Tricycle: On Truth, Memory, and Making Memoir

by Greg Bottoms

IMG_0389When I look this morning at the iconic photograph of a rusted tricycle in a driveway in front of two small brick houses on the cover of William Eggleston’s collection Guide, I consider starting a short memoir with an image of my own tricycle. Here, so it seems, is an object, a referent, from my childhood.

But my childhood doesn’t exist, not really—though, of course, it once did. It is now a set of unfixed images, fading stills of a time and place, which only develop when I call them forth, hold them up in the light of present consciousness, and then only for a second before they morph quickly into a kind of truth/fiction blend—memory’s shards with the help of imagination’s integrative force, pieces of the past repositioned and repurposed in the present.

In other words, I am a memoirist “looking” not through a viewfinder but through a fog of subjectivity, the necessities of linguistic construction, the human meaning-making impulse, and the tunnel of time. At the far end of all this is memory’s chosen topic—my tricycle—potential writing material, a blurry image against a dark background of nothingness, all the things I don’t remember.

From this apprehended image, I can use facts, my personal history, what I know, or think I know—more material from memory—as a context and a backdrop. These, too, can be dubious, however. What about all the forces that warp and bend this context? My protective delusions, my defensiveness, my self-justifications? My biological brain health? My emotional and psychological stability? Is my relationship to reality roughly akin to my intended and mostly imagined reader’s? Neuroscience tells us that it is what we forget as much as what we remember that forms our identity, our ever-evolving self.

So: A few things I can say with certainty as the cursor winks roughly in syncopation with my heartbeat: I lived in a house like the two visible in the photograph until I was seven. I had a tricycle like the one in the photograph. Rust on the bars. Hard rubber wheels. It is as if William Eggleston took hundreds of photographs of my life and memories.

Now as I “look” at my own tricycle in my memory in an attempt to capture it here in writing, make a little story of it, or at the very least describe it, my mind—I’m just letting it (my mind) go where it goes—veers toward a friend of mine from that time, when I lived in that house, named Nicky, a little Italian-American kid with a vocabulary like a hardcore rapper. I’m thinking that Nicky and I rode tricycles together. Must have. Otherwise why remember this? I think we did for a second, but then I realize, in the next second, this second, essentially mid-mental-construction of what could become a sentence, that I probably didn’t know him until first grade when we were too old to be riding tricycles.

I’ve just remembered something else.

Nicky’s dad owned the one pornographic theatre in Newport News, Virginia, (I need to fact-check this) and I used to play with him until my mom put two and two together, as they say, and she realized that this Nicky had a father named Nicky and this father named Nicky had been in the newspaper because some church groups wanted to close his theatre down. Big Nicky was the local champion of porn. I was friends with his kid. My mom was a good Methodist—my family studiously church-going. It was a short relationship.

Thing is, it now emerges out of the attic of my mind that Nicky—little Nicky, I mean—had a copper-orange 70s banana-seat cruiser, and he could ride it even though it was huge, an adult bike really, or a teenage bike anyway, and he was only seven.

I came to believe—this I remember very clearly, though I think we’ve established that in no way makes it so—that anyone who knew the words “fuck” and “dildo” and even “blow job” at seven and could ride an adult bike, a pretty sexy adult bike frankly…that there was a one-to-one correlation—i.e., advanced dirty vocabulary, advanced bike-riding skills. I believed that the fact that I couldn’t say those words because I didn’t know what they meant and my mom wouldn’t let me anyway was keeping me, somehow, on a little kid bike.

Now I love all kinds of language. I love, even, or at least sometimes, filthy language because of its subversive power, and the reason this is so, or at least the reason this is so in the moment of my thinking about it now, probably partly goes back to the times in my driveway and on the sidewalk in front of my house—the house in Eggleston’s photograph, but not quite—when Nicky, filthy-mouthed porn-theatre Nicky, was riding on his big bike, which seemed to me to be powered by his magic and awesomely shocking words.

