Interview with V. Ruiz, Author of In Stories We Thunder

In anticipation of their debut poetry collection, In Stories We Thunder, Sundress Publications author V. Ruiz sat down with editorial intern Anna Mirzayan to explore Aesop’s fables, alternative forms of education, and what may be lost or gained in the complexities of translation.

Anna Mirzayan: Each section has an “Aesop remix for my hija.” Aesop’s fables were generally received as didactic stories or moral lessons. What kind of lessons do you see these retellings imparting? How does addressing them to her impact their meaning?

V. Ruiz: I’ve always been interested in and drawn to children’s literature. For some time, I reviewed picture books and YA, and now I work with Row House, who also has a children’s imprint. I’ve also homeschooled my child for much of their life.

This is getting somewhere, I swear.

We went through a unit with Aesop’s Fables once with my child, and I remember thinking the lessons felt so general, so detached from an experience that was specific to us—to people of color, to queer folks, to neurodivergent folks. In reading the “Cock and the Fox,” for example, there was this general lesson of the wicked deserve no aid. And that felt very black and white. As I explained it to my child, it felt like I kept having to say, “Well, it’s not exactly like that; it’s not so clear; there’s so much more behind what people do.”

From there, I felt like I had to remix them, to rewrite them in a way that was more conscious of abolitionist values, of complexities, of prejudice and stereotypes. In this fable, for example, we also talked about “theft” and that it isn’t always just “stealing is wrong,” especially when we consider class issues and lack of human rights. So, to summarize, the lessons of the remixes were meant to teach my child that there’s always more to what is “right and wrong”, and it isn’t always so clear, especially not in regards to “laws” and the ethics children are typically taught.

AM: The collection deals with trauma, particularly trauma often associated with womanhood— birth, domestic violence, eating disorders, sexual assault. Even puberty can be a secret and traumatic time; do you think treating these subjects in a collection of poetry affects how trauma can be processed?

VR: I talk often with those close to me about what writing is to me—what metaphor is to me. For some folks, writing is about getting out stories and ideas that plague their mind. For me, writing has always been a way to exorcise ghosts—in a way, ghosts of myself? To unravel an experience and see the parts of myself that were lost and what those parts might have seen or felt feels at the core of my writing. As I worked through this manuscript, those ghosts became a part of the lessons I was sharing with my child. I wanted them to understand that womanhood, especially in our family, came with generations of wounds. So, in a way, it became a way for me to understand myself further and to also teach them about things that were difficult for me to discuss.

I do think writing about trauma in such a public way affects how we process. Initially, writing can be for the self, but the minute we decide to publish something, it becomes a collaborative experience between the author and the reader or the speaker and the reader—and so does processing. In addition, I think processing in a collection allowed me to take my traumas and experiences and weave them into a larger narrative, something that would allow me to seem themes and potentials, to witness my own arc and ability to survive.

AM: The poems weave between English and Spanish, with very rare explanations or translations offered. Do you think there is a way to truly, successfully translate one language, or one experience, into another?

VR: I think we can aim for success, but nothing will ever reach the exact experience of the original language. And I also think that is okay. When something is written in one language, it is meant for one audience. If it is translated, we can read it and gain from it, but it wasn’t ever meant for us. My collection, the interweaving of Spanish and English, is meant for one audience. People who have lived one type of experience. Will others enjoy it or be able to experience it even if they don’t speak Spanish/Spanglish? Yes, but it was never meant for them.

AM: Sometimes witchcraft is referring to as “workings,” which seems to fit the tone of the way witchcraft is used throughout this collection, particularly in the poem “Why I show you these brujerías.” In its fifth section, you write, “This is how the tierra teaches us to heal our hurts how it gives the power to make for ourselves A new fate.” Can you tell me more about the importance of renewal and the place, if any, of working and crafting in the latter?

VR: I practice folk witchcraft (and astro magic), but folk witchcraft in general has always been a practice for the oppressed and the common people. Witchcraft, in this collection and what I pass on to my child, has become a way to take control of what we were made to live with. Ritual has become a way for us to release, to gain closure, to prepare and move towards a new life or phase. Renewal can feel impossible at times, but in practicing magic, there’s this opportunity to connect to the threads of our fate, to influence via understanding, or action, or petition, or receptivity. It’s about taking an active step towards our renewal. But more than just acting, however, these practices are also meant to show that we are connected to so much beyond us.

AM: What role would you say the figure of La Luna—who appears or is invoked in multiple poems—plays in this collection? How are La Luna and El Sol related?

VR: La Luna is one of the spirits that moves in and out of my creative practices consistently. I am also, astrologically, ruled by the moon. I think what captivates me about the moon, as a spirit, is the many facets she holds. We experience 12 faces of the Sun in a year, but the moon moves through her many phases and faces in the span of 28 days. In this collection, invoking her became about seeing a moment through many lenses. It was also about understanding the many sides of myself and the ways they can exist all together at once.

