05.09.2024

Book Review: The Band by Christine Ma-Kellams

By: Alanda Jackson

 

Former Cream City Review contributor Christine Ma-Kellams’ latest novel, The Band, is a satirical page-turner that explores K-Pop, cancel culture, and fandoms.

In this novel, we meet Duri, one of five members of The Band, everyone’s latest K-pop obsession and rising boy band. After Duri releases his latest solo single, he finds himself at the head of a controversy that leaves him being canceled by the overzealous fans. On the run with nowhere to go, he meets a psychologist, a married Chinese American woman with two children at a Los Angeles H-Mart. Against her better judgment, the nameless psychologist decides to take Duri into her home and offer him shelter from the brewing storm.

Safe from the public eye, Duri begins his exile and contemplates his relationship with The Band and what it means for him. With the help of the psychologist, Duri dives deeper into his mind and works through the deteriorating state of his mental health that threatens to overcome him. Through his journey of self-help, Duri and the psychologist find themselves getting closer, as a bond begins to grow just as one is threatened to break apart.

Meanwhile, the past comes back to haunt the music producer of The Band. In the wake of spiraling events, he recalls what happened to the original girl group, predecessor of The Band, and the tragic fate that befell them. As long-buried memories resurface, a ghost from the past threatens The Band and the music industry forever.

In The Band, Ma-Kellams examines the world of superstardom and the pressures of the entire world watching your rise to fame. From obsessive fans to cancel culture, she takes these elements and uses them to explore mental health and the effects it has on the minds of her characters. I found myself becoming entranced with the mental state of her characters, and in turn, mental health itself. I wanted to know more about what was going on in their minds and how their environments shaped them into the kinds of people that they are.

Like most mental health struggles, it takes a lot of courage and strength to acknowledge that something is wrong, let alone ask for help. The relationship between Duri and the psychologist emulates this very well, so much so, that we get to learn things about Duri that he otherwise would not have admitted himself. As for the character of the psychologist, Ma-Kellams utilizes her background in cultural psychology and gives agency to one of her most important characters. It’s through the viewpoint of the psychologist that we get to see Duri’s transformation firsthand and understand just how complex he is as a character.

The world that Ma-Kellams has created in The Band is filled with complexities that surround mental health and the inner struggles that accompany it. It may feel like a never-ending battle that you have to fight alone. In the words of the psychologist from Ma-Kellams novel:

“Spend enough time around people with classified mood disorders and you realize that what the suicidal person really wants is not to die per se—it takes effort to die these days, at least in the first world, where we generally lack lions and tigers and bears and random aerial drone attacks and cartel assassinations and civil wars—but rather, just to cease to be for however long or short of a period of time it takes for them to get some relief from the compulsively addictive thinking going on inside their own head” (Ma-Kellams 86).

If there is anything to take away from this story, it’s that mental health looks different for everyone, and you may never know what someone struggles with. It’s important to be there for people when they are at their lowest because you may just be the lifeline that they need. A credit to Ma-Kellams, who employs humor to talk about mental health in a sensitive but effective way, raising awareness towards a lived experience, and making her characters all the more attuned with reality.

Bios:

Christine Ma-Kellams
When she isn’t writing short stories or novels, Christine Ma-Kellams is a social-cultural psychologist and college professor at San Jose State University. Her other writings can be found in HuffPost, Salon, Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, Electric Literature, ZYZZYVA, Kenyon Review, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. Since its publication, The Band has appeared in and been recommended by the New York Times, People Magazine, and Public Radio.

Christine Ma-Kellams’ The Band is out now and available for purchase here.

Alanda Jackson
Alanda Jackson is an undergraduate student at UW-Milwaukee majoring in English with a focus on rhetoric and professional writing. Wanting to hone her craft, Alanda is learning how to write across all forms of literary mediums in the hopes of pursing her dream of becoming a writer.

 

04.16.2024

Mourning for What the Western Wilderness has Become: A Review of Red Shuttleworth’s Straight Ahead

Red Shuttleworth

By Jacob Collins

Boxer and poet Red Shuttleworth’s poetry collection, Straight Ahead, transports its readers to the dusty, forgotten landscape of the western wilderness. Shuttleworth captures this landscape on page in vivid detail and colorful words. This is a rocky land full of coyotes, loss, and “sunflower-tinged dying clouds,” where “the rosy curtain of dusk falls on sagebrush, / silent as something buried-by-hand decades ago” and “the sun gouges an irrigated cropland horizon.” When you read Straight Ahead, it is as though you are out west, wilderness all around you and vibrant sky above. You can feel the oppressive sun beating down on you, hear the coyotes howling in the distance, smell the smoke and whiskey.

