As we digitize The New York Times’s photography archives, we often come across images that resonate in unusual and unexpected ways, even after a century. We wondered what novelists might make of some of them — so we asked. To be specific, we asked 10 acclaimed authors to write pieces of short fiction inspired by vintage photos from The Times. What follows are the results, along with the images in question and the authors’ explanations of how the particular photos spoke to them.
We were especially interested in themes of identity, belonging and empowerment, which now dominate the national conversation, so we reached out to authors working in the young-adult genre, which has been grappling with those issues for years. We focused on Asian-American novelists as part of our continuing commitment to underrepresented voices, as well as to see what commonalities and differences rose to the surface.
Each author was sent about a half-dozen images and asked to select just one. Some of the photos reflected their ancestry. Others spoke to important aspects of their life or work. After each writer picked the image that captivated her or him most, we asked that they disregard whoever the real people in the photographs were and even the true-life locations if they preferred. We wanted their imagination to be the only engine here. As you will see, the writers took the photos and ran. We are grateful to them for giving these images new lives.
Editor’s Note: The individuals appearing in these photographs are unrelated to the characters and events described in the stories.
Table of Contents
By Malinda Lo
By Soman Chainani
By Marie Lu
By Sabaa Tahir
By David Yoon
By Randy Ribay
By Samira Ahmed
By Emily X.R. Pan
By Misa Sugiura
By Cindy Pon
By Malinda Lo
Inside the pig’s head, it was starting to stink. The half-dozen mints Jenny Watanabe had eaten at the beginning of her shift to pre-emptively perfume the interior had long since worn off. She was already sweating like crazy, and the new Big Bad Wolf had just begun chasing them. She knew it was only going to get worse. Tokyo Disneyland on a hot day was a long slog through mobs of squealing children clutching melting ice cream cones while executing repetitive choreography in bulky costumes.
She didn’t know it would be like this when she started the job. She had thought it would be a welcome break from the demoralizing struggle of learning Japanese, because at Tokyo Disneyland, everything was in English. She was Yonsei, which meant she looked Japanese but didn’t know how to say much beyond sumimasen. When she first arrived at the park, one week into her exchange program, seeing all those English signs felt like coming home.
The honeymoon didn’t last long.
“The first rule is that you do not talk,” the character trainer informed her on her first day. Jenny was secretly relieved. She had been cast as Practical Pig, the one who builds his house out of stone. He was distinguished from his impractical brothers Fifer and Fiddler by his angry eyebrows.
She had not anticipated how quickly “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” would lodge in her head as the most irritating ear worm in the history of ear worms, or how Practical’s eyebrows could terrify little kids. A few days into the job, after a kid literally ran away from her while shrieking, Fifer (a Japanese guy who spoke perfect English, making her feel extra ashamed of her rudimentary knowledge of her ancestral tongue) said, “Why do you think Practical is constantly being recast? You’re the third Practical in two months. No one can cut it!”
And then there was the mind trip of spending so much time in Practical’s head. It was kind of like being transported into an alternate dimension. All sound was muffled by the extensively padded pig cheeks, and her vision was restricted to only what she could see through Practical’s tiny, immovable eye holes. Usually it was Fifer’s outflung white-gloved hand as he did his Irish-dance-inspired jig.
If she concentrated enough on Fifer’s hand and on her own choreography (it really was challenging to dance around in a rotund pig’s belly), she could almost convince herself that she wasn’t real at all. She was simply a cog in the machine that was Tokyo Disneyland. Inside the pig, she was anonymous; she was no one. Staying silent had never seemed so natural. She experienced her pigness as a void — a black hole that had been stripped of its sucking power and was now simply nothing.
That morning, when she arrived in the backstage changing area, a blond girl was sitting on the bench putting on the Big Bad Wolf’s feet. “Hey, I’m Veronica,” the blonde said. “I’m the new Wolf.”
Veronica! Jenny had seen Veronica before. She’d been wearing a Swiss Miss-type outfit over by Cinderella’s Castle. The good thing about being inside a pig’s head was that people didn’t know when she was checking them out. Outside the head, she was tongue-tied.
Veronica gave her an eyebrow tilt. “You O.K.?”
“Um, yeah.” Jenny pulled out her mints and popped several into her mouth, then thought she should probably offer some to Veronica. She held out the tin. “The head gets stuffy,” she explained.
Veronica nodded gravely and took a couple. “Thanks. You’re American too, right?”
“Um, yeah.” She started to get dressed in her costume.
“Did you ever think that being forced to stay quiet all the time is like an infringement on our First Amendment rights? Like, we already have to be nice all day and let little kids hit us. This is practically abuse. We should start a union.”
Jenny didn’t know what to say. She began to turn red from embarrassment at her own dorkiness, so she put on Practical’s head.
Veronica gasped. “Check out your eyebrows! You look pissed!”
It was clear that Veronica was a different kind of Wolf. She was way more into it than the old Wolf, and there was a campy, exaggerated quality to the way she chased them. Jenny found it distracting. She couldn’t access her void space the way she normally could, because she kept wanting to watch Veronica.
As the climax of their performance approached, Veronica accidentally-on-purpose tripped and fell, dramatically pounding her gloved hands on the ground in a silent tantrum. Jenny and the other Pigs arranged themselves in a rough triangle, doing their step-touch, step-touch thing. At the end of the song they were supposed to skip in a circle, jump-turn twice and wave jazz hands at the gathered audience. But then Jenny saw Veronica give up on her silent tantrum and — in complete defiance of the official choreography — prop her head up on one hand to watch the Pigs finish.
Jenny felt as if she could hear Veronica challenging her: Union! First Amendment! Pissed!
Fifer was beginning his jazz hands, but instead of joining him, Jenny had the irresistible urge to raise her fist in the air. The white glove squished as she clenched her fingers. The audience gaped at her silently. She was exhilarated; she could practically feel the sun on her face.
Why this photo: This photograph from Tokyo Disneyland stood out to me immediately because it was quirky and startling. It invites the viewer to ask questions: Why does that pig look angry? Who is inside the pig’s costume? How do they feel? I had to know the answers. – M.L.
Malinda Lo is the author of “Ash,” which is now available in a special 10th-anniversary edition; “A Line in the Dark”; and other novels. She grew up in Colorado.
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By Soman Chainani
Nani can’t work the remote control.
“Sham tells me, ‘It’s easy, it’s easy,’ instead of paying the TV man to show us properly,” she puffs, jamming her long red nails into buttons, producing nothing but static on the new 55-inch.
“Let me try it,” I murmur, lost in Nani’s iPhone.
“You don’t know anything. Every time you come, you break my phone.”
I’m too deep in Instagram to defend myself. Sundays at Nani’s are a sacred ritual. The day she used to take me out. But I’m in seventh grade now. I don’t need her to take me out. What I need is her phone.
“I tell your mother to get you your own phone but she says your grades will go down. I’d rather a grandson who can do useful things than get A’s and sit here like a lump. Sham! Sham!”
