Category Archives: Non-Fiction

“Wide stance-boy on a bench” Featuring Visual Art Piece “Assange”


Wide Stance- Boy on a Bench

Nonfiction Piece Written By: Nat Naylor

About the Author: Nat Naylor is a queer parent and working labor leader in San Francisco.

I looked across the gym during my daughter’s Catholic Youth Organization basketball game in April. She was sitting on the bench laughing with her friends. Their legs were crossed like little ladies in a pew at Mass. Nobody asked them nor reminded them to sit like that, not that anyone would in San Francisco in 2018.

I thought I clearly remembered all of the times I was reminded to “sit like a lady” as a child. Parenthood is funny like that: your own childhood memories sometimes encroach upon your attempts at being present in the moment when you least expect it. I also played CYO girls’ basketball.

At age 38, I sat in the brightly lit echoey gym at my daughter’s school recalling my 6th grade playoff game in our local high school gymnasium. We had terrible polyester basketball uniform shorts that were inches shorter than the boys’ teams and not at all like the real basketball shorts of the 1990’s. One year our shorts were white. I was horrified. In 6th grade, I believe our entire uniform was red, like our school colors. I’m not sure I trust my memory entirely on that detail. I do have a keen recollection of the ill-fitting uniform on my changing body as I constantly fidgeted with it trying to achieve some level of comfort; it was illusive. The shorts always felt too short and the shirt too tight in the wrong places. My body was quickly betraying me and the uniform highlighted this. There was no place to hide in it.

The year prior I was chronically and famously admonished in cotillion, a “finishing” type class for young ladies and gentlemen to learn manners and basic couples dancing, like the Foxtrot. I got in trouble every class for not sitting properly, like a lady, while waiting for the boys to ask me to dance; I wasn’t a popular choice on the dance floor. The boys who always picked me first for my wall-like stature in Red Rover avoided me at cotillion.

Several of the girls in my grade and a few older siblings attended these classes; it was expensive and a privilege in our middle-class community. I was frequently reminded that my participation was my choice and a gift. I think I was already keenly aware of what would become my lifelong battle to be the best and most feminine girl I could possibly muster. In short, I likely already suspected something different in me and accepted the social pressure to participate with a hope it might normalize me. One of my friend’s mothers sat across the dance floor in the small audience of folding chairs. She would engage me in purposeful eye contact while putting her hands on her spread knees and then jam them together as a not so subtle reminder to sit like a lady with my legs closed. The cotillion teacher kicked my foot in to close my legs. She would loudly whisper, “This is not a sports bench.” I always found it hard to cross my athletically thick and muscular thighs. I never could remember how girls are supposed to sit. One of the boys complained that I wasn’t letting him lead and that I kept trying to control him as he led. I find that amusing now but was mortified at the time. I did not cut it in cotillion. I wasn’t a little lady.

Certainly a basketball court and later a science class were far more appropriate places for me to sit. The cotillion teacher had said so herself; it wouldn’t prove to be true.

My face grew hot as my daughter’s team played and I remembered watching an adult rush over from the stands during my own playoff CYO basketball game and whisper in my ear: “You aren’t a boy sitting on this bench. Back straight, ankles crossed.” I’m sure I made it into a joke as I often did/ do. I was a funny kid and am still a funny adult. You cannot be bullied if you are the joke of your creation. Cultivating humor from shame gives you control of a situation in which you ostensibly have none. I spent the rest of the series trying to remember how to sit like a lady while waiting for my turn to play. I hadn’t thought about that experience in over 25 years.

I’ve always precisely recalled the times my 7th grade science teacher frequently commented on my gender performance failures. Boxer shorts and V-neck t-shirts weren’t supposed to be clothing; they were men’s underwear. I tried to explain that my shorts were actually shorts, but she never believed me. On days when I wore something different, she would proactively remark that it was nice to see me in real clothing. The “lady-like” monitoring began when she handed me a small note during a rock dissection lab. “Please sit with your legs closed. You are sitting in a way that is vulgar and not lady-like.” I snapped up. I remembered cotillion. It was hard for me to be a lady and focus on the rocks, but I tried. My beautiful lithe friend who sat next to me did it all with ease. I tried to be like her when all I wanted was to be her boyfriend. The teacher mentioned my lack of sitting like a lady to my mother; I’m sure she was mortified. I promised to try to remember to not sit like a guy. But I often forgot. The science teacher took to calling me out from the front of the classroom. She disturbed a test once. I rarely, if never, wore dresses or skirts. My pre-teen mind could understand that you shouldn’t show off your underwear, but I wasn’t and it felt unfair. Despite her treatment of me, I craved the teacher’s positive attention and wanted to please her. I really did try. After each embarrassing class-wide reprimand, I looked around to notice most of the guys were sitting like me. I once attempted to argue this point in order to highlight the inequity of her attention on me. Her reply: “well, are you a boy?” I sat in silence as my friend tried to shrink away from me. It ingrained a certain shame that despite my best efforts, femininity just naturally did not exist within me. By 7th grade I knew there was undeniably something wrong with me. 

It is only after parenting for over a decade, and watching with great shock how and when natural “femininity” occurs that I hold any understanding or emotion other than shame for the little version of me who fruitlessly and painfully tried so hard and eventually grew into a big person who spent far too many years continuing that effort. I’m so grateful to finally be an adult who can sit like a boy on a bench and comfortably watch my daughter play basketball. Parenthood is funny like that.


Visual Art By: Chiara Di Martino

About the Artist: Chiara Di Martino was born on January 17 1987 in Rome, Italy, where she spent also most of her life. Her passions have always been Poetry, Literature and Art. Growing up, she put her dream to be an artist or writer on hold, choosing instead to become a Psychologist. In 2015, she moved to San Francisco to study English. Along the way, she decided to open herself-up to follow her old dream, joining City College’s Design Department.

Assange_Visual Arts_Mixed Media

“Mothering Without a (Good) Mother” Featuring Visual Art Piece: “Mom’s Sparkling Water”

Mothering Without a (Good) Mother

Nonfiction Piece Written By: Brandi Lawless

About the Author: Brandi Lawless lives in San Francisco with her son, partner, and two cats. She is a social justice trainer/teacher and a pumpkin enthusiast. In her spare time, she likes to read, visit piano bars, check out local restaurants, and travel internationally.

I was six weeks away from my due date, bent over my swollen belly in the shower with tears falling as quickly as the water from the showerhead. It was supposed to be a happy day—my baby shower, “little pumpkin” themed, but I was so angry. I wanted to chalk it up to hormones, but the truth was that I had a right to be angry. I had just planned and executed this shower myself. My mother-in-law, who was listed as the “host” on Paperless Post, showed up two hours late, without the tables and chairs she had promised to bring. The poor woman doesn’t have a Martha Stewart bone in in her body, but I had a vision of what I wanted. I knew I would only be doing this once and I wanted it to be perfect. The one shower my husband’s mother hosted before amounted to a table cloth and some soup for the mom-to-be. I wanted the whole shebang—games, favors, door prizes, and a photobooth. I was already feeling like less-than when I saw the wife of an old high school teacher post pictures of the beautiful shower she hosted for her daughter on Instagram. I wanted that. I wanted it so much that I wrote to tell her, “Laura, I have to tell you I’ve been crying almost every day because I’m getting close and know that I don’t have a mom to help me through labor. I keep thinking if I had a mom I would want it to be you. I just see how much you love Ellie and Elizabeth. Just wanted you to know you’re great.” I wanted a great mom to teach me how to be a good mom. I was crying because I didn’t get anything close to that.