I sat down an hour ago, looked at the cover of a book of photographs, and tried to remember my tricycle, or to use an image of a tricycle as a stand in for my tricycle and a kind of prompt, as a way to get started writing from memory and in a particular direction about a place and a time in my life, which I do think has rich material to be mined in regards to social class, race, the South, customs, culture, values, mores, beliefs, and the everyday rituals of American life and how they situate us, comfort us, carry us. Instead I ended up with Nicky, dirty words, and a big copper-orange, banana-seat bike. No tricycle anywhere near here. And now I’m not sure the kid’s name was Nicky. Maybe it was Mikey.

The cursor keeps winking on the white plane of the page. I’m thinking now that I’d be better off to write a cultural history essay on the one porn theatre in Newport News in the mid-1970s and the politics and social upheaval that arose around it. Or I could write some kind of more reflective or argumentative essay on the uses and value of foul language.

But I want to delve into the past, I want to write a story, and I want to write from and explore memory. I want to think about memory’s procedures. It is hard, though, to defend memoir, unlike photography, as sturdily “nonfiction” on even the most rudimentary philosophical grounds. Narrative writing from experience does not actually capture life; it replaces it with facsimile, the success of which has a lot to do with how slick this magic trick of facsimile, of creative writing skill, is performed. Again, my childhood doesn’t exist, though it once did. Call it fiction? I can’t. That feels like a bigger, more intentional lie in a different way.

Memoir, to me, must use facts, all that is or was real and available, as a skeleton and then adhere to the truth of thought, and of symbolic or felt truth, but it can only be honest, truly honest, if it acknowledges, on the page, in the text, the problematic relationship between memory and the ever-receding lived reality it is meant to describe. What Jean Cocteau said of himself is the best description of literary memoir I know: “I am a lie that always tells the truth.”

A memoir that rigidly abided by the narrow contemporary definitions of “nonfiction”—a word that should probably have a permanent place inside of quotation marks in the 21st century—would look something like the above paragraphs—a stuttering, digressive, self-reflexive anti-memoir, a memoir that progresses while obliterating its own existence.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI GBGreg Bottoms is the author of seven books, including the memoir Angelhead and the travel book The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Working in Murky Territory: Four Questions with David Yee

Grace Yun for AGNI: Here is a life lesson from your story “Donut Man” (AGNI online here): “You know the best way to lose something, Beak? Let someone know you have it to lose.” Do you think this statement also pertains to the process of writing (e.g., withholding information from the reader)?

How I see the absence in narration, specifically in Donut Man, is an extension of “show vs tell.” For instance, when the father sleeps in the car, leaving the son to sell everything by himself. The narration almost defends the father, describing his exhaustion, explaining the hours the father works. Yet, the narrator couples every moment of luxury between the father and son with a scene describing how bad things are in the mother’s household. I was trying to insinuate the charisma of the father, how he can be irresponsible and yet the other characters in the story continue to believe in him, to trust him, to love him.

GY/AGNI: What is it like writing about your personal relationship with your father? Are the physical details from your childhood the most salient or your emotional state?

My father is my buddy in that I have no ill will toward him. We aren’t very close. If I hurt his feelings by telling a story from my perspective it would cause me little pause. I don’t feel the stories are unkind.

I submit real stories as fiction because it allows me to more fully utilize an emotional memory rather than a factual one. My father never called me “Beak” but I always felt like he saw my mother in me, maybe not physically, but in how she was raising me, and treated me with some distance accordingly. I find a lot of inspiration in Stuart Dybek who writes often true accounts as fiction. I wouldn’t say I embellish the details of a story, rather I streamline the truth to make a better narrative. The day I sold us out of donuts was not this day in my memory—the first time I sold by myself. But the days of our visitation, as short-lived as they were, often blend together.

I don’t mind working in a murky territory between the two genres. I’d also have no issue submitting this as nonfiction. Nothing that happened in the story is untrue of my life. I usually submit based on the tone of narration. If it is more narrative, like this story, than I submit it as fiction. Which is not to say that every piece of fiction I’ve written is factual, but typically, there is some emotional memory in my life that I’m trying to emulate in a story.

