Claudia Rankine’s gripping, compelling prose poetry on the subject of what it means to be a black citizen of the United States, conveys the stark, soul-injuring, relationship-injuring, experience of life-long microaggressions, from classmates, coworkers, neighbors, teachers, friends, and strangers. Addressing racism beyond the microaggression, into its most aggressive form–murder–Citizen also includes images of artworks and photographs that speak to poems. Rankine’s writing is as beautiful and intimate, as her subject is devastating and far-reaching. This is a vitally important work in the cultural conversation around racism, a must read.
This spring, in an interesting confluence of time-honored traditions, my child Asa will become a man. To explain the transformation, I need to start by backing up about 13 years, to when I was pregnant. I always wanted a girl child, and when I was pregnant with Asa I wanted a girl so much I thought for sure it would be my karma to have a boy. I made lists of all the boys and men that I really liked, and thought a lot about them, attempting to break down my biases. I wanted a girl because in general I liked females better than males. Aside from my partner Chris, my close relationships were all with women. I didn’t understand sports or the appeal of sports, and even though I’ve never been particularly girly myself, I thought it would be fun to have a child whose hair I could braid and put barrettes in. This last one wasn’t the main thing, of course, what I really wanted was a child I would have a close relationship with, and in my mind that was female. Asa has since told me that these were sexist notions, and that is true.
So, I was pretty thrilled when I got the ultrasound a few days before Asa was born, and the technician told me the baby was a girl. I was so sure I would be having a boy I doubted her words. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yep,” she said, “those are labia.” Asa is actually a boy’s name, but it was the one we chose, partly because it means healer, and Asa was born very medically complicated.
As I said, I have never been particularly girly, and in the early years neither Chris nor I were interested in dressing Asa in clothes all tricked out with pink and glitter and demeaning slogans like “Born to shop,” as is all the rage in capitalism these days. Also, Asa was mostly bald until the age of three, so many people–out at the parks, library, etc.–assumed Asa was a boy. We assumed Asa was a girl, given the anatomy, but, as it turned out, we were also wrong.
Asa enjoyed a variety of clothing as a kid, but by grade three was exclusively wearing “boys clothes.” I didn’t think much of it, that’s what I preferred at that age too, but then in grade four, in a classroom discussion, Asa heard the term “gender-neutral” for the first time, and a light bulb went off. Asa did not feel like a boy or a girl, and this was a term that fit. These days, three and a half years later, Asa prefers the term “non-binary.” Asa is not a girl, but luckily for me I did get my wish, in that I have a child with whom I have a close relationship, which is what I actually wanted, the anatomy is so beside the point. And luckily for all of us, we live in a time and place where there is a tremendous amount of support and acceptance for gender diversity, so Asa can be who they are without it being a problem.
We also are lucky to have an accepting extended family, and, at least on my side, one in which queerness is a family affair. My mom came out as a lesbian when I was eight years old. She told me, a little nervously, one day after school when we were walking up the driveway. I didn’t care either way, it was all the same to me, though I already felt more comfortable with women than men, so if she had girlfriends that would be easier on me. When my mom told her mother she was in a relationship with a woman, my grandma was unfazed. “Is she Jewish?” she wanted to know. She was Jewish (the first one, anyway)–hurrah!–and she was exceedingly nice to me. And my grandma told my mom that if she’d had the option, back in her day, she might have gone that way too.
As I grew up I identified as a “tomboy,” and I also liked boys, but, having a queer mom, it stuck in my psychology that heterosexuality was something a woman should grow out of, like a developmental stage. In high school when my friends’ moms were married to men or had boyfriends, I somehow thought, “How immature, aren’t they over that yet?” Even so, I myself remained straight, though a small dose of bi came in for a few years, and I eventually married a man. A man who likes sports! But also a man who was a women-studies major in university, who is a dancer, was into theater as a young person, and who, when speaking to a crowd—as his work often requires—can be mistaken for gay.
Asa is also very into theater. Asa is not just non-binary, Asa is an actor. Asa has been in a number of plays, including the ones we stage in the summer in our front yard, and always prefers male roles. About a year ago we watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof and Asa fell in love with it. I had seen it many times before, and I always cry the entire way through. Then we found out that this year’s spring musical at Asa’s middle school was going to be Fiddler, and we pretty much died and went to Heaven.