My mother, Renee, was many things; she was intelligent, the life of the party, manipulative, an abuser, and an addict. The latter took her life in 2011. I was 26 years old, the age she was when she had me. I have fond memories of going to an amusement park with her and watching her dance naked in her graduation robe after completing a degree as a single mother in her late 30s. These scant happy memories hide in the shadow of our abusive relationship, her addictions, and her pain. I thought that I had put all of this behind me as time marched on, but everything came back up when I was preparing to have my son. The anger leaked out of me like hot water boiling over. Didn’t I deserve to have a good mom to help me through this?


There was a knock on the door. I jumped off of the couch to open it, but didn’t stop to say, “Who is it?” When I opened the door, I was towered over by four or five police bodies, staring down at me, pushing past me, and one, who I recognized, asking, “Where is your mother?” My mother sat up from her stoned stupor on the couch and said, “Ok, ok, let me first say that there are drugs here.” She stared from the blonde female officer to me, her eyes closed to a deep sneer that said, “How could you open the fucking door?” As if, by not answering the door, her subsequent search, seizure, and arrest would not take place. The police were there for hours, taking everything from piles of marijuana, to scales, to sandwich bags. My sister and I were 5 and 10 years old, respectively, and nobody seemed to know what to do with us. The blonde officer’s job was to keep my sister and me occupied while the search took place. I remember my sister asking if she could have the bracelet that draped the woman’s wrist. The woman, seemingly frustrated, said she could “borrow it” while she was “visiting.” She sat on the couch occupying us while a hurricane swept around us, for what seemed like hours. As the sun dipped below the horizon, my Aunt Kara and Grandma arrived to take my sister and me to stay with family. My mother stayed behind, crying, angry, and defeated.

“It was a miracle,” she said, as she recounts the judge ruling, “no incarceration.” In lieu of more jail time, my mother would serve one year of house arrest while on probation, submitting to random drug testing. To make this happen, two officers visited our house, installing a bracelet around my mother’s foot and setting up a computer monitor in the kitchen. This was 1996, when computers were large, loud, and looming. This monitor was no exception. The monitoring station was so large that we had to set up a separate table to house it, which took up a third of our kitchen. To shield our embarrassment, when guests came over we put a large box over the structure, hoping it wouldn’t beep or overheat. We would rather look like slobs than admit that there was a convicted felon in the house, something that might prevent us from keeping and maintaining friendships.


My husband and I attended a birthing class at our local Kaiser. One by one, partners went around and introduced themselves. Some women were with their spouse, but a few were with their mom. I felt disdain bubble up inside of me. How could they bring their mom, when I can’t bring mine? The irony of these angry thoughts is that even if she was here, I would never want her to be that person for me. I just wanted to have the option. I wanted the type of love that only a good mother could give. The one that emits itself when you are sick and still feel a kinship for your mother making you ache for her hug, smile, and soup. I felt a hole where that was supposed to be.  

In November of 2018, having accepted that I was severely depressed, I went on the Mainstreet Mamas Facebook page and posted, “Hi moms–Have any of you dealt with PRE-partum depression? I’m six weeks away from labor with my first kid and pregnancy is bringing up a lot of issues around not having my mom around and I’m just feeling depressed. I hear a lot about post-partum depression, but nothing about depression during pregnancy…in fact, everyone keeps expecting me to be on my most excited behavior. Hoping I’m not the only one and wondering how you dealt with it.” 60 comments followed. All 60 presumed that I lost a good mom. Several suggested I join the “Mothering Without a Mother” group. I did. Again, I was bombarded with posts about how much these women missed their wonderful mothers and didn’t know how they would mother without them. I felt isolated. I was without a mother. But more than that, even while she was alive, I was without a good mother. It hit me that my biggest fear was learning to be a good mother, when I never had one myself.


Renee was only allowed to leave the house for work, and because she agreed to attend “useless” drug counseling group sessions, she could pick us up from our afterschool activities. Not a day went by where she didn’t remind us of her great sacrifice, while pretending that we hadn’t sacrificed part of our childhood to live with her under surveillance. I was an 11-year-old in 6th grade, trying to find things that made me feel like a normal kid. I auditioned for and was cast as a chorus member in my first school musical, Anything Goes. Rehearsals ran from 4-6pm, at which time I had to promptly walk out the door and meet my mother who had a ten-minute window to pick me up before she had to be back in close proximity to the monitor. Normally, this wasn’t a problem. However, during dress rehearsal, I learned that it was common to stay late to receive “notes” from the director. In fact, we were told we must stay until the end of all the notes and if we failed to do so, we would be cut from the play. At 6:05 my sister was sent in to get me. I gave her a nervous look and refocused my gaze at the director who was only on the first page of notes. At 6:10, my sister was sent in again to pull me away. She stood in the doorway frantically waving her hands as tears ran down her face—a six-year-old who was told that her mother would go back to jail if she didn’t successfully bring me to the car. I threw my hands up, signaling to her that I didn’t know what to do. The director shot a look at my sister and then to me, followed by, “Is this some kind of joke to you? Do you want to be a part of this play?” “I do!” I replied, as my voice cracked, not knowing how to communicate that something very bad was about to happen and I would be blamed again. At 6:15 my mother walked in, herself, screaming, “Do you want the fucking cops to come get me you ungrateful…” I ran out the door crying. My mom screamed at me the whole ride home. I tried to explain what happened, asking, “What was I supposed to tell her?” She screamed and cursed the whole way home, rehashing how it was my fault in the first place, because I opened the door to let the police in. To my knowledge, there was no consequence for being late. None, except my mother’s fear and my embarrassment. When I returned to rehearsal the next day, nobody said a word, silently acknowledging that it was not my fault and perhaps things are better left unsaid. I went back to rehearsal each of the following days, sweeping what happened under the rug. I had my performance, with no mother in the audience, because she was not allowed to leave the house for those 3 hours on the weekend. 


Prenatal/perinatal depression is a predictor for postpartum depression. I was watching it like a hawk, but it still snuck up on me and attacked from behind. While I don’t remember the moment I realized that I had lost the battle to postpone or overcome PPD, I do remember the worst parts. I was sitting in the glider during a 3AM feeding. I was frustrated that breastfeeding required me to do ten times the labor that my partner was/could do. But more than my frustration with him, I just kept thinking, “There is no way she did this for me. And if she did, there is no way she did it happily.” I never knew my mother as a sober person, and as she admitted to me, she wasn’t sober when she gave birth to me, breastfed me, or cared for me. When she was awakened from a pill-induced nap, she would rustle, sit straight up and snap, “Mother fucker, son of a bitch! Jesus fucking christ. Leave me the fuck alone.” These words would be spewed at an 8-year-old simply asking if she was going to get a ride to girl scouts, or a 14-year-old who needs to make it to her choral recital. My mind put two and two together and imagined her either putting a pillow over her head while baby me screamed in the background, or grabbing me and cursing under her breath while she begrudgingly gave me a bottle. At 3AM I was fighting how tired I was by channeling all of my anger toward this woman who wasn’t there to defend herself. I looked down at my son, his eyes closed as he nursed just to get through the night and thought, “How could you do that to me?” Even though these scenarios were self-invented, I felt wronged. I felt outraged.   


