The Least of Us

"If I’ve learned nothing else in the past fifteen years of inviting the homeless to live with my family, it’s that we’re not here to fix the world. It’s tempting to believe otherwise,.... Evangelicals are the great hope of the world, we’re told. We have the Good News. We’re here to change your life. No, wait, sorry: we get ourselves confused with Jesus all the time."

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Bodhisattva Training

"To those taught that with enough perseverance and labor, they can shape the world to their will, this insistence that you must accept that-which-is infuriates. You cannot read acceptance as anything other than capitulation, a giving up which is a giving in, a passive resignation. For what is healing that cannot cure illness? What is love that cannot uproot injustice? The options seem stark: be the savior or be the victim. But this is a false dichotomy. If you cannot control outcomes, it isn’t because someone else is doing so in your place, but because no one can. That-which-is is really that-which-is-unfolding-always-already.

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Bloom

"My family, by discouraging the religious path, tried to save me from the all-consuming nature of bhakti devotion and knowing my disposition somewhat better now, I think I might have drowned in spiritual study. They would have lost me, in some way. Perhaps. Creating a personal spiritual discipline of practicing meditation, writing with devotion, and attending yoga teachings allowed me to finally connect with my religious tradition in a way that didn’t provoke my mental restlessness and resistance."

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The Greater Jihad

"The three dimensions of Islam include belief, ritual practice, and the effort to improve one’s character (Jihad)—which is perhaps the most misunderstood dimension. Jihad simply translates into ‘struggle’. The ‘greater’ Jihad is this spiritual internal struggle within oneself to improve one’s character. The ‘lesser’ Jihad can be understood as an external struggle in self-defense when attacked."

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To Pray Like a Child

"But I did not grow up in these rules. So they are esoteric, they are contraband, they are radical, they liberate me from the drudgery of infinite small choices, the burden of meaning-making, the alienating loneliness of being twenty-two, a writer who has stopped writing, knowing the way I have been living is not enough, hungry for a life that touches other lives: not just those who happen to be alive at the same time as me, but those beyond the wall of time—humans, in their bodies, their costumes, made more human to me by the distance between our centuries and the similarities of some mysterious combination of genes and destiny. "

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Some Thoughts on Forrest City

By P. E. Garcia

The first time I went to Forrest City, Arkansas, I was traveling to Memphis with my friend Penelope to see Elf Power. We stopped at a Taco Bell, and I distinctly remember feeling out of place, like we were in a foreign country, not just a mere hour or so away from our hometown of Little Rock. I was wearing a Sufjan Stevens shirt that simply said “Greetings from Michigan!” and the woman at the counter thought we were tourists.

It wasn’t unusual for us to feel so out-of-place, though. Penelope is trans, and I’m Latino, two things most folks don’t associate with the South. Yet as much as we felt we stood out in the relatively urban atmosphere of Little Rock, this was amplified in Forrest City—a town that prides itself on being “the Jewel of the Delta.”

It would be a stretch for me to pretend that I have an intimate relationship with Forrest City, but after that initial trip, the town became something of a ritual for me. On my way to Memphis or Nashville or somewhere else I would stop in Forrest City to remind myself of the Delta, and its history, and all the ugliness contained therein.

Forrest City is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate general. He essentially founded the city, as it grew up from one of his campsites.

Forrest is well-known across the South, thanks to the numerous parks, schools and monuments that were named for him. He was widely praised for his military tactics during the Civil War, often referred to as “the Wizard of the Saddle.” After the war ended, it’s widely believed Forrest was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

He is also famous for a massacre. On April 12, 1864, Forrest’s troops captured Fort Pillow in northern Tennessee. Accounts vary widely, but one thing is clear: over 64% of Black Union soldiers in the dispute were killed—twice the number of their white counterparts. Some said that the river ran red with their blood for three miles; reports came back that unarmed, Black soldiers had been gunned down, drowned, and even burned to death.

Whether Forrest personally ordered Black Union soldiers to be massacred is unknown. However, a Confederate sergeant recalled the battle like this:

“The slaughter was awful—words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.”

The Mississippi Delta, over a century later, continues to be a hotbed of violence, particularly for gender minorities and people of color. Forrest City itself is actually only a few hours away from Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. Less than an hour away from Forrest City, Memphis police were caught on tape beating Duanna Johnson, a Black trans woman. Nine months after that video was released, Johnson was found dead of a single gunshot wound to the head.

