’s complicated mother is a lost opportunity for the reader to understand what drives her character to make the interesting choices she makes in the novel.

Ultimately, Daughters of Smoke and Fire transcends Kurdish oppression, and Homa knows there is a sense of belonging and universality for all oppressed people:

The rain splattered down after a loud thunderclap. I lifted my face and palms to the sky. I wasn’t alone, I saw then. People in Rwanda, Bosnia, plantations, and indigenous residential schools in North America were standing shoulder to shoulder with the Kurds.

Ava Homa’s voice is necessary in a world that lately seeks to divide instead of unite.

L.A. Hunt resides in Los Angeles where she spends her time studying the craft of writing, working on a YA novel, and creating/pitching TV pilots and screenplays. She has worked in education for twenty years as both a teacher and administrator and hopes for a future where her students will forge their own paths and right the wrongs history has inflicted upon them. She is a current MFA in Creative Writing fiction major and screenwriting minor in the UC Riverside Palm Desert Low Residency program.

TCR Talks with Michael Scott Moore

by Matt Ellis

As a writer, Michael Scott Moore has covered the gambit of disciplines. As a freelance journalist, Moore has worked for the American and German press, covering a range of topics from theater, travel, politics, science, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or outlets like Spiegel Online (now Der Spiegel), The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and many more. Though his novel Too Much of Nothing was his first long-form prose, he is best known for his creative nonfiction work, which has involved traveling the globe to rough and violent areas. For his surfing history, travel, and lifestyle book Sweetness and Blood, Moore journeyed from the birthplace of the sport in the islands of Hawaii to Germany, England, Japan, Cuba, Indonesia, Israel, and Cuba. In 2012, during a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant research trip to Somalia, Moore was kidnapped by Somali pirates. He wrote about his captivity and the people who held him hostage in his award-winning memoir, The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast. Moore graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a degree in German literature. He speaks, reads, and writes fluent German and holds dual U.S.-German citizenship. In addition to being awarded the Pulitzer Center grant, Moore has been honored with Logan and Fulbright fellowships for nonfiction and MacDowell and Yaddo fellowships for fiction. Since the release of The Desert and the Sea, Moore has been a featured speaker about his capture, PTSD, and violent threats to journalists.

Author and Journalist Michael Scott Moore

In August 2020, I connected with Michael Scott Moore via FaceTime to discuss his approach to writing in so many different forms, experiences working as an editor and journalist for both the American and German press, covering stories in austere and violent places, cancel culture, and threats to journalists’ well-being and credibility.

The Coachella Review: Coming from California, you’ve been all over the place. How did you go from Redondo Beach surfer to author and journalist?

Michael Scott Moore: Surfing was never my career. It only occurred to me to write a book about surfing after I moved to Berlin, shortly after the release of my first book [Too Much of Nothing], and realized how many people outside of California liked to surf. I noticed that Germany had a surf scene, and I thought, well, that’s interesting. How did that get there? That was the beginning of Sweetness and Blood. It occurred to me that all these places, all these countries that had a surf scene, also had a story behind how it got there. So, I simply took some journalistic skills and applied myself to that question. I went to Israel, which was in the news around the same time for a cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian surfers. I wrote about the surfers in Germany. I’d already been to Indonesia. Then I went to Morocco. It occurred to me that I could build a book by going to a few more countries. By then, I was already writing for Spiegel, so the notion of writing about another country and inquiring about the culture and how something like surfing might have clashed with it didn’t seem too unusual.

TCR: I was amazed by the rapport and confidence you were able to build with people, like Amat and Haji in Sweetness and Blood, people who usually would be at complete odds with talking to an American. How did you learn that? 

MSM: That was a question of just being friendly and calm. I got to know Amat first, and he was just a very easygoing guy. Once we established a relationship and I spent a couple of days with him, I asked to talk to a few more people in his village. He called in a few people, including Haji, who happened to be not just a devout Muslim, but possibly a radical one. It was hard to tell, but that was just the feeling I got from him. It’s not that I felt in danger, it’s just that it was a particularly sensitive time to be traveling in Muslim countries.

