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[14 Oct 2014 | No Comment | 55 views]

by Grace Kearney

There is a list of colors we cannot wear, and for each prohibited color a reason we can vaguely understand. Orange, of course, belongs to the inmates, though only the highest-risk among them actually wear the conspicuous jumpsuit. (You can’t count on a murderer for fancy clothes style.) Most of the others wear blue jeans. Tan and forest green are reserved for the guards, and anything with the number five is strictly off limits. Red, despite its gang associations, does not appear on the list—but then, chances of a white girl from Stanford being mistaken for a Blood are slim no matter what she wears.

Having realized twelve hours earlier that I own nothing but blue jeans, I stand before the gates of San Quentin State Prison already uncomfortable in clothes that are not my own. My petite roommate’s rust-colored corduroys graciously attempt to fit my six-foot frame, but even my baggiest sweatshirt cannot cover the places where they pinch and squeeze. I pass anyhow through various layers of security, bending and outstretching and nodding to guards whose indifference allows me to breathe.

Let me pause here to provide the disappointing explanation that the journey into this heart of darkness is nothing more than a school field trip—within hours, my classmates and I will be back on the bus with our boxed lunches and clean records and San Quentin receding quietly in the rearview mirror. We will soon be embarking upon a three-week collaboration with students at a nearby juvenile hall, and what serves as the final destination for an unfortunate majority of them seems an appropriate place to start. Surprisingly, groups like ours are not infrequent in the halls of the state prison; tours are available three days a week for the sadistic masses or merely curious local residents. For thirty dollars a head, a glimpse of the lives that pass here.

Just around the corner of the first brick building, a sprawling cement blacktop comes into view. In the shade of the massive prison, men shoot basketballs at netless rims or lean on broken picnic tables. This is why I haven’t seen any black people in California. The disproportionate amount of space black men occupy in this hidden adult playground compared to the rest of America is striking. (In terms of population, not physical space. We later find out each man’s cage is smaller than what could legally house a dog.) From a purely statistical perspective, isn’t this proof that imprisonment is not the result of immorality? Our next stop is a sweating factory room with dozens of sweating men, each adding one piece to a chair as it gets passed along. My increasingly bitter internal monologue leaves me silent. Has all the cotton already been picked already? No one hurries forward to explain that it is not slave labor. With the air of a magician opening his hands to reveal a transformed object, our tour guide presents six men standing in blue, hands folded peacefully in plain sight, smiling toothlessly as they offer to answer our questions “from the inside.” I narrow my eyes in suspicion. You are the same six every visitor sees.

That afternoon exists in my mind now as the series of frozen scenes I have just described. But one moment still exists in real time for me. We have left the warehouse and crossed the dining hall, and through a set of double doors we enter death row. Death rows, to be more precise. Death warehouse. The men on the ground floor are milling around, presumably on a closely monitored break, and the occupants of the second and third floors peer down from behind their bars as we walk by. There is no correct facial expression to wear now and I want to hide my entire body. Walking feels like strutting and curiosity feels like an invasion of privacy, but nothing fuels the prison industrial complex like another pair of averted eyes. As I walk by the water fountain, someone calls out to me. I do not hear what they say, but the next moment a chaperone pulls me aside and tells me my clothing is causing a disturbance. Too tight, she scolds me, as if I am deliberately seeking male attention at San Quentin State Prison. I nod, and explain about my tiny roommate and her tiny roommate clothing, and as soon as she turns away I feel tears springing uninvited into my eyes. Why am I being accused of promiscuity, and the prisoner not accused of harassment? Then the lump forms in my throat, I know that I am crying for entirely the wrong reasons, and I hate myself for it. My hiccups become unbearably audible, attracting the attention of inmates and classmates alike. The former, who have seen enough tears in their lives to know how useless they are, are surprisingly sympathetic; my classmates look uncomfortable. Afterwards, I am remembered as the one whose humanity was so great as to weep at the prison’s misery. The conditions were horrifying, and the internal monologue buzzed loudly in my head, but I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that nothing moved me to tears until my own pride was wounded.

More than a year has passed since that afternoon, and I have not forgiven myself for that moment of vanity. But because in that moment I experienced the tiniest slice of what the men of San Quentin experience every day, I do not try to forget it. The humiliation of being punished for a rule I was set up to break, the burn of judgment that went through my skin, the relentless feeling of exposure and the inability to hide, the desperate wish to go home, and the list of colors not to wear. San Quentin State Prison wishes you a pleasant journey home.