I glance up at her, jostling the remote, the sequins on her jumpsuit a radiant flurry. She bought the jumpsuit at the Dadeland mall a few months ago, the last Sunday I let her take me out. She’d attempted to make me over with Ralph Lauren Polo vests, an Aveda facial and a D&G speedo, before I escaped to the arcade. (“I just want you to be happy with how you look. So you can make friends,” she lamented later. “I have friends,” I shot back. She glared through me and started walking, weighed down by bags. “If Grandpa asks, tell him all these clothes are for you.”)
“Oh, look,” she crows now.
Nani’s managed to get something on the TV.
Ariana Grande is lip-syncing, half-naked and covered in paint.
“That’s YouTube. We need Netflix,” I say, unhelpfully, scrolling through Archer Bresden’s photos, careful not to like any of them by accident. He just turned 13, literally six months younger than me, and has muscles bigger than my head. He dressed like Thor for Halloween. I hate him.
“Sham!” Nani calls again.
Grandpa ducks his shiny, round head in. He gets so little sun these days he looks like a goblin poking out of his gold mine. “What is this nonsense?” he hectors, pointing a knobby finger at Ariana. “Prakash says it’s the Hulu station. Proper Hindi movies in HD. But he says do the free trial otherwise you have to pay.”
“I don’t want Hulu. I don’t want a Hindi movie. I want Netflix. That’s why I came,” I growl, trying to figure out if Archer’s eyes are actually that color or whether there’s a filter. “I don’t even know Hindi.”
“We’ll put subtitles,” Grandpa dismisses. “Boy your age should know the classics. ‘Dilwale’ … ‘Lagaan’ … ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ …”
“We’re watching something else,” says Nani calmly, unable to stop YouTube from rolling into a montage of boys tormenting cats. “Santosh wants to show me this movie. ‘The Boys I Love.’”
Grandpa gapes at me.
“‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,’” I snap, but he still looks perturbed. “It’s for school,” I add.
Nani darts me a look.
“What kind of school is this?” Grandpa harrumphs. “We watch ‘Sholay.’ Then you bring in Nani’s pakoras and do a proper report and teach your classmates about Amitabh Bachchan. Your teacher will give extra credit.”
“That’s not how it works,” I say, frustrated. “This is America.”
“Hulu!” Grandpa barks at Nani, pointing at YouTube gone wild: teddy bears being stuffed into blenders. “Go to Hulu!”
“Hulu Vulu! If you’re so smart, you do it!” Nani retorts, holding out the remote. But Grandpa’s already halfway down the hall, his limp stuttering on the marble. (“Prakash says it’s easy!”)
A DM pops up on Insta. From Jeannie, my lab partner: Why u hearting Archer Bresden’s pics
I drop the phone. It hits the floor hard.
“No wonder your mother won’t get you a phone,” Nani says, dumping the remote on the couch. “Let’s go to Cocowalk. See a movie properly. Like we used to do before you became a homebody.”
“My friends hang out there.” I scoop up the phone, too afraid to assess the damage.
“Must be good friends if you want to avoid them.”
“Plus you can’t concentrate on the movie,” I say hotly, snatching the remote and searching for Netflix myself. “There’s people and they eat popcorn and make noise and kiss in front of you. What’s the point.”
“That is the point, Santosh,” Nani says, sharply. “That’s the whole point.”
I look up. Her new jumpsuit shimmers blue and green. She’s wearing makeup. Her hair is blown and styled. She’s wearing diamonds. It’s Sunday, after all. But we don’t go out anymore. I won’t let her take me. And yet, she’s still ready, like a bird that might be let out of its cage.
My chest tightens. All those Sundays. She’d been waiting. To see. To be seen. It wasn’t her taking me. It was never her taking me. It was me taking her.
“It’s a good movie,” I say, attacking buttons desperately. “You’ll like it.”
Nani watches me, hawk-eyed.
“How do you know if it’s good?” she says.
“Everyone is seeing it. It’s what everybody’s watching.”
“And you can’t watch it at your mom’s house?” she asks.
I meet her stare.
My voice catches. Tears well.
Nani’s face changes.
I’ve seen it already. Many times.
I want someone to see it with.
And she’s the only someone I have.
Nani’s already moving. “Chalo, chalo, let’s go. We watch it together. I’ll make popcorn too, with butter and masala, how you like it,” she resolves sternly, grabbing at her phone and dialing as she leaves. “Let me call Santiago from the lobby. He’s young and always showing me these fancy games on his phone. He’ll fix the TV in two minutes …”
She turns at the door.
“I don’t even know what’s playing at Cocowalk,” I say. “What would we see?”
Slowly Nani lowers the phone.
She smiles so bright that she glitters, a peacock in the sun.
“Oh Santosh,” she sighs. “Whichever is the most crowded.”
Why this photo: Longing. That was the emotion when I saw this photo for the first time: a reminder of what the movies meant to me as an anxious, alienated teenager, the only Indian in my neighborhood and school. I needed the experience of a crowded theater, of an audience, to feel connected. To feel human. What happens when that is lost? – S.C.
Soman Chainani is the author of the New York Times best-selling series “The School for Good and Evil,” soon to be a major motion picture. He grew up in Key Biscayne, Fla.
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By Marie Lu
Sì, the word for four, sounded very similar to sǐ, the word for death. It was a deeply unlucky number.
So when she was born, her father, who had prayed every day to Guanyin for a son after three daughters, took one look at her and walked out of the birthing room. She was not only the fourth, but a girl at that.
She spent her entire life hiding in corners, staying out of everyone’s way, trying to make up for the ill fortune she had brought down upon her father, by finding little ways to organize their lives around luckier numbers.
She whispered to the rice plants to sprout in unison on the eighth — eight, bā, which sounded similar to fā, the word for wealth and prosperity — day of spring. Her father beamed at the bright green shoots blanketing the flooded fields and credited his luck to the auspicious timing.
When the hail came and rattled the tin roof of their house, she whispered for the storm to turn away in three — sān, which was similar to shēng, the word for birth — hours, to divert calamities away from her family. Her father looked up in astonishment at the clearing skies and proclaimed that their stroke of luck had protected their crops.
And when the rains dried up and the rice fields cracked, she whispered to the skies to send water within nine days — nine, jiǔ, which sounded like jiǔ, the word for eternity and longevity. The skies opened and her father declared the family protected by the heavens.
She, of course, never told anyone that she was responsible for these events in their lives. Being the fourth and a girl was misfortune enough. Adding the label of witch, zhu, would surely ostracize their family from the rest of the village. She had seen other girls accused of witchcraft, witnessed them excluded and left unmarried. One girl had been driven out of the village altogether.
At night, she studied in secret by lantern light for the exams that could qualify her for a coveted government scholarship, one that sent students to study at American universities. It would give her a reason to leave home at last, to remove herself from this place altogether and thus from the misfortune that came with her.