About El Sol—this spirit has always felt like a praised spirit. As someone who is more of a night owl, I’ve always been drawn to darkness, to the silence of midnight, but I’ve always been around daytime people—folks who love summer, etc. And I think, without meaning to, that the Sun became this idea of a praised being that was consistently seen in a good light and valued in that way. A foil of sorts, to the moon. Their connection, I think, mirrored relationships I was moving through at the time of this writing. The Sun was a traditional parent, and I the moon, this complex single mother who was disabled and navigating trauma. The Sun was my sibling, someone who was living life on their terms, while I was the moon, always returning to my family, always tending to them. The Sun was my partner, someone who was filled with creative light and friendliness and vitality, while I was the moon, someone who needed solitude, who could turn easily with the tides, who wavered in their energy.

AM: In “After Solstice,” a poem about the children held in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border, you write, “Children robbed of sunlight and their color made to become untouched white marble.” Earlier, in “Poison Lines,” you write, “do they fear the white lines blocking their hope of reaching dry land?” These are selection of the collection’s references to a solid object of whiteness that blocks, stands guard, or somehow prevents non-white bodies from acting. Can you tell me more about this theme?

VR: These white objects were, in many ways, my image of whiteness and white supremacy and the ways it existed around me. In “After Solstice,” there is so much there that I was contending with, the ways I was existing within and buying into whiteness as I navigated academia while all of this was going on. I thought of the ways that I navigated life as a citizen who was raised by immigrants and how I had turned away from my roots and how I was taught to turn away from them as a method of survival. In “Poison Lines,” I was so focused on an ant problem we were having, hahaha, and thinking of my grandmother and the way she tended to the situation by using this poison chalk that basically caused them to turn away. And in that moment, I just felt a flash of her journey in immigrating and how hopeful she was for this place beyond where she was leaving. But in leaving, she also walked right into a new kind of poison: a domestic violence situation, undervalued labor, discrimination, poverty, etc. And it’s not that these don’t also exist in Mexico, of course; they do and have in my family, but the United States was a dream, somewhere where these things weren’t really expected to someone so young and innocent.

AM: Can you speak about the importance of connection in the context of a collection that features not only a daughter but parents, uncles, grandparents, friends, and, in “We learn to hold the sky,” spirits of people the narrator didn’t know directly but still feels aware of?

VR: There are many repetitive themes in my lineage. Countless women who have moved through domestic violence, poverty, young motherhood, addiction, etc. I think most folks feel like they want to be SO DIFFERENT from their parents and their family, but for me, there were these strong traumas that we went through that made it so there was no way I could be entirely different. Pair this with the fact that poverty and oppression is meant to keep us all staying on the same path, to make it harder to break cycles, it all causes this weight, and for me, the weight manifests as spirits and energies, both metaphorically and literally.

Beyond that, I was the first in my family to be given a new set of tools, even if those tools were traumas on their own (mental health institutions, medication, rehab, education, etc). My writing mirrors this crossroads I feel I exist in. Where I know there are outside pressures and experiences that are making it so that I move on the same path as them. But there are also opportunities I have that have given me a chance to try to move in a new way.

In this collection, I am writing my own experience, my own weight, my own journey, but I am also sharing theirs. The hopes they didn’t get to fulfill. The revenge they wanted. The freedom they craved.

AM: What is the connection between blood and poison?

VR: When I think of poison generally, the goal is to provide an antidote for healing as a means of countering it. In the collection, I was writing so much about traumas and what it meant to not only come from a lineage of people who had been victimized but also from people who were harming others. How would I ever counter the poison of the harmful people in my lineage, my ancestry, my blood? There isn’t a way, really. So, this connection in the collection became about learning to live with that poison, to understand that it was a permanent part of me that I had to acknowledge and that had the potential to harm me as well.

AM: Considering history carefully also plays an important role in the fable remixes, can you talk about what you mean by history and why it’s important to think about? What is the relationship between history and storytelling?

VR: History is a loaded word for me. I think in the collection, the use or idea of history is meant to be the history of the speaker’s/my personal journey, the history of my lineage, the history of the land, the history of society and community, and the history that is in the making. I don’t believe there is a way for us to extract history from our stories. It colors the words we use, the images we linger on, the music and tone of our writing—even in fiction, I believe. I think that there’s a need for people to understand some aspect of their history to be more vulnerable in their writing, which is always a goal for me. In embracing history, I’m able to give a piece of myself to the writing.

Order your copy of In Stories We Thunder today!


V. Ruiz is a Queer Xicana Bruja, artist, and writer fascinated by language and the magic it evokes. They live in Las Vegas with their partner, little one, snaggletoothed cutie, and underworld roaming gato. Their writing has appeared in Fugue, Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Carve Magazine, among other places. In Stories We Thunder is their first book.