When I got the call, I was in the wilderness on a retreat, assisting my mentor, MJ, by facilitating poverty simulations for 25 students. In the middle of the simulation, my phone rang. MJ shot me a look because we had told the students to keep their phones in their cabins. My mouth stretched into a remorseful grin and I switched the phone to silent. Twenty minutes later, we were finished and I walked my phone to the cabin. I saw a voicemail, so I quickly listened. My sister was wailing. In between the cracked breaths I heard her say, “Brandi, you have to call me right now.” I did, immediately, but there was no answer. My heart set into an arrhythmic pattern. When you know your parent is an addict, every call could be that call. My sister and I had made an agreement long ago never to call crying without an explanation. She had once done so and I thought the worst. As it turned out, she got into a fight with her friend. That’s how I knew this time was different. 

I ran out of the cabin to MJ. My wide eyes, quivering lip, depleted breath, and sharp gaze told her something was wrong. “I think my mom died.” We walked outside where I began pacing, waiting for a phone call. I had already confided in her that my mother was a heroin addict. She knew where my worry came from. I was anticipating this. After 15 minutes, my phone rang. “Hello?!” I couldn’t stop myself from screaming into the phone. “She’s gone Brandi” was all my sister could get out between choking back tears. I fell to my knees and screamed. MJ wrapped her arms around me, pulling me in for what felt like an hour. She left me for a few minutes and came back with something small in her hand—an elephant bead. Did she know that my mother collected elephants? She wrapped my fingers around the small burgandy bead and told me, “I want you to look at this and think of nurturing on a BIG level.” Was she my new nurturer? Was I to nurture myself? Was I the nurturer all along?


“I’m not the nurturing type.” I was the first to tell people, those who knew me and new mom friends, that this didn’t come naturally to me. I used this as a way to explain why I couldn’t deal with a colicky baby—one that cries three or more hours a day. I couldn’t tell them that I had to sometimes leave him in his crib and walk away. Or that I could relate to those parents who had to fight the desire to shake their babies. It was all I could do to get through a day. I felt isolated. I felt taken advantage of. I didn’t want to do this, but somehow, I had to. For him. For myself. And, yes, to prove that I am better than her. Because, if I succumbed to those feelings of despair and anger, then I was just another bad mother. I would not become her. So, when he would cry, I would look at him and plead, “Please, baby, don’t make me become her. You deserve better.”


After my mother died, I had a hard time coming to terms with a lot of things. I felt guilty that I couldn’t save her. I was deeply depressed about our relationship. And, part of me wanted to know what those final moments were like. I was gifted a session with an intuitive. I was skeptical, but intrigued. This particular woman was a hypnotherapist who only got clients as an intuitive through word of mouth. I made an appointment and waited in anticipation. When I arrived at her office, she sat on a couch and closed her eyes. She asked for my name and birthdate. She asked for my mother’s full name, birthdate, and date of death. As I gave her the information, she seemed to be tuning in. We spent an hour together while she told me about how my mom died, how she felt about her life, who she was with now, and what she thought of my choices. This session did more for me than any round of therapy. She described my mother to a T. Yes, it was her. She told me things that nobody could have known: “Your mother had a younger sister who also passed. She is with her now and they are talking a lot.” “Your mother was very smart. She had her own rules.” As I look back on this session, there was something much more important than a verification that she was tuning into my mother. She said, “In another lifetime you were her mother. You’ve been going back and forth about who the mother in the relationship is. In a way, you had to raise her.” I never thought of it this way, but she was absolutely right. I had been the mother my whole life, and perhaps in other lives too. This was already a part of me.


On my first Mother’s Day, my husband gave me a card that brought me to tears. He knew I was depressed and that Mother’s Day was (and had been for 34 years) a complicated day for me. I needed to know I was doing a good job. The card said, “You are the best mother for Griffin. You are loving, you are kind. You have nourished his body and his soul. He responds to your voice and music like nobody else. You will be a strong role model. You will be the mother you deserved.” Tears streamed down my face once again. In this instance, all of my fears, sadness, anger, and happiness were swimming together in one school. It was affirming and heart wrenching. And, it was all I wanted to hear.


Visual Art By: Veronica Voss-Macomber

About the Artist: Growing up in the wilds of Saskatchwan (you know where that is, eh), Veronica created with whatever was at hand – the family Super 8 camera, sidewalk chalk. Now a grown up (sorta) Veronica mostly uses a computer to create, but she has been spotted using a pencil and paper.

moms_sparkling_NoSignat copy

Queer Writing+AIDS Crisis Call For Submissions



Between Certain Death and a Possible Future:
Queer Writing on Growing up with the AIDS Crisis

Hi all! Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is looking to collect stories that narrate the queer experience in association with the AIDS crisis! Below is a description of the project, as well as guidelines, and Mattilda’s personal background. CHECK IT OUT!

Every queer person lives with the trauma of AIDS, and this plays out intergenerationally. Usually we hear about two generations—the first, coming of age in the era of gay liberation, and then watching entire circles of friends die of a mysterious illness as the government did nothing to intervene. And now we hear about a current generation growing up in an era offering effective treatment and prevention, and unable to comprehend the magnitude of the loss. We are told that these two generations cannot possibly understand one another, and thus remain alienated from both the past and the future. But there is another generation between these two—one growing up in the midst of the epidemic, haunted by the specter of certain death. A generation growing up with AIDS suffusing desire, internalizing the trauma as part of becoming queer. And these are the personal stories I’d like to collect in this book—accounts that overlap with the more commonly portrayed generations, and offer a bridge between.

By telling this specific generational story in all its complications, how do we explore the trauma the AIDS crisis continues to enact, and imagine a way out? How do race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, ethnicity, indigeneity, rural/urban experience, regional/national origin, Global South/Global North perspective, HIV status, and access to treatment and prevention (over time and in shifting contexts) shape personal experience? What is excluded from the glorified myth of progress that now reigns?

How does the impact of growing up with the AIDS crisis continue to affect those left out of the white picket fence version of respectability promoted by dominant “LGBTQ” institutions? How does this apply to sex work, migration, public sex, cruising spaces and apps, abuse and survival, incarceration, reproductive health, homelessness, activism, drug use and addiction, subcultural striving, gay bar culture, HIV criminalization, and hierarchies within gay/queer/trans cultures?

Any generational frame offers only a partial truth, and I’m especially interested in the gaps between accepted narratives and lived experience. As a generation coming of age both with and without the internet, how has technology changed our lives, for better and worse? How does stigma against HIV-positive people continue today, and does the rhetoric around “undetectability” further exclusion rather than ending it? Who is dying of AIDS now, in spite of “AIDS Is Over” rhetoric? Has the energy around PrEP shifted the focus of public health campaigns away from demanding a cure for HIV? How could a meaningful intergenerational conversation about HIV/AIDS take place? What would communal care actually look like?

I’m interested in your most intimate stories, and your most personal fears—what you’re afraid to say is what I want to hear.

About the Editor: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is the author of three novels and a memoir, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco, won a Lambda Literary Award, and her widely hailed anthologies include Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, That’s Revolting!, and Nobody Passes. Her latest novel, Sketchtasy (one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018), is about this generation between certain death and a possible future.

Guidelines: Please submit nonfiction personal essays of up to 5000 words, as Word attachments (no PDFs, please), to Contributors will be paid for their work, and will receive copies of the book. Feel free to contact me with any queries. The deadline for submissions is March 1, 2020, but the sooner the better!

