And Now You Know the Rest of the Story

A look back at The Overstory by Richard Powers

by Z.L. Nickels

“Now the gods are dying, all of them.”

It takes only thirteen pages for Richard Powers to paint the lasting image of what might rightfully be called the most ambitious novel of the 21st century. Thirteen pages, and a Brooklyn boy heads West with his new bride while back on the Eastern seaboard, the American chestnut tree is going the way of the dodo. Neither husband nor wife recognize the significance of the six seeds forgotten in the man’s pocket, buried later in their front yard. Of these, one will grow and come alive, just as its brethren die by the billions some 1200 miles away. Stripped from life, the gods begin to girdle, inch by inch. You have to admit it—Powers’ image packs one hell of a wallop.


The Overstory by Richard Powers. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 512 pp. $18.95.



Start again. Reexamine the text. Replace Powers’ “gods” with “trees,” so that now “the trees are dying, all of them.” We lose the metaphor but gain the thesis: first, that the Earth is rich and abundant and beautiful, the way all necessary things are; second, that human beings are killing it with the ruthless efficiency of late capitalism, and it has to stop. Because if not, not only is this going to end much sooner than we expect, but we will end up losing the one thing that made any of it worthwhile in the first place.

Despite the more than 120 single-volume books Powers read in order to write it, The Overstory is not a non-fictional work. However, as a novel, it is persuasive in the way all great non-fiction is: it presents the reader with a depiction of the world and asks them to treat it as if it were real. Only Powers’ depiction is more literal than most. Across nine separate (albeit interweaving) personal stories, each containing a character whom Powers asserts has a rightful claim to his alter-ego, we come to discover how truly intertwined we are with the natural world. The resulting effect is, quite possibly, the most comprehensive book on human beings and nature ever written. And yet, two years removed from its publication, the question remains as to whether The Overstory managed to accomplish its primary goals.

To the extent that any of us believes in science, the first thesis is easy to accept. Is nature necessary? Just open your eyes and go outside. However, the second thesis is tricky. Really, really tricky. One of the themes of The Overstory is that there is a multitude of forces working against the Earth’s longevity and nearly every single one of them is by human hands. The second thesis says that, if our actions are the disease, then our intervention just might be the panacea; while a book of fiction may not be a Bono song, it is still as good a rallying cry as any.

Right now, we are living through a pandemic. It is a suitable time to reflect. Because as our activity has slowed, nature has begun to stir: wildlife has returned; emissions have fallen; smog has lifted; vibrations have waned; the air is cleaner; the water is cleaner; everything is cleaner. But despite the clamor of our most outspoken extremists, the Earth cannot be rid of the human element forever; sooner or later, we must rejoin it. The logical question, therefore, is the familiar one: How do we balance our needs against the planet’s? Seeking answers, we return now to the novel that was written to solve this question. How does Powers balance these needs in his work—the needs of the world with the needs of his characters? The answer is appropriately bleak: he chooses the world.

“The full force of human ingenuity can’t stop the disaster breaking over the continent.”

This is the next sentence, the one that follows directly after the dissolution of the gods. As a postscript, it seems notable. One hundred years after a virus swept over our continent, destroying the American chestnut, something analogous is happening today. Our country is suffering from its own widespread disaster, one that we are currently incapable of solving. But the relevance here extends beyond the point of comparison: notice, it is only after addressing the trees that Powers chooses to mention the people. It is almost as though they are an afterthought.

Shortly after The Overstory was published, Powers appeared on PBS NewsHour to answer questions about the book. In one answer, he mentioned that there are two forms of storytelling Western writers are interested in: the first involves conflicts an individual must face alone; the second involves conflicts faced between two individuals. He continued on to describe a third form of story—one that has been forgotten about—which involves conflict between an individual and the rest of the world faced over an issue that the latter is “at best indifferent to and may be hostile toward or at least incompatible with.” As Powers tells it, he wanted to bring human beings and nature back to the negotiating table in The Overstory. The problem is that, in any good negotiation, both parties have equal claim to the outcome; in this novel, nature has the upper hand. Once signaled, the thematic victory is never in question.

At least at the outset, this appears to be otherwise. The first section of the novel (roughly one-hundred and fifty pages long) is comprised of personal narratives drafted in breathtaking detail. Like a series of intimate New Yorker character sketches, these accounts twist and wind their way through the lives of men and women who have all been touched by trees. This is where Powers’ characters are at their strongest. The conflicts that arise are of the usual variety—the novel has yet to address the inherent tragedy of the third form. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the descendants of that Brooklyn boy; the daughter of a lauded engineer; a precocious psychologist; the improbable romance of an oil-and-water couple; a former Stanford prison experiment inmate; a computer programming genius; the rise and fall of a cutting-edge biologist; and, finally, the death of a college student. It is during this last story that we start to notice the writing. Whereas before we were being eased into Powers’ world, we are now suddenly confronted with The Big Idea. Turning the page to the next section, we quickly learn that, in fact, the college student did not die. She is alive. She can now hear the voices of the trees and must save them.

In a novel where characters irreversibly die, get thrown in jail, get thrown in jail again, become paralyzed, consider suicide, get sentenced to one-hundred and forty years in prison, and more, this is easily the most jarring development. It transitions the novel from its original conception—a book about our relationship with trees—to a new work, which inevitably loses this thread. In The Overstory, the broader narrative is prioritized over the individual stories of these characters: they become vehicles for the discussion Powers wishes to have regarding our ecological predicament. The resulting effect is predictable: it undermines the reader’s ability to relate to the text.

As we continue through the novel, the essential relationship these characters have with trees begins to weaken. For four of these characters—Nicholas Hoel (a fine artist), Mimi Ma (an engineer), Douglas Pavlicek (the Stanford prison inmate) and Adam Appich (the psychologist)—this relationship is replaced with an inexplicable attraction to Olivia Vandergriff, the college student. Together, these five characters abandon the promise hinted at in their opening sections and commit their lives to Olivia’s ideals. Over time, their actions escalate from ideological protests to ecological terrorism, their desires having been replaced by the voices in her head: “Olivia needs only lower [sic] her chin and the others fall silent. Her spell over them has grown with each crime.” This unflagging devotion continues until they must choose between themselves and her ideals. At which point the novel begins its long, slow march to the end. 

Meanwhile, there are four other main characters who never, or who barely ever, interact with this core group of five. Patricia Westerford, the biologist, spends her time making revolutionary discoveries and advocating for her results in the courts of law and public opinion. Neelay Mehta, the computer programmer, builds a virtual empire that soon becomes more popular than the world it was based on. And Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, the couple who begin their marriage by planting a tree every year on their anniversary, are reduced to staring out a window by its end, gazing upon a world with which they are unable to interact. It is almost as if the novel is running on two separate tracks: the Cult of Olivia, which maintains its prominent voice until the final page, and those original character sketches, which never make it off the ground and never really go anywhere.

