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1 novel excerpt

by Janice Lee

Janice Lee is a Korean-American writer, editor, publisher, and shamanic healer. She is the author of 7 books, including Imagine a Death (Texas Review Press, 2021), and Separation Anxiety (CLASH Books, 2022). She writes about interspecies communication, plants & personhood, the filmic long take, slowness, the apocalypse, architectural spaces, inherited trauma, and the concept of han in Korean culture, and asks the question, how do we hold space open while maintaining intimacy? She is Founder & Executive Editor of Entropy, Co-Publisher at Civil Coping Mechanisms, Contributing Editor at Fanzine, and Co-Founder of The Accomplices LLC. She currently lives in Portland, OR where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Portland State University.

The Writer (from Imagine a Death)

When she was a just a little girl, her mother was killed by a strange object that had fallen from the sky. Her mother had been on her way to pick her up from school, and only a block away, a large metal object zoomed down from the sky with a sharp and angled whoosh sound, striking the exact center of her mother’s skull. She had been waiting outside on the school steps, and because she knew her mother was quite busy and was often late, assumed that her mother had been delayed at work, perhaps with another angry client unhappy with their haircut and demanding a refund, embarrassed probably because when they looked into the mirror, it was the same ugly face staring back at them and they had foolishly thought that a new haircut might improve the appeal of their face, add the probability of the use of an adjective like “handsome” or “refined,” and instead of making peace with the fact of their own and natural ugliness, blamed the hairdresser for a sloppy job, screamed something about incompetence and lack of respect, utter respect for the customer, and ensured a dramatic and memorable scene before exiting the establishment. In these cases, it was important for the client to let everyone else know who was at fault for their ugliness, that of course ugliness was endowed by people like hairdressers or tailors or shoe salesman, and that it wasn’t biological or natural in any way, because that would be like admitting too, that they were also quite ugly on the inside, legitimate evidence of an unconscientious and brutish soul, and something that could never be reconciled because the devastation of accepting such a fact would inevitably cause a stroke or wrinkles in an unwilling patient such as this, the kind of people, that is, who already invested too much stock in the look of things and didn’t think that the path to improvement might lie somewhere else entirely.


On that afternoon, the street had been empty. Not even any birds could be seen from her particular vantage point, sitting there on the steps and like a dutiful daughter, she had pulled out her homework, to make the best use of her time, and had finished first the math worksheet (this week they were working on the 7 times table and if she passed the text tomorrow morning she would earn the next colored ice cream scoop on her sundae; the teacher had assigned each times table a flavor of ice cream, and with each advancement the students earned another scoop on their sundaes, their progress symbolized by pieces of colored construction paper displayed on the wall, each student’s successes, each student’s failures, and it was the fear of being seen as a failure that motivated her most of all to succeed), and then began her handwriting exercise (she was to write a 5-sentence story about losing a tooth and what she remembered was how when she had gone to her mother, unsettled with her ability to jiggle her front tooth with her tongue and the fear of accidentally swallowing it while she slept, her mother had calmly sat her town on the bathroom counter, tied dental floss around the loose tooth, then grabbed the other end, and at that moment the girl had opened her eyes, clenched tight and quivering, and had seen the look in her own mother’s eyes, that slight feeling of uncertainty and so the girl had screamed, Wait!, and she had began to cry, afraid of what she didn’t know and her mother had told her not to worry, that it would be quick and painless and would be over in less than a second, and when the girl had not stopped crying, her mother had already tied the other end of the string to the doorknob on the open door, Don’t move. Keep your mouth open and don’t move, and she had done as her mother had instructed, and when her mother slammed the door shut and she heard a pop emanating from her mouth, had run her tongue over the empty space in her mouth, unsettled by the gap, and then tasting blood, had begun to cry again).


When two hours went by, now on the unreasonable side of what could be considered a reasonable delay, and the moon, as yet incomplete but beginning to rise, she decided she ought to go look for her mother and headed in the direction of the shop where her mother worked. Just a block away, she found the body of a woman lying on the sidewalk, a woman she recognized as her mother from the overdetermined bun of dark hair and perfectly straight bangs (the same bangs she had managed to inherit, or forced to inherit, as when your mother is a hairdresser you give in to the aesthetic whims of the adult holding the scissors), arms sprawled beneath her at unnatural angles, her legs bent and one of her kneecaps protruding outward, and her head pierced by something silver and gleaning, blood still oozing out of the point of entry, the object almost vertical and erect like an expensively commissioned modern sculpture outside of a public or financial building. Near her mother’s body she also noticed a dead pigeon, but she could only grieve one body at a time, and with the shock of arriving to such a scene, she wouldn’t be able to properly grieve anything else for many months, though the bodies of dead pigeons and other animals would continue to arrive around her and in her presence, the bodies would transform, not into bodies to be mourned or buried, but corpses interwoven into a landscape of death and fortitude and fear and hardness, and it was the hardness most of all that would overtake her capacity to feel and though she felt everything, would deny the sensations of feeling for a very long time.


