Author Archives: antranwritesstuff

About antranwritesstuff

I am a twenty-something writer in Northern Virginia.

storySouth Million Writers Award Finals

The short-list for storySouth’s Million Writers Award has been released and is now open to public voting.

I’m happy to report that my story, ‘The Grinning Man’, published by Eclectica Magazine, has made the cut. Please go check it out and, if you are so inclined, place a vote through this GoogleDocs Form. I’d greatly appreciate it!

Thanks to the judges! And Eclectica’s editors Tom Dooley and Anne Leigh Parrish!

Also, in other news, the Sententia Books website has been redesigned, and my short story–one of the favourites I’ve produced–“Conversations with the Rest of the World” has been put up online. Thanks to Paula Bomer and Adam Robinson for allowing me to share this story with the world, and in so many different mediums!

What I’m Working On Now

But first, it appears that I’ve made the long list for storySouth’s 2014 Million Writers Award twice. Once for “The Phantom Harlot” at Big Lucks and once for “The Grinning Man” at Eclectica Magazine. It looks like there’s a lot of genre work on this long-list, so I’m not entirely sure how these pieces might measure up (easily the most fabulist of stories I’ve written, but still quite realist), but fingers crossed! It was really just a pleasant surprise. Thanks to the editors at both journals for sharing these works! I’m also really just happy to be listed alongside Celeste Ng, whose debut novel EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU I’ve recently just started. It is phenomenally crafted, from what I can discern in just the opening chapters. Great attention to detail, vivid and unique uses of imagery.

Anyway, I wanted to share a little bit about what I’m doing and thinking about now. The novel is still in-progress, but a little hung up. This has more to do with me being busy and not putting the work in than it does with me running dry on ideas or how to move forward. It will get done, but for now… there’s the day job to worry about; there’s my last MFA workshop (tomorrow!); there’s revising the thesis; there’s finishing my craft essay and outlining my seminar; there’s a lot of work.

All said, I do have a couple of potential story ideas germinating (and how do I miss short stories!). There’s also an idea that I’m not sure if I want to do as an essay or as a work of fiction, which has to do with Street Fighter (the arcade game) and social class / racial politics. They’re connected, trust me. haha. I’ll let it stew a bit longer before try to put anything to paper.

With that, adieu, good friends. 🙂 Work hard.

Gargoyle #61 and Other Updates

I’ve made my selection for my week of guest editorship at Smokelong Quarterly. It wasn’t easy; there were a number of really great pieces. Even pieces I could see myself loving very deeply, had they not had a fatal flaw or two that said to me they weren’t quite ready for submission. The selection I made was everything I look for in a piece of flash, was elegantly executed, closed in a way that resonated back through the rest of the piece. I’ll be excited to see it up.

In other news, a short story I’ve waited nearly a year to see released has come in Gargoyle #61, along with many other great writers and friends. This was one of most dear pieces to me, one of the first times I wrote candidly about racial shame. There’s a strange and fairly universal phenomena in being a visible minority, since you live your whole life being compared against the dominant culture, and that’s a deeply-seated sense of shame for being born the way you are. Everyone grows out of it at a different rate, but that shame can manifest into guilt, into rage, into self-hatred. I wrote a character that experiences all of this well into adulthood, and has to come to terms with his own racial identity. Plus, there are squid and lots of linguistic playfulness. The result is titled “The Message of My Skin.” Order a copy, if you feel so inclined.

I’d also like to an extend a very heartfelt thanks to editor Richard Peabody, who recently let me know that my story was one of Gargoyle‘s Pushcart Prize nominations. I’m incredibly honored, not only to be included in Gargoyle’s rich history in American independent literature, but to have my work represent it for the Pushcart. I can hardly believe it, really.

Lastly, a recent piece of mine has been picked up by another indie press I’m rather fond of. More on that later. 🙂

SmokeLong Quarterly & Other Updates

I probably should’ve posted up last week, since I’m guest editor for SmokeLong Quarterly from August 11th through August 17th. Yes, those dates are over with now and I’ve a queue of pieces to read through and select from. I didn’t post up because I happened to fall under the weather with a pretty nasty cold and fever, and still had to take care of my day-job responsibilities. I did announce it on Facebook and Twitter though, so if you submitted during this period, thanks! I’ve already read some promising pieces and expect to find some real gems in the queue.

I’ve definitely been in a bit of a creative rut lately, second-guessing myself and feeling all-around uninspired. I suppose this happens to the best of us and I’m just going to try to exercise a lot of patience. We all fear that fire inside of us going out, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. Something will occur in life that I won’t be able to ignore, and words will aggregate again. Patience.

In the mean time, I’ve been hard at work trying to finish up this MFA business, particularly with this craft paper. I’ve been reading Kirstin Chen’s Soy Sauce for Beginners and find the novel absolutely riveting. Check it out, if you’re itching to add another book to your To-Read stack.

Two Stories!