Asa loves musical theater, I’m not particularly a fan, but I do love Fiddler, because it’s really good, and it’s really Jewish. It’s the musical of our tribe. Asa prepared long and hard for the auditions, so much so that we had to put limits on how many times in a day Asa could sing the songs. Any song, no matter how gay or Jewish, with enough repetitions, will drive you insane. Asa auditioned for four parts: Tevye, the lead, and three smaller male roles, suitors of Tevye’s daughters. Marriage and tradition are central themes in Fiddler. The musical opens with a big number, a song called “Tradition,” which lays out the roles of each person in the family, according to gender, the roles that constitute the backbone of the society, in their village of Anatevka. Then the rest of the musical is devoted to the challenges to tradition, the breakdown of tradition, the changing of the times around tradition and its adaptations, and the adherence to tradition as a saving grace, and the tensions between these various dynamics.
As the drama, in our house, of the months of preparations, and the two weeks of auditions unfolded, I kept in close conversation with my cousin Leora. Leora is her own kind of queer and gender-diverse, feeling very strongly, spiritually, that she is a gay man. She lives as a woman and has not chosen to make any external transitions, but that doesn’t make her any less queer or trans. What matters, at least in the book of our family, is how you feel and identify. It’s the same for me, the queer community is also my community, even though I’m straight. Queerness is something I personally have in common with queer people, even though it actually isn’t.
Leora was very excited for Asa, and even invoked something metaphysical from her own past to bolster Asa, The Spirit of Queer Tevye’s, because when she was a teenager, and very into theater, she had a role in her high school’s production of Fiddler, and her gay friend landed the lead. She sent us a picture of the two of them in costume, with a few others of the cast. In Asa’s gender journey, Leora has been a terrific ally.
At last the auditions were over, and two days ago the decisions for the casting came down, and… drum roll please… Asa got Tevye! Not too shabby, especially for a grade seven kid, who had competition from grade eights, who were taller and possessed deeper voices. Yes, yes, not too shabby at all. The whole mishboucha is pretty excited.
Coincidentally, there is another queer and Jewish family event happening this spring, in that we will be celebrating Asa’s “barat” mitzvah, our non-binary take on the traditional Jewish rite of passage, the bar mitzvah (bat mitvah for girl), wherein the child, upon their thirteenth (or twelfth, depending) birthday, becomes an adult in the eyes of the community. Asa has been long preparing for this too, studying Hebrew with my dad over Skype each week, and beginning to write their speech on the portion of the Torah they will be chanting. Like many things with us, this will be a DIY affair, at our house with a small number of friends and relatives, a papier mache Torah, and a rainbow tallis (the traditional prayer shawl) sent by cousin Leora. There will be music, there will be food, and there will be a rendering of tradition adapted for the times. In this way, this spring, Asa will be a man on stage, a ritual adult at home, and as always, the child of my dreams.
Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming book House of Rougeaux. This historical family saga will be available everywhere books are sold in April, 2108. See description here.
The holidays are coming and that means parties, and parties mean party conversations. If you are in need of a new conversation opener, why not consider the following. In the realm of brain chemistry, we know that drugs work because we have natural receptors in our brains that will interact with them. The compounds in cocaine, for example, whatever those are, are close enough to compounds naturally generated in the brain—by happy or exciting circumstances—so that the drug can interact with our natural receptors. This is my layperson’s understanding. So let’s extrapolate. This will go unscientific, but never mind that.
Let’s think about our taste for things as having receptors. Most of us have chocolate receptors, though some do not. Many have receptors for the smell of roses, and some do not. If you ask someone about what receptors they do or don’t have, liking chocolate or roses won’t be very interesting. But what if we get a little more obscure? It could lead to a compelling conversation. It’s a different question than simply discussing what you like or don’t like, because there are things we think we should like.
Certain lack of receptors that I notice in myself leads me to conclude that I am inferior to those who do possess them. I have no receptors for Shakespeare, for example, or jazz, or sports, or gardening, or the deep, dark forests of British Columbia. I have a great respect for all these things. Jazz, for example, or those forests, both have a majesty, complexity and importance that I just barely grasp. I would never want them to go away. But I have no receptors for them. I can’t enjoy them. I can’t connect with them.
