1. The first ghost I ever learn about is God, circa 1998, in a kindergarten classroom in Queens, New York. My parents have sent me to Catholic school not out of religious devotion, or some need for strictness, but…
I wrote this personal essay in parallel with a novel-in-progress about a friend breakup, which doesn’t initially seem very related to superstition, or spiritualism. In the novel, however, I tell the story of a college senior who seeks to find safety in a codependent friendship with a young man, another college senior, who has just come into a giant inheritance from his family. Both are of Cantonese upbringing, and both seek refuge in what they deem “safe” lives: the protagonist is deeply superstitious, and sees this friendship as a great fortune, even as the soon-to-be ex-friend indulges dangerously in his new wealth. As I was writing this fictional narrative, I kept hitting unexplained blockages; I was eventually caught at an impasse when writing about the protagonist’s aversion to death, and that was because I had never written about my own aversion to death. And so this essay was born, in an attempt to make sense of myself so that I could make sense of my character.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to format this essay through a numbered list. One, my treatise on spiritualism had begun as a journey to get into the heart of my character, albeit the directionless kind, so a lyric-style list felt less formal than a more traditional personal essay with a set thesis. Two, as a Virgo Moon, I like to make sense of my feelings in an organized way, and I find it soothing to see my sentiments get their own single-digit addresses. Three, a lot of Cantonese superstition is based on numbers, and using this format was a way to speak to, and possibly defy, the sense of safety—and thus, control—my culture gets from superstition.
But then again, maybe defy is the wrong word (after all, do notice that I did not go up to point four in the previous paragraph—I’m still superstitious, after all, and I don’t love egging the reaper on). Still, I think it’s useful to understand your own fears in this world, and how you channel those anxieties; which is to say, if there are actual spirits out there, reading this note, then just know that I am getting your attention without disregarding the forces of death around me. “I respect that all things must end,” is what I mean to say. “And so I will write to the conclusion without stopping to hide.”
In truth, I am not usually a nonfiction writer. I mostly specialize in fiction, which teaches the importance of character arcs and journeys and meaningful change. To be an effective storyteller, one must understand their character’s needs and wants and fears. But what I’ve found is this: if we avoid death, even just the mere idea of it, we avoid transformation. No one changes, and we will always be afraid.
JUSTINE TEU is a Brooklyn-based writer with writing in or forthcoming in Passages North, The Offing, Pidgeonholes, Pigeon Pages, VIDA Review, and other publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Additionally, she has recently served as an Emerging Fiction Fellow at Aspen Words, and has received support from the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She teaches creative writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop, where she focuses on helping new writers find their voices. Find her on Twitter at @justinecteu.