But after she took the exams, the invitation that arrived in the mail came not from the government’s scholar fund — but from a society in Chicago that specialized in training students gifted with the kind of magic she possessed.
How did they know? She spent that day studying her hands in wonder. The test had been as normal as she could have imagined. She did not realize that her fingers had left trails of magic on the paper, like an imprint of dust that glittered long after she had finished.
So the next morning, she woke up at six — liù, which sounded similar to liú, the word indicating clarity and smoothness — and quietly left home, turning her shoes away from the smattering of homes in her family’s rural village to Shanghai, the city of the future, from which she would embark to America.
The entire trip on the boat, she practiced her talents, making broken light bulbs glow in the boat’s dining area and scattering blankets of clouds to form patterns against the blue sky. It was a surprisingly smooth journey. Other students in her bunker — twins and a round-faced young woman and a flighty girl with braided knots in her hair — chatted curiously with her, teasing her country accent and asking where she came from. They were the children of wealthier families in the cities. She marveled at their fur coats and cloche hats, the soft leather of their purses. Her own coat was old, the buttons twisted in the traditional Chinese sense, something that seemed old-fashioned beside these rich young women’s Western fashions.
When they finally dragged their trunks off the train in Chicago, a photographer was waiting to take their photos. For the paper, he said. So they clustered together, wearing their best coats, their faces both eager and intimidated. She would never see the developed photo, but if she had, she would have noticed that her magic hung about her in a halo that the camera picked up, obscuring her face behind a haze.
It took her a moment longer to notice the lady waiting for her by the train platform. She was small, her back slightly rounded in a hunch, and when she stretched a hand out in greeting, her fingers were long and graceful.
“Welcome to Chicago,” the lady told her in Mandarin, “and to your training in the art of magic. I see you have been blessed with great fortune.”
She blinked. It was the first time anyone had ever looked pleased to see her, and she was so surprised that she replied, “I am the fourth sister in my family, so I am the bringer of misfortune.”
The woman shook her head. “That is impossible, you see, for I can tell that you have been gifted with the magic of luck. That is how your application somehow ended up at our office, and how I noticed the shimmer of magic on the paper. I will teach you how to wield it.”
The rice harvest and the diverted storm. The early rains and the smooth voyage. Good fortune. It was the first time anyone had given that identity to her, but she’d had it all along.
She smiled. Then she fell into step beside the woman and never looked back.
Why this photo: I was drawn to these young women’s beautiful fashion sense, and struck by the fact that they were female Chinese students arriving in Chicago. Considering that Chinese women were banned from the United States in 1875 with the Page Act, the first U.S. federal law restricting immigration and one that laid the groundwork for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, I was moved to see these young women arriving in the same country that wanted them out. – M.L.
Marie Lu is the New York Times best-selling author of the “Young Elites,” “Legend,” and “Warcross” series. She worked as a video-game artist before turning to writing full-time. She lives in Los Angeles.
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News of the Day
By Sabaa Tahir
Oct. 10, 1958
KARACHI, Pakistan — A sea Jinn appeared Thursday at Bohri Bazaar market in Karachi, terrifying patrons of a small drugstore and causing widespread panic just days after President Iskander Mirza declared martial law in Pakistan.
The creature’s diminutive stature initially fooled patrons of Aftab Drugstore into thinking it was a mere Ghul, the smaller, less violent cousin of the Jinn.
“Then it grabbed me,” said Farkhanda Aftab, 7, the daughter of the store’s owner, Yousef Aftab. “And it screamed. It felt like knives in my ears. I thought I would die.”
At the sight of the Jinn, patrons fled into the streets of the bazaar, overturning bicycle rickshaws and ox carts, and nearly causing a stampede.
Fortunately for Farkhanda, local fisherman Sahib Muhammad, who regularly visits the drugstore, also finds himself tangling with Jinn on stormy days in Karachi’s harbor.
“A prayer and a warning is usually all that is required to dispatch them,” Mr. Muhammad said. “However this one was stubborn.”
After the Jinn latched onto the girl, neither prayer nor words worked, and Mr. Muhammad was forced to pry Miss Aftab from the Jinn. Her screams alerted nearby army troops, but by the time they arrived, the sea Jinn had vanished.
In a city already on edge, the presence of a Jinn in an area heavily populated by humans seemed to many to be a sign that more instability was on the horizon.
“Mirza’s days are numbered,” a local chaiwallah, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of Pakistan’s embattled president. “You cannot dissolve political parties without consequence. He’ll be gone by the end of the month and the Jinn know it.”
Fozia Mohsin, a local resident, agreed. “The Jinn are not fools,” Mr. Mohsin said. “They like havoc. There will be more sightings. Maybe even attacks on humans. They want to take over.”
But Inayat Aag of Tribe Sumandar, who spoke on behalf of the Council for the Unified Defense of Jinn Liberties, or “Cudjl,” disagreed.
“We have no interest in inserting ourselves into the affairs of humans, particularly with political unrest so high,” Mr. Aag said from the mangrove swamps of Korangi Creek, where the Jinn have been isolated since the partition of India and Pakistan. “If a Jinn made an incursion into human territory and laid hands on a human child, he will be found and dealt with according to Jinn law. President Mirza may have abrogated the human constitution, but the 1947 Jinn Independence Act still holds. We are Jinn. We are apart.”
An army spokesman, Capt. Cyrus Tata, urged calm. “The presence of Jinn in an otherwise safe neighborhood is proof that martial law is not only necessary, but essential. The law will protect both Jinn and humans, until the political situation can be resolved.”
Captain Tata declined to comment further on which political “situation” he was referring to, but recently obtained diplomatic cables indicate that Gen. Ayub Khan, who was appointed the chief martial law administrator by Mr. Mirza less than a week ago, may soon be making a move to cement his own power.
“Preposterous,” Captain Tata said. “General Mirza is committed to the peace and prosperity of this country, Jinn and human alike.”
Back in Bohri Bazaar, Mr. Aftab assured neighborhood residents that his drugstore was safe.
“We’ve hired a guard who will work until curfew,” he said, “and are offering one free Gleem toothpaste to anyone who makes a purchase over 5 rupees.”
“The Jinn is gone, anyway,” his young daughter added. “But maybe he wasn’t trying to scare me. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe he just wanted to talk.”
Why this photo: This photograph spoke to me first because of the little girl and man looking at the camera, who seemed familiar to me in a visceral way, as if they are family members I’ve never met. And second because as a child visiting Pakistan (Lahore, to be specific), I always made up stories in my head about the incredible places I visited, from drugstores and rail stations to big markets like Liberty or Anarkali. You won’t see such places on Western “bucket lists,” but they should be, because they are wonderful — and filled with fascinating stories. – S.T.
Sabaa Tahir is the author of the New York Times best-selling “An Ember in the Ashes” series, which has been translated into more than 35 languages. She grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s 18-room motel.
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Rabbit in the Arcade
By David Yoon
Rabbit watched the men tilt the heavy console into place and plug it in. The screen blinked pixel mosaics as it woke from its long sleep.