Anna Mirzayan is an arts writer, poet, researcher, and doctoral candidate in Theory and Criticism. She is currently based in Pittsburgh, where she is the editor-in-chief of The Bunker Review at Bunker Projects. Her poetry chapbook, Donkey-girl and Other Hybrids, was published in 2021 by Really Serious Literature. You can find some of her writing at art-agendaSquare Cylinder, and Hyperallergic (forthcoming) or check out her poetry at Metatron PressPoetry WTF, or The Operating System.

2022 Chapbook Contest Winner Announced

Sundress Publications is thrilled to announce that Sarah Renee Beach‘s chapbook, Impact, was selected by Tate N. Oquendo as the winner of our eleventh annual e-chapbook contest. Sarah will receive $200 and publication.

Originally from Southeast Texas, Sarah Renee Beach completed her MFA at The New School. Her poetry can be found in White Wall ReviewRust + Moth, and anthologized in Host Publications’ I Scream Social Anthology Vol. 2. She currently lives in Austin, TX. More information about her work may be found at sarahreneebeach.com.

We are also excited to announce that Nnadi Samuel’s chapbook, Nature Knows a Little About Slave Trade, was this year’s Editor’s Choice. Nnadi will receive $100 as well as publication.

Nnadi Samuel (he/him/his) holds a B.A. in English & Literature from the University of Benin. His works have been previously published or are forthcoming in Suburban Review, The Seventh Wave, Native Skin, North Dakota Quarterly, Quarterly West, FIYAH, Fantasy Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, The Deadlands, Commonwealth Writers, Jaggery, Foglifter, The Capilano Review, Lolwe and elsewhere. He was the winner of the 2020 Canadian Open Drawer Contest, the 2021 Miracle Monocle Award for Ambitious Student Writers, the 2021 Penrose Poetry Prize, the 2021 Lakefly Poetry Contest, the 2021 International Human Rights Art Festival Award New York, and the 2022 Angela C. Mankiewicz Poetry Contest. He was the second prize winner of the 2022 The Bird in Your Hands Contest and the bronze winner for the 2022 Creative Future Writer’s Award. He also received an honorable mention for the 2022 Stephen A. DiBiase Poetry Contest and the 2021 Betty L. Yu and Jin C. Yu Creative Writing Prize. He is the author of Reopening of Wounds. He tweets at @Samuelsamba10.

Amie Whittemore and Rebecca Walter’s How to Go With and Jonaki Ray’s Lessons in Bending were also selected for publication.

The entire Sundress team would like to thank Tate N. Oquendo for serving as this year’s judge.

Tate N. Oquendo is a writer and visual artist that combines these elements to craft multimodal nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, as well as translations of these forms. Their work can be found in numerous literary journals, a poetry collection, a hybrid memoir, and six chapbooks, including their other most recent works: The Antichrist and I and we, animals. They are also an Assistant Editor for Sundress Publications, as well as a 2022 Zoeglossia Fellow.

We would also like to thank everyone who sent in their work. Finalists and semi-finalists include:

Finalists:
How to Go With, Amie Whittemore and Rebecca Walter*
Lessons in Bending, Jonaki Ray*
Self-Portrait after Arcimboldo (Who is Rotting in the Crisper), Maya Osman-Krinsky
shape of a field, Bonnie Jill Emanuel**
The Night My Rapist Dies in a Dream, Alex DiFrancesco

Semi-finalists:
anatomy of wonderland, Elizabeth Li
creepy white, Eric Schwerer
Hide-and-seek, Shiksha Dheda
I Instruct My Toad How to Write Poetry, Amy Beth Sisson
Oh, Girl!, Jeanette Willert
Pitanga – Suriname Cherry, Constance von Igel
Screed, Valyntina Grenier
Self-Dissection, Díaz Ettinger
Tending the Bones, Pavini Mora

  • *also accepted for publications
    **accepted for publication elsewhere

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Automotive by Ceridwen Hall


This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from Automotive by Ceridwen Hall, released by Finishing Line Press in 2020. 

Self : Driving

I cross Indiana, northward and west. Green sharpens
some pastures; others are mud. My thoughts stretch
linear, then they scatter. Clouds waver and gleam
on the faces of ponds. Watching the new calves’
shivering walk reflected, I consider the promise
of driverless cars. Untether a threat. Absent need
to steer, would I tend—and to what? Automobile
already means self-moving. If a trance arises
between hesitations—momentum suspends me—
errors remain possible, and decisions.