Presented this way, one might wonder: Why read a novel that treats its characters as if they exist solely for the purposes of an ecological mission? Perhaps we find it refreshing to see these familiar roles finally reversed. Or perhaps it is because Powers draws the world so beautifully that we tend to forget the novel’s underlying problems. The truth is that Powers probably could have written five-hundred and twelve pages of tree descriptions, and we would have come along for the ride. But therein lies the issue.

Shortly after the release of The Overstory, Richard Powers conducted an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books wherein he said, “If I could have managed it, I would have tried to write a novel where all the main characters were trees.” This is remarkable admission. Remarkable, first, in the sense that we are so rarely gifted an author’s true intentions: Richard Powers did not want to write a book about people fighting against one another, he wanted to write a book about what was in the background while they did. He wanted to write about the world, and when you see how gorgeous his world truly is, you can recognize why. But this admission is also remarkable in a second sense. He continued on to admit, “Such an act of identification was beyond my power as a novelist, and it probably would have been beyond the imaginative power of identification of most readers.”

It could be the case that such a novel would be beyond our ability to grasp. But we were not given that novel. Instead, the one we received includes nine main characters who are not trees: they stand collectively as the alter-egos of Richard Powers. He might not believe that our survival can be separated from the world’s, but his characters can; although they may speak for the trees, they can hardly speak for themselves. But maybe that is to be expected. When tasked with balancing the needs of nature with the needs of his characters, Powers chose nature. This is not a common choice. Perhaps the true lesson of The Overstory is that, if we are unable to strike a balance, it is better to err on the side of nature. It is a lesson that we should not soon forget.


Demise of the Starry Sky (星空之死)

by Yan An, co-translated by Chen Du and Xisheng Chen

看到星空之死的人是一个懂得取舍的人
一个缘木求水的人
一个缘海求云的人
一个抱住山脉的龙脖子测量体温的人
他熟知很多事物的来龙去脉
他在任何一个地方
都是在类似往世或者异乡的地方

看到星空之死的人 不论你在哪里
他都会看见你 你也是孤身一人行走
不是要寻找什么 只是在行走
巨大的旷野和地平线只是另一个人的背景
你没有方向,只有远方,不断地变小
仿佛也是一个身心尺寸蹊跷的人
要去会见另一个身心尺寸蹊跷的人

看到星空之死的人,对世上的好多事
哪个多哪个少哪个深哪个浅了如指掌的人
你要前去会见但并无多少把握的人
他看见大地在变 大地在大地中坠落
他自己也在大地中坠落

就像仰望苍穹
巨大的星辰比蚊蝇更细小更脆弱
在难以觉察和体会的焚烧中
缓慢地焚毁
同时向着虚无纷纷坠落

*


The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
Is a man knowing when to accept or reject
A man climbing trees to look for water
A man sailing in the ocean to seek for clouds
A man embracing the dragon neck of a mountain range
To take its body temperature
He knows very well the ins and outs of many things
No matter where he is, it’s a place
As far as in the past or in a foreign land

The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
No matter where you are, he will see you
You too are walking alone
Not to seek for something but for the sake of walking
The massive wilderness and horizon
Are only the background of another person
You have no direction, but only distance,
While you become smaller and smaller
As if you were a man with an odd mind-body size
Going to meet another man with an odd mind-body size

The man having seen the demise of the starry sky
Knowing which of the many things in the world
Is more, or less, or deeper, or shallower,
Like the palm of his hand
Whom you are going to meet but not sure about
Sees earth is changing earth is plummeting in earth
He himself is plummeting in earth as well

Just like looking up at the vault of heaven
The enormous stars are thinner, tinier
And more fragile than mosquitoes and flies
In an incineration difficult to perceive and comprehend
They slowly burn down
Meanwhile plummeting towards nihility, one after another


Yan An is a poet in contemporary China, author of fourteen poetry books, including his most famous, Arranging Stones, which won him The Sixth Lu Xun Literary Prize, one of China’s top four literary prizes. He is also the Vice President of Shaanxi Writers Association, the head and Executive Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal Yan River, one of the oldest and most famous literary journals in Northwestern China, and a national committee member of the Poetry Committee of China Writers Association. “Demise of The Starry Sky” is an excerpt from Yan An’s latest book, A Naturalist’s Manor, which was published by China Youth Publishing Group, and won the “Ten Best Poetry Books in China” award in 2018.

Chen Du is a Voting Member of American Translators Association and a member of the Translators Association of China. She holds a Master’s Degree in Biophysics from Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a Master’s Degree in Radio Physics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She revised more than eight chapters of the Chinese translation of the biography of Helen Snow, Helen Foster Snow – An American Woman in Revolutionary China. In the United States, her translations have appeared in Columbia Journal, Lunch Ticket, Anomaly, The Bare Life Review, and River River. Her essay was published by The Dead Mule and Hamline University English Department, where poems have also appeared. Her poetry chapbook was published by The Dead Mule online. She is also the author of the book Successful Personal Statements. Find her online at ofsea.com.

Xisheng Chen, a Chinese American, is an ESL grammarian, lexicologist, linguist, translator and educator. His educational background includes: top scorer in the English subject in the National University Entrance Examination of Jiangsu Province, a BA and an MA from Fudan University, in Shanghai, China, and a Mandarin Healthcare Interpreter Certificate from the City College of San Francisco, CA, USA. His working history includes: translator for Shanghai TV Station, Evening English News, Lecturer at Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China, Adjunct Professor at the Departments of English and Social Sciences of Trine University (formerly Tri-State University), Angola, Indiana, notary public, and contract high-tech translator for Futurewei Technologies, Inc. in Santa Clara, California, USA. As a translator for over three decades, he has published a lot of translations in various fields in newspapers and journals in China and abroad.

Two if by Sea

"Two If By Sea" by Christopher Woods
“Two If By Sea” by Christopher Woods, 2020.

Christopher Woods is a writer and photographer who lives in Chappell Hill, Texas. His photographs can be seen in his gallery. His photography prompt book for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT, is forthcoming from Propertius Press. His novella, HEARTS IN THE DARK, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press.

Letter from the Editor(s)

Early mangoes growing in Maeve’s backyard. Photo by Ezra Remer, March 2020.

Dear Reader,

Spring in Miami is typically lush, the streets littered with fallen blooms from the multicolored flamboyan trees and rotting fruit carcasses leftover from mid-morning animal feasts. This week marks mid-May, and I’m writing to you from my kitchen table, nearly-ripe mangoes swaying in the breeze on the tree just outside my window.  The natural world is virtually the same as it always is today: cycling on and on unless otherwise disturbed.

But, the world within us is not cycling the same as it always does. I’m sure you feel this like I do, the day-to-day pulling of teeth, our feet quick-sanded—no matter what we do to drive ourselves forth, our world remains stagnant. We sit here, fixed in the strange space-time of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsure of what will finally break this sequence. Unsure of what lies just mere steps ahead. 