“This is the kinda nothing that folks retire early for.” (Lelonnie Taylor)


Best Interest

by Lelonnie Taylor

(an excerpt) This is the first story in my creative non-fiction anthology, “Child Who Hurt You?” The full story will be released on my blog, this Christmas.

I saw the back of his head and fell in love.

It was the only thing I could see when I cocked mine over my shoulder after hearing a collective “OH SHIT!” followed by the instigative chatter surrounding a fight.

It had to be around 11:45 a.m.; lunchtime at Trevor G. Browne High School was typically rowdy–with gang fights, spirit rallies, and the bustle of young gossip.

It was partly cloudy, but the sun shined a blinding pastel yellow. In its ray his hair was coffee: silky, black, with reddish amber highlights revealed when cast in the right angle. Tied in a low ponytail, it poured past his shoulders in soft S’s stopping half-way down his lanky, 5-foot-4 frame.

His skin was lit tobacco: spotted mahogany with a soft glow, dressed in a white tall tee, and silver Starter basketball shorts, to be acquired by me the summer before junior year.

I elbowed through the thick crowd of bystanders and yank his ponytail.

“Can I fucking help you?!”

“I don’t need help with anything, but YOU can walk me to class.”

He slowly grinned, took my hand and we made our way to Algebra 1.

The only thing anyone could see for the rest of the school day was my teeth.

After the final bell, I meandered with the rest of the herd to the bus station at the mall two blocks from campus. I was looking to kill time since it was early-release, and my mom didn’t pick me up til at least 4:30.

I was looking for that boy.

Continue reading “This is the kinda nothing that folks retire early for.” (Lelonnie Taylor)

Screenplay: Out With Italians [Excerpt] by Tony Bianco




A small fishing town in the San Francisco Bay Area. December 7, 1941.


A small, simple apartment. LINO NOCCI, 35, wiry, handsome, a scar along the left half of his jawline, stands staring at his radio. An Italian-speaking announcer is talking about the Pearl Harbor bombing.

Il bombardamento di Pearl Harbor denudera il gran buffone d’Italia, Benito Mussolini. La debolezza di Mussolini sara esposto per il mondo. Il nemico di tutt’italiani, il pazzo detestato stara disfatto. Mussolini …

The announcer is cut off in mid-sentence. There’s KNOCKING at the front door.

Lino turns the radio’s knob but gets only static. The KNOCKING gets LOUDER.

(heavy Italian accent)
Why you no break down?

Lino Nocci. FBI . Open up or we will.

Who you are?

Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Lino hurries away from the door. Continue reading Screenplay: Out With Italians [Excerpt] by Tony Bianco

Nonfiction: Mary Szybist, Critically Acclaimed Poet, Graces City College’s Mission Campus by Adina Pernell


Critically Acclaimed Poet Graces City College’s Mission Campus

By Adina Pernell

Mary Szybist, the second guest in the City College Visiting Writers Series, is a critically acclaimed poet whose numerous awards and accolades include being a Pushcart Prize winner, and whose most recent book “Incarnadine” won the National Book Award for Poetry.

“Incarnadine” is a book of poems revealing the many sides of the biblical Mary, often told through the lens of ordinary women.

Its cover features a depiction of the Annunciation, where according to biblical lore, the angel Gabriel tells Mary she would give birth to the Son of God. Szybist admitted that the image “dominated her imagination.”

“I grew up with this scene of the Annunciation; with the name Mary, in a Catholic household. I went to the church of Annunciation and my best friend’s name was Gabriella,” she said.

John Isles, the City College English professor who hosted Szybist’s reading, welcomed her by projecting the Annunciation scene. “I am blown away by ‘Incarnadine,’” he said.

Isles introduced a poem from “Incarnadine” titled “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle.” Its surreal, maze-like construction reads like a puzzle in structure. It depicts two young girls contemplating the idea of the biblical Mary and the complexity of faith and religion.

“It is not a spectator’s sport. You are involved in it, putting the puzzle together of the poem as you read it,” Isles said.

From the book, Szybist read “Annunciation: Eve to Ave” along with other attendees. The poem challenges the idea of “bad Eve” verses “good Mary”—what Szybist called a “terrible dualism.”

The symbolism and imagery of Szybist’s poems leave a lasting impression, and many audience members were fans of her work.

“Her poetry does not let go. It is so committed to exploring an idea, like a mathematical proof; her poems continue to look at the world long after others have moved on,” said Cynthia Slates, coordinator for the City College Writer’s Certificate.

Later that evening, in a candid interview after the event, Szybist added insight into what “Incarnadine” meant to her.

“Well, it is the color red,” Szybist said. “And I came to the term though Macbeth, and about that moment as I described before when he had blood on his hands. And he is trying to grapple with his own guilt and wash that blood off his hands—that feels he could ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red…” That sense of washing…”

Cullen Bailey Burns, an English department faculty member and poet introduced by Isles during the interview, asked for Szybist’s autograph.

Burns, a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award in poetry, most recently published a reflective volume of poems titled “Slip.”

The poignant moment of one poet getting another’s autograph only served to highlight the impact Szybist has had on the literary world.

Annunciation: Eve to Ave

Szybist continued after graciously signing Burns’ copy of “Incarnadine.”

When asked whether The National Book Committee’s quote that “Incarnadine” is “a religious book for nonbelievers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful” is accurate, she responded by saying, “that is my hope for what the book is.” “

“[‘Incarnadine’] wants to find a way to think about how religion might still be of use to us, even if it’s not through the lense of belief.”

Szybist’s casting of the biblical Mary is not an archetypal representation of the divinity of femininity.

“I’m interested in creating multiple and alternate versions of the figure of Mary. So part of what is so dramatic [and] so often repeated is that she is supposed to be all-pure. She’s supposed to be a virgin, and a mother,” Szybist said.

She paused and pursed her lips, creating a silence so pregnant with meaning that we both laughed at her statement before she continued.

“These are impossible ideals, right. And when women are measured against them, we fail,” Szybist said.

“And this has hurt women very much, internally and in our lives. So my ambition wasn’t to try and say ‘not this one, here’s the other.’ It was to try to put some chinks in that old idea by creating new ones.”

When asked which poem was most representative of “Incarnadine” as a whole, Szybist adamantly expressed her viewpoint of Mary’s personality as multifaceted.

“[In] ‘Incarnadine,’ I am interested in the world and how this mystery [is] grappled with in real incarnated ways. I sort of was playfully thinking, well what if I was to imagine it as a puzzle? I imagined what was putting the puzzle together. And what messages this kind of scene is sending to young girls especially? I was also thinking… in the Bible story, Mary would have been really young. We forget that. Mary would probably have been about their age.”

She spoke of the two young girls envisioning Mary and reflected on her creation of them. She looked off into the distance, as if she was seeing them.

Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle

Adina Pernell is a sometime singer, sometime journalist, occasional poet, random author and dreamer. She has been a CCSF student for the past few years.

Nonfiction: The Almighty Dollar, by Howard Tharsing

The Almighty Dollar; an essay

by Howard Tharsing

Yesterday afternoon I walked a block or so to the Dollars and Cents store on Eddy Street between Leavenworth and Jones. I had passed it many times but had not gone in.  It looked small and dark, and the merchandise had been jammed onto the shelves, some of it apparently long ago.   Peering through the window, I could see boxes and cans old enough to have acquired a patina of settled dust over the sun-faded inks of the packaging.

