Exploring the art of prose


Genetically Predetermined Chemical Imbalances by Eliot Li

alt text: image is a color photograph of a baby's crib; title card for the flash fiction pieces "Genetically Predetermined Chemical Imbalances" by Eliot Li

Eliot Li deftly treads the line between humorous oddity and emotional weight in this piece, allowing the reader to sit with the impact of the “Chen family curse” while enjoying the strangeness of the story’s reality. The use of first-person narrative brings the reader closer to the narrator’s anxieties. We feel both the excitement and fear that comes with a new baby. This piece is a fantastic example of how speculative fiction can be used to draw out the nuances of the human experience and intergenerational trauma.  —CRAFT


My dead Aunty May visits me while I assemble the baby’s crib. Her pale blue fingers catch my wrist while I’m twisting the Allen wrench to secure the right side panel.

Delia, my wife, is at work. Aunty May only comes out when Delia’s not around.

“You’re screwing it too tight!” May says. “You won’t be able to fit the mattress frame in there.”

My aunt’s visitations don’t frighten me anymore, though her message does. She can’t help alluding to the Chen family curse. The curse on the women in my family.

“I see you’ve painted the walls pink,” she says, softer this time.

None of my three aunts made it out of their forties, because of depression. May’s the only one who visits me. I think she wanted to be found, a decade ago, after the argument with my grandma. She was slumped over next to the washing machine, having swallowed the pills in front of Grandma before running off. Grandma, who didn’t look for her, who sat in her easy chair watching reruns of I Love Lucy, while May stopped breathing five feet away behind the partially open mudroom door.

I’m pushing baby Emma in a three-wheeled stroller that’s built like a miniature tank. We’re going for a pandemic jog through the cemetery, with Aunty May. It’s socially distanced. Emma and I are the only living people here.

“It’s not just the women who are cursed,” I say, between breaths.

“Oh?” May says. Her ashen skin belies the fact that she’s in remarkably good shape for a corpse, not even breaking a sweat as she runs.

“When I was a teen,” I say, “I felt like doing away with myself. Every day.”

Emma’s plump cheeks quiver under the sun hood as the stroller rolls over uneven pavement. The fact that Emma can be so peaceful despite all the rumbling chaos she’s experiencing gives me hope. Perhaps I’m projecting. I do that a lot.

“But things got better. After I got married. After I got a job and realized there were things I was good at.”

We pass Aunty’s gravestone, Beloved Daughter and Sister. “Did it ever get better, for you?”

“Marriage made it worse,” she says. “And your grandma, she was even more crazy-making when I moved back in with her, after my divorce.” She retracts the stroller’s sun hood so she can see Emma sleeping. “She called me a failure.”

I think back to college biology, nature versus nurture. Genetically predetermined chemical imbalances. I wonder if things might’ve turned out differently for Aunty May if Grandma had just been a big blubbering huggy monster and loved and nurtured her through every catastrophe.

We stop running. I park Emma’s industrial tires against the curb.

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

I give Aunty a hug. Her skin feels like frozen cheesecake.

It’s 2 a.m. in the pink room, and Emma won’t stop wailing. I’ve changed her diaper, Delia’s offered her nipples, but nothing consoles her. As Emma howls, her lower lip flutters like a hummingbird’s wings.

I lift her onto my shoulder, facing me, let her scream into my ear, her flaming red cheek against mine. She devolves into a fit of gagging, then pukes into my hair. It runs down my back beneath my pajamas.

“The carpet!” Delia says, as she pulls a clump of Wet Ones from the changing table. She scrubs the yellow stains on the smiling spouting whale beneath my feet.

Emma starts crying again, just as the vomit on my scalp and neck turns cold.

Delia glances at my hair and runs off to get more wipes.

Aunty May slides the closet door open and steps out. Her arms outstretched, she gestures for the baby.

I shake my head. I embrace Emma a little more tightly, leaning into her, kissing her fiery cheek.


ELIOT LI lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, trampset, Pithead Chapel, Fractured Lit, pidgeonholes, The Pinch, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. He’s on Twitter @EliotLi2.


Featured image by Ashley Walker courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

Years ago, I took my first fiction workshop, taught by the novelist Mary Rakow. At the workshop, Mary gave me my all-time favorite piece of writing advice: “Write toward the pain.”

Those four words are why I continue to write. To process pain. To understand it and try to wring something positive out of it.

When I was a young child, the first of my aunts succumbed to depression in her forties. Then in my teens, my second aunt also lost her battle with depression. The memories of my aunts come back only in brief sound bites, but I remember playing with toys in my room, when through the door I could hear my grandmother fighting with my second aunt, and my grandmother using words like “failure” and “horrible daughter.” My family would talk about “the curse.” In adulthood, I realized “the curse” was just as much about my extended family’s horrific attitude toward mental illness as it was about the mental illness itself.

From a craft standpoint, my piece “Genetically Predetermined Chemical Imbalances” started coming together when I realized Aunty May could come back for regular visitations, even though she died long ago. As a writer, once you embrace the speculative, you have so many more colors and brushes you can paint with. For instance, I think the fear that the narrator has about his daughter’s potential future mental illness is made more palpable when there is an undead corpse gesturing for him to give her the baby. And perhaps his empathy for Aunty May is more effectively expressed when he is able to give her a hug in the cemetery and feel her cold skin. Without the speculative elements, all of Aunty May’s scenes would’ve had to be told in flashback, which might have blunted her impact on the story.

I’ve been told it’s risky to land a story with dark and traumatic themes on a hopeful note. A positive ending often doesn’t feel earned or commensurate with reality. But for me, “writing toward the pain” is therapy, and for my own purely selfish therapeutic reasons, I wanted the father in the story to resolve to love his child like crazy, and to support her and be nothing but kind to her no matter who she turns out to be. I wanted him to break the curse of inherited generational trauma, even if the curse of genetic predisposition cannot be broken.


ELIOT LI lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, trampset, Pithead Chapel, Fractured Lit, pidgeonholes, The Pinch, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. He’s on Twitter @EliotLi2.