On Kristine Ong Muslim's website, the list of just her stories and poems that have been published in various magazines and journals over the last seventeen years is 10,398 words long, far longer than many entire short stories: "The Monkey's Paw" for example is only about 4,000 words. And that list is only of what she published in magazines and journals. If you want to know about her extensive publications in anthologies, chapbooks, and other volumes you can go on her website yourself and drop jaw at the quantity of her output. If her ratio of published-to-unpublished writing is anything like mine, then she must have had to empty a swimming pool to keep all her manuscripts in.
The list of my published stories would take perhaps 100 words to fully demarcate. Kristine Ong Muslim and I have submitted to many of the very same magazines. Usually when a magazine rejects one of my stories, I adopt a toddlerish attitude towards the criminals who made me feel bad, but when I find a story by Muslim in one of them and take pleasure in her skill, my toddlerish feelings subside a little bit, even though I don't want them to.
On July 29th, 2014, I received this message from the editors of Birkensnake Magazine: "Dear Peter, Thank you for letting us see "Knife Soup." We're going to pass on it, but we enjoyed it more than is usual for us, and we look forward to reading more of your work.
Joanna Ruocco & Brian Conn"
I am bragging about this note by showing you that they enjoyed it, but you can't accuse me of bragging because I just showed you a rejection letter. I put "Knife Soup" in Curse Babbler because I wanted it to be published and think I should always get my way and so self-published it. You can read at least some of it in the "look inside" function, or if you want to buy Curse Babbler you can read all of it.
Then later I discovered that Birkensnake had published a story by K.O.M. called "Boy with a Propeller Head" which is such a good story that I will finally get to my point here and ask why the hell Kristine Ong Muslim is not incredibly well-known.
It's not as if she simply hasn't published enough. In her "Distinctions" section, she lists 48 nominations, awards, wins, honorable mentions, etc. What in the world does this person have to do to find widespread recognition? You'd think with her resume that this has already happened, but have you ever heard of Kristine Ong Muslim? Oh, you have? What about your friends? What about anybody?
When I first perused her website, I was--and my mature humility allows me to confess this--briefly but fierily jealous of her many successes, then realized that none of her hundreds upon hundreds of publications and recognitions have made her the household name she deserves to be.
What the hell is going on. I don't even mean that as a question, though it is highly curious. I worked at a restaurant in 2015 and asked the same statement then to a bookish hostess as I'm asking now. She reminded me (because I already knew all this because I'm not uninformed) that women of color are often ignored by the literary world, which does not use literary skill as a criterion for judging the quality of the writing of women of color, but rather uses the criteria of race and gender.
There's also the merciful possiblity that, because she lives in the Phillippines, Kristine Ong Muslim is not closely exposed to the market which she has so soundly mastered, but the web makes the world as big as a pea, so I don't see why that's stopping her. What, she couldn't make it to some stupid conference in Manhattan and schmooze her way into a profile in the New Yorker or something?
Here is why "Boy with a Propeller Head" is good. The Elephant Man's society finally allowed him some dignity towards the end of his life, and from 1887 to 1890, he lived in several converted rooms in the London Hospital, where no mirrors were hung. Sue me if any of this was made up by the web, but we