Author Archives: Abbie Lahmers
Thank you to everyone who submitted to the Unclassifiables Contest! We’re excited to start reviewing your work. Watch for finalists announced this fall. In the meantime, we’re reading fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and flash fiction starting today for our regular reading period. You can read our guidelines here and read digital back issues for only $3 for the rest of the month to acquaint yourself with the journal. Get to know us by reading authors we’ve published. For a limited time, a subscription includes a full year and a half (three issues) of Arts & Letters issues to peruse.
Congratulations to the winners of our 19th Annual Arts & Letters Prizes. Winners in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction receive $1000 and publication in the upcoming Fall issue of Arts & Letters. The Drama Prize winner receives $500 and a travel stipend to see his one-act play performed at Georgia College and State University.
Rumi Prize for Poetry
Judge: Richard Garcia
WINNER: George Looney, for poems after photographs by Walker Evans
“’It Isn’t Always Classical’—the first line is a great opening for a poem, I can imagining a story or even a novel starting with those lines—‘Waiting it out is what those who live here/would say they’re up to, if asked.’ These are poems with complicated, nostalgic narratives, with many characters, some alive at the time of the photo, some absent or deceased. There is mention of music in the poems, and they seem to have a ghostly soundtrack. These poems are of a high achievement, complicated, intelligent, and lyrical.”
Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley
Patricia Colleen Murphy
Judge: Amy Hassinger
WINNER: Leslie Campbell, for “The Tasmanians”
“I found this story rich with the heavy content of its characters’ lives, particularly Mariam’s, as she tries—and fails—to escape from a past that haunts her mercilessly. The narrative is as full of well-chosen objects as her own closet, and they seem to spill out into the story and take it over in a way that supports her drastic decision at the end…. I love how the story is weighted with a larger sense of history—the world pressing itself into the lives of these very specific characters in their very specific universe. Beautifully done.”
Wes Civilz, for “First World Problem”
Stephen Hundley, for “Dog”
Sarah Earle Záhořík, for “The Present Unreal”
Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction
Judge: Sonja Livingston
WINNER: Courtney Zoffness, for “It May All End in Aleppo”
“’It May All End in Aleppo’ is worthy of a prize for the language alone. A gorgeous meditation on place, the writing is lush and descriptive and brings together images of 1960’s Aleppo with the haunting images of modern Syria we’ve all seen. But it’s the added twist of the writer’s perspective as a ghostwriter—and her palpable association to her subject and his beautiful war-torn birthplace—that makes this piece so unique. The writer conveys not only the minarets and pomegranates and rug stalls of old Aleppo, but the ugliness, too, the history of intolerance, the fleeing families, the child washed ashore. More than anything, the essay illustrates the life-changing and tender connection that comes when we open ourselves so fully to another’s story.”
Margaret MacInnis, for “Being Dorothy in Kuwait”
David Rompf, for “False Vertigo”
Elizabeth Mosier, for “From Scratch”
Kelly Bowen, for “Mystic Trinities”
Barbara Tran, for “The Living Room”
Judge: Iona Sun
WINNER: Marc Aronoff, for “The Lantern Bearers”
“I chose ‘The Lantern Bearers’ because it has a simple elegance that unfolds the complex tale of a man and woman. The dialogue has a unique style that undulates and will be a great challenge to direct next spring.”
Cary Pepper, for “Death Does Larry”
Robert Daseler, for “Obelists at Sea”
Rachel Joseph, for “Stripped”
Joseph Eastburn, for “The Godhead”
Mark Fink, for “The Happy Place”
Kristin Hanratty, for “Wine”
Many congratulations to all of our finalists! 2018 Prize submissions will open in February.
