Sharing Writing Advice: Short Story

Whether you’re a published writer or you’ve just recently decided to become one, the short story form is a great way to hone your craft. For me personally, as a beginning writer, this form has helped me to vastly improve my writing skills.

A short story is loosely defined as a work of fiction, or nonfiction, between 1,000 and 10,000 words that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of course different sites and publications will have different word counts, but generally, if you stay within these parameters, you would have yourself a short story.

But don’t just take it from me. Below are quotes from some of today’s best writers.

A short story is the best form for starting off.

Joyce Carol Oates

Concentrate on the short story. Do not waste the next five years of your life writing an 800-page block of a novel that might well be a failure.

Ian McEwan

They were a great way to begin to learn my craft as a writer. The hardest thing to do as a young writer is to finish something and that was what I was learning how to do.

Neil Gaiman

Why Start With Short Story

If you’re reading this then you probably already have a good grasp of some basic elements of story, mainly: setting, character, point of view, conflict, plot, and theme.

For a new writer, it’s hard to successfully incorporate even half of these elements into a short narrative, let alone all of them into an entire book. So, it’s best to take baby steps.

As toddlers, we first crawl before we are able to walk. We probably fall hundreds of times before we even take our first step. Then we fall hundreds more times before we master the skill of walking.

It’s the same thing with the art of writing. Consider the writing classes we take as the crawling phase. When we implement what we have learned from those classes and begin constructing sentences into paragraphs, and blocks of paragraphs into stories, we’re learning how to walk.

I still cringe when I read the first short story I ever wrote, but I keep it in a folder to remind me of how far I’ve come. Next year I will, in all likelihood, look back at my most recent piece and have the same exact reaction.

Writing is an ongoing learning process, after all. And just like a toddler who gets stronger and more balanced after each fall, writers get better by writing and failing, and then repeating that process. I would just hate to have to take 5 years to learn from one mistake, as McEwan said.

What Makes the Short Story Form Unique

Not unlike other forms of storytelling, a short story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It must also have all the basic elements of story. Something must be happening to someone at a certain time and place which results in a change in that someone in the end. In this regard, the short story form isn’t all that unique.

The main difference is the limitation in word count, which, it could be argued, makes the short story form more difficult. Think of it as more of a sprint rather than a marathon. We need to pack as much energy and emotion as possible into the story without going over the set word count. Setting word counts becomes important when we start submitting stories to various publications, which have varying guidelines for length.

In short story writing, there’s no room to meander through the woods, leisurely taking in the sights and sounds and smells of nature. We have to be economical with our descriptions and details without being too vague.

This means that we have to limit the number of characters and/or scenes in the story. Say, I decide to write a war story with a bunch of different characters. I would probably need to be able to characterize all of them as effectively as possible, with as few words as possible.

I forget where I read this, but in creative writing, we’re always trying to say more with less words. Writing short stories has definitely helped me develop the habit of cutting out unnecessary words, sentences, and even paragraphs.

Some writers enjoy the freedom to be able to worldbuild and flesh out minor characters and find the short story form too limiting for them. Others enjoy the challenge of trying to fit an entire narrative into preset boundaries, finding that the limitations actually push their creativity.

Conclusion

As someone who has only been doing this for less than a year, writing short stories has really helped me become a better writer overall. Since June of last year, I’ve had 2 false starts attempting to write a novel. One became a short story and the other has been shelved for the time being. The story concepts are strong but I just didn’t, and still don’t, have enough mastery of craft to be able to sustain a novel-length project.

As Gaiman said, the sense of accomplishment for finishing a project is so very important, especially for creative types. Fortunately, I’ve been able to complete 5 short stories which has really built my confidence as a writer. I now have a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses in my writing, so I know what to work on to get better.

The Two Faces of Racism in Everything That Rises Must Converge

Last year, while most people took a quarter off and enjoyed summertime in the Pacific Northwest, I took a writing class in Seattle. At some point (the 3rd or 4th week, I think), the class read some of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and shared our thoughts about them on a discussion board.

It was insightful, and a bit scary, to read many of my peers’ reflections on the stories and O’Connor herself. Insightful because I got the chance to see different perspectives that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. And scary because of how some can so easily dismiss an author and their work as racist with no regard for the time and place in which they were written.

Everything that rises must converge. This is the title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection published in 1965 after her death from lupus complications. It’s also the title of one of the 9 short stories contained within O’Connor’s posthumous collection.