Just on the outskirts of Forrest City, on March 8th, 2011, a Black trans woman named Marcel Tye was found dead on the side of the road. She had been shot in the head and dragged 300 feet by a car. St. Francis County Sherriff Bobby Mays insisted that Tye’s death wasn’t a hate crime—just an “ordinary murder,” because, he decided, the body was dragged by a car “accidentally.” Mays referred to Tye as being “a well-known cross dresser in the area.” The Sheriff’s website, which claims this murder is still being investigated, incorrectly refers to Tye as “he.”

Regardless of whatever ambiguities surround Forrest’s life, his legacy is one clearly marred by horrific racism and violence. As we begin to ask whether or not the symbols and heroes of the Confederacy and the Old South are still appropriate, I sadly concede that Nathan Bedford Forrest is a fitting talisman of the hideous prejudices and violence that continue to pervade the Delta region. 


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift


Awst Collection - P. E. Garcia

P.E. Garcia's Awst Collection in print. Hand sewn. Contains 11 pieces of new and previously published work.


The Shift

By RE Katz

When Eva introduces herself to you she will reach out and take your hand, and holding it there, tell you her name how old she is how many years she has been married who her daughter is and how many degrees Celsius it is outside. You will listen to her closely even if she slips into German or Russian. You will ignore her rotting gums and promise to pick up a jelly donut for her if she makes it to her father’s house and back with no problems. When he comes to pick her up you will pretend that she does not look ten years older than he does, and you will pet their sad little dog that burned its leg again walking through the firepit in the backyard. You will do these things in the morning before your shift is over, and you will drive home with the sunrise clobbering you through the spidering crack in your windshield. Breakfast is the last thing—world waking up and breakfast is the last thing you have to do before you sign out. Sliding down in their chairs, the powder blue ones with extra height to support their necks, they gape at you and shake one shriveled hand from the elbow. They never touch their food, and so their clothes hang off of them—collarbones white as chalk just above the neckline.

Even when it is not cold out the night will freeze you. Sitting in the same wonky chair that teeters between the first hall and the second, you catch your head as it falls forward or backward every hour. You will glimpse down one long hall and then the other, and the flickering light overhead will split your head twice in a night or else be blotted out completely for its frequency. When the sun pinks from the bottom of the windows and grabs you golden, you will find you have forgotten how to squint. This is third shift, and it is yours. Sometimes you have to take vitals, because in the past they have slipped into respiratory arrest without so much as gasping for air. Some of them scream and beat their chests for no reason at all, and their eyes bulge, but you have to look into those sick globes but past them and know it’s nothing. Sometimes they lash out, and it’s an awful lot of paperwork for a stray elbow in the throat; incidents will go unreported. You begin to flout protocol. At the end of six months, you will chart nothing but a hygiene assessment and whether or not there has been human contact that day.

The narcotics are chained inside the medicine cabinet, which is padlocked inside the office with the emergency panel on the door. You will distribute meds at the beginning and end of the overnight and they will sleep God-willing they will sleep in between. When the dented doors of the cabinet swing open, you will gag from the smell of the multivitamins nestled in a psychotropic cornucopia dealt in saving plastic cupfuls. In the morning you must count the dose twice, because you have now been awake for a very strange long time. Working third shift, you will learn to trade in daylight hours. You will not be able to shake the night. You will try to sleep early afternoon, shades all pulled. While the world spins and grinds, you will try to sleep and fail then self-medicate and then finally, when you seem to swim endlessly underwater, you will stop caring. You will roll through darkness and light like a possum in the road. Somnambulism starts in the eyes. Where eyelids no longer fall, colors are brighter; memory overcompensates for what you already know.

Federico is small for nineteen and a terrible hypochondriac. You will meet him in the early morning hours with a phantom fever, begging you to sift out a precious anti-inflammatory from his medicine drawer and all of a sudden you’re panning for fool’s gold together. You will send him moaning back to bed and threaten to withhold privileges for his rulebreaking, or else you will be human. You will take his temperature, reassure him that there has never been an outbreak of meningitis in the home, and walk him back to his room. Halfway through the door, you listen to him describe the pins in his toes and tell him the foot has just fallen asleep and you may even be so asinine as to add that he should be too. You will become so irritated that you actually read his file. There will be that moment when your eye snags on a landslide of infectious delusions. You will pry open the filing cabinet stashed in the dark office downstairs with the separate key, and you will begin to read everything.