The doctors told her that her mother had died upon the object’s immediate impact, that she hadn’t suffered. She wasn’t sure how this was supposed to console her. Dead was dead, she thought. Her mother had been a beautiful woman and at the moment of notification she was more disappointed that her mother couldn’t be displayed in an open casket than the fact that her mother was dead. What did dead mean anyway, she thought, her beliefs on death exaggerated to the extremes of grimness and annihilation. She was only nine years old at the time, and hadn’t yet learned what life might be like for a girl without a mother, hadn’t yet learned what role a mother might have to play in the upbringing of a girl in such a world, hadn’t yet learned that the world was large and to be alone in the face of unknown treason could push one to endure unspeakable things, to do unspeakable things, to become unspeakable things, to constantly become in the process of retaking and reclaiming, hadn’t yet learned that death meant gone but not gone in forever and utterly wiped from existence, which is what she thought and which would have been easier, but gone in terms of all physicality and tangible evidence, yet the ghostly memories that haunt and taunt and tease and affect the core of one’s actions in such a way to push one to the brink of a binary existence, like the trope of a kind of detached object that becomes a ghost, possessed and unpossessed and the attempt at a dignified life without history, these memories would tear at the veins around her heart and though seemingly unjustified to any other conscious being outside the particular sensating body that could feel this simultaneous absence/presence, to everyone else, the diagnostic reply would simply repeat itself: You should be over it by now. Move on and live your life. And though that was precisely what she was doing, with the hardness welded into her cheeks and eyes and her mouth restricted from edging upwards even in the slightest, she could feel the tether of that first significant event and all of the other significant events that would unfold because of that initial death.


They took her in and she was grateful at the time—she didn’t have anywhere else to go, her mother had left her own family behind in a land faraway to be here and she didn’t know anyone’s names, and she had never known her father though her mother had mentioned him a couple of times: Your father was just another cruel white man, we don’t need him, I know he gave me you, and that is the most precious gift I’ve received, but each gift has its limits, and we don’t go begging back on the other side, we will never go back there, and another time, Men are all wolves. All of them. Don’t ever trust a man. All he wants is your body, to own you, to possess you. Don’t think any of them are different. You are stronger than they are. That’s what your father was afraid of, that I was stronger than he was. And that is why he left us, he wanted to own us, and couldn’t settle for less—but as the sun set behind her and as she entered the unfamiliar apartment, she knew to fear the sky and though she could appreciate the integrity of a scene in which the convergence of human beings here amounted to some gesture of compassion, perhaps, all she could think about was the possibility of the transposition of one for another, about what might be implied in the tremendous amount of faith required to recognize that sometimes a death means something when a life means nothing, that to the last breath and moment of the violation that is called living, the persistence of heartbeats is neither noble nor definitive, that this wasn’t implied by lived—this wasn’t lived but died—that perhaps in death one would receive something they never had in life. She was not afraid, therefore, of what she might have to face, naively and purposefully she maintained the kind of optimism a girl can only have at that age, having been shielded by a mother who had already encountered and endured countless tribulations, and so as she crossed the threshold into a new house, a new life, she could still hear the tender and faltering voice of her mother, the subtle and solemn kiss goodbye on her forehead that morning before she had left for school, that kiss undistinguished in every other way except that she had been there, with her mother, together, and in an instance, to the last, it was this magnetism between two bodies, this feeling at a distance between a mother and daughter, between her and the hearts of every single human being either of them had felt anything for in every moment of their lives, this was the departure that occurred, that she stepped towards, borrowed, an intersection of intents and proposed fidelities, the purposeful and respectful thrust towards the end that marks, not a separation of life and death, not even the finality of life marked by a sharp metallic object falling from the sky, but the thrust toward the most articulate and merciful tribute to other human beings, the belief in life, the belief in continuity, the fidelity of feelings and to gestures and to boldness and to the worthwhileness of it all, even with that tinge of naiveté, even though she had already stopped believing in all of it, she attempted to find that historical form, if only for the unconscious predilection for amenity, for, the pomposity of such a word: survival.


She held onto a line from a book she had read recently with her mother: It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. She tried to emanate what might be construed as a sigh of relief.


On the first morning in her new home, she thought she was waking up to the smell of fried eggs and bacon. She awoke excitedly, thought that perhaps this really could be a new beginning for her, that she might perhaps learn to claim a kind of normativity that had always seemed out of reach, to learn to honor the memory of her mother as a guiding light, a cherished ghost, to learn to hone the unsettled unsettlingness of separation, to gain strength from ruin, to grow into a human being who could be admired and respected for their baroque fidelity to persistence, not unlike the stories of powerful women she had heard from her teacher, inspirational and uplifting journeys of hardship and perseverance, but she had not yet learned that those stories had all originated from a world very different from the one she now lived in, that perseverance could easily become sentimentalized into strength though the rim that marked the edge between exclusion and domesticity was deteriorating into itself, and that the smell she had woken to was not the smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen but the smell of thousands of trees burning from a wildfire that had already consumed 4000 acres during the night (was it the trees she had heard screaming during the night, or cats?), and later that day she would receive the news that an entire encampment of people in the woods had been destroyed—they had been asleep and hadn’t heard the sirens (if they had sounded the sirens at all)—and with that fire, what remained of any fidelity to a family line, any fragile yet binding obligation of blood or loyalty to a tribe, had also turned into ash along with the unpretentious and devilish seduction of “the good life,” and as she looked out the window to see the hills on fire, the sky still ablaze and reddish, the clouds the color of dried blood waiting to be picked off piece by piece, and outside her room, the creaking of the old pipes, she realized that in fact, she was very much alone.

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