But Shuttleworth does more than simply describe the landscape in captivating five-line poems. He instills in this collection a sense of mourning for what the western wilderness has become. As urban areas have expanded, the wilderness has been torn apart, broken down until “you can shake / funeral ashes from the pockets of bankers, / realtors, developers: crazy drooling at ranch houses.” Along with this loss of the wilderness comes the loss of youth an innocence, which “gets left behind like coils of rusty barbed wire / on aged-loose, wobbly corral posts.” Shuttleworth doesn’t just describe this mournfulness to his readers, however. He actively puts his readers into the shoes of one who has lost much in their life, telling them “You’re sober these days, clumsy though, / a sun-scorched, one dog-short, thirsty / old man, blood in your glacier-water eyes.” With only a few lines, Shuttleworth manages to convey a whole life of hardship and loss that any reader will feel deep in their bones.

Shuttleworth masterfully evokes images of a beautiful, dying landscape and fills it with a harrowing mournfulness. Even readers who have never had the chance to lay eyes upon the old western wilderness will feel as though they are there. Straight Ahead leaves readers longing for the wilderness, mourning for its loss even if they’ve never properly known it. Through many small glances into this landscape, Shuttleworth paints a grand picture of a land all but forgotten to time.

You can find Straight Ahead and many more poetry collections here.

 

 

03.08.2024

Friday Flashback: Ted Kooser – Fireflies

In the lead-up to our 50th Anniversary next year, Cream City Review is revisiting work in our Archives. Below is one from Ted Kooser, Pulitizer Prize winner, former U.S. Poet Laureate, and one of the great living writers of contemporary poetry. This poem would go on to appear in his excellent collection Weather Central (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994). Ted’s website can be found here.

 

Fireflies

 

The cricket’s pocket knife is bent
from prying up the lid of a can
of new moons. It skips on the grindstone,
chattering, showering sparks
that float away over the darkened yard.

This is the Fourth of July
for the weary ants, who have no union,
who come home black with coal dust.
Deep in the grass you can hear them
unfolding their canvas chairs.

There is a pier that arches out
into the evening, its pilings of shadow,
its planking of breeze, and on it
a woman stands snapping the shade
of a lantern, signaling someone.

 

– from Cream City Review 16.1 (Spring 1992).

 

02.22.2024

In Conversation with Coby-Dillon English

By Jacob Collins

Have you ever wondered what your relationship with someone would be like if you had met them at a different time in your life? Coby-Dillon English explores this idea in their short story, “First Date, Last Night”, which appears in the latest issue of CCR. I had the chance to talk to them about their story’s themes and their writing process.

JC: What was the inspiration behind this story?

CDE: I can’t really pinpoint my inspiration for this piece. Some stories take me a long time, and this was one I wrote over many years. I wrote the initial scene with Leslie’s name over four years ago and then set it aside. Then the form of the continuous first date came to me much later. I am working on a collection of insomnia stories, and for this story, I was thinking about the experience of playing a scene or situation over and over again in your head when you can’t sleep, questioning if you made the right choices, what could have gone differently, etc. That’s where I started with the story, that scene of a first date and that idea of spiraling around the same night, and the rest slowly formed around those two elements.

JC: This story is told in fragments, with sudden jumps into the past and future of Naomi and Leslie’s relationship. What made you choose this style of presenting the story over, say, a more linear one?

CDE: Short answer is because I find that more interesting! Longer answer is that, for me, the timeline in this story is a contradictory one. A lot of the scenes in the present or future are moments I view as possibilities, not exactly hard truths. Certain facets of the first date change, which then change those outcomes. Many of the dates fail, and thus have no future as it pertains to the story. All those possible changes and possible futures become all knotted together and I wanted the story to mirror that feeling.

JC: So much of this story takes place on Thursdays, especially Thursdays in September. What, to you, is the significance of this?

CDE: For the most part, this had a lot to do with setting. I wanted a moment in time to be our marker in this story, either as a sign that we are returning to something or to mark how far we have come. And the setting of Chicago was always clear to me. I was born in Chicago and have lived there in the past, and it is a city and a people that I love deeply. When I think about Chicago, I think of Chicago in the late summer, when it is bright, warm, and social. When I was thinking of a moment in time and space that I wanted to continuously write around, it was Chicago and late summer, and so that certainly influenced that choice.

JC: Names play an important role in this story, between Leslie not liking his name and Robin and Riley having unisex names despite Leslie’s desire to give them masculine names. It’s an interesting theme – what does it tell us about Leslie?

