Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Poem: "The Fundamental Unit"

Some brief introduction to the writing process first: feel free to skip straight to the poem below.

During May, Darlene Young--one of my favorite Mormon poets--organized an event she called Mormon Poetry Writing Month (MoPoWriMo), modeled loosely on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Basically, a bunch of us committed to try to write a Mormon poem every day for a month. Many of us also shared our drafts with each other at the time. I really love seeing people engaging with our faith with their full imaginations and I love what can happen when you take ideas you care about and put them in a poetic register: it was great to have a reason to write and constant inspiration from what other writers were playing with. 

I missed a few days--which meant that I finished the month with, I think, 27 poems. To put that in perspective, that's about as many poems as I'd written in the entire previous year. Thanks to Darlene, I've got enough now for a second collection to follow up my 2015 set Let Me Drown with Moses. This weekend, Nicole and I printed out all the possible material to include on 1/4 size pages and shuffled them around to find an order and a title. I've got some revisions to do, need a cover, etc., but I'm anticipating that Phoenix Song will be ready to release by the end of the year.

To give you a short glimpse at my MoPoWriMo work: here's a poem I wrote during May and later posted on a Facebook thread by the ever engaging Michael Haycock. Today, Walker Frahm asked if I could post it in a more share-friendly place. Here you go: 

The Fundamental Unit

Before we were a Church
that strengthened families
we were a Church
that built cities.
Back then

was the
fundamental unit
of society.

And in that
dreamed of city
it wouldn’t matter
if a quiet kitchen
happened to be yours
alone, because
even the streets
would be holy
to the Lord. 

They took
that away
from us, like
a child tearing
the legs, one
by one, off an

So maybe the pain
you feel is not from
God. Not some Saraic
trial. Maybe what you
feel is the phantom
pain of a kingdom
that has lost
its limbs.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

James Goldberg Q&A on the Mormon Lit Blitz and Mormon Lit Lab

Today is the last day for people to vote in 2018 Mormon Lit Blitz (though honestly, since Nicole and I will both be at ward council followed by 9 am church tomorrow, you could sneak in a late vote most of tomorrow). It's the seventh year we've held the contest and we're really proud of this year's work: we hope you'll take a look.

We're also at the beginning of the process to sign up regular patrons for a project called the Mormon Lit Lab. Basically, we're invited people to make a monthly pledge to support expanded contests, workshops, and publication opportunities in Mormon Literature.

Since we had so much fun hosting Q&As with this year's Mormon Lit Blitz finalist authors on the blog, we thought we'd finish the contest out with one more post where they asked us questions about the contest and the new Mormon Lit Lab. It's been fun answering. Take a look:

Mormon Lit Blitz

Lee Allred: How did you come up with the idea for the Mormon Lit Blitz? What's its history? Its "secret origin" -- did a metaphorical bat fly through your window, did it rocket to Earth as an infant to escape a doomed planet, etc.? 

The secret origin version is that Scott Hales and I were called on a mission to evangelize Mormon Literature. We never did figure out what had happened earlier in the place where we were sent, but we think something must have gone wrong with a prior set of missionaries. No one would give us the time of day to teach a full-scale discussion. The local priests or professors or whatever warned young people against our message. Those were dark times.

A lot of the rumors we'd heard put the blame on people for being hard-hearted or close-minded. You can't reach people you resent, though, so we figured it was better to assume they had good reasons for being cautious. One day I said to Scott, "What if six hours of discussions is just too much to ask? Could we give them a message worth considering in one minute?" And Scott said, "That sounds so crazy it just might work. Let's make like Nephi and go and do."

And that's how the Mormon Lit Blitz started... 

If you want the slightly less mythologized version, pieces of it are still floating around online. I had to do some research to find it, but it looks like the seed comes in the comments after Josh Allen's November 1, 2011 blog post "AML and Student Participation." In that post, Josh talked about the value of Mormon Literature in general and the Association for Mormon Letters in particular, then asked, "Why aren’t there more of us? With so many virtues, why is it that AML’s membership is relatively small and has been for years?"

In the comments and a follow-up blog post of my own, I tried to answer that question. Essentially, I argued that there's a very small group of people who want to study Mormon (or any) literature for its own sake, and that most people look to stories to give them something in their lives. I talked about why many avid readers who are also Mormons might feel turned off by stories that seem to be attacking them on the one hand and of stories that feel too simplistic on the other. I argued that if you want to build an audience for Mormon Lit, you need to give people a short, easy-to-access way to try it out--and you need to make sure their effort pays off.

And then Scott came up with the name and concept. For the early Mormon Lit Blitzes, he'd make memes for Facebook and we'd do tours around several Mormon culture blogs talking up the contest. Nicole came on board to give editorial notes: she's a really capable and effective editor. Some Mormon Lit regulars submitted to the first contest: but also a lot of writers we didn't know and came to love.

As with many missions, we succeeded at least in converting ourselves: the Mormon Lit Blitz has showed me personally a lot about the value in Mormon Lit, especially as I've watched friends and relatives react to pieces they connect with.

Eric Jepson: Once you've created the longlist, what criteria do you use to whittle down to the final few? How do you balance, say "objective" criteria with subjective criteria with variety?

There are no 100% objective criteria for what makes compelling writing, so we’ve got to trust our own subjectivity and assume the audience we’re trying to serve shares a lot of those tastes. I’ll try to pull back the curtain a little, though, on what those tastes are.

We average 100-200 submissions per Lit Blitz, so a piece only makes the longlist if it stood out to us for some reason. It’s not just competent craft: there also has to be a concept or character or image that grabs our attention. We need to laugh or gasp or find ourselves talking about the piece after we’ve walked away from the computer.

If a piece has made that first cut, our second step is to weed out a few pieces that fall short of that best moment, idea, or image. You get into the longlist by the strongest moment: you stay there by having a text that is consistent. Typically, though, that cut doesn’t quite get us down where we need to be.

The third cut is typically to think about the contest purpose again and ask ourselves which pieces are going to contribute the most for our audience: in terms of the cultural work they do or how they stretch the range of tools writers following the contest will have to draw on. In many cases, even that cut doesn’t quite get us there and concerns about variety within the contest are how we weed out the last few pieces. Some of those calls get really tough to make and there are pieces I still think about that didn't make our final cut.

Lehua Parker: As LDS writers who write stories, poems, and essays that delve into the “messy” reality of being human, do you believe we have a responsibility to write ultimately uplifting works? 

I would not use the word "uplifting." The last two poems I shared on my blogs are serious downers, but lament as a genre can play an important spiritual role. Stephen Carter's "Slippery" comes to mind as a Lit Blitz example of a similar thing: a piece that warns rather than reaching catharsis.

So if "uplifting" may be too narrow a word for the types of spiritual contributions Mormon writers can or should make, what would I recommend instead? A phrase from D&C 121: 42, comes to mind, when it talks about "pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile." Maybe whether something enlarges the soul--whether in joy, aspiration, awe, trepidation, insight, mirth--maybe that's a test of whether things are being presented in a way rich enough to count as pure knowledge. 

Lee Allred: I thought this year's formal Q&A worked rather nicely. Informative for readers, a chance to discuss MoLit story and storytelling in more depth for writers. How did it look from the point of view of the questioner? Did writers answer what you were really wanting to know or did they veer off into tangents (possibly very interesting tangents but tangents nevertheless)? Do you feel it somewhat ironic that the discussions of the stories were longer than the stories themselves? 

I loved the Q&As. Sometimes even flippant questions yielded great answers, like Luisa Perkins' thoughts on cats.

I appreciated the craft discussions. One positive of the Mormon Lit Blitz is that it can help lower the barriers between readers and writers: it's a manageable enough size that some careful readers have tried their hand writing, and I'm glad the Q&As can give new as well as established writers new techniques to consider.

I also liked the discussions of themes. A lot of Mormon Lit Blitz pieces manage to be extremely thought-provoking within their tight space constraints, and I loved getting the chance to talk about that.