The physical details from this time are what bring me to the page. I can recall vividly odd sensations from this time. The smell of the cleaning product. The brown ottoman he kept in the middle of the van as a “backseat.” The way his voice pitches when he yells. I don’t recall as clearly how I felt. I remember always waiting for him to show up. I remember feeling a sense of adventure. Those things are easier to make up, though, which is why I often submit mostly true stories as fiction. Real life is often boring. Getting to give the details, the feelings some direction make it a story.

GY/AGNI: Has your father or mother read your stories? 

My mom is a huge supporter of my work, even more so now that I spend most of my time bartending. I know she reads everything, even some of the stories I try and hide from her because they are about moments in my life that hurt her feelings. I’m not sure if my dad does. I don’t think he knows most of the time when I get something published. He takes a lot of morphine, prescribed.

GY/AGNI: Do you like donuts? What’s your favorite flavor?

Everyone likes donuts, even if they don’t eat them regularly, which I don’t. At the time this story was about, I could eat an entire dozen Krispy Kreme glazed, but there is honestly this saccharine smell to old garbage that reminds me of them and vice versa. When I was a kid, the lemon-filled ones would be what I’d call my favorite. Now, I think I like buttermilk/cake-style.

AGNI Monkey

David E. Yee Author PhotoDavid E. Yee is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín, as well as the Press 53 Flash Contest judged by Jeffrey Condran. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Ohio State University, where he was associate editor of The Journal. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. See what he’s published in AGNI here.




GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

The Pursuit for Mercy: Two Questions with Donald Quist

Leone Brander for AGNI: Much of your nonfiction work, both essays and your book, Harbors, contain social-political themes. Are you consciously using literature as a political tool, and if so, where and how do politics and storytelling intersect for you?

Donald Quist: I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent to answer your question. I’m sorry. One of my favorite TV shows is the short-lived American adaptation of a British series called Getting On. It follows a group of highly flawed individuals serving a fledgling hospital’s elder care unit. In the final moments of the series, Laurie Metcalf’s character says, “There is no justice; but there is mercy, because that is what we can give each other.” The first time I heard her monologue, I squealed. That’s it! Anything I write starts from a desire to offer empathy, understanding, grace and mercy.

This pursuit for mercy—the attempt to remind others and myself that all human lives have value—inherently leads to an exploration of the nuances among governing systems and ruling social constructs. One’s race, gender, or sexual identity can make their experience political. Because of where I’m from, looking the way I do, because of how I was raised and because of who I am, my existence in the United States is politicized. Since the 1800’s the rights of those with my complexion, our role in this society, have been public affairs issues open to debate—”The Negro Problem.” So, although I don’t intend to write overtly political pieces, I accept that the stories I find worth telling will be social-political. I know when I write about shoplifting as a latchkey kid with my poor white friend it’s not such a simple anecdote. There are layers. I hope the stories I tell encourage more constructive discourse about some of the exigencies of life in North America.

LB/AGNI: What you said about “layers” is interesting. As an author who writes both fiction and nonfiction, do you find that the nuance and layers can change from genre to genre? Are there certain considerations you have when writing in fiction that you don’t have for nonfiction, or vice versa?

DQ: Yes—I think the way these nuances and layers are portrayed vary between genres. Fiction has a set of expectations. Readers demand authenticity, that the characters of an imagined universe move within the parameters or conceits introduced by the author. For me, fiction lends itself to the exploration of hypotheticals, the imagined limits of divisions we create in reality. When I write nonfiction, I have greater consideration for the existing disparities which frame the narrative I wish to tell. It’s a matter of varying responsibility. With fiction, I must convey a sense of truth and believability. In nonfiction, I must provide truthful examples demonstrative of a shared experience while recognizing that these examples are invariably shaded by my own perception. Nonfiction requires me to acknowledge the limits of my perspective.