Night after night windows become mirrors. Sometime around three or four every morning or two-thirty-four on the dot, you will freeze before the black glass and see your outlandish face. You will see the reflection of a ceiling lamp hover over the bitten off moon and you will smile. When insomniacs grin there is a moment you expect their teeth to break or burn out one by one like tiny bulbs of night blooming there. Your mind is fertile after dark, eyes are lantern sockets, and you don’t think anything that doesn’t think you back. You will find you have been stuck on yourself like some queer Narcissus for too long, because it is time to wake them and it hits you like a slap in the face. The gentle cooing tone never works, but for a while you will use it anyway. Then you will shout, stomp, lean right next to their burning dream heads and bark. “Get up” you will say, “get up it’s seven-thirty” or “come on, time to wake up now I don’t want to have to call Doctor”—the longest a doctor has stayed with the home so far is eight months. They will roll over, draw blankets; they will scowl, curse your name. They will resent you for opening the blinds, as if you—you who drink the night so that it curdles inside you—have brought the morning in to trash them. And it wastes you too. When you do sleep, you dream of nothing.

Janelle wears too much white powder on the right side of her face. The left side looks different, but it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t actually exist. You will help her dress in the morning, pulling on the one sleeve that never makes it to the shoulder. One time you do this she will probably tell you about the accident, but she will lay it out like summer camp or her mother’s antique store—placing objects but not their meaning. You will note that the damage affects her spatial recognition, her mood, her energy level. Early in the day she will appear carnivalesque with the blush and eyeliner smeared across one side and the amblyopia on the other, lifting her leg in time with the aerobics instructor on the TV screen. At commercial breaks come the fits and you must try hard not to stand on the left when you reprimand her or else you will disappear. They have been able to save the leg from obliteration but she hates the left arm so much she doesn’t even wash it anymore. In this way you will notice that she does not make it to the dining room unless you lead her, lining her up like a Rubik’s cube every step of the way. When she begins to eat her scrambled eggs sloppily with a cupped palm, you will reproach her for forgetting her table manners, or else you will reach across and press the haughty fork into her right hand. She will not thank you, but that’s okay, because when she speaks, her face breaks right down the center and you can almost hear it snap.

In the winter a shiver starts in your spine at the beginning of every shift, and it steals all of your energy. You will carry your long nights in the smallest muscles—a twitching lip, rhythmic but menacing: a symptom soloing above your cigarette. The home is a three-story building made of brick and cement, but it seems to shrink and swell with the weather. An inch of snow and the walls are closing in; a heat wave sends you following a white rabbit through the keyhole. On the night shift you are emblazoned in a world of darkness; everything comes to you like in the second after sneezing—a shimmering bony jab of pure white idea. Or the emergency exit is just hissing at you again. You will need to keep your body churning for hours, and so you will be insatiable. You will find nothing of interest in the shitty hypoglycemic pantry they keep on the main level. So plunging into the deep hollow just off of the laundry room, you will grope for two auxiliary refrigerators like lighthouses over grey sand. You will hear the scattering of cockroaches and earwigs, and draw some holy frozen pizza or leftover ice cream cake from the top shelf. Your dinner will slowly become a scrolling infomercial of dark suburban plenty, a plague of high fructose corn syrup and processed cheese. And cradling this drippy wonder in hand, you will hunch before a smoldering screen and thump another sterile five-year plan. Animal midnight crawls over you only so many times before you change.

Lance was eligible for an apartment in a nice neighborhood before he relapsed. They tell him that he sets fires because he is ungratified. He is ungratified and he has abnormalities in the levels of certain neurotransmitters including but not limited to norepinephrine and serotonin. He has decreased concentration of 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol in his cerebrospinal fluid. You will note that he has also been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. He has the best medications, but no real treatment plan. The last doctor decided that you are to help him deal with his mania by simulating a situation in which he might feel the impulse to burn something. You will drive him to the lot behind the local fire department and dumbly construct a pile of trash. You will not watch him, because then he is too aware of the farce for it to be therapeutic. You will disregard his euphoria, and you will extinguish the flames only when they have become harmful. You will find that this is very much like the way you must manage Lance. You will over time stand back and watch him cremate his life with a single wavering flame, and you will ask to be taken off of his case.