 

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Blog, Blog feature, From the Editors »

[29 Sep 2014 | Comments Off | 110 views]

by Brian Tich

There’s a scene in the movie “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” in which we meet an aged Spanish poet, the father of the painter Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem). The eponymous Vicky, brought by Juan Antonio to meet this man, learns that the poet has deliberately chosen not to learn any language besides his native Spanish. As Juan Antonio puts it, “He writes the most beautiful sentences in the Spanish language, but he . . . he doesn’t believe that a poet should pollute his words by any other tongue.” Vicky seems to grasp only vaguely why this should be so, when she responds, “I understand, ’cause of the translation and the things you might lose.”

What is it, then, that you might lose? Learning a new language, you will have to experience the feeling of, “Somewhere, there is a three-year-old child—nay, a whole cohort of three-year-old children!—who can communicate with more precision and eloquence than I can.”  And this won’t be melodramatic; it will be true. For anyone who never questioned her own fluency, the idea of having the tongue amputated and then rebuilt with agonizing slowness (and never to the dexterity of its native original) is not just a trauma. It’s a permanent loss. After that, language, any language, can never be a given. Maybe when you first wrote something and it pleased you, maybe then you could hold together indistinguishably sound and meaning and connotation, not even wondering at the ease of rhythm, because there seemed to be no difference; it was all one thing. Think about how to conjugate your verb, find a substitute for the word you don’t know how to translate, and then you can’t believe anymore in an innate totality of language. Of course it’s still possible to achieve the effect, but you’ll know all the little ways in which language is a kind of alien object. You’ll know how strange it is that it ever seemed natural.

Despite this (or because of it), I can’t help but think that what we’re all doing here is finessing the loss. Whether the language is French or C++, chemistry or philosophy, photography or biology—in short, any of the things you might come to Stanford to study and get good at—we can’t claim not to have altered ourselves in this process, altered much more than our own sense of continuity would probably suggest. We’re eroding all the old feeling of unencumbered naturalness to make way for our newer, wider reach. So when I say that we’re finessing the loss, what I mean is something akin to the courtiers of Renaissance-era Europe, striving to inhabit an inimitable gracefulness that’s so powerful precisely because it’s no one’s native state. It isn’t false, it’s merely learned. Contrary to the poet’s fears, detaching from our born idiom doesn’t diminish us, but we trade it for all that’s greatly strange.

(this post originally appeared as the editor’s note to our Fall 2013 issue)

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Blog, Blog feature, From the Editors, Poetry »

[13 Jun 2014 | Comments Off | 505 views]

by Brian Tich

 

I did not sigh; I saw I was an invention. With forks I ate present wonders

and grew full and then read to fall asleep. It was obvious: only a malcontent wanders.

 

Airports act like cities. Cities act like people who ask you to learn by looking.

California, France, Anatolia, Russia, he doesn’t have to pay rent so he wanders.

 

How to pronounce soft vowels, tune slack distances?

In a language unclasped from people, places – how the accent wanders!

 

[though never can

circumvent wanders]

 

Writing by rhymes, I think about endings that arrive again (again)

and with all the same elements; it’s only that their sense wanders.

 

Writing by rhymes, I think about endings—like walking to a place, then pausing, then walking, pausing—

and how, between pauses, the intent wanders.

 

 

 

 

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[3 Jun 2014 | Comments Off | 1,137 views]

by Jackie Jin

The belief that you are deeply and truly a fraud is not an easy one to bear.  Over the past few years, it seems to me that I have encountered many who hold this perception of themselves to some degree.  One of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, considers with great detail insecurities of this nature—the small but deep doubts that haunt the corners of day-to-day life.

It’s not a secret that today’s average audience has become guarded and skeptical. We are cynics who have learned that where an individual is seen first as a consumer, easy emotion means nothing more than gullibility. If the goal of fiction is at its root a humanly true communication, contemporary American literature faces a unique challenge in a culture of readers that has decided out of necessity to prize remaining unmoved. Given this, it is no small wonder that Wallace has managed to revive a sense of literary authenticity—a response to postmodernism some have dubbed “New Sincerity.”

