“Felix Ever After” Shows That the Love You Deserve Is Inside and Out

Having a sense of self-worth is important for any LGBTQ+ person, but especially for queer trans people of color. Our race often means that we are ignored among the LGBTQ+ community, while our gender identity and sexual orientation get scorned or overlooked among allocishet people of color. To that end, it is often up to QTPOC to support each other and show each other that we are worthy of life, love, and happiness.

In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves. Through his experiences with others, Felix Love must look at who and what should determine his self-worth.

In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves.

One of the most notable things about this book is how it shows the harmful effect of transmisia on Felix’s self-worth. His father helped Felix transition, but he can’t bring himself to say Felix’s name. Ezra Patel, Felix’s best friend, is sensitive and understanding, but another “friend” is revealed to be trans exclusionary. In turn, the behavior of family and friends, and the experience of having his pre-transition photos displayed, make Felix feel he wouldn’t be enough for any lover. The dialogue and scenes combine with Felix’s internal thoughts to convey his pain, but they also motivate Felix to confront transmisia by holding his family and friends accountable.

In fact, Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. Felix’s friendship with Ezra is wonderful and complex, in that they have fun together but also have hard, honest discussions about their future and themselves. At one point, Felix and Ezra fight because Felix is projecting his insecurities onto Ezra. As a rebuttal, Ezra points this out without invalidating Felix’s feelings. They do all of this while examining Ezra’s class privilege as the child of wealthy parents and the pressure that Felix feels as a child of a working-class father. Their friendship is never depicted as perfect, nor as competitive, but as a relationship based on support, care, and honest communication.

Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. 

Meanwhile, Felix’s father is a source of financial and emotional support, despite Felix’s issues with him. Given that Felix’s mom left them years ago, Felix and his dad must learn to make their relationship with each other work—not to mention Felix can’t quite let go of his mother, and he’s constantly drafting unsent emails to her. A particularly poignant bit of dialogue occurs when Felix and his dad discuss Felix’s mom and how some love can be unhealthy to hold on to when you’re getting less than you deserve. This conversation has an impact on Felix that stays with him when he undergoes his introspective journey.

Speaking of which, Felix’s internal journey is an emotional roller coaster. Prior to having his photos leaked, Felix was already feeling stressed because of interpersonal issues, his ongoing questioning about his gender identity, and feeling that he needs to prove himself by going to an elite university. Once things go south, Felix gets angry enough to pursue revenge against the person he assumes leaked his photos while dealing with online harassment in the aftermath. Yet his frustration also urges him to hold his loved ones accountable for their transmisia and seek answers about his gender identity via an in-person support group and online resources.

While some might find Felix unlikable for his revenge plan, his reaction is totally realistic, and his feelings are never invalidated—nor are they completely condoned. His revenge plan turns out to be less cut-and-dried than it first appears, and Felix must learn to channel his anger in a healthier way while holding himself accountable for any harm he causes. In this sense, Felix feels like a true-to-life character: he is neither perfect nor a completely bad person.

A final aspect of this book that was enjoyable is how Felix eventually uses visual art as catharsis for his newfound self-love. Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. If the book’s cover is any indication, Felix’s final portrait encompasses all that he is in his vibrant glory.

Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. 

Despite some slow, suspense-building pacing, after the first hundred pages Felix After Ever is an engrossing coming-of-age novel that presents queer pride in all its complicated and powerful aspects. Readers will root for Felix as he learns that the love he deserves can be found inside himself, as well as outside himself among others who truly care for and respect him.

Poetry Month Spotlight: Jessica Mehta

Artist Statement

I am a multi-award-winning poet, artist, and performance artist working at the intersection of mixed- and digital-media. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, much of my work focuses on space, place, and identity in post-Colonial America and often addresses the vast disparities faced by indigenous people today. Many of my projects also directly address issues that have impacted me personally, such as mass incarceration, alcoholism and drug addiction, homelessness, eating disorders, and the opioid epidemic. One example of this hyper-personal implementation is my curation of an anthology of poetry by incarcerated indigenous women. I am the only person in my family to never be incarcerated, and offering workshops in correctional facilities while providing these women with a platform for their voices was a project stemming from my own experiences of having family members trapped in the nation’s “justice” system.

In the business facet of my life, I own a small writing services company (MehtaFor) which specializes in creating search engine optimization (SEO) rich content. The emphasis of technology in my business life organically spread to my creative and research life in the past decade. Increasingly, I have been utilizing technology in my creative work, such as the creation of a virtual reality (VR) poetry experience with proprietary software that allows users to immerse themselves in indigenous poetry in new, intimate ways.

My interest in VR partially stems from research from the University of Barcelona that suggests embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s understanding, empathy, and compassion—my hope is that non-Native users who experience poetry in VR may undergo similar results. I also offer poetry in other non-traditional formats, such as in performance art with elements of shibari rope tying using customized measuring tapes to draw attention to eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest, most under-insured, and most under-diagnosed of any mental disorder, and are especially under-treated in non-white communities.

Indigenous audiences are a natural fit for my work, but I know that those who might benefit the most are non-Native. I consider myself an artist and writer first, but hope to also serve as a source to help encourage knowledge-sharing, the opening of discourse, and information exchange beyond indigenous communities. I am constantly working towards making poetry, art, and technology as accessible and engaging as possible. Unfortunately, poetry is often seen as the literature genre which is the most elite, dry, and boring—even though this, of course, is not true. By introducing poetry to audiences in different formats, I aim to create a welcoming opportunity to experience the genre.

