Writing and the Tibetan Book of the Dead

by Ann Tashi Slater

I think a lot about death and faith and the creative process. This started some years back when I began writing a novel related to the Tibetan Buddhist belief in bardos, between-states when everyday life is suspended. Or maybe it started long before: on a winter day in 1912, my Tibetan great-grandfather was coming down to India from Tibet by pony. He and some of his party were buried in an avalanche. My great-grandfather thrust his arm up through the snow and waved his prayer beads, calling to his beloved Guru Rinpoche: “Save me, Guru Rinpoche, save me!” The men aboveground saw him and he was saved.

Guru Rinpoche, the eighth-century Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is believed to have concealed his teachings under rocks and in lakes, in trees and the sky and the mindstream, to be revealed to future generations when most needed. The Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one of these teachings; when someone dies, monks sit next to the body and read from the text, exhorting the deceased to acknowledge reality but not give up as she journeys through the terrifying after-death bardo, wondering what will happen. Intended as much for the living as the dead, the Book of the Dead encourages all of us to persevere, whether in the after-death bardo or one of the difficult bardos experienced in life, like accident or illness.

In 2010 I lay in a hospital near death, an experience I write about in “Traveling in Bardo” (AGNI 86). I remembered the story of how my great-grandfather survived in the snow, and this helped me to accept what was happening yet not despair. The Book of the Dead was discovered centuries after being buried in Tibet; in a similar way, I felt, my great-grandfather’s lesson about faith came to me from where it had remained hidden in our family’s mindstream.

The Book of the Dead says that in bardo, we encounter blood-drinking, flame-spouting wrathful deities as big as the sky. Holding human corpses and brandishing axes, they shriek and howl. We’re told not to abandon hope: the deities are only emanations from our subconscious. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, editor of the first English translation of the Bardo Thodol (1927), called the deities “airy nothings woven into dreams”; the moment we recognize their true nature, they dissolve. Thus, we are the creators of our experience in bardo. As the Buddha said, “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.”

Writing is a kind of bardo because ordinary life recedes as we create a universe on the page. The fears and doubts that can derail us while writing are like the wrathful deities. The uncertainty about where our hours at the desk will lead; whether, or how, a poem or an essay or a book will be realized. Recognizing that our worries are only our own “thought-forms,” as the Book of the Dead says, we have the chance to break free of them and engage fully with our creative work. In the bardo of writing, we make our experience.

AGNI Monkey

Ann Tashi Slater--AGNI blogAnn Tashi Slater’s work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Granta en español. Her writing appears in Women in Clothes (Penguin) and American Dragons (HarperCollins), and her translation of fiction by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). Current projects include a bardo-related novel based on her Tibetan family history, a memoir about a pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland, and multimedia events at NYC’s Rubin Museum, including an October 2018 talk about her AGNI essay, “Traveling in Bardo,” and Tibetan wisdom in everyday life. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches at a Japanese university. See what she’s published in AGNI here.


A Brief and Possibly Pointless Disquisition on Truth and its Place in a Writer’s Life

by Patricia Traxler

Ever since Donald Trump took office, I’ve had endless questions about truth, beginning with the most basic of them all: What is it? What the hell is it? I know what Keats said, but let’s just deep-six the whole Truth is beauty trope right now, because it’s bullshit. Judging by the revealed truths in all of our lives, who can fail to see that truth is at least as often ugly as it is beautiful? (Yeah, it’s true that Andre Gide said, “The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty never,” but if that’s the best argument to bolster Keats’ claim, then let me just stop right here and promise not to offer any more quotes. Lies have more to do with truth than aphorisms do.)

Of course I realize it was the concept of truth—idealized truth, rather than its content—that Keats was describing. An aesthetic and ethical standard. And, sure, truth as an ideal does sound beautiful—but isn’t the concept of a non-negotiable and universal truth the refuge of insecure wankers, horseshit evangelists, and reactionary control freaks? After all, who is actually the arbiter of truth in our world? Surely not the current President of the United States, who is said to have told over 3,500 verified lies during his first eighteen months in office, and yet no one in his party has seemed a bit worried about it.

There are so many pretenders to the truth that rather than defining it or elaborating on it, it might make more sense to talk about its qualities or features, its virtues and limitations. Its application. Its place in our lives, if indeed it even has one anymore.

Some say truth is a function of time. Maybe. But if that’s correct and truth is mutable, should it really hold such sway over us? Can lying be justified on the basis of truth’s temporal aspect? I’m choosing to give truth its station for the purposes of this contemplation, because otherwise our entire world would seem to be in question, and that’s far too big a bite for me to tear off at the moment. Or, okay, ever.

I’m working on a collection of autobiographical essays, and I struggle daily to be certain that I have my facts straight. Of course, I have to—there are witnesses: I have seven siblings. And one of them is a lawyer. Another a linguist. Still another is a scholarly genealogist with a formidable memory and records to back her up.