But lately the place has changed, like everything in the T.L.  The store it looked bright and open.  The big front windows were clean and uncluttered by signs or advertisements; the new wire shelving inside finished with shining chrome; the goods new; and the packaging brightly colored. The floor was bare concrete but well-scrubbed, perhaps even polished and buffed, like the floors of some fashionable high-end shops I knew in Manhattan during the 1980s.

As I wandered through the aisles looking for toothpaste, I found a few other things that I had been needing (e.g., scouring powder, petroleum jelly) but had not felt that I could afford.  Here, however, for a mere dollar each, I could easily buy them without breaking my budget. I even found paper plates, which are tremendously useful not only for serving a meal but also for cooking in a microwave, the only appliance allowed in my SRO hotel room.  I had passed them up at Safeway many times because I could not justify spending $5.00 on them.  I had been making-do with paper towels and the like for over six months.  But now I could buy a package of 10 without worry.

The Dollar and Cents store is now a clean, well-lighted space, with merchandise arranged neatly.  The shopper can see what is available easily — and see that it is clean and new. And the soft-spoken, helpful Latino man at the register, neatly dressed all in black, his hair perfectly combed, his skin shining with good health, made me feel completely at home.

Something seated deeply within me relaxed in a way that I had not relaxed in over a year. I felt that I was seen to be sane, responsible, and connected to the world around me. I felt respected, and I moved more easily, with the solidity of our natural dignity.

All this for $6.40.

In the course of my year on the streets, I had found something similar at MacDonald’s. I imagine that most folks do not notice the Dollar Menu offered in every MacDonald’s restaurant, but those of us trying to find ways to keep body and soul together on next to nothing — sometimes as little as $10 a day for everything — understand the importance of this special group of items.

Everything on the Dollar Menu is priced at just $1. Among them are a MacDouble hamburger (with cheese), a chicken sandwich, and a truly delicious side salad. This salad consists of spring greens, cherry tomatoes, and a few other treats and comes with a choice of dressings, including my favorite, Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette. You can also get a large glass of sweet iced tea or a Parfait for dessert. All for $1 each.

I have a big appetite and usually order two MacDoubles and the side salad. Sometimes when I am heading home to a prepared dinner from Project Open Hand, I stop at MacDonald’s just to buy a side salad to have with my frozen dinner. Believe me, it is nigh on to impossible to get fresh vegetables in your diet when you are poor. A supermarket salad bar, at $3 or $4 per pound, cannot even be contemplated in the abstract. One comes to know that such things are not meant for folks like oneself.

But MacDonald’s is there for us, providing fresh bread, red and white meat, healthy beverages, fresh vegetables, and even a sweet little treat to end the meal.  A complete meal costs less than $5. There have been evenings — I think of last winter and spring — when I sat in MacDonald’s, eating my dinner, feeling my hunger satisfied and knowing that my body was getting a wide range of nutrients that were necessary to my health, and was moved to tears. This company so often derided as an example of bland, homogenous American corporate culture displacing small, individualized, local establishments and local traditions, had also found in its heart, moving through the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the company world-wide, a true understanding of the needs of poor folk and had responded by providing healthy life-sustaining food at a price we can afford.

And that fact brings me to my last point. These establishments, the Dollar Stores and MacDonald’s and others like them, provide one more necessity of life, one of the most fundamental and profound, and one that cannot be provided by any social, charitable, or government entity or even by caring and selfless individuals.

Everyone needs to feel responsible, to know that she or he can take care of himself or herself. Otherwise we come to feel less than complete, as if we were something other than fully formed, dignified, adult human beings. Only we ourselves, as individuals, can provide this latter necessity by paying for our food, clothing, and other necessities we all need to show up for life day to day. For us poor folk, it is at the Dollar Stores and the MacDonald’s of the world that we find the opportunity to do so.  It is there that we can enjoy the deep pleasure of selecting and paying for a few simple things that will help us maintain a respectable appearance, good health, and a sense of contentment with our life.

Howard Tharsing holds a Ph.D. in English from The Johns Hopkins University.  He spent the majority of his professional life in financial services.  He is currently enrolled in the Broadcast Electronic Media Arts department at CCSF, where he is focusing on audio production with the intention of producing a podcast.

Nonfiction: The Moderating Influence of the Other Gender, by Howard Isaac Williams

The Moderating Influence of the Other Gender

by Howard Isaac Williams

Responding with an anger to exceed that of his adversary, the youth yelled and leaned his taut body toward his foe. The other young man stood his ground and yelled back. If either felt any fear, he showed none and both ignored the earnest pleas of their friends to avoid violence. And there on that pasture just outside Peshawar, Pakistan, a fistfight between two men might easily escalate beyond the boundaries of persons into battles between families, tribes, or entire ethnic communities.

The men standing around the two would be combatants knew their obligations to keep peace and felt those obligations even more. Elders and youths pleaded for calm. For the sake of ethnic solidarity, the two should make peace. For the holy cause of Islam, they should put aside minor differences.

But such imploring, so emotional yet so reasonable, mean so little to egos in conflict. The two angry youths cared only about the perceived insults to their manhood and forgot their masculine responsibilities to others.

And their friends were losing hope in their own efforts. If this matter did come to battle, each man on each side might have to stop protecting his friend with appeals to peace and start protecting him with fists or worse. Even as they tried to physically restrain the two would be combatants, they were watching others to see if any might take advantage of an opening to dangerously escalate this matter. And in this quite masculine society where women are rarely seen and never heard, didn’t some of these men yearn for the moderating hand of the other gender, so familiar at home yet so unknown on the street?

On the other side of the field, about 30 yards away, a water buffalo cow observed this noisy and potentially dangerous scene. Rousing herself from the near somnolence associated with her domesticated species, she grunted, then bellowed. Her hoofs pawed the ground. She swung her massive head in great expressive arcs and kicked out her forelegs, then bellowed again. She began trotting, then cantering toward the two angry youths.

Her charge first distracted the friends and relatives of the two adversaries who were still shouting at each other, apparently oblivious to the approaching danger much greater than each other. On she rushed, her massive bulk fixed like an arrow on a target just between the two foes. Now the crowd began to part but the two youths stood momentarily transfixed as the huge mother, her udder swaying, nostrils snorting, her mouth bellowing, charged toward the tiny gap between them.

At the last instant the two adversaries dove away from each other and the buffalo seized the contested ground, instantly stopping and occupying it with authority as dust rose all around her. The two would be fighters lifted themselves off the ground and dusted themselves off.

Now as all in the crowd regained their composure, they began laughing, none more than the two who had been so angry a few moments before. One man in the crowd turned toward another and asked, “Why did she do that?”

The other shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I guess she didn’t want them to fight.”

Howard Isaac Williams was a student of Professor Julie Young’s Spring 2016 English 35A class. He also has a Certificate in Labor Studies from CCSF from 1991. He lives in the Outer Mission and is a retired bicycle messenger and pest control technician.
From 1989 to 1997 Williams worked summers as an aid worker in Pakistan and Afghanistan assisting disabled persons. “The Moderating Influence” is a memoir of one of his experiences there.

Essay by Nataniel Gondra

Domingo, Who Joined the Foreign Legion

San Francisco, 17 Sep 2015.