I’m not going to write to you and hypothesize a panacea for this uncertainty. I won’t even try to speculate about the future, the state of the world, of  it “opening back up,” or the metaphorical implications that statement might hold. Rather, I would like to simply acknowledge the fear we are all experiencing right now. The grief, the dread, the eternal sundown only ever disrupted by temporary blips of what it meant to be alive prior to now. Folks have lost their homes, their jobs, their lives. There is no ignoring this, the worsening embedded in our day-to-day. 

I have nightmares of the images of death we’ve been bombarded with since March. I can feel the miasma of despair weighing on everything I do. In all of the interactions I have, there it is. But, like many others, and as Myliyah Hanna writes, I’ve had to keep going. I’ve had to keep turning, loving, living, working. And what that means in the context of the world within us, I’m not quite sure. Maybe it just means that continuing on is a possibility, even if it’s only a mechanism we’ve adopted to stave off total hopelessness. Simply being is a possibility, even if it hurts. 

I write this letter to welcome you to Issue 8 of Sinking City. The writers and artists who have shared their work with us have continued this phenomenon of being. Their work, most of it submitted prior to the pandemic, glimmers with possibility in the face of our current deterioration. I hope it will guide you away from the dark space we are currently inhabitants of, even if temporarily. I hope it can speak to you as it does to me, in a close whisper: we are all still turning, still writing, still loving. Even if we aren’t cycling. Even if we aren’t moving. 

— Maeve Holler, Managing Editor 2019 – 2020 

*

I’m thinking about the smell of jasmine that comes alive at night, right outside the door of my house and which resides near the big tree that seems to have grown with me my whole life. I’ve made a nest of habits during this time of pandemic: I’ve sung with the first blue jay I’ve ever spotted before in Miami; I’ve become closer, more vulnerable near my friends, family. 

How lucky am I that I get to be near them, in all senses of the word.

I’m even more fortunate of being able to become a part of Sinking City in the midst of the pandemic, to introduce Issue 8 along with Maeve. Of being able to witness, read, indulge in beautiful pieces of work that resist uncertain, chaotic energy. That hold time back. Or, as Clair Dunlap writes, put forth a “wild act of self preservation,” where when we “shut our eyes there is only the color of the mountain at a distance.” 

I think about the concept of distance during these times. I think about how lucky we are to have this issue out in the world, one which asks that we join in in every work’s act of meditations, reflection, and hopefulness which are ingrained within their bodies, ones we’ve been honored enough to engage with, and carry along with us, as close as we can.

Thank you all so much. 

— Clayre Benzadón, Managing Editor 2020 – 2021 

Old Friends

by Daniel Elfanbaum

It is in the parking lot of a liquor store that I pick up a friend from college who was left there by the woman he’s been living with, a woman who wants to make a home-cooked meal for us to meet over, who thinks it’s a good idea that my friend and I meet up, the two of us, beforehand. I’ve been given to understand she likes to run things. I think this must be good for my old friend. I haven’t seen him in some years and it is very bright outside when I pick him up in front of the store. Two red plastic bags of beers and a half bottle of whiskey because he knows I like it. His workday uniform of ill-fitting khakis and an ill-fitting shirt sits familiar with my memory of him in ill-fitting gym shorts and tee shirts the year we lived together. The thing is that he was just so thin back then, and still is now, in the car driving in his new home town.

The highway exit ramps and interchanges loop over and around each other. We’d hugged when I got out to greet him, and I turn the music down a little as a gesture. Slow to start. We talk and catch up, a little. We exchange pleasantries about the weather and roll though our life updates in bulleted lists, and I’m happy to hear things are so good with him, these days. And these days they’re maybe not as much so good with me, but when we’d last known each other things had been at least OK on my end and not great with him. This meant that things were not great with us and our friends, and I spent a long time covering up this old friend’s tracks, misdemeanors, mishaps, and I can’t say that I had liked it. Had not liked it when there was a banging on my door at one in the morning, when the woman he’d been seeing started throwing shoes. Just kid stuff that shouldn’t have mattered, but of course kid stuff that felt important at the time. We were of an age for kid stuff. No more. And maybe a touch of infidelity is the kind of thing that always matters, I don’t know. Can’t really think how it’s always, things I’ve seen and heard about and done, can’t think of anything as always, but we’re not talking about it anyway, because why would I bring up that sort of thing. I wouldn’t. But I’m willing to be wrong about it.

My old friend lives in the kind of town that’s oscillating between new office buildings and old office buildings and buildings abandoned and buildings coming up. The familiar mish-mash of things and peoples and peoples and things moving, i.e., displaced, and I’m wondering what kind of car my old friend is driving now in his wrinkled khakis.

“I meant to tell you, I’m getting married,” he says, and I’m staying with him and his girlfriend, and so I hope I’ll like his wife. Fiancée. This is a slip.

Me? I’m single driving a cheap Japanese sedan but at least it’s clean, clean even though I’ve got my shit here and there and everywhere because I am right now in a way living here, in the car, I mean. The job I had had was over and the lease was month to month and I was so tired of putting so many things together poorly.

“I would love to be in the wedding,” I tell my old friend when he asks.

He directs me where and I drive and soon we’re in a little suburban town with green lawns even in February, with an attractive touch here and there of pre-dusk frost on the tips of the blades of grass, and my old friend is telling me about this house his fiancée bought a while back where he’s been living. Put together. They have a dog, a very good dog, and they’ve been going to church, and when we pull into the driveway tucked into the best corner of the cul-de-sac, and the house has half a brick front like the house that I’d grown up in, and I come in and meet the fiancée, this smiling woman, there is a constriction in my chest. I notice I am tense. I am pretending like I am not taking deep breaths to cool down. I don’t remember being sick or needing to cough or what I’m supposed to be stressed out about. I don’t know that this might be a kind of awe.

They together show me to the room where I’ll be staying. There’s pictures of them at a fair and with their dog on otherwise bare shelves, a double-high air mattress where I’ll sleep tonight and the next two nights at least, unless I do something wrong again, like when I saw my friend in Tennessee. When I come back into the kitchen after putting down my things, availing myself of the toilet, after observing that the room I am in feels almost intentionally un-moved-in-to, as if they were saving it for something, something, and I know what, I walk into the kitchen. My old friend is helping his soon-to-be wife make dinner. Smiling. He hands me a beer so as to clink glasses, and I feel as if I could weep. Marriage, babies, new life. Just me and the car and couches to sleep on.

We eat fish tacos for dinner and afterwards they let me join them to wash the plates and pan. We watch a program on TV and then his fiancée goes to bed to read. She says she wants to give us some “guy time.” I ask her what book it is, and it’s one I’m a fan of. We wish her good night.

“I thought you’d like her,” my old friend says.

Sinking into their big leather couch, I tell him he seems happy, and he admits he is. I’m glad, I tell him. I’m glad.


