Our world is burning and drowning at the same time. When our first issue was born, those of us in Houston, Texas, were living through the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey, something from which our city is still recovering. Since then, our world has suffered even further mutilation: genocide; poverty; human, animal, and environmental abuse; shameless corruption at the highest levels of government, to name just a few. Some days—and at times it feels like most days—it seems that everything we hold dear and true is threatened. Some days it feels like too much work to keep fighting.
A poem that I have often returned to in my mind recently is Adam Zagajewski’s “Try To Praise the Mutilated World.” Written more than a year before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the poem resonated anew in America when The New Yorker ran it on the final page of its special 9/11 issue. “Try to praise the mutilated world,” Zagajewski writes, “Remember June’s long days,/ and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine./ The nettles that methodically overgrow/ the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” Deported from his home in Lwów as an infant, relocated to Stalin’s Soviet Union, Zagajewski knows too well the trauma of otherness, exile, loss.
Our world has always been mutilated, more or less. How we confront the worst impulses of our humanity is what is at stake. As Zagajewski writes it, we must: “Remember the moments when we were together/ in a white room and the curtain fluttered./ Return in thought to the concert where music flared./ You gathered acorns in the park in autumn/ and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars./ Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrust lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/ and returns.”
We survive trauma by remembering, nourishing, and treasuring what is precious and beautiful, what is best about being human. I am so proud to present these essays which do exactly that: show us that, in spite of our culpability, in spite of our worst instincts, there is something in us worth cherishing. And when we realize that, perhaps we can begin to heal ourselves.
Creative Nonfiction Editor
To live in this world is to be constantly occupying space—growing, changing, and discovering who we are through the landscapes and communities that surround us. Both physically and spiritually, the spaces we exist in shape us and command us to bend ourselves in certain ways: to speak out, or to hold still, or to listen. Sometimes it is the borders between places that define us most forcefully, and other times it is the places where those edges become blurred.
In the essays collected below, we explore places familiar and unknown, beautiful and frightening, from romantic countryside towns steeped in fog to harshly lit detention centers. We journey through cities lived in for generations to learn their history, and wade into the shimmering waters of a kitchen tap to find unexpected stories. We find that often the best way to stay grounded is to reach out to your neighbors, let in the strangers on your doorstep, speak a shared language in as many words as you can. And perhaps most important, these essays remind us: when the space around us does not look like home, we owe it to ourselves to try and build one anyway, in whatever small way that we can.
Creative Nonfiction Intern
South Korea, 2017
Like pellets of rain, the touch is soft, gentle. I turn and face the widened eyes of one of my fourth-grade students, a sweet Korean girl with long, black hair, who caresses my upper arm.
“Fat,” she says.
That’s what I get for wearing short sleeves today.
WHEN TWO JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES COME TO YOUR DOOR WEARING DRESSES ON A COLD MORNING TO ASK HOW YOU DEAL WITH THE LOSS OF A LOVED ONE
You answer the door in your slippers, sweatpants, and thermal shirt, obviously bra-less, and they stare a moment, tell their names, then ask yours.
fatima al matar
Did I tell you how beautiful the sky is in Texas?
On some mornings, it’s an endless field of powder blue with strokes of soft pearl.
Some days the sky resembles Monet’s waterlily ponds, lavender melting into dusty pink, clouds like tufts of cotton.
A face appears, the lips of a wide mouth above prominent chin bones, strangely familiar. The rest of the face is masked by something like diving goggles furnishing an hourglass window onto another dimension, far away across the desert sands of an ocean floor.
I’m living in a region of Italy that is famous for fog. Something about the hills and valleys of Emilia-Romagna makes the conditions just right for fog to settle in and cover everything. If one winter evening it’s unusually warm and you think, How nice! See? Winter’s not so bad, and you stroll through town with your coat unzipped, you know you’ll pay for it in the morning, when the cold sneaks back in and the fog along with it, and ice crystals coat your car.
To find the real Florida, travel out I-4 from Orlando. Leave behind the strip malls, the $5 t-shirt shops, the theme parks offering byways into fantastic worlds. Sea World, Disney World, and all the lesser ones—the Wet ‘n Wilds, the Legolands, the Madame Tussauds. A few clicks east lies Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, featuring waitresses dressed up like the country western star: blonde wigs, jean shorts, red and white checked shirts tied beneath the breast, country girl style.