As far as the length of discussion: I grew up talking about scriptures at far greater length than what's on the page. I like a piece that starts a conversation rather than trying to finish it.

Lee Allred: And last but not least -- Does the Postum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?

Sherry Work: Lee - Postum has very little flavour to actually lose. James and Nicole --would you consider dividing up the categories between poetry, stories, and personal essays?

Of all the ways we could categorize literature, whether something has line breaks doesn't seem like the most important distinction to us. We publish in those three categories because people tend to submit them the most, but we're also open to other forms. We've had very short plays submitted. Comics. Which tools writers use is up to them.

If we bring back the specialty fall contests we've done twice before, we may use genre distinctions in some of those. But we like mixing them together in the Lit Blitz.

Sherry Work: Could you explain how the ranked voting works? Is it a point system or highest number of first place votes?
A first place vote counts as four points, second place three points, third two, and fourth one. The piece with the highest point total wins.

We haven't yet had a piece that could win on the power of first place votes alone. The winners tend to be pieces that appealed a wide range of voters and showed up a lot at two, three, and four as well as one.

Mormon Lit Lab

Faith : What the what is Patreon?

Glad you asked! We should have explained that better early. Basically, Patreon is an online system that allows people to make a monthly payment to an artist or artistic organization they support. It's sort of like Kickstarter, if you've seen that, but for ongoing projects rather than one-time ones. It's also sort of like the Medicis funding painters and sculptors to make the Italian Renaissance possible, but with a lot less murder and political intrigue.

Patrons receive something in exchange for pledging. For the Mormon Lit Lab, the main rewards are being able to weigh in and vote on the projects we prioritize. Anyone who donates get to see and comment on the "drawing board." Higher level contributors get to vote. 

William Morris: Most Patreon offerings are about what contributors receive from the artist and behind the scenes peeks into the artistic process. Why are you pitching this more as a lab where contributors become part of the process rather than just "help us fund more of the Mormon Lit Blitz"?

I love art. I strongly dislike the common image of the solitary artistic genius. To me, art is fundamentally about conversation and connection. So I've always been drawn to much more collective models for artistic production, ones where the lines between audience and creator are narrower and where relationships between people involved in the featured and supporters roles in developing and organizing an artistic experience are both closer and better acknowledged than is often the case. To use a basketball metaphor, I believe teams will produce better when they value assists than when they focus only on points scored.

The Mormon Lit Blitz, to begin with, was not about what Nicole and I do individually as artists, but what we can help others achieve. And so a more collective, collaborative approach as we expand feels right.

Mattathias Westwood: Besides the stated rewards, what benefits do you see donors receiving from participation in the Mormon Lit Lab?

At the end of the day, I hope it will be a great sense of satisfaction and a lot of good memories. Culturally, we have a very consumer exchange mindset about money...we're hoping that supporting the Mormon Lit Lab will feel less like buying something and more like being part of something. We hope everyone involved is able to feel like they did small and simple things to lay the foundation for a great and important work. 

Mattathias Westwood: What do you feel the Mormon Lit Lab would provide that's distinct from other Mormon Literature organizations and presses?

There are a lot of other organizations and presses I  like, but for purposes of this question I'm going to focus on two that are pretty close fits.

The closest analog to what we do is probably Segullah, which is a literary website and community for Mormon women. The most obvious  difference is that we publish men and that what women develop with us is not necessarily going to be read as being part of a dialogue about Mormon women's experience the way the very same piece might be read on Segullah. Both can be valuable: just different.

Peculiar Pages is the closest press. Eight out of their nine titles have been anthologies, which reflects a similar focus on broadening the field and reaching out to a wide range of writers. Their mission is broader than ours: they try to be open to a wide range of culturally Mormon voices, while we focus on things we think would be of specific value to practicing Latter-day Saints.

OK, there's a third organization I don't know as well that's worth mentioning, the Mormon Theology Seminar. As its title suggests, it's not a Mormon Lit organization, but is a structure to bring together people interested in expanding the types and tonal range of discussions we have as Latter-day Saints. Like the Mormon Theology Seminar, we're interested in honoring our heritage by fostering deeper engagement with it. The main difference is that their works will share a technical vocabulary with other people studying theology; our work shares a set of conventions available to anyone who reads fiction, poetry, etc.

Lehua Parker: In addition to the scriptures, which books, essays, podcasts, etc., have helped frame your personal idea of what it means to be LDS and a follower of Christ? 

A true but sort of evasive-sounding answer first: almost anything I read helps me frame those ideas. Being a disciple is of fundamental, anchoring importance to me and so I'm looking for insight and different ways to frame the gospel whether I'm reading about science, sociology, other religions, or just swapping stories with friends. For all time classic, I'd put Elie Wiesel's Souls on Fire pretty high. I return and return to the poets Ghalib and Faiz. The last book to blow my mind was Andrus Kivirähk's The Man Who Spoke Snakish. And all of them have influenced the way I frame my own faith and discipleship in some way. 

As far as my favorite LDS Lit: loved Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth. Melissa Leilani Larson's play Little Happy Secrets is really valuable; I also liked Pilot Program--the two make up her recently published collection Third Wheel. The themes in William Morris's Darkwatch stories really resonate with me. A ton of the images from Scott Hales' The Garden of Enid still stand out in my mind. Eric Samuelsen's play The Plan is excellent. I could go on, but I should probably just sit down someday soon and make a reading list.

William Morris: What's your overall philosophy about genre fiction and literary fiction (Mormon faithful realism) both generally and in relation to what you plan on doing with the Mormon Lit Lab?

I care about the work literature does way more than I care about the tools people use to do it. Both Nicole and I ask first how a piece opens us ways to us to think and feel and talk about Mormon ideas and experience: that trumps style every time.

And honestly, a lot of pieces blow stylistic distinctions out of the water. Lee Allred's "Beneath the Visiting Moon," in the contest this year, read a straight up literary realistic fiction to some readers and as genre fiction to others--either way, it was a great look into how we deal with our own demons and what it means to stand with each other through the tough times. 

Tanya Hanamaikai: Why does supporting Mormon Literature excite you?
Mormonism excites me. Years of trying have yet to get me to the point where I can do justice to it in explaining why. Our faith speaks so richly to so many aspects of human existence. It's so simple and grounding on the one hand and so open to imaginative flights to divine heights at the same time.

We take it so much for granted. That's human nature: we turn on autopilot whenever something is routine, we forget the dazzling wonder to keep from being blinded.

Literature is a register that is particularly effective for me at creating an imaginative novelty that allows me regular, renewed access to that foundational wonder and lets me wrestle on ground that may be genuinely new at the same time. Really good Mormon Lit doesn't just impress me in the moment I'm reading it: it sticks with me, it increases my own capacity for imaginative engagement with the world around at both its visible and spiritual levels.

Why wouldn't I want more of that? 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Questions I Beg My Bible to Answer: June 2018

Why are the Egyptians
afraid of the Hebrews?
What moves Pharaoh’s gaze
out the palace window
from the glory of the
pyramids to the hunched
backs of foreign-looking
workers (their brows
bleeding sweat, their
hands caked in mud):
why does the strength
in their aching arms
trouble his dreams
each night? 

Why are the Egyptians
afraid of the Hebrews?
What makes the general 
in his chariot stop and
shiver at the distant
echo of a birthing scream
rising from the hovel
where the great-granddaughter
of a half-starved refugee
is delivering a son?

Oh God, please just
help me understand:
why are the Egyptians
afraid of the Hebrews?
What makes an aging
civilization, haunted
by mirages of its own
bygone youth, turn away
from its treasure cities
and toward the straining
figures of desperate families
determined only to choose
life—what makes them give
the order to tear children
from their mothers’ arms?

