Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Reading this Tuesday: Tuesday Funk, Chicago

If you’re in Chicago this Tuesday, I hope you’ll join me at The Hopleaf for Tuesday Funk #110. The exciting lineup includes Parneshia Jones, Henri Harps, Jeff Ruby and Britt Julious

I’ll be reading an excerpt from my manuscript-in-progress, which I expect to finish by the end of the year. I have not shared a single word of this manuscript with anyone yet, so Tuesday Funk revelers will be treated to a public premier. My current project is a memoir that deals with perceptions of race, and links between racism, trauma and forms of abuse.

The vitals:

Tuesday, November 7th.
Admission is free, must be 21 to attend.
Doors open at 7pm sharp, show starts at 7:30pm. 

5148 N. Clark St., Chicago

Please RSVP on Facebook — and if you haven’t yet, please like Tuesday Funk’s page so you get their announcements right in your stream.

This is me writing at Volumes:

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Photo by Rebecca George.


PTSD sufferers against fascism

There was never a moment in my lifetime that so clearly delineated the right and wrong sides of history. Shit’s real, America. We’re either going to choose a raving mad lunatic who lacks even the most basic shred of empathy, or we’ll face this threat down and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Those pieces are going to be vile. It’s frightening to know I share streets, highways and public spaces with people steadfastly on the wrong side of history. It’s terrifying to imagine an abusive, unhinged narcissist should be put in power by the will of my countrymen and women who’ll remain upset if they don’t get what they want.

Honestly, what do you want? Today “god” took to demeaning the mentally ill, soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress.

PTSD is not a joke. Sufferers are at risk of an entire spectrum of self-harm. Their loved ones suffer and are often helpless, confused about what to do. The sufferer, frequently living in a waking nightmare, so often wonders what use they are to anyone. Worse, they might perceive, in perverse delusions of empathy, that the world is better off without them.

Not every PTSD patient survived war. Some may have witnessed a house fire, experienced a car accident or gotten mugged or raped. While our culture usually responds (at least in a common narrative) with care to veterans afflicted with the condition, those sufferers who did not serve or experience war can feel estranged. What’s wrong with you, the inner voice says, if you’re flipping out? You didn’t go to war. Snap out of it.

Studies have actually shown that “violent homes have the same effect on brains of children as combat has on soldiers”. The effects of complex trauma are nothing to sneeze at. Abused children grow up to be adults who mistrust the world, struggle to form relationships, tussle to know the difference between real and imagined emotions. This study breaks the ground to reveal the similarity between the experience of war and child abuse.

Among the worst experiences for a traumatized person is to find oneself in a society or social network that worships the abusive narcissist and dismisses or even refuses to accept transgressions. I know people (many of whom, staunchly middle class, will in November vote for a narcissist) who would rather pour an abuser drinks and chat with him than face the abuser’s true identity, even when it’s out in the open. It takes a society, a system, to keep abuse going, and the easiest thing to do when you find yourself an accessory is to pretend the abuse never happened in the first place. You claim you can’t understand why the victim shouldn’t sit at the dinner table where his abuser receives free drinks and the freedom to spew what nonsense comes to his head.

I know I’m not alone. Apparently, psychiatrists and social workers have noticed a spike in people anxious about the election. This is hardly strange to me. Yes, our fellow citizens want a man who’ll publicly ridicule, demean and bully, who’ll deny the thing he said or did just a moment ago. It’s triggering and frightening. Where should a traumatized person turn when an entire nation empowers a narcissist to abuse at will, to do so on an international stage, the American military at his disposal? How should a PTSD sufferer rationalize that this man now represents the sufferer politically? It’s a nightmare.

I don’t believe he’s gambling that most of America actually considers PTSD sufferers weak. This man has proven a poor player of political chess. He gains votes not by tactic but by hook and emotional trap. His comments today are exactly the kind of calculated barb a narcissist uses to pry into people and leave some afraid, confused, disoriented, while others—the ones who need their strength reinforced—feel empowered, superior, true but now dependent on the narcissist for the feeling.