On Kirsten Imani Kasai:
Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author of four novels: The House of Erzulie, Ice Song, Tattoo, and the audio production Flesh Hell. Her short stories, poetry, essays and articles have appeared in numerous print and online publications in the USA, Canada and Romania. In 2013, she founded Body Parts Magazine: The Journal of Horror and Erotica. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Certification in the Teaching of Creative Writing, both from Antioch University Los Angeles. Currently, she’s writing her fifth novel and teaching creative writing workshops and English composition to adults. She lives with her partner and children in California. You can find her online or via social media: @KirstenIkasai and Facebook/kirstenimanikasai
A Snail Without its Shell is a Slug
Unclassifiable Contest Finalist from Issue 34
I want to tell you a story about a story that is not a story, not in the way that we recognize it. I want to tell you this story that has no beginning, no middle and no end, but without these things, you would not know it for a story, for it would appear as a shapeless conglomeration of words and ideas. A jumble—a feast of disconnect. We cannot understand these formless tales because when we unpack the box, uncap the bottles and outpour their contents, there is no frame of reference to give them shape, purpose, or meaning. How can you understand a story that is just a pile of words upended like so many splattered apples tipped from the unhappy cart onto the hot pavement?
I would speak to you about a society in which there was no Story, no rule or gauge by which to measure others’ deeds and behaviors. In which there were no parables, myths, folktales, plays, novels, poems or commandments. Lawlessly, these residents of un-Storyville exist in their careless, carefree way, without benefit of morality tales or the archaic convolution of Zen kōans. They have no linguistic knots to unravel, no guilty inner voices chiding them for deviating from their enforced or chosen cultural narrative. One might come home from a day of purposeful work and speak only of deeds accomplished and events which transpired (but in no certain order and lacking relation to one another). Parts were fitted together and machines set in motion. Foodstuffs were grown, harvested, washed, packaged, and consumed. Roads built and cities maintained.
Children sat in classrooms dissecting amphibians, solving equations, and evaluating social problems using a set of reason-based ethical guidelines lacking either carrot or stick to entice or punish them. Yes, they had art class (no drama, though) and worked diligently to create photorealistic paintings and sculptures of everyday objects—gleaming red apples that when sliced were simply serving platters for the good cheese, nothing more. Nice, wholesome apples buoyant without the weight of carnal sin to drag them down into Earth-cleansing floodwaters or prettily poisoned skins that made fair maidens sleep for one hundred years.
When children were naughty, they were corrected using ethical reasoning. “It hurts your brother when you hit him/take his toys/spit in his milk. We are not a hurtful people. Stop it.” They were afraid of what might be in the dark (burglars, wild animals) because that was reasonable, but not the dark itself, because night is natural and unavoidable, and allows us to gaze upon the stars and admire the moon. They did not fear frightening “monsters” which might inhabit their sleepy nocturnes because that was simply irrational and as you can guess, these placid, practical children had never heard gruesome fairytales where youths were bewitched, bedeviled, eaten by ogres, neglected/enslaved/murdered by cruel stepmothers, pursued by wolves, or kicked out of the kingdom for offending egomaniacal fathers with innocent remarks about salt. Instead, they returned home from school and spoke with their caregivers about interesting things they had learned, and pleasant or unpleasant classroom experiences that pleased or dismayed them.
Children were taught to behave via a series of age-appropriate critical thinking exercises and healthy social experimentation with a focus on outcome and consequence. Small children would excitedly participate in Buy-Back Night, wherein they would “sell” a lost tooth to a parent or loved one in exchange for a token sum to be spent or saved as they wished, thus learning a remedial lesson in free-trade markets. Because this society enjoyed throwing and/or attending parties, they would likely hold various celebrations as excuses to purchase gifts for one another simply to express affection and appreciation. (The delivery of such gifts would occur independently of consideration of the previous year’s behavioral gaffes.) Their holidays would have utilitarian handles, like “Super-Size Summer Barbecue Picnic with Fireworks,” “Giant Harvest Season Feast and Afternoon Nap Day” or “Purposeless Caloric Binge-on-Free-Candy Eve.”