Some receptors can be pruned away over time; we’ve all had the experience for losing a taste for something. When I was little I had many receptors for television advertising. There were toys that in commercials looked like the ultimate never-ending fun, and foods that were surely doorways to a mouth-watering paradise.
I didn’t usually come in actual contact with things I saw advertised between cartoons, but I remember one time it did happen, when I went with a group of adults to a Sizzler restaurant for someone’s birthday. I had seen a Sizzler ad for a dish called “Malibu Chicken” and was sure it was the most delicious thing ever created. What I found on my plate was a dry chunk of chicken, with a congealed slice of cheddar cheese fused onto the top. It was ok, it was fine, but it was a lesson in the discrepancy between advertising and reality. Thankfully I no longer have receptors for advertising because the kinds of things I want or need are virtually never the subject of advertising campaigns.
As with losing a taste for something, we have also all had the experience of acquiring a taste, ie. the receptors. The first time I ate a piece of sushi was at a friend’s house. I was eight, I’d never heard of sushi and I didn’t know what I was looking at: little round slices of something white with a dark green edge. Was that zucchini? The next thing I knew I had something grainy, squishy and fishy in my mouth, and I felt my eyes bulge out. No receptors yet.
Sushi became more well-known in my part of the world in my late teens and early 20s, and I tried it a few more times, feeling neutral. But at some point, and quite suddenly, a massive growth of sushi receptors sprouted in my brain, signaling that this was heavenly food. This was no Malibu Chicken.
I haven’t yet had a chance to test out whether or not this is a subject you could broach at parties. What may happen is that people will not have receptors for talking about receptors, and what kinds they do or don’t have. Rather than launching into an animated conversation with me, they may just mumble something about needing to refill their drink and walk away. Then I will be alone next to a plate of olives, and I will whisper to them that I am full of olive receptors, and, at that moment, I won’t need anything else.
Where to start? Well, why not start with pussy-grabbing?
When I was seven years old I had a school friend my age named Zach. We totally hit it off, and bonded over things like singing along to Beatles songs on the class record player. We called ourselves “The Junior Beatles” and our favorite song was “Run For Your Life”, which is all about how the man will kill the “little girl” if he “catches her with another man”. Ironic, yes. Somehow I didn’t realize what the song was saying at the time, I just loved the music. I still do, except for the lyrics.
Anyway, Zach and I were great friends until the day came when we played a game outside with another boy, where we straddled the slide and took turns going through each other’s legs, like bridges. I went under the boys’ legs, then it was my turn to be the bridge. As Zach went under my legs he reached up and swatted me on the crotch. We were seven years old, and one could look at this as a harmless action, but there was harm done in that moment, and after it we weren’t friends anymore. The Junior Beatles disbanded.
In the realm of sexual harassment, if you put this moment in that category, and I do because of it’s impact on me, this was very minor. It was not the first, nor the last, nor the worst, of the harassment that I’ve experienced, but it communicated something very essential to me: that Zach did not view me as “Jenny” but as “a girl”, not a unique person but a person with a vagina, which was something he wanted to grab. I knew he wouldn’t have gone for my crotch if I was a boy. I didn’t tell him not to grab me there, I had no words to articulate what I felt, but I couldn’t be friends with him anymore after that, because in the context of the friendship I felt erased as a person.
The most misogynous joke I ever heard was this: What do you call the skin around a vagina? Answer: A girl. It’s a sick joke, right? But it does boil down the psychology to its bare essence, the one that underpins all acts of sexual violence.
My Characters Too – Sexual Assault/Harassment in Fiction
Some famous writer once said that as a writer you have to love your characters, and then you have to do terrible things to them. This was definitely the case for me in writing House of Rougeaux, where three of my seven protagonists survive sexual assault, harassment or misconduct. I included incidents of this kind of violence in the lives of these characters because women in their circumstances were much more likely than not to encounter it. These events were painful to write, one of them especially, and while I attempted to avoid anything gratuitous in their description, I had to try to make them seem real. Sexual violence is not a principal theme in the book, but the incidents do drive the plot and have an impact on all the characters.