The short story, like many others of O’Connor’s, falls into the Southern Gothic genre and deals with themes such as racism, hypocrisy (virtue signaling?), and the generational and class divide during desegregation.

Summary of Everything That Rises Must Converge

The story is set at a time when buses were just beginning to be integrated in the South. As a reader, we experience the story through the third-person POV of Julian, a typewriter salesman who just recently graduated from college. He lives with his mother, and aspires to become a writer.

One evening, Julian begrudgingly escorts his mother, who wears a recently-purchased purple hat, to the YMCA via bus. The mother had splurged on her new hat and sort of regrets it, saying she could’ve paid the gas bill with the money, but Julian, in his haste to get the deed done, convinces her to just wear it.

Initially, it’s easy to identify with Julian’s views on racism. I must admit, though, that as the story progresses, so does my irritation with his resentment towards his mother, and his constant daydreaming about teaching her a lesson.

Aboard the bus, they encounter other white women who share similar views as the mother. O’Connor captures the atmosphere of sudden change in the dialogue between the women. The idea that “They [black people] should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.” Julian retreats I and out of his own “mental bubble” not only to escape his mother’s ignorance, but also to flee from the depression of their poverty.

He fantasizes about making friends with black people to upset his mother. He comes off as very ungrateful and hypocritical. In back-to-back paragraphs, he acknowledges his mother’s sacrifices to raise him (her teeth had gone unfilled, so that his could be straightened), then goes off on a rant claiming that “in spite” of his mother, he “turned out well.”

This makes him seem disingenuous, and it shows later in the story in his awkward interactions with black bus riders. At one point, he attempts to start a conversation with a black man by asking for matches until quickly realizing that he doesn’t have any cigarettes (he couldn’t afford them) and that there’s a NO SMOKING sign in the bus.

Julian also recalls previous times he’d tried to “strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types” only to be disappointed by a well-dressed undertaker and “a cigar-smoking Negro with a diamond ring.” The black men he encounters are financially better-off than Julian, and the one with a diamond ring even gives him a couple of lottery tickets seemingly out of pity.

His mother, on the other hand, is overtly racist but in a sort of clueless, ignorant way. It’s hard to be upset with her because there are clues about her upbringing. Clues that hint at the way of life she’d known. For example, it’s revealed that, as a child, she had a black nurse named Caroline who she seems to hold affection for. O’Connor presents the mother as a traditionalist in the same way anti-abortion activist are seen today. Of course, I’m in no way equating abortion and racial inequality (though there is a huge racial disparity in abortion rates).

The inciting incident happens when a “large, gaily dressed, sullen-looking colored woman,” wearing the same exact hat as Julian’s mother, boards the bus with a little black boy named Carver. Julian hopes that the black woman sits with his mother, once again, thinking it would be a good lesson for her. O’Connor’s diction in the scene makes clear that Julian is, in fact, very much intimidated by the woman, just as his mother is afraid of black people.

He admits that his “mother lumped all children, black and white, into the common category, ‘cute,’ and … little Negroes were on the whole cuter ….” His mother actually manages to have authentic moments with Carver, unlike Julian who had tried and failed multiple times, and wasn’t even making an effort with Carver’s mother.

When Julian and his mother get to their stop, Carver and his mother get off, too. Instinctively, and to Julian’s dismay, his mother decides to give little Carver a nickel, something she likes to do with children. As it turns out, she only has a shiny new penny to give. Carver’s mother smacks (punches?) her and tells her, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!”

Julian’s fantasies of his mother being taught a lesson become reality, and he gloats, initially. But then his mother begins acting weird and Julian starts to worry. Ultimately, he realizes that his mother is having a stroke.

O’Connor uses the characters in the story to illustrate how life was in that era. The bus ride serves as a microcosm, giving us a glimpse into how regular people (both black and white) dealt with integration after many years being segregated. By choosing to tell the story from the perspective of Julian, a direct descendant of rich white slaveowners, struggling to reconcile his family history, his current family’s poverty, and the shifting racial climate in the South, O’Connor preserves a fictive, yet accurate portrait of the time period.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

In the short story, it’s painfully obvious that both Julian and his mother are racist in their own way. But what of the person who created these two racist characters? Was Flannery O’Connor “a disgusting racist whose work should be banished from modern literature”, as one of my peers put it?

Perhaps the most relevant information we can glean about O’Connor’s feelings on Southern race relations are from O’Connor herself. In a letter to Maryat Lee, published in an article by The New Yorker, she writes, “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.”