TCR: Definitely. And in The Desert and the Sea, when you write about challenging one of your captors in Somalia about female circumcision not being in the Qur’an—I was taken aback.

MSM: By that time, I had been a hostage for a couple of months, and I found I could be friends with the lower-ranking guards. I think on that particular day, they had actually let me out of my room to sit in the sun on the deck of the room where they were holding me. They started by being nice to me, so it was already a little bit more relaxed. I felt like I could ask them a sensitive question.

TCR: You started writing theater reviews in the United States and then moved [to Germany] to work for Spiegel. How did you approach your work in Germany?

MSM: I was writing a theater column while I wrote my first novel, Too Much of Nothing. My marriage fell apart and, in effect, so did my whole life. I decided to do something very decisive. I wasn’t going to stick around in San Francisco while my ex-wife and my best friend got married. I knew it was cheaper to live in Berlin than in LA or New York. I established a new life in Germany, which turned out to be a great idea. Within a few months, I was working for Spiegel in Berlin. I was using aspects of myself that I hadn’t used in California at all, including the language and using my German passport. And that’s the paradox. I went from moving to Berlin, to feeling nostalgic about California or wanting to surf, to really becoming curious about this aspect of surfing and then writing Sweetness and Blood.

TCR: It seems that German and American audiences would have distinct tastes and expectations. Was there an adjustment period, or did you have to change your style and approach?

MSM: First of all, I couldn’t be as personal as I was in San Francisco, where I was writing a theater column in very much my own voice. A little bit caustic. A little bit funny. And in Berlin, at least, I started with just straight news. I did quite a lot of editing for the [Spiegel Online] website before I did any writing, but I think the first feature I wrote was based on some reporting I’d done in California [on] intelligent design [school curriculum controversy over courses in alternatives to evolutionary theory M.E.]. The story came to a head with a trial in America right around that time, so I banged that story into shape. With that, I could use my own voice a little more, rather than just writing straight news, and it had an effect. The intelligent design people, who were not very honest, had to answer that article. That was very satisfying. Germans don’t necessarily need all of the things that American readers need in a feature. When we wrote and edited features for Spiegel, we didn’t always worry too much about a lead. But, when we were writing for English language readers, we would try to restate the piece so that it did have a lead. First of all, it was an international audience, so you couldn’t assume that people knew things. Writing for a local audience in San Francisco, you assumed a certain number of shared values.

TCR: Were there any hard lessons learned in the early days writing in Germany?

MSM: No, it went well. I mean, when I first landed in Germany, I was just teaching English, so that was kind of a drag. I think what happened was that I wrote a feature about neo-Nazis for Salon very early on and the editor of Spiegel noticed that and took me on. The thing about that is, to Americans, a piece about the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany might seem like a very natural piece. But my German friends were like, ‘Oh Jesus, that’s such a cliché.’

TCR: There’s a growing cancel culture in America of people not only voting with their wallets but boycotting as well. Having traveled extensively and worked in the international press, do you think that’s an American phenomenon? Does that exist in other places?

MSM: It definitely exists in other places. But I always thought that one of the good things about America was that it existed less. And by the way, it has traditionally existed more on the Right, no matter what people say. Why it has become so popular on the Left? I don’t understand. But there was recently a story about a singer in Nigeria who said the wrong thing about Mohammed in a rap song and he’s going to be put to death. We don’t have anything like that, but the relative atmosphere of freedom is one thing that’s terrific about the United States, and I don’t see why anyone, especially those who call themselves liberals, would want to see that go away. Republicans love to bash people on the Left for cancel culture, but it’s always been worse on the Right. The ideological width, let’s say, within Republican circles has always been a lot stronger. I don’t see why the Left needs anything like that at all. We’ve really had a wonderful number of decades where thought could really grow freely in the United States, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.

TCR: That’s an important distinction when looking at those issues from a global stage perspective, where a person can literally get killed for their expression, like in the Charlie Hebdo case. (The office of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked twice, a 2011 firebombing and 2015 deadly shooting, by Muslim extremists over their cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad). But there’s also been a lot of conversation about writing ‘the other’ in areas like YA fiction and when American Dirt came out last year.