Egg and Fox came crashing in to the arcade. They flung down their backpacks as if they lived there.
“No way,” shouted Egg, who was the youngest one.
“My God,” said Fox, lowering his Walkman headphones. Fox was the slim one.
Rabbit was the tall one, and had what Fox called tired old man eyes.
The boys stepped toward the console like young knights.
“I’m ready,” said Fox, who held a handful of coins. Fox always had coins. His dad did plenty of business in Japan and brought back treasures, like Fox’s Sony Boodo Khan Special Edition Walkman. Boodo Khan was a stadium in Tokyo that was a hundred times bigger than Ulsan, Fox once claimed.
Egg had plenty of coins, too.
Rabbit never had coins. But Egg and Fox never noticed or cared, which Rabbit was thankful for.
Rabbit avoided going to either Egg’s or Fox’s homes, because of the questions lurking there. Where does your dad work? What does your mom cook for dinner?
He preferred the arcade. There, neither Egg nor Fox could see what went on in Rabbit’s head, which Rabbit was also thankful for. Because Rabbit spent most of his time wishing.
Rabbit had wished for so long for things to be different that he didn’t know what it was like not to wish.
But different how?
Fox slotted in a coin and hit the 1 PLAYER button.
Rabbit frowned. “Why’s it only Japan or USA?”
“Cause Japan’s got all the cool stuff,” said Fox.
“Also USA,” said Egg.
“Maybe there’s a Korea later,” said Rabbit.
Round 1, yelled the game, and Ryu appeared: a muscled man in a white dobok with the sleeves ripped off. The boys guessed at the controls, which were all in Japanese, and found that Ryu could back flip, leg sweep, uppercut, roundhouse and who knew what else. He faced a bald monk named Retsu.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” yelled Fox, and proved it by losing two rounds in quick succession. A ticking time bomb appeared: CONTINUE? Above the bomb was a countdown. If they didn’t deposit coins in time, they would have to start the game over from the beginning.
Fox dropped in a coin and hit Rabbit. “Your turn. Play.”
Rabbit hated the word play — the sound of it, its other meaning. He wished — always wished — there were a different word.
Rabbit jumped, flipped, swept the leg. He lost.
“Egg, you go,” said Rabbit.
The three boys took turns. They ignored the Two Players mode. They were more interested in seeing where the One Player adventure led. They punched and backflipped and roundhoused — dropping coin after coin — until finally, forearms sore, they reached the game’s end screen. They had finished.
“We did it,” said the boys.
Outside, the street was growing dark.
“Bye,” said Fox, already walking away. Egg joined him.
“See you Monday,” said Rabbit, who walked the opposite way. He headed into a train station, where he pretended to examine a poster showing future renovations for the 1988 Olympics. It looked like a spaceport.
Once Rabbit was sure he was alone, he continued on. He did not board a train. He passed right through to the opposite exit, and out onto a small street.
Rabbit wished he didn’t have to do all this. But what else was there?
He reached a heavy curtain, thick as a carpet, graffitied with ADULTS ONLY NO CHILDREN. He shoved it aside and entered an alley filled with stalls all lit by the same pink fluorescent tubes found in a butcher’s glass case. Many of the alley’s women were already posted outside.
Rabbit took a back passage — customers got spooked if they saw children — and found the door to his house. He wished he could say I’m home like they did on TV. He wished Old Mama — not his mom — were not now there, hobbling toward the front, cradling a boombox. He wished there were no men already strolling the alley.
“All foreigner welcome,” cried Old Mama in English. She pressed play. The music was in English, too.
This house was Old Mama’s house.
A door opened, and Mom — Rabbit’s real mom — appeared in a glittery tube dress she called New Wave.
Mom touched Rabbit’s chin. “Do your homework, O.K.? Old Mama will bring your dinner.”
Mom headed to the front. Rabbit heard her call out the awful words: “Let’s play.”
Rabbit slid his door shut. Footsteps fell heavy on the floor above him. Mom was a fortune teller. A fortune teller, a fortune teller, telling fortunes for fun.
Rabbit drew in his notebook: Ryu kicking 50 men off a cliff, clapping men’s heads flat with his hands.
Old Mama appeared with soup and rice and kimchi and fish. She cast an eye about. “You’re gonna need a bigger room pretty soon, kid.”
She left. Alone, Rabbit ate. He did his homework. He pawed through a crushed magazine and read — again — how Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was coming soon for Famicom. It looked primitive compared to Street Fighter, he told himself. Nowhere near as cool.
The door slid open — it slid open whenever it wanted — to reveal Old Mama and Mom sitting on plastic stools. Mom wiped her fingers with wipes. She lit a cigarette, closed her eyes, exhaled. She opened her eyes. They found Rabbit.
“Don’t smoke, O.K.?” she said. “Once you start, you can’t stop.”
“O.K.,” said Rabbit.
“Keeps the weight off,” laughed Old Mama.
“You fat hag,” said Mom, and gave Old Mama a weak kick.
Out front, the boombox stopped. Someone should go flip the cassette. Rabbit wanted to do it, but that was impossible.
The alley was quiet for now.
Old Mama finally spoke. “The city just said they’re going to beautify all the stalls with new sliding glass doors. For the Olympics.”
“Can we take them off and sell them?” said Mom, incredulous.
“Hey, the doors’ll look nice,” said Old Mama. “Although we have to pay for some of it.”
A frown twitched across Mom’s face. “But it’s the city’s idea.”
“They made some kind of deal,” said Old Mama with a shrug. “Anyway the subsidy is partial. Means a temporary increase in rent. Just temporary.”
Mom snatched another cigarette, checked how few remained, and put it back.
“You promise,” said Mom. A weary demand.
“Promise,” said Old Mama.
From the front, a small male voice: “Hello?”
Old Mama rose, shuffled toward the front, and flipped the cassette. Mom rose too. She knelt. She touched Rabbit’s chin with the back of her hand.
“Everything’s going to change,” she whispered, with her smile done in red. “Everything’s going to get better.” And she slid the door shut.
In the dark, Rabbit could see Ryu take a hit. He could see him fall to the ground. He looked almost like he was asleep on his side. But he wasn’t. Because here came the ticking time bomb now, counting down, asking the question: CONTINUE?
Why this photo: I was not that much older than these boys when this photo was taken. It intrigues me to think that this could’ve been me if my parents hadn’t immigrated to the United States. Our fate depends so much on forces we can’t see and on choices made before we can even speak. – D.Y.
David Yoon is a writer and designer who created the illustrations for the New York Times best-selling novel “Everything, Everything.” His first novel is “Frankly in Love.” He grew up in Orange County, Calif.
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By Randy Ribay
Xavier stood apart from the crowd, leaning against the concrete pillar, black knit cap pulled low over his ears and hands buried deep in the pockets of a threadbare coat, which still smelled of the St. Anthony’s donation bin. His sister’s ghost was with him, as always, silent as a shadow.