This movement is exemplified by “Good Old Neon,” one of Wallace’s short stories that explores the bizarre simultaneity of aloof irony and the competitive pursuit of a perfect life in modern culture. The story begins with the succinct and devastatingly intimate first sentence: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.” Aside from being all too relatable, it promises a certain truth in its bluntness. With the assumption of fraudulence clearly highlighted, the reader is free to shelve judgment and hope for honesty.

For those unfamiliar with “Good Old Neon,” Neal, the story’s narrator, can be considered something of a superficial, postmodern Renaissance man. The activities that fill his days read like a list of pursuits that a cool, multi-faceted friend might have: collecting and restoring vintage Corvettes, attending right-brain drawing workshops, meditating, “riding a ten-speed to Nova Scotia and back”—Neal seems to be on every level, for lack of a better term, a very real, whole person.  Achieving not only every traditional professional and romantic level of success, he is the impeccable consumer: a lifestyle connoisseur with a carefully manicured façade of excellence who, at the end of the story, commits suicide.

What kills him is arguably and ironically the pursuit of a “quicker, denser, more interesting” life—a life “livelier than […] life,” as Wallace describes in his essay “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Neal takes it upon himself to rise above the audience member’s paralysis, choosing instead to chase the vibrant, blemish-free life of a character. However, “too good for this world,” as he fantasizes his co-workers deeming him, is identifiable only to a viewer. Neal’s fundamental problem is that he “somehow cast [his] lot with [his] life’s drama’s supposed audience” even while desiring to be in every sense a conscious protagonist. He has correctly identified that what he desires to become—a main character “admired, approved of,” and most significantly, “applauded”—is unattainable unless he can constantly gauge and affirm his role through the eyes of the audience. This is the paradox: he cannot be both the protagonist and the viewer.

And so here is where we find Neal: a hollow, self-loathing imposter of a person attempting frantically to win over a crowd that, like himself, is contemptuous of cliché. The sad irony is that in a world where every truth is a cliché, the postmodern man is left with nothing to feel. Neal’s attempts through a variety of external stimuli to find an emotive reaction that he has not yet heard of or seen on television is unsuccessful, and he is unable to move past the futility of this pursuit.

The end of “Good Old Neon” is characterized by a charged velocity in narrative, beginning as Neal recounts a Cheers episode in which the cliché of a yuppie who is unable to love is met with uproarious studio laughter. He comes to the desperate, fearful realization that “the huge audience-laugh showed that nearly everybody in the United States had probably already seen through the complaint’s authenticity long ago,” demonstrating that what is essentially the struggle that defines him has, before even its existence in Neal, been observed, defined and resold. Here is the larger and more paradoxical irony: that something can become so true that it somehow becomes a farce.

In the last few pages, Neal’s hurtling stream-of-consciousness melds from the human to the omnipotent, from Neal’s fear and confusion to Wallace’s quietly desperate understanding:

“The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know.” The finale of “Good Old Neon” abandons story as Neal fades and Wallace’s authorial presence materializes. Wallace has reached the moment of intimacy necessary to touch a reader, but is even still aware that this suspension of irony cannot last. With a speed and syntax that suggests desperation, he demands the reader to consider what it means to be alive, to be real in the first-person, “the millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions […] the endless invent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities” and to not examine, as he knows everyone does, the seeming realness of others in comparison to the “dithering, pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person” we sometimes consider ourselves to be.

Wallace’s authorial power in “Good Old Neon” is his recognition of the irony fueling the American individual, and yet his (successful) request that the reader nonetheless trust him. The skeptic has been built narratively into the story already, freeing the reader from the contemporary impulse to mock the attempt. In Neal’s self-doubt is the everyman’s modern fear of a fundamental brokenness, of irony that has become life. Wallace’s message, intimate against all odds, is this: you are not a fraud.

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[2 Jun 2014 | 5 Comments | 825 views]

by Jen Ehrlich

Here it was; the e-mail I feared.  I had aimed too high.  Competing with applicants from around the world, candidates offering far more experience than I, there was no way that I would be selected.

I couldn’t ignore it forever, though.  Someone was sure to ask me about it.