When these children matured into adults and took lovers, they would likely conclude an affair by stating, “My sexual attraction to you has diminished, therefore, I will choose a different lover. Let us divide our belongings fairly and part without rancor. I wish you all the best.” Sometimes they might say, “Before I can fully participate in an egalitarian partnership, I must first heal the narcissistic wound that has fragmented my core sense of self. Therefore, I’m beginning a therapeutic course of self-evaluation and supervised behavioral conditioning in order to communicate my needs and wishes without imposing damning, unrealistic expectations on you. It’s been nice knowing you.” (But having no myth to reference vain Narcissus and his auto-erotic folly, they would use different terminology.)
When they married (reasonably, mutually, regardless of Slot A or Tab B and what goes where, why and with whom, and barring children, animals, corpses, and inanimate or battery-operated/rechargeable objects), they did so cooperatively because it is usually nicer to live with others and have someone to hug you at the end of a tiring day, bring you tea or coffee in bed on non-workday mornings, and travel with (for reasons of personal safety, entertainment value, and group discounts).
Their judicial system tended to evaluate behaviors and the results of those behaviors as first Helpful or Hurtful, and then further break it down by category: 1) causing accidental harm, whether with good or nefarious intent, or 2) deliberate harm, and so on, until a decision was reached and a sentence handed down accordingly, most likely a therapeutic course of evaluation and managed behavioral conditioning to repair the fragmented sense of self, and in worst-case scenarios, humane containment. Lacking religious tomes to read, those drifters on the road of life would focus instead on community service works, gardening, art, yoga, and practicing nonviolent conflict resolution techniques.
These people never lied to each other, for falsifications require the construction of a convincing alternate reality which they cannot conceive. (1)
Deer were deer (pretty, majestic, fur, food). Not totem spirits, sacred messengers, an earthly manifestation of the Goddess of the Hunt, or virginal mother of men (lacking a gory and absurdly justified historical narrative that awarded one specific gender physical, economic, sexual, and reproductive power over the other, they could not even begin to comprehend this idea, thus would likely phrase it differently). Black cats were cats who should wear reflective collars if they were out at night and birds and bees possessed no special knowledge about human anatomy or reproduction.
Bodies broke down, wore out, stopped working, and decayed. No one was called to serve in (what we would term) an invisible army of righteousness/ light or “taken too soon” for that presupposed destiny which would require a sense of one’s role in a grandiose, bizarre, and macabre story (2) thus reducing the gorgeous mystery of their existence on this planet to the reductive premise of plot and characters to be loved and rewarded, or tortured and disposed of at the whim of an irrational, vindictive stranger. Without a flimsy mythos justifying the assertion of supreme domination over the Earth’s 8.7 million species of animal inhabitants, they recognized themselves for what they were—parasites. However, ethical reasoning inclined them to moderate the destruction they caused because they knew that once they’d killed their host, they would have no place to live.
Lacking dogmatic ideologies which attempted to modify or harshly repress natural human behaviors and emotions via the promise of eternal reward and total satisfaction of all earthly desires, or an eternity of physical suffering in corporeal human form, they wondered what could be done to improve human nature, for they frequently despaired and lamented the constant, destructive presence and unchecked violence of those who seemed intrinsically evil (that is, intentionally hurtful) when their greater majority enjoyed watching humorous animal videos, shopping at the do-it-yourself-assembly furniture store, dabbling in various arts & crafts, and sharing photos of delicious and handsomely plated meals.
Those who exhibited signs of radical, paranoid fanaticism and mass hysteria stemming from cultish ideologies would receive treatment for mental illness comprised of behavioral conditioning, empathy training and possibly, biochemical intervention to restore a healthy neuropathic balance.
