By: Xiaohan Sun
The Baldwin School, PA, USA
It was dark, but I saw
your cheeks pink and flushed and
a halo above your head
that tilted ever so slightly.
Teetering and woozy,
you slipped through the cracks of his fingers and
became a shadow.
I am from rough, crinkly pages,
from the thin layer of dust coating each cover
like a blanket of snow lain over rolling hills.
I am from all the different realms
these pages transport me to,
from the castles to the forests
to the wide open flower fields.
I am from the black and white at my fingertips,
from the language that plays from my heart.
I am from the warm, relaxed melodies,
from the bouncing, buzzing, beating ballads.
I’m from the place where it takes me,
from the feeling it gives me,
and from the state it leaves me in.
I am from the sun basking on my neck,
from the silver glow on the tips of the trees.
I’m from the endless green surrounding me,
the crunch of orange and red at my feet.
I am from the crisp breeze that rustles my hair,
from the waft of spice and cinnamon.
I’m from the feel of the delicacies,
warm and melting on my tongue.
I’m from the thought of my father,
constantly in my mind,
his honor and respectability
which I strive to see in myself.
I am from the childhood with my mother,
the lessons she has taught me.
From the path through life
she has dreamed for me and spun.
I am from the chocolate brown of my eyes,
and from the wonder underneath.
The eyes that see the magic in everything
The eyes that create a world only I am from.
Welcome to the eighth edition of Voices & Visions, themed “Transitions.” This theme in particular carries personal resonance for several of our staff members: Beth and Faizah are graduating, our first-year assistant editors, Aviva, Abby, Faith, and Camille, have taken on important roles in the production of this journal, and Professor Cohen, the journal’s founder, is taking on a new position as Director of the Lewis Global Studies Center at Smith. The journal itself is moving with her, and we are all excited to see what changes this transition will bring.
We are also excited to present our spring issue, comprising 15 written works and 14 visuals that express the fear and anticipation which transitions evoke, while celebrating positive aspects of change. Our contributors document physical, mental, and spiritual transitions that shape and define their lives. From the beauty of a receding tide to the complexities of gender, the writers and artists in this issue encourage us to embrace both constancy and uncertainty, heightening our awareness of the present moment while reminding us of the ways in which literature and art– themselves both enduring and evolving–buoy us in times of flux.
We hope these transformative works of art will inspire you to document your own transitions, whatever they may be. Happy reading!
Brittany Collins, Editor-In-Chief
Beth Derr, Managing Editor
on behalf of the Voices & Visions editorial staff
Yawning—Stretching—standing proud for the day.
Warm sunlight trickles through the window
as condensation fogs the mirror.
Stepping out, a cloud of steam follows like a wedding dress.
They dry their feet on the rough mat,
run the towel to catch the drips that journey down their spine.
Walking to the mirror,
they use the towel to free their face from the glass cage.
Squared jaw, thick brows, the lips of ancient gods.
Following the mirror down with their eyes,
the body is blurred.
It is there, standing—real in every regard.
But no details shine through.
Does today bring a chest of supple mounds,
the nourishment of mankind?
Or would the day be one of endless fields,
sharp angles, and broad lines?
The fog melted down their neck.
Would their voice reach the submarine signals deep beneath the ocean blue?
Or would it fly high with the delicate birds in the clear blue sky?
Bringing their hand up to run through wet hair—
would it flow long, a twirl of braids and intricate patterns?
Or would it be twisted tight into a strong knot under their hat?
Maybe today they would exist in the blur.
The blur that permeated the image they faced.
Maybe their hair would flow long and their nails would shine bright–
their chest flat as a frozen lake, their voice a force that could make mountains tremble.
Maybe today they would be neither.
Maybe today they would be both.
And maybe that would be OK.
First appeared in an edition of MR. MA’AM Literary Journal at Emory University.
