Rae Paris (2010)
The collection I've been working on, The Girl Who Ate Her Own Skin, focuses on the Black female body. All of the characters grapple with what it means to love and destroy the body. Another layer is the connection between New Orleans and California, the migration from an officially segregated south to the idealized free West, the feeling of displacement leaving home can engender, the silences that can happen when people attempt to forget the past, and the way the body often becomes a container for these silences, holding both past and present. The fellowship will allow me to travel to New Orleans, where my parents are from, to fill in some of those silences which serve as a background hum to many of the stories. It will also allow me to take a break from teaching so I can complete the collection. When I got the news about the grant I was in the middle of revising one of the stories. The sound of crunching stones outside my window meant I had an excuse to get up because the mail had arrived. I almost tore the letter up because it looked like junk mail, a request for money from some politician, but I opened it because opening junk mail was suddenly more appealing than revising. The letter was from my congressman telling me I was getting money to write. What? I don't know how many times I reread it, or at what point I started to dance in place like a three year old. I'm shocked to receive this. It's an incredible validation of the writing, but I'm still shocked. And so, so thankful.
From the short story "The Girl Who Ate Her Own Skin"
Cilia's group was waiting for her at their meeting spot underneath the willow tree by the library. Peaches greeted her with a yawn, which made them all yawn. They went inside the gym for their morning pep talk from Mr. James, but even he seemed beaten by the heat. Someone had stolen his megaphone. He dismissed them early. "God damn America's youth," Cilia heard him sputter as he walked out of the gym.
It was too hot to dance. Too hot to play baseball, football, soccer, or any other Vital Life Skill. Too hot to talk about being clean, but they had to do it anyway. Peaches ended their dance practice early, telling them that she was tired of watching them move like molasses, and tired of listening to them snip at each other like little dogs. She made them sit underneath the shade of the willow tree, in silence, until it was time for free swim, which they were all waiting for anyway.
Cilia had free swim every afternoon right before they went home. Her sisters swam with the older kids in the morning. During free swim, it seemed to Cilia that there were always more children in the pool than there was water. That afternoon, Nairobé and Kenya were in the shallow end with Peaches because, even after almost three weeks, they still hadn't learned how to breathe. Sweety and Cilia were taking turns jumping off the high dive. Feather stood near the deep end, a few feet away from Champagne and Dee-Dee, who were sitting on the edge of the pool, trying to look cute. Julius was scurrying around the edges of the pool, one hand clutching the broken drawstring of his shorts, looking for people to push in. Champagne called him over. After that first day in Health and Hygiene, Julius had learned it was better to do what Champagne said. He ran over to her.
From the high dive, Cilia watched Julius nod and grin at whatever Champagne whispered in his ear. Then, he snuck up behind Feather and gave her a nudge that sent her flopping into the pool. Feather crawled out, shivering and shaking like a sick tadpole. Julius jumped up and down, one hand clutching his drawstring, the other pointing at Feather. "I got you good," he snickered. "I got you good."
Blood dripped down Feather's leg.
"Hey, girl," Julius shouted, "you cut yourself."
Champagne whooped. "She ain't cut herself. She on the rag."
Julius seemed confused. He looked around on the ground, like he was searching for a torn T-shirt or an old sock. Feather put her hand between her legs and wiped. When she saw the blood, she looked ready to faint. Julius raised both hands and backed away, as if Feather was a witch that might put a spell on him. He forgot about his shorts, and they fell to his knees. People hooted. Cilia looked close and saw what looked like a peanut dangling between his legs. Julius dove into the pool with his shorts around his ankles. The shorts floated to the surface. Feather ran to the locker room. Dee-Dee and Champagne followed, laughing and pointing.
Peaches climbed out of the shallow end with Nairobé and Kenya right behind her. Some girl, waiting on the ladder, yelled at Cilia to hurry her ass up. Cilia jumped with her legs pulled up tight to her chest, but she let her feet go too late. She hit the water like the flat side of a butter knife. Julius swam by her and gave her a fierce look, one hand over his peanut, the other looking for his shorts.
Peaches took them to the track field to have a special meeting. They sat on the bleachers and watched college boys run down the long jump and hurl themselves into the air.
Feather sat next to Peaches with her head down. She dripped red. Her eyes, red from crying. Her face, splotchy red from shame. Her hands, red from being chewed up. Her insides—all red. She even smelled red, thought Cilia.
Dee-Dee and Champagne looked as guilty as two goats. Peaches made them say sorry to Feather. "Sorry," they said, but they said it out the side of their mouths, the kind of sorry that meant they'd laugh about her later. Anyone fool enough to stand by the edge of the pool and decide to bleed in front of a crowd of people deserved the sorriest sorry possible. Sorry-my-ass, was what their sorry said.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal agency
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20506
The title story of Rae Paris' collection, The Girl Who Ate Her Own Skin, was a recommended story in the 2009 O. Henry Prize Stories. The collection was a finalist for the 2008 Flannery O'Connor Award in Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Indiana Review among other journals. She is the recipient of writing residencies from Hedgebrook, Norcroft, and VONA (Voices of Our Nation). She is from Carson, California, and currently lives in Tempe, Arizona, where she is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University.