Daniel Elfanbaum is a writer from St. Louis now living just outside of Boston. Some of his other work can be found in S/Word, Taper, and Levee Magazine

Keep Goin’

by Myliyah Hanna

I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO RIDE A BIKE.

In admitting to such, I reveal that a “quintessential” American childhood rite of passage was taken from me. Somewhere in a quaint suburban town, where the houses circle an untouched-by-potholes cul-de-sac, a mother watches her children, maybe two or three of them, cycle in loops on the driveway. Then somewhere in a city, with its gummy, concrete sidewalks, are Black boys standing on the pedals of their bikes as they race to the park to shoot hoops. Chicago is no stranger to bikers. In my neighborhood, families with their young kids and babies take morning rides. The kid’s helmet is usually covered in bright obnoxious cartoons. The people who ride them pedal forward, always forward, sticking their arms out to signal a turn. They wait for the green light like cars.

Growing up in New York means learning to speak the language of subways. Sit on this cart, by this door, to be closest to the station exit. Language is muscle memory. I was never taught to speak the language of bike chains and helmets. Yet somehow, in the eyes of the other, I am lacking. Everyone’s supposed to be able to ride a bike. It is always the ever-general “everyone” that gets me, the “everyone” who lies on the outside of its periphery because “everyone,” to this day, does not always account for the outliers.

*


I am seven years old. The day is sunny, spring temperature. We are in the Statue of Liberty Park in New Jersey, uncreatively named for the land’s proximity to the Lady in Green. I’m on a bike–pink, I think it is, with streamers on the ends of the handles that reflect blue and purple and green–and there’s some wind on my cheeks. My legs are moving and something warm, frothy, is welling up in my lungs. The wheels are spinning. Children in the grass, on either side of the bike path, are running with their kites, diamonds and dragons casting shadows over their heads. I’m moving faster than them. This is what it means to fly. Keep goin keep goin, he says from behind me. I am looking forward. I think I am happy in this memory. To call this new taste of excitement “happiness” is cheapening the jubilee in my smile, in the ecstatic shout that escapes my chest. I turn back to look at him–

This is where the memory ends. I do not remember my father’s face.

*


“Let’s go for a bike ride.” I’ve received an invitation just like this, or one of its many variants, plenty of times. We’d be out enjoying the nice weather, or inside lying on the couch and listening to music. I’ve made friends with a number of active, outdoorsy types. I adore these friends of mine, with their wide lawns and annual family vacations.

“I’d say yes, but I don’t know how to ride a bike.”

I know how their reaction will play out. It starts with a rapid-fire series of blinks. If you can count, it’s usually between three and five. Their brows slowly come together, mirroring the speed at which their brain is making sense of the string of words I just uttered. I imagine they’re picturing me on a bike, riding it, and yet their conscience is yelling no because that image is a fantasy. Then the mouth opens slightly or drops open if they’re more dramatic in their reaction. Something is just not adding up; everyone knows how to ride a bike. Yet here I am, telling them that I cannot do what that nosy son of a bitch “everyone” can.

For a long time, I didn’t understand the reason for the dramatic responses, the laughter. Not knowing how to ride a bike didn’t strike me as terrible–a phenomenon akin to committing some kind of white-collar crime. There wasn’t time to learn, there was no bike to learn on. This is what I would tell people at first. Simply put, I would rather take the playful shock than deal with the pity that would inevitably come after telling them that the man who was once my teacher was no longer in my life. That would inevitably lead to a deeper, more invasive conversation about where he had gone, why fathers were necessary. And perhaps there would be some truth to their statements, but it would come from the same place that believed everyone should be able to ride a bike. The pity would be stronger, uncomfortable. Pity would imply that I am feeling pitiful about it, and that, simply put, is not the truth.

*


Most of my life was spent with my mother and sister. They were all I needed to be whole.

Sometime in my junior year of high school, I attended an end-of-semester award ceremony. Families flooded the auditorium–mothers and aunts preparing their phones to catch their prodigy walk across the stage.In the crowd were men–standing brusquely–chests puffed out like pigeons– waiting for the ceremony to get to the part that mattered. Speech, speech, yada yada–where’s my kid? Once it was time, their children would clamber up onto the stage to retrieve their award, get their spotlight, their fathers’ booming applause filling the space. And suddenly I was thinking about that day on the bike, details foggy and clear at the same time, so distinctly long ago that it could’ve been entirely made up.

It was the clearest memory I had of him.

It was a sudden thought. I focused my energy on cheering and clapping for friends who were called to the stage, who stood awkwardly while their parents ran up front to get pictures. Friends did the same for me. During that particular ceremony, I was called up quite a bit for math awards despite it being my worst subject. I was filled with something that felt like longing. It didn’t feel true to say that I was missing him at that moment. Still, the idea of his proud pat on my back seemed nice. It was just an idea, something never to be given a voice.

*


On Father’s Day, I will send a text to my uncle.

*


I am seven, I think. I am in a kitchen with its white walls and oak cabinets. There’s a bowl of soggy cereal in front of me; it’s colorful, saccharine. I don’t remember why, but I don’t finish my breakfast.

Something is missing in the interim, but I blink and I’m in the living room. The walls are lined with cardboard boxes; somehow their usual brown feels muted and grey. My sister is on the right of me, and on her right is Pam, a woman we understood, then, to be our father’s “good friend.” Sometimes she would bring us back home from Jersey after our weekend spent with our father at her house. We liked her, Pam, and she liked us. At this moment, her face was wrong; normally, she was smiling, but there was something deep in her frown. My sister and I read it to be sad. She is sad. And we are sad for her. What we as mere children understand as “sad” is much more than that. We wouldn’t learn of this difference until years later.

Across from us is a deep green, seemingly black, couch. And sitting on it is my father, knees spread, head low. I think he is wearing a cap. Or is it a durag? He is looking at my sister and me; I don’t remember his face. I don’t remember the width of his nose or if his ears stick out. I don’t remember his smell or the color of his shirt, or is it a football jersey? When I remember this day, whatever that means, I try not to think of him as the focal point. The blurring of his persona from my memory seems more significant. And yet, every time I return to this day, I am left thinking that this is the beginning of some kind of childhood trauma, as others would make me feel towards it.

“Alright girls, it’s time to go.” Pam nods her head in the direction of the front door, where our jackets hang adjacent. We follow our nonverbal orders well; our mother would be appalled if we were disrespectful to anyone, no matter the relationship. Still, something isn’t right. Neither one of us can explain what it is. Our father seems sad.

This is only a guess. I do not remember my father’s face.

For six months after this day, we will ask our mother why he hasn’t come to pick us up.


*


In the beginning of September, my mother and I rented a car and drove out west towards Chicago. It was a black Jeep Cherokee, packed strategically so we could see out of the back mirror and so the weight was evenly distributed.