For more information on my art, background, and projects, please visit my site at www.jessicamehta.com.

Do You See the Stars?

This is waking up. Rememberwhen you pressed your thumbs, thick and unforgiving, into my eye sockets? Slow as deathuntil I caved to the dizzy and you whispered, accent sticky, dripping in rose syrup,

Do you see the stars?

And I did. They burst in the darkness like kisses. This city has a heart, flutteringcrazed and drunken as a beast, handsitchy and always wanting, wantingand a mouth with hunger so palpableI gave myself in an instant. I was new, damp when I came here, ridiculousas one of those puppy mill survivorstoo petrified to take a single step from the cageinto green grass and sunshine. I stumbled, blinded, but for the stars.

I risked it all for youbecause it was home, because it was you, the cage I left behind, dank and cloyingand so sadly, pathetically familiar. It was a husk, forgotten like nightmares and used to be’s,

but it was all I’d ever known.

Pulitzer Prize Pig

Pulitzer Prize Pig spoke of what it means to be ***** as a ***** man with a look the look      that look women were born knowing how to read. I knew that look      the look at fifteen when the AP teacher crouched beside my desk in the dark while flashes of syphilis and gonorrhea shuddered across the projector screen. (Still, even now, I hear the tired clicking of the tapes). I knew the look, saw      a look, at eleven when grown men whistled at my unfolding hips and high school boys rolled Corollas along middle school parking lots with eyes that spider-scurried pressed breasts. And I knew, I saw that look,      his look at four. In the bathtub, I learned shame— I shot my father in the eye with a plastic alligator squirt gun and never bathed with open doors again. Pulitzer Prize Pig sidled up close, nosed for nipple drinkers and sniffed out my slop. Trough walls are low, but sticky, slick beside stys, and boars are happy with scraps.

I Thought You Were Praying

Through the deserts outside Al Ain, the babysucking like a beast at your breast,mosques gave way to dunesand the oiled street workers to palms. Beyond the camels,past the tribesmen,we didn’t stop until we were away from it all—the malls with their ungodly air conditioning,the fat children making loud love to their sweets,the fat wives engorged in their abayas, rollinglike sun-swollen beetles through the shops.In ballet flats and the jeans that hugged my asslike a fetish, I climbed the dunes as if I belonged,while beautiful golden menh in glorious keffiyehshonked safely from the highway. And I,staggering like a drunk as the sand clung begging and desperate,my cuckolded lover to my perfect white feet, mounted the crest, dropped to my knees,ready and eager as a whore,to fil a mason jar with contraband. And you,nipples burnished as the sand, laughed, I thought you were praying.

About Jessica Mehta

Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, multi-award-winning poet, and author of over one dozen books. Place, space, and personal ancestry inform much of her work. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of Crab Creek Review and owner of an award-winning small business. MehtaFor is a writing services company that offers pro bono services to Native Americans and indigenous-serving non-profits.

Jessica integrates technology, archival photos, and performance art into many of her creative projects. “Red/Act” is a pop-up virtual reality poetry experience made with proprietary software. It aims to introduce more people to poetry, and specifically indigenous poetry, through a uniquely immersive encounter. Her “emBODY poetry” performance series features experimental poetry on nude form while incorporating shibari rope work to address topics on body image and eating disorders.

Her novel The Wrong Kind of Indian won gold at the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) and at the American Book Fest Best Book. Jessica has also received numerous fellowships in recent years, including the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship at The British Library in London. Jessica is a popular speaker and panelist, featured recently at events such as the US State Department’s National Poetry Month event, “Poets as Cultural Emissaries: A Conversation with Women Writers,” as well as the “Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960” symposium at Oxford University.

She has undertaken poetry residencies around the globe including at Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and at the Crazy Horse Memorial and museum in South Dakota. Her work has been featured at galleries and exhibitions around the world, including IA&A Hillyer in Washington DC, The Emergency Gallery in Sweden, and Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.

Jessica is also an experienced registered yoga instructor (ERYT-500®), registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT®), certified Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP®), and NASM-certified personal trainer (CPT). She’s the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga and strength movement, which offers free classes to groups that don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.

Learn more at www.jessicamehta.com or find Jessica on Twitter and Instagram @bookscatsyoga.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Robin Gow, Jessica Nguyen, Danny McLaren, and Uma Menon

We are delighted to present this week’s selections from the Brain Mill Press Poetry Month Contest, Break Poetry Open, by talented poets Robin Gow, Jessica Nguyen, Danny McLaren, and Uma Menon.

We hope you’ll enjoy these editors’ picks as much as we did.

i had a dream they took out my uterus & handed it to me.