Ironically, the latter group is at greater risk. We’ll know in only a short time just how many Americans are actually seduced enough to choose this kind of madness. In case you’re confused, let me present this simple warning:

Don’t expect the narcissist to love you back, America. He’ll use you until you’re extinguished, reeling and unable to tell your memories from your fantasies. Should you be bruised, he’ll say you hit yourself, then accuse you of lies in the next breath, speak your bruises away as if they were yesterday’s gossip. You won’t have known that kind of betrayal before, and when he’s out of your life, you won’t recognize what’s left of you, what pieces remain to pick up.

Should this madman get in, our constitution will face its greatest test. If the system fails to be stronger than its citizens—if it fails to remove him before a pivotal moment from which we won’t return—his biography will prove the same as the ones of his narcissist predecessors.

He’ll raze what fields he can, hoard what he thinks he can protect, delude himself for a while with victories and grandeur but eventually find himself alone. Depending on the exact nature and placement of his transgressions, he’ll either find some place to hide and whither away, some tribunal will pack him into a cell, or he’ll descend to the darkest part of his basement. History shows they all have a place where they keep a loaded pistol wrapped in a soft white cloth.

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The novelist and his PTSD

This is a blog version of the story I told on December 14th at Is It a Thing, a monthly spoken-word series here in Chicago. I’m dedicating it to my good friend Kerri Smith Majors, who asked me to write it. Note: the post contains excerpts from The Fugue.

Here’s the question posed in this entry: What did editing a manuscript I had not looked at for more than a half-decade reveal about my PTSD?

I’ve already blogged about the 15 year path that led to the publication of The Fugue. The first words came in 2000. Once finished, I failed to sell the manuscript and put it away in 2006, later beginning work on a new project, what eventually became Finding the Moon in Sugar. I considered The Fugue a failure and stopped trying to get anyone interested.

A short time after I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar (2009), I ended up diagnosed with PTSD. Its onset came after* I got caught in a convenience store robbery, which I blogged about in this entry titled Gunpoint. To summarize: I was certain the robbers were going to kill me that night, and I accepted my death while watching the robbery unfold, reflected in store windows.

I obviously survived, but not unscathed. Within a few days, I started having PTSD symptoms. My PTSD was (and sometimes still is) like a bad and incessant acid trip, complete with phantom sensations, memories of voices, unusual sounds, smells, flavors and inexplicable visions. The visions can be hallucinogenic and dreamlike or frighteningly realistic. I’ll write about them some day.

Doing something as simple as brushing my teeth or making a cup of coffee often brought on confusing sensory overload. My body experienced “phantom pains”, especially in my face and ribs, and my throat would constrict. I’d want to run and hide but could only sit somewhere and trip balls. I’d get lost in neighborhoods I’d known all my life, the street signs resembling electronic tickers, letters of all languages flying in them at unreadable speeds.

I soon figured out that the robbery had triggered childhood memories, which I wrote about, in part, in an essay titled Baptism Party, later republished by The Good Men Project under a different title. I’d learn soon enough that the effects of child abuse are not unlike the effects of war, at least in terms of what happens to the brain.

In order to heal, I had to make dramatic changes to my lifestyle. With guidance, therapy, a commitment to health, mindfulness and Zen practice, and the help of many loved ones, I eventually learned to manage my symptoms, even to neutralize or eliminate some altogether. Writing helped. So did telling my story in public.

***

In 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon in Sugar in a bar. During that reading, I met Jason Pettus, the owner of The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. He asked if I could send him some material to review, and soon enough he offered to publish The Fugue.

I had last looked at the manuscript sometime around 2008. When Jason and I started editing, I was shocked by some of the things I found. The main character, Yuri Dilienko, grows up in a dysfunctional, abusive family, its members traumatized by war and other events. He also ends up in prison for over a decade, found guilty of arson and parricide.

Early in the narrative, a character suggests Yuri might have PTSD. Of course, I had completely forgotten this. Then my descriptions of PTSD “in the moment” left me thunderstruck.