She was nervous about me being behind the wheel. I hadn’t had my license for even a year when I decided that driving out there ourselves would be more cost-effective. I chased the dying sun for about five hours, eyes focused, foot switching between brake and gas. The route we were taking was straightforward, hundreds of miles, riddled with construction. 70 to 45 mph, rinse and repeat.

Somewhere in the middle of Ohio, I thought about the bike. Here I was driving a car, a vehicle responsible for more deaths than most Americans would care to acknowledge, and I still didn’t know how to ride a bike. A couple of nights before the move, I watched riding tutorials on YouTube. It looked easy and familiar even though I was certain I would fall on the first attempt. Maybe I was missing out on something after all. Or maybe I was starting to crack under the pressure. Not that there was significant pressure–I was never bullied or threatened for the lack of the skill. I just figured, with being able to drive, it would probably make sense to learn how to pedal and balance and control the brakes down a steep incline.

Those were zoned-out thoughts, things coming and going through my mind as I hit the gas and entered the unbroken highway.

*


It was winter break of my second year of college. I was sitting in the passenger seat of our then-car, a silver and smaller SUV, and the heat was going. The seconds ticked away on the phone call time. It was my father’s voice booming through the car door speakers, or at least as he told me. Until then I couldn’t describe the tenor or pitch, the gravel in his voice that came with age. When he first spoke, a bell deep in my subconscious struck once, twice, and the look on my mother’s face confirmed what I didn’t want to know.

“How are you?” I think he asked.

“…good,” I think I said.

“It’s good to hear you.” I paid no attention to the sentiment in his words. I responded to his probing as best as I could: yes, my day is going well; no, I don’t go back to school for a couple of weeks. I was stoic and uninterested. Yet I felt frustration thrumming in my jugular. Minutes later, my mother told him that we had more errands to run and ended the conversation. The music replaced his voice. For a moment, I thought it hadn’t been real. Maybe I was exhausted from school to the point of hallucination. My mother said, “He wanted to talk to you,” and I bit my lip to keep the sarcastic answer to myself. So it had been real. So that was his voice.

An hour after we returned home, his voice had penetrated our apartment. He called again and she answered and his voice was coming through the speaker on her phone. He was saying he got chased out of town, that he had no choice but to leave in order to protect us. In the back of his head, I imagine he hoped I would find his story a reflection of his valiance, his heroism, and think, what a guy!, but on the surface of my frontal lobe–

What a fucking sucker.

As he spoke, I was reminded of what I grew to understand. Younger, I didn’t have the words to fully articulate it, but I knew that he was mean for leaving us, for not saying why. He swept us out, hurrying us out the door before we could ask if he would get us again for the weekend. He didn’t hug us goodbye or help us put on our coats; no, he watched Pam fasten the buttons from the couch, staring past us. No matter of storytelling and explanation would change for me that he was, and perhaps would always be, a selfish man.

On the tip of my tongue was a lack of sympathy; my fingertips were itching to press the red phone button and end this futile attempt at fatherhood before it could begin. It felt intrusive and wrong. Before the phone call even began, my mother said she wanted me to hear him out. I was jaded by the sentence; why was I expected to make space in an already tiny box for him? There was no room for him, no space to give. I accepted that my family was my mother, my sister, and me. And sure, he had been there once–before remembering and having childhood memories meant something.

My mother and sister were listening, taking it in, faces contorted with questions. I thought about how the three of us have come to balance each other out. We established our routines and understandings of our personalities. In the midst of his phone call was one of the few times I couldn’t tell what they were thinking.

Once he hung up, silence spilled into the living room. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Silence like that–cold and stiff–a body dredged up from under the floorboards–unnerved all of us. I pressed the tendon between my thumb and my index finger for one, two, three, then release, then one, two, three, then release, until my sister sighed and the silence gave us a moment to reach out for breath.

I imagined for my sister the phone call was closure, finally being able to relax a fist that had been shut tight for years, muscles aching with tension. I listened to my sister and mother teeter-totter off each other, both nodding slowly and coming to conclusions from his words. Eventually, I removed myself from the conversation. I would grow to understand the human desire for completion, for the two ends of a circle to finally meet. One day I would feel that towards him. And one day this wouldn’t be an interruption–it would merely be an alternate route to the same place.

And I think, had he been truthful about being a changed man, that that is the end we all would’ve wanted.

*


Sometime during this fever dream of my father’s peacocking, I remember my growing persistence to understand why I needed to interact with him at all. In response, my mother said that the relationship with my father would affect my future relationships. I thought about the many times my maternal grandfather would call our house, sometimes drunk, sometimes plain irritable in his attempts to reconnect with my mother. “I didn’t think it would affect me,” she said, “but it did.” I shuffled it away in the file of Black mother wisdom.

As time went on, as I dated more, I think back to that conversation. How unfair, that parts of my life will somehow be guided and shaped by a man who wasn’t present in my puberty or the end of it. How on point, that the life of a growing woman is determined by the presence or lack thereof of her father, a man who chose to leave. Men are given choices, and women are given consequences. I think about the women who sit at award shows, who attend the annual company barbeques, who no longer go after their passions in an effort to see their husbands through to their success. Soft, tender kisses to their cheeks. “You’re my rock,” the husbands will say; and in this teeny little box all of us exist in, we’ll read the husbands’ words as endearing. Unconsciously, we will know what the husbands mean: their greatness matters more than their wives’.

You were meant to be small.

I don’t believe my mother thinks I should shrink myself for a relationship. Still, I wonder why a man who made the conscious decision to leave deserves space in my life, why I’m encouraged to give him that real estate. I suppose the question, then, is what does it mean to live as an incomplete circle?

*


What is a daughter without her father?

*


Soon it’ll be March. The sun has started to peek its head over the horizon a little longer. Chicagoans are still wrapped in wool scarves. People are standing under the heaters on the train platform less. When it’s warm enough to wear just a cardigan, just a light jacket, I will climb atop a bike, one leg planted on the ground, a childish grin on my face.

When I take off, struggling to balance, I’ll think of the seven-year-old on her bike with training wheels and duochrome streamers on the handles, how she never finished learning how. I’ll keep goin for her. I’ll learn how to ride a bike, maybe on my own, or with the help of others. And maybe then we won’t feel the sting of others thinking we’re unfinished, somehow lacking. It’ll be the ending we deserve. It’ll be my love letter to her, my cheer and support–the world is too big to be trapped in such a small box. A girl like you needs all the space she can get.

Now start with one foot off the ground. And push, push, forward.



Myliyah Hanna is an upcoming essayist from the Bronx and a graduate of the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Cheap Pop and Zora. She maintains a personal blog at myliyahhanna.com. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of Small Fictions award. She lives in Chicago with her cat Jasper. 

The Forests I Have Lost

by Theophilus Kwek

And, after all, it is to them we return.
Their triumph is to rise and be our hosts:
lords of unquiet or of quiet sojourn…

— Geoffrey Hill

I.