I’d applied for an internship at a very distinguished San Francisco publishing house. I was pretty sure that a sophomore who had only just changed her major to English wasn’t exactly a hot commodity, but “you can’t win if you don’t enter,” so I did.

The e-mail read: “Hey Jen, We’d love to have you on board as an intern this summer.”

Thus, a happy ending to the story, no? Screen fades to black, credits roll to lively and celebratory music—Queen’s “We are the Champions” or Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” But that would be too simple.

As followers of this Blog know, I have a serious chronic illness that leaves me with limited energy and consumes much of that which I do have.   During the school year, I end up with five or so good hours in a day. This works out living on campus, attending classes only two or three hours a day, carrying a somewhat reduced courseload and taking breaks when I need them. How, though, will it work in an office where I have to be “on” all the time? And how will I navigate the challenging commute from Campus, since my situation makes finding a suitable short term apartment in the City almost impossible?

You might ask why I applied to this internship knowing full well my physical limitations and the problems they might cause. The answer is simple. Years ago, when I  fell ill, before I was diagnosed, before the doctors had any idea what was wrong with me, before I knew what the words “chronic illnesses” meant, I made a promise. I promised myself that no matter what happened to my body, I wouldn’t let it keep me from accomplishing as much as I would have healthy. This determination pushed me to finish high school despite immense difficulty and pain. It propelled me to Stanford. It keeps me here, despite the fact that if I pushed less hard and attended an easier school, I would suffer less and be healthier. But I don’t care. I want to be a writer. I want to use my experiences to help others. To provide the comfort, hope and entertainment that other artists gave me. That’s why I applied to this intense internship and that’s why I’m determined to complete it.

*

But this wonderful email of acceptance contained absolutely no information about how many hours I would work, how many days a week, or what my responsibilities would be. Working at a computer would be a lot different than running to Starbuck’s to buy coffee for the entire office or rushing packages to the post office at the last minute.

My application letter mentioned my battle with illness, so presumably those in charge of the internship program understood that I presented a unique situation – but what if they didn’t read that part very carefully or assumed I would be fully recovered by the summer?  My brain is fine, I can read/write/edit/study for hours at a time.  I can be as productive as any other intern.  But being in a hot, sunny room where I can’t control the temperature, sitting upright in tight and constricting clothes, putting on a smiling face and making light small chat might be required in an office—and that takes a different, more active type of energy. An energy of which I don’t have an abundant amount.

How to broach the subject?  What if they said they hadn’t realized there was an issue, and thus wouldn’t be able to honor the offer? What if they thought I was a slacker, who wanted the cachet of having worked there but didn’t want to put in any effort?  I wrote suggesting a meeting to discuss how I could be most useful and productive in light of my situation.  They’re very busy however, so I was told just to show up at the orientation on June 9th. They did tell me, “There is no specific hour limit for interns, but most interns find that they get most out of the internship if they are working 20 hours or more. The more you are in the office, the more interesting work you will be assigned.”

Twenty hours sounds reasonable, no?  Add in, though, another ten or more of commuting plus the ungovernable tendency of my body to unilaterally turn itself off when it’s overloaded, and the problem becomes more difficult. How to ask about telecommuting without sounding like a lazy bum? I didn’t know. I don’t know.

And thus, as summer approaches, I’m equally elated and terrified. Usually people apply to dozens of internships, get one, and then celebrate—but as with many things in a life with chronic illness, there’s a bittersweet taste to this good news. I don’t know if I will be able to spend 20 or more hours a week in the office. I don’t know if they will allow me to do some work from home, or if that would hurt their impression of me. So, with a smiling face I tell friends about my great news, while in my head all I hear is “yes…..but.” I don’t know what’s going to happen.

All I do know is that I will try. I will be there on June 9th, dressed in business casual with my dad’s old briefcase and a large, genuine smile. Despite my fears and doubts, I realize how lucky I am. I’m able to get out of bed and try. I’m healthy enough to attempt this adventure. I’m going to be working at an amazing company in my dream industry. I’ll meet incredible professionals and students from all over the world. I will learn and contribute as much as I can for as long as I can. I will push myself to my limit and beyond—but only a bit beyond, because a world-class internship means nothing if you are too sick to learn from it.

When I found out about my illness, I promised myself it wouldn’t keep me from accomplishing as much as I would have if I were healthy. I intend to keep this promise to the best of my ability.

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