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Mattathias Westwood Q&A

"Missionary Weekly Report for 28 March-3 April, Mumbai 1st Branch, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" by Mattathias Westwood, the final finalist in this year's Mormon Lit Blitz, is up today. Check out the story, and then come back for the Q&A:
This piece explores an Indian Mormon experience specifically. How do you feel like the national context shapes the story? Would the same tensions play out differently somewhere else?
The only Mormon experiences I can speak to convincingly are American Mormon experience and Indian Mormon experience. I do think that in India, the pressure of missionary work is heightened by the fact that there are just so many people around to teach. And because religion is such a major and public part of most people's lives, there's not even the excuse that exists in some parts of the world that most people probably just aren't interested in religion of any kind, and that's why they don't want to listen and we maybe don't need to bother them. In India, almost everyone takes religion very seriously, and most people are very open to talking about it. But that doesn't mean that they're going to take Mormonism seriously or decide to join the Church, because conversion is hard and the truthfulness of Mormonism isn't obvious or self-evident at first glance (or second or third).

For me, this led to a state of constant discouragement, where I felt like because people were so ready to listen, if people were not interested in joining the church, it was because I wasn't good enough at teaching the gospel for them to recognize it. At some point, I realized that I was absolutely right-- I wasn't good at teaching it at all, but there were people who understood it anyway, who figured out all the things I couldn't teach them, because it wasn't me they were learning from. I was just there to give them a human point of contact and directions towards the church building.

What role do you think literature could play in increasing our multicultural awareness and imagination in the Church?

The scriptures say that God speaks to people in a language they can understand. I don't know what the future holds, but I hope that as more Mormons from around the world share their own experiences, share how the gospel feels and tastes to them, share what pulled them into this life and keeps pulling them back even when things are hard, that it will help us to be one, in the way that the scriptures say we should.

I think when we hear how the gospel sounds to other people's ears, it will become even more beautiful, and maybe some of the things that cause us worry or pain will be eased as we see them through other eyes, or as we see different ways of doing things, as we learn from each other. I don't think it's fully possible to separate gospel and culture, because they blend together and it can be hard to tell which is which, and stories that show how the gospel weaves itself into different cultures can give us possibilities we didn't think of before or help us see our own mistakes. And all of it hopefully gives us more types of language, so that God has more ways to reach us.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 

Honestly, I would be happy just to have more of it, from more people, in more places, thinking through Mormonism in their own experience and writing what it feels like and means for them. I am much more of a reader than a writer, and I read pretty much whatever I can get my hands on and I'm grateful if it helps me think through my own experience or think outside my own experience, and the details of where it comes from or what it says don't matter much to me as long as they are genuine and thoughtful. "Let a thousand flowers bloom."

Where can we read more of your work? 
As I said, I'm more of a reader than a writer. I have lots of stories that float in my head but usually I'm too busy finding new stories to add to the mix and break down into raw materials for living a good life for me to write stories of my own. You could try breaking into my parent's house and sorting through the boxes they keep in the spare bedroom for the notebooks I wrote in when I was in high school. But there are a lot of boxes, and most of them are just my dad's books, so you'd probably get tired of looking, and if you found those old buried stories they might not be worth it.  If you're interested in listening to me ramble on about other people's stories, you can find me at http://mattathiasingh.blogspot.com/ continuing to occasionally write a blog long after it stopped being cool, or you can see what I'm reading and what I've read at https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/14527427-mattathias (My name is Mattathias, king of readers, look upon my works, ye mighty, and get really excited because you've never heard of that book before but it looks really interesting and now it's time to go to the library and check out a bunch of books...)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Eric Jepson Q&A

This year's Mormon Lit Blitz is winding down--just one more story left after today's excellent poem, Eric Jepson's "Joseph and Emma Grow Old Together." Here's a Q&A with the author: 
In your introduction to States of Deseret, you speculated about an alternate history where the wild success of Joseph Smith Sr.'s ginseng venture allows him to send Joseph and Hyrum to study with Ralph Waldo Emerson--and go on to found a college, not a religion. What draws you to alternate history where the restoration as we know it doesn't happen?
In the case of Joseph Smith, his greatness is inextricably tied to the pain and tragedy he endures. We all want to be Christlike, but none of us want to wander the dusty plains of Galilee only to be hung on a cross. I don't know, if given the option, that I wouldn't take the easily understood pleasures of studying with Emerson or growing old with my wife over the recurring stress and sadness and horror of Ohio and Missouri and Illinois. Martin asked to take the translation three times. What if Emma had been as insistent on a peaceful life with her husband?

I don't think I could blame them if she had.

This poem seems to deal with the tension between contentedness on the own hand and intense spiritual quest on the other. How do we deal with a spiritually intense founder in an era when simple, contented life has become such a central value for us?

This is exactly what worries me. I'm teaching seminary now and this year we covered the Book of Mormon. In just a few hundred pages, Mormon lets us stand back and see the shape of one thousand years of human history as a series of mountains and valleys. And times of simple contentment don't often last.

I'm a firm believer that the general thrust of human history is towards goodness and peace---but that doesn't happen on the small scale. That's on the centuries scale. We want to believe our comforts will last forever. I'm not sure scripture smiles at that attitude.
But hey. Life is safer and more predictable without ten new sections added to the D&C every April and October.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature?
Everything. I want more voices from more countries and regions and languages. Which is an honest answer I'm working toward. The now answer is more of what I already love. But please, worldwide Mormonism! Convince me to love you all!

Where can we read more of your work?   

Well, buying stuff on Amazon is good for me.

Unfortunately, my website is down, but a complete bibliography as of seven months ago sits on my blog. (A good place to start might be my previous appearances on the Mormon Lit Blitz, one and two.)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Sheldon Lawrence Q&A

Sheldon Lawrence's essay "The Last Swing" is today's Mormon Lit Blitz finalist. After you read it, join us for the Q&A:

This piece felt very reflective of Mormon values to us, even though there are no overtly Mormon references. Is it just the concern with family? Or do you think there's something about this piece thematically that might make it feel so resonant to us?

There is something about the passage of time and the limitation of memory that has always haunted me. It’s unsettling to think that any given moment will die and never repeat. Every passing moment is a death of something. Are these moments lost to eternity? Is our only comfort the prospect of eternal novelty, eternal rebirth of time? I think on some level Mormonism takes memory seriously, or the idea that the whole of our life, every detail, will be resurrected and make up the tapestry of our souls. I believe our memories will be redeemed, not only in that we will have perfect recollection, but that even painful moments will be seen as sacred and important.  I think this piece reflects that sense of loss, of death, but perhaps hints at the hope of a resurrection of such moments.

How has parenting helped you as a writer--and writing helped you as a parent?

I didn’t set out to be a “dad” writer, but it turns out  that an awful lot of my work, especially the stuff that has gotten published or recognized, is heavily influenced by my experience as a parent. I never knew that parenting would involve so much guilt and fear and joy all at the same time. Writing is a way of working through those issues. It makes me more reflective as a parent. When my kids appear in a piece, they feel honored, which is kind of fun.

We have a two-year-old daughter who just learned to climb out of her crib and now systemically destroys her room before falling asleep around midnight. Will we miss the last nighttime rampage with equal unspoken nostalgia?

Yes, you will! “The Last Rampage” has a nice ring to it.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature?

It seems there is an unnecessary dichotomy out there that art is either angsty and raw (and therefore “real”) on the one hand, or trite and syrupy sweet (and therefore “fake”) on the other. I would like to see more work, especially in memoir and personal essay, that is uncompromisingly authentic but also celebratory of life and its richness. I suppose that is what I strive for, in any case.

Where can we read more of your work?