It was an overcast and cold New York City morning, but their kababayan didn’t mind. They were all grins and chants and protest posters, hands raised in Ls for “Laban”: Fight. It was a decent-size group but only a diasporic echo of the joy and excitement on the other side of the world that packed every lane of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue for miles back in Manila.
Xavier glanced at PJ. If she were still alive, she wouldn’t be standing in the back with him. She wouldn’t even be content to lose herself in the crowd. No, his sister would be hopping on the hoods of cars, dancing with strangers, shouting through a megaphone for everyone to tear down the barbed-wire barriers, raid Imelda’s closet and sell all the shoes to feed the poor.
It’s not that Xavier wasn’t glad. It’s not that he wasn’t relieved. It’s just that he wasn’t very hopeful. As a student of history, he always felt the heaviness of time weighing on his shoulders. He knew that revolutions were fragile things, quick to flight but hollow-boned underfoot. Yes, excitement filled today, but what about those they lost? And what about tomorrow?
PJ always called him a coward when he refused to go to the protests with her, and maybe she’d been right. Even now he couldn’t shake the low-level fear that had followed him across an ocean.
A white man walking past stopped in front of Xavier, pulling Xavier back to the present. The man wore an expensive suit and a heavy overcoat, like the people whose trash cans Xavier emptied. In one leather-gloved hand, the man carried a briefcase, in the other, a folded newspaper. “What’s going on here?” he asked, gazing at the crowd. When Xavier didn’t immediately answer, the man turned to face him. “You speak English?”
“It’s Marcos,” Xavier said, ignoring the second question. “He’s done.”
But what could he possibly say to someone who could even ask that question? The answer was decades long, thousands of bodies deep.
With his lips, Xavier pointed at the man’s paper, which bore the story — albeit an abbreviated version — on the front page. “That just for looks?”
The man made a face, then continued on his way. Xavier watched him walk down the block, scattering a flock of pigeons along his way, hating the ignorance. After the man disappeared around a corner, PJ said, “Don’t be mad at them, Bunso,” in voice flat and slow, a voice like a fire extinguished, like water receding. It was the exact opposite of how she had sounded when she was alive.
Xavier straightened up and leveled a confused gaze at his sister’s ghost. These were the first words she had uttered since appearing at his side seven months ago. Until now, he didn’t even know ghosts could speak.
“Why not, Ate?” he asked.
She didn’t answer.
“You know people are starting to call the coup ‘bloodless,’ diba?”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
Again, she didn’t answer.
“Well, it bothers me. Don’t they know about Ninoy, ha? About Lilli, Trajano, Edjop, Lacaba, Escandor, Domingo and Viernes, Lori?” He paused. “Don’t they know about you? About any of the others who spoke out and were tortured, killed?”
PJ was quiet for a long time. Xavier feared he had driven her back into silence.
But then she asked, “Have you told them?”
“Why me? Why is that my responsibility?”
“You’re still here, aren’t you?”
Xavier crossed his arms. “They won’t understand.”
“Especially if they don’t hear the stories, X.”
“I don’t know enough to tell them right.”
“So learn more.”
“They’ll forget. Or they won’t care. That might be worse.”
PJ sighed. “So you’re still a coward, then? You were afraid to join me in the streets, now you’re afraid to put pen to paper?”
Xavier took off his cap and ran a hand through his hair. “You were always the brave one, Ate. Not me. That’s why I’m in this foreign country, so far from home, and you’re…”
The clouds shifted. The crowd started up a new chant. A few passing cars honked in either solidarity or annoyance.
“At least you’re out here,” PJ said after some time.
“Where did you expect me to be at a moment like this?”
Instead of answering, PJ gestured toward the crowd. “But are you ever going to join them?”
“I missed the boat, Ate. The revolution’s over already.”
She shook her head. “It’s never over, brother. You should know that. Or is this just another excuse?”
Xavier considered this for a long time. Then he sighed, pulled his cap back on and pushed off the wall. He crossed the sidewalk and stood at the edge of the group. A short, old woman who looked like his lola welcomed him with a smile and wrapped an arm around his waist. Xavier returned the smile and then raised his hand in the Laban signal for the first time in his life. He felt like an impostor, but maybe that’s how everyone felt at first.
“Happy now?” he said to PJ.
But his sister was already gone. The only shadow that remained was his own.
Why this photo: I’m always thinking about those who aren’t centered in an image or a story or a society, so this photo immediately captured my attention as I considered those who weren’t in the picture and why. Given the Philippines’ current administration, I was also interested in writing a story that could explore the connection between the People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos and our current moment in history. –R.R.
Randy Ribay is the author of “Patron Saints of Nothing,” “After the Shot Drops” and “An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes.” He was born in the Philippines and now lives in California.
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By Samira Ahmed
Babr woke at dawn to the muezzin’s call and the swoosh swoosh of street sweepers. He was tired. But even with the pain in his right arm from sleeping shoulder to cement, and despite the weight of memory, he felt the grace of small joys.
He rose from under the shadow of the Rajabai Clock Tower, which sits atop the storied spiral-stair vestibule of the University of Mumbai. On hot nights, the air in the tiny windowless room he shared with the other darban was stifling — the smell of their cleaning supplies and sweat-stained clothes overwhelming. So on clear evenings, he would climb the winding stairs to offer Isha prayers before drifting to sleep under the open skies, seeing the face of his beloved in the fading stars.
Stretching, he felt the creak of old age in his knees. He wrapped his worn green shawl, which also served as a sleeping mat, around his shoulders and adjusted the topi on his head. Patting his chest to check for the hidden pocket sewn into his shirt, Babr smiled. He was not the ingenious tailor his wife had been, but he believed she would have been proud of his efforts, even if the money in his pocket had been obtained through deception. For what did this place, established by the British and built in the image of their great universities, stand for but dishonesty? Perhaps he was not a finely educated man, but he understood well enough that the foundation of the Raj had been a clever deceit — the idea that the Angrez knew what was better for India than Indians did.
He yawned and rubbed his face vigorously to wake up. He touched his hidden pocket once more and felt last evening’s bounty. The nightly carnival at the Gateway of India had proven especially lucrative during yesterday’s pre-election festivities.
In the days before the election, Babr had observed the tourists and their habits. Then he concocted a dry bhang masala — a more organic alternative to the bhang lassi, he assured his buyers, than what is available at any of the Government Authorized Bhang Shops. Unlike the dozens of other drug-wallahs asking, “Smoke? Smoke?” to every staggering traveler, Babr had a marketing plan. You didn’t smoke his bhang or sip it in a sweet yogurt drink, but rather could discreetly mix it into your soda without risk of detection by the police.
Of course, there was no such thing as dry bhang masala.