CDE: This is a story about the birth of a family, the various expectations of family making, and for me, gender is a big part of that. I was raised with certain ideas surrounding masculinity, as all people are in some way, and the names in this story were something I could play around with that spoke to those gender expectations. Leslie is a character who, at best, feels murky about who he is, as a man and as a person, and his name was a great way to expose that feeling. His name is a kind of live wire of masculinity that he is constantly being forced to reckon with. When thinking about the sons’ names, I was thinking about how people put a lot of expectations for themselves on their children. Giving his sons unisex names was a way to acknowledge that having sons was not going to save Leslie from the work of figuring out his own character.

JC: There are two scenes in the story in which Naomi seems to give up parts of herself to Leslie, specifically on the train when “Naomi felt two rib bones break off inside, making room for a man like Leslie” and when the two of them are talking about wanting kids and “Naomi plucked two molars from her mouth and offered them up to Leslie in the dim light.” What does this say about the nature of relationships?

CDE: I’m not sure what this says about the nature of all relationships, but for this one in particular, it’s a bit of a willing sacrifice. If Leslie doesn’t know who he is, Naomi doesn’t know what she wants, and she’s willing to give up pieces of herself in order to figure it out. Naomi has the confidence in herself to not lose her entire personhood in a relationship, but she can offer up a piece here and there.

JC: Leslie and Naomi go back and forth a lot in their relationship, constantly separating and coming back together again, but ultimately they stay together in the end. When you started writing this story, did you know what their fates would be?

CDE: Eventually, I did. For a while, the story was just a handful of scenes; I didn’t know what any of it would be. But once I realized the form it wanted to take, the ending was very clear to me. In order to explore the possibilities of who Leslie and Naomi could be to one another, I had to know where they would end up. The harder work was figuring out how we got there.

JC: You’re currently completing an MFA at the University of Virginia. What has that experience been like?

CDE: The worst part is that it is coming to an end soon! I am very grateful to have had the privilege to study literature and writing for the past few years and to do so alongside some incredible writers and scholars. I have deep, deep admiration for my cohort, who are all brilliant, marvelous, and talented people. Literature and people are the most important things in the world to me, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend my time with some spectacular instances of both.

 

Bios

Coby-Dillon English (they/them) is a writer from the Great Lakes. A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, they are currently an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Virginia. Their writing can be found in Salt Hill Journal, Moon City Review, Yellow Medicine Review, and others.

Jacob Collins is an undergraduate student majoring in English on the Creative Writing track. He says that the best thing about interning at CCR has been reading the wide variety of stories that people from all walks of life submit for publication. Outside of school, he likes reading, writing, and playing D&D with his friends.

 

 

05.03.2023

Searching Beneath the Stars: An Interview with Bo Hee Moon

Cream City Review intern, Hazel Reese Ramos, recently connected with Bo Hee Moon to discuss her new poetry collection and themes of identity, hunger, and the connections that nourish us. Her poems “Generosity” and “Korean Little Girl” appear in our Fall 2022 issue, published under her previous name.

Bo Hee Moon is a South Korean adoptee. Her poems have appeared in Cha, Gulf Coast, The Margins, Salt Hill, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, published by Tinderbox Editions, is her debut collection of poems.

Note to the reader from the poet: In the interview, I move between describing my experience as the poet and the poetry itself.  

Hazel Reese Ramos: I really enjoyed your collection Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs. The cover art depicts a rabbit, your zodiac sign, in red ink along with golden stars, and you mention many astronomical bodies throughout the poems. There are, for instance, stars in “An Adopted Korean Girl Imagines Her Birthmother at a Seoul Fish Market,” the moon in “How to Love an Adopted Korean Girl,” and Venus in “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Book of Shadows: How to Clear a Creative Blockage.” What is the significance of your zodiac sign in relation to the content of your poems? How do these celestial bodies represent you as an adopted Korean girl?

Bo Hee Moon: I am happy you mentioned the cover art! Nikkita Cohoon designed the cover of the book, and it was a joy to work with her. The rabbit is my Korean zodiac sign and appears in my poem “How to Love an Adopted Korean Girl:”

Ask her if she sees the rabbit.

Show her

 

there are two ways

 

of looking at almost everything.

This poem is about the emotional connection I feel with my birth mother, despite the distance and her death, and it is about my vulnerability as an adoptee. The rabbit is also tied to folklore. The National Folk Museum of Korea has an exhibition called the “Special Exhibition to Mark 2023, the Year of the Rabbit: Here Comes a Rabbit,” which says that “Everything from Goguryeo-period tomb murals to Joseon-period poems, folk paintings, and oral literature suggest that Korean people of yore believed a rabbit to be living on the moon.” My zodiac sign represents my longing—my longing for safety, for connection, and for a genuine understanding of my roots.