During my first summer in America at the age of 11, I was preoccupied. I spent my days trying to figure out ways to return to the friends whom I had left behind in a refugee camp in Thailand. I missed the summer fun of collecting any water we could find, splashing one another during the Water Festival holidays in my new home in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I sat around inside of the apartment, waiting for the monotonous summer days to pass as swiftly as possible. To avoid the emptiness in my life, I agreed to walk with my mother to Dollar Tree, a store that we had recently heard about. As we walked in the searing Georgia heat, she said, disappointed, “Yah-leh-ta-mu-ler-mu-mae-nya,” meaning that she preferred to “travel in front of the sun” to avoid the heat on her face. It bothered her that I woke up late that morning, that we were unable to beat the sunrise. I just hated the summer for arriving before I could make any new friends at school or in the neighborhood.
Walking on the road to Dollar Tree introduced us to the busy life of America. It involved so many cars. In the refugee camp, we had one small road of paved concrete. Cars did not arrive one after another. In the United States, neither my mother nor I knew how to cross the street. I saw the way that my mother navigated her life here. She ran at the traffic light intersection as soon as the walking signals came on, and all I could do was follow fanatically.
After crossing, we encountered our very first nail salon, which surprised my mother. She laughed looking at her hands–the cracks, wrinkles, and lines that mapped the contours of surviving a farmer’s life. From a young age, the life that she knew consisted of packing lunch and going to the rice farm before dawn. Nail enhancement was a weird, unnecessary concept. With those hands, she dragged me away from the wall of compelling advertisements that captivated my young eyes.
Our excursion in the heat made it feel good to walk into Dollar Tree’s two-door entrance and breathe its soothing, cool air. I liked how all of the items knew which section they belonged to. Everything had its own place. I stood in the aisle where the kitchen tools hung neatly in their own spots. Like them, I wanted to be found and placed where I would fit in. Big bottles of soda on the shelf brought back many etched memories of the small shops in the refugee camp. Each shop in the camp had a cooler filled with ice cubes and cans of soda. I learned to never walk to the cooler, knowing that there were never enough coins in my hand. Once, my mother gave me a cup of soda after she bought a bottle to offer to an important guest. To show appreciation to the people whom we respected, we offered them something more costly, like soda. It was fun for my siblings and me to watch the bubbles rise to the top of the bottle when my mother opened it. I thought about how lucky the kids in the United States must be, since they could see and taste the fizz much more often than I could. Things that were highly priced in a refugee camp only cost a dollar at Dollar Tree.
The very next day, after the first trip to Dollar Tree, my mother asked me to go out again. This time, we invited families in the neighborhood who were also Karen, an ethnic group from Burma. There was the man whom I called Uncle (Pah Tee) and his children. They never refused to come along with us on the walk. Since we were among the earliest refugee newcomers in the area, we did not know anyone who had a car. None of us really understood the new roads and streets, but we enjoyed being able to walk miles without seeing restricted signs like the ones back in the camp. When we all gathered to plan our trip on the street, everyone wanted go to Dollar Tree. No debating was involved. It was the closest store to our neighborhood and cheap enough that everyone could afford something.
Making our way to Dollar Tree as a group served as a time of sharing between the young and old. Pah Tee would mention how much he loved chicken; he cooked it for three months straight when he first arrived in the United States. Now, chicken no longer tasted as good as before, since he had been standing and working long hours at the chicken factory. The elders showed us their painful nails, blue from competing with the machines at the chicken factory. All summer long, their stories kept me busy, so I started worrying less about how lonely I was. All of us were trying to push through the land of unfamiliarity. Despite our dimmest phase of life, we were still walking on the busy street, being overly cautious and running at the crossroads to make it to Dollar Tree. When we got inside, it was a time of satisfaction. Pah Tee admitted that “America was truly the land of plenty.” On every trip to Dollar Tree, I always made sure to get my favorite snack: spicy Cheetos. Eating them made me happy. The spicy taste was the first thing that I found in the U.S. that was not foreign to me.
We visited Dollar Tree countless times that summer. After many trips, we noticed that the poster advertising flip flops had changed to one with falling snowflakes. By looking at the seasonal goods, we became aware of the special holidays that many Americans celebrated in the United States.
Without our realizing, years really had passed. We started going to stores that sold our cultural food and went to Dollar Tree less often. It became very easy to spot other Burmese on a street. Soon, our Karen neighbors could buy a car and move out of their apartments and into a house. We helped them carry their things out. Later came the day when my family also decided to move.