The first was one I’d never even ventured into. It lurked on a low hill behind our house, and, by the time we moved in, had been parted down the middle like the Red Sea – or the neat path through my father’s hair – to shorten the journey to our MRT station. For years, I went to bed terrified of the creatures that might dwell within (Singapore’s last wild tiger was, alas, killed in 1930), before finally daring to cross it on my own, aged ten, to catch the bus to school. 

It must have occurred to me even then that our darkness-defying footpath, recently paved and still brightly lit, was a sign of things to come. But the developers dragged their feet and our forest stayed, unruly and unruled, to shield us from the world. On occasion, a ten-foot python would steal into someone’s drainpipe, but a quick call to wildlife rescue was all it took to return the creature to its haunts. For the most part, I grew up with friendlier neighbours: kingfishers on our back gate, the odd civet-cat, bats feasting among the fruit-trees next door.

We moved into public housing when I was twelve, and after seven years I moved again, to another country. So the end, when it came, was muted by time and distance; relayed, like the death of a relative, through cousins who still lived in the estate. 

What happened – I imagine – was this. One weekend, men with name-tags and shovels would have come to breach the fence around our forest’s fringe, clearing the perimeter for heavier equipment. Then the toughest work: trees sawn at the base, split and piled; denser understory dug from the earth. More men arriving afterwards with more machinery to stamp recalcitrant roots in place, level the overgrown hilltop to a surveyor’s plane. 

By the time I returned home, four years later, a housing project had taken pride of place at the top of the road. Someone had thought to name it ‘The Glades’, even if barely a sliver of the old canopy remained. All steel and glass, it barely seemed to fill the space: dwarfed, almost, by the ground beneath it. Even our home felt smaller. Stopping by one weekend, we realised the new tenants had re-done our yard, where a dishevelled palm had once held court. The new, neat porch felt like a scene from a film shot on location, with the plots of impossible lives layered over ours. 

With an image of that now-shaven hill in mind, I began to realise that I lacked a vocabulary for its disappearance. I had read plenty of books that dealt with more personal losses, but none that quite prepared me for this – losing a forest that I loved and feared at a distance. 

I come from a part of the world, after all, that has acquired new literatures as quickly as it has lost old landscapes. Poets and novelists from our region observe how built environments have been transformed by urbanisation and globalisation, turning established social worlds on their heads. Fewer have written about the contests that continue to take place on the city’s edge, pitting tightly ordered streets against the rooted knowledge of field or forest. 

This is especially so in Singapore, where I live. On the one hand, the loss of natural habitats has formed a rallying-point for civil society: over the last decade, the government’s plans to run a highway through different segments of the Central Catchment Reserve have earned sustained opposition from a wide and colourful lobby. But ruffled feathers do not translate easily into the landscapes of our imaginations. Instead, jungles of the concrete variety have come to lend their ersatz backdrop, of a flourishing literary scene with thoroughly urban sensibilities. 

During my time abroad, I attempted to make sense of my lost forests by turning to a rich tradition of landscape literature in the English language – a genre which, in 2014, was being revived under the label of ‘New Nature Writing’. 

Many authors claimed their places in this lineage with close observations of local landscapes; from Gilbert White’s landmark Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, a paean to the no-man’s-lands of the 1970s. More recently, writers like Kathleen Jamie, Helen McDonald, and Elizabeth Jane-Burnett were reinventing the genre, taking the natural landscape as a foil for the personal and global anxieties of a new millennium. 

All these writers could name native species as if they were friends, map every hollow of a habitus, or habitat, locations which they knew from inside out. But though their deciduous worlds welcomed me in, I still grasped for words to describe the uprooting of what had, for me, always been at arm’s length. 

Like everyone else I knew growing up, my own forests grew almost exclusively in the past and conditional tense, as what had already been cleared to make way for the city, or what would one day be paved and signposted for a weekend’s walk. It seemed a privilege to have such intimate awareness of one’s landscapes, even to know where to look for a knowledge of what was gone. 

It was too late for me to tear down that fence at the edge of my wood – but here I was, miles from my own disappearing forests, trying to come to terms with a more peripheral loss. 

II. 

Flying home each summer became synonymous with such absences. Fighting off the jet-lag on my commute from the airport, I’d keep count of the new malls and condominiums that had sprung from once-empty fields. The forests of my childhood hovered like a ghostly presence above the shape-shifting landscape, refusing to give up their place in my subconscious. 

One year, it was the deep wood behind our church, yanked away like a scab to show the red earth beneath. The next summer, it was a forest that arched over the side-gate of my secondary school, the last outcrop of an overgrown cemetery dug on its slopes. Years after the graves were exhumed, the last pockets of remaining forest were to be replaced by astroturf. All that remained were the old columbarium’s jade-green tiles: the boys would have their artificial grass. 

Back in 2007, when I first went to school there, the Land Transport Authority announced plans to fell a century-old tree that stood by a traffic flyover behind the campus. The decision – ostensibly, to protect motorists who might veer too close to its trunk – was thought to be prime-time material, and every news outlet reported on the tree’s fate. What seemed to grate on everyone’s nerves was that two years earlier, the same Authority had chosen to preserve the tree by building the three-lane flyover around it, but now decided that this was too dangerous after all. 

Never ones to forgo a ‘teachable moment’, our teachers organised classroom debates around the Authority’s decision, taking the chance to fix sentence structures as we made fervent arguments about ‘The Disasters of Development’ or ‘The Powers of Compromise’. It may be that too long has passed since then, but I struggle to recall if any of us actually took notice when the old angsana was felled. Like other roadside trees that had become inconvenient, it must have been hewn down under the cover of night; branch by branch, and out of sight. 

This episode is memorable for many reasons, not least for what it revealed of a school that dared to prepare us for the big questions of running the country, but not always for the small truths of living in it. For more than 150 years, it had produced men who thought themselves planters and planners; under their leadership, a gregarious young country had come of age. By the time I enrolled, the school had come to see itself as no less than a seeding-ground for the city’s elite. 

One Chinese proverb puts it this way: it takes ten years to cultivate a tree, a hundred to cultivate a man (or a people). The character for ‘cultivate’ has shades of meaning; here, it reads as the verb ‘to nurture’, but also as the noun for ‘tree’. Just as a garden must be pruned before it comes into bloom, I can almost hear my teachers say, one’s character can only flourish if it is trained and taught. Needless to say, the old colonial institution found itself faithful to the task.  

In 2015, some years after I graduated, the school was designated as a nomination centre for the parliamentary elections, and I made my way back to hear the candidates make their maiden speeches. One of the ruling party’s new faces that year was an alumnus, who happened to be running in the same constituency where the campus was. Stepping up to the podium, he gestured to the high-rise apartments on all sides, reminded of how his party had turned ‘swamps into showflats’, a success mirrored in the life-stories of his prospective constituents. 