Disciplinary techniques are lost on the night staff. No one wants to do a restraint at three o’clock in the morning, no matter how belligerent, how flailing; you will block your face with your fists, and you will let them tire themselves out. You will be half a brain when they come at you. Your eyes will be burlap sacks, melted candles, shattered car windows with garbage bags duct-taped from the inside fluttering frantically in the wind. You catch them moving toward you in one dimension, and a sympathy fishes beneath your eyes. Seeing them lose themselves on third shift, seeing that sleepless violence, you will know in that instant that you are the same drowning creature. And you will wonder whose condition is the one too obscure, too far gone. You have been sleeping sitting up for six years. You turn in your keys and walk out through the rec room where they are celebrating Janelle’s twenty-fifth birthday, and with a silver tiara sliding over her right eyebrow, she turns to you and smiles. But you’re already out the door because you just can’t take what her face looks like.  

Published 4/22/15 by Awst Press. Check out Katz's Awst Press page or read more about her thoughts in her interview.


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City


Awst Collection - RE Katz

This print collection is hand sewn and contains 27 pages with three new works—a short story, a poem, and an essay of annotations. 

Dirty Work

By Gene Kwak

The quaver in your dad’s voice unkinks something in you. Something deep and coiled. It comes from the very bottom, from where your ankles feel like they’re made of water. You are not a crier; your father is less of one. Even through the crystal-clear sound of the latest phone technology—like your ears are pressed up against each other’s heads—he sounds distant, like he is talking to you from one corner of the room with the phone in the opposite corner. He says the Korean word for grandfather, instead of Dad or Father or Pop. He says, Grandfather is dead. He says, come home, come home now. 

You book a flight through Memphis because when flying to Omaha from Boston your only choices are connecting in Memphis or Milwaukee and you would rather have the smell of bad airport BBQ on your clothes than deal with the herd of coeds, UW-Madison or Marquette logos emblazoned across their asses, tromping around in mud-slushed Ugg boots. Or the indecisive old timers trying to figure out if they want to go kosher on this flight’s meal plan when the less than two-hour trip, at most, offers up those palm-sized, cellophane packets of peanuts and pretzels. 

It is while sitting in the boarding area adjacent to your actual boarding area that you get a call from your sister, Janey. Janey is two years your junior, just turned twenty-four, but has it all together: two-year marriage, kid on the way, adult bills. She tells you over the phone that there was a conflict. She uses the word conflict. She says Little Uncle, using the Korean words for Little Uncle on your father’s side (by marriage), has gotten into a fight with Dad. Has called Dad a motherfucker. In front of everyone. 

She says not to get upset. Janey says she wanted to tell you before you got there because she knew how you’d react. She knows that since you were a child you had a streak of anger that sometimes baffled people, mostly your mother and father. You were prone to minor flights of violence (a baseball bat to the shins of an umpire over a blown Little League call or a balled fist to the temple of a fellow child over a borrowed plaything) She is maybe also referring to the crescent shaped scar above your lip where you were once hit in the mouth by the very same Little Uncle when he and his family first visited the States from Busan, fifteen or sixteen years ago. You were a know-nothing ten year old packed ten-deep with the rest of your family in an Econo van on a twenty-plus hour drive from Omaha to Niagara Falls. Little Uncle snatched a fry out of your hand, and you unleashed a torrent of expletives that resulted in him backhanding you. You’ve been looking for a reason ever since. 

Janey says the adults were convened in Big Auntie’s living room, figuring out the logistics of Grandpa’s funeral, when mid-conversation, Little Uncle turned to Dad and said, Fuck you, waving a middle finger on each hand. Dad was taken aback, she says. A thing you never do is cuss out an elder, even if it is only by three years. A thing you especially never do is cuss out an elder Kwak in front of the other Kwaks, twenty-three in total, assembled in Big Auntie’s living room. Cousins, aunts, uncles, half-cousins, nieces and nephews of the sort that you meet maybe once every five years, and all look the same to you, even though you, yourself, are Korean. 

