Editors' Note: (This Fucking Body Is) Never Yours was the runner-up for our 2016 prose chapbook contest, and will be published by Gazing Grain Press in spring 2017.
I was delighted when I read Lily Hoang’s description of my writing as “the skin of a sentence.” It’s an accurate portrayal of my consistent struggle to show you how much words, whispers, stories and cellular arrangements go together for someone like me. Ever since I was a girl growing the tits of a woman, I have anxiously fretted about how to tell you these things. This Fucking Body is one of many stories about the conversations we have between ourselves and our flesh.
The book is a series of prose pieces about the body and where and when I learned that the possessive pronoun is not a given, but a choice—and a choice I must make daily, sometimes minute by minute. I am particularly fascinated with our selections in dress and their relationships to trauma. Take sleeves, for example. I pull my sleeves over my knuckles, curled over my fingers, and I always have, since junior high. Now, I’ve noticed that clothing companies often put holes for thumbs into some sweaters and athletic wear. It’s trendy. But I can’t be the only one whose reason for stretching out her sleeves was to cover up bloody fingers. (Seehereand here.) From high school into my twenties, I could finish a roll of toilet paper soaking up the blood from the raw skin around my nails. Photo after photo of me from this time period depicts a smiling girl, lips wide, eyes bright, and fists taught, covered, and soaked.
By my mid-twenties, I’d graduated from curled-up bloody fingers to slightly hunched-over shoulders, eyes always angled down. If you happened upon a picture of me from those days, you might catch me looking right back at you—with a lit cigarette and bottles of red wine pulsing between us. I was beautiful, with red lips and dark eyes under Hollywood sunglasses smoking Marlboro lights with bandaged fingers. Those were my Broadway days, waiting for the NYU shuttle, standing in pink Steve Madden heels. Postmodern racism and notions of inherited trauma mulling through my mind. Back then, I wrote essays on great grandmothers and the unrelenting, bulging eyes of white men.
My mother likes to tell me, “You knew the answer before the question,” basing her conclusion on my childhood stubbornness. In the hot DC summers, she would wear beautiful, long, flowy crepe skirts. One summer I begged her to let me wear one and she relented. It was my eleventh birthday. I wore it to camp at the Y that week and my girlfriends and counselor praised it. One of the boys whispered in my ear that I looked like a slut. I may have begun to pick my hangnails then. I developed early and I raged late. For a long time, my problem was that nothing felt as hard as my own skin.
Last year, I started attending a Catapult writing workshop in New York. I came to the workshop because I say I’m a writer with a story—that I’m writing a memoir on my childhood and my mother and trauma and blackness. But what I have is a mind full of stories, a body full of scars older than the body they occupy, and a hard drive full of minimal pages. So I “workshop” in the hopes that a fire will be lit.
“Stop it,” writer Chelsea Hodson said to me one day in the workshop. I’d just described to her my process of talking around a story, of leading up to it, almost like I needed to warm the reader up. She did not look amused. She looked me dead in the eye down the small conference table and told me that that kind of writing was not for the final page. This tall, skinny, definitely younger than me white woman caught me and called me out on how I told truths.
And I admit: I respected her a fuck-ton more after that.
What came out of that workshop with is (This Fucking Body Is) Never Yours, a series of stories on current encounters with the body and the historical tracing those encounters force. I am grateful to Gazing Grain for recognizing that struggle. I am devoted to Hodson, to Catapult, and to the other members of the workshop that winter for sitting with me. For listening. For never turning away, no matter how bloody things became.
Linda Chavers is a writer from Washington, DC. By day she teaches awesome books in Temple University's Intellectual Heritage and English Departments and believes Harriet Jacobs should be required reading. By night she writes on girlhood, blackness and intergenerational trauma. She's currently reading Octavia Butler's Wild Seed. Follow her @dorismariahphd.