Historically, and I think we can include the present era in history, all females living under patriarchy have been subject to sexual violence, and the less power we have in society, due to race, class and/or other factors, the more subject we are. Currently, as we know, there’s a lot of media attention on celebrities and powerful men in Hollywood that are known to be sexual predators, with women bravely coming forward to speak out, and some of these men are finally facing some consequences. It seems like a step in the right direction. Why sexual predators are routinely granted impunity and protection, by both men and women who surround them, is a big fucking mystery to me, and I think is, frankly, the worst part of all.
Case in point, as if anyone needs another one: Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of a popular radio show on CBC (Canada’s equivalent to NPR), a supposedly progressive organization. For years, Ghomeshi aggressively harassed and assaulted numerous women, coworkers included, and the CBC management did nothing. Finally, when he faced criminal charges –again, after some brave women spoke out and took action– he was fired. As a radio listener I myself was duped. I liked the show and actually thought the guy was a feminist. But apparently he had a reputation all over Toronto, and women who had gone to the police, or to their supervisors at CBC, were routinely ignored.
Let’s imagine one of these exchanges:
Employee: “My boss just grabbed me from behind and said he wanted to ‘hate-fuck’ me.” (This really happened BTW).
“Yeah, well, he’s a celebrity, so… I will just ignore you now.”
Like Cosby, Ghomeshi was found not-guilty in the end and faced no penalty, but personally I take comfort in the fact that his life and reputation are trashed. He may not serve any jail time, but I can’t imagine he hasn’t finally had some real consequences.
As we all know, it’s not just rich and powerful, and/or celebrity men who carry out this kind of behavior, it’s anyone who exploits whatever power differential is at hand. Most of us never deal personally with the rich and powerful, but all females deal with males, and there are a lot of misguided and predatory males. It is true that there are female perpetrators and male victims, I would never discount the truth and suffering there, but the numbers are drastically different. So, being female: Me too, and my characters too. Of course I’ve been harassed. Is there a woman out there who has not been harassed for being female? I myself am not a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, but many women close to me are. For some reason I got lucky.
I’ve been lucky in all kinds of ways, including having parents who defied patriarchal norms: my mom was strong and independent, my dad was gentle and kind, and I spent my childhood in the Free-to-be-You-and-me 1970’s San Francisco Bay Area. Even so, the messages that sexual violence was normal (like the Beatles song, uncritically played in the classroom) were all around, starting early with Saturday morning cartoons. Was it entertaining when Bluto carried off the yelping Olive Oil? Was it funny when Pepe Le Pew forced himself on the cat? No, it was repulsive. And I don’t mean that intellectually, I felt repulsed as a child. In the pantheon of male superheroes there was only Wonder Woman to look up to, and she, unlike the guys, had to parade around virtually naked. By the time I was four years old I had internalized so many messages about the weakness and objectification of women that I refused to wear dresses. I didn’t want to be a weak victim, I wanted autonomy, so I responded in the only way I could at the time.
As an adult, and as a writer, I continue to respond in the ways I think I can, and these themes show up in my books, because I am principally interested in the empowerment of women. In House of Rougeaux, for example, the young Martine Rougeaux, working as a domestic in the home of an upper-class white family, in Montreal in 1925, finds herself alone one day with her employer, who crosses a line and scares her to death, setting events in motion that alter her life.
On this altered course, Martine encounters and old school friend, Lucille Travis, a young woman who makes her living as a dancer in a nightclub. Having lost her older brother in The Great War, and her father before him to illness, Lucille becomes the sole breadwinner for the rest of her family –her ailing mother and her ten year old brother. Financially, being a dancer is the best of the few options available to Lucille, but she pays the price of being shunned by her church-going community—the community to which Martine and her family belong. Reconnecting with her friend, and in light of their respective situations, Martine is forced to reexamine her notions of morality, and must negotiate with her family when she and Lucille devise a plan together that is both small and radical.
So, me too, and my characters too. But I would also like to propose an alternate “Me too” here, because the women I know who are survivors of sexual violence are also incredible responders, who have spent years courageously speaking out, healing themselves, empowering other women, and raising compassionate, empowered, responsible kids. I can’t claim to have ever done anything heroic, not like many women I know, and not like my characters. But I do what I can to support other women, and do what I can to raise an empowered kid. I’m pretty proud of that.
Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming novel House of Rougeaux, to be published April 24th, 2018. House of Rougeaux is available for preorder here, or find out more at www.houseofrougeaux.com.
The first time I felt that life had no purpose was the summer I was twelve. It was terrifying. I was living in a lackluster apartment with my dad, in a complex behind a Payless, in the small, Northern Californian town of Ukiah, which in summer was a baked-dead wasteland. I was too old for camp, too young to work, and the few friends I had were gone for the summer or had moved away. Unlike previous summers, mostly spent living in Berkeley, I had nothing to do and no one to do it with.
While my dad was at work I ate cereal and watched a series of TV shows until about two in the afternoon, when there was nothing on but soap operas, which even I couldn’t tolerate. Then I would go swimming by myself in the complex’s little pool for a couple of hours. Then I would go back inside and watch TV again. I had no wherewithal to create or sustain my own projects for the span of a whole summer, and no one to help me, and life very quickly lost all flavor and meaning.
I know now that if I had raised hell, demanded that my dad send me to camp, or find me something to do, he likely would have done it, but it didn’t occur to me that that was an option. The next summer was exactly the same. It was dreadful. Now, at forty-six, I’ve have had some bad times in my life, but I have to say those two summers still rank among the worst. Having read something about the adolescent brain, and its intense need for stimulation and new experiences, I have a better understanding of why those summers were such torture, and why they left me forever with a certain fear of summer in general. Of course, it’s not really summer I learned to fear, but the feeling of purposelessness.
At some point later in my adolescence, afflicted off and on with the feeling of purposelessness, I noticed that if I was having a good time I never thought about purpose. If fun wasn’t available, school and work—if not always fulfilling—at least staved off that lurking feeling.
In our culture there is much ado about finding your purpose. Some formulas for this seem hopelessly self-serving, pursuing some “passion” that does nothing to contribute to the betterment of the community. Other formulas focus so heavily on selfless service (in the face of the world’s overwhelming suffering) that they seem like recipes for total burnout. In the camp of non-dual spirituality, of which I’m generally a fan, purpose (Ekhart Tolle-style) is often simply whatever you are doing in the moment. If you are peeling a carrot, at that moment the purpose of your life is to peel that carrot. I like this one in theory, but since I’m not enlightened I don’t get a ton of mileage out of it.
On the other hand, all these formulas have a side of the coin (a three-sided coin?) that seems essential. J.P. Sears, the redhead who makes those funny Ultra Spiritual videos, says that it’s his delusional opinion that perhaps the purpose of our lives is to fully embrace our own special weirdness, because that leads us to our authentic selves, and thus to living the lives we are meant to live. He says his favorite commandment is one that didn’t make it on the tablets: Amuse Thyself. I think this is also a really nice way to look at it, so let’s make that coin have four sides.
All of this musing leads me precisely nowhere. One thing I can say is that (at the time of this writing) tomorrow is Halloween. My child, Asa, who is twelve, and, as far as I can tell, has not yet encountered the feeling of purposelessness, has decided to be “Greek Mythology,” which is a costume composed of many elements. Yesterday, for about twenty minutes of the afternoon, the purpose of my life was to make a trident for the costume, using cardboard, masking tape, and a long stick. A few years before I learned to know the feeling of purposelessness, I learned a more essential life lesson: that you can make just about anything with enough cardboard and tape. This, at least, is wisdom I know I can impart to Asa. For now, I’ll just cling to that.
Two days ago I discovered a podcast called The Mash-Up Americans, a show hosted by Amy Choi and Rebecca Lehrer, two hip, culturally mixed first- and second-generation American women. I’ve only heard two episodes, but I’m pretty sure I’m already a big fan. So far I’ve heard them talk about their upbringings, choices in parenting their children, and heard them interview (among others) wunderkind Hasan Minhaj. The way they deal with the complex themes of race, culture and nation are nuanced, beautiful, and so so smart.
In each of the episodes I’ve heard the hosts have asked and discussed the question, posed to children of immigrants, “What do you spend money on that your parents don’t?” I suspect this is one of their signature questions, and is one that reveals a lot about a person’s experience with family and culture.
My parents are not immigrants, they are second-generation Americans with a touch of first-generation, since my dad’s mother emigrated at the age of nine. All my grandparents spoke Yiddish which, typical for their generation, they spoke at home when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. Even though I’m a third-generation American, I really resonated with the question about spending money differently from your parents. It tends to be a Jewish thing to retain an identification with being an immigrant, even if you aren’t. It’s part of the cultural identity and has a very long history.
For a little context on money-spending, my grandparents were working class, lived through the Depression, and raised their kids with the assumption that they would go to university. Both my parents were the first in their families to do this. When my dad was in school his father ran a janitorial service, that my dad and his brothers worked for. My grandfather eventually put himself through school, becoming a respected professor of education. The money question from the podcast highlights the frugality of the immigrant parents, and my family was no exception on this front.
Did you ever hear the joke “How was the copper wire invented?” Answer: “Two Jews fighting over a penny.” Ha, ha, right? Yeah, well that kind of joke isn’t funny at all. It’s just another joke based on stereotypes to keep minorities down. You could spend all day unpacking a joke like this, but one of the things it does is take the concept of frugality and turn it into something competitive, vicious, and laughable.
Once I heard the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, in a radio story, talk about how her Chinese immigrant father, though he was a highly paid engineer, used a Frosted Flakes box as a briefcase, or when the elbows of his sweater wore out he simply wore it backward. It’s funny, especially how Tsing Loh tells it, but memories of poverty die hard. I myself was raised with something akin to this kind of frugality. My dad has shirts that were once a cotton-poly blend, but that are so old that the cotton has, over time, washed away. They are entirely transparent, but as my dad says, “They’re still good!” My mom once had a shirt that was the big anomaly in her closet because, as she said, “I actually bought it new.” Their frugality, which I inherited as DNA, goes way beyond clothing, but you get the idea.
More than money-spending habits, frugality could be called a way of being in the world. It helps you make the most of your opportunities, shields you from disaster, views waste as shameful and keeps you from using more than your share. It has something of the “Waste not, want not” vibe, combined with the lofty “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”
The Kind of Frugal…
Thankfully I didn’t turn out to be a hoarder, actually I’m a bit of a minimalist, but I do notice a contrast with my partner Chris whose heritage is mostly Irish and whose immigrants came over a little earlier than mine. If Chris doesn’t want the crusts on his bread, for example, he throws them away. This is alien to me. First of all, in my book, you eat it whether you like it or not. But if you really don’t like it, you make it into something else. Our child, Asa, doesn’t like the crust on the sourdough bread I make and typically serve for breakfast. I don’t mind cutting those off, but I turn them into French toast when they’ve accumulated enough.
Some would read this and chalk it up as evidence that Jews are stingy. Maybe it’s one way we’ll never really shed that immigrant status. When one of the hosts of The Mash-Up Americans asked Hasan Minhaj what he spends money on that his parents don’t, he said sneakers. In a different episode, one of the hosts answered for herself that her thing was booze. I wonder though if, in other ways, they are frugal like their parents. I bet it’s a hard one to fully escape.
When I heard the podcast question I thought about it for myself. What do I spend money on that my parents don’t? For a long time I couldn’t think of anything. I’m just as frugal as they are. And by the way, they aren’t frugal as a unit. They have been divorced for 30 years, they are separate frugal individuals. Finally I did think of something, something I would guess constitutes as much of a contrast to the worldview of the parents as sneakers and booze: I go to a chiropractor, and regularly.
Since around 2001 I have regularly seen a chiropractor, different ones in different cities, but the same style, and spent many thousands of dollars to do it. All of these dollars have been personally life-saving, and I’m very grateful I’ve had the resources. Separately I’ve tried to get my parents to go too, when they’ve had back problems or other health concerns. I’ve tried to get them to go to acupuncture and other things I think would help them, but they won’t do it. They won’t even try it once.
Both of my parents have lived in California almost their whole lives. They lived in many communes in the ‘70s and ‘80s (see my childhood for more info on that). They eat organic, they vote Democrat, they felt The Bern, my mom is a lesbian. They are not strangers to alternative lifestyles. But bodywork? For their health? Forget it. It’s not on the radar.
When it comes to clothes, and many other materials in life, I’m exactly like my parents. My partner and child and I dress in second-hand clothing and sometimes even that’s not enough. Asa’s jeans last year were the previous year’s jeans (bought second-hand) with patches and extensions I sewed on myself. Asa was into the artsy look. But then those got too small, so a couple of weeks ago I found five pairs of jeans at a thrift store which, thanks to a sale and the dollar rack, cost a total of $12. I felt my Grandma Eve, my mom’s mom, who worked for years in a thrift store, smiling down at me from Heaven. With a little alteration (one of my super powers) they fit Asa perfectly.
So Asa is eating bread crust French toast and wearing recycled clothing and I’m confident I’m instilling frugality in the next generation. But we also both go regularly to the chiropractor, since I consider it an important piece of our wellness plan. “Save your pennies and your bread crusts, and see your chiropractor.” Maybe Asa will say one day, “Listen to Grandma.”
Just posting my latest review of fellow graphic novelist MK Czerwiec’s important work about the 90s AIDS epidemic. And just finished a working vacation where I took new author photos. Not my favorite thing to do, but we got a few shots I can live with.
Also, we finalized the cover and description for my forthcoming novel House of Rougeaux. See those here. If you are eager for this new book, I believe it will be available for preorder by the end of October, for an April 2018 delivery. Stay tuned.
Another graphic memoir captures the heart and soul of a piece of history. Taking Turns follows MK, a nurse in an unorthodox care unit, Unit 317, of a hospital in Chicago in the 1990’s, the height of the North American AIDS epidemic. In simple, straightforward drawings and prose, MK creates a portrait of this devastating time, during which a community came together with great bravery and compassion to respond to the epidemic. A very personal, yet universal, meditation on life and death, sometimes funny and sometimes profound. MK does not paint herself as a hero, but she certainly is one.
The award ceremony took place in June in New York during the Book Expo America, which I hear is a big shin-dig. Just as I wrapped up House of Rougeaux, my first novel, I began writing the next book in what will be a series. I did not plan it this way, but turns out there is more to tell. I have been collaborating with the publisher and designer, working on getting the cover for House of Rougeaux just right. We’ve been working for months now. It’ll be nice to finally get to that stage where the advance copies are printed, hopefully soon. Stay tuned for more about House of Rougeaux, like a description and the cover! It’s scheduled to publish in the Spring of 2018.
Hilarious, harrowing, heartfelt and heroic, Trevor Noah’s memoir paints a vivid picture of a childhood and coming of age pre- and post-apartheid, a picture of a brilliant, trouble-making young man emerging from a chaotic life, and a stunning portrait of his fiercely loving and powerful mother. Deeply insightful into life, love, the political and the personal, from every angle, and beautifully written, this book will grab you with both fists and drag you (willingly) for the full duration of its wild ride.
Two disabled high school wrestlers from inner-city Cleveland, with a unique and powerful friendship, find an unlikely champion in a television producer. This difficult story of love and perseverance, in the face of crushing poverty and trauma, is deeply compelling from beginning to end, heartbreaking and inspiring.
Award-winning author Jenny Jaeckel has a collection of stories out called For the Love of Meat. It is the perfect summer read: Literary but not cerebral, a bit of soft romance and lots of historical variety. Her ebook is on sale starting today and over memorial day weekend (2017). It’s never been just $.99, so if you haven’t already, download this gem!
Recently, I was asked on to the podcast ONE BAD MOTHER to talk about my graphic memoir Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU. It’s a 100-page comic about my experience as a mother with a baby in the NICU, and how, in part, my mental health worsened over the course of the hospital stay.
When I was on the podcast, Biz Ellis asked me if I had advice for parents, friends or family with someone they love in the NICU. I found I had a lot to say about the subject! I thought it might be worth sharing this information here, just in case it might help someone else in a similar situation. There’s definitely more in the podcast interview, and you can find it in itunes or here’s the link to episode 189: ONE BAD MOTHER.
So here it goes, if I had known then what I know now… here is what I would have told myself:
1) Get as much help and support as you can.
When Asa was in the NICU I needed help with the basics. I needed help with food, with laundry, etc. and I needed someone to stay with Asa when I had to do other things. Chris and my mom and I took turns staying with Asa, so we were able to cover a lot of time, but we still needed other people. Chris was working, my mom was doing all kinds of errands, I was on the breast pump many hours a day, and once we started the tracheostomy training the three of us were away from Asa at the same time for 3 hours twice a week.