Ceridwen Hall is a poet, editor, and educator from Ohio. Although she’s lived on both coasts and in the mountains, she retains a deep appreciation for the Midwest and its roads. She completed her MFA at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and her PhD at the University of Utah, where she received the Clarence Snow Fellowship and the Levis Prize in Poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Pembroke Magazine, Tar River Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, and other journals.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents September Poetry Xfit

Sundress Academy for the Arts

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present Poetry Xfit hosted by Alexa White. This generative workshop event will take place on Sunday, September 18th, 2022 from 2 to 4 pm EST via Zoom. Join us at the link tiny.utk.edu/sundress with password “safta”.

Poetry Xfit isn’t about throwing tires or heavy ropes, but the idea of confusing our muscles is the same. This generative workshop series will give you prompts, rules, obstructions, and more to write three poems in two hours. Writers will write together for thirty minutes, be invited to share new work, and then given a new set of prompts. The idea isn’t that we are writing perfect final drafts, but instead creating clay that can then be edited and turned into art later. Prose writers are also welcome to attend!

Alexa White is an aspiring writer, former SAFTA editorial intern, and recent graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she studied Creative Writing and Studio Art. Her poetry and art has been published in the school’s literary and arts journal, Phoenix, and she won the 2022 Bain-Swiggett prize for traditional poetry forms. Along with writing, Alexa enjoys traveling, oil painting, photography, film, and redefining her bedtime every night.

While this is a free event, donations can be made to the Sundress Academy for the Arts here.

Each month we split any Xfit donations with our community partner. This month our community partner for September is Hindman Settlement School, a vibrant beacon for progressive learning, community enrichment, and cultural exploration in the central Appalachian region. In July, they experienced catastrophic flooding in Eastern Kentuky and sustained significant damage to the property and buildings. Find out more about the essential work they do and other ways you can help at their website.

You can donate directly to Hindman Settlement School here.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Presents “Mother, Monster: Writing the Truths About Difficult Family Relationships”

Sundress Academy for the Arts

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present “Mother, Monster: Writing the Truths About Difficult Family Relationships,” a workshop led by Joan Kwon Glass on September 14, 2022, from 6-7:30 PM. This event will be held over Zoom. Participants can access the event at tiny.utk.edu/sundress (password: safta).

Marguerite Duras once said, “Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.” In this 90-minute generative workshop, we will draw inspiration from work of writers like Rachel McKibbens, Eugenia Leigh, and Warsan Shire in order to do a deep dive into difficult family relationships. What monsters do we recognize in our family members? How do they reflect/differ from our demons? How do we write about those we are tied to by blood and/or name, when they are the source of pain? How do we write about the things we may not want to acknowledge, or that which we have not yet fully realized? Using generative writing prompts, the facilitator will lead writers on a journey of investigation and revelation.

While there is no fee to participate in this workshop, those who are able and appreciative may make donations directly to Joan Kwon Glass via Venmo @Joan-Glass-2 or via PayPal to joanpglass@gmail.com.

Joan Kwon Glass (she/her) is the Korean American author of Night Swim (Diode Editions, 2022). She is also author of three chapbooks, serves as Editor-in-Chief for Harbor Review & poetry editor for West Trestle Review. Joan is a proud Smith College graduate & has been a public school educator for 20 years. Her poems have recently been published or are forthcoming in RHINO, Rattle, The Rupture, Nelle, Diode, & many others, and they have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize & Best of the Net. Follow her on Twitter @joanpglass & see her website at www.joankwonglass.com.

Sundress Academy for the rts Presents September Reading Series

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is pleased to announce the guests for the September installment of our reading series. This event will take place on September 25, 2022 from 1-3PM on the patio at Pretentious Beer Co

Quincy Scott Jones is the author of two books of poetry: The T-Bone Series (Whirlwind Press, 2009) and How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children (C&R Press, 2021). He’s a Cave Canem fellow and a VONA alum whose work has appeared in the African American Review, The North American Review, the Bellingham Review, Love Jawns: A Mixtape, and The Feminist Wire. With Nina Sharma he co-curates Blackshop, a column that thinks about allyship between BIPOC artists. His graphic narrative, >BlackNerd<, is in the works.

Gale Thompson is the author of Helen or My Hunger (YesYes Books, 2020), Soldier On (Tupelo Press, 2015), and two chapbooks. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House Online, jubilat, and Mississippi Review, among others. A winner of the 2022 Poetry Society of America’s Emily Dickinson Award, Gale has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She is co-host of the arts advice podcast Now That We’re Friends. She lives in the mountains of North Georgia, where she directs the Creative Writing program at Young Harris College.

Rowan Young was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. You can find her performing at venues all over the US. Rowan co-founded Tiny Stage Comedy, through which she produces several successful shows. She placed second in the Funniest Comedian in the Heartland competition in 2019, was the 2020 Plano Comedy Festival roast champion, and was named Knoxville’s Finest Comedian by Blank magazine in 2021 and 2022. Rowan has opened for comics like Dusty Slay, Billy Wayne Davis, and Shane Torres.