I usually put stuff on my blog: thepearlandswine.wordpress.com  I also post links to my published work there.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

William Morris Q&A (Sister Greeley)

Today's finalist is "Proof That Sister Greeley Is aWitch (Even Though Mormons Don't Believe in Witches)" by William Morris. Here's our Q&A with him about this story:

One thing we loved about the story is the way it implicitly explores the network of relationships among the women in a ward. In the real world, how do you see inter-generational relationships influencing young Mormon women?
Based on my experience--which is limited because I'm a male member of the church--young Mormon women both want and are leery of the influence of older Mormon women. They are leery of being judged and found wanting. Or they are leery because they have different cultural and/or political attitudes. But they also know that maturity can bring wisdom, and that there things they can learn, especially when visiting teaching/ministering and serving side-by-side in callings is working the way it should.
I will add that in my (again, limited) experience young Mormon women really appreciate it when middle-aged and elderly women are open (in a charitable way) about the challenges they had when they were younger. It helps them know that they aren't alone. They aren't weird. They aren't defective. And things get better, but you have to work at it and they never actually get perfect in spite of how things might sometimes appear.
It's also awesome when older women ask young Mormon women to help them with things where the young women have expertise (like technology--but other areas too).

Some of the practices Heidi describes seem old enough to be just outside living memory for the people around a young Mormon woman growing up today. How do past generations of Mormon women play into that network?
Hopefully they play a large role, but I'm not sure that they do. Or at least not as deeply and widespread as perhaps they should. Back in 2006, I wrote a post for A Motley Vision called Holding to the traditions of our mothers. In it, I wrote:
"What happens when our daily practices — our material life, our life with materials — is suffused with their spirit, with the way they do/did things?
Let’s find out. I propose that all of us seek out our mothers — especially our aunts, great aunts and grandmothers — and learn from them whatever it is they do best. Not only cooking, but quilting, gardening, sewing — all the practices that arose out of gospel teachings, pioneer heritage and the conditions of life and history."
Since that time, these kinds of material practices--especially pickling and bread-making--have become much more widespread among young people. I would hope that Mormon women (and men) who engage with them tie them not to a fashionable but vague notion of authenticity but rather to the previous generations, especially the material culture of their mothers. And I'd add to my call above that I'd recommend starting with the women who are still living, but then also seek out (and, if needed, preserve) documentation for women who have passed on to other side--letters, journals, cookbooks, personal/family/ward histories, etc.

You told last week what you'd like to see more of in Mormon literature: what in Mormon literature are you most bored with?
I'm tempted to say novels about male Mormon missionaries engaging in high-jinks and short stories about middle-aged, white Mormon males from the American West have minor crises and epiphanies, but that's not entirely true. I think any subject or theme or setting can be interesting and innovative.
I suppose what I'm most bored with are works of Mormon literature that don't show any awareness of what has already been written or that engage in simplistic tropes. I don't know that we need more conversion or de-conversion stories or feminist awakenings or male mid-life crises. Not unless they're done in ways that add to the conversation rather than re-create it. I mean, I totally understand the impetus to write such works if that's what your personal experiences are, especially if you're a newer writer. But that's not what I'm interested in reading. And there's so much more to explore.
I'm also tired of genre fiction for the Mormon market that takes Christian or mainstream American fiction trends, files of the serial numbers, hastily magic markers on a Mormon serial number or Mormon-level appropriateness in content, and then presents the finished product as something of good report.
Finally, I'm bored with Mormon literature always being a referendum on the possibility/impossibility of Mormon literature (esp. vis a vis that whole Shakespeares and Miltons of our own quote). But that's such an old complaint of mine that to complain about it now also bores me. Let's just have some fun with MoLit, you know?

You told us last week where to read your work: what's some other Mormon Lit you'd recommend?
In all seriousness: read through the Mormon Lit Blitz archives. There's good short fiction and poetry to be found in Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum. But if you want a quick, satisfying way to explore the wide range of modern Mormon lit, the Mormon Lit Blitz is the place to start. Also: pretty much everything from BCC Press (especially Third Wheel by Melissa Leilani Larson) and Zarahemla Books (especially Long After Dark by Todd Robert Petersen and the story anthology Dispensation, edited by Angela Hallstrom). A few older titles that influenced me: Nothing very important and other stories by Bela Petsco, Angel of the Danube by Alan Rex Mitchell, Salvador by Margaret Young, and For the Strength of the Hills by Lee Allred. Also: if you haven't seen the documentary New York Doll by Greg Whitely, then track it down--it can be streamed for free if you have Amazon Prime.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Sherry Work Q&A

Today's finalist is "Still Clean" by Sherry Work. Here's our Q&A with the author:

The characters and setting of this poem feel believably ancient at the same time the themes feel very timely. When and how did you decide you wanted to write this poem? 

I wrote this poem after preparing to teach an Old Testament class about David and Bathsheba, and wanting to research to see what might really have happened. Multiple depictions in art show Bathsheba as somewhat wantonly bathing on the roof of her house which exposed her naked body to David, leading to adultery (perhaps we would now call it rape) and murder. Centuries of patriarchy in the Christian church have shifted the blame at least partly to Bathsheba for her supposed immodest actions in tempting David. As I read the chapters following this initial incident I saw no blame attached to Bathsheba for her part in the story. Just has Eve has been exonerated from committing sin, I felt that Bathsheba should also be seen as a righteous daughter of God.

We loved your presentation of the bath as a mikveh. What's the value for you of imagining scriptural events from a perspective or voice we don't usually spend as much time with? 

Here are the verses from 2 Samuel 11 depicted at the beginning of the poem. Bathsheba is not bathing on her rooftop as she is usually painted. It is important to note that verse 4 indicates that she may have been performing a mikveh, a cleansing ritual or washing required by the Mosaic Law after the end of menstruation. The water had to be "living water" from a natural spring which would flow over the body. It was very important to me to read more about Jewish ritual in order to be accurate about this story, and that in turn helped me to see much symbolism and types of Christ within it. The compelling part of the poem for me is to give Bathsheba her voice, as she is silent in the entire story, except to tell David that she is with child. She loved her husband, she was a righteous woman, but she was powerless to refuse David. My heart ached for her from the beginning of her story to the death of her child.

2 And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
3 And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?
4 And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 

I would love to read novels where the protagonist has to make hard choices, or where making the "correct" choice does not necessarily lead to what we might hope for. I think that it is important to read less simplistic works which better reflect the decisions that we have to make on a regular basis. It would be wonderful if Mormons everywhere could find a book where they see themselves represented.

Where can we read more of your work?

This question made me smile because the short answer is that you can't. My most prolific work is my 40 years of journals which would be a little tedious even for my own children, except for the very few pages where I remember that my opinions and experiences are far more important than what I did that day. I much prefer to read than write.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Lee Allred Q&A

Welcome back to the second (and final) week of this year's Mormon Lit Blitz. Today, we posted Lee Allred's "Beneath the Visiting Moon." You owe it to yourself to read the story before the Q&A...check it out first, then come back for this behind-the-scenes look:

At first, we read this story as a psychological study of the difficulties and trauma of returning home from war. It wasn't until just after we finished reading that we realized it's also a werewolf story. Which totally blew our minds: we loved the way the werewolf element deepened, in many ways, the exploration of trauma. What made you think of putting the two elements together? 

Actually, I've been writing "movie monster" stories as  Mormon Lit Blitz contest entries for some time now, looking at monster movie tropes through a Mormon lens. I've done already done vampires ("Where Nothing Lives But Crosses") and Frankenstein (the non-finalist "Organized Matter" -- which I'm working up as a longer piece), This year I did my werewolf piece.

As an Iraqi War vet myself, I guess it was natural to see lycanthropy through the lens of PTSD and how the Church assists returning wounded warriors through local ward Home Teachers.

It's a bit unusual to take a fantastical element and make it so subtle--and yet so present at the same time. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pull off an effect like that? 

Bit of mental ju-jitsu, really. Saturated with Hollywood and 24-hour news, the reader will come into the story with certain preconceptions about PTSD. You construct a story where the details all feed into those preconceptions. "Moon" can in fact be read as a straight PTSD story. Nothing per se violates that premise.

But the reader also has preconceptions about werewolves, and each of the details you put in are actually dual-purpose. They feed into those werewolf preconceptions, too.

As the story progresses, the details are more and more weighted towards the werewolf side -- raw meat, animal bite, moon, wolves howling -- until there is an obvious "aha!" moment with the big reveal.