Except, of course, it hadn’t – or at least, not here. A century and a half ago, Cantonese and Hakka immigrants had chosen the hilly, wooded area as a communal cemetery, and built two villages in the vicinity. One village came to be run by a federation of sixteen Cantonese clans, which oversaw a population of more than two thousand by the early 1900s. When the Japanese arrived in 1942, the high ground of the cemetery made it a natural staging-ground for many skirmishes, echoed in the bitter gang fights that erupted in the area after the British returned.   

From at least a century before the postwar government began its first housing project in Bishan, then, the area had been of no small significance to local communities, who negotiated their forested slopes into a precious resource for the living and dead. Perhaps I was naïve to expect more from a moment of glib electioneering, but something about how he waved history aside troubled me deeply. Our forests, it seemed, were forgotten long before they were even felled.  

III.

It is safe to say that no state has had a straightforward relationship with its forests. The word itself has tangled roots, signifying in Old English both woodland and hunting ground. Not long after the Norman Conquest, it became a legal term for the new aristocracy’s game preserves, and the ‘New Forest’ in South England was one of the oldest, so called. Later, the crown would find more uses for its forests: timber for the ships of empire, or vast tracts of land to reward loyal nobles with.    

To those in power, forests have always been equally tempting and forbidding. Abundant in riches, yet careful guardians of secrets, forests are fertile for conquest, but lend a safe haven to the rebel and exile. Little wonder that so many tales of resistance are set in sylvan surroundings, from the Green Knight’s duel with Gawain, to Robin of Sherwood’s egalitarian heroics. These stories have since arrived on stage and screen, most memorably in Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods.   

Here, the same dynamics are evident. From the clearing of rainforest for plantation agriculture to the making of Western reputations on indigenous ‘discoveries’, Malaya’s forests were exploited by generations of colonial administrators, aided by the business classes that flourished on their watch. Early traders dealt in rare produce, while later merchants shipped rubber and tin to fuel a distant ‘industrial revolution’. The jungle itself was held at bay: one well-worn tale from my alma mater involves a former Headmaster shooting a tiger under the bar of the Raffles Hotel. 

After the Japanese left, the Malayan National Liberation Army took to the woods for a decade-long guerilla campaign against the British, and the tiger came to stand for Communism itself – or at least, the righteous and unpredictable fury of the anti-imperialist movement. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was said to have won power by ‘riding the tiger’, but the image of a ‘Garden City’ that he later promoted was far more amenable to investors from the West. Without irony, the country successfully applied for its colonial-era Botanic Gardens to be accorded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, exactly half a century after political independence. 

Much of this history remains visible in our urban geography. Old Peranakan houses financed by the plantations of an earlier era still stand along Orchard Road, which now serves as our main shopping belt. The Thai Embassy occupies the site of one such mansion, first acquired by King Chulalongkorn in 1880. A stone’s throw away, the President’s official residence – built entirely by convict labour – sits on the sprawling nutmeg slopes of Mount Sophia.  

Though sizeable tracts have already been lost to developmental projects, even the forests that survive are enlisted to the national purpose. During National Service, we’d drive out to ‘training plots’ across the island to watch 18-year-old recruits practice against an imaginary enemy. Occasionally, we’d find the ruins of demolished or abandoned villages, their crumbling walls now used as props for infantry maneuvers. No doubt, some of their former residents are still alive. Yet the Singapore they knew could well have been an altogether different place. 

These days, one hardly encounters ‘true’ forests in urban Singapore. Larger tracts line our landlocked reservoirs, and others fringe upon our mangrove waterways. Those closer to the city centre are whittled down or hemmed into ‘park connectors’, while rooftop palms cast a semblance of long-lost shade. We take perverse pride in our roadside trees and verges, tended to evergreen perfection by low-wage workers who spend difficult hours on these modern ‘plantations’. The Garden City remains verdant, while their labour provides the window-dressing.  

In late 2016, Singapore made an appearance on Planet Earth. It was the city’s debut on the series, despite playing host to an astonishing range of flora and fauna (including five hundred species discovered in the past five years). As David Attenborough’s narration went on, cameras homed in on the gleaming ‘Gardens By The Bay’, a 101-hectare development at the mouth of the Singapore River, which, the producers hoped, would point a way forward for urban greening. 

Unmentioned was the fact that this billion-dollar project sat entirely on reclaimed land, part of a coastline altered forever through the bulk purchase of sand from across the region – not to mention the destruction of marine ecosystems. And all the more unnoticed: how the Gardens’ two iconic greenhouses, built on earth stolen from the sea, seemed to represent the way in which a country had tamed its forests at long last, building for them an oasis of air-conditioned calm.    

IV.

The lines at the beginning of this essay are taken from Geoffrey Hill’s poem, ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ (1968), where they refer to the warm, cathedral stillness of the English church, open by custom – as they would have been in Hill’s day – to the homeless and destitute. There’s a wry nod to the 19th-Century architect Augustus Pugin (best known for having designed ‘Big Ben’), whose eponymous tract urged a return to an architectural style he saw as the ‘correct expression of the faith…and climate of our country’. 

Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, those lines seem better suited for an older and more universal calm: the sense of earthy resolve that settles over us once we step into a forest’s hush. Despite our penchant for depicting forests as untamed and dangerous, they retain a capacity to carve reflective pauses out of our hyper-active days, even in the mere moments we spend beneath their canopies. Gone is the hard asphalt from beneath our feet. We feel the spring and crunch of leaves, a pleasing cool in the air, and the trees take us under their wing. 

It is for this reason, perhaps, that forests seem inseparable from belief. In January 2019, National Geographic ran a story on Ethiopia’s ‘church forests’, some of which date to the fourth century. Surrounded by harsh desert, these pockets of green envelop hand-painted buildings of wood and stone, lovingly maintained by the congregations of the Orthodox Tewahido Church. To them, the forest has always been ‘as much a part of the religious space as the church building itself’. 

A similar association persists in Singapore, albeit on a more prosaic scale. It’s hard to walk through any of our older estates without encountering a ‘tree shrine’: one of many meeting-places of Hindu, Taoist, and Islamic tradition, as ancient in their syncretism as this port-city itself. 

The question of where, and how, we worship is inextricably tied to what we rely on for a sense of welcome and security. Though our oldest ‘tree shrines’ are lost to time, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see how those coming ashore in an earlier era would have found, in the forests’ calm repose, a refuge from the threatening seas. Or how the trees’ agnostic shade would have afforded a natural gathering-place for those with few shared languages or traditions.   

The part of Singapore where my first, lost forest is located is known as Tanah Merah – literally, ‘red earth’. Among the manuscripts available to us today, the name first appears on a 1604 map of the island by the Bugis-Portuguese travel writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia. It was, as historians have surmised, a reference to the blood-red cliffs on the island’s eastern flank, which served as a navigational landmark for the orang laut, who have frequented our waterways for centuries. 

Those heights, once so reliable a guide, no longer exist, having been levelled in the 70s to extend our southeastern shoreline. Part of the area which became the housing estate where I grew up, while what was once known as Tanah Merah Besar (the ‘greater cliff’, as opposed to Tanah Merah ‘Kechil’, the ‘lesser’), was shorn down to make way for Changi Airport’s third terminal.  