MSM: It’s really interesting to read interviews from other generations. There was an interesting interview with Faulkner where he says a writer shouldn’t have any fences at all. It should recognize no restrictions on imagination. That said, I did just teach a seminar at Columbia, and obviously this came up. It’s not bad to have a high bar for writing characters who are not like you. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it well. Frankly, the true rules of writing a living character should be a lot more demanding, a lot scarier to the average writer than an uproar on Twitter.

TCR: That’s true. The process should be uncomfortable, right?

MSM: It should. Rules should be hard. But nobody should be canceled just because they were the wrong race and wrote about a certain ethnicity. That’s an aspect that seems worrying, but I think most of the controversies have also been about the quality of the writing.

TCR: You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and worked as a journalist. How do you move between these different styles?

MSM: To me, it’s a spectrum. A continuum. I want to continue doing them all. But it is a different way of using your head, so I try to dedicate one day to fiction or nonfiction. I’m working on a couple of projects right now.

TCR: How do you choose what you are going to follow next?

MSM: It’s the project that builds momentum. It announces itself. For example, the novel I’m working on was already going by the time the last book [The Desert and the Sea] came out, so there was no question.

TCR: With the Desert and the Sea, you ended up being the subject of your own writing. Has that experience changed your approach with other projects?

MSM: Not necessarily. That was not the point with that book. But I had certainly written nonfiction from my own point of view before. In essence, it was like the travel writing in Sweetness and Blood, but it had to be more personal memoir and that was the difficult part of that book. I’d never written a personal memoir before. Although I knew exactly what had happened in Somalia, dealing with that material wasn’t as difficult as trying to figure out how much of my own life to bring into it. How much was enough? How much was too much? I had to balance this personal memoir with writing a worthwhile journalistic book, too.

TCR: You have worked to bring a lot of attention to violent threats to journalists worldwide. Have you seen any changes since you started?

MSM: If anything, it’s gotten worse in America. Luckily, the tenor has eased off a little bit. When I first started to talk about Somalia, a little bit before the book came out, which was even before Trump got elected, we started seeing pictures of people at rallies with t-shirts that said, ‘Rope. Tree. Journalist [Some Assembly Required].’ That was a really new atmosphere in America, and thankfully it hasn’t developed into anything as scary as it sounded. But that, as well as the recent police attacks on journalists trying to cover [Black Lives Matter] protests in the streets, these are new developments. I don’t know if young people can quite understand that. I’ve just written an essay about this, which should be out by the time this interview is published, but the Trump rallies really did remind me of the neo-Nazi rallies that I attended for that first article in Germany. The energy was the same. The attitude against journalists was the same. That’s when I realized we were dealing with something really remarkable in the United States.

Matt Ellis is polishing his reading glasses and sharpening his pencils—look for his review of Michael Scott Moore’s new book, coming to The Coachella Review in 2021. In the meantime, follow Michael Scott Moore on Twitter for updates and to watch for links to his short stories and essays, including his essay on the changing atmosphere of journalism discussed in the interview.

Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son

by Collin Mitchell

In A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son, actor and comedian Michael Ian Black explores the concept of toxic masculinity and what it’s doing to American families and society.

People are touchy (especially those who have never brushed with racist cops or a sexist boss), and even for the newly woke and well-meaning man, the question of, “what can I do to help?” is tangled up in history, falling somewhere between the great man theory and the white man’s burden. A man’s help is a wrought proposition. Because it is presumptuous for us to think, for example, that the BP’s of the world could be capable of cleaning up after themselves just to voluntarily let go of the fossil-fuel thing as soon as the last bird is spruced up and put back to sea.

But then again, why do we think this? Maybe we’ve been looking at the situation wrong, too hung up on the cynicism associated with men’s behavior. It’s perhaps not so much a matter of men getting out of the way (you may though, if you like), but rather, out of their own way, something Black explores well in this book that is part letter, part memoir.