In this excerpt, Yuri’s just been released from prison, has moved back to his hometown and is thinking of getting a job in a bar. The reason he hesitates showing his hands is because they’re dotted with scars suffered in childhood:

                                                                       —

He noticed a “Help Wanted” sign hanging behind the bar, so low that only people at the bar could read it. Maybe this was some kind of subtle joke, because people who sat at bars usually needed help. Yuri imagined working there. Most of the men were only drinking beer, and if they ever wanted something different, scotch and soda, Yuri was sure he could mix it.

“I’m sorry.” Yuri spoke to a bearded man. “Excuse me. I’m sorry.”

The man perked up. “What for?” He lit a cigarette.

“That sign there. Below. The Help Wanted.”

“The sign? Oh, for the job?” He rattled and stuttered: “Yeah, that’s…that’s for the job.” The man coughed into a loose fist. “Hey, Sonia!” She stepped over from the bar’s other end. “If you want the job,” he told Yuri, “Sonia’s gotta read your palms.”

All the other men now seemed interested.

“You wanna job?” asked Sonia. “Is por bartender. We have the day position.”

Yuri shrugged. “Daytime? You mean what? Noon?”

Sonia smiled at him. “I see your hands. Both hands.”

Yuri hesitated. The whole bar was watching him, some of the men grinning. He wanted to take his cane and tell the people he was very sorry, it was a big misunderstanding, because he had to go. While looking at their intense faces, pockmarked skin, lopsided mustaches, Yuri felt surrounded by the most violent men—grotesque and incapable of compassion, their eyes the color of mortar. His mind began racing, as it did often when he found himself confused or surprised. Strong, hard hands grabbed at him from all around and a shiver buzzed over his entire body, electric over his chest. He was powerless and could only give in, curl up, let the blows come, let them pass, then bury rage and fear deep in his center, deep into his pelvic bones and base of his spine.


                                                                         —

 In this next scene (slightly edited), Yuri is working in a butcher’s shop. It’s only days before the house fire that will take his parents’ lives:

                                                                     —

A powerful force in his center, like a glass sphere packed with the molten heat of a red sun, wanted to charge up his throat.

At the end of the workday, Reikel smiled to Yuri as he left, said, “See ya Monday.” On the way to the bus stop, Yuri threw up his lunch…popcorn, salami and apple juice. This was the third time he had thrown up, the onset of nausea unexpected, gone as soon as he had vomited, since he had shown Reikel his hands. Nobody ever saw Yuri vomit.

Cicero had become a ghost town surrounding him. Hundreds of sparrows were chattering in a small yellowing elm. Their bickering and chirping grew so loud and overwhelming that Yuri stood entranced until a woman exited a nearby car.

On 12th Street, he saw his bus lumber away without him, so he went to a diner to rinse his mouth in the bathroom and wipe his face and chin to be sure he was clean.

Once home, he couldn’t sculpt. Every idea and sketch seemed pointless and stupid. He was always hungry, although nothing tasted good and no drink quenched his thirst or whet his constantly dry mouth. The hardest place to be in all of Cicero was home. While he sat in his kitchen, it felt as though parts of him were gradually disappearing. Yuri felt extreme nervousness, a shifting fuzziness in his periphery, and that powerful glass sphere inside him.

Everything required hands. At Reikel’s, his hands seemed to do what he asked them, but at home they refused to obey. Everything required hands. Warming up a plate of leftover macaroni and cheese. Washing himself, his entire body…before he could wash his body he’d have to wash his hands. Flipping through the sketches on the table seemed such a chore. When Lars used his hands, music came so easily, like air through a wide open door. Yuri could tell that Lars never thought about borrowing hands or finding new ones, and he didn’t have nightmares that his hands were left wrapped up in aluminum foil at the bottom of a paper bag…

…Whenever he awoke, he had trouble knowing what day it was. He found busses running on the Saturday schedule. Weekends were the worst because he had so much time to sculpt but found plenty of excuses, shopping for things he didn’t need—paper clips and deodorant—always walking to the largest stores on 22nd with the biggest crowds. Among these people, nobody knew. Sometimes Yuri walked out on the yellow lines in the middle of 12th Street’s busiest traffic and felt completely invisible.