Update: Turns out I see the release of two stories today. The e-book and Kindle version of Sententia: The Journal’s Issue 5 has been released (print version to come in July). I really love the piece included here, entitled “Conversations with the Rest of the World.” It’s an exploration of my own personal life fantasy: to communicate with a great ape through American Sign Language. I don’t know ASL, though I’m trying to learn. In this story, a young girl is born deaf, ASL being her “native language,” and she discovers during a zoo trip that she can communicate with the gorillas. I owe Paula Bomer and Adam Robinson a tremendous amount of gratitude for picking this story up and sharing it with others.

Original Post:

My friends over at Big Lucks have put up a fun little short story I wrote. I’ve just recently joined the masthead at what I think is one of the most stellar indie presses at DC, but long before that, I had this piece accepted by these lovely and amazing people. “The Phantom Harlot” is, in essence, a ghost story that stemmed from an idea I originally had for a novel: a couple moves into a haunted house and begins conducting recording sessions in a particular room, hoping to capture what’s known in ghost hunting circles as “electronic voice phenomena” (EVP). These are disembodied voices captured on recordings that were inaudible at the time of the recording itself.

It’s a really fascinating phenomena to me, this EVP business. I wondered what it’d be like to have a consistent call-and-response with a ghost in this way. You’d give a sort of monologue, leave the recorder running, and listen to the response the morning after. I thought, If people can fall in love with each other solely through emails and the written word, why not a “letter exchange” through spoken word? The novel itself didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to. The idea wasn’t large enough and I was forcing it, so I rewrote it as a short story.

Hope it’s an enjoyable read. Thanks so much to Mike and Mark for publishing this!

My Statue of Brahma Sahampati

Disclaimer: The following post is an extremely lengthy rumination on Buddhism, Brahma, and my own personal path. These thoughts and studies often inform my writing, fiction or otherwise, but is largely religious in context. It may be of interest to those who find interest in Buddhist studies, but is probably not worth the read if religious content is unappealing to you. Fair warning. 🙂

When I was in Houston, Texas back in April for my great grandmother’s funeral, after my family had eaten lunch together in one of the many Vietnamese neighbourhoods surrounding the city, my siblings and I made our way into a gift shop that sold primarily Buddhist statues. I had only a very small two inch pewter statue of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha at the moment, so I decided at that moment it was a perfect time to make a new purchase. Not a standard buddha, no, whether Shakyamuni, Amitabha, or Vairocana. Browsing shelf after shelf of gorgeous golden statues, face after face of serene smiles, I felt a strong need for my altar space to include a bodhisattva.

For those not in the know, a bodhisattva is the title given to a being on the path to supreme buddhahood. All enlightened beings are buddhas, but the supreme buddhas are the first in the cycle. They arise at times when the dharma has been completely lost and forgotten; they attain nirvana with no teacher to guide them, and subsequently go on to teach others. This is called Turning the Wheel of Dharma. In Mahayana Buddhism, the goal is not to attain enlightenment, but rather to cultivate the necessary compassion to begin the path of the bodhisattva. I think this idea best comes across in a short prayer from The Bodhicaryavatara (or, “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”) by Santideva:

As long as space remains,

As long as suffering beings remain,

May I too remain

And help to dispel the misery of the world.

My eye snagged on a very particular statue, a throned being of golden skin, eight arms and four faces. He reminded me of the depictions of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when in thousand-armed form. I assumed it was a depiction of him, but it didn’t matter at all who this being was. I knew this was the one. I purchased him.

The Phnom Penh Brahma

The Phnom Penh Brahma

I hadn’t noticed until afterward that these being held a six-spoked wheel. The Wheel of Dharma has eight spokes, representing the Noble Eight-Fold Path. And then I later learned that this was a Cambodian depiction of Brahma. Why, I wondered, had there been a Hindu statue among all these Buddhist ones?

Brahma, of course, exists in Buddhism and is a prominent figure in the lore. It is used as a title and often specifically refers to Mahabrahma, the deva who is first in the cycle of universal expansion to be born into the Arupadhatu (Formless Realm), after having died in a higher realm. As with all rebirths, knowledge of previous lives has extinguished. Being alone, Brahma comes to believe he is the only being in the universe. He starts to feel lonely and wish for company. Eventually, other beings die and are reborn into his realm, or lower realms that he can observe. This causes him to believe that he created these beings; and these beings, having no other reference, believe his claim that he is the Creator.

But that still doesn’t explain why Brahma would be a deva of veneration in Buddhism, does it? To understand this, I had to go back and read some of the texts of Gautama’s enlightenment specifically. In all of these tellings, Gautama post-enlightenment is very hesitant to teach others the path. He doesn’t believe that he can, or if it’s worth his effort to try. According to lore, a being manifests before him, from a Formless Realm, and convinces him to teach. This being is always described as an anagami (non-returner) who trained under Gautama Buddha’s predecessor, Kasyapa Buddha. The anagami made tremendous progress under that particular buddha, yet did not attain arhantship (“arhant” is the conventional title for non-supreme buddhas). He attained the fruit of the non-returner (no more births in the Sense Domain, but one more birth overall) and resided in the Formless Realm for millenia in order to complete his training.