While my mom never entered the nail salon, Dollar Tree has become just another store. Walking on a street to Dollar Tree turned into staring at it through the window of my car. Each time I spot a Dollar Tree, my memories of navigating through the door of the unknown return. I feel a bit of heartache when I realize that happiness can only be found in Hot Cheetos once in a lifetime. I know now what I didn’t know then: that crossing traffic from the Dollar Tree to home was a one-way trip.
all the soldier wanted was a wife
too high without a pot to piss
ISIL (formerly known as ISIS—defamation of a GODDESS)
ISIL knows this
.if the soldier will fight.
— but when it is clear he is living to die killing as he kisses suicide he is given a Yazidi “bride”
at what price
and Isis wept
and Isis worked
and Isis wept
and Isis worked
and Isis wept
the Yazidi fight
Isis brought the dead back to life
Artist Statement for Isis and Osiris
Born of earth and sky, the Egyptian goddess Isis shows us that strength does not preclude feeling: an essential reminder as women transition into selfhood. Isis is here invoked to reclaim a name that has been sullied, while also serving as a reminder that mourning is a profound part of the process of empowerment, as it is in numbness that we are truly lost. It was up to her to restore the world when everything was ripped to pieces, and this was not a process without profound pain, a pain she was not afraid to show. As for the Yazidi and Kurdish women fighting against ISIL, they are not just tasked with restoring destroyed worlds within and without; many are directly confronting violence as soldiers themselves. The poem “Isis and Osiris” expresses that when tradition is upheld over what is natural and loving, our humanity is more easily degraded and we become numb. When this happens, we must fight like the Yazidi and Kurdish women to reclaim our humanity, because in states of numbness, humans are reduced to bodies, figments, and payments. Women’s transition into selfhood requires a reflection on the violence we have suffered, strength from the past, as well as creative new visions for humanity, as the old, however inspiring, may still keep us in cycles of subservience and domination.
As an artist and scholar, sakina seeks to unite facts with truth so that women’s transition into selfhood can be both fortified and tender. sakina earned a B.A. in Philosophy and Creative Writing from Bryn Mawr College, an M.A. in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School’s Institute of Sacred Music, and has been selected as a Mellon Mays, Fulbright, and Yale-China Fellow. As an artist, her work has been featured at the Camra Screening Scholarship Media Festival at the University of Pennsylvania, National Sawdust in Brooklyn, the Yale Off Broadway Theater, Yale Edgewood Gallery, and the Self-Organized Performance Biennial on Art and Politics in Athens, Greece.
Now we are flowing
in between w a v e s of thin satin that dance in the sky,
like a leaf that
in the breeze
landing to sink into the earth
like baked clay
in the blazing sun
where pinwheels of rays
grow big enough to transform into a kaleidoscope of colors at night,
spreading purple velvet over us thick enough to heat our bodies
so it sparks flames so scarlet
as to catch the eye of a bull
that charges with a racing heart
to the march
of the drums
warning us about time
washing back to the ocean that provides
the w a v e s
to rock the boat
that carries us through life,
lifted by the w i n d s that toss
our s o u l s back into the sky.
The place where I am living tries to tell the story of my life so far. It does not hold memories.
It does not yet hold memories.
But that is okay. I breathe that down and trust that the memories will come.
I do not feel God here. I do not yet feel God here. I trust that she will speak through this place. But, so far, she only speaks through home. What does that mean about God? What does that mean about home?
The story of my life told by this place that barely knows my name sounds like the girls laughing in the hall upstairs while I do homework. It is told through my daily naps and the photos on the wall that spell out “CLE.”
This place does not know me yet. Still, she will tell you that I was the first person to visit her archives this year. “That was all I needed to know,” she says with a smile.
This place has only held me for forty-three days, but she has heard all of my secrets through the window of a psychologist’s office on Main Street. This place tells the story of my brokenness, but she didn’t do any of the breaking.
She did not yet do any of the breaking.