                                                                    —

These are only two scenes among many more that describe what it is like to have PTSD. The sudden nausea, throwing up, the nightmares. The feeling of disappearing, of being invisible, even in traffic. The daydreams of beatings, and the simultaneity of rage and confusion, the constriction of the throat. How could I have known it to this vivid detail?

My wife thinks I have always* had PTSD, or an anxiety disorder of some kind, that the robbery just cranked up the volume. I might agree with this theory if, prior to writing the novel, I had known how it felt to “crank up the volume”.

Composing the book, I had very little information about PTSD, had read a few articles, knew some stories about veterans’ issues. I never intended this book to be a portrait of a sufferer and don’t remember thinking very much about it. Perhaps the way I imagined PTSD might be influenced what form my PTSD took. PTSD is, at least in part, a condition of the imagination, a disorienting fusion of memories and fantasies, delusions and recollections, their tone depending at once on the nature of one’s fears and experiences.

I can’t answer how this happened, except to say that I found it fucked up, a mystery of the creative mind. Obviously, plenty of characters in The Fugue experience things I never did—all novelists imagine experiences they’ve never had; we depend on observations or overheard stories to narrate them. But this brand of premonition, if that’s the word, left me fascinated. It’s a layer in the book I could never have anticipated but now can’t deny.

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Storytelling tonight: Is it a Thing?

Tonight, I’ll be telling a gripping story about what the publication of my novel revealed about my PTSD. It’s a mysterious thing, but to find out about it you’ll have to come to O’Shaughnessy’s Public House.

Hope to see you tonight:

Is it a Thing?

O’Shaughnessy’s Public House

4557 N Ravenswood, Chicago, IL 7:00 PM

And here I am reading in California. I’ll probably look different tonight.

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Photo courtesy of Why There Are Words.


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On losing forty-eight (48) pounds

Full disclosure: in the summer of 2012, I weighed 198 lbs. If I weighed myself today, the scale would probably bounce around at 202-204. At the doctor’s a week ago, I was 206, but I was wearing a lot of clothing (and I had not taken a dump). In the summer of 2010, however, I weighed 246 lbs. I’m only a fraction over six feet tall.

My post comes in vague response to this article that originally appeared on xoJane and was later republished by my colleagues at The Good Men Project. It deals with the stigma of being fat, and takes issue with various critics of Gov. Christie of New Jersey and Melissa McCarthy, the star of the film Identity Thief. I encourage you to read it, even if you don’t like McCarthy or Christie. I can’t say much about McCarthy, as I’ve never seen any of her work, but I disagree categorically with Christie’s politics, even in the wake of the human side he showed following hurricane Sandy. He did earn my respect in the aftermath, but I doubt I’d ever vote for him, certainly not in a presidential election.

All this is beside the point. I share something in common with both Christie and McCarthy: I have struggled with my weight since childhood, and spent a good portion of my 30’s obese, with a BMI of well over 31. As a graduate student, I was rather thin, but this only because I could barely afford food. Once I got a job, the weight started to grow. I gained over 50 pounds between my thirty-second birthday in 2005 and the birth of my daughter in April of 2010. I was certainly not in any public eye, but I still endured comments from people, some who meant well but others who did not. I would learn second-hand that obesity had become, at least to a few people, my new identity. I was “the fat guy” and “my fat son”.

What’s shocking to me in retrospect was that the comments often came from people who were obese themselves, and obese for reasons very similar to mine, which I’ll get to in a moment. Even when the comments came from those who meant well—a colleague thought I’d be setting a bad example for my children if I remained fat—they were delivered in such a way that only exacerbated the problem. I wasn’t obese because I overate and did not exercise. I overate and avoided exercise because I was depressed and had low self-esteem. Food, especially sweets, provided comfort, albeit a complex variety: I often actively behaved in ways to harm myself, usually unconsciously, but sometimes masochistically.