Known for playing dry, socially removed characters for much of his TV and movie career, Michael Ian Black admits that he drew on this “stone-faced” persona until he realized there was “something fundamentally dishonest about it.” “I look more like my mom,” he writes. “But I have never felt possessed by her in the same way I do when I discover my dead father’s expression on my face.” Being a man is learned, he argues, a prescriptive measure, and it’s his ease of language and careful understanding of his own role as a father and celebrity that makes his book relatable for the reader who can chew gum and walk at the same time. Someone who can say: I am not a racist, misogynist, sex-entitled bore, but I am not immune to it either.

There is a sense throughout the book that America has walked itself into a corner, where choices on gendered behavior are either/or without much room for an alternative. This of course is changing, but certainly not overnight. Black, who is not yet fifty, reminds us that masculinity is not as fluid as so many commercials, think-pieces, and TV shows might lead us to believe. “The brain darts to ‘boy stuff’,” he writes of the unconscious impulses he had after learning he and his wife were having a son. The point he makes here, and through much of the book, isn’t that men’s train of thought is necessarily bad, but rather it’s how they act on it. Unraveling thousands of years of gender norms, often opportunistic and violent, is a lot to take on, but making oneself aware of it isn’t. “Sometimes it’s not easy to distinguish between the things that have value and the things that don’t,” Black writes of the challenge many people, especially older generations, face to understand cultural change.

At the same time, Black depends on what seems like outdated ideas about gender, writing, “[I]t wouldn’t be unusual to hear somebody say that a hard-charging stockbroker is a ‘real man’ but a stay-at-home dad is not.” For this reviewer, men as primary caregivers feels celebrated in 2020, even when stay-at-home dads don’t have a job. But Black’s experience tells me I could be wrong. Black has a large social media presence and has, over the years, opened himself up to no shortage of trolling, mostly questioning his manhood. Perhaps he is right to start the book at the collective bottom.

Black is self-effacing about sex and he writes openly about his own caution with early relationships. On splitting the dinner check, he carefully taps into a sense of remorse: “I didn’t want my dates to think that I expected anything from them in return for dinner and a movie; I was trying to protect my dates from, I guess, me.” This section is illuminating, and Black carefully prescribes his thoughts on the ambiguity of “sexual courtship,” while acknowledging that men are not all “sex-crazed goons,” though it would be nonsense to think that average young men don’t think about sex all the time. A problem (one of many) about sex between men and women is a lack of talking. This is an oversimplification of something Black does very well to write about, but in the end, good sex for men—and it was refreshing to see this in print—comes from the inside. As a letter to his son, Black is successful here in making plain what many young men don’t want to admit: that they actually care about the other person, even if it’s just for a night. “‘Can I kiss you?’ does not have to be a buzzkill,” he writes. “And if she says no, congratulations! You’ve just avoided sexual assault.”

A little self-awareness goes a long way according to Black’s account of the male psyche. And you don’t have to step on anyone’s toes in doing so. At its core, A Better Man is one white male talking to another about responsibility—a conversation for the ages. Yet it turns the highly wrought advice of, don’t be scared, you’re a man, on its head. Rather it’s, ask for help, you’re a person. The book effectively asks the question of what it means to be a man and what that inquiry of identity is doing to men and society at large. The answer is a lot. Some of it good, some of it bad, but regardless, you have to take responsibility for how you treat others. Or else no one is going to like you. That’s incredibly good advice from one dad to another. (Algonquin Books, $24.95)

Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.

Photo Essay: Solitude & TCR Talks with Photographer Mahayla Rheanna

PHOTOGRAPHY by Mahayla Rheanna
Model Esther Aliah
Interview by Leni Leanne Phillips

An interview with the photographer, Mahayla Rheanna, follows below, after her photo essay, “Solitude,” featuring model Esther Aliah. Jump to Interview.

Solitude: An Essay in Photographs

by Mahayla Rheanna

All images copyright © 2020 Mahayla Rheanna. All rights reserved.

TCR Talks with Mahayla Rheanna

by Leni Leanne Phillips

I recently had the opportunity to chat with emerging photographer Mahayla Rheanna about her photo essay “Solitude,” her beginnings as a photographer, and her plans for the future.