AGNI Monkey

Processed with VSCO with m3 presetDonald Quist is the author of the nonfiction collection Harbors. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the 2017 International Book Awards and runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. He is creator of the web project Past Ten and co-host of the podcast Poet in Bangkok. See what he’s published in AGNI here.




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In addition to being an intern at AGNI, Leone Brander is a Canadian author and illustrator. Her work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries, Bacopa Literary Review, and the Bellingham Review. She earned her BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria and is currently an MFA student at Boston University.

McAuliffe, Smith, and Balcewicz: New Work up at AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—an essay by Shena McAuliffe, and poetry by Bruce Smith and Marta Balcewicz. Check it all out!


AGNI SM“It happened on a Saturday night. A guy in a ski mask burst into the shop, but the owner was quick and shot him lickety-split. The robber crumpled on the front steps. The owner sat next to him and pulled him onto his lap, and the man died there, lying across Mercurio’s lap like Jesus in the Pietà.”

from the essay “Pietà: Richmond, Indiana” by Shena McAuliffe



AGNI BS“Events bent me.
I took the arrow of accuracy in my eye. ”

from the poem “Concussion Protocol” by Bruce Smith





AGNI MB“My mother’s apartment
is the size of a chessboard
she sleeps with a rook and a Gypsy.”

from the poem “Natasha Writes Back” by Marta Balcewicz




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On Food, Memory, and Writing: Three Questions with Jung Hae Chae

Grace Yun for AGNI: “It was forgetting at the heart of drinking, forgiving at the heart of communal eating” (from “The Great Meal,” AGNI 86). What is at the heart of cooking for you?  

This morning, my seven-year old daughter, Audrey, looks up from her breakfast table, and tells me excitedly (again) about her life ambitions, one of which is to become a world-class chef or “cooker” as she sometimes calls the profession. Lately I’ve given over to her demands of helping me cook, so I let her slice, dice, chop, julienne carrots, potatoes, celeries, even onions. She stirs soups and stews, stir-fries veggies and fish patties. With a quick swish of her wrist, she sprinkles salt and garlic powder (sometimes too much) on everything. She does so, not for content but for form. (She’s all about the form!) Don’t forget the garnish, she says, as she reaches for spring onions.

Form is to ritual as cooking is to remembering. And it’s true that everything worth remembering happened in the first seven years of my life. So, I cook and I remember. The smell of the wood burning inside that dark, bunker-like kitchen of my grandmother’s house, the warmth of the fires from her wok, its afterglow on my cheeks in winter evenings. I remember the early-morning screeches of the roosters behind our house, the smell of the fresh raw pig liver that I fetched for my grandmother on Saturday mornings to help with her eyes. My grandmother, the Man in the house for all of us three generations of women. I cook and I remember the lights of the night market igniting the small dreams of the 1970’s post-war South Korea and its people. I remember because I loved the complex smells of the dirty streets, the cacophony of the black market vendors haggling or cussing or whatever, even the dirty looks of the old men glaring at my wee-year-old self as I ran away from them. I remember the layers of pains associated with a childhood lost to lost dreams, in between the layers of myths held untouched by a child somehow. I remember my dead grandmother and my mother. I cook and I remember.

GY/AGNI: Do you think writing is also communal?

Most definitely. Writing is an act borne out of community. I often hear many “voices” speaking to me, as I try to form the language to express “them” and “their” experiences. Quite literally, in writing, the speaker is not I, but a conglomerate of experiences of the people I am interested in giving voice (power) to. I have been preoccupied with the voices of women in my life, and my “ancestors” in a broad sense of that term. For me, these are the people who haunt me the most.

GY/AGNI: Finally, does the process of writing involve some level of forgetting and forgiving for you?