But Angrez tourists did not know this. Bhang was a pistachio green paste of crushed marijuana leaves blended with milk, almonds and spices, but Babr’s bhang was a heady concoction of crushed curry leaves and cumin, with few actual buds of cannabis. Babr carefully divided his bhang into little cheesecloth potlis that he sold for the galling price of 50 rupees. The Angrez all too willing to pay for a taste of the authentic India.
Babr had celebrated his fortune by treating himself to a full thali — rice, aloo palak, daal, chappati, pappadum, raita, chana. But he ate with a lump in his throat remembering his wife, who had always taken special delight in Election Day, preparing a feast fit for the end of Ramadan and stringing a jasmine garland through her braid.
When the last of the carnival’s fireworks had fizzled out, Babr hitched a ride back to the university.
This year as ever, elections brought threats of anti-Muslim violence enflamed by the fearmongering rhetoric of the ruling party. But Babr’s wife had taught him hope, holding precious her pride in being Indian, reminding him that the Des had been ripped apart for him to have this opportunity. The blood of his own family and so many families filling cracked earth. He remembered his mother weeping for the sister who had gone to Pakistan and whom she would never see again. This had confused him as a young boy, but five years ago, when his wife died, he understood how the human body could be cleaved in two, never to be whole again.
As Babr approached his polling place on foot, he heard a brass band and the joyous beats of the dhol, a barrel-shaped, double-sided drum. To Babr, it was the sound of India. He took his place in line, all smiles, shaking his head as party supporters descended on the voters, cajoling, making promises, cutting deals.
When at last it was Babr’s turn, a sweaty man with a district badge ushered him to a table where Babr presented his government identification and where they marked his left finger with special ink. Babr watched the purple streak widen across his nail, into the crevices of his skin.
“It will wash off in two weeks,” the election official assured him.
The next officer sat outside the voting booth and pressed a button that released a new ballot. He asked, “Do you know how to vote?” Babr nodded. He had also voted in the last election with an electronic voting machine. He knew what to do.
Babr walked outside of the school, blinking against the bright sunlight. He looked down at the crowd of waiting voters and raised his left index finger above his head. A couple lingering dhol players slapped out beats, and his fellow Bombayites let out a cheer, a few dancing in place.
Babr had the sudden youthful urge to run down the street into the afternoon sun. He ran at full speed. He stopped at the next street, bending over, panting, hands on his knees. Wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, Babr crossed the road to the sweet shop where he selected a burfi and a ladoo, his wife’s favorites.
Babr marched back toward the university and his life of cleaning up after rich students, pain in his knees, and days that held no promises. He walked to his spiral tower and prayers whispered to the heavens. He walked with his beloved’s heart in his heart. He walked on the streets of a free India, ancient and ever new.
Why this photo: I was immediately drawn to the tower photo because it feels like a fairy tale but it’s also part of my actual origin story. My parents met each other under the shadow of this tower when they were studying architecture at the University of Bombay (now the University of Mumbai). Years later and a few miles away, I was born at Bombay Hospital. – S.A.
Samira Ahmed is the New York Times best-selling author of “Love, Hate & Other Filters” and “Internment.” She was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in a small town in Illinois.
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By Emily X.R. Pan
Did you know the horizon is a seam that opens every 12 years, when the zodiac resets and the pig is eaten by the rat? At dusk the crack becomes a mouth and the mouth gapes wide and winged creatures of every shape ascend into our sky, then descend upon our streets.
This is what I’ve been told by Yima, the aunt who raised me because my parents could not. I don’t even remember what my parents looked like, but Yima — who sings to me as she braids my hair into loops, and cooks me sweet broth with red sugar and ginger when my monthly pains set in — she’s all that I need.
I was 3 the last time the seam opened. I don’t really remember that either, except that Yima likes to recount the story of how I tried to bargain with a honeybee. She tells it so often the words have sculpted themselves into a memory of my own.
It’s the Lunar New Year and so last night they came, undeterred by the firecrackers that sounded like war. In the morning light I see them outside in the form of sparrows and herons, locusts and cicadas. I point to the window and Yima smiles faintly.
“Such beautiful spring blossoms,” she says, because she is old and her mind has changed, like a piece of glass scratched until it’s opaque. There are no flowers to be seen. Only wisps of incense drifting over from the neighbors’, and shreds of red paper from last night’s fireworks littering the ground. Only those winged creatures perched on the clotheslines, on the seat and handlebars of a parked moped.
I open the door and scatter peanuts over the cobblestones in case they’re hungry. They show no interest, only blink at me, eerily silent.
I’d thought perhaps they were here to tell me something. Now the idea seems foolish.
Embarrassed, I turn to go back in and nearly crash into Yima, who has forgotten her cane and instead grips the wall.
“What are you doing?” she hisses. “Don’t encourage them.”
Her tone and lucidness surprise me, as does the terrible expression tightening her face. I let her pull me inside, let the door slam shut. What does she mean, encourage them?
All day, Yima goes back and forth: One moment she runs her knuckles along my cheek, saying, “You were such a small thing when you came to me. A little jewel.” And in a blink she’s rapping on the window, huffing and glaring at the winged things outside.
In those times when the clouds in her head part, she seems angry and scared. I wish I knew of an herbal broth I could brew to soothe her mind. Instead, I rub ointment into her palms, into the soles of her feet. I sing the songs she taught me, tell silly stories to make her laugh. Yima’s smile shines warmer than sunlight.
By dinnertime, as she cleans the water spinach and I chop garlic, it occurs to me she’s never explained why those creatures come. What do they want?
When I voice the question she drops the water spinach and turns to me with fearful eyes. “You are so precious to me. You know I would do anything for you?”
“Yes, of course.” She’s so upset I don’t ask anything else. But what is it that I don’t know? How do I help?
Early in the predawn morning, when she’s still sleeping, I peek around the door to see if the peanuts are still there. I could try offering vegetable scraps, or at least water. Perhaps if I show that I mean no harm, they’ll tell me why they’re here. If I can get them what they want, they’ll go away, and Yima will be untroubled again.
The creatures begin to shriek the moment I step outside. I clap my palms over my ears, and then Yima’s hand is on my shoulder. She’s out of breath from hurrying, and she stumbles past me, falls onto the cobblestones with a weak mewing sound. Before I can do anything, the beasts are upon her. Crows tear at her hair and sparrows peck at her eyes. Bees hum over every patch of skin and cicadas crawl between her fingers. They screech even as they feast upon her. The sound is an unbearable storm that brings me to my knees.
Light seeps into the sky. Dawn. The neighbors come out to see the source of the cacophony, then disappear and return with bamboo sticks, with brooms and blankets. They swat with their sticks and drum upon their bowls. The creatures scatter, rising up with the first rays of the sun. Everyone cheers. They’ve forgotten about me, still crouched on the cobblestones with tears dripping from my chin.
After the neighbors have all gone, a man and woman help me to my feet. They look middle-aged and tired. I invite them in for tea, and they tend to my skinned knees, and then they show me a photo of a baby. They claim that it’s me.
“She stole you from us,” they tell me. “She cursed us so that we couldn’t come for you. But now she’s gone. Now we can have our precious daughter back.”