The Coachella Review:  How did you become interested in photography?

Mahayla Rheanna: It started when I received an iPhone 4s for Christmas when I was eleven years old. I tried to take artistic selfies, but I never showed my face, so I decided to take pictures of my friends at school and post them. They were not high-quality pictures, but the positive responses I got from my friends and friendly kept me motivated. For my thirteenth birthday, my mom gave me my first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I picked it up and haven’t put it down since.

TCR: I’m interested in what you say about getting started with an iPhone. Today, most people have a phone or other device with which they can take photographs, and with the use of filters, even hobbyists can turn out some fantastic photographs. What do you think is the difference between someone who takes pictures as a hobby and a professional photographer?

MR: People have always said I have a unique eye when they look at my photography. This year, because of the pandemic, I started doing FaceTime photoshoots, and I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter what camera or device you use. I did two photoshoots and created two videos using my laptop, my phone, and FaceTime. Many hobby photographers can turn themselves into professional photographers if the people around them like what they see.

TCR:  What do you like most about being a photographer?

MR: The attention. As someone who struggles to approach new people, I find that with a camera in my hand people gravitate toward me whether they want to be photographed or are just curious about cameras. Being on a college campus, I took advantage of how many people love to be photographed and began making money with my photography my freshman year.

TCR: What does photography do for you?

MR: Honestly, it reminds me that I am good at something. I never thought I was good in school, and photography is one thing that I not only taught myself, but I have been successful in earning income from it. Even though I am not studying photography in school, it is much more than a hobby to me.

TCR: What is your college major and what do you hope to do with it after you graduate?

MR: I’m a neuroscience and psychology major focusing on mental health and disorders. I am not entirely sure what I want to do after I graduate, but I am interested in working with adolescents.

TCR: How has photography influenced you as a person?

MR: I have always struggled talking to people, especially those who are my age. Photography has given me the confidence to approach people and ask them if they want to create some cool work with me. Many of my friendships have begun in this way, and if I did not have photography in my life, I don’t think I would have met so many amazing people.

TCR: Is there a specific theme that flows through your work?

MR: Recently, I’ve asked myself that, because my goal is to develop a unique voice through my photography so that eventually people will see my photographs and recognize them as my work. Currently, I would say the theme I’m exploring as a photographer is juxtaposing locations that are not necessarily beautiful with beautiful people and beautiful fashion. I’ve shot in parking lots, closed ice cream shops, bathrooms, libraries. My favorite photoshoot location was an abandoned pool.

TCR: What inspires you?

MR: I have these visions in my head that are so vivid, and whether they are dreams or daydreams, I always write them down and try to recreate them and live up to them. I am constantly inspired by everything I come across, the most ordinary things, and I love to take that and create work that is uncommon. When I was in the car one day, I drove past the location I used for this particular photoshoot, and I knew that I had to shoot there. The outcome was better than the vision in my head.

TCR: Is there a story you had in mind when you took the photographs in this photo essay, “Solitude”?

MR: Well, I’m a fan of allowing viewers to use their own perspectives and imagination. But the main vibe I was going for was this discovery of beauty within emptiness. The location is near where I have been in quarantine which also happens to be my childhood home. And for twenty years I’ve driven past that location and never thought twice about it until I was stuck there. While I was out there, I realized how happy I was, not only because I was finally taking photographs after three months of not being able to, but I just enjoyed walking around and looking at something that felt so familiar to me.

TCR: Do you make prints of your photos or are they strictly digital?

MR: I’m currently working on growing my digital platform, but yes, I would love to start working with prints and plan to do so in the future.

TCR: What kind of photography do you see yourself doing in the future?

MR: Definitely fashion photography. I see fashion as a form of art, and I love taking that next step and combining fashion with other things to create a new piece of art. I especially love when I can style my own photoshoot because I feel closer to the work and can make it my own entirely, so that I am more visible and more recognizable in my work.