Janey says, you could’ve heard a dime drop on carpet. The manic antics of the under ten: the little ones running and shrieking, the older kids giving chase, the elders mostly sitting back in plush recliners, watching it all unfold, ground to a sudden halt. Big Uncle was busy feeding his fish, the tropical fish he pays hundreds for, and kept shaking the fish food, those fat white floating flakes, over the water while everyone else sat silent.  

I’ll call you back, you say, your voice choked in your throat. The neon of cheap Elvis memorabilia blinking off of your face. The dead-eyed, mile long stare of overworked mothers looking past you as they wheel around strollers the size of Mini Coopers. A middle-aged man is slumped beside you, a magazine tented over his face.

You go to wash your hands. You notice dirt packed under the half crescents of your nails, though who knows from how long ago; you’ve never minded getting your hands dirty. You get impatient about the whole wait (the drive, the flights, the gates), but know that this stasis is good for you. You want to call Little Uncle directly. You thumb the numbers. Dial all six, but wait until hitting the last digit once, twice. Three times. Finally you gather up the courage and just tap at it. It rings and rings and rings. You hang up. 

The thing you know, that you all know, is that Little Uncle is pissed for one reason: he had asked your father to help pay his way through college and your father had declined. 

He had declined because Little Uncle, Uncle Fuck You, had already been through the university system overseas, had held, for over seventeen years, a suit-and-tie job at a medium-sized corporation in Korea. A junior corporate position. 

But he and Auntie Junior came to the States about a decade and a half after your initial familial thrust. The first foray being you, as a newborn, your father and mother (both in their early twenties) and Big Auntie and Uncle who had just come over by way of Germany (by way of Korea), where she had worked as a nurse and he’d repaired plates on tanks. Dad was a champion studier, the type the whole family rallies around and wishes best of lucks to and stashes money in mattresses for. But they didn’t. Not only was there no money, there were barely any mattresses: sheets on the floor played the same. His dad, your grandpa, was a deadbeat you heard through hearsay, and offered nothing: his only hand-me-down a recessive gene for alcoholism and hairless knuckles.

So your father worked at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, paying for a wife and child on the flimsy TA salary, going without lunch to purchase cheap toys for his baby boy. This went on for two years then another three for his Ph.D. During the interim, your mother had your sister, Janey. These were lean years when Christmas meant donations from the Salvation Army and a weekly grocery budget was little more than twenty-five dollars. 

This reminds you, you need to eat. With the early flight time and the security line, you’ve gone hours without sustenance. You feel light-headed. You finger the crumpled money in your wallet, more than your family squirreled away for an entire month’s worth of food.    

After eating, you make your way back to your gate. A blonde woman in her late forties, a red and white ascot tied around her neck, calls your flight number. As you watch the old folks in their perpetual shorts shuffle through the gate, followed by the young parents with kids, followed by the businessmen with their hard-backed briefcases, there is a minor commotion. A large gentleman with tight, dark curls of hair and a bad Hawaiian print shirt is still stuck in stand-by and screaming obscenities at the ascotted attendant. He leaves her with a fuck you. Everyone else boards apologetically, without fanfare.  

An old family story: little Janey, no more than two at the time, had pawed at Big Auntie’s TV screen saying, po-do, po-do, the Korean word for grape, because your family couldn’t afford them. That you once knew that level of poverty feels distant, like a numb arm.  

Big Auntie was the only one who helped, with lodging in her basement, a job working register in her store, a convenience store she founded with a partner of African descent, who decided to fold and got bought out by Big Auntie and Uncle. Owning their own business being their goal. The nursing and tank repair was only the hard work to bide time. While Dad worked the register and hauled fifty-pound bags of rice, your childhood was spent poking bean sprouts out of the bottom holes of plastic garbage bins you washed them in. Peddling kimchi alongside mucuna pruriens. For this, Dad was always indebted to Big Auntie, but toward the others he was apprehensive. 

Although he was later able to make it: a tenured professor, the epitome of the American Dream, down to the three-car garage, picket fence, and two-point-five children (your baby brother, Chubbs, coming a decade after you), once he started to get comfortable, there came family asking for handouts, the first two fingers and thumb sizzle. 