Ryan Dunaway is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist out of Knoxville, TN. He plays with various groups in styles ranging from folk and bluegrass to jazz. His songwriting uses elements from these different genres with a longing yet bright acoustic sound.

Our community partner for September is Hindman Settlement School. Hindman Settlement School is a vibrant beacon for progressive learning, community enrichment, and cultural exploration in the central Appalachian region. At Hindman Settlement School, they provide practical courses, programs, and services designed to inspire collaboration and improve the lives of the people in our community. They bring inspirational, life-changing educational services to children with dyslexia and their parents, and they develop and manage community service programs customized to meet our region’s growing demands and challenges. They also promote cultural awareness through arts programs specially designed to build on our area’s rich cultural heritage. Hindman Settlement School was the first rural social settlement school established in America, and they are currently the most successful. Established in 1902 by May Stone and Katherine Pettit in Hindman, Kentucky, their school soon became a model center for education, healthcare, and social services. In fact, they’ve often been called “the best school in the mountains,” and take that honor very seriously by continuing to contribute significantly to regional progress. Hindman Settlement

The school has played a vital role in preserving and promoting the literary and cultural heritage of southeastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia. They believe in their community and their commitment to providing education and service. While their mission has remained the same since Hindman Settlement School was founded over a century ago, their programs are constantly improving and developing to meet the changing needs of our region. At Hindman Settlement School, they believe in honoring the past, improving the present, and planning for the bright and colorful future of Central Appalachia. They know that through proper education, stewardship, and support, the people of our community can help our region thrive.

Donate to support at here.

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is a writers residency and arts collective that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers in all genres including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, journalism, academic writing, playwriting, and more.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina


This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020. 

On Finding Myself in the Old Neighborhood

      I come from this lake—not just water, but the water of this lake, which has whipped Sunday sailors into submission, held the weight of barges heading to Canada loaded with carbon steel, and once belched dead perch onto the sand. I swam in this lake. I cramped in this lake. I walked out of this lake, fled from it, promising never to return, yet here I am, walking along a boulevard on its shore, watching maple trees drop golden leaves onto empty picnic tables in a park where there used to be a carousel. Here I am, with my clipboard and list of names, canvassing voters who live in red brick garden-level apartments and high rises and split-level houses, knocking until the skin on my knuckles is rubbed pink.

        “Who are you?” someone yells from behind a locked door.

      I am you. I am these streets, this neighborhood, this America.

      I am brick. Molded from clay, transformed by fire. The strength of my form hides my porosity; I soak up water—see the salt stains on my face? I can house you, wrap my arms around you to keep you safe. Walk on me! I won’t crumble. Burn me! I will still stand. Hurl me through a windshield or a plate glass window in your rage—that’s how I fly.

          I am maple leaf in Autumn, late to my beauty. My veins are visible now, and it won’t be long before I advance to fragile brittleness and am crushed into powder beneath your feet. But for now, look at my colors—jade green deepening to black, persimmon, yellow becoming orange becoming scarlet like the yarn in an old lady’s afghan. Beet red, brick red, blood red. Orange-red, like flames. See me glow as the sun gets low in the afternoon sky. Look how the rain forms beads on my skin. Stare at me, at my burgundy-tipped lobes against this brick wall that someone painted white in an effort to make it look clean and modern.

          I am whitetail deer running down a wide avenue lined with brick houses dotted with cut-outs of a grinning, red-faced chief. I am wild, out of place on this street where people are awed by me and reach to touch my brown sugar hide but want me off their neatly clipped lawns where they have piled cinnamon colored leaves. You don’t scare me, you waving your fan-shaped rake. There are still woods nearby where I can disappear into the maples and oaks and buckeyes, even when the leaves have all fallen and the trees are bare.

          I am clouds, towering cumulus and anvil—blue-black like the barrel of a gun—clouds rolling in across the lake, wind blowing the silver underside of maple leaves into view, pressure changing, deer bedding down to be safe. I am thunderstorm. The noise of me will shake you, and you will look for the crack of my fire in the sky, wait for the rain to fall against your house. You will feel protected from me, but I will seep into your walls, I am water, rainwater and holy water from marble fonts in the vestibule of a church with windows stained with saints. I am bathwater and dishwater and sudsy water from cars washed in driveways on Saturday before the Buckeyes play. I am water in corroded lead pipes of drinking fountains in elementary schools and in aluminum bottles in cages beside treadmills. I am water flooding the storm sewers clogged with fallen leaves, flowing into a creek in a deep cut where deer drink and maples and oaks have been growing on steep embankments for generations.

  “How are you?” asks the woman with a clipboard, skin the color of buckeyes and a safety vest bright as a maple leaf, when I return my rental car the day after the election. When I do not answer, she looks at the salt stains on my face, opens her arms wide as a house, and pulls me to her.