Mahayla Rheanna has created images inspired by music, fashion, and the world around her for more than eight years. From taking pictures on her iPhone at school to learning to shoot film and even snap FaceTime photos, she is a proud self-taught photographer sharing her craft. With every new photo shoot, she learns techniques that will perfect her art and one day enable her to reach a broader audience. While studying at Syracuse University focusing on a Neuroscience and Psychology degree, Mahayla uses her free time to meet other students through photography and to work on artistic projects for social media. She continues to grow her platform on Instagram at @mreh.00 and on her website at


Esther Aliah is a student, artist, and organizer from the Bay Area. She is a junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, majoring in Psychology and Black Studies. She is particularly interested in the intersection between mental wellness and social justice and hopes to find ways to destigmatize neurodivergence and provide more resources in bipoc communities. In her free time, Esther practices photography, painting, and other artistic media as a means to center mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. She shares her art pieces as well as resources for Black wellness on her social media and other platforms, including on Instagram at @estheralia.


Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at


Book Review: And Now She’s Gone

By Laurie Rockenbeck

Rachel Howzell Hall’s newest offering, And Now She’s Gone, introduces us to newbie private investigator Grayson Sykes. With her wrinkled clothes and easy distractibility, Gray comes across as a latter-day Colombo. She forgets to record interviews, can’t remember to take antibiotics on time, and finding a working pen is beyond her.  In spite of all her fumbling and absent-mindedness, Gray is able to follow individual clues and piece things together in her own, unique way­.

To prove Isabel Lincoln is alive and well, her boyfriend, Ian, has hired the investigation firm Gray works for to find her. It’s not long before we learn Ian is more interested in reclaiming the dog Isabel took with her than finding Isabel. His assertions that he’s a “nice guy” make him an obvious and fun-to-loathe character. There are plenty of possible suspects and scenarios that Gray must pick apart to get to the truth. Plenty of twists and turns drive the plot in a fast-paced, mostly thrilling journey.

Hall does a masterful job of rendering how Gray’s history coincides with the case she is working on. At times, Gray is made impotent by her fear from past trauma. It’s apparent that Gray is in emotional limbo, and she has to deal with her baggage before she can truly live in the present. Gray figuring out her own issues while delving into what is really going on with Isabel provides the opportunity for commentary on some heavy social issues—racism, domestic violence, alcoholism, abuse.

Told in a close third-person point of view, we get Gray’s acerbic thoughts rendered in a sarcastic voice. Gray is judgey and quick to point out other people’s hypocrisies. At one point, Gray finds herself in a hipster vegan restaurant after it is well-established Gray is most fond of traditional comfort food. She pushes aside the kale chips in front of her while “[p]atio diners vaped, and massive plumes of their alt-smoke billowed from mouths too sensitive for meat and peanuts.”

Hall’s dark humor prevents the book from falling into preachiness. Early in the story, Isabel sends Gray a text asking Gray to lay off, to let Isabel stay missing. Gray’s response is dark and kind of hilarious:

Not typical for a missing woman to respond with text messages. One didn’t need to be a cop to know that missing women usually communicated via left-behind femurs or ragged finger-nails crammed with the scraped skin of her murderer. Not Isabel Lincoln. She was one of a kind.

Throughout, we get snippets of what it is like to be a black woman in America blended with descriptions of Los Angeles that make us feel like we know the city.

No one ever fell in love on the 10 or said, “Ooh, let’s take the Ten––we have time.” It simply bored you to death with its meth-town Denny’s and Del Tacos, places where colored people dared not pee. Better to risk urinary tract and bladder infections than to pee beneath a Confederate flag next to someone with Aryan Brotherhood tats on his bi-ceps or her stretch-marked boobs. Gray and Nick did all their peeing at Indian Casinos.

In another passage where Ian warns Gray about being in a rough neighborhood, she looks around and sees a few dark-skinned women jogging in Lululemon along clean streets and rolls her eyes at the depiction. Ian does not know rough the way Gray knows rough.