I have a very lousy memory. I can’t really remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Or what was the chapter of the book I was reading about a few hours ago. But I do remember some things clearly.

Growing up with my mother, she never told me what to think about death. She avoided the subject, as most of Western civilization (although recently I’m not sure if you’d think we share the same concept of Western civilization since I’m South American), but she also avoided teaching us anything about religion. She went to a very good Catholic school run by Yugoslav nuns that taught her how to write, read and think properly. She excelled in every course and she became one of the most intelligent (if not the most) woman I’ve ever met. It’s not just because she’s my mom. She had a sensible answer for everything. Except death.

Those same Yugoslav nuns gave her that education through an archaic but apparently effective method: fear. She once told me how they traumatized her about going to hell if she didn’t behave properly and that god was all seeing, all knowing and all judging. I don’t know what was going on my mother’s mind in her last days. At times I know it was fear, she said it at least once. But I don’t know if she was remembering the fear of hell instilled in her by the nuns.

I fear death. I fear death because I’ve had panic attacks. And I know, I just know, that when it’s my time to die, unless I’m heavily drugged and unconscious, I’m going to be in one perpetual, terminal panic attack. I’d give up many things not to have another panic attack again in my life.

But I’m not particularly concerned about hell. At least not at this moment, while I feel no immediate threat to my life. Mom raised me and my brother freethinkers. “It’s your choice to believe in what you want to believe”. Still, I was in a Christian society. So my friends where Catholics. My school made me do the First Communion, although I did asked in Religion class how come dinosaurs were so impossibly old and that got me sent to the principal’s office (I loved dinosaurs). I knew only one prayer, the one my mother taught me: “Little guarding angel, sweet company, don’t abandon me, neither night nor day”. That’s the Spanish transliteration of what my mother said. The whole thing is more complex and has darker passages. “I’d be lost without you” it adds. She didn’t teach me that. I think she didn’t even told me to say Amen after I completed the prayer.

One day I figured out that El Ratoncito Perez (the Tooth Fairy) wasn’t real and then the whole superstructure came down and I saw the vacuum and the strings. So if Little Mice Perez wasn’t real, then Jesus wasn’t either (he’s the one who’s supposed to bring you presents in Christmas from where I come from), nor god or heaven or hell. For some reason that scared the shit out of me. Maybe it was my first panic attack. Maybe others have experienced this before. Maybe what scared me that much was that my own parents were able to deceive me for so long.

But they did their best not to do so, really. I understand it can come as cruel and maybe non adaptive to teach your children that there’s no tooth fairy and no guardian angel and nothing at all and that there are only very slight differences between you and a worm.

“What happens after we die?” I asked my mother anxiously one day.

“Nobody knows. But it’ll be in such a long time that there’s no need to worry”

As a kid, I worried a lot. Even if I died, I found out that the sun was going to explode. So not even the world I was living in would survive. And before that, I already knew about the Arms Race and the upcoming nuclear holocaust.

Death was an uncomfortable subject to me.

So when other people died, I didn’t know how to react. I went to my mother for answers.

“Do as you feel, dear, if you don’t want to go to the funeral, you don’t have to”

I haven’t gone to a funeral in my life. My mother donated her body to scientific research and the cremated rest was given to my brother in a standard mail-quality square brown box. It’s sitting in my brother’s closet waiting for the time we get the courage to go to Venice, a place she always dreamed of but never visited. A place she told us we would go when she got cured.

So not even my mother’s funeral. She didn’t have one.

But my memory’s not that good. I was closing down old accounts in old pages I didn’t use anymore and I found a blog I made titled: “My friend Viernes (Friday) is dead. Thank god I still have Domingo (Sunday. Also a name)”. It was full of the strangest writings I’ve ever found. It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on.

These were literally messages from the past. From a time when Domingo and I exchanged almost daily Burroughsian emails and chats. I don’t know if he understood anything that we were talking about. We didn’t do drugs. We weren’t trying to be hip. This was something actually extremely amusing to do. Shared stream of conscious with scifi, political, tropical nihilism and rock music themes.

Domingo’s father had died recently. Of cancer, like my mother would years later. I had no idea of how he felt. It was the equivalent of being raised a no-sex-before-marriage, if-you-masturbate-you’re-going-to-hell and trying to imagine what sex felt like. Not even like that, really, because even those people get wet dreams. I had literally no idea. I thought it was bad, I said what my mother told me to say (an obsolete phrase everyone uses and that I still don’t have any idea of what it means): “Mi sentido pesame” (I’m not even going to try to transliterate that. To me it sounds like random words combined), patted his back and thought sadly about his father for a few weeks.

He wasn’t particularly sad. I don’t know if my empathy is a recent ability or if he was very good at hiding his feelings, but he just sang to me an Alan Parsons Project song, half-jokingly, half-seriously: “Time… keeps flowing like a river”.

I have much to say now about Domingo. Now that he’s gone.

It has been more than a year since he hanged himself. The last email we shared was a short story I wrote about mass suicide in my shitty Ballardian. He was doing his thesis on Ballard.

He also sent me, in an ultra-secret email, his draft of Tristicruel, the best short story book to come out of that hellhole that is Caracas. It was published a month after his death. I bought it this year through Amazon. Somehow it made its way through Venezuelan customs and got into the US.

I was part of the people he dedicated it to.

Now I know a lot more about death. I’ve lost my mother and the only friend that could possibly appreciate anything I try to push out of my mind. I’ve had other losses too. And for the things that have been going on in my life, I know how bad it must have been for him to get to that point. Fuck Dante and his Wood of the Self-Murdered.

He was kind to children. He was bright. He was a great friend. He lived like an accursed poet, but he had strong values. His writings reflect that he loved and cared a whole lot more about humanity than most of the people I know who go to church every domingo.

Domingo Michelli isn’t dead.

He just “went to France. To the Foreign Legion. Like Manu Chao”*.

*The last things I heard from Domingo that made me laugh. I found it in a YouTube video one of his hipster friends made when he visited Barcelona.




An Interview and Novel Excerpt by Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist and Author Jonathan Freedman

Jonathan Freedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, author, and writing mentor.  His novel, THE LAST BRAZIL of BENJAMIN EAST is being published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto.  He graduated from Columbia University, traveled overland from America to Bolivia, and lived in Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland.  He is married to a physician who conducts experimental cancer therapies.  He has four children and two grandchildren.

Meet Mr. Freedman at his weekly student writing workshop, “Real World Writing and Ideas,” at the English Lab at CCSF.  It’s open to all students and meets Wednesdays from 11 am to 1 pm in Rosenberg 205.  Find your voice. Change the world.


Interview with Jonathan Freedman


Traves Warren: Hello, this is Traves Warren, President of City College of San Francisco’s Forum Literary Magazine Club, interviewing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Freedman.

Jonathan Freedman: Hi, this is Jonathan Freedman and I’m really pleased to be here.

TW: So, Mr. Freedman, I’d like to begin by asking you what lead up to your writing that won you the Pulitzer Prize, and why you wrote it?