In some tellings of this story–and I believe this actually exists in the commentaries, not in the actual scriptures (the first few centuries of commentary are considered canonical)–the anagami in question was also the current Brahma of that time. His name is Sahampati, but is often simply referred to as Brahma in the texts.

After much of this reading, I began to pay closer attention to references to Brahma in the texts, such as in the Mahaparinibanna Sutta from the Nikayas, where Brahma grieves over the Tathagata’s passing into final extinction. Brahma routinely displays great reverence for the Tathagata throughout the texts, and the two appear very friendly in some respects.

Unfortunately, I still don’t have a bodhisattva anywhere in my home, but my practice of Mahayana Buddhism is a little unique compared to other traditions, I think. In the Thien, Zen, and Chan traditions (I will use “Zen” from now on, since it’s the most familiar), there are arguably three set of texts that are given primary emphasis: the Lankavatara Sutra, the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutras, and the various sutras on Tathagatagarbha (“Buddha-nature”). Some of the emphasized concepts in these texts are at-odds with one another.

The Lankavatara Sutra is probably dearest to me. It represents an ontological framework called yogacara, often described as “Mind-only.” I may write on that later, but this is becoming a fairly hefty post already. What is important about the Lanka text and particularly about the yogacara school of thought (which we should consider a proto-Zen sort of scholarship) is that–despite being a Mahayana text–it very closely resembles and emphasizes the gradual training system presented in the Theravadin Nikayas. Zen traditions themselves de-emphasize gradual training over sudden insight and awakening. Meditation and progressive training facilitates the sudden arising of insight–this statement is true of all schools, both Theravadin and Mahayanist–but yogacarin thought is unique in Mahayana in that it doesn’t claim that every single being will be a supreme buddha. In some ways, this idea directly contradicts the fundamental Zen concept of Buddha-nature, which infers that arhants will go on to take the bodhisattva vows.

So the path in yogacara–now a tremendously rare tradition to come across–is somewhere in-between Mahayana as we know it today and Theravada. There is a training system that very closely resembles the path outlined in the Nikayas: there is training in samatha, measured by attainments and perfections of the dhyanas, which develops the capacity for calm-abiding. In Theravadin practice, the jhanas (for those who practice them) is used in conjunction with vipassana, or mindfulness meditation (though many Theravadins, particularly in modern practice, train exclusively in mindfulness/insight).

For the yogacarin and Zen practitioners, mindfulness (training to view reality as it is) is the practice of developing prajna (wisdom) by recognizing sunyata (emptiness). Zen uses a specific technique (contemplation of non-dualistic koans) while the yogacarin contemplation is a little more general, can include koans, but can also include any other meditative techniques that bring awareness to emptiness and inter-dependence. The dhyanas are requisite here, as insight can only be attained when the mind has been trained in preparation for it. So you see that the path is not very different between these particular Mahayana and Theravada traditions.

Now, back to Brahma. As a lay-person, I have no desire to put my practice toward what might be an unrealistic goal. What I can do is undergo rigorous training and hope for an even more fortunate birth where I might be able to dedicate more of myself to the goal of enlightenment–whichever enlightenment that is reasonable to attain. I had intended to purchase a statue of a bodhisattva, but I feel I came away–quite unintentionally–with something much greater and meaningful to me. Here is Brahma, representing a being who has yet to attain enlightenment, but has undergone such rigorous training as to attain the fruit of the anagami. What better symbol to represent the practice of a lay follower than an anagami? A bodhisattva has already relinquished all attachment and conceit, particularly the conceit of “I am.” While the anagami has been released from attachment to self, there remains a residue of the “I am” conceit. I like this idea better: understanding what is the last remaining residue one needs to be liberated from and putting forth the discipline, faith and practice necessary to do it. Even if it takes millenia. Even if, residing there in the Formless Realm, you watch Tathagatas come and go.

Here is perhaps a better vow, catered to lay disciples of the Tathagatas of the Ten Directions:

May I take refuge in the Three Jewels

And draw all discipline to the Dharma

In each birth that might arise, never backsliding,

Should it take ten thousand births or more.

The Collection Moves Forward

For the past year, I’ve been making edits to, arranging, and re-arranging my short story collection into some form that I’m happy with. Every detail has been considered, stories pulled and replaced, older pieces revisited only to get slashed apart and reconstructed into new experiences, and the sequence of stories–oh, the sequence! I wrote each title on Post-It Notes and arranged a horizontal line on my wall. I flipped the first and last stories a hundred times over. I read everything I could find on arranging a collection.

And then I began to submit and to enter contests. Each response I’ve received has been utterly elating, whether just a small friendly comment like ,”We liked this. Good luck,” accompanying a rejection letter or a response to a partial asking for the full manuscript.

Press 53 announced yesterday the ten finalists for the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and I am happy to say I’ve made the short list. I won’t find out until May 3rd, but to even be a finalist is surprising, unexpected, absolutely wonderful. Thanks so much to Kevin Morgan Watson and Christine Norris! I’ve got my fingers crossed. 🙂 I did take a peek at some of the other finalists’ work and it is all very good, so a pre-emptive congrats to whoever wins this year.