Only you don't write the big "aha!" reveal. You end the story short of that. (The micro fiction format of Mo Lit Blitz aids in this regard; it’d be far more difficult in a longer piece. )

What you are left with is a mainstream PTSD story constructed in such a way that the reader's werewolf preconceptions are just starting to overcome their PTSD preconceptions right as the story ends.

Tricky and I wasn't sure I'd timed things right. Nice to read from your comments I had.

 What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature?

More Lee Allred stories. Somebody needs to prod that author into writing more of 'em! :)

Seriously, we're in the Golden Age of Mormon fiction. I feel sort of silly asking for more when our cup is so overflowing.

Where can we read more of your work?

I've had quite a few genre stories published in recent Fiction River anthologies. I have stories in the Mormon fiction anthologies States of Deseret, Mormons & Monsters, and Dispensation. My Assembled Allred collection is also still in print I think, and there should soon be a second Rookhouse Books collection appearing, hopefully before the end of the year. And you can always check 2016’s Lit Blitz and 2014’s Lit Blitz Meeting of the Myths monster mash-up for my finalist pieces there.

Also, keep an eye on my @lee_allred Twitter feed. I have a number of short fiction pieces coming out (sold seven this year so far) and some upcoming comic book stuff. I'll announce them on Twitter whenever my publishers give the go-ahead.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

William Morris Q&A (After the Fast)

We're closing out the first week of the Mormon Lit Blitz with William Morris's "After the Fast." Here's our Q&A. Feel free to add your own questions in the comments. 

Stories about the Three Nephites are a classic Mormon genre. What made you decide to join the tradition? 

I included a character that was one of the Three Nephites in last year's Lit Blitz entry "There Wrestled a Man in Parowan," but the story didn't require interpreting it that way, which delighted me because it seems like a lot of the stories that use the Three Nephites as a way to discomfit the institutional church and/or orthodox Mormon characters. A valid approach, to be sure, but not one that interested me so I figured I'd get mine out of the way (because, yes, every Mormon writer has to have a Three Nephites story). But then earlier this spring, the notion of what it'd be like to try to eat again after fasting for forty days and forty nights started rolling around my brain, and, like it always does, my brain revolted against the strictures I had tried to set for myself (like the time I decided I wouldn't be writing Mormon faithful realism anymore and then three weeks later wrote the most Doug Thayerish story ever). And it is easy to see why a Three Nephites story is irresistible: as doctrine and folklore, it's unique to Mormonism, and the mysterious stranger who is helpful but also a bit unsettling is a classic character trope.

Have you ever eaten colivă?

I have. It was given to us either by a recent member or a long-time investigator. I believe she had made it not for a recent death, but for placing on the graves of loved ones. The version I had was starchy and chewy and not as sweet as it looked. Nor did it have cocoa powder on it or dried fruits in it. It was quite filling, though, and that's the most important thing for young missionaries.  

Was your time in Romania an influence on the story thematically at all? 

Honestly, the ending of the story came as a complete surprise to me. More so than most of the stories I write. I wasn't planning on drawing on my mission experience at all. Indeed, I didn't know that the Third Nephite would go back to the dead woman's house until I wrote it. I had originally planned to take him to his favorite restaurant and have the story be more about aesthetics and memory than about grief and honoring the dead. And once he's at the house, he ends up in the basement. And what would be in the basement but food storage? And so then what would be a better way to break his fast than with food storage? But what are you going to do with barrels of wheat? And then that's where serving a mission in Romania and being able to draw on that experience paid off.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 

More novel-length fiction about sister missionaries. More stories about older Mormons, international Mormons, urban U.S./Canadian Mormons, rural but non-Intermountain West Mormons, etc. More fiction and nonfiction that takes Mormon history and theology/doctrine/folk beliefs seriously. More stories about single Mormons and childless Mormons and single parent Mormons. An alternate history novel where the United Order works and Mormons become the world's leading communitarians. An anthology of Mormon satire that skewers the larger world as much as it does Mormon life and culture. A romance novel where a recently married couple figure out how to mesh their differing backgrounds and orthopraxises in relation to Mormonism and the ending is happy but also bittersweet. 

And, of course, more readers of Mormon literature, more venues where Mormon writers can publish their work, and, ultimately, actual paying markets for Mormon writers, especially fiction writers. 

Where can we read more of your work?

Most of my Mormon-related short fiction from 2003 to 2015 can be found in the story collection Dark Watch and other Mormon-American stories. I have also edited two anthologies: Monsters & Mormons and States of Deseret. For more Mormon stuff visit A Motley Vision. And for my non-Mormon market work, see Frozen Sea Press

Friday, June 1, 2018

Faith Kershisnik Q&A

Today's piece is "Counsel" by Faith Kershisnik. Take a look at the poem, then come back for the Q&A:

A lot of Adam and Eve stories deal with the firsts, and this piece features a cool one: the first surgery. The first time doctors ever talked while their patients were under. What drew you as a writer to this moment?

Oh, that’s an interesting observation. Does it sound crazy to say I hadn’t thought of it at all in those terms? I didn’t have a surgical scenario in mind when writing this, but I was fascinated by the dramatic irony of God’s words to Adam regarding the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. We know the story, we know that Eve and Adam eat and don’t die that day (in the sense that we understand the term). There’s some disconnect between what God says and what Adam could comprehend in that moment, and then what he and Eve experience. So what do we do with that, as readers? I wanted to play with Jehovah being in that position, dealing with the disconnect, and getting a response directly from God. If this Jehovah has anything in common with me, he would’ve been bursting at the seams to reconcile the dissonance as soon as he had a moment alone with God, which happens to come right as they put Adam in a deep sleep. I wanted the conversation to reveal some of the complexity of that type of confrontation, to leave the reader with a sense of ‘huh, yeah, what was the right thing to do here? Who’s position do I identify with?’

Maybe it's cheating for us as readers to ask you this, but: what's the relationship for you between the frame scene of forming woman and the counsel God is giving the Son?

That’s totally cheating.

…But I’ll indulge you anyway. I think this is the part of creation where everything gets interesting. I like that human relationship is in the process of being created at the same time woman is created, and that this is a complicated, conflicted relational moment between God and Jehovah, when he is also teaching Jehovah about the complexities of human relationship. It felt like a great moment to illuminate the death and destructive processes inherent in the creativity of relationship.  You don’t get one in this world without the other. 

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature?

I guess that depends on whether we’re talking about literature with Mormon themes and content for a Mormon audience, or literature written by Mormons. I should also preface any responses with the admission that I’m not a Mormon literature connoisseur, so undoubtedly I’ll say something really ignorant that marginalizes someone’s work.  Feel free to leave a comment telling me how wrong I am.

As for literature with Mormon themes and content for a Mormon audience, I’d like to see 2 things: first, more Mormon midrash. More Mormons diving into scripture with their imagination, coming up with more pearls to share with the rest of us. Second, I’d like to hear/read more literature about people’s actual lived experiences with Mormonism. We have loads of fiction at places like Deseret Book or Seagull Books that idealize the Mormon experience, but I think there’s a disconnect with those types of stories and what a lot of people are living now. I want art that deepens (or demands that we deepen) how we apply faith in our real-life struggles, rather than art that fantasizes about or sentimentalizes faith.

As for literature written by Mormons but not exclusive to Mormon audiences, I’d like to see more Mormons publishing literary work, in addition to the strong genre presence we have out there. I know there are strong voices already in the mix, so I don’t mean to dismiss their work; I just want to see more of us in the game. I think we sometimes get a bad wrap for being ‘juvenile’ because there’s so much young adult fiction out there, or for being incapable of writing and comprehending tragedy because of our relationship to grief/the afterlife/eternal families, but I feel there’s a richer and more faceted cultural voice that’s needing to be shared. I don’t care what the literature is about and how ‘Mormon’ it is, I just want to see it done and available for the world to experience.

