Hunger never came naturally to me. As a baby, I didn’t cry for milk, preferring to gaze at the mold-splashed ceiling and grab at dust motes, twining my tiny hands through their light. Elaine told me this was because…
“Graftings” started with a series of photographs by Luo Yang. They depict a Chinese woman during her pregnancy: her, standing at a window, watching her growing waist; her naked reflection, blurred by glass; her stomach itself, a slash of melanin streaking down its bulge. The images provide a clear jumping off point for the story, unraveling from the mother’s pregnancy and childbirth to the relationships between her, Charity, and Elaine.
Although this piece began with imagery, point of view was also central to its construction. Told in the first person, the story focuses on Charity, who narrates her upbringing from birth to the age of twelve. Notably, she cannot remember her own birth or the early years of her life—her understanding of these events is shaped by her sister, Elaine, and the stories she tells. However, due to the surrealist nature of the premise, Charity cannot know whether Elaine is telling the truth or if she has fabricated a narrative of her own. I wanted to emphasize the secondhand nature of Charity’s story by prefacing sections with “Elaine said” and “according to Elaine.” I used a double filter of unreliable narrators and left the intentionality of their unreliability purposefully vague. Charity herself cannot verify the events of her birth, which is the supposed cause for her mother’s hunger and the reason Charity has none herself. No matter how hard she looks, she never sees a scar on her mother’s stomach. She never finds tangible evidence for her pain. Still, she relays these events to us like they are a concrete truth, an undeniable part of her past.
I especially wanted to consider how easily Charity believes her sister’s stories. She clings to them despite their fantastical nature, highlighting her childlike imagination, her deep trust in Elaine, and her desperation to believe her mother’s cruelty is out of her control. I wanted to ask how a child might filter their parent’s neglect to explain it to themselves. Since young children are less likely to oppose their parents, would ascribing her mother’s violence to the supernatural separate her from her actions? Would it decrease her perceived agency, her ability to do conscious harm? Despite everything, Charity instinctively turns to her mother, watching her from stairwells and doorways, suffused in the shadow of her hunger.
Although this point-of-view framing is merely that—a frame through which the main events are presented—I wanted to peer into Charity’s worldview, her fragile yet desperate construction of her past, and see how she engages with family through it. How she keeps searching for an explanation, how she keeps reaching out, and out, and out.
STELLA LEI’s work appears in Up the Staircase Quarterly, Four Way Review, Peach Mag, and elsewhere. Her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger, is forthcoming from River Glass Books in 2022. She is an editor in chief for The Augment Review, she has two cats, and she tweets @stellalei04.