Robin Gow

my uterus was an ornate vase & i asked, “what am i supposed to do with this?” the doctor shrugged he was in a suit & tie & had lavender gloves he suggested i use it to collect something. i stuck my hand in deep to see if there was already anything in there, found a ring i lost maybe four years ago & i wondered how it got there. silver claddagh waiting scraping up against the glass lining of the vase. it had something to do with hope, i think a uterus does even if you take it out & discover it’s a shoe box or an urn or a vase. i tried other items, starting with buttons, snipping them off all my clothes so that i would have more. clear buttons, black buttons, brown buttons, red buttons, all of them inside the vase, i thought they might transform, i thought that might be the point of the strange object but nothing happened. i slept holding the vase & imagining what it was like inside me what kind of objects it hungered for. i talked to it, i told the vase that i was sorry this was how everything had to happen. i bought flowers after flowers to let sprout from the vase’s mouth: lilies, carnations, roses & i’d keep asking the uterus, “are you happy?” but the vase wouldn’t respond. emptying out the greenish stem-water left over from the flowers i stuck my hand in again only this time i felt an ache in my chest as i did, a kind of phantom connection, a hand under skin. i wept, it was something about hope for something; a hand searching under skin for lost objects, the ring like a kind of opening for beetles or other insects to crawl through. i was scared it might always be like this if i kept the thing around. i had to break it. no, not in the driveway or the street, a push from the counter in the kitchen where all glasses & plates will eventually shatter. the pieces on the floor like teeth of an unknown monster. i apologized to the uterus as i cleaned up its pieces. i took a bowl from the cupboard & began filling it with buttons out of habit or maybe some kind of hope. from the buttons grew the stems of flowers, only the stems.

Robin Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, The Gateway Review, and tilde. He is a graduate student at Adelphi University pursing an MFA in Creative Writing. He is the Editor at Large for Village of Crickets, Social Media Coordinator for Oyster River Pages and interns for Porkbelly Press. He is an out and proud bisexual transgender man passionate about LGBT issues. He loves poetry that lilts in and out of reality, and his queerness is also the central axis of his work.

perks of a half-deaf wallflower

jessica nguyen

one. it’s so much easier to sleep lying in bed, on my “good ear” – whether it’s thunderstorms or my partner’s snoring, I am able to slip past silently through the night no baby can wake this baby up. everyone envies my mornings since they see no traces of dark circles under my eyes they’d ask, “what’s your secret?” who knew that my disability could be a celebrity-level beauty hack?

two. the drill fire alarm comes in—oh wait, that’s not a perk.

two. I can pretend to not hear you and use my deafness as a legitimate excuse. – this especially works when I am not particularly fond of you. this also works when I am not paying attention to something that I should’ve been paying attention to “oh, sorry. what’s that? I couldn’t quite hear you the first time. can you repeat what you said? thanks.” (smirks) I swear it’s the truth sometimes. . three. during trials and interviews, “we can’t hire you because you—” oops, that’s not a perk either. . three. I got extra time on my ACT tests. didn’t think that having my time limit doubled would help me on this kind of standardized testing, since only one of the four of the subjects required listening to begin with… but I did get a small private room to myself with no pencil scratching and people breathing . four. I got the same ACT score as my last one. and I wasn’t even given the extra time last— wow, I need to stop. what is the definition of self-actualization again? . four. I am everybody’s right hand person. the ones who’ve passed my friendship test re the ones who remembered to walk on my left. you can tell who the strangers are – they are the ones who I dance tango with as I quickly sashay to get to their right side. . five. walking into every classroom I wore an fm unit like a prop, which consisted of a hearing aid for me and a microphone for the teacher to speak into, which means having to blow my cover as I approach

now, I could expect the spotlight to be on me – yes, the star actor who deserved an oscar for passing as a full hearing person, coming up on stage to deliver her speech: “I’d like to thank lip-reading and body language – I wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am today without them.”

all confused eyes would be on me, sometimes awkward silence, but mostly attention to the quiet girl sitting in the front because isn’t that what being half-deaf means? getting all the special attention?

six. I can find my teachers easily when I need them. it’s great because if the teacher rushes out of the classroom, I always know where they go.

one time, the bell rang and it was the quickest I’ve seen a teacher leaving the room (I can understand his urge, though) the problem was that he was wearing my microphone so I had to chase him down. and of course, I thought it’d be cool to spy on what he was doing through my hearing aid. so, I did.

and what I first heard seconds in was the sound of of a stream, which lasted for…. a while. then, a toilet flushing.

Jessica Nguyen/Nguyễn Thị Mai Nhi is a world traveler, activist, and writer. Though having lived in the U.S. for most of her life, she hops from one country to the next in hopes of discovering pieces of home to fill her Asian American soul. Known to be a soft-spoken person in the real world, she often channels her feelings through her writing as she finds written words to be just as powerful as when they’re spoken. Jessica plans to publish her own chapbook, “softly, I speak” in the near future. To learn more about her current projects, please visit her website at byjessicanguyen.com or follow her @byjessicanguyen on social media.

Spark Joy

Danny McLaren

Do you ever wonder if your gender sparks joy? If it fits you like a glove, if you love the way the words sound in your mouth or leave your lips, How it feels to say ‘they’ with your own tongue And know better than anyone else how to say your own name?

Does your gender excite you? Does it hum in your veins, electric, ignited, Keep you up at night, tossing from panicked to delighted, thinking what if I’m a boy? or what if I’m nothing at all?

But ‘nothing’ seems scary. My gender isn’t scary. Sure, it’s loud, and it’s big, It takes up too many seats on the bus, makes the up-tight man on the left of me scoot over one.

But it’s dynamic, and powerful, and strong. It repels close-minded like a magnet, And pulls kind and ‘knowledgeable about feminist theory’ my way.

It’s ‘too many beers on a Saturday night’ euphoric, It spills across my clothes when I’m not careful, Or, on some days, when I try really hard to make it seen.

My gender beats in my chest when I run, or while I wrestle into my binder. Constricting my chest with freedom, just to look a little more me.