Little Uncle, granted, worked long hours at an area Walmart. But the point, your Dad said to you, was they all did it when they got here. Everyone worked to the bone, to the marrow, to the center of themselves. Even people who are pretty well off in different countries come here, shuffling everything in their old homelands aside, wanting and wishing for the big dream. Not just to make it, but to make it big. They go to Harvard Square and rub the statue’s foot or dream of piney Stanford. Buy lotto tickets in bulk. And then they are upset or disillusioned when faced with more hours pushing carts in an empty warehouse chain. And so they ask for money from the one person they know who might have it. Because, that’s family. Family you can rely on. Only, that person has enough burdens to bear, foremost among them, his father’s funeral. 

Grandpa was always a saint to you, but you figured this to be more about patriarchal old way-isms and you being the oldest male to carry on the Kwak name in the forty-eight contiguous over any genuine you-and-him kinship. Grandpa, to his credit, took you to parks, bought you dollar candy, showed you how to angle pond rocks to get the maximum skip. Only years later did you learn that not only was he not helping out Dad financially, but also, apparently, Grandpa had another family on the side. This came to light when one of your younger cousins, Mihyun, tried to show him the how-to of the Internet and he got irate for reasons you young ones couldn’t understand. You later learned it was because he was trying to wish one of his other grandkids back in the homeland a happy birthday. 

Grandpa had this other family that your whole family, immediate and extended, knew about, still they brought him in when he got a dark spot in his lungs after being a forty-five year devotee of Esse cigarettes. He’d been quite content in a little apartment in Yongsan-gu, an older suburb of Seoul. Something about the knowing bustle of it. The familiarity. He’d come to the States once before, when you were seven, and he’d planned on staying, but after the infamous driving lesson that ended in him flipping a station wagon, ass-over-end, he was Thank you, Goodbye. 

A family consensus that the American healthcare system is superior to the one in Seoul set Grandpa up in a little trailer in the middle of downtown Omaha, where he raised chickens out behind in their own little coop. The trailer was adjacent to Big Auntie’s grocery store and Dad outfitted Grandpa’s digs, hand-built by Big Uncle, with orthopedic this, leather that, a big screen TV. Grandpa watched Korean dramas through a satellite dish that fuzzed out in hard rain and went for treatments at Creighton. Three years later he collapsed in the hospital, the catch-up to too many years of pack-a-day cigarette habits.

During the awkward wait at the baggage claim, you can’t imagine the eat-him-up feelings your dad must have about his own father’s death. The father that never gave him shit. That fathered another family. That he, Dad, still respected. Paid for. Right to the end. You wish you could magically take the onus off him. Take the burden on yourself. Tell him it is going to be okay. Rub his shoulders, chuck him under his chin.  

In the midst of strangers and their luggage, you well up. You blink the tears away, cough hard into your fist so no one notices you bent over, wiping at the edges of your eyes. But even you realize your tears are less about your grief or the loss of Grandpa, they are about your father. 

You know what you have to do: drive, first-thing, to Little Auntie’s house, knock on the door, and give Little Uncle three seconds before you start pounding the door with both fists only to find no one home. You’ll drive to Walmart next, screech into the handicapped parking space nearest the door, jump out of the car, wait a beat for the automatic sliding doors, and find Little Uncle stacking cans of spray cheese. You’ll violently grab him, screaming, No, Fuck you! your fists white, gripping his blue vest. I will unburden the world of you, you’ll scream in your bad Korean, meaning to say something like, I wish you didn’t exist or I’ll kill you. You’ll fling him to the floor, leaving him spit-flecked in the wake of your rage. A karmic backhand for old times. For your sake and your father’s sake. 

Because a thing you never do is disrespect the father of a man who loves his father. 

Family isn’t an open-hand. Family isn’t an ask, but a do. A doing. Like standing up for a man who would stand up on his own, but shouldn’t have to. Who has his own ideals about family and what it means to fork over when he’s tired of forking over, when the goddamned tines have been nubbed down from forking. Family is wanting to save him from this. Family is the dirty work if anything.

Published 5/7/15 with Awst Press. To see more of Gene's work, go here


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City


Awst Collection - Gene Kwak

This collection in print is 32 pages, hand sewn, and will be available to ship after 5/7/15.

It contains two previously published stories and one new one.