I remember once craving a White Hen Pantry doughnut. Out of hatred for myself for having these cravings, I stormed over to the White Hen and bought two doughnuts. Here, eat these, you piece of shit, if you want them so much. Then I sat on the sofa and played video games, feeling bloated, utterly useless, my weight rising. I’d learn later, in therapy for PTSD, that these behaviors were related to my abusive upbringing. At the time, I only thought they were normal, as I had nothing to compare the feelings to, no alternative self. I was a piece of shit. This was absolute.

Obesity is not an exotic American problem. However, it very often is a private one, paradoxically, even in a culture that sees The Biggest Loser among its favorite television shows. If that show makes anything clear it’s that obesity’s roots are as much psychological as they are physiological. We separate the obesity and depression epidemics at our very great risk. Is it harmful to oneself (and to those who depend on us) to be fat, and should we encourage people to be healthy? Let’s not ask dumb questions. We accomplish nothing by turning someone’s weight problem, which is often a seriously complex matter, into a nicely packaged identity for them. In fact, this is counter-productive—if we have their health in mind, we might draw attention to their abilities and character. If we don’t like their politics or acting skills, but still have their health in mind, we can stick to critiquing their foolish ideas or poor skills. But pointing out that they are fat is not a criticism; it’s the same as pointing out their cholesterol, the strength of their optical prescription or their blood pressure.

How and why did I lose weight? It was not because I suddenly stopped being lazy—I’ve been industrious my whole life. I did not have a heart attack or other health scare (although my blood pressure freaked me out). I had support from people who loved me, medical professionals who taught me things about myself that had been mysteries, yoga instructors who offered encouragement and education, and friends who asked me if there was something the matter with me, if I had something I wanted to share. At first I didn’t think so. Eventually, though, I couldn’t help it. I ended up diagnosed with PTSD and, in a fit of fright, realized I needed to change my habits, hundreds of them, from how I ate to how I thought, if I wanted to be a decent father and husband. I never had a tight pair of jeans as my goal. If anything, part of the goal was to realize that the tight pair of jeans was a construct of beauty no different from the value we place on fame or political power, values that lead us to put ourselves down and leave us feeling isolated and powerless.

 


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Response to readers

I was very moved by some of the responses that I got to (trigger warning!) my republished version of Baptism Party. If you have not read that essay and have stumbled on this post at random, know that, as a memoir of my abusive childhood, the piece is very difficult to read and might remind traumatized readers, especially those who experienced life with an alcoholic, of their past.

For obvious reasons, many of the responses did not appear in the comment sections. They came directly to me  from subscribers to the Good Men Project, readers who have been following me since the publication of Finding the Moon in Sugar and also former students. The majority were from people who suffered at the hands of a narcissist, or who grew up with pervasive intoxication either at home on in their community. What shocked me—it actually rattled me up—was how many readers quoted this part of the essay:

Children of narcissistic alcoholics will tell you they inhabit the homes of their childhood about as often as their dreams, as so many of their dreams, in daytime as in sleep, are the stubborn memories of childhood. At times when I must return physically to the house, I always enter twice, initially through a sequence of vivid memories and images. As they play out, I construct a fortress of introversion around myself. It does not matter if I am simply dropping off borrowed jars or coming into a full-blown party. Each time I enter, I brace for an assault, though I can never be sure what kind.

I had not really spoken to any “children of narcissistic alcoholics” prior to writing this. Sure, I had read books, attended some meetings, and I had spoken to a variety of therapists before writing the essay. I had also heard stories from people at work. But I can’t say that I wrote that paragraph believing I had gotten to the heart of something. Quite frankly, I thought I was taking calculated liberties.

If you are among those readers who took time to write and say, “That’s exactly how I feel,” know that I was deeply moved. What’s shocking is that so many of us feel something private and sinister while we exist inside that “fortress of introversion”, however we dress it up, but if we could lift our heads out for a moment, we’d find ourselves in a community we didn’t know we had. Realizing this helped me quiet the voice in my head, so similar to the one I write about, the one that criticizes me constantly, bellowing: “Why the hell are you writing this self-indulgent horseshit? No one cares. Grow up! Get over yourself!” (Doesn’t that remind you of anyone?) It’s so much easier to tell that voice, “Take a look at these letters I’ve received. Take a look at this group of people that has no idea what they share, and with how many!”