JF: I was thirty years old, unemployed, freelancing in Haight Ashbury. I went down to San Diego for a job interview at The Tribune. The editor took me to the cafeteria. “Jonathan, on my way to work, I saw these poor migrant workers hiding in the bushes in the rain. I’ve worked for this newspaper for thirty years. Every day we report murders and terrible things on the border. But we’ve never gone into depth on the issues underlying illegal immigration. If we did that, we could win a Pulitzer Prize.” I needed a job. The idea of a Pulitzer Prize was beyond my imagination. I got hired and trained as an editorial writer. Six months later, I said, “Mr. Bennett, do you remember what you said about the border?” “Yeah, but we have no time,” he said. “Write me a proposal.” So I wrote, “The border between Mexico and the United States is where water flowing from the Colorado River stops, and a river of humanity flows northward from Mexico to United States.”

“Bull! You don’t know anything about the border. Tomorrow, you’re going to the border.”

So, the next day, I went to the border outpost at the extreme southwest corner of the United States and Mexico. I saw a hole in the chain link fence. It was the size of a crouching man. Then I interviewed the border patrol agents. They told me how they’d get alerted when someone trips a wire. They’d chase them; they’d arrest them; they’d deport them. And the next day, they’d be back. I saw a holding tank for people who had been caught trying to cross the border. It was dark and dingy and someone had written on the wall mojado power, “wetback power.”

So I came back and I wrote an editorial. There’s a hole in the fence between Mexico and the United States. Each year, thousands of people cross the border illegally. Their first act is to violate law. They’re hunted like animals. That began a series of editorials exploring illegal immigration from different points of view. Every week, I would go to a new place. I would go into Mexico, follow the people across the border, go to the strawberry fields. I asked the same questions: “What can we do to protect our borders? What can we do to help the people living here illegally? They’re providing food, harvesting crops, doing all kinds of jobs. But they have no rights. I wrote a series of editorials that began in 1981 and continued for six years. Our purpose was to convince Congress to pass a just and compassionate law. My editorials from the border were read in the halls of Congress. They were instrumental in the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The law granted legalization to over two million people. I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Distinguished Editorial Writing in 1987. But the law did not solve all the problems of immigration.

TW: So, in the beginning, was this done out of your personal compassion?

JF: When I was the age of City College students, I wanted to be a writer. I went to Columbia University in New York. I won a writing prize. When I was 23, I traveled overland from Mexico, through Central America, over the Andes Mountains, into the Amazon jungle, across the desert of Peru, all the way to Bolivia. I got a job as a reporter with the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. So, to answer your question, my compassion came from traveling and seeing the lives of people in Latin America. I saw the conditions they were living in. I felt great respect and love for the people. Later, when I came to San Diego I saw how illegal immigrants were being treated in America.

TW: So, you got this law passed in 1986 by speaking to actual people along the border. Would you say that your reason for writing is to try to get to the root of problems and find solutions?

JF: Yes, I’m a very solution-oriented journalist. It wasn’t my goal to humiliate leaders and make people look bad. I wanted to listen to the voices of people who are downtrodden and suffering, to learn from them. What do they have to say? I interviewed people like you are doing now. I wanted their voices to be heard. That was theme of my career. That’s why I’m leading a writing workshop in the English Lab at City College. I believe that every human being has an important voice, something valuable to say. I want to help students find their own voice. When you speak truly, your words will reverberate with other people. To tell your story, and to be heard: that is a life-changing experience. It gives you power. It can help you live a better life.

TW: So, would you say that the emphasis of your writing is placed on giving a voice to people who otherwise would not have it?

JF: Yes, that’s true. I think that in the immigration series, what I did was to go and interview people. It’s a very complicated issue and everyone has a justifiable point of view on it. Some people are afraid of illegal immigration, other people are profiting from it, but everyone has a point of view. I wanted get learn from the people on the scene, whether it was a farmer who’s hiring, or someone who is working in the sun; whether it was children playing in the pesticides by the ditches. Whoever the person is, I wanted to give voice to bring the reader into those places, to experience it in real life. I trusted in the human heart, that readers’ compassion would compel them to do the right thing.

TW: What part of that do you believe was integral to you helping to get the amnesty to pass in 1986?

JF: I think that people had been discussing the issue of illegal immigration as us versus them: us being Americans, and them being foreigners. People take political positions on that. I wanted to add the human stories. So readers would not just think all illegal aliens are the same. The words “illegal aliens” turn people into objects. Aliens could come from outer space. Illegal means you broke the law. Well, who are these people? What are their stories? Is their desire to have a better life not unlike ours? How do they threaten us; how do we threaten them? I wanted those voices heard in Congress. Not just talking heads spitting out ideology.

The same issues are happening today. We have an even larger population of the undocumented in America. Yet the political argument is still us-versus-them. There are undocumented students at City College. They did nothing wrong. They were brought here by their parents. Now they want to have a college education. But some people say no. They don’t have a right to the student loan, because they don’t have papers. I want to work with them, with all City College students. To help them develop their own voices, to speak up, to be heard. At this stage of my life, this gives me great satisfaction.

T W: So, coming from your experiences in Latin America, getting the law passed, and winning the Pulitzer Prize to now, what is significant in your life as a writer?

JF: When I was a young man, I wanted adventure. I grew up in Colorado, and had a privileged life. But it seemed if I was missing something. I heard the music of Brazil. I saw a movie about carnival. It seemed there is so much more life down there. So I seized the chance to go to Latin America. It took almost nine months of hard travel. When I got to Brazil a whole new way of life opened up. Brazilians seemed to put music, laughter, dancing, food, and love ahead of money. There was tremendous poverty in Brazil. But lives of the people seemed rich. There was violence and political torture and all kinds of bad things happening. Yet I thought that the Brazilian Spirit gave them a joyous quality of life. I wanted to bring that spirit back. I wanted to write a novel that captured that life, that spirit in Brazil. So in my late 20’s, I started writing a novel. It began with what-if questions:

What if I was an old American who had lived for many years in Brazil? What if I’d lost my wife, lost my money, lost my fortune, and I came back to America? What if I put that character, whose name is Benjamin East, on a Greyhound bus? What if a young woman named Amy ran into that bus station? She was fleeing her husband, who’d raped her What if she collided with this old man, and pleaded, “Take me to New York!” What would happen to them?

I wrote a novel about this odd couple crossing America on a Greyhound bus. It took me two years to finish, but I couldn’t get it published. I put it in a drawer in 1983. Then my career as a journalist took off. Flash forward thirty years. The newspaper business is dying. I’ve had my own successes and failures. I’m nearing the age of Benjamin East. I find this old box containing a manuscript. I begin reading. The spirit of Benjamin East lifts my spirits. But the book has flaws. I vowed not to destroy it. So the older and younger Jonathans collaborated to bring the book to fruition. It took two years to edit and revise. The Last Brazil Benjamin East is being published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto this year.

The main story takes place in 1980 on a bus ride across America. But the back story takes place in the 1950s, when Benjamin and his wife traveled up the Rio Negro. I’m honored that an excerpt from this river trip is being published in FORUM.

TW: Do you feel your book’s demographic is aimed not just at Americans, but at Brazilians as well? Do you think they would like to read your book?

JF: I hope Benjamin’s journey inspires young people to travel, to find their own path, to explore possibilities.

I’d also like to say what City College means to me. The students who attend my workshop come not only from San Francisco, but also Mexico, China, Ethiopia, Vietnam… Some are young, others in the middle age or late in life. They have hopes, dreams, and incredible stories. The mission of City College is to provide education to students of all ages and walks of life. The professors are extraordinarily committed to their students. Yet CCSF’s accreditation is being threatened. This institution is vital for San Francisco’s future. City College needs to survive, grow and thrive. The very fact that you are interviewing me here shows the connections between generations that City College makes possible.