Where can we read more of your work?

I’m a rookie. I was first published last month with Segullah’s editorial journal, which can be read online, and I’m currently working with Tryst Press to publish my complete collection of poetry and short stories on the Genesis Creation myth in art book form. Feel free to follow me on IG for updates on the project :)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Tanya Hanamaikai Q&A

Day four of this year's Mormon Lit Blitz is Tanya Hanamaikai's "New Rhythm." Here's a short Q&A about the story and her work:

This story does a great job of letting us feel like we're in a complete world and culture in a very short word count. How did you come up with Morah's culture for this piece? 

For my mom, our proud Mexican heritage runs deeper than Aztec sun stones and temples. She'd shout with gust a song from her time as a performer with BYU'S Lamanite Generation: "Yes, I'm a Lamanite, a true blue-blooded Lamanite! My fathers came from far across the sea!" When I set out to write a Lamanite story, I wanted those of us who have been taught that we are their descendants to recognize a bit of ourselves in their life style.

How did you choose what details to include in this story? 

Every detail in this story was an opportunity to not only build a culture, but to also explore our relationship with it. My favorite line is, "Something in the ancient fathers' original Hebrew no one understood anymore."

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 

More writers who trust the value of what their diversity brings to our connection as Mormons, whether it comes from their rich culture, sole upbringing, or peculiar point of view.

Where can we read more of your work? 

My last Lit Blitz piece was Worthy World (http://lit.mormonartist.net/2017/06/worthy-world-by-tanya-hanamaikai/) And I blog now and then at tanyahanamaikai.blogspot.com

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Katherine Cowley Q&A

Day three of this year's Lit Blitz is Katherine Cowley's "A Perfect Voice." Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the story:
Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with Clara as a character and what interested you in her point of view? 
For a long time I've wanted to write a story about a musical number that went terribly wrong, because sometimes I have been Clara, judging the merit of the musical numbers, and sometimes I have been on the other side, performing not-so-perfect music. A few years ago I was in a ward that had special musical numbers almost every week, and for a while I was asked to accompany many of them on the piano. Then one week I was absolutely terrible, so terrible that no one in that ward ever asked me to play piano for anything again. 
When I began writing "A Perfect Voice" at first I considered a character who is a regularly-attending ward member, but there weren't any stakes--there was nothing at risk for the character--and so I ended up choosing an outsider, a visitor who comes expecting something completely different. As I started writing, I realized that for Clara to have her visceral reaction to the musical number, she needed a musical backstory, and suddenly I realized her past "failures" and I felt a connection to her, for all the things I have failed at and given up on. 
This piece deals the relationship between music and worship, and specifically about the role of ability vs. sincerity in making music. As a writer, I'm curious about whether you think the same ideas apply to any creative endeavor, or if there's something distinct about music specifically? 
This is a question I'm currently wrestling with, something I'm trying to find the answer to. On the one hand, I think it's okay to set aside dreams--we can't all be bestselling authors, Broadway stars, Hollywood filmmakers, professional dancers, or in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And yet in the parable of the talents, the Lord expects even the servant with only one talent to use it and not bury it. Some of the best talks I've heard were not given by polished speakers; some of the best desserts didn't look that attractive; some of the most welcoming homes are messy and would never be featured in an interior design magazine. Ability is important, and we can develop our abilities, but even if our abilities in whatever creative endeavors do not compare to those of others, I'd like to think there's a place for them and that they can greatly bless both ourselves and those around us.
What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 
I would love to read more literature set outside of the United States, and I would love to read Mormon stories not originally written in English that have been translated.
Where can we read more of your work?

Most recently, I had a fairy tale novella published about a magical, ugly princess who rides a goat and fights with a wooden spoon; her new husband goes missing and it's a story about love and loyalty and struggle. The story is titled "Tatterhood and the Prince's Hand" and can be found in Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales. In term of Mormon literature, I've been published in Segullah, in the Mormon Lit Blitz's Meetings of the Myths contest, and several times in the Mormon Lit Blitz (here, here, and here).  You can find links to my other published works on katherinecowley.com.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Lehua Parker Q&A

On the second day of this year's Mormon Lit Blitz, we move from the spirit world back to earth for Lehua Parker's  essay "Scrubbing Jesus's Toilets." After you've read it, come back for the Q&A and to share your thoughts:

Both "Scrubbing Jesus' Toilets" and your previous Mormon Lit Blitz finalist piece, "Decorating Someone Else's Service" are meditations on how we organize service in the Church. What's drawn you to that subject? 

Volunteer service is a cornerstone of the Church. It’s through acts of service that we learn how to become more Christlike. I find both humor and grace in situations where what we think is the goal—being extra efficient, for example—is not really the point at all. Service is often more about refining our own imperfections than it is about helping others.

Both pieces also involve your children as prominent characters. How has parenting helped you as a writer--and writing helped you as a parent? 

My kids are much better humans than I am. When confronted with something that doesn’t make sense at Church, they do the kind thing, the gracious thing, and simply do what’s asked of them without complaint. My first instinct is to whine or dig in my heels. But sometimes after a service project or lesson, they’ll come to me to talk about the whys. We break down what happened from multiple perspectives until they understand why a service project was organized a certain way or what a leader was trying to teach in a lesson that didn’t resonate with them. Through this process, they also figure out how they’ll do it when they’re in charge. It amazes me that there’s no question in their minds that they will be able to do things differently. I find that very powerful. I think about these conversations a lot, and what I think about, I write. And what I write about tends to circle back into the next why conversation.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 

I’d like to see more fiction stories where characters just happen to be Mormon, rather than stereotypes of either perfection or perdition.  A lot of Mormon fiction for kids tends to be thinly veiled morality plays. I’d like to see fictional LDS kids who struggle and succeed and who come from a wide variety of families, nationalities, and experiences. There’s a need for good LDS kids’ literature that tackles tough questions squarely, but with an underlying message of compassion and hope.

Where can we read more of your work? 

I have a blog and website: www.LehuaParker.com. Most of my published works are available through Amazon and other retailers.  My most popular books are in a series for middle grade and young adult readers called The Niuhi Shark Saga. These magical realism stories are set in contemporary Hawaii and are full of Hawaiian culture, myths, and legends. Book 1, One Boy, No Water, was a 2017 Nene Award Nominee, a Hawaii Children’s Choice Award. For LDS audiences, I’m currently working on a collection of faith-based essays under the working title, Wayfinding Mortality.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Luisa Perkins Q&A

It's Mormon Lit Blitz season again! This year's first story is Luisa Perkins' "Three Dogs in the Afterlife," which you should go read now. After you finish, come back for this short Q&A with the author and let us know what you thought of the story:

One thing we really loved about your story was how much we felt immersed in the main character's very canine point of view. What did you do to help you think like a dog for this story? 

I'm glad you felt immersed in my character's point of view. I have a dog--a corgi named Moneypenny--whom I love to an absurd degree. She follows me around the house and sits at my feet when I'm reading or writing or doing the dishes. She's taught me the nature of submissiveness in the Mosiah 3:19 sense (I think the verse works well if you substitute "dog" for "child"). When I come home, she runs to me with her ears down and her whole back end wagging; she's full of joy and humility and utter conviction of my love for her. It's the attitude I want to have when I approach the Lord. Writing the story, I just tried to imagine life--and the afterlife--through her senses. 

We really loved the way the point of view was not just a gimmick, but something that gave us real spiritual insights. How do you know when you've found good ground for a religious or spiritual story? 

I think good religious or spiritual stories come from the same well as other good stories. They have to feel real and deep and true from the first flash of inspiration (which this time came when I was out on a long walk with my dog) throughout the drafting and revision process. Writing the ending of this story made me cry--and whenever I can get that far under the skin of a story, I feel like I've been successful. 

Any thoughts on what we might learn from a cat's perspective on heaven? 