This integrationist-by-principle-segregationist-by-taste attitude mirrors Julian’s inner conflict throughout the story. He believes that the black community is entitled to rise equally with the white community, that they shouldn’t be treated differently. But, at the same time, he daydreams about the Godhigh mansion of the plantation days “that had been lost for him.”

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Julian also only seeks out “the better types” and “distinguished-looking” black people. He fantasizes about “participating … in a sit-in demonstration” or bringing home a “suspiciously Negroid woman” who is “intelligent, dignified, even good” just to scorn his mother.

His motivations have little to do with his support for the black community and everything to do with his rebellion against his mother’s more traditional views.

Essentially, he’s only seeking out a token black friend to distance himself from his family’s racist history.

Ann Charters in The Story and Its Writer describes O’Connor as “one of the greatest religious writers of modern times” (709). O’Connor’s religious background, though an important influence, is never explicitly mentioned in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Instead, we see subtle hints of it scattered here and there.

As Julian impatiently waits for his mother to get ready to leave the house, he poses in the doorway “like Saint Sebastian.” On their way to catch the bus, he “walked along, saturated in depression, as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith.” His grandmother’s family name being “Godhigh” also hints at the religious influence.

In her essay in The New York Review, prolific author, Joyce Carol Oates, writes about O’Connor’s religious upbringing and her rebellious attitude towards her mother. It’s interesting to learn about this rebellious side, particularly towards her “stubborn, self-righteous, and unflagging” religious mother.

Her real life relationship with her mother, in a way, also resembles Julian’s own relationship with his. Oates writes that at the age of fifteen, O’Connor lost her father (also to lupus) and took it “as a sign of God’s grace.” In the short story, there is no mention of Julian’s own father.

O’Connor, in her own words, writes that “Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate” (Charters, 1199), that, for her, “the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ” (Charters, 709).

In addition to her religious beliefs, she leaves behind her thoughts on writing. She asserts that the “meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” And that writing fiction “calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether … a naturalistic story or a fantasy” (Charters, 1194). In other words, as a writer of fiction, we draw from our lived experiences to give our stories and characters life.

O’Connor states as fact that “fiction writing is something in which the whole personality takes part—the conscious as well as the unconscious mind” (Charters, 1196).

Applying this assertion to the main characters, we see the two faces of racism in the story—the fox and the wolf. Julian symbolizes the self-righteous, racist liberal, and his mother represents the unapologetic, traditional kind.

Furthermore, O’ Connor writes that fiction requires two qualities: “the sense of mystery and … the sense of manners,” that the sense of manners come “from the texture of existence that surrounds you” (Charters, 1197). If her sense of manners come from her environment (the South during the Jim Crow era), then her sense of mystery must come from her religious background.

Considering her strict attention to the real, we can begin to piece together where her personal experiences bleed into her fiction writing. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” O’Conner weaves together her environment and her background to beautifully capture the atmosphere of the South in a short story.

Conclusion

More than fifty years after her death, O’Connor and her words have retained their relevance for a reason. A quarter of the way into “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Julian and his mother have an argument about culture before they board the bus. Julian had just removed his tie to spite her, and she responds by telling him he looks like a thug.

Rolling his eyes upward, he put his tie back on. “Restored to my class,” he muttered. He thrust his face toward her and hissed, “True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he said, and tapped his head, “the mind.”

“It’s in the heart,” she said, “and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.”

“Nobody in the damn bus cares who you are.”

“I care who I am,” she said icily.

I would say true culture is in both our hearts and our minds. The heart as the intuition, and the mind as the intellect. If we’re all intellect with no intuition, we’ll never have the heart to truly empathize with others. If we’re all intuition with no intellect, we’ll act out impulsively with no regard for the consequences our actions have on others.

Simply put, don’t be demeaning because you know stuff. And don’t let your emotions think for you.

True culture is in our hearts and our minds. The heart as our intuition, and the mind as our intellect. If we’re all intellect with no intuition, we’ll never have the heart to act. If we’re all intuition with no intellect, we’ll act out impulsively with no regard for the consequences our actions have on others.

O’Connor, through Julian and his mother, warn us about the extremes of our own dual natures. Whether it’s the duality between philosophy and theology, liberalism and conservatism, or masculinity and femininity, there’s a certain balance that’s required in order for both natures to rise and eventually converge. Essentially, two equal halves create a whole.

Read “Everything That Rises Must Converse”

Featured Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay

Information Revolution In the Age of Data

The word “data” has been slowly moving farther away from its philosophical origins and has become more entwined with technology. In today’s high-tech, information-at-your-fingertips world, data has become a commodity more precious than black gold.