I like to imagine that my own tree-topped hill was once part of another history, a past that reaches much further back, and remains open to much wider possibilities than the timeline we have grown accustomed to. In that history, its indomitable forest still stands, the crown jewel of a long red ridgeline beaming welcome and journey’s end to those out at sea. 

Being orphaned of that forest, what gives me a sense of refuge now are individual trees that, defying the city’s logic, have come to root deep in the mind’s terrain. In my final year at Oxford, I lived on the ground floor of Grove Building, an old house that looked over the city wall onto Merton Field, where James Sadler made England’s first hot-air balloon ascent in 1783. A tall redwood rose like a sundial over the lawn outside, throwing its deep shadow across my study table. 

Five years on, I am writing this in my office, nestled beneath the austere blocks of the Singapore General Hospital. Across from me, separated by a pocket of green, are the old dormitories of the King Edward VII College of Medicine, reassuring in their bauhaus simplicity, while a rain tree of unknown vintage reaches over the low buildings. On hot September afternoons, it casts a clean circle on the grass, as if inviting us to step away from our desks and breathe its cool. 

Trees such as these offer a universal, age-old belonging that seems radical in the modern metropolis. Unlike malls and cafes, islands of bourgeois respectability which have come to pass for ‘public space’; trees insist on their own place in the landscape, creating misshapen zones of rest, reverence, and play that are as safe as they are open. All are utterly welcome beneath their shade: their generosity, so unnatural to our present ethos, astounds us.

Lest we miss the forests for the trees, our true loss may well be this: a sense of the wider ecology in which we have lived and must live, a knowledge of the messy, mutual dependencies that belie the straight lines of our streets and stories. I started this essay to seek a language for the forests I had lost, but the histories retold here only begin to shed light on what new ways we might find to speak to each other. 

Words we might learn, that take our collective past and present into account. And make a path, perhaps, through the trees.


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry and was shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and The London Magazine. He has edited several books of Singaporean writing and serves as editor of Oxford Poetry. His next collection, Moving House, will be released by Carcanet Press (UK) in June 2020. 

Bears Always Find the First Star of the Night

by Eisuke Aikawa
Translated by Toshiya Kamei


The rain had fallen since the evening before, but it had stopped by the afternoon, as if it had never been. Clouds parted to reveal blue skies. The cicadas came back to life and resumed their chorus, and numerous puddles dotted the schoolyard and shone brightly as they reflected the sunlight. Only Kishi and I remained in the classroom after the end-of-term ceremony. We sat side by side at the usual desks by the window.

“This is it. It doesn’t feel like it, though,” mumbled Kishi.

“What’s so good about going to Hokkaido, anyway? It’s too cold, for one thing. Besides, it’s much more rural than it is here.” Even though I knew it was beyond his control, I couldn’t help but sound reproachful.

“They say ikura is delicious there.”

“Kishi, do you like salmon roe?”

“Not really,” he answered with a wry smile. That expression made him look all grown up.

“I heard on the news that a bear wandered into town.”

“That sounds scary, but I can’t just stay here.”

Silence filled the room for a short while. I wanted to say a proper goodbye, but every time I tried to get words out, they got stuck in my throat.

“Oh yeah,” Kishi blurted.

I looked up, my eyes still downcast.

“The sky must be beautiful at night.”

“You mean in Hokkaido?”

“Yes. They say it’s so clear you can almost touch it.”

I imagined Kishi looking at the stars alone on a night so cold the air could freeze. Bears and foxes would stand dazed as they stared up at the starry night sky. It was a faraway time and place, but I was able to see it as if it were floating in front of me.

“Is that so?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he answered with a laugh.

Years later, his smile still lingers in my mind.



Eisuke Aikawa is a fiction writer based in Fukuoka, Japan. He has authored two collections of short stories, Haikingu (2017) and Kumo wo hanareta tsuki (2018). His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Bungakukai, Hidden Authors, and Taberu no ga osoi. His first novel, Hannah no inai jugatsu wa, was published in 2020.

Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His recent translations of Latin American literature include books by Claudia Apablaza, Carlos Bortoni, and Selfa Chew.

Two Poems

Blue I (1916)

by Clair Dunlap

after Georgia O’Keeffe

the midwest begins to smell like tidal flats. i look in the snow and find the sea stars—all of the indigo ones we lost from the ocean. fell themselves comet-like down into winter. water too warm so they found the cold. a wild act of self-preservation. that’s what the headlines might read if anyone still believed in magic. problem is, the spring puddles will all be dry soon, the stars just simply haven’t learned this yet. each afternoon i go out and peel them from the shelves of trash they cling to, from the unwavering greyed ice. i set the tanks up to run special like a small ocean. some sit out in pyrex bowls like tide pools, the glass the color of an anemone. makes the stars feel at home. i next-day deliver bull kelp, ochre as a bruise, to blanket them in. i smear fluorescent uni along the rims of the bowls and watch them thrust their stomachs against the glass to eat. they must miss the challenge of opening the shells, but this is the only way i can love them: pricking my fingers on an urchin’s purple.



still, they begin to fade in color and lumens, their tens of legs softening.



i could promise them a taste of real salt breeze, the same thing i promise myself, but me and the stars all know the limitations. i carry the bowls into the street and we all rest in the comfortable air, april’s sun shining. each of us melting.



Clair Dunlap grew up just outside Seattle, Washington, and is the author of In the Plum Dark Belly (2016). Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Oakland Review, The Hopper, The Swamp Literary Journal, Hobart, Glass, and more. She currently lives in the Midwest.

Out of Reach

by Jesica Davis

The subterranean lake never goes away,
the fact of squishy socks and wet toes.

Remembering                       that how fast you sink
can be a measure of presence. A damp metric.

Though its shores may advance and recede,
some years more haunted, dripping           than others,

it would be a mistake to disown all those
soggy ghosts, their weighted, freight loads

of memory and forked roads —           to feel safe
from drowning just because today’s land

paces solid under feet. Do not forget: temporary.
In this dry season it may hide, it may not

be your turn to seek, but from that
chilly, tendriled grip           you are never

                                                                     out of reach.



Jesica Davis is a poet and technical writer originally from Chicago, currently not really living anywhere. She’s the Associate Editor for Inverted Syntax literary journal and her work has appeared in The Laurel ReviewZone 3streetcake magazine, StoneboatStorm Cellar, and other venues. Jesica has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net prizes. She studied poetry at the University of Illinois (as well as The New School, NYU, and Poets House), was the final Alice Maxine Bowie Fellow at Lighthouse Writers Workshop (2016-2017), and won the Tarantula Prize for Poetry (Pilgrimage Press, 2018). Sometimes she makes poemboxes, which sculpturally interpret her words. See jesicacarsondavis.net for more.