I love cats. We buried a lovely, maddening, hilarious one a few years ago. That was a tough day. I think what we sometimes interpret as reserve on the part of a cat could actually be something else entirely. Cats, to me, seem both smarter and more alien than dogs. They're a mystery perhaps unknowable in this fallen world. 

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 

I would like to see more immersive Mormon Literature that isn't afraid to wrestle with hard questions, that engages heart and thought and imagination. I want stories that aren't just cool or entertaining, but that nag at me and haunt me and challenge me. I want there to be Mormon versions of Allegra Goodman and Mark Helprin and Margaret Atwood and Umberto Eco. That will require tremendous courage and dedication and work and vision--as well as a demanding yet nurturing audience. I also want to read more Mormon Literature that comes from experiences outside the Intermountain West. I want high-quality Mormon stories from Peoria and Porto Alegre and Lappeenranta and Luanda. Is that too much to ask?

Where can we read more of your work?
Here's a list of my published works: http://kashkawan.squarespace.com/my-published-work/

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The #metoo moment and the stories we tell

I wrote the other day about Adah and Zillah, who openly declared their husband's violent secret, about Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, who were belittled and punched and choked by the man they'd each married, but didn't let that treatment silence them.

I've been thinking a lot over the past many months about issues raised in the #metoo moment. About story after story I've been told by women I respect of sexual assault and harassment. About what it can mean when a man you should be able to trust uses or abuses you instead. 

I don't like that there's so much to talk about, but I'm glad people are talking about these things. Partly because the conversations seem to be building a greater culture of accountability for those who act without regard to the agency and dignity of others. Mostly, though, because I've heard enough about how sexual assault and domestic abuse can mess with a person's head, seen enough the sense of shame and isolation it can create, that I'm glad people around the world are able to hear more stories and know they're not alone.

Which is why I'm not entirely satisfied with how media coverage and informal conversations of these issues have been conducted: from Harvey Weinstein on, the focus has typically been on the offending men. 

There's a place for that, to be sure. A place for airing of grievances when the old systems for telling truth and pursuing justice seem to have failed. A place for holding people to account. But it's not the end of the story: it's just the part that gets attention, because all too often it's the prominence and influence of the men that we care about. Even though it's a cultural obsession with prominence and influence--and a cultural disinterest in the broader community--that has left so many men feeling entitled to women's bodies in the first place.

We are drawn to stories about power. But we need stories about healing.

Because even after the consequences have come for the offender, the damage and disorientation can remain. And the quiet, internal drama of sorting out the detritus others' actions leave in us does matter, desperately, to the health of an individual and of a society.

I got my wife Rupi Kaur's poetry collection The Sun and Her Flowers for Christmas. Here's how she talks through the process after assault in one of her poems:

it's too heavy to carry your guilt--I'm setting it down
i'm tired of decorating this place with your shame
as if it belongs to me

it takes monsters to steal souls
and fighters to reclaim them

I think the gospel has a lot to tell us about how to set down others' guilt, how to wipe ourselves clean of their shame. I think a gospel that says our souls are worth more than the whole world can teach us a thing or two about how to fight for them.

And I hope we talk about this. With our sisters and our brothers. With our daughters and our sons.

I hope we learn how to turn open wounds into battle scars we're proud of when this life is done and we meet again back home. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Adah and Zillah: Heroes for Our Time

A few days ago in Sunday school, we talked about Adah and Zillah. 

You may not have. Their story is in the scriptural material the lesson covers, but is not highlighted in the manual. But I teach in my ward, and I made a goal this year to get in one more story each week than the ones people usually tell. On Sunday, I thought it worked nicely to follow up the story of Cain and Abel with another contrasting pair: Lamech and Enoch. 

Cain, of course, is remembered as the world's first murderer in the Abrahamic traditions. The account of him in the Book of Moses is more specific: Cain makes a secret bargain with Satan to trade human life for power and gain. We talked in class about how to this day, people who can't have the natural respect of integrity often try to make up for it by forcing respect with their wealth or their power. 

Lamech is the second murderer mentioned in the Bible. His story, too, gets a more complete telling in the Book of Moses (5: 47-54). In that account, Lamech is the new master of the same secret combination as Cain. A man named Irad finds out, starts to warn people about the secret--and Lamech kills him. 

That's where Adah and Zillah, the wives of Lamech, come in. Lamech tells them about the murder. He says he's better than Cain: Cain killed for gain, but Lamech killed for the oath's sake. The secret has become its own end. If Cain would be avenged sevenfold, Lamech says, Lamech would be avenged seventy and sevenfold. 

Now: Lamech has just killed a man. There's no way for Adah and Zillah to know if he would try to do the same to them. But whatever fear they surely felt doesn't dictate their actions. These two women seem to sense the weight of what's happened. Maybe they don't want the toxic feeling of keeping a secret like that. Maybe they just know that Lamech has to be stopped or he'll repeat the same pattern again. And again. And again. Maybe they can see that each time they'd stand by and let him do it, the secret would get harder to break. 

So, the scripture says, they rebelled against their husband. They declared openly what they'd been told to hide. And the scriptures say that though the secret combination of Cain and Lamech continued among the sons of men in those days, the daughters were through. After Adah and Zillah, they refused to keep silence anymore. 

We talked about this in Sunday School. About two women in the scriptures we can take as models. 


Read in the news today about two women: Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby. Both had been married, in succession, to a man who was, by all accounts, soft-spoken and reasonable in public settings. A man who seemed to be honest and decent and successfully projected an image as a good Latter-day Saint. 

Both of them came to know that in secret, he was willing to trade another person's dignity for his own power. He grew verbally and physically abusive. One wife has pictures of the physical injuries. It's not as simple, in cases of abuse, to show the psychic and the spiritual scars. Each of the women told her story, initially, to people--like their bishops--who could have offered resources and support. But the people they told trusted outward appearances. I suspect they believed in the man they thought they knew, and not in the harder truth they were being told. They may also have been blinded by the vain things of this world: Jennifer Willoughby remembered being told to consider how her actions would affect her husband's career. 

I wish someone had flipped open their scriptures instead and told her about Adah and Zillah. Had told her in no uncertain terms that she made the right choice in not keeping that secret. I'm glad that, in the absence of good initial counsel, Jennifer and Colbie kept talking anyway. That they declared it openly--so it wouldn't just keep happening again and again and again. 

I think we get complacent in the Church sometimes. Assume that a soft-spoken manner and a clean white shirt make a man righteous. Make do with the few scriptural stories and spiritual generalizations we're asked, at bare minimum, to review over the course of four years. 

We need to dig deeper. We need to hunger and thirst for more. 

We need to tell the stories that will help the weary and the downtrodden to stand up for what's right. 

Just like Adah and Zillah did. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

On Contempt for the Poor

What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts.
-Isaiah 3:15

I started drafting a blog post here a while ago, meditating on contempt for the poor, and am thinking about it again for some reason today. Isaiah 3:15 is a scripture my mom used to quote a phrase from when she'd read about or how a policy or practice that upset her: they "grind the faces of the poor" she'd say. Why are there so many ways people rip off the disadvantaged?

Two months ago, I read an article in the Washington Post about a district attorney in Texas who berated her Uber driver for following his navigation app rather than her own alcohol-influenced directions. She threatened to call the police and tell him they were kidnapping her. "Who are they gonna believe?" she said, "You or me?"

The driver realized she was probably right, so he took out his phone and recorded her. In a profanity-laced tirade, she did everything she could to tear him down. She called him, among other things, an f--ing joke and an f--ing idiot. She said she hoped the police would f-- him up when they arrived.

With the spread of cellphone cameras and recorders, the story is hardly unique. You can find regular instances of wealthier people with more prestigious jobs, often under the influence of alcohol, launching into extended tirades against poorer workers--who seem to have done nothing more than get ever so slightly in their way. And for the offense of making themselves noticeable when they are expected to be invisible and frictionless, these workers are, time and time again, ridiculed for their appearance, for the neighborhoods they are assumed to come from, for their supposed lack of intelligence, for any stereotype attached to their class.