         I am going home, but I want to find my way back to the lake, where it began, before I became streets stained brick red with blood; withered leaves, bundled for disposal; brown deer, running for its life; before I became the creek that divides this neighborhood from another. Before I became this America.


Lois Ruskai Melina was raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls. She was an adult before she discovered her love of sports and the outdoors. Melina is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins as well as a book about elite women swimmers training for the 2000 Olympics: By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the 2016 Best of the Net anthology, Colorado Review, Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Sport Literate, among others. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs on a floating house near Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina


This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020. 

Beyond Mt. St. Helens

Before

The rumbling went on for months—earth-shaking, steam- venting. Everyone on edge. The volcanologist on the mountain and the mother of a teenager who had crossed the line from adolescent angst to something deeper and more volatile both kept watch. They monitored signs, listened for subtle changes in the underground reverberations. And even though all the omens were there and they knew the cataclysm was possible, the day it happened, they weren’t prepared.

     The body of the scientist was never found.

      Hundreds of miles east, the mother saw the dense black filling the sky in the west. She watched it move toward her. She said it was a thunderstorm that would soon pass.

      Those don’t look like thunderclouds, she thought.

      She carried the storms of her Midwestern youth in her body—the feel of the south wind on her skin, the drop in barometric pressure in her chest. She sensed the approach of thunder and lightning unconsciously, the way she knew, even in her sleep, the slide of a bedroom window being opened, the sound of soft sneakers on the roof, the groan of tires rolling slowly across gravel.

     It doesn’t smell like rain.

     Everything else seemed to be in order—traffic lights progressed from green to yellow to red, children held other mothers’ hands as they crossed the street. But the advancing peril stretched across the sky in an unmistakable line. On one side, the cloudless blue of morning, the color of a baby’s blanket and a child’s eyes open in wonder; on the other, unbroken darkness.

     No wind.
      If this is a storm, there should be wind.

     She watched the blackness pass overhead until it moved so far east it obliterated all the blue. The sun, too, disappeared in the middle of the day, eclipsed not by moon but by ash ejected from deep beneath the surface, the detritus of what had burned. The ash began to fall, deceptively soft, snow- like, disaster settling in slow motion. She could not deny what had happened: Explosion. White flows of hot gas. Molten rock. Magma. Melted glaciers. Splintered pines. Floods. Mud. Wasteland.

     Screeching tires. Broken glass. Death.

     Maybe you understand. Maybe you, too, told yourself it was a thunderstorm that would blow over. Maybe for you, denial ended when you saw the pills missing from the cabinet. Or perhaps you were the mother who drove, sleep-deprived, to the area under the bridge in the part of the city where you’d been told to look. Maybe you knew just before you saw fire flash from the barrel of the gun. Maybe you felt your bones shatter with the impact.

After

     The mother went inside, shut the doors, closed the windows. She did not even answer the phone.

      The ash—pulverized rock and volcanic glass—fell all day and into the real night, which she could no longer distinguish from day. Was it OK to breathe? The ash coated cars, peeled the paint the way a burn flays skin. Gray soot piled in the spaces between stalks of grain in wheat fields, heaped in streets, and became imprinted with the tracks of tires of those brave enough to leave their homes.

      She was not brave.

      Inside the house, stuffy with heat and blame, she longed for rain. Rain to cool the air, to restrain the powder that seeped into every opening, to wash it all away, to promise rebirth. When the rain came, it choked on the ash, changed it to sludge that filled the gutters, hardening as it dried. She tried to shovel it from the sidewalk, to clear a path for the children when they went back to school, but it was heavier than she could carry.

      Some people scooped the muck into buckets, mixed it with stabilizers, spread it on plates and mugs and round bowls formed of clay, firing it until it was hard and glossy, transforming tragedy into art.

      She was not a potter.

      Maybe you heard about it or saw it on the news, and you said: Couldn’t she see the signs?

     She saw. She said it was a thunderstorm. Who expects eruption? Even the volcanologist’s mother told herself he was probably safe.

Years Later

     The mother breathes again without effort. She hikes the trail that meanders across hillsides still scarred moon-like from the blast. Some wounds never heal. But she sees growth too. New life. Huckleberry bushes with fat blue-red fruit. Fire moss. Noble fir. Beaded bone lichen. Sunflower.

      Another path winds through green hummocks formed from landslides of mud and debris moving faster than highway speed limits. Alders grow straight. Elk calves live there now, a hopeful sign, though she knows they are vulnerable despite their size and the close eyes of mothers who would put their own bodies between them and danger.

      At the Visitor’s Center, the light in the room dims until there is only darkness. A video describes how theories of ecological regeneration have been affirmed and challenged by surprising stories of life overcoming catastrophe: Understory plants protected by a blanket of snow. Nutrients that rained from the sky—insects and pollen and seeds blown from the north and the south.