Governments and big corporations all over the world are more likely to make decisions based on numbers, analytics, and algorithms than in the recent past. By the same token, individuals are more inclined to follow trends, not only in consumer habits but also in thought patterns and actions.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

With more mass media corporations merging (Facebook buying Instagram or Disney buying Fox), it leaves open the possibility that such powerful corporations could control the public square and monopolize civil and political discourse. When corrupt governments and greedy corporations ally against people, this scenario is no longer just a possibility, it becomes a certainty.

Put simply, the corporate-state alliance, through the manipulation of data, can influence people to unknowingly act against their interests and morals.

Traditionally, before the advent of computers and smartphones, data had always been synonymous with information. Indigenous people passed down information through oral traditions (storytelling, customs, rituals) while literate societies, compiled information into books.

This passing down of generational knowledge is what eventually led to the intellectual movement that spawned the “Enlightenment” in Western societies. If knowledge is power (as Francis Bacon asserted), then information must be knowledge.

Intelligence is another more archaic synonym for the word data, although it is more commonly associated with the gathering of information or having a high IQ.

Using military intelligence and cybersecurity as a modern-day example: if two nations were building up to war, and one of them successfully attacks the other’s cyber infrastructure with a crippling virus, that nation will, in all likelihood, win the war effort before a single bullet has even been fired.

In this scenario, the winning side exploits useful intelligence to harm the losing side. Information becomes a double-edged sword. Depending on who wields it, it can be disseminated or withheld to collapse a nation from within.

Image by chayka1270 from Pixabay

Political campaigns are where the corporate-state marriage is made. According to the New York Times, all the races in this year’s election cycle could combine for “nearly 14 billion” dollars.

The writer, Shane Goldmacher, discloses in the article that 1.8 billion dollars were used on television ads alone, which almost equaled the total amount spent in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The October 28 article further reveals that only 22 percent of the record-breaking donations were made by small donors, while the majority of it came from Wall Street, super PACs, and “so-called dark money … entities like nonprofits.”

If the majority of the population is comprised of small donors, but less than a quarter of the donations are from them, who is funding these winning candidates? Who are these elected officials beholden to, their major donors or the general electorate?

The fact that campaign spending has historically translated to campaign victories is worrying, to say the least.

Image by Jens Teichmann from Pixabay

Although it is arguable where politicians’ loyalties lie, there is no question that corporations are all about their bottom line. Many corporations and their interests have been guilty of ruthless tactics in the name of profits.

Take the Dole Food Company, for example. Founded in Hawaii by James Dole in 1851, it is now the largest fruit and vegetable producer in the world. Ironically, Sanford Dole, James’s once-removed cousin, became Hawaii’s first president after Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown in an American coup. He later became the annexed territory’s first governor.

It is no big secret that corporations have, throughout history, put profits over people. Before the Dole family exploited the land and native people of Hawaii, a different group here on the “mainland”, was caught in the throes of a ruthless form of corporate capitalism.

Many African Americans today can trace their lineage to the hundreds of thousands of slaves brought here against their will. Since the Civil War, the argument for 40 acres and a mule has been made in American civil and political discourse.

In an article by Sheila Flemming-Hunter entitled “Project 1619 revisited: Black Children, Racism, and Reparations,” she makes the case by citing President Thomas Jefferson’s initial suggestion for land reparations as well as General William T. Sherman’s famous field order in 1865 (84).

Flemming-Hunter argues that other groups have been compensated by governments for injustices committed against them. Those descended from the Jewish Holocaust victims received almost 2 billion dollars from Swiss banks and the German Government. Similarly, Japanese Americans interned during World War II received “a formal apology” and 1.2 billion dollars from the US Government (86).

Reparations, whether land, monetary, or otherwise, should always be repaid whenever atrocities and injustices have been committed against a people, a group, or an individual. It should not be any different for African Americans descended from slaves.

Image by Lee Travathan from Pixabay

It is important to remember, however, that on these lands where we can freely express ourselves, join whatever protest we choose to, and even just be a tourist and enjoy a luau on the beach, Native Indigenous people have been forcibly displaced to give us these rights.

Similar to how Native Hawaiians lost their lands to fruit tycoons, it could be argued that Native Americans lost theirs to tobacco tycoons. Tobacco was the first profitable crop to emerge from the colonies.

Those colonies would later expand in a series of land grabs and would become the United States of America we know today.

In the book “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans (Myths Made in America), by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, it is explained how Native Americans have been systematically erased through overt violence, displacement, and information warfare.

They reveal how little the general population actually knows about Native Americans.

On the whole, it can be said that the average US citizen’s knowledge about American Indians is confined to a collection of well-worn myths and half-truths that have Native people either not existing at all or existing in a way that fails to live up to their expectations about who “real” Indians are.

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker

The idea of a “master narrative” is also presented by the authors. They describe how in multicultural nations, “the narratives reinforce a contrived sense of unity.” This sense of unity is accomplished through patriotic displays (playing of the national anthem and military flybys during sporting events) and national holidays (Thanksgiving, Halloween).

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker write that Native Americans have not only been pushed to the margins of society—even farther than legal immigrants in this country—but “have been disappearing from the collective imagination” for over 500 years.

A person needs only to look up a map of the US with Indian reservation boundaries to see just how far they have been pushed.

Moreover, the authors note a 2015 study to assess “Indigenous curriculum” that found overwhelmingly that in the US, Indigenous people “are largely portrayed as extinct,” or “pre-1900.”

Live Graphic From CNN on Election Night 2020

On election night 2020, CNN had a live graphic that labeled Native voters “SOMETHING ELSE.” The irony of the graphic was that Asian American voters, who make up three percent, were clearly labeled, while Native American voters, who make up a larger demographic at six percent, were not represented accordingly.

Was this a simple error by a new intern, or was it something more nefarious? Given the millions of dollars paid to their writers, editors, and production crews, it is hard to believe that this mistake made it onto live national television.

Has hyper-partisanship and identity politics made us blind to the continual erosion of Native Americans in the public consciousness?

Gone are the days when an anchor could sit behind a desk and selectively spoon-feed curated news to the masses. Outdated information about Indigenous people from non-Indigenous perspectives should be not be allowed to dominate academia.

In this age of free-flowing information, it is the first time in history that any individual—regardless of race, class, or ethnicity—can have access to knowledge that had only previously been available to the academic and political elites. The only excuses for not being able to critically examine a news story or any piece of information, for that matter, are illiteracy, laziness, or just willful ignorance.

As long as we don’t control how our data is gathered and interpreted, we have no say in how our stories are told #DecolonizeData

The cliché “history is written by the victors” is a cliché for a reason. The good news is that the war is far from over. We can begin to fight back with the decolonization of data. As long as we don’t control how our data is gathered and interpreted, we have no say in how our stories are told.

Check out the links below for more about the movement to decolonize data:

Featured Image by FunkyFocus from Pixabay

George Orwell “Shooting An Elephant” Analysis

Shooting an Elephant is a narrative essay written by 1984 author, George Orwell. The essay’s themes include imperialism, oppression, and redemption. It’s told from the first person perspective of an Indian Imperial police officer—presumably Orwell himself—who has an epiphany while responding to a call about a rampaging elephant.

Orwell masterfully uses narration and description to capture the scenes and mood of Lower Burma during Imperial British rule. We sense the “anti-European feeling” from the townspeople along with the narrator’s own sense of oppression at the hands of the natives.

The oppressed natives don’t have the “guts to raise a riot” but rebel in subtler ways like “spit[ting] betel juice” on European women’s dresses and “stand[ing] on corners and jeer[ing] at Europeans.” Orwell is confused by the natives’ actions as he is “all for the Burmese and all against the oppressors, the British.”

He tells us that while the elephant is destroying their homes, raiding their fruit stocks, and even killing a man, the natives don’t seem to bother much. He writes, “The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it.”

Only when Orwell takes up a rifle do they rally behind him and get excited about killing the oppressive elephant. He seems to imply that the natives would readily revolt against an oppressor if they only had a leader they could rally behind.

This might explain why Orwell felt “vaguely uneasy” and unnerved with the thousands of natives that follow him. As a police officer, Orwell—and other police officers throughout the empire—are the projection of Imperial Britain’s power and would be the first to be targeted if a revolution were ever to break out. 

Close up image of an elephant's eye with a George Orwell quote

Ironically, he finds himself caught between the “ever-growing army” behind him, and the giant elephant in front of him towards the end of the essay. The army comes to symbolize the growing resentment from the natives while the elephant, who is now harmless and peaceful, becomes a symbol for the Imperial British empire.

Orwell realizes “the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.” His earlier claim that he is “all for the Burmese” is put to the test, and he redeems himself by shooting the “preoccupied grandmotherly” elephant.

After the elephant goes down, Orwell uses descriptive words to let us hear the elephant’s dying breaths: “rhythmically with long rattling gasps.” In the same sentence he gives us a visual of the elephant on its side: “his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling.”

He uses a metaphor to describe and show the elephant’s enormous mouth: “I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat.” And employs similes to further elaborate on the elephant’s agony: “thick blood welled out of him like red velvet” and “tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.” The slow death of the elephant is analogous with the British Empire’s eventual decline.

In retrospect, Orwell writes that he had no idea that the British Empire was dying while he was a police officer in Burma. He was “young and ill-educated” and was torn between his “hatred of the empire” and his “rage against the evil-spirited little beasts” who were making his life a living hell.

At first, keeping up the illusion of imperial power and respect seemed to underlie Orwell’s motivation for shooting the elephant. But, in the end, we find that he only did it “to avoid looking a fool.”

Read Shooting an Elephant here.

Obesity: The Invisible War Ravaging The Pacific

Seventy-five years after World War II swept through the Pacific, culminating with the world’s first use of nuclear weapons against another country, an invisible war still rages in the region—the war against obesity.

According to this 2012 study on obesity, our people are the winners—in terms of being the most obese—compared with all other racial and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, this means we are losing the war.

I don’t call it a war to sound overly dramatic but to put it in proper context. Let me explain. People might die because they are obese but not from obesity itself. They die from other conditions—heart disease, diabetes, etc.—that are related to it.

Similarly, people who die from cancer don’t actually die from it. They die from conditions that they would’ve easily fought off if it weren’t for the their bodies being weakened by cancer.

The only difference between cancer and obesity is that most people blame the deaths of their loved ones on cancer, but if a loved one dies from diabetes caused by obesity, then it’s the diabetes fault. Ironically, many cancers are linked to obesity and the conditions caused by it.

Image courtesy of The National Archives

World War II And The Arrival Of Commodities

When my wife first became pregnant, I asked my grandma for a list of possible names for my boy. From the extensive list of deceased ancestors, I picked out Akira, my grandma’s brother’s name.

In the end, my wife and I chose another name. This was mostly due to personal troubles in our relationship but also out of a superstitious belief about not naming babies after ancestors who died prematurely.

Akira died under a guava tree when a U.S. airplane dropped a bomb nearby. There are stories of entire families being strafed in flybys while fishing. Too scared to fish or farm, others died of starvation while hiding in mangrove forests and caves.

All the deaths happened differently, but they all fall under one umbrella—the Pacific War. No one blames the bullets or the bombs or the lack of food. We just say, “They died because of the war.” If the war never came to our shores, many of our ancestors wouldn’t have suffered such gruesome fates.

Today there’s no active war in our region, but we still witness suffering like amputations because of diabetes and physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The war didn’t just leave behind horrific memories and generational trauma, it also left us dependent on imported commodities which have led to the crises facing our region.

Commodities such as canned foods and chocolate became available during the post-war years. Having suffered just a few failed attacks, the U.S. mainland was relatively unscathed and in a good position to establish itself as the economic powerhouse that would rebuild the world.

Image From Twitter

To stave off starvation caused by the war, self-stable foods such as Spam were widely distributed on the islands. According to this 2008 article from the New York Times, the canned meat was first introduced to locals by U.S. soldiers. These kinds of foods were only meant as a stop-gap while our people recovered and rebuilt our lands and cultures.

Another food that became very popular after the war was rice. To be fair, in Palau, rice became available when the Japanese took control of the islands but was more of a luxury food during Nanyo Cho.

My grandma would tell me that they’d eat it mixed with a little coconut syrup and water during special occasions. Only after the war did rice begin to supplant staple foods like taro and breadfruit.

The foods that helped our people win the battle against starvation have now fully assimilated themselves into our diets in times of plenty. Basically, we’re still on a wartime diet 75 years after the war.

There’s a saying that most of us have probably heard before; you can win a battle but lose a war. There are other interpretations of this, but since we’re currently losing the war, I think this variation is more appropriate.

2016 Statistics From obesity.procon.org

The Obesity Numbers Don’t Lie

It’s time to face hard facts. The top 10 most obese countries in the world are all in the Pacific region. My home country is top 3.

When I first decided to write this article, there wasn’t much sense of urgency. I just thought I’d write something about obesity with some academic sources that I’ve gleaned from class and online sources. I had a nice outline with some bullet points that I could weave in with my own experiences.

The numbers on the above graph threw all of that out the window. It made this more personal than I’d intended.

Decolonizing Our Mind

Looking around the world, we see similar patterns of colonization—settling on Indigenous land, acquiring of more land, creating dependency, and then assimilating the Natives. Some have suffered overtly hostile takeovers and are at later stages, while others are in the throes of newer, subtler methods.

I believe our Pacific paradise is the target for these new methods, and we are unwittingly helping the process along.

When I was a fisherman, we would catch the best fish to eat and sell them at hotels for tourists to enjoy. Then we’d take the money and spend it on alcohol, cigarettes, and canned foods.

Light-skinned babies are adored, referred to as “beches” which translates to new. Dark-skinned babies, not so much. Do we really hate ourselves that much?

In Palau, when someone we know gains a bunch of weight, we say, “Bo becherei, ng oldeu er a rengul.” This translates to, “Leave them be, they’re pleasing their heart.” Nothing wrong with pleasing ones heart, but there’s a point when it crosses into gluttonous territory.

We have to be able to call this out without it being considered fat-shaming. A true friend will tell you if you have broccoli in your teeth.

Prioritizing Our Health And Well-Being

I can’t speak for other Pacific nations, but I would argue that my home island of Palau is close to total assimilation. Now, I’m not arguing for or against assimilation because it would be hypocritical of me either way.

On one hand, I’m able to do what I love because of the conveniences afforded to me by this new way of life. But, on the other, I see—and experience—its negative effects, whether it’s health, greed, or cultural degradation.

Sometimes it feels like there are too many factors to consider and too little time to consider all of them. As of right now, I believe that health and well-being must be our main priorities.

This is probably the most important factor because money and culture won’t matter if we are all sick or dead. All the in-family fighting over land and chiefly titles are irrelevant if there are no people on the land to rule.

Image by SofieLayla Thal from Pixabay

So Many Problems, Add Obesity To The List

Great! So now we have to worry about the coronavirus, our ailing economies, rising sea levels, and now this. What do we do then?

First, and foremost, we have to be our own advocates—get to work on ourselves and stop with all the willful ignorance. This is easier said than done, and for me, it’s a struggle everyday but I’ve embraced the struggle.

Open dialogue would be a good start, too. We can’t discuss obesity out of existence, but we can begin to acknowledge it as a national health crisis and start taking it seriously.

I don’t just mean having the health experts and the politicians have meetings then make decisions for us. Our leaders must engage us, and we must hold our leaders accountable. It must be a collaborative effort. We can’t have solutions if the problem isn’t yet acknowledged by everyone.

Practical Solutions For Childhood Obesity

I don’t know how things are now, but when I went to high school, canned foods were on the menu probably 2-3 times a week. Corned beef and rice was my favorite. What was yours?

We all know that our children are the future. Naturally, we should start them on the right path and make sure they avoid the pitfalls we’ve found ourselves trapped in.

In Japan, they have one of the lowest rates of childhood obesity in the world. They do this through mandatory school lunches, early childhood nutrition education, and regular health checkups.

The school lunches are local, seasonal, and nutritious. In this 2019 article about fighting childhood obesity from the South China Morning Post, the lunches are also meant to educate the children about nutrition and better eating habits.

Implementing a similar program would help our children make better food choices as adolescents and adults. It also fosters a stronger connection to our region’s traditions of sustainability, community cooperation, and Indigenous pride.

These are just a few options that we can implement right now that would be a great investment in the future.

Practical Solutions For Adult Obesity

We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. Taking responsibility for our current situation is hard to do especially when we learn more of the horrible shit that colonizers did to our proud people. The fact of the matter is we are useless in the fight against decolonization if we’re fighting diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

It’s especially important for us to be accountable given that most children inherit their parents habits. We must set a good example for them in all aspects of health and well-being, and we should start by acknowledging and taking on the problem of adult obesity in our region.

I would say let’s do it for our children, but I honestly think this approach rarely works, especially in parenting. We have to learn to balance being a parent and being an individual. Our physical, emotional, and mental health fall into the category of being an individual. How can I be a good parent if I’m neglecting the things that I actually have control over?

There are so many helpful resources online that it can sometimes be overwhelming. Personally, I would recommend the low-carb 16:8 intermittent fasting diet that Dr. Jason Fung recommends. It’s easy and practical, and you can implement it right away without making drastic changes to your lifestyle.

All you have to do is pick a eating window that falls within an 8-hour period. For me I chose between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. as the times I can eat—or drink anything with calories. The remaining 16 hours of the day I would only drink water.