Imagining what my birth mother saw when she looked up at the sky, I also explore what may have been obscured from her sight when I ask:

Can

you

see

the

stars

in

 

Seoul?

in my poem, “An Adopted Korean Girl Imagines Her Birthmother at a Seoul Fish Market.” There is so much that she could not have predicted, such as who my adoptive family was, what my life would be like, and the kinds of challenges I would face. As I imagine my birth mother, there is the desire to know what my birth mother truly felt.

In my late twenties, I returned to South Korea to volunteer at an orphanage, visit my birthplace, and ask questions about my adoption. When I visited the adoption agency in Seoul, I received my birth time. Although adoptees’ records often contain errors and even fabrications, if they are available at all, it was meaningful for me to have my birth time. A birth time is helpful when casting an astrological chart. Astrology is complex and can be interpreted in many different ways. Venus appears in the poem you mentioned, and it reflects a path opening. There are no blockages which is reflected by “Venus has stationed direct.” It also makes me think of how our Venus placement can shed light on what we value, and I have often wondered if my birth mother was alive—what would she teach me to value?

HRR: All the poems in this collection are short-lined couplets with a quiet and somber tone. What is the relationship between the sound and form and the content of your poems?

BHM: The form and lineation reflect my desire to purify a poem to its essence. While in the revision process, I often ask certain questions—Is it true? Does it feel complete? Can I be more clear? Shedding the unnecessary aspects of a poem is connected to the content of the poem. Removing the embellishments and persona forced onto the speaker is a part of her purification process as she seeks to come into contact with her true self. In some ways, “An Adopted Korean Girl” is a fantasy, a carefully constructed figure who meets the needs of her adoptive family. By naming the abuse and exploitation, there is a process of removing the artificial and what is untrue and does not belong to her. The poetry reflects an internal process of discovering the speaker’s personal truth as she contemplates her heritage, her birth mother, and her origins. Some questions continue to recur in my writing and my life, including where do I come from? What does it mean to be a Korean adoptee? As I contemplate these types of questions, I focus on getting to the heart of the matter and coming into a deeper level of understanding. The sound reflects the music of my internal world and the rhythm that is created between what is spoken and silence.

HRR: I noticed your poems have an anti-fairytale feel to them, yet they still seem very dreamlike and even nostalgic towards Korea—a place you mentioned you have little recollection of. How does this style represent your feelings towards Korea, as an Asian American woman living in the Midwest? Has it changed since you first published the collection?

BHM: The dreamlike quality of my poetry suggests I am trying to access a way of understanding my roots through a nontraditional venue, such as through dreams. Many avenues have been blocked from me, such as records and information about my birth mother and my birth family. I am also trying to access my memories. I was adopted when I was three-months-old and came to the US. An article in The Scientific American discusses how infants can form memories. Vanessa LoBue says, “Within the first few days of life, infants can recall their own mother’s face and distinguish it from the face of a stranger.” Charged with emotional energy, dreams can be non-sequential and symbolic.

Before my trip back to Korea, I received a phone call and learned of my birth mother’s death. Once I was in Seoul, I walked upstairs at the Bongeunsa Temple, past two women talking, and began sobbing. My birth mother was dead, and I was back in my homeland, completely grief-stricken. The dreamlike quality of my poetry allows me to draw connections between things that may seem unrelated but are related to me, such as my grief, rebirth, the jellyfish floating in the COEX Aquarium—and how during the time of writing this collection, I grew into becoming my own mother, which means I am flawed and sometimes fail at being a good mother to myself. I included dream-like imagery and a meditative thread in my poem “An Adopted Korean Girl Visits the COEX Aquarium, a Temple, and a Korean BBQ in Gangnam.” Prior to the trip, it was difficult to fathom what returning to Korea would reveal to me and what I would feel once I was there. My birth mother and birthplace are a part of me—though I may sometimes feel disconnected and far away, I have not completely forgotten. By including elements, such as the Korean language and Hangul, cities, and imagery related to Korea in my poetry, I am expressing my need to honor my birth mother and my heritage.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was one of the only Asian girls in my classes and neighborhood. As a Korean adoptee-girl, I often felt removed from my country of origin. In my poem “Luck of the Rabbit & Blood Type AB,” I say that when “I found a baby rabbit / near the childhood fence, / I thought my mother would save it.” This poem reveals the precarious and vulnerable position I held within my adoptive family. Determined to survive, there were many times I felt that I was waiting for the opportunity to leave, not necessarily Illinois, but I was waiting for the chance to be free of abuse. The anti-fairytale feel emerges from the truth of my experiences as a Korean adoptee, dispelling the fantasy that I would be loved and protected by my adoptive family. Since my first collection, my writing style has changed in a subtle way that is difficult to explain, and I may be able to speak more about it once I have finished my next collection.