The hunger in their eyes makes my heart pound. I run back outside, and see that the winged things have returned. They’re just as eerily silent as yesterday. I dive toward them, throwing myself to the ground. Sure enough, they come. They eat my skin and my hair, my eyes and my fingers. They make such quick work of it, it doesn’t even hurt. I feel my bones falling away, puzzle pieces being loosened from their fit. I hear the man and woman screaming, but it sounds very distant.
The creatures rise up into the air with all the bits of me distributed between their bellies.
I inhale the scent of the sky and think, Yima, I’m coming for you.
Why this photo: I loved this photograph immediately because I saw in it some kind of otherworldly exchange. Even after I read the caption (“Youths chase sparrows from the Summer Palace.”) I couldn’t shake the thought that these people were looking up at something preternatural. Then came the question: What if they didn’t realize what they were smiling at? – E.X.R.P.
Emily X.R. Pan is the New York Times best-selling author of “The Astonishing Color of After,” which won an Asian/Pacific American Award Honor for Young Adult Literature and a Walter Award Honor. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Not What I Meant
By Misa Sugiura
Walking all the way across the gym toward Mari after weeks of silence is torture. But I make myself do it because I need her back in my life, and I need to tell her now, in person, before I lose my nerve. I’ve tried texting her, obviously, but she’s blocked me on everything.
Mari’s dancing with Rosie, Seema, Jayce and Jayce’s idiot friends. The girls are all decent dancers, but the boys — I mean, what is it with boys and dancing, anyway? Some of them are O.K., but a lot of them just sort of jab their hips from side to side like giant windshield wipers. Jayce is bouncing around in his stupid sagged pants and his stupid sideways snapback like he’s some kind of hip-hop hypebeast icon and not a suburban white wannabe.
Mari, of course, is doing her own thing — that spacey, arm-wavey, head-noddy hippie dance she always does whether the D.J. plays ASAP Rocky, Taylor Swift or BTS. It’s completely derpy, and also completely adorable.
She has to listen to me. She has to come back to me.
I push through the dancers and the human windshield wipers, and Rosie shoots a look my way that practically freezes my soul. But I keep going because I am a woman on a mission.
Then I’m standing in front of Mari, and she’s looking at me like what do you want?
“I have to tell you something,” I say.
She takes a beat longer to think about this than I would have thought was absolutely necessary, but then she says, “Um. O.K.”
Which is when Jayce blows in on a gust of cologne and drapes his arm over her shoulders. Ugghhh. Why.
“Hey, Yoon!” he says. I hate it when people who hardly know me shorten my name like we’re friends or something, but Jayce is probably too clueless to realize that we aren’t friends and I hate him. Or possibly he’s just being a jerk.
“Hey, Jayce,” I say. Be nice, Yuna. Be. Nice.
“Hey, babe,” he says to Mari next. Old Mari would have rolled her eyes because who says hey babe, but New Mari sweetly hey babes him back, and it’s a major, major, major battle for me not to roll my eyes hard enough for the two of us, grab her hand and walk away.
“Hey, Yoon,” says Jayce again. “We’re going to slide to Seema’s later for a party. Wanna come? It’s gonna be liiiit,” and he mimes smoking a joint, which is the biggest bunch of BS ever because everyone knows that Seema’s parents would never allow her to have a party, let alone a party with weed.
So I say, “No you’re not.”
“Naw, f’real,” says Hip-Hop McSlangypants. “No caps.”
I say, “I think it’s ‘no cap,’ actually.” Even I know that.
“He’s kidding,” says Mari, her voice clipped and cold. “Obviously.”
“I know,” I lie. “So am I. It’s called being ironic.” I hear my tone matching hers; this is so not what I had planned. It’s all Jayce’s fault, because she was ready to listen before he came bounding over like some stupid slobbery cartoon dog and ruined everything.
I take a calming breath. “Jayce, can I talk to Mari alone, please?”
Jayce and Mari exchange one of those secret boyfriend-girlfriend looks, and he shrugs and says, “Sure. Later, Yoon!” and bounds off, hitching up his ridiculous fake gangsta pants as he goes.
“What a man,” I say. I can’t help it.
“What do you want, Yuna,” says Mari. Her expression is flat, which unnerves me, but my moment is finally here. Heart pounding, I seize it.
“I think we should get back together.”
“ … What?”
“I mean. Well. O.K., like, Jayce? Really? Why are you wasting your time with him?”
She stares, eyes wide. “Are you kidding me right now? You came here to tell me to break up with my boyfriend?”
“No! I just — I mean — ”
“Are you jealous?”
Oh my god. “Jealous? Of that clown? Are you kidding me?” Her eyes widen even more and I immediately regret what I’ve said, but this entire encounter has gone screaming off the rails, so I guess I may as well commit and finish my thought. “I mean, I know I screwed up, but come on. Jayce Aberdeen? He’s like, a literal meme, Mari. Have some pride, at least.”
That’s not even what I mean. What I mean is I need you. I miss you. I messed up and now you’re dating this idiot instead of me and I don’t know what to do. What I mean is I’ll change. I’ll do anything. Just please take me back.
“Thanks, Yuna. I really appreciate how much you care,” Mari deadpans, and I panic.
“Mari, I’m sorry. That’s not what I — ”
Rosie appears at Mari’s side and says in a voice that’s barely this side of a snarl, “Just leave, Yuna. She’s moved on.”
That knocks the breath out of me. Reeling, I do what I always do when I’m hurt: pretend I don’t care. I shape my mouth into a smile and say, “Oh, right. Sorry to intrude. Have fun getting liiiiit.”
I turn and make the long, lonely trek back across the gym.
I walk fast, but not too fast, like I don’t even care, like I have better things to do than hang with these losers. I don’t turn around, not even once. At the door, I sneak a peek over my shoulder to see what kind of impression my dignified exit has made. But they’re already dancing again, as if they’ve forgotten all about me.
Why this photo: Something about this photograph made me feel as if I was in the crowd but not of it, which is a feeling that I love to write about. The scowl (and the lipstick) on the woman in the center of the frame grabbed my attention immediately, but the lone woman on the right intrigued me, too; after trying to write from each of their perspectives, I finally settled on writing as the ultimate outsider — the viewer. My story is a contemporary American riff on the photograph, but I love knowing that Tokyo had a Western-style club scene in the ’50s and that drew me in as well. – M.S.
Misa Sugiura is the author of “This Time Will Be Different” and “It’s Not Like It’s a Secret,” which won an Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature. She grew up outside Chicago.
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By Cindy Pon
“Always start with the eye.”
Hongyue watched as Shen laoshi dipped his calligraphy brush with one swift, elegant motion into the ink stone, then swiped the brush head against its side, intuitively and without thought. He then painted the bird’s eye with small, precise strokes on the near-translucent rice paper.