This place does not wipe away my tears, but she does absorb them. She calls to a city far away and tells her to bring tissues. When this place where I am living tells my story, she holds out her hands to show you the tears as they pool in her palms, but Cleveland has already wiped them up.
This place tells you that I don’t sing much, but she is lying. She knows that she is lying because, although she cannot hear my voice, she can feel how much I miss it.
This place where I am living cannot tell my whole story.
This place where I am living cannot yet tell my whole story.
But she waits.
We are both waiting.
I am not sure whether I am recalling a dream or reality. I don’t know whether to use the past tense or present; I don’t even know whether she has left or still remains. I just remember that, when I first saw her, she reminded me of Greek statues– the ones that my father showed me in children’s encyclopedias. Yes, her skin tone made me feel like she was molded out of bronze. Even her hair had this bronzeish tint.
Maybe she was a classical Greek statue given life by Phanes.
Yes, it seemed reasonable back then. Why not? I used to fall asleep hearing about Pinocchio, who was made out of wood and could still walk and talk, so why not her? I don’t recall her name. I doubt anyone does. I will take the blame for that; I will take it all. The only thing that I remember is that, when she left, she took away all happiness. When she came back, she was not the same. She was invisible at times, but she was there. I can tell you she was, and she still is.
Now, she exists in a different way. She is in me. I don’t know how she got inside, but she is there. Usually, she prefers residing somewhere in the back of my head. No, don’t imagine something like Voldemort growing out of Professor Quirell’s head. It is nothing like that. Instead, it is like the residence of two souls in one body– a tired body, tired of the burden of carrying oxymoronic souls; tired to be the venue of the battle between two powerful entities that having juxtaposing ideas. I call them Yin and Yang. Those two never rest; neither do they give the luxury of rest to my body, engaging in their continuous fight for control over that territory. My body tries its best to support its authentic soul, Yang. It works hard and harder, even when it feels like each and every cell will fall apart from exhaustion and scatter on the ground. Yet, it cannot sleep; it cannot afford to sleep. If it dares to do so, Yin takes over through dreams.
All I remember from those dreams is that they depicted blood, a lot of blood. Those dreams were different. I would know when they started, and I would wake up– or, maybe not. The worst part was that I wouldn’t understand whether I was awake or asleep; whether I was in a dream or reality. Later, after what seems like decades, Yang wakes up. It doesn’t take control, no. It merely begins to exist again. My body starts feeling sheer pain, and evil pleasure graces my mind. Yang tries to radiate a bit of sympathy and instantly is mocked by Yin. Whipped by Yin’s cruelty and confined in a space no bigger than a full stop, it becomes hard for Yang to even breathe properly. Hopeless, Yang thinks of giving up. Yang begins removing all of those memories that were treasured and protected, that were all Yang ever had.
That bronze body, that bronzish hair, and all of those good things about her unfold.
A spark strikes Yang; she can’t let go of the memories, and neither can she let Yin corrupt them, for these are hers to treasure.
Yang murmurs, “If I die, who will remember you? ”
Yang holds on…
her eyes, gray pools still and smooth
for a second there is fear.
anger. pain. her memories
dance behind the glass betraying
her for a second I can almost see her scars
the shutters snap shut and she
is a steel statue that will never shatter
her voice, kind and always
laughing, a little too loud a little too
often a little too forced, with words
that get stuck in her throat she swallows
them like rough rocks and keeps her
secrets safe for another day
her skin, pale like winter with soft lines
and creases and freckles in clusters and splatters
and trails, she wears the stories that have changed
her smell is like perfume and powder and
coffee from the cup that is always in
her hands, smaller than mine with
knuckles a little too large “from cracking them,”
she said, “so stop cracking yours”
they aren’t beautiful but they don’t need to be
she’s built walls a million miles tall around
her heart, big enough to save the whole world
but too broken to save the ones who matter most
in a million moments and a million ways I am
her eyes her voice her skin her hands her heart
and that’s OK.
And the last step was like a prologue, bringing you out of one experience and into a premature memory– still forming, and quite delicate– balanced on the edge of comprehension. You didn’t see it at first, and maybe that means it didn’t really exist, for what better quantifier do we have for the world than our own perception?