I think so. I find writing to be a humane act, not far from an epiphany. I read in some self-help book that to forgive is to remove the illusion that the past could have been any different than it was. To do so requires a brutal truth-facing—or, at the very least, an exploration into the (often uncomfortable) unknown, requiring a reckoning of some sort. I think good writing, like any religious experience, happens when one is pushed to the limits and awakened to the truth-seeking soul, when clarity of the imagination meets some Scary Truth via language authentic to lived experience. In recalling a primal memory, and rendering a sober take on the human experience from an imagined viewpoint, you forget who you are, and forgive the illusory gravity-bound existence. That is to say, I forget and forgive the unreflected self, in favor of the ever-searching one.

AGNI Monkey

JHCJung Hae Chae’s work has appeared in CALYX, Crab Orchard Review, AGNI, MiPOesias, Third Coast, and elsewhere. See what she’s published in AGNI here.




GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

What Really Happened? Making Life Into Literature

by Alisa Wolf

I should be working on my memoir today. There’s no reason I can’t pick up where I left off yesterday, with my teenage self, in the woods, at night. The toes of a hiking boot—and then the toes of the other boot—are lit in the beam of a flashlight, as I walk from the staff cabin at the wilderness camp to the bathrooms. That walk happened, but the boot in the beam of the flashlight—as probable as it is—is not, strictly speaking, remembered. I made that part up. Chances are I stumbled through the woods thinking thoughts that had nothing to do with whatever my feet were up to.

Then why did I write it that way, and why do I think it’s important to keep it? The short answer to both questions is: it serves a literary purpose. As I sat with the scene yesterday, the story needed slowing down, to be grounded. I can’t fully explain what happens when I’m writing and I follow an impulse that feels right. I don’t always understand why a story makes its demands, but when it does, I’ve learned to go with it.

In the scheme of things, it’s a minor fiction. I’m not making flagrant claims, like Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments did, in his memoir about a Polish, Jewish boy who survives a Nazi death camp. It turned out he isn’t Jewish, or even Polish, let alone a Holocaust survivor. I was, without a doubt, the girl in the woods, taking a break from the staff cabin and its roaring fire, the cigarettes and marijuana, and a jug of wine being passed around. No one is going to argue about whether I noticed that my flashlight lit up the toe of my boot. Yet something still bothers me. I’m feeling nervous about the liberty I’ve taken with “what really happened.”

Is it dishonest to tinker, in however a minor way, with the stuff of my life? I recreate conversations I can’t possibly remember verbatim, change names, and rely on memories I’ve gone over and over again, surely distorting them in the process. On the other hand, it’s no use worrying about how people will receive a book that may never see print. But what I’m more afraid of than being caught out is that the bit of wisdom I’m trying to uncover is actually self-deception.

Vivian Gornick, author of the mother-daughter memoir, Fierce Attachments, and the well-loved memoir-writing book, The Situation and the Story, sees deviations from what actually happened as memoirists’ prerogative. “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters,” she wrote in an essay, defending her use of composite characters. She cites memoirs acknowledged to be masterpieces by authors as diverse as Edmund Gosse, who recounted conversations that supposedly took place when he was eight years old, to George Orwell, who was denounced for inaccuracies in his account of his school days in “Such, Such Were the Joys.”

In Gornick’s view, the problem is not with the memoirists but with readers’ expectations. “Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism.” She doesn’t go so far as to condone memoirists like Wilkomirski, who invent pasts they never had. She makes a distinction between inventing a narrative out of whole cloth, as Wilkomirski did, and composing, which is what she did when working with, as she says, “a narrative drawn entirely from the materials of my own experience.”

Other memoirists, too, are unapologetic about shaping narratives out of the raw materials of their lives. David Sedaris was trashed in The New Republic for making stuff up about ten years ago, around the time James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair were being publicly shamed for doing what appeared, to his critics, to be the same thing. Did the fact that he survived where the others fell have to do with being a humor writer, which makes us more forgiving? Or was it because his exaggerations were more along the lines of what Gornick calls “composing” from experience versus inventing a past that wasn’t what really happened?