      What survived was hit and miss. What grew was not predictable, didn’t follow the steps experts outlined as required.

      No one can promise resilience or redemption.
      To some extent, recovery is a matter of chance.


Lois Ruskai Melina was raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls. She was an adult before she discovered her love of sports and the outdoors. Melina is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins as well as a book about elite women swimmers training for the 2000 Olympics: By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the 2016 Best of the Net anthology, Colorado Review, Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Sport Literate, among others. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs on a floating house near Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina


This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020. 

The Four Seasons of Longing

content warning for infertility

      If I’d had a baby in the fall, she would have hair the color of autumn leaves—red and gold. And I mean the red and gold of October in Ohio, not the wet yellow and muted orange of the Pacific Northwest where she would grow up, but the kind of hair that, when you see it, you pull off the road to take a picture. Moralovitz hair, which she would grow up disliking because relatives would tell her that her great-grandmother had hair like that and because it would be unruly and she wouldn’t know it looked like fire framing her face when the sun was low in the sky, the way it is after the Equinox.

      You have to choose a name carefully for a baby born in the fall; she will know loss early. Her name can’t be frivolous or playful. It must be strong enough to bear the sudden darkness, the shock of leaves falling to the ground, their wonder now a chore, the speed at which fertility is overtaken by barrenness. But not a hopeless name because she would still be a child.

     By the time I was a teenager, my abdominal cavity had beenovertaken by cells that had rebelled, bolting from my womb and growing into unruly scars. The lining of my uterus, luscious and pink where an embryo would cling and be nourished and become, fled instead, attaching where it didn’t belong, turning me inside out.

     If I’d had a baby in the winter, she would be born deep in darkness. A child who emerges when bear cubs and apples, more in sync with the seasons, wouldn’t dare, is not timid. She would be bold and disregard convention, a child of extremes, of broken collarbones and a voice that wouldn’t be carried off by the wind.

      I would peek in her room while she sleeps and see her body shaped in opposing angles as though I were viewing an excavation of bones that had been lying beneath the earth for decades—maybe centuries—white and hard and fragile. I would feel again the sharpness of a shifting shoulder, an elbow, a heel—long nights when those bones poked at me.

      Her skin would be thin and white, blue veins easily visible, and shiny, like the surface of a frozen pond, cheeks easily flushed by icy air or a gentle scolding.

      I would want to protect her, keep her inside, not expose her to the sharp wind of a school bus stop or the slip of tires on black ice the first winter she could drive. When you come from darkness, your bones know it, welcome it. It can creep easily into the soul of a daring girl born in winter, the way a chill might settle into her after a fevered run down a feathered slope. She will need to learn how to turn her face to the light the way a peony planted in the shade of a ginkgo tree reaches for the sun.

     By the time I was twenty-six, the adhesions reached into every part of my gut. I imagined them like the gauze cobwebs people buy to stretch over their shrubs at Halloween, one strand winding around an ovary then reaching for my colon, another filament choking a fallopian tube, another my vagina, my internal organs pulled out of whack.

     A baby born in spring would be promise and pastels. She would want to be held, to have you brush her hair, even when she is too big and bony to sit on your lap. She is bare legs before the weather changes. She is the dank smell of damp ground. Another child might bring you a broken robin’s egg, the softest blue on earth. She would carry the fledgling who tried to fly too soon, and you would watch her breathe air into its body, mouth to beak, quick bursts, faint whistle.

      If I’d had a baby in the spring, she would laugh from her belly. People would seek her out when they need light and not know the price she pays to be the one they depend on to give them hope. Hope can be heavy, a burden for one so young. And you would not know how much because of her smile. Maybe there are dimples. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. Maybe you would see teeth, even if they were wired to one another to pull them straight when they tried to go astray.

      If you see her shoulders start to fall, even a little, you must not tell her to stand up straight. You must go to her, pull her onto your lap, stroke her hair. Don’t be afraid. She will let you. She will curl into you, the way her body remembers. She will even lay her head on your breast.

     By the time I was thirty, everything hurt: my period, my bowel movements, sex, hope.

        If I’d had a baby in the summer, she would come to life in the ocean. Waves would break over her. Sand would come home with her, between her toes, under her fingernails, in the labyrinth of her ears. It would stick to her scalp. The grit of her. She is tide, inching higher and higher, taking up more and more beach, all foam and blue eyes, then receding into herself, leaving rocks exposed, wet, slippery. She is driftwood. Not a bleached white wood, but Pacific madrone, the color of salmon and the flesh of apples, heartwood as red as autumn leaves, grains and roughness smoothed by water.

      A girl born in summer surprises you like a sneaker wave, and you have to hold on because she is stronger than she looks. And she will take you with her.

      You will wonder if you ever really know her, if you ever see the full depth of her, and whether that is because she moves so quickly or because you are afraid of getting caught in her riptide, of being pulled under, because when that happens, you cannot fight, you have to just let go.