She had observed her art teacher demonstrate countless times before, but could never get over the awe she felt when he painted for them. Within minutes sometimes, with a fluidity and assuredness that made her envious, a creature would suddenly appear on the paper: a hummingbird or a rabbit or a horse.
“Because if you don’t capture the spirit of your subject in its gaze” — Shen laoshi continued to paint as he lectured — “there is no point in going forward. No matter how technically correct your painting might be, how perfect your strokes, none of that matters.” His hand danced over the rice paper, and his entire body shifted with him as he painted. A sharp beak appeared, then the bird’s head, followed by a tufted chest in gray.
“As brush artists, we aren’t replicating precisely what our eyes see. We are not photographers.” He lifted his chin then and grinned at them, the handful of students clustered at the large walnut table around him. “As artists, we infuse life with our brush strokes.” A wing emerged, the round body then the tail, its feathers appeared with quick and bold strokes before he swirled his brush in a bowl of clear water. Her teacher then dashed a streak of orange on top of the bird’s head and a dab on its beak. Pausing, he considered the small painting before adding a fat gray worm, dangling from the bird’s pointed beak.
“Our aim is to elicit emotion through our art. To touch this” — he tapped two fingertips against his chest — “that is the way we connect and speak to the viewer.” He finally whisked long, thin strokes of verdant green around the plump bird, suggesting wild grass, before setting the calligraphy brush down. “This is your next assignment, to paint a bird of your choice and capture its spirit on paper.” He nodded once and took a step back, so Hongyue and her fellow classmates could examine his painting closely. No one spoke as they studied the bird. She noted the delicate variations of ink from black to the most subtle gray, a whisper on the page.
Her teacher made it look so easy, effortless. But Hongyue knew better. She often felt her heart lifting as she painted, her focus only on her creation. But what she intended to express on paper almost never came to fruition as she wanted. Lacking.
She thanked her teacher respectfully before saying farewell, just like all her other Chinese classmates did. The humidity hit her like a wall the moment she stepped outside Shen laoshi’s ground-floor studio. New York City’s Chinatown was filled with throngs of people out on a Saturday afternoon, grocery shopping and meeting with friends to eat at the various small cafes and restaurants lining the cramped streets. She navigated the crowds instinctively, with her head down, watching her red Converse move across the filthy sidewalks as she mulled over everything her teacher had said.
Instead of going straight home to the cramped one-bedroom tenement she shared with her mom and younger brother, she veered from the familiar path and ducked into Columbus Park. The mostly concrete plaza was as busy as the main streets. Seniors huddled at various stone tables, many playing Chinese chess. Some sat on wooden benches, reading the Chinese paper, while others chatted animatedly in Cantonese and Mandarin, exchanging gossip and sharing pieces of cut fruit.
Hongyue managed to find an empty bench in the far corner of the park, underneath a large tree. Leaning back against the hard wooden slats, she absorbed the energetic hum around her, the mingling of voices and movement, how the barely-there summer breeze rustled the leaves overhead, stirring the straight, black bangs of a little girl intently eating an ice cream cone. A sharp trill from above caught Hongyue’s attention, and she lifted her head up. A small bird perched in the hollow of the tree spiraling above her bench. It had a bright yellow head, throat and chest, with gray wings highlighted in white lines — perfect for painting.
The bird continued to sing its song, alternately sticking its tail out so Hongyue got a clear view of it before turning and offering her an opportunity to study its head and chest. It had a thick beak and looked briefly down at her with black eyes. She enjoyed its singing for a few minutes before an old Chinese woman stopped nearby, following Hongyue’s gaze. “Ah, a warbler,” she said in a raspy voice. “I love listening to them.” She squinted at the bird, the corners of her eyes creasing with deep lines. “This one is female,” she went on. “Their color is not as bright.” The woman closed her eyes, obviously enjoying the warbler’s trilling song. “I love birds,” she said, opening her eyes and meeting Hongyue’s gaze. “Don’t you?”
Hongyue nodded. “They’re a classic brush painting subject.”
The old woman’s eyebrows lifted. “Indeed.” She smiled and dipped her chin as if she were a queen, then walked on.
Hongyue glanced at the bright warbler again, tucked in the small hollow, before heading home.
The apartment was empty when she let herself in.
She quickly gathered her brush painting supplies, wanting to capture the bird she still saw so clearly in her mind’s eye. Spreading sheets of the Chinese newspaper on the small, square kitchen table set against the window, Hongyue filled a ceramic bowl with water, then spooned a little into her ink stone. She ground fresh ink. When she was satisfied the ink was dark enough, she placed a new sheet of rice paper onto the table.
Usually, Hongyue painted slowly and with care, stopping often to gauge her progress. But today, she put brush to paper without hesitation, remembering the bird’s keen gaze as she started with its eye as Shen laoshi had instructed, the quick movements of its head, and the swish of its tail. She heard the clear notes of the warbler’s birdsong as she tinged its crown and nape in green, then painted delicate white lines on its wings. Astounded, she took a step back when she realized she had finished without pausing, as if compelled. The spirited yellow bird she had glimpsed less than an hour ago stared back at her from the page.
Only one thing was missing.
Hongyue gathered white paint into a sharp point on her brush and dotted the bird’s eye, adding light to its gaze. She let out a breath, then grinned widely, her chest filling with pride.
When she set her brush down, one sharp trill filled the kitchen.
Her hand jerked, and the brush rolled off the ceramic rest. Hongyue slanted her head and glanced out the window. The dark panes of other tenements stared back at her. Had she imagined it? Another sharp note reverberated through the small kitchen, and she thrust the window open and leaned over the table, sticking her nose out. No birds were near the narrow ledge; a taxi’s insistent honking the only noise from outside.
She drew back inside, but yelped when a flurry of movement darted past her vision, lifting a strand of her hair. Then it was gone; Hongyue blinked her eyes hard.
The sound of the deadbolt unlocking broke her reverie, and she heard her mom’s and brother’s voices behind the closed door. Excited, she reached for the bird painting to show them, then snatched her arm back.
Her mom found Hongyue frozen at the kitchen table, hand fisted over her chest, staring down at a pristine sheet of rice paper.
Mrs. Li smiled and asked, “What will you paint today, daughter?”
Why this photo: I was delighted to see this image of Chinese brush artists in New York City’s Chinatown. I’ve been a student of Chinese brush painting for almost two decades, and this creative expression has really become intrinsic to my own identity. It’s very rarely I get an opportunity to write about something so important to me in fiction. I’m so grateful I was able to in this piece. –C.P.
Cindy Pon is a writer and a longtime student of Chinese brush painting. She is the author of “Want,” “Serpentine” and “Silver Phoenix.” She grew up in Los Angeles.
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Top image: A Tokyo motorcycle ride. Circa 1966. Photograph by John Launois/Copyright the Estate of John Launois.
Veronica Chambers is the editor of Past Tense, an archival storytelling initiative devoted to publishing articles based on photographs recently rediscovered as The Times digitizes millions of images from its archives. @vvchambers
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