HRR: In poems such as “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Good Luck” and “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Imaginary Chuseok Korean Moon Festival Tradition,” you reference not only traditional Korean foods, but also the theme of hunger. How does hunger connect to your experiences as a young woman?

BHM: Nourishment and hunger are themes I explore in my poetry. In my poem, “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Appetites: Table for 1—Dinner in Rural Arizona,” I am investigating what it is like to have a big appetite as a young woman. In the collection, my hunger is often insatiable, because I grew up with substitutions rather than real nourishment. The lines:

I’ve got an

appetite

 

for dumplings—for

mandu (만두)

refer to the hunger I feel for reconnecting with my birth mother and the Korean culture. The lines “bellyful / of shame” relate to how my birth mother may have felt when she was pregnant with me and could not hide the pregnancy. She was an unwed single mother and most likely ashamed. In this poem, I touch on how my birth mother and I are similar—both females with appetites and hunger that cannot be hidden. I investigated how shame is a result of societal oppression that punishes women for our natural desires and our need for nourishment.

When I visited Korea, I was interested in the food: the traditional treats at a tea ceremony, green onion pancakes after a hike in the mountains, sweet red bean filled pastries and slices of Asian pear. By sharing meals, I learned more about the roles certain dishes play in the culture, like what is considered “health food” and what is celebratory food. During my travels, I was thankful for the food and the generosity. However, the food was not all the nourishment I needed. My heart and body ached—my birth mother was dead—and I was left with my feelings around my adoption and the beginning of my life on earth. I meditated on what it was like to be given up for adoption as a newborn, to be born in the Junnam Maternity Clinic, and to be taken to an orphanage in Seoul. In my poetry, I continue to be interested in discovering what truly nourishes me as a Korean adoptee and as a woman.

HRR: In your thank you letter at the end of the collection, you write, “and thank you to all the little girls who deserve to be seen, to be safe, and to be heard.” Has writing helped you feel safe, seen, heard? When did you start writing?

BHM: I began writing my collection about ten years ago. During this writing process, each poem revealed itself to me and guided me on my journey as a Korean adoptee. Through writing, I uncovered my truest desires and needs—which illuminated, for me, the importance of returning to Korea and my birthplace. During this time, I had an exceptional therapist who inspired and encouraged me to be brave as I healed from the past. Writing this collection allowed me to see the girl I once was and what I survived.

Within the poetry community, there are inclusive spaces that are transformative and empowering. When I read at the “Growing from Our Roots Showcase: An Asian Debut Authors Showcase” (an offsite event at AWP in Philadelphia), which was organized by Susan Nguyen and Joshua Nguyen, the kindness of the audience was significant. Afterwards, during the book signing, I connected with some of the women who were in the audience—they were incredibly supportive and loving, and we had quiet conversations about poetry. Those seemingly small moments of connection and tenderness are something I treasure.

I loved attending the showcase in Seattle and powerful panels at this past AWP like “The Writing Lives of Roe v. Wade,” moderated by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs; “Memory that Pricks the Skin: Five Asian Women Poets Writing About History,” moderated by Marianne Chan; and “Adoptee Representation Is a Human Rights Issue,” moderated by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello. As an Asian American woman, these experiences made me feel like I am a part of something larger and surrounded by radiant poets, writers, and artists.

There is a bright constellation of adoptee poets—last year, I was on the poetry panel with Mary-Kim Arnold, LM Brimmer, and Lee Herrick, which was moderated by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, at the Adoptee Literary Festival. This festival was founded by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and Alice Stephens and offered a range of dynamic panels. It was fascinating to hear how our experiences as adoptees have been similar and different. Additionally, I am continually inspired by the works and positive energies of other poets. I am moved by brilliant, shimmery poets like Lee Herrick, Su Hwang, and Sun Yung Shin; who radiate warmth and supported the launch of my book. Writing and sharing my poetry in an atmosphere that is supportive, rich with diverse perspectives, and uplifting has helped me to feel seen. Similarly, I hope that readers feel a sense of connection through my poetry. Thank you so much for your generous reading of my collection and for your thought-provoking questions.

Hazel Reese Ramos is currently a junior at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee majoring in English. She recently started an internship with Cream City Review and hopes to become an editor after she graduates. Outside of class, you can find her working at the Milwaukee Public Market. In her free time, she likes to read the latest romantic comedy with an iced matcha in hand.