Onward. Is there a difference between truth and fact? Can you be correct as to fact and still deeply mistaken as to truth? Let me hazard a guess….Yes.

Does each of us own our personal truth, in the way that an author owns the copyright to a fictional story? Do we have the right to prevent others from learning our truth? If so, is it wrong to do that by deceiving them? Could such deception simply be seen as the editing of our truth? Or does everyone have the right to an honest reply when they question us about our personal matters? And if not everyone, then who?

My mother, who had learned the Catholic method of rationalization at around the time she learned the Catholic method of birth control (rhythm—and she ended up with eight children…but I digress) arrived at and passed along her personal standard to me: It’s only a sin to lie if someone has a right to know your truth—and very few have that right. (Even by that standard, Donald Trump is in real trouble, since many of his lies during his time in office relate to the vital interests of every U.S. citizen.)

One thing I’m realizing here is that you can’t really discuss truth without talking about lies. But then you’re back to square one, definition: Beyond the deliberate misstatement of a fact as one knows it at a particular time, what else can or should be classified as a lie? Maybe it all goes to motivation, and if so, secrets are also lies of a sort. Silences, too, can be lies of omission. (See Adrienne Rich’s marvelous On Lies, Secrets, and Silence—her ideas on how the unspoken can become the unspeakable.) It seems as if whatever sort of lie may be at issue, any judgment must be predicated on whether it is willful, and whether it is justified.

But since truth holds a position of preeminence that seems to give order to our universe, what can possibly justify a lie? Maybe the need to shelter others from learning a truth that would be harmful, disturbing, or even destructive to them? Or to protect one’s own privacy, one’s own life? Somewhere, doesn’t a line have to be drawn? And can a lie ever be justified if its primary purpose is to shield one’s own (or someone else’s) private acts from public exposure?

Sometimes now the lies of my life revisit me when I’m alone, and I weigh them individually, trying to decide which were the worst. Or which may have been avoidable. At first I sort them like Tarot cards, separating the lies that I have told from those told to me by others. Then I divide those two categories into Lies of Omission and Lies of Commission. Next, I divide each of those categories into:

  1. Self-protective deceptions
  2. Deceptions whose purpose was to protect others
  3. Cowardly deceptions
  4. Lying for the hell of it
  5. Habitual self-deception

Eventually, I found it pointless and dispiriting to judge the degree of wrongness in the lies that others had told me—or had told about me or others—so I settled on limiting my judgments to my own lies. Even by that measure I fail to reach a clear level of certitude, though—because, first of all, I end up settling on the rationale that most of the lies I’ve told have been lies of omission—secrecy and silence—rather than lies of commission. And I don’t think I’ve ever slandered anyone intentionally or lied just for the hell of it. (Don’t forget, I spent a certain amount of my childhood on a creaky kneeler in a dark confessional, trying to figure out such moral puzzles as, “Is it a sin to try to arouse a boy by touching his necktie?” Father Slattery’s answer to that question was, “My dear, you are what we call ‘over-scrupulous’—the next time you think something might be a sin, just go ahead and do it.” It would be difficult to overstate the degree of relief that reply brought me.)

I seem to have been most often guilty of lies I’ve told myself. Or my mother. My late mother. Now that she’s no longer alive, I always tell her the truth. But I’m still alive and lying to myself.

Yes, I realize self-deception may be the very worst kind of lie, because if truth is what gives order to the universe (and where does that leave us under Trump’s rule?), then by lying to yourself, you’re embracing chaos and pointlessness.

The thousands—imagine that: thousands—of lies that Donald Trump has told the American public during his brief tenure—the lies he seems to tell us every single day—have caused not only a credibility deficit in our society, but also a sort of incredulity fatigue. These days, it’s almost easier simply not to care—but doesn’t that suggest that his promiscuity with the facts has devalued and endangered our former standards of truth? If no one calls him on his deceits and delusions, then what do we have, really? What’s real?

What I seem to be getting around to is this: Trump has actually helped me to see that we should always be scrupulous about telling the truth in our writing—including about things to which there were no witnesses but ourselves. By his egregious and promiscuous use of lies, he has made clear that nothing excuses lying for effect or self-aggrandizement.

I’m still contemplating self-deception, though—because, really, how do you know you’re doing it?

AGNI Monkey

3[1] Stephen Hébert NEWSWEEK 2
photo by Stephen Hébert, Newsweek
Patricia Traxler was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe, and has also served as the University of Montana’s Hugo Poet and Ohio State University’s Thurber Poet. Her poetry has appeared widely, including in The Nation, The Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Ms., Slate, Ploughshares, The LA Times Literary Supplement, and in many anthologies, including Best American Poetry. She is the author of four poetry collections and a novel, Blood (St. Martin’s/Macmillan), and she is completing work on a collection of essays, The Eternity Bird. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

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.