The rants are awful to read. Growing up, I always focused on the word "grind" in Isaiah 3:15 and the way little acts of material oppression can wear away at somebody, but reading about just a few drunken tirades, it's hard not to think about the word "face." About the way people grind the face of the poor. The prophet's indictment speaks not just to the economic side of exploitation, but also to the psychological side of it. The Lord, the scripture says, wants someone to answer for this persistent crime. God is fed up at how casually people shame the poor to exert power over them.

It's a problem that concerned a lot of the early Latter-day Saints personally and viscerally. A friend of mine gave me his notes from a recent talk by Richard Bushman about the struggles of the Smith family when Joseph was growing up. He went through the economic side first, the little challenges and injustices that grind away at them. “These were the ailments of poor rural farmers everywhere," Bushman said.

But Bushman didn't stop with the material challenges. "Furthermore, I would add to the list something I think is powerful: the ongoing insult of class. It is the equivalent to the ongoing insult of race. That those who are poor are continually perceived as incompetent, degraded even." As evidence that the Smith were affected, he cited statements from their Palmyra neighbors collected by a disaffected Church member in the early 1830s. "The insult of class is everywhere in the Hurlbut affidavits," Bushman said. "The Smiths are condemned for their poverty.”

I understand, I suppose, that we are humans. Vain and insecure. I know that we like to think we're better than someone else, and I understand that if we have to grind the faces of a few poor people to do so, most of us won't hesitate.

We'll ask if any good can come from Nazareth. Or Haiti. We'll make fun of people's intelligence, their accents, their teeth.

And at the day of judgment, the prophet Isaiah will rise to accuse us.

I hope we repent before then.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Thoughts on The New York Times Obituary for Pres. Monson

The New York Times has known for at least a decade that one day they would be publishing an obituary of Thomas S. Monson. My understanding is that the standard journalistic practice is to draft obituaries of significant public figures in advance, updating them periodically, so that they only need finishing touches rather than a full research process when they are needed.

Even with the lead time, the Times clearly slacked off a bit on this one. Their main source seems to have been a glance through their own archives during the past ten years, which is understandable if underwhelming. But at at least one point, I'm pretty sure they also straight-up Googled to find a quote to insert. I say this because they threw in a statement about polygamy from the website oncedelivered.net--and yes, they did attribute the quote to the website itself and not its author, Rob Phillips, whose job code is "team leader of communications and apologetics" for Southern Baptists in the state of Missouri. I mean, is it really so hard to get someone to criticize polygamy that a national newspaper needs that source? 

Most commentators haven't focused on the carelessness of the obituary, but on its tone--which is either dominated by tough journalistic rigor or open hostility, depending on your perspective. Several people have contrasted the piece to the obituaries of figures like Hugh Hefner, which seemed more generous--not to mention less soulless and perfunctory. 

In response to complaints, the Times ran a piece in their Reader Center covering messages they'd received and offering their obituaries editor a chance to reflect on his team's work. The editor largely doubles down on the piece. I personally found his discussion a little condescending. But then again, it is entirely possible that I am an oversensitive religious zealot from the distant provinces of America with no appreciation for Real Journalism. 

The dust, I suspect, is clearing now. Very soon, if not already, people will find something else to talk about and whatever impressions they had of this incident will be logged in their memories in service of whatever large narratives they build up over time about the Church or the press or the country. Those stories are too big and strong for me to change, but I would like to reflect briefly on two of my own reactions as this moment passes: 

1) As an American, I am deeply disappointed by the missed opportunity this obituary represents. 
2) As a Latter-day Saint, I found my faith oddly affirmed by the piece. 

My Reaction As an American

I have been worried for a long time about the partisan fracturing of America. Years ago, I was in an experimental play where I responded to God's absence by going to fetch a golden elephant and a golden donkey, and the image has lingered with me ever since. I worry that our political and cultural positions have become idolatrous--and that organizing so much of the diverse complexity of reality through the lens of partisan fervor makes it hard to talk to, and to trust, each other at a moment when we desperately need talk and trust to face difficult problems. 

Like many Americans, liberal and conservative, I've been particularly concerned about the way political conversations have looked during the Trump campaign and presidency. I worry about the extent to which the president plays fast and loose with facts, the impulsive and emotive way he responds to private citizens and foreign leaders alike, the playground bully tone he employs on a daily basis. In a historical moment like this, I long for increased trust in public institutions where Americans can come together across old political lines to make sense of what has happened. As sobriety and dignity have left the Oval Office, I want to find them elsewhere. 

As the president attacks the media, I want them to do their best to act in a way I can accept as measured, careful, dignified, and open to a broad rather than a niche public. It's not really fair of me, of course, to expect that from media institutions with bills to pay and polarized audiences to serve. But I can wish for it. 

And this moment would have been such an easy opportunity. The Times needed to cover the controversies and the causes celebre of their left-leaning, intellectual-establishment base. But it shouldn't have been that hard for them, with a decade to prepare, to use the moment of a longtime leader's death to reach out. If capturing Thomas S. Monson's personal ethos seemed too small for them, there are plenty of other angles they could have used to explore his legacy. After all, Thomas S. Monson was called as an apostle in 1963. They could have mentioned his interaction with Mormons behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. They could have commented on his position as a religious leader during nearly six decades of significant cultural and religious change in the United States. 

I don't think they even would have needed to say anything nice about him, quite frankly. Dignifying him as someone who interacted with the grand scope of a long history would have been enough to stake a claim to a public sphere, where major religious leaders are a meaningful part of the history of the country. 

Instead, they left Monson's life squeezed somewhere between Kate Kelly and oncedelivered.net in his own obituary. And in doing so, they reinforced existing narratives--narratives the current President has worked hard to exploit--about the liberal bias of traditional media outlets and about their disrespect for broad demographic segments of the American populace. Mormons, who run civic-minded, have been open to caution about Trump even as they're remained by and large faithful to the Republican Party. Mormons are a community, arguably, moved by the moment to seek civic spaces for shared conversation that transcends partisanship. 

But the Trump team allowed someone competent on their staff to post a well-worded statement of sympathy and tribute--one with none of the account's signature all-caps phrases or self-aggrandizement--at the very moment the Times slapped together a case for their own insularity and called it an obituary. They gave their critics an unforced error to exploit, and by taking that approach at a moment of communal mourning, they earned double-points for alienating Mormons. 

The way I count it, American discourse lost. 

My Reaction as a Latter-day Saint

As much as I like my country, though, my faith runs deeper. In the long term, nations come and go, while religions extend through time--and, I believe, also transcend it. 

As a religious Latter-day Saint, I have a totally different reaction than I do as a Mormon-American. As an American, I wish the Times had reached beyond their own insularity. As a Latter-day Saint, I find it telling that they could not. The superficiality of the Times response is a witness to me of the depth and significance of a spiritual vision that even their substantial resources do not allow them to access. 

After all, if the nation's most prominent newspaper could plainly see what a prophet's life meant, what need would we have for prophets? Of course they miss they mark. Of course they fixate over a the latest controversies and can't see the subtle tapestry that connects us to one another on earth, the tiny dramas of discipleship that prepare us for exaltation. 

Of course they don't see an individual's lifelong commitment to listen to the still small voice as newsworthy. What to them is Tommy Monson's timely appearance, again and again, at someone's sick bed? What are his words of counsel to a quarreling couple in the middle of the night? His listening ear in a widow's living room or his familiar face at her funeral? 

Noise hides meaning. The wisdom of the wise will perish, Isaiah says. The kingdom of God creeps by on cat feet, hidden. 

If the Times could tell me how to live my life, what need would I have for the Holy Ghost? For a bedrock of values that go deeper than the latest news cycle? 

And so: as a Latter-day Saint, I rejoice when the prominent and the powerful miss the point. From a spiritual perspective, I appreciate it. 

President Monson never needed them to understand him. The world was blind to the prophets before him, too. 


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