My gender kisses me goodnight, and greets me with the sunrise, And marks up my skin with ‘I love you.’

Do you ever wonder if your gender sparks joy? If you feel ‘just right’ with the words you choose to use To tell others who you are? Maybe you should Because it feels damn good.

Danny is a queer and non-binary writer who uses they/them pronouns. They are an undergraduate student studying Gender Studies, and beginning to dabble in queer, anti-racist, and anti-colonial theory. They have an interest in exploring themes related to equity, resistance, and intersectionality in their work, and often write about their gender, sexuality, and mental health through these lenses. They can be found on twitter at @dannymclrn.

shopping for a necklace

Uma Menon

Uma Menon is a fifteen-year-old student and writer from Winter Park, Florida. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and National Poetry Quarterly, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, and the Cincinnati Review, among others. Her first chapbook was published in 2019 (Zoetic Press); she also received the 2019 Lee Bennett Hopkins Award in Poetry.

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.

Jessica Mehta, Iulia Militaru, and Levi Cain

We are delighted to highlight this week’s selections from the Brain Mill Press Poetry Month Contest, Break Poetry Open, by talented poets Jessica Mehta, Iulia Militaru (translated by Claudia Serea), and Levi Cain.

Iulia Militaru’s poem “This Is Not a Poem,” translated by Claudia Serea, was included among the picks but is not reproduced below.

We hope you’ll enjoy these editors’ picks as much as we did.

Two Antipodes Poems

Jessica Mehta

Author’s Note: Antipodes are an experimental form of poetry with roots in both palindromes and reverse poetry. However, unlike reverse poems which can be read forward and backward line by line, the antipode can be read forward and backward word by word. Poems are intended to be read with the original version on the verso page and the reflected antipode on the recto page.

America de’Colonizer

De-colonizer: America—we’re coming. You are too prideful, too vain. Your destruction bred warriors. Overseas invaders brought ships full and pulsing. For generations, lost children remain reticent. To listen, says Creator, you need ancestors. Homecoming, we’re nobility displaced. Dethrone well-mistaken kings. You’re uncertain still; that’s okay. Washing white, the stain’s disappearing now. Missing women, murdered women, all we’re saying is Creator understands. Who are we? Strength of centuries—come. Be Natives.

***

Natives become centuries of strength. We are who understands Creator is saying we’re all women murdered, women missing. Now, disappearing stains the whitewashing. (Okay, that’s still uncertain). Your king’s mistaken, we’ll dethrone displaced nobility. We’re coming home. Ancestors need you, Creator says. Listen to reticent remains. Children lost generations, for pulsing and full ships brought invaders—overseas warriors bred destruction. You’re vain, too, prideful, too. Are you coming? We’re America, de’Colonizer.

Alone, He Pictures the Sea

See the pictures? He, alone, recalls it all. And memory lingers here. Sick heads make regrets huge and away swim mistakes like whales. Sorry, he’s human. He’s sorry he’s scared— he’s Jonah of full bellies. Our broken system’s the offender, another mishap, another bias. Here’s to oceans of dreams. Lost, he’s landlocked. All we’re doing, we are what hatred spawns. Suspicion means this: forced solitude and life in prisons. Everyone made deals— all for views, water painted views.

***

Views, painted water views for all. Deals made everyone prisons in life and solitude forced. This means suspicion spawns hatred. What are we doing? We’re all landlocked. He’s lost dreams of oceans, too. Here’s bias: another mishap, another offender. The system’s broken … our belly’s full of Jonah. He’s scared, he’s sorry he’s human, he’s sorry. Whales like mistakes swim away and huge regrets make heads sick. Here lingers memory and all it recalls. Alone, he pictures the sea.

Jessica Mehta is a multi-award-winning poet and author of over one dozen books. She’s currently a poetry editor at Bending Genres Literary Review, Airlie Press, and the peer-reviewed Exclamat!on journal. During 2018-19, she was a fellow at Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington DC where she curated an anthology of poetry by incarcerated indigenous women and created “Red/Act,” a pop-up virtual reality poetry experience using proprietary software. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and native Oregonian, place and personal ancestry inform much of Jessica’s creative work.

Jessica is also the owner of a multi-award-winning writing company and founder of the Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund, the only scholarship exclusively for Native Americans pursuing an advanced degree in writing. She has undertaken poetry residencies around the globe including at Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England and the Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her doctoral research focuses on the intersection of poetry and eating disorders.

Jessica’s novel The Wrong Kind of Indian won gold at the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs). Jessica has also received numerous visiting fellowships in recent years, including the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University at Bloomington and the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship at The British Library. Visual representations of her work have been featured at galleries and exhibitions around the world including IA&A Hillyer in Washington DC and The Emergency Gallery in Sweden. Jessica is a popular speaker and panelist, featured recently at events like the US State Department’s National Poetry Month event, “Poets as Cultural Emissaries: A Conversation with Women Writers,” as well as the “Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960” symposium at Oxford University. Learn more about Jessica’s creative work at www.jessicamehta.com. Twitter: @ndns4vage.

FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE TWIST OUT WAS NOT ENUFF

Levi Cain

swear on my mama no—swear on something more simple and sacred. swear on my brother’s future mixtape, swear on pig fat in collard greens and freshly whipped shea butter, arroz con what the fuck ever—that the cracked cushion chair of my hairdresser’s closet is in fact a cathedral, packets of yaki and remy dotted with the same angels, skin the color of good brandy. the nollywood movies blaring on the thrifted television is the preacher. there is one constant truth— the half-room in waltham is a tabernacle for second generation girls who never learned how to cornrow.

a blackgurl’s bond with a hairdresser is tighter than the binding of isaac, requires more faith than you ever know how to give after years of lye being applied to your scalp, after years of being teased by whitegirls who crow that your hair looks like brillo pads that they wouldn’t let their housekeepers scour the sink with. the same whitegirls who now quiz you on coconut oil and ask you to anoint them with the wisdom of deep conditioning.

i and every other blackgurl who grew up in the suburbs are haunted by visions of hot combs and strangers putting their hands in our hair, pulling so sharply we swear we hear the echo of a whip crack.

but those ghosts have no place here, in this space that has only space enough for you, your hairdresser, and maybe her friend from haiti who you do not know the name of but who twists braids so gently it is as if she wants to be your mother.

this is an act of love, but all gods are not filled with goodness and so neither is the woman who stands with jojoba in her right hand, 84 inches of kankelon in her left, who asks why you never seem to have a boyfriend, who told you she would rather die than break bread with faggots but passes you plantains as communion, presses your forehead to her chest as madonna, calls you daughter, welcomes you with open arms to a rented room in a part of a town that would make a principal’s lip curl —this blackgurl bethlehem, this satin covered resting place, this plane of being where you are you are blackgurl, are celebration, are miracle, are nothing but holiest of holies.

Levi Cain is a queer writer from the Greater Boston Area who was born in California and raised in Connecticut. Further examples of their work can be found in Lunch Ticket, Red Queen Literary Magazine, and other publications.

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.

Mothering the Sexy

Sixteen years ago, I moved from the warm bosom of my frigid family homestead in Oswego, New York, to Manhattan and produced my first off off-Broadway play. It required the kind of impenetrable naiveté and unflinching courage found in kids and crazy people.

I penned the play, Carnival Girls, while in college. It was a piece I described as “multi-genre and non-linear.” Basically a hodge-podge of highlights from my writing portfolio that spanned four years as a coed studying creative writing.

Ever since my grandmother, smoking a cigarette and sipping black coffee, told me the stories of the mascaraed hootchie kootchie girls, I was obsessed with the women who worked the sexy, seedy small-town carnival circuit. So much so that today, I have a thriving NYC-based theatre company as well as a book series that bears the same name: The Carnival Girls.

An all-female theatre company, Carnival Girls Productions creates, produces, and promotes original theatrical work by and about women. Our mission is quite simple: great roles for women = great entertainment for all. And the same belief holds true for the first book in my series, Sadie of the Sideshow.

But ironically, or perhaps not, it all truly began in dingy strip club turned off-Broadway theatre across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal ten blocks from Times Square. There, I held an open casting call for female “actors, dancers, magicians, musicians, contortionists and comediennes” ages eighteen to twenty-eight. This is where my impenetrable naiveté got poked.

Hundreds of young women showed up to audition for my mildly entertaining, entirely non-paying theatrical hodge-podge. And 95 percent of these performers? Fiercely, brilliantly, achingly talented. I never truly knew what a muse was until I arrived Manhattan and had two hundred of them staring back at me, equally wide-eyed and hungry as their playwright turned producer.

And so began the task of writing new parts for the production. Because despite not having material for her, how could I turn away the ashen-faced Russian girl with the blunt black bangs and the Mona Lisa grin? Or the crop-topped and bejeweled Israeli dancer who not only could break dance but break hearts with a mere twitch of her hip? Or the African American actress whose command of the stage whilst wearing fishnets and devouring a bagel had me near tears? Mama, I wasn’t in Oz(wego) anymore. And was so very grateful for it.

My imagination went wild with the possibilities for performance. I saw clowns and con artists. Strippers and sword swallowers. Mystics and money makers. A cruel carnival barker in a corset, top hat, and brandishing a riding crop! Every artist who took the stage, I asked the same question: if you could be any kind of carnival girl, who would you be? I expected answers that were as interesting and diverse as the artists themselves. My naiveté got rammed again.

The “hot” one. The “sexy” one. The “slut.” This is how every single one of the young women responded. (Except for the one who said she wanted to be a hamster. I still have no idea what that means or how she envisioned that in a carnival world, but I’m not convinced it wasn’t sexual either.)

My twofold takeaway from this unintended social experiment was, one, young women had a very skewed (though not entirely inaccurate) view of what it meant to be a carnival worker. And, two, we were all woefully sexually repressed and craved a safe place to bear our beauty and booties.

It was just like the whole Halloween costume conundrum that our culture has been tortured and titillated by for decades. The one night a year where every and any woman could crank up their boobs, stuff their feet into stilettos, and strut out in public without fear of being judged a whore or harlot. And if a performer could do this on stage under the auspices of art? Well, damn, the hotness just got cooler.

Fast-forward fourteen years later, when an editor-friend called me with a scintillating writing opportunity. She was working for a publishing upstart that was soliciting submissions of erotic fiction for their catalogue. My friend thought of me and the modest carny girl empire that I spent the last decade building, complete with over a dozen plays and branded panties. I was advised, “Think 50 Shades but good.”Suddenly, I was the actor on the stage. I was the one given the green light to stand up and strip down. And not that I ever needed permission, but it was a kick being asked. Certainly a motivation to explore another side of my creative self, flex a kinky muscle or two. And as an artist, isn’t that my responsibility? To go where I’ve never gone before? If not for my audience, then for myself?