     My uterus was a mine that would never deliver any gold. At thirty-two, I begged the gynecologist to take it out. He balked. “You will never be able to have children,” he said, seated between the stirrups cradling my bare feet.

      I answered, trying to keep my voice cool as a frozen pond, my blue eyes an ocean intent on the light above the table, blocked from the doctor’s gaze by the sheet draped over the bones of my knees: “Not everyone wants children.”


Lois Ruskai Melina was raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls. She was an adult before she discovered her love of sports and the outdoors. Melina is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins as well as a book about elite women swimmers training for the 2000 Olympics: By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the 2016 Best of the Net anthology, Colorado Review, Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Sport Literate, among others. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs on a floating house near Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina


This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020. 

Down in the River to Pray

         (excerpt)

This is what I knew:

         My nephew Benji graduated from drama school. When he crossed the stage to accept his diploma, he wore a sultry Lauren Bacall wig and a cream-colored satin evening gown with padded shoulders. His make-up was perfect, his lips the color of blood and desire. My mother told me he looked stunning. And that after the ceremony he argued with his father and my sister, his stepmother but the mother who raised him.

         Then he left for New York. It was 1988.

         Fourteen years later, my mother told me Benji had disappeared. He came home one day from his job at a restaurant and trashed the apartment he shared with a roommate. Then he left. No one knew how to find him or if he was even alive.

         Her voice dropped to a whisper as she added, “He has HIV.”

         I put a story together that, at the time, didn’t need to be correct; it just needed to be a story that made sense. I thought “estranged.” I thought “We don’t know where Benji is” meant Benji moved and changed his phone number because he didn’t want to talk to his family any more. Many of us have been on one side or the other of that wall, but we know it’s a wall that exists because we agree to it. We know we can find or be found if necessary. And six years after Benji disappeared, it was necessary that I find him.

         I needed to find Benji because my mother died and left Benji and her other grandchildren a little money. Because she didn’t know what happened to Benji, she stipulated that the money would go to “living grandchildren.” If Benji wasn’t alive, his share went to the eight other grandchildren, not to his father, his next-of-kin.

         As my mother’s executor, I had to find Benji if he was still alive.

         I thought about the last time I’d seen Benji. It was the mid- 1990s. I was in New York for business. We met at a restaurant near the Met. He didn’t mind coming uptown, he told me when he picked the restaurant. His face was freshly washed, and he wore a shirt with an open collar. It must have been fall because I remember us eating at a table on the sidewalk and Benji wearing a brown tweed sport coat.

         Benji held his fork in his left hand while he cut the pork cutlet, then switched his fork to his right hand to take a bite, the way he’d learned growing up in the Midwest; he hadn’t adopted any big city cutlery affectations.

         “I’m still waiting tables,” he said, when I asked what he was doing.

         “But I’m rehearsing a play,” he added, slurring his words like a Chicagoan does.

         I smiled. “That’s great. How often do you perform?”

         He shrugged and stabbed another piece of pork, holding it on his fork, suspended in front of his mouth while he answered. “It’s just some people I know—in this warehouse space, but I think it could lead to some auditions.”

         I noticed his sport coat didn’t fit well, and I thought he probably bought it at a thrift store just for our lunch. I didn’t know how Benji usually dressed, whether the satin gown at his graduation was to shock his parents, upstage his drama school classmates, or to come out. Maybe he didn’t own a sport coat because he didn’t lunch uptown that often. Maybe he didn’t wear men’s clothes. At the time, I assumed he thought I would feel more comfortable if he didn’t look showy, and I had been oddly touched. My cheeks reddened at the memory of Benji considering my comfort when he got dressed that day. The idea that Benji might have covered his flamboyance for me was touching in the mid-1990s, embarrassing in 2008.

         I hadn’t been a very involved aunt. I was eighteen and Benji was five when my sister married Benji’s father, a widower with five children. It’s true that I was focused on college, on love, later on my own marriage, but I also avoided my sister, who could be dramatic, telling stories that were inconsistent with previous stories—and sometimes with reality. I could understand if Benji went dark just to avoid her.

         I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child.

         But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

         We don’t know where Benji is was not just parent code for Benji doesn’t want us to know where he is. It wasn’t just Benji code for My father, a crew-cut cop, is uncomfortable around me because I wear make-up, and my mother lives in her own reality. So I am not going to make the trek home for Thanksgiving when I can make some good tips if I stay in New York and wait tables.

        All of that may have been true, except that Benji really had disappeared.


Lois Ruskai Melina was raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls. She was an adult before she discovered her love of sports and the outdoors. Melina is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins as well as a book about elite women swimmers training for the 2000 Olympics: By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the 2016 Best of the Net anthology, Colorado Review, Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Sport Literate, among others. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs on a floating house near Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.