TW: At this point in your life, could you sum up why you feel you write today and also put in something for aspiring writer? Why they should write today?

JF: My advice for aspiring writers is try this: go to a quiet place, take a notebook with you, set an alarm clock for one hour, and start writing the first thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be a sentence, even just some words like “my ear itches” or “why am I doing this?” And then write the next thing that comes to your mind, and the next. When I was sixteen, my teacher gave me this assignment. I was a lonely boy in a boarding school, far away from home. I began writing aimlessly and then the words began to carry me on a river of memory. I saw grandmother and my parents and my friends. Writing carried me home. After that experience, I decided to become a writer. I want to help students find their voices, to stand up for themselves, to seize their futures. The power of writing is for everyone.

The Last Brazil Of Benjamin East Book Cover_Visual Arts

Excerpt of novel to be published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto, CA


By Jonathan Freedman

Amazon Rainforest, 1958

The Rio Negro branched into a river without name, the river of hope. Benjamin, the American fortune seeker, sat in the bow of the dugout. Gisela, his Brazilian bride, balanced in the middle. Ceara, the cross-eyed boatman, paddled from the stern.

The rainy season had come. The journey from Manaus, the Amazonian capital, had taken six weeks, and still they hadn’t reached a deposit of precious minerals—emerald, uranium, gold—that he was seeking. The boat had overturned in a storm, swamping their gear. They had wasted many days huddling in a lean-to by the swollen river, swatting at clouds of mosquitos, watching trees and islands of earth sweeping down the churning waters. Then, as quickly as they had come, the rains stopped. Benjamin wanted to continue. But his Gisela, heavy with child, refused to go any farther. Ceara agreed to stay with her a few days while Benjamin went up river alone.

Benjamin clutched the crudely carved paddle, dug into the water, thrust backward, pulled it out of the swirling eddy, switched hands, dug into the water, thrust backward, paddling up the gloomy river in the predatory jungle. He didn’t think, just paddled, his hands blistering and then popping, and the skin rubbing off to raw flesh. It was the second day of non-stop paddling and he was feverish. The swelling on his arm from mosquito bites had gone down, but his tongue and insides swelled instead. Malaria swept into his body, microbes spawning in his blood and sending chills down his spine. In his fever, he thought he saw a young girl, her hair black as the Rio Negro, beckoning from the bank of the river then running away as he approached. He hated himself for leaving Gisela behind. But he was obsessed. He could not return to Rio de Janeiro without finding something in the jungle. He kept paddling. Beyond this bend, or the next, or the next, there might be an outcropping of emeralds, a radioactive deposit, a seepage of oil… anything, he told himself.

The canoe made its way up the river to a tangled maze of undergrowth where it narrowed and a path began. Benjamin tied up the boat, climbed on the slippery bark of a fallen tree and teetered to the end, where another fallen tree connected, and then another, a chain of trees leading into the jungle. In his fever, it looked like an Amazon highway.

An aquamarine, or was it the reflection of the sun flickered in the water? Parrots took off, chattering, and the jungle echoed with mocking laughter. He crept, then walked, then ran from tree to tree, following the reflection skimming in the water.

He broke into a clearing and halted. Was he hallucinating?

An immense aquamarine lay in the creepers. The odor of the shell necklace rose from the earth, a fragrance of crushed flowers and steamy humus. He knelt down in the moss to pick it up. A snake darted from the undergrowth. He felt a stabbing pain then the cool stone, like ice in his hands.
He awoke with a sharp burning sensation on his legs. He opened his eyes and saw a snake slither away through the grass. The stone was gone. His body felt like it was on fire. He lifted his head and found he was lying on a mound of earth, his knees buried in an anthill. Inch-long ants streamed from the mound and swarmed up his legs, their red bodies flaming. He tried to scream but ants leaped on his tongue, sinking pincers into the tender flesh. He rolled over, crushing dozens under his body, and climbed to his feet. Afire, he crashed through vines to the edge of the river and dove into the water, trying to extinguish the pain. But the water only made the bites blister. He crawled out and rolled on the bank, covering himself with mud.

He came to at dawn, his body swollen nearly twice its size.

His legs throbbed and his heart beat like a drum in his ears. He hallucinated that he was being hunted. The drumbeat approached and he crept into the leaves and started to run on all fours. He was a jaguar and a hunter and the dart from a blowgun entering his flesh.

The drumbeat subsided and a steady low clicking awakened him the second time. He was still burning but the fever had died down and he could stand on his feet. He followed the sound through the jungle, past the anthill to the river, where his canoe bobbed on its rope tether. He realized, with a shock, he had gone in a circle no more than 1,000 yards in diameter. The Geiger counter was making the clicking sound, loud and steady. Either there was a radioactive deposit in the vicinity, or the device had also been stricken with fever. He no longer cared, for the Amazon had reduced him to a savage struggling for life. He switched it off and the clicking continued, mocking him. It was cicadas.

It was easier to paddle downstream. The river carried him swiftly and surely, carving piles of driftwood, which vanished in the backwash. A strange peace fell over the jungle. The trees glowed under the setting sun, toucans skimmed the water, their reflections panning over the mirror-smooth surface. He leaned over the side and washed himself. His face, shimmering against the blue reflection of the sky, was gaunt and contrite and almost human. He dreamed of Rio, settling down in a bungalow on the beach in Ipanema, sitting on the front porch with Gisela, rocking the cradle.

She lay in a hammock, her face flickering like a mask in the firelight. He ran up the embankment and buried his face in her belly, and she winced and pulled his head up, running her fingers through his hair, tugging his beard.

He cupped her belly to his cheek and kissed the life growing inside. She winced again and pushed him away.

“Nao, meu amor. E tarde.” It’s too late.

“What do you mean?”

She pressed his head against her belly, flat as a deflated balloon.

“Perdi o anjinho.” I lost the little angel.

The return journey was silent — no motor, no words. Weakened by the miscarriage, Gisela lay in the bow of the boat; Benjamin paddled in the midsection, Ceara steered in the stern.

They passed the Indian village. The dock was empty, the huts abandoned; a famished dog howled at the water’s edge.

“What happened?” Benjamin asked the boatman.

“Nao sei. Talvez foi a praga do branco.” I don’t know. Maybe the white man’s plague.

The sun rose before them now, and black water flowed beneath the dugout as they were swept downstream by rains, or stilled by the noonday sun. The trees looked somber, the flowers grotesque; even the birds’ calls were despairing.

After a fortnight, they reached Manaus. The dome of the opera house glinted in the sun. But they found it rotting on its rubber pavement, surrounded by beggars and brothels. He paid the boatman and thanked him for taking care of his wife. Ceara smiled though his eyes held sadness. Gisela held out her hand and squeezed his and his eyes seemed to uncross. But it was the angle of the light reflecting off the river.

Benjamin put his arm gently around Gisela, guiding her to the hotel, but she stormed ahead into the bar and ordered a bottle of whiskey, the most expensive in the house. She guzzled it like water.

“Come on now. You’ve had enough.”

She looked up with dagger-point eyes, hiccoughed, and started to cry. Picking her up, he carried her to the room, laid her on the bed, and kneeled beside her. He pressed his head to her belly and shivered in the heat as cicadas screamed.

“We’re young,” he whispered, stroking her hair. “We can have another baby.”