But there was a hitch. A sticky, curly-blond-locked one named Luke, my toddler. Who at the time was just two years old.

I spent over a decade living single in Manhattan during the height of Sex and the City (which I didn’t watch because, unlike my fellow writer Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t afford cable). Those were the days of writing all night and sleeping all morning. Eating cereal for dinner and drinking mimosas for brunch. Making out with strangers. Spending whatever little extra cash I had on costume jewelry, concert tickets, and copies of bootleg screenplays sold on street corners. I was so very naughty.

If there was ever a time for me to discover my inner Anais Nin, it would have been then. But not now. Not in the suburbs. Not when the majority of bodily fluids I had the pleasure of being around came from my drooling, puking, and pooping son.But while my decade of debauchery was long gone, I had earned a plethora of delicious memories from which to derive inspiration. And the wisdom to know that opportunities, particularly the real fun ones, are often fleeting.

So as a new mom now living in New Jersey, learning how to maneuver jug-handles and coordinate writing sessions with naptimes, I embarked on a new journey as an erotica writer. And it came with a couple of self-imposed caveats.

First, feverish loins and trembling thighs aside, I’d write novel that my grown-up boy would be proud of. Or at least not embarrassed by. And it wasn’t the first time that I considered the perspective of my little man as a big man. In my early twenties, well before Luke was on this planet and had sucked the jolly from my joombas, I was asked to pose for Playboy. I declined. Because I knew I wanted to be a mom someday. And not a mom with a past history of porny-pics.It was essential to me that my novel not just have steamy scenes but a real storyline and great writing. It needed to be as good as, if not better than, any of my pathos-infused play scripts. Because I had something to prove now, not just to me and my readers but to my son. Before motherhood and Manhattan, this woman was a writer. Mediocrity or pulp fiction weren’t options.  

Second, I’d create a story that would contribute to the world that I wished for Luke and God-willing his siblings. Enter carny girl Sadie Valentine: a strong, sexy female protagonist with full autonomy, in charge of her life and body. And her male counterpart, Cole Snyder, who admires her intelligence, enjoys her tenacity, and, yes, lusts after her curves.

It’s a cause I’ve championed for almost two decades as a playwright; better, more diverse roles for women. My mission couldn’t and wouldn’t stop because the sex suddenly got explicit. Because it wasn’t just wounded women in need of rescuing who enjoyed the gymnastics of the flesh. But all the rest of us.   

Finally, I wasn’t going to be a cliché. And this began with not seeing myself as cliché. Despite all the signs that pointed to cliché-dom. Suburban stay-at-home mom, underwashed and overdressed in wooly flannel pajamas, writing a bodice-ripper while her woefully neglected kid eats Oreos, watches Blues Clues, and decorates the walls in crayon art.

Because all fantasy aside, I bet most erotica writers worked in atmospheres that looked more like mine than they did the lustful pages of their paperbacks. And this wasn’t comforting to me, but I wasn’t going to let it discourage me either. The reality was I had written some of my darkest, most intense plays while nursing and humming lullabies. Paradox was everywhere, not just in mommy-porn.     

The result? A kick-ass novel with fun, interesting characters set against the backdrop of the American sideshow. With a bit of magic and boom boom mixed in. I even used my real name on the cover. I’d be damned if anyone else got credit for it, including my saucy childhood alter ego Belinda Lavantia.

Back in my big-city-living days, my favorite part of riding the subway was seeing what everyone was reading. The myriad of newspapers printed on various colors of faded paper stock. Cinderblock-sized hardcovers propped up on breasts and bellies. Worn paperbacks folded into palms. I would imagine one of them was mine. Long gone was the dream of having an author card in the card catalog; a book on the Q train was the next best thing.

But then ebooks exploded onto the scene, and suddenly nothing could be seen. No titles and no covers. Readers hid their treasure and pleasure from spying eyes. Unafraid of being caught and judged, this is when most women caught up on their fiction de amour. Like the actors on the stage, like the revelers on Halloween, like the wife surfing the web for slow-cooker recipes, they too had cravings.

And if this mom’s fancy art could embrace their desire, nurture their fantasies, help satiate a hunger while whetting a palette (and maybe something else), then my job was done. And done damn well.

A novelist, blogger and multi-award winning playwright, Christie is the founder and artistic director of the NYC-based theatre company Carnival Girls Productions. She makes her home on the Jersey Shore with her husband, Greg, son, Luke, and dog, Cleo.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

Scripting Resistance

Indian cinema is the world’s largest film industry in terms of film production – you’ve probably heard of Bollywood, the mainstream Hindi-language film industry and Indian cinema’s largest film producer.

Bollywood, screened worldwide, with its colourful musical sets, expensive aesthetics and elaborate dramatic plots, is often considered an ambassador of Indian culture, usually generalised to stand in for ‘South Asian’ culture as a whole. Unintended or not, Hindi cinema contributes significantly to how South Asian women are perceived, a problem when women are cast in limited and reductive roles. So how is contemporary Hindi cinema scripting women?

Director: Have you read the script? This is the hero’s fight scene. You are the heroine… You just have to be the victim… the damsel in distress… That is the test of your acting.

Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)

Historically, Bollywood idealised women as self-sacrificing mothers, wives, and daughters, cast them as victims, and hyper-sexualised them as objects of the male gaze and as the popular ‘item girl’. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) is considered a classic of Indian cinema: an epic following the piteous trials of a poverty-stricken mother who, through the ultimate act of maternal sacrifice, becomes a pinnacle of morality and Indian womanhood. Women’s roles are overwhelmingly scripted in relation to men: they are wives, mothers, daughters, romantic interests, and victims of sexual violence. The Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media found that only 25% of 493 characters in popular Indian films were women.[1] In 77% of mainstream films screened between 2012 and 2016, women completed a romantic function.[2] Yet, there is a slow increase of women-centric films in which women are not simply plot tropes. In 2018, Veere De Wedding presented us with a female buddy movie about modern relationships, Helicopter Eela charted a single mother’s relationship with her teen son, Patakha explored two rural sisters’ tumultuous relationship, Hichki introduced an aspiring teacher with Tourette’s syndrome, Raazi drew on the true account of an Indian spy, and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, a historical biopic of an anti-colonialist warrior queen, is due to be released in early 2019.

Women’s roles are overwhelmingly scripted in relation to men: they are wives, mothers, daughters, romantic interests, and victims of sexual violence.

Of course, it’s not enough to count the number of women-led films if we aren’t scrutinising their characterisation. Where is women’s anger in all of this? Are women allowed to be angry? The 1980s saw the rise of the ‘avenging woman’ genre in Bollywood, which counteracted the stereotype of female passivity, and envisioned women as avenging agents appropriating violence to deliver justice for themselves. Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), Pratighaat (1987), and Zakmi Aurat (1988) are famous examples. Yet, the whole genre turned on the rape-revenge trope. Films like Insaaf, whilst progressive, reinforced victim-blaming scripts of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victim, and the film industry seized on the opportunity to screen graphic rape scenes to draw in viewers. The avenging woman genre imagined a world where female rage was given agency, yet it was a world where women became powerful because of their violent initiation into victimhood. The unsettling message: women can only be angry if they have been subject to extreme brutal violence, and only after they have tried and been failed by the legal system.

The avenging woman genre imagined a world where female rage was given agency, yet it was a world where women became powerful because of their violent initiation into victimhood.

The past few years has seen the rise of films centring ‘strong’ female leads who often use their anger, aggression and violence to overcome adversary. Soojit Sircar’s Pink (2016) is a notable example, demanding a national conversation on consent and victim-blaming rhetoric. Minal, the main female lead, acts in self-defense against her would-be rapist by smashing a bottle on his head. She is championed in court: by showing women’s success within the legal system, Pink makes space for women’s anger. Avinash Dash’s indie production, Anarkali of Arrah (2017), similarly champions a village performer, assaulted on stage by a powerful politician, who responds by slapping him, and with further verbal aggression when he attempts to ‘buy’ her. Her eventual success in getting justice once again legitimises her rage and rejection of the passive role of the ‘good’ victim. The popularity of biopics like Mary Kom (2014) and Dangal (2016), which look at the lives of an Olympic boxer and two world-class wrestlers respectively, suggest a move away from the idea of violence, aggression and physical strength as exclusively masculine traits. Films like Mardaani (2014), which centres a female cop busting a sex trafficking ring, NH10 (2015), a suspense thriller in which a couple get caught in rural violence, and Akira (2016), where a college student takes on four corrupt police officers, all build up to violent acts by the lead women, acts which are championed by the storyline. Any other conclusion would be robbing the women, and the viewers, of narrative closure. Granted, violence and rage in films like Mardaani, NH10, and Akira are characteristic of crime thrillers and action dramas, when we consider all of these films inter-textually, we see a heightened interest in envisioning women’s rage: what it might look like, how it may be utilised, and what transformative effect, good or bad, it may have.

Of course, in a billion-dollar film industry, if the Strong Woman becomes a best-selling, profitable trope, it’s hardly surprising that films increasingly capitalise on the trend. Based on all-time box office revenues, Dangal was the highest grossing ($340 million) Bollywood movie worldwide.[3] Notably, films such as Dangal and Pink ultimately valorise their male leads, who emerge as the key agents in empowering women and delivering justice to them. Bollywood is still slow to embrace women as their lead ‘heroes’. Independent Hindi films, in contrast, have always taken more risks, and in films like Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), we find a nuanced exploration of women’s rage.

This is Kali, the angriest Indian goddess… Durga takes her most ferocious form to annihilate all evil so a new world order can be formed … Each of us has a Kali inside.

Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)

Set in Goa, Angry follows a group of women as they celebrate the upcoming nuptials of two of their members, Freida and Nargis. Whilst tackling sexual harassment, Angry offers a positive portrayal of women’s sexuality and pleasure, casting them as active, conscious agents rather than hyper-sexualised tropes. The film opens with a humorous montage of each character’s anger at everyday harassment and structural misogyny. Frieda, the photographer, frustrated at having to shoot a misogynoir-promoting advert for a skin-lightening product, tears up her cheque. Pam, the middle-class housewife leered at during a gym session, drops weights on her harassers. Mad, an aspiring indie musician, told to play an ‘item song’, is shown aggressively stamping off the stage towards her male hecklers. Su, owner of a mining company, in a tense boardroom scene, challenges stereotypes of mothers as incapable of being ruthless. Laxmi, Frieda’s maid and companion, catcalled on her way home, gives the perpetrator a dose of his own medicine, grabbing him by the balls. Joanna, an aspiring Bollywood actress, tasked with playing the damsel-in-distress slips out of her script and challenges the director, throwing out all the fake padding on her breasts and hips, yelling that he, and the rest of the Bollywood industry, have ‘no idea about women!’ Through this meta-fictive parody, Angry signals its challenging and rewriting of cultural scripts which regulate how a woman should behave.

Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) offers a positive portrayal of women’s sexuality and pleasure, casting them as active, conscious agents rather than hyper-sexualised tropes.

The film takes a darker turn when the main characters encounter a group of men, the Lal Topi Gang, known to harass women. The film reaches its dramatic climax when Joanna is found brutally gang-raped and murdered by the Gang. When the police arrive, the women are confronted with a justice system more invested in asking derogatory questions about their clothes, drinking, and smoking, Joanna’s career as an actress, and Freida and Nargis’ ‘unnatural’ relationship, than they are in delivering any justice. Faced with this victim-blaming discourse, the grief-stricken women, filled with rage, are propelled to take matters into their own hands.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Angry is how it simultaneously legitimises women’s rage and envisions a collective social conscience and responsibility as an alternative means of seeking justice. The climactic scene is dark and filmed with shaky angles, mimicking the women’s adrenalin-filled rage: who pulls the trigger when they shoot the members of the Gang, and who stops whom, becomes somewhat blurred. The following day, the policemen interrupt Joanna’s funeral, demanding that the perpetrators own up to their crime. The women, defiant and unapologetic, stand in admission. Then, something remarkable happens. The members of the congregation, in the presence of Joanna’s body, a visible reminder of violent misogyny and the deeply flawed justice system, all stand up one by one. Faced with this declaration of collective culpability – a complete rejection of state authority and an indictment of its inability to deliver justice to victims of sexual violence – the police can do nothing. Angry leaves us with a utopic vision of what happens when women’s rage, and a community’s collective anger and social conscience, finds expression and is utilised to combat misogynistic, violent social structures.

Faced with this declaration of collective culpability – a complete rejection of state authority and an indictment of its inability to deliver justice to victims of sexual violence – the police can do nothing.

Whilst Angry, like the 1980s avenging woman genre, validates women’s rage after a vicious act of sexual violence, it counteracts the idea that anger can only be legitimised within that context. Throughout the film, the women refuse conventional ideas of victimhood in their professional and personal lives and articulate anger for a variety of reasons. When they discuss vengeful Hindu goddess, Kali, the message is: ‘Each one of us has a Kali inside us.’ Anger is presented as being an emotion, and a resource, we can all tap into. Angry thus presents anger, and violence, as an essential aspect of women’s existence, and challenges the gendering of rage as masculine, the eroticisation of women’s passivity and the sanitisation of women’s behaviour.

Angry’s unflinching portrayal of women’s anger is relevant particularly in recent discussions around India’s #metoo movement: whose voice and whose anger is legitimised and heard, particularly in a caste-based society? Indian feminism has historically privileged upper-caste women’s concerns and issues, often at the expense, and erasure of, lower-caste women. Most of the Hindi films cited in this essay, including Angry, centralise urban, middle class, and upper-caste characters. Angry does make space for Laxmi, the lower-caste maid, to violently express her rage and grief: witness to her brother’s murder, yet having his case pending for eight years, Laxmi takes a cricket bat and smashes his murderer’s bar, aggressively threatening him, and secretly acquires a gun. Through Laxmi, we see the complexity of anger: it is justified, destructive, powerful and powerless at the same time. At the end of the narrative, she chooses to let go of the anger which has consumed her life. Laxmi’s rage is a fitting response to the legal system which specifically fails lower-caste communities; however, the film also highlights that anger is not always the right solution for the individual.

Anger is presented as being an emotion, and a resource, we can all tap into. Angry thus presents anger, and violence, as an essential aspect of women’s existence, and challenges the gendering of rage as masculine.

Significantly, Angry chooses Joanna, a half-Indian, British national as the figure around whom the community and national media rally. The police comment that there will be heightened media attention because of Joanna’s British citizenship: a subtle but flaying indictment of how national and international outrage is limited to the ‘right’ kind of victim, and those who fall outside that category (lower-caste women, rural women, trans women, marginalised ethnic communities, sex workers, and non-binary and gender fluid people) do not qualify for the same large-scale, collective response. Angry, in conversation with other contemporary films legitimising women’s anger, can be seen as a call-to-arms. Coming in the wake of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Pandey in 2012, which led to international outcry and public protest demanding changes in the laws governing sexual violence, Angry is an inspiring manifesto for unity and the power of women’s rage. We must push our reading further: whilst the final shot shows the community rallying for Joanna, our anger and outrage cannot be confined to high-profile cases of sexual harassment only. If, as the films suggest, we choose to embrace anger as a tool to combat social injustice, fight for democratic rights, and challenge flawed state structures, it must be inclusionary to achieve its full potential.

***

[1] Published in 2014, the study looked at popular films across 11 countries. Figures are rounded. https://seejane.org/symposiums-on-gender-in-media/gender-bias-without-borders

[2] The Irresistible & Oppressive Gaze: A Survey Report by Oxfam India. https://www.oxfamindia.org/irresistible-oppressive-gazeisurvey-report-oxfam-india

[3] As of June 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/282411/bollywood-highest-grossing-movies-worldwide

Top photo: cast of “Angry Indian Goddesses” (2015)

“What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

ANGER showcases essays and poetry featuring well-aimed anger from femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.