There are more of us than any of us know. We are invisible even to each other as we sit lonely in cafes or ride the bus to buy soap and toothpaste. Your responses have given me enormous energy. I’m encouraged to continue writing about these important issues of abuse, trauma, self-realization, social confusion and all the close toxic cousins. Thank you so much for all the well-wishes, the sympathy and your expressions of vulnerability. That is all I can say. I feel it is not enough.


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At the Bloghop!

I’ve been asked by fel­low author, Nancy Agabian, to par­tic­i­pate in a Blog Hop in order to intro­duce new authors to new read­ers. If you’ve come here from the link posted on Nancy’s blog, wel­come! If you’re a regular Liquid Inker or came upon my blog by chance, this is an oppor­tu­nity for you to get know some­thing about the memoir I am work­ing on and to check out some writ­ers who might be new to you by fol­low­ing the links at the end of the post. They are all fine authors whose work I would highly rec­om­mend. Again, spe­cial thanks to Nancy Agabian for ask­ing me to participate.

________________

Ten Inter­view Ques­tions for The Next Great Read

Q: What is the work­ing title of your book?
A: Ghetto Blueblood

Q: Where did the idea come from for the book?
A: I published an essay titled Baptism Party in Antique Children’s Revolt of the Underdog issue. Another contributor, Rene Vasicek, told me I should expand it to a memoir. Then another writer, Daiva Markelis, told me to expand it into a memoir. Later on, a fan of my writing, someone who’s been following my work since before I published my first story, told me I should expand it into a memoir. I finally took the advice seriously.

Q: What genre does your book fall under?
A: Non-fiction (memoir)

Q: Which actors would you choose to play your char­ac­ters in a movie ren­di­tion?
A: I myself should be played by a rock star, preferably a resurrected one, maybe Kurt Cobain. My brother should be played by a young Arunas Storpirštis. The rest of the cast should be made up of Russian, Lithuanian, English and American actors currently in drama school.

Q: What is the one-sentence syn­op­sis of your book?
A: PTSD isn’t as bad as the trauma that caused it, but you won’t know it without getting PTSD.

Q: Will your book be self-published or rep­re­sented by an agency?
A: I have no way of predicting this. Just the other day I ordered a pizza and it came to my neighbor’s house. In the meantime, a young girl came to my door asking if I’d like to subscribe to some strange local newspaper advertising pizza delivery.

Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your man­u­script?
A: I have yet to complete the first draft. I actually haven’t finished a draft of the first chapter. Ha!

Q: What other books would you com­pare this story to within your genre?
A: It’s a mix of influences, so I’ll use them to answer this question, even though comparing myself to these masters is idiotic. I can’t believe I’m doing this: Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth, A Chronicle of Early Failure. Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (He claims it’s a novel, but that’s BS). Capote’s Music for Chameleons.

Q: Who or What inspired you to write this book?
A: I was diagnosed with PTSD a short time after my daughter was born. Anyone who has the condition (or anyone close to someone with the condition) will tell you how dramatically everything changes; life becomes a 3D (truly terrifying) horror film, and one cannot tell between dream states and their alternative. I don’t want to get into the vile symptoms here. Writing through it, even gibberish, helped. I also started treating it naturally, doing yoga and practicing Zen. A completed memoir will crown my victory over PTSD, as there was a time when I had lost any ability to read and could barely write anything beyond crude e-mail messages.

Q: What else about your book might piqué the reader’s inter­est?
A: I have a way of telling stories about the lower-middle class and the American underclass that’s extremely rare, primarily because my perspective is international, but also because I don’t pity the poor or the destitute. I don’t pity any human experience. As a student of zen, I try to reveal what’s before me, just as it is.

Here are the writ­ers whose work you can check out next: