Short Prose and Fiction
I made myself up.
Not English, not Hungarian, not Romani Gypsy. I took what there was and made this. Self-fashioned. A creation. A nineteen-year-old office worker who writes poetry on the sly. Who cooks egg and chips for her widowed dad. Who lives in London. Who answers to the name of Susie. Who is about to be married.
The mirror tells me I am black-haired, brown-skinned, my eyes as dark as the Romani girl I was born as. My fiancé, Colin, tells me I am beautiful.
He tells me this while tracing the shape of my nose and the bones of my face with a fingertip. Perhaps we are lying under a tree. Perhaps the tree is in Finsbury Park, or Hampstead Heath, or out of London altogether. The day we take the train away from the soot, chimney pots, and ruins of war. Yes, it is that day, on the edge of Epping Forest, a picnic basket open beside us, its contents half eaten. Sun streams through the leaves of the tree. In its green yellow glow Colin's eyes shine, his irises the color of leaves.
He is propped on one elbow and leans over me. He tells me I'm his princess, his queen, Venus herself. Today I believe all these things. Colin's voice is a lilt. It touches me softly. Rising and falling, like the hills of Wales he came from.
When I speak, London comes out of my mouth.
Its hurried, slightly choppy rhythm has become comfortable, the way a shoe does after being worn day after day. Sometimes I wonder how I used to sound. My little girl voice, before Zsuzsa became Susie. When Zsuzsa was still Paprika. Before I had shoes. When I lived in Budapest. I used to listen to Mum and Dad talk between themselves in the old language. I'd listen to the shapes of their words, or the occasional burst of song when Dad was shaving, trying to hear my little girl self. But she had already flown away.
Now Mum is dead and Dad has gone quiet.
Hungary has gone quiet. Become a dream with a courtyard. Become shreds of forgotten language, fragments of song. Become a blue river. Become the memory of a sunflower. Become the memory of a sister, her face fading like a photograph left in sunlight.
I place English flowers on my mother's grave. Long stem daisies and forget-me-nots. She lies in an English graveyard. Her stone says "Elizabeth, wife of Alexander" not Erzsebet, wife of SaZdor.
I eat fish and chips, Toad in the Hole and mashed potatoes. Jam doughnuts and custard tarts. I read the Bronte sisters, and poems by Robert Browning. Jane Eyre is my sister, and Scotland is my home. My wedding dress is borrowed. I am borrowed. My dress is white satin and doesn't fit me well. I will stuff the bust with rags, curl my hair with rag curlers, and I'll do. I don't fit this country, but I'll do.
The war has ended, and I am still here.
London is a shambles, my mother is dead, but I am here.
My skin looks very brown against the white satin of my ill-fitting wedding dress, but the Church of England vicar will marry me just the same.
Mum tried to take me with her when she died. I felt her pulling and tugging from wherever she was, and for a while I wanted to go. Then I woke up one day and decided to stay, and she floated away. Like a breeze going out of the window instead of coming in.
During the war I was sent away. Out to the countryside with all the other children. A gas mask in a box, a tag around my neck. Maybe if I'd stayed behind in London I'd be dead.
"Pinch me Colin. I can't believe I'm really here." Sometimes I say that.
Last Friday night, standing in a halo of light under a lamppost, waiting for a bus, with Colin's arm curled about my waist. "I can't believe I'm really here."
Each time I say it, I hear the wonder in my own voice.
Maybe if I'd stayed behind in Hungary I'd have been rounded up like my sister Rozsa, taken to a concentration camp, and I would be dead. Like Rozsa's husband, and their baby, and my Granny, and all the others I can't remember. Or maybe I'd be alive, but barely, and thin as a shadow, with a number beginning with "Z" tattooed on my arm. Like the one my Auntie Maria showed my mother, when after the war she arrived from who knows where, just long enough to tell her terrible stories before she disappeared again.
But these are things I mustn't speak of. Dad forbids it. The sadness because of it killed my mother.
As it is, I am alive, and will marry and have children.
"Pinch me Colin. Tell me I'm here."
"You're here, love. We're here."
I'm so glad of Colin's voice, the spring in his step, and the firm, believable shape of him. Glad of our future together. Glad of the bustle of London, of the building and re-building going on all over the city these days. Glad that I am alive.
Sometimes, when we're in the park, I loosen my hair from its combs and pins, and let it tumble down my back. I kick off my shoes, and let my skirts swirl, showing off my strong legs. Colin thinks of me as Gypsy then. "A real Gypsy girl," he says, and "Free as a Gypsy." Nothing could be further from the truth. I laugh, because sometimes I don't know what else to do. Running barefoot between the trees on Hampstead Heath, shrieking and running, him chasing me down into a bomb crater that's filling up with new green grass, running up the other side and out again. I run barefoot between trees, shrieking and running. Then I stop. My breath comes in spurts because of the running.
"There's nothing free about being Romani. It's not about freedom. It's about poverty... and persecution..."
My feet are dusty. Maybe I'm remembering something from a long time ago.
Most of the time I wear shoes.
I like shoes with heels that click. I like walking in the city. I want people to know I passed by, that Susie was here, and I'm not leaving.
There are so many things Colin doesn't know. I will marry him anyway, and maybe he'll never find out. How it is sometimes. Even now, walking down Essex Road, on my way to the office where I work, stepping firmly, holding my head high. I hear both catcalls and whistles. Men call out from building sites.
"`old up a minute darlin'..."
"Wot you doin' tonight then love?"
But it's not always darling or love they call me. Sometimes it's blackie or darkie or Gyp, and it's as if I'm back on the school playground again. The other day, a gob of spit landed at my feet.
"England for the English!"
I cranked my head a little higher, stepped over the spit, and kept walking, the crisp sound of my shoes, rat a tatting my reply. Avoiding the cracks in the paving stones, I hurried on. One more office girl on her way to a bus-stop, past another bombsite, breathing the same dust as everyone else, her heart beating just a little bit faster.
There's never any sense in looking back. I just go on.
- Anna Balint
thoughts on the impending completion of a library branch which is being built across the street from my house
I'm almost sure there will be some sort of hum. A murmur perhaps, most likely low, probably very low. Although it could be high, maybe a small bird-like noise, an indistinct fluttering sound. For some reason I don't sense anything in the middle registers, why this is I'm not sure. You'd think it would be louder at night but of course that's not the case, it would just seem that way. Even then you would have to be very quiet to hear it, that kind of quiet where you almost have to squint, your heartbeat drumming in your ears. The novels and magazines and textbooks and biographies, all of them vibrating with information, urgency. Pamphlets and maps and books on tape lining the shelves, stacks upon stacks, the words and sounds and images piled up to the ceiling. Dictionaries and leaflets and compact discs all of it crying out to be read, listened to, gazed at, thumbed through, glanced over, absorbed, processed and put once again back on the shelf in the exact same spot from where they came. It's the sound of empires falling and continents shifting, universes expanding and collapsing, the mourning of that which was lost and the celebration of the things yet gained. A burst of laughter off in the distance on a warm summer night. The subtle hiss of the sun as it rises out of the ocean.
I just hope it doesn't keep me up at night.
- David M. Bowen
As a child growing up in small-town Ohio, I loved to read. I read in my room, I read in my basement, I even climbed trees and read up in the limbs in the sky until the alcoholic neighbor lady would come out and yell at me to get down. Later, as a teenager, that first love evolved into something new - what I really loved was to write. While all the other high school students rolled their eyes and complained about having to write papers, my dirty little secret was that I loved it. I loved the whole process, from researching to writing to revising and editing.
Being a little on the quiet side, people knew I was smart but nobody really knew that I loved to write, except my English teacher, who submitted some of my work to the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. As a junior, I was given a national honor as a Promising Young Artist in Writing. Now I had another dirty little secret.
I did not want to pursue writing, as I only knew of writers as journalists or being described with adjectives like "starving," and I certainly wanted no part of that. I took the letters of interest and even scholarship offers from colleges (one a full-ride!) and hid them in a brown paper sack under my bed. To this day, I never even told my parents.
You could say I was stupid, or you could say I was just not ready. Honestly, I did not understand the ability I possessed, nor that I potentially had a "voice" as an artist. What would I say, the only Asian kid in my whole school? I couldn't write about my Japanese culture - no matter what I might say, everybody always called me Chinese anyway. It never occurred to me that perhaps my words could impact any of that.
Only now, 20 years later, through some struggles of my own and through the creative inspiration of others within my community have I come back to writing. Having the rich diversity of Beacon Hill helped coax me out, I think, helped me to realize that I did have a voice. Maybe in my mind I pulled out that brown paper grocery bag and restarted where I left off. Within the last year, I started to call myself a writer, even though I hadn't published anything. Funny, but somehow everybody believed me. Even me. I edited a book. I began to freelance for local publications. I wrote wonderful pro bono stories for nonprofit organizations. I even hunkered down to be quiet and allow some poetry to come through again.
I draw most of my inspiration from within our community. So many people see "culture" as an acquired luxury, culture being what you get for paying $50 for opera tickets at the Seattle Center or perhaps something you would pay lessons for. On the contrary, I see culture as coming out of our day-to-day lives, an emanation from our neighbors, from our homes, from our children. As people of color, sometimes this part of our voice has been overlooked, ignored, stereotyped. We are very real to ourselves and fiercely dependent on each other, but in many ways invisible to an outside "audience."
We are not invisible to ourselves. We live, breathe, talk, sleep and walk our culture. We could not contain it if we even tried. Our culture lives every day. And sometimes, as in my poem, when the time is right, one small, everyday occurrence will shake the world. What then? The impact could be large and loud - a Tsutakawa playing jazz or splashing art across the country. It could be Ken Mochizuki sharing stories around the world. It could be our community center youth taking stage to dance at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Or the impact could be a smaller one, with a quiet ripple effect - a simple and humble obasan taking her grandchild to preschool on the bus every day, Filipino mothers loading up tables full of food for an event, an old Chinese uncle walking home with a live turtle in a bag for soup later that evening.
I've been in Seattle and living on Beacon Hill since 1995. My kids have gone to preschool on Beacon Hill, and we are regulars at the Community Center and Red Apple Market. We are also probably one of the most regular patrons of the Beacon Hill library branch. It holds a wealth - books and materials at hand in my own neighborhood, available almost every day - what treasure! To me, it seems like magic, all these books for free. I come often, with my two young children and on my own. I feel my obligatory allotment of Japanese shame when my books are overdue, but with 30 cents I am exonerated to go browse the shelves again.
And so, we come. I love my community, and I am fairly certain that because of the diversity and leadership here, my children won't be hiding their dreams in brown grocery bags underneath their beds. I am grateful that my bag never got lost. It waited for me.
- Elaine Iwano