There’s that phrase again, “what really happened,” the idea that keeps stopping me when I’m feeling most connected to my work. I’m haunted by Margo Jefferson, who in her memoir, Negroland, writes: “I think it’s too easy to recount your unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.”

Am I doing that?

How can I not? My temperament, ego, and self-image are all part of the story. And my life is not a story until I find what the story is. Like Hansel and Gretel, I wander in the woods, pausing to shine a light on my childhood and adolescence while taking stock of the world around me and my place in it, then and now.

To avoid confusion, I could call what I’m writing “realish,” as Sedaris does, or “based on a true story,” as they say in the movies. Or I could continue to keep Vivian Gornick nearby and remind myself of what a memoirist owes the reader, which, as she writes, “is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

I don’t know why I’m a memoirist and not a fiction writer—I often wish it were otherwise. But that’s the way it is. If I want whatever bit of truth I have achieved in my work to reach a reader, I have to be faithful to the story I’m telling. Ironically, the demands of literature—for drama, narrative drive, and conflict—are what stop me from being wholly self-serving in the way Jefferson derides. Self-pity makes for a boring read.

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AlisaWolf_MayAlisa Wolf’s work has appeared in AGNI Online, The Billfold, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

Reflections on Beauty and Writing: Two Questions with Chad Davidson

Bart Kuipers for AGNI: I liked the way you reflect on beauty in your piece “Mutatis Mutandis” (AGNI 86), and especially the idea that imperfection and transience are key elements in appreciating it—as you quote Stevens, “Death is the mother of all beauty.” Reading your poem “Cockroaches” made me wonder: How do these notions of beauty influence your poetry? Are you aware of them when you write?

The essay on Spoleto started with a rather simple anecdote. As the piece makes clear, I run a study abroad program in Italy for my university. Each year, students are simply stunned by the place, and will almost inevitably say to nobody in particular (kind of to themselves or to the air itself), “This is so beautiful.” Writers constantly want to challenge the easy adjective, though, and hunt instead for linguistic precision. What precisely is beautiful about Spoleto? Could I inventory it, pay homage to that impulse we have (especially we Americans) to call Italy beautiful? Beauty can be a complex synthesis. It can also be quite simple. The essay tries to shed light on some of the ways I tried to answer that question: what specifically about Spoleto (and about Italy more generally) is beautiful?

As for how that relates to or influences my poetry, I am sure it does. Poetry (any imaginative writing, really) is concerned with aesthetics, even (and perhaps especially) when the object under inspection is not often categorized as beautiful. I suppose the Cockroach poem you reference and this Spoleto essay attempt to answer the same question but have arrived there from opposing poles.

BK/AGNI: You ask the question “Where doesn’t history transform a place, yes, but also warp the air around it, the way a desert highway trembles in heat?” and make the observation that “Time, […] forms a storage place just large enough for nostalgia.” I’m wondering: Do you feel history transforms the perception of a poem over time in that sense?

Most definitely. My appreciation of certain poems changes, expands (in some cases contracts) over time, just as my appreciation of any artwork or city or food will change. The specific issue in the part of the essay you cite, however, is how time itself provides for our nostalgia. History writ large—and not that particular building or monument or window box of geraniums—is often what we desire most of Italy (even if we are not conscious of it). The question, I think, is this: when we see the old cobbler, off a cobblestoned street of a medieval city center, do we see the cobbler or just a complex we might identify as “old-world charm”? I was interested in that noise, that disturbance, that double vision.

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AGNI CDChad Davidson’s most recent collection of poems is From the Fire Hills (Southern Illinois UP, 2014). Recent essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Five Points, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, and others. He serves as professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta and co-directs Convivio, a summer writing conference in Postignano, Italy. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

AGNI bk.pngBart Kuipers writes short stories and screenplays in Dutch and English. He graduated from the Amsterdam Film Academy and since then published short stories in Dutch magazines and Writer’s Digest. In addition to being an intern at AGNI, he’s currently a student in the creative writing MFA program at Boston University on a Fulbright scholarship.