For the most part, the various threads and plot twists are satisfactorily resolved. As in, this book meets expectations of a PI novel—we get a pretty bad-assed PI who solves the case while experiencing LA through some fresh eyes. There are a few things left hanging, one thread in particular that I hope is purposeful and will lead to a second book in a series. While this is reportedly a stand-alone novel, I see potential in Gray’s development as a PI in future works.

The fast-paced read may be too much for some people—once you get going it really is hard to put this book down–– but it makes a satisfying couple of evening’s worth of entertainment. There are a couple of similes that move into groan-worthy territory. For example, saying someone “… wore a Bluetooth earpiece like the commander of the starship Enterprise …” will make most Trekkies roll their eyes. The phrase “…like a virgin at a prison rodeo” sent me on a search for some ritualistic sex practice. But really, it’s easy to forgive these hiccups when weighed against everything else that makes this book such a fun read.

Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats, and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie…, there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. Visit Laurie at

TCR Talks with Joe Meno

by Matt Ellis

It’s a presidential election year, a time when we are bombarded by political hot button issues from every social and mainstream media outlet with superficial sound bites that often offer little substance but ask us to take sides nonetheless. Immigration ranks among the top. If you want to be better informed about the immigration issue, you need look no further than bestselling author Joe Meno’s debut nonfiction book, Between Everything and Nothing: The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum.

Meno is a fiction writer and journalist who lives in Chicago. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Great Lakes Book Award. He was a finalist for the Story Prize. The bestselling author of seven novels and two short story collections, including Marvel and a Wonder, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails, he is a professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. His nonfiction book, Between Everything and Nothing, which follows the lives of two asylum seekers confronting the perils of the U.S. immigration system, was published in 2020.

Meno took a break from pandemic-driven planning for his first ever all online curriculum—he normally teaches in person at the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago—to FaceTime with me about what drove him to veer from his fiction roots and the challenges of tackling such a complicated topic. But as our TCR readers know, it all starts with the story—so buckle up—this is going to be one hell of a ride:

Both of them keep walking, searching for the lights of the border. The land glistens before them but the border is nowhere in sight. They glance at each other, knowing they are lost, but all they can do is put one foot in front of the other, marking their way through the deepening drifts.

Just before Christmas in 2016, Ghanaian refugees Seidu Mohammad and Razak Iyal waded out into a Minnesota snowstorm in the dark of night in search of a flashing light they were told would guide them to what they hoped would be a final safe haven—Canada. Though both men were from the same Accra neighborhood of Nima and had made similar pilgrimages from Brazil, through Central America, and into Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, they’d met only hours before, the only two black men at the last bus stop before the border. They had spent years running for their lives. In Ghana, Seidu faced prison and a lifetime of brutality or death for being gay, and Razak’s stepbrothers were waiting to kill him over the rights to a small parcel of familial land. In the United States, instead of finding protection, they were thrown into privately-owned prisons like criminals; Razak wouldn’t earn his release for over twenty months. Ultimately, their asylum petitions were denied and they were left to choose between a possible frozen grave on a trek to Canada or a one-way ticket to an assured hell back home. Their gamble on the blizzard eventually led to the protection they sought, but they both lost parts of themselves along the way.

 My first question was probably the most obvious: “How did you find this story and why haven’t I ever heard it?” Meno tells me it had been covered by the major media outlets, but only briefly. A few months later, a friend of his, an Eritrean refugee turned film and television producer, asked him to meet with the two Ghanaians, who were making a name for themselves as outspoken immigration activists in Canada. Meno agreed to interview them for an essay or an article. “When you do an interview,” he says, “you usually spend five or ten minutes feeling each other out and build rapport before you hit the record button. But even before I could throw out a softball question or establish some atmosphere, Razak just launched into telling this story about the two of them crossing on foot through the snow, losing their gloves and their hats, and about the searchlight on the US border facility. For five hours, these two men told this story in overlapping and different segments—why they left Ghana, traveling through South America, and being in detention. I almost forgot to hit record.” Razak’s narrative about his impressions of immigration while waiting at the Panamanian-Costa Rican border were particularly transfixing:

It was also infuriating that among the cacophony of so many different languages, so many different cultures, the pervading distance, the relentless uncertainty, all of it made clear that so many people from across the world were fleeing their homelands, had chosen to give everything up, under threat of life and limb. What did it say about how the world, how these distinct nations organized themselves? How could so many people be so unhappy as to risk their lives in exchange for a chance of some other way of living? Was the world really that broken? He shuddered as the answer seemed to appear in the line before him.