Not eating for 16 hours may sound hard, but considering that we need 8 hours of sleep, it’s actually only 8 hours of no food. If you’re not already getting 8 hours of sleep, this would be a good time to start.

My weight loss journey and path to overall well-being has had its ups and downs, but I’m grateful to still have a chance to fight.

I lost almost 30 pounds in just over 3 months, dropping from 195 to 170 from April to June. My heartburn—which I’ve been suppressing with medication for 5 years—disappeared, and I got rid of the medication. There are many stories similar to mine that you can find online or on YouTube.

This video from Dr. Jason Fung explains how therapeutic fasting works.

Video Courtesy of Low Carb Down Under

Conclusion

A Samoan man who had worked for 20 years as a mortician said this in a video interview, “Now I see the old burying their young.” This breaks my heart because I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of having to bury one of my kids.

The obesity crisis is arguably the most important challenge facing our region today. Others might say climate change and rising sea levels are more important, and it’s hard to argue with their point because current scientific consensus says that it’s an existential threat.

I would just say that fighting climate change has to be a global effort in order to be effective. If a single large country deviates from the plan, we won’t be able to stop it.

Alternately, the fight against obesity comes down to each individual. It’s a one-person fight. Me against obesity.

There are no external factors that can stop you if you decide to kick obesity in the ass. External factors can actually help. Our families, communities, and governments can cooperate to spread awareness, implement legislation, and make more resources available to those most affected.

We are descended from those who braved typhoons and high waves to settle archipelagos in the greatest ocean on Earth. I’m optimistic that we, as Indigenous Pacific people, will overcome as we always have. #WarAgainstObesity

Happy Thanksgiving, and RIP To All The Delicious Turkeys That Gave Their Lives

Last Thanksgiving was my first with a new kidney, so naturally I was grateful to my anonymous donor. This year I’m just thankful to be alive and breathing. Okay, I admit that sounds totally lame—and vague as hell—but it’s really how I feel. Honest. Maybe because I’ve been through so much hell pre-transplant, I’m somehow able to be thankful for even the smallest things.

Here’s an idea—instead of having a single day in the year that’s dedicated to being thankful, we should make it the one day where we can be total jerks all day and then the rest of the year is for thanksgiving. I know… easier said than done, but we could at least try though.

For many, 2020 has probably felt like an alternate dystopian reality; for others, it’s been that way since the 2016 elections. In a weird—and somewhat selfish—way, I’ve felt like the turmoil, especially from Covid19, has forced everyone to come face-to-face with their own mortality. It’s something that’s hard to come to grips with. I mean… I watched my mother slowly dying and my grandmother grow old, but when their time came it was a total shock for me. That kind of willful ignorance can only protect us for so long.

Last year was one of my better Thanksgiving celebrations in recent memory. All of my favorite people were able to come over and we had a blast catching up, eating, drinking (I only had a small glass of wine), and just enjoying each others company. With the restrictions in our state, it will be the first time in a while that it’ll be just me and the immediate family.

A few weeks ago my wife and I were talking about our menu this year. Other than mashed potatoes and gravy, we always go back and forth about the side dishes. We ultimately decided on stuffing, green bean casserole, and rice—because rice is life for Pacific Islanders. There is one thing on the menu, however, that is always a unanimous decision. Turkey.

Image by Julie Rothe from Pixabay

Rest In Peace or… Pieces?

As I was taking out our Jennie-O bird to defrost, I began to wonder how many turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving Day. There’s actually a thing called the National Turkey Federation. It turns out that they’re the ones who provide the turkey for the President to pardon each year. They estimate that close to 46 million turkeys are consumed on the last Thursday of November. That’s crazy!

But there’s more. About 22 million turkeys are roasted, fried, barbecued, and I don’t know what else on Christmas Day, and 19 million are devoured during Easter. Now, this may be a cultural thing, but the Easter numbers surprised me because I’ve never had turkey for Easter. Maybe turkeys should just replace bunnies as the official Easter animal… or maybe we could credit them for laying Easter eggs. I don’t know. It would make more sense than a rabbit laying chocolate eggs. Our children have enough to be confused about nowadays.

Okay, enough of that mini-tangent. Just a friendly reminder—before we stuff our faces with that delicious, sleep-inducing, gravy-smothered poultry meat, let’s thank the turkey that gave its life. That bird had a 1 in 46 million chance to win the turkey lottery, but unfortunately for him—and fortunately for us, he lost.

Featured Image by Mohan Nannapaneni from Pixabay