Therefore, militaristic efforts and expenditures would be minor, as citizens were taught from birth that human territorialism is a primitive, instinctual impulse of the reptilian brain and that it better served all species to concentrate on collaborative resource-sharing than to bicker and bomb one another over property lines. Sans deeply embedded, hyper-masculinized narratives of domination and ruin as codified in “holy” texts (the “bloody lore of glory and honor”), political conflict would likely conclude in a heated exchange, possibly with fisticuffs or cheek-slapping, followed by social embarrassment, profuse apologies, and handshakes suggested by a neutral mediator.
Ergo, lacking the violent, sorrowful, and triumphant Story-motivation worn into the grooves of our own societies, these storyless folks would enjoy a much more tranquil, if (obviously) undramatic existence, resulting in a higher quality of life overall and significantly less dissent. A storyless world has no villains. No heroes. In a culture that neither celebrates nor denigrates saints and martyrs, “the One” does not exist.
Boring, you say. Perhaps. Yet “boredom” has its own allure. For example, 2.5 million viewers in Norway tuned in to watch a live, 134-hour broadcast of the “Hurtigruten” ferry sail along the Norwegian coast. (3) Similarly, their movies would detail real-world scenarios (e.g., “Unlikeable People,” or “Big Budget Disaster,” a two-hour examination of a failed construction project). Because their television stations primarily showed news programs and funny animal videos (admittedly, there are only so many times you can watch a cat get itself stuck in a vase or cardboard box before the premise wears thin), they had little inclination to stay up past their bedtimes binge-watching cable series and overeating fatty snacks. They went to bed at reasonable hours and knitted till sleepy, or cuddled their partners, or engaged in ardent lovemaking. (Because population control was necessary to help stem their parasitic invasion and maternal health highly valued, affordable birth control was globally accessible to one and all.) Existing without superstitious traditions that allowed one partner to make vital personal decisions for the other and a history of institutionalized shaming, they were divorced from pre-existing roles enforced from birth via pop cultural inculcation. They were free to exist as they were without role models/gender roles; sexuality was simply an aspect of personal expression, affection, and physical desire, minus any superstitious directives about who was supposed to be on top, or don special undergarments or avoid intercourse on certain days of the month.
There were no Joseph Campbells, Clarissa Pinkola-Esteses, Aesops, or Mother Geese because there was no need or place for them. Creatives made beautiful things of infinite practicality with no deeper meaning attached, and most people tended to be quite pleased with their efforts. (However, being merely nonsequential re-enactments of ordinary events—sometimes with intriguing special effects—their dreams were fairly uninteresting.)
To you or me, the unstoried society is unfathomably cold and dreary. There’s no magic, no mystical raison d’etre when life is based on facts alone. There is no fantasy but also no delusion, and an absence of existential suffering, for the unstoried do not worry themselves in circles analyzing the deeper cultural meanings of personal rejection or cast themselves as victims or rescuers in their own petty melodramas. Imagine: no devils to blame for your own misdeeds, failings and evils, or angels to issue afterlife passes to some great play land in the sky. No platitudinal balm or salving ethos to smooth over the tawdry ugliness of existence or take away the sting of senselessness. There simply Is What Is.
I could say that a snake without its vertebrae is a worm, or a snail without its shell is a slug. While not scientifically accurate, this may be metaphorically approximate to our society, tightly tethered to its bones by strong tendons of Story, and theirs, shapeless but contained—living but spineless. Rich and self-sustaining, each organism thrives and replicates within its own habitat, but minus the unbending rigidity of bone, the slug, the worm, is infinitely more flexible.
And now I have told you a fiction with no beginning, middle or end, no plot constructs or characters—a slug of a tale—a story that is not a story.
1. In the American South, if you are caught lying you are accused of “telling stories.”
2. emphasis mine
3. The same television company, NRK, later streamed eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream and a live, nine-hour knitting marathon, both to much acclaim. Sweden has followed suit, airing an enormously popular broadcast of a sunset and “Piip-show,” a reality show featuring specially-built birdhouse “sets” that stars a cast of wild blue tits, great tits, nuthatches, pied flycatchers, and the occasional squirrel.