book cover design by Ray Vilchis

Amidst the bright fragments of light
Heather M. O'Brien

This piece was published in conjunction with It only takes a few words, a collaborative publication by students in an Art Writing course taught by Heather M. O'Brien at California State University Long Beach in Spring 2016

“You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.”
― David Foster Wallace

“Not that intense moment.
Isolated, with no before and after
but a lifetime of burning in every moment.
There is time for the evening under starlight
and time for the evening under lamplight.”

― Zoe Leonard

The air is bitter and dim––a theatrical setting, of sorts. Rows of drab school desks move upward, stadium-style. They sit atop a fuzzy floorboard. The windows are covered with a thick black film, not an ounce of light enters the room. A deep voice pierces out from the speakers; it addresses fear, craving and the worship of self. It's a declaration that reminds us that our present culture has harnessed these forces, it has given us the freedom to be lords of our own skull-sized kingdoms––alone, at the center of all creation.

And yet here we are, together, ready to begin again.

Let’s open the back windows; we need some light in this murky cave. I ask the class to move their desks into a circle. They seem annoyed, it’s early and no one wants to feel vulnerable. I share an article from The Onion. Title reads: Oh God, Teacher Arranged Desks In Giant Circle. I read a few lines, hoping to lighten the mood, “At press time, sources confirmed that, damn it, the only seats still available in the circle were the ones directly on either side of the teacher.” I hear a few chuckles, but it doesn’t seem to move the process along any faster. I push the podium aside; atop it sits a long microphone, sprouting out of the dark wood like an all-knowing robot––a formulaic computer that can bank education into the brains of its plastic microchips. I have a piercing flash back to my own time in school. The teachers I loved, the ones I despised––who had I become? Was I over exerting my power, being too passive?

Our lived experiences are valuable; they bring life into the dusty books; they rip past injustices apart and allow us to facilitate connections with the present. We go around the circle and I’m struck by the plethora of voices in the room. An array of backgrounds, experiences––vibrant life sprouts from unexpected corners. We begin with bell hooks. The first task is to write about her term white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Fuck, really? Do we have to start with this? I wonder if it’s uncertainty or boredom behind their eyes. Without warning, each of us is immediately positioned into a particular space and a mix of characters take the stage.

A mother tells her child their skin color is dirty while a Black man, destined for greatness, tells a youngster to keep his head up. A group of Hispanic high-school students are labeled as a gang for hanging out together; a newborn baby hates her name. She wonders why she must shave and act like a seniorita; he wonders why he was hired for that job at the theme park, is it because he’s white? Why did everyone assume that she was someone she wasn’t? Here she’s a Spanish speaker––exotic, different, but there she’s a gringa––spoiled, still different. The feminine, the masculine, the gender binaries, the idealized imaginaries, growing up privileged, growing up poor …

Our shit is out on the table, there's nowhere to hide. Our conditioning has broken all of us, some more than others. We turn to fiction for a breath of possibility. A new cast, another stage. This time the tone is different––more risk, more desire.

But the wounds are just as deep as before.

Sirens meet goblins in stories of passion, loss and assault. Two tales of memory: one drops us in the Ming Dynasty––flashes of lightening, rivers filled with blood––the other slews us through the family album, we're lost in questioning of a quotidian mind. Long nights filled with loopy drugs and bright moons; a heart-filled letter to an older brother reminds us of the preciousness of sibling relationship. Cinematic moments hold notes of music; we question what it means to be raised in our genders––fixed, assigned, conditioned (again).

Mos Def once acutely stated, “Even my conditioning has been conditioned.”

These 25 texts may seem disparate, but in reading them alongside each other I find myself captured by the unruly longings behind each writer. Their work is not only to tell a story, but also to undo their conditioning. We must begin again.

In Come September, Arundhati Roy contends:

Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world; I’m beginning to think that vanity makes them think so. But it’s actually the other way around, stories cull writers from the world, stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative, they colonize us, they commission us, they insist on being told. Fiction and non-fiction are only different techniques of storytelling, and, for reasons I don’t fully understand, fiction dances out of me and non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, breaking world I wake up to every morning.

My high-school English teacher in Denver, Colorado died the year after I graduated. Ms. McDaniel was a majestic presence––flaming red hair, dark-green high heals––she had fierce style and a voice that lit up the room. On breaks she’d smoke cigarettes while telling us what it was like to be a college student in the 1970s. She went to Barnard and showered us with Annie Dillard and Sylvia Plath. Her generosity encouraged us to build trust with one another and her classes made me feel open to writing in a way I hadn’t before. Each day she’d start class by making us move the desks aside––she’d tell us to lie on the cold ground of the classroom floor, to close our eyes. We were to build imaginary dream houses in our minds. In retrospect, my overly-critical-post-MFA brain can’t help but wonder if these exercises were part of the consumerist homeownership brainwash that would lead us into financial meltdown. But reality tells me these were genuine acts, meditation exercises to calm our racy high-school minds. Ms. McDaniel’s soft voice talked us through each moment of domestic creation––from the colors of the walls to the tone of the light that seeped through the windows …

Around that same time, just a few miles away, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shoved duffel bags inside the cafeteria of another Colorado high school. Their bags were filled with bombs, and had they exploded with full power, they would have killed all 488 students who were eating their lunches that day. The detonation would’ve also collapsed the ceiling, allowing the library to fall from above.

When the explosives failed, Harris and Klebold embarked on a shooting spree, killing 12 students and one teacher. They then yelled "One! Two! Three!" in unison before committing suicide. The massacre at Columbine sparked debate over high school cliques, subcultures and bullying. It also resulted in an increased emphasis on school security; the word “terrorism,” however, would not be used on these “lone wolfs” or any of the other white male shooters who would terrorize schools in the years to follow.

The classroom was no longer safe, maybe it never was. I was told my high-school was the next target. We held practice drills while mock trench-coat warriors roamed the halls. I was in virtual reality, a video game. Now we hid ourselves tightly under desks instead of freely meditating on the floor. I was anxious from this heightened panic; I had trouble focusing.

From this moment on, I experienced education differently. The aftermath of Columbine conditioned me to live in fear, and thus began a long process of undoing. The classroom was now space that needed to be re-built and tended to, just like my house in Ms. McDaniel’s guided dream.

Back in our circle now, I hear chatter about the upcoming election and Kendrick Lamar. Natural light has flooded the tops of the desks, blinding our views of one another. Slowly we begin to write about time and post-memory. Our pens hit the page in hopes of finding each other, amidst the bright fragments of light.

I burn with hunger for a food that exists––a lifetime of burning in every word.

This course was inspired by the following works:

Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Dave Chappelle & Maya Angelou in conversation
Moyra Davey, Long Life, Cool White
Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory
bell hooks, Remembered Rapture: Dancing with Words
Kendrick Lamar, A Visit to High Tech High, North Bergen, NJ
Zoe Leonard, A Continuous Signal
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Arundhati Roy, Come September
Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun
Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
David Foster Wallace, This Is Water