Wars of Their Own

By Rudy Landeros

For weeks the horrible screams that burst from the dank cellar were ignored. After five long months, probably overwhelmed by the guilt of doing nothing, the neighbors finally notified the police. When she was pulled from her hell, the frail 15-year-old child bride was emaciated and near death. From her injuries it was evident that she had been tortured, her body covered with cuts, burns, and bruises. Several of her fingernails had been torn off, one of her ears had been mutilated and chunks of her black hair had been yanked out. This was her punishment. Her crime? She refused to be forced into prostitution by her in-laws.

When I arrived in Afghanistan in June 2011, this was only one of the many cases of brutality that sent shockwaves throughout the country and the rest of the world drawing the attention to the rampant and systemic violence against women and girls. The problem was so prevalent that a 2011 poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation determined that Afghanistan was the most dangerous place in the world for women. According to a United Nation report 87% of women had encountered at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetime.

Common throughout the country was the disfigurement of a woman’s face by cutting off her nose, lips, and ears. This violence was not perpetrated by strangers, but by husbands and families who believed they had been dishonored. Worse yet were Honor Killings, by fathers and brothers who disapproved of a woman’s behavior, and the practice of Baad that required a family to give away a daughter as compensation to settle a dispute or crime. More abhorrent was forcing rape victims to marry the rapist or the prosecution of the victim for the offense of Zina (adultery). Even if they fled from the violence, many were caught and prosecuted for the moral crime of running away from home. For many women and girls the ultimate escape was self-immolation—setting themselves on fire to escape the brutality.

To address the violence in 2009, a law—the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW)—was adopted by Presidential Decree that criminalized various acts of violence against women, including child and forced marriages, forced self-immolation, Baad, rape, assaults, and 18 other acts of violence. However, several reports by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), found that the law was seldom used and that many of the cases were settled by mediation, which provided little justice for the women.

When I departed the United Nations Headquarters in New York—ready to make a difference in a brutal part of the world—my marching orders from the UN Police Division were to strengthen my unit’s working relationship with the UN’s Developmental Program (UNDP) and it’s Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA) Unit, which was the steward of over a half billion dollars contributed by the international community for the development of the Afghan national police. Because of the rampant violence against women and children, and my own experiences under a violent father, I knew empowering women was going to be one of my team’s key objectives. In some ways, I believed it was my chance to make up for the times I had failed to defend my mother and siblings against my father’s brutality so many years before.

One of the first things I did upon my arrival in Afghanistan was to hire A. Heather Coyne, a U.S. Army reservist who had already been in the country for two years. I was moved by her passion for police accountability, access to justice for women, and the need to improve the trust between the community and the police. Shortly thereafter, A. Heather and Tor, the first police adviser assigned to the team, developed our unit’s two pronged mission to assist Afghan women and to build the trust between the police and the community.

A. Heather, Tor and I had spent hours poring over dozens of applications from Afghan women applying for one National Professional Officer (NPO) position assigned to our unit. Our main focus was helping policewomen, and I desperately needed to hire a female. Since the overthrow of the Taliban Regime in 2001, a record number of Afghan women and girls were attending school, and many more were working outside of the home.  But there were still many people throughout the country who were adamantly against the interaction between the sexes absent a mahrammet, a male guardian. In some places this tradition severely restricted a woman’s access to education or training even if the student was a policewoman.

After A. Heather, Tor, and I reviewed the stack of resumes, we shortlisted five of the most qualified women and scheduled a full day to interview them. When Latifa hesitantly walked into the room, the expression on her face was as subdued as the black hijab that completely covered her hair, and the shapeless long black dress that hid her tall body. She was too timid, spoke too softly, and struggled to maintain eye contact when she answered questions. But when asked what needed to be done to make policewomen more productive members of the force she shot back: “Give them the same opportunities given to men!”

Because of her job as a legal adviser for the Ministry of Interior, Latifa knew firsthand what she was talking about. As the ministry that oversees the national police, many women worked there but only a few were assigned substantive positions. Most were relegated to serving tea, cleaning rooms and mending clothes. Even if a woman clawed her way to the top, like one female police general had done, they were often sidelined, discriminated against, harassed, and threatened. In the face of these threats many women quit, or like the general, they fled their own country out of fear for their lives. 