I also needed to get outside and take a walk every day, though I didn’t know it at first, I needed the fresh air, the exercise and a touch of normalcy. Every minute I was away from Asa felt like a heinous crime on my part, but the more I walked the better off I was. Unless a person is injured or too depleted, exercise is actually medicine for every known ailment, mental or physical, scientifically proven.
I also very much needed emotional support. All the focus was on Asa, the one in the picture who was in critical condition and who needed everything, so all that focus was entirely appropriate. On the other hand, I was in crisis, having been through a traumatic birth and then dealing with Asa’s ongoing medical crisis. What I really needed was to talk to someone every single day. At first I just talked to someone once in awhile. There weren’t that many people I felt I could call for support, and I didn’t want to over-tax anyone. A few months in I began talking with one of the hospital psychologists once a week. That was great, but there were a hell of a lot of hours in between those appointments. Finally I asked a few family friends if I could call them regularly for support and they said yes, so in the end I was able to talk to someone most days, even if it was only a few minutes. I asked my support people to help me with calming down and thinking positively, or sometimes I just cried my eyes out.
2) That baby is YOUR baby.
Having a baby in the NICU means that as a primary care provider you, the parent, are immediately ousted. Or at least it can seem that way. However, no matter what happens, that is YOUR baby. TRUST your instincts! The doctors and nurses are authorities in the situation, but you have instincts about how to care for your baby that no one else does. Find every way you can to be with your baby, talk and sing to your baby, touch your baby, find ways to hold your baby even if you can’t pick them up. Asa had some procedures that required holding still, we found that Asa stayed much calmer if we helped with the holding and spoke soothing word throughout. We found that some of the medical staff were very encouraging for us to participate in Asa’s care, and some acted like we were in the way and interfering. I was often worried about ruffling their feathers, I worried Asa’s care would suffer if I complained or asked for too much. What I would say to myself then, knowing what I learned in the process, is: don’t worry about pissing people off a little. Advocate for your child for what you think is best. Be as diplomatic as possible, of course, but do what you think is right!
3) Look out for signs of postpartum depression.
Prior to Asa being born I didn’t have a history of depression and I didn’t know the signs. For the first month or two I was pretty constantly upset and terrified, but I assumed I was just reacting as any normal person would react to the events that were unfolding. However, over time, and with all the accumulated stress and trauma, I descended down into a very deep depression. One of the things I noticed (in hindsight) was that at a certain point I got no relief from crying. Normally if I am upset about something to the point of crying, and I cry, then afterward I feel some relief, calmer, I can think better, and I can move into a happier emotional state. Once I was depressed I felt exactly the same after crying as before, which was terrible all the time, there was no emotional variation. Another thing that happened was that I could no longer do normal things, like wash dishes. When Asa was in the NICU, Chris and I stayed in an on-site residence at the hospital for parents of NICU babies. We had a sink in our room and it would get piled up with dirty dishes, and I would look at them but not be able to get up and wash them. I also had relentless dark thoughts. Thankfully I never became suicidal, but if I was crossing a street and saw a car coming, I did think “what if…” Lastly, though there were other signs, there was the moment when I clashed with my mom over something tiny, completely lost it, and attacked a Coke machine. Then, after hitting the Coke machine as hard as I could, I dropped to the ground and screamed. I screamed in a public place. Things had gotten pretty far. After that incident I made the decision to get on anti-depressants. Had I known the signs of serious depression I would have made that decision a lot sooner, and I believe it would have helped me be a little more sane.
How is Asa Now?
Asa is doing great and, since 5th grade, is using the pronouns they/them. They had the hole in Their neck that was made for the Tracheotomy repaired over a year ago. I did a series of blog posts that are more detailed about her childhood. You can find those here: Raising Asa.
Spot 12, the book
My graphic memoir Spot 12 (memoir in comic book form) was published in October 2016, and is available In the US and Canada everywhere books are sold. There are also some copies in various libraries in the US and Canada. It is also available in Spanish (called Cunero 12). The ebook version of Cunero 12 is available now, and the Spot 12 ebook should be appearing soon. Thanks for your interest in my work!