When Meno returned to his hotel room to comb through the recordings and his notes, he quickly realized this story needed more attention. The Ghanaians immigration experience went beyond revealing the dangers of the rain forest and roadway predators; their hardships continued long after they arrived at the U.S. border. Though the asylum system that abused Seidu and Razak preceded Trump’s inauguration, it was only getting worse. “[The Trump administration implemented] draconian immigration policies, from enabling ICE officers to go into churches and hospitals, to having Customs and Border Patrol officers misinform people who came to apply for asylum that they were no longer accepting applicants.” Meno’s tone goes from incensed to somber. “I grew up in a working-class family and went to college and was able to build a life. I felt so deeply ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened over those [first] few months.” He told me that he returned the next day for another marathon interview session and formed a partnership with the two refugees to give their voices another platform.

One of Joe Meno’s biggest successes in Between Everything and Nothing is his adaptation of fiction-inspired structure to reveal two separate but parallel journeys as a series of staggered vignettes woven into the spine of the narrative until the point where their paths converge near the end: lost in a blinding borderland snowstorm while running from where we usually expect an immigration story to end. I ask how was able to find such a creative way to organize such a complicated story. “I was trying to capture what it was like to sit with those two men on that first day,” Meno admits. “They spoke for about five hours, moving back and forth through time, and then moving back and forth between [themselves]. That experience felt so powerful.” He started by exploring a multitude of nonfiction books to find the best way to handle two complicated stories over a period of years and across several continents. His first approaches were more linear, staying with a character for fifty to seventy-five pages and then switching, but this process seemed too jarring and prone to a repetition of similar experiences along the well-worn immigrant routes.

Ultimately, he chose to focus on the bond these two men formed in that frozen crucible, caught between America and Canada, and then fanned out to explore their individual stories in short chapters. “Once I arrived at that, I was like, that’s literally how they told the story to me.” We both laugh at the irony of toiling so long over structure only to return to the most natural and original form. Through all the experiments and permutations of the book, though, Meno knew that the last leg of the journey had to be the cornerstone of the story. “How they described it is still one of the most harrowing depictions of anything I’ve ever heard someone tell me. It felt like it captured everything about the tragedy of immigration at this moment in the United States.”

As a security expert working in Guatemala, a major weigh station and starting point along the most traveled routes, I am constantly exposed to the dangerous realities of the immigrant exodus. However, it is Meno’s deep-dive exploration of the overburdened asylum system that I found most chilling, a process intended to protect the world’s most vulnerable. A system where judges are too buried to fully understand the cases, pro-bono means thousands of dollars in fees, and lengthy detentions mean high profits for the privately-owned, for-profit prisons: “Over the past two decades, the asylum process in the U.S. has slowly become its own inviolable system, an abstract nation unto itself, an invisible country nearly impossible to escape.

“I felt like, as an American, I should be better equipped,” Meno said as we were wrapping up the interview. “I should have some knowledge about what was going on in the name of the country in which I lived.” From the first day he met Razak and Seidu and heard their stories, Joe Meno felt he had to do something. He is a writer and that is where his power lies. Mission accomplished. Inside Between Everything and Nothing beats an activist’s heart seeking positive change by providing knowledge. And we should, as Americans, feel the weight of the dark realities of our immigration system, one that has been plagued with problems for decades, not just the last presidential term. To do otherwise would be a contradiction to our collective identity, something Meno sums up best with the following:

The United States has a complicated legacy when it comes to the issue of immigration. By its very nature, it was a nation conceived by people who were migrants themselves—human beings willing to risk everything they had in order to search for something better. It has always been a nation of ceaseless movement, of people pursuing that which has yet to appear.

Between Everything and Nothing will prove to be an eye opener for most and a rude awakening for some.

Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at

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