My impression of Latifa forever changed when she confidently described the measures she would take, not only to help policewomen but women in general.  It was obvious she had spent much of her life thinking about this issue.

As fate would have it, in June 2012, the Dutch Embassy in Kabul offered to earmark to my UNAMA Police Advisory Unit approximately $4.5 million dollars if we could submit to them a comprehensive proposal on how we intended to accomplish our goal to help women police and strengthen Community Policing. The meeting with the Dutch Embassy personnel exceeded my wildest expectations. The proposal, known as the Afghan Democratic Policing Project (ADPP), consisted of six components that focused on building the capacity of women police and strengthening the Community Policing model of law enforcement. Of all the components, my favorite was training, which brought together investigators from the Afghan Police’s Family Response Unit and doctors from hospitals in Kabul to develop a plan to help female and child victims of family violence and sexual abuse. The training sessions were taught in the Dari language by a group of dynamic and fearless Afghan women who had the skill of getting everyone, men and women alike, actively involved in the training.

In one training session I attended, several of the female police investigators and doctors defiantly held their ground in debates with male colleagues regarding an Afghan woman’s right to be treated with respect and dignity. As the debate raged, many of the women participants used excerpts from the Koran, the country’s constitution, and criminal law to dismantle their male colleagues’ argument that men have the right to do whatever they want with their women. A female police investigator used a case she had recently encountered to make her point: “Tell me where in the Koran or in the law does it say it is right to beat your pregnant wife to the point where it kills her unborn child? Tell me where it says it is okay to slice your wife’s tongue out and leave her to die?”

The room fell silent as she described the case of a 25-year-old man who brutally beat his 16-year-old wife and cut out a large portion of her tongue. The trauma had been so severe that the unborn near-term baby died from the beating. The investigator explained that her male police counterparts refused to arrest the husband or investigate the case until she and the victim’s father placed the dead fetus on the male colleague’s desk. “Is this right?” was her final question before she calmly sat down. As I listened to her and the other policewomen and female doctors in the class I couldn’t help but have a profound sense of respect and admiration for their bravery. The courage these women displayed reminded me of the times my mother endured brutal beatings, rather than allow her children to be harmed. Just as my father targeted those weakest around him, the Taliban actively targeted and killed women in these professions, these courageous women risked their lives by publicly arguing with their male colleagues for what they believed was right. But the happiness that filled my heart as I watched these women fight for their rights was overshadowed by what happened to Latifa one night:

The six masked men burst through the door and ordered everyone onto the floor. Armed with assault rifles they systematically ransacked the house. For two long and agonizing hours the gunmen terrorized Latifa, her husband and her in-laws. One by one they were each taken into a separate room and interrogated.  As they led her into the bedroom, Latifa feared the worst. Although they never touched her, the men, dressed in ankle length blouses and baggy trousers worn by the Taliban, repeatedly threatened to rape and kill her. Throughout the ordeal, she was warned the Afghan government would soon fall to the Taliban. And when it did what would she do then? To Latifa and her family it was obvious this was not a robbery, it was a warning meant to intimidate her. But it didn’t. The following day she went to work. 

During my two and a half years in Afghanistan, incidents like this happened a lot. More common were the anonymous night letters and phone calls that threatened Afghans with death if they continued to work for infidel organizations such as the UN, European Union, NATO and the various foreign embassies in the country. Many quit their jobs, but not Latifa, she refused to be bullied.  Up until my time in Afghanistan, I resented my mother for allowing herself to be bullied and beat by our father.  But watching Latifa carry on her fight to help women and children in the community while under the threat of violence made me see that my own mother fought not so much to protect herself, but rather to protect the ones in her care. What I’d seen as her weakness was actually the manifestation of her great strength. I began to come to terms with the fact that I was in no position to play savior.  That my contribution would come from empowering those in need, rather than believing that I could fight their battles for them.


Rudy Landeros, who was raised in East Austin, attended the University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduation he taught at AISD’s Govalle Elementary School. After teaching for three years, he switched careers and became an Austin police officer.  Rudy retired from the police department after 24½ at the rank of assistant chief. For the next eight years he worked as a Senior Police Adviser with the United Nations in Sierra Leone, West Africa and in Afghanistan. In 2013, Rudy retired and returned Austin where he now resides.

He is currently working on a memoir.


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City