You’re right. It was never there. Not before you came.
You walked the border between field and forest, the world a confusion of rock and dry leaves. They crumbled to dust under your feet, releasing muscle memory into the air– necrotic tissue that was ordinary in life, beautiful in death, mundane in decomposition. There’s nothing special about this experience; hasn’t it all happened before? The world unfolds for you, and you nod your head; you’ve seen it all once, twice, a dozen times. You would call it home if you weren’t so naïve.
It’s almost close enough to be familiar, far enough to register some kind of boundary, some kind of other place. Another world. Facets of imagination stir in it until you come and see for yourself that it’s nothing more than another mile of woods, another messy composition of nature. Whiffs of death stir around your feet.
Today could just have easily collapsed in rain. But the sun shines softly, playfully, through the tender branches. Buds quiver on their tips, cautious in the spring air, wary and vulnerable as your next thought, giving gently to the breeze. That is your right half. Your left is leaking onto the field, over rubble stonewall fragments and goldenrod– those spindly grasses that you always called tumbleweeds even though Texas is thousands of miles away.
Are tumbleweeds found in Texas? You never thought to ask or check. It’s one of those things that you just take for granted because to question would be like asking which tree dropped the leaf that you just crushed underfoot.
Nothing unfolds before you. The path is as straight as the old wall, meandering on the boundary between uninhibited and inhibited light. Half of you is dappled, the other warmed by the sun and chilled by the breeze. You kick away the leaves and bring the experience to a close.
At the end of the road, the wall ends. You start to climb. It was always a bit of a climb, so subtle that only your eardrums could tell, but now the ground slopes so sharply you brace yourself as if the world has suddenly turned against you. Dry rivers dance in mesmerising swordplay at every other step, parrying and feinting around your toes. You stare for a moment, and then you continue.
There is hardly ever any time to watch.
Experience slides away, more vulnerable to gravity than you. It collects at the bottom of the hill, and you rise above it, both breeze and sun picking up to joust around you as you reach the summit. And there it is.
Rows of pink shoot away from you, shining with a brilliance that you remember but can never imagine. Branches scratch at the sky, and a trilling mixes with the atmosphere. It could be a bird, or an insect whose name you don’t know.
The peaches have yet to come. They wait, buried somewhere in the depths of the flowers that you now pass between, dragging their soft fragrance into your lungs, the long grass sweeping the leaf dust from your feet. For a moment you are just another blot of colour, a smattering of strokes on the Impressionist’s canvas as you stroll, wondering how you could have ever forgotten the dimensions of this place.
Once, you heard them call it Turtle Hill. You wonder who gave it the name. It could be a thousand years old.
Peach blossoms rule over the hill, and below them a court of apple trees tends to their every need, brilliant white against the weak grass, still recovering from winter’s touch. Some are older than you. Many are just beginning, striking out against the air, dealing in possibility. You sink down onto the cold ground.
Dew seeps into your clothes.
Maybe this is all there is. But we know that isn’t the case.
Maybe this is all there should be. Of course, no. But maybe.
Maybe this is all you ever wanted to find.
All of you have shells scarred
with the ravages of patriarchy
detailing old fights,
some of which you lost.
It was a world full of predators and struggle, so you learned
to live in your shells
Turtle women, you tell me to vomit my words onto the page
while you purse your closed lips.
Turtle women, you ask me to undress so you can fix me my broken body
while you stand there in your buttoned-up white coat and cashmere turtleneck.
Turtle women, you request my whole life story told in numbers and factoids
while you robotically type at your workstation.
You hide your true selves in the name of doing your duty.
In my parent’s living room, hidden in the pages of a dusty scrapbook,
there’s a picture of a bright-faced little girl staring
eye-to-eye with a turtle at the zoo,
separated by a piece of glass.
They teach us young feminists to smash glass ceilings,
but not how to speak through the glass walls that separate
us from you beautiful turtle women
Someday I’d like to walk with you,
to truly know you and understand the scars that roughen your shells and toughen your hearts.
But now I’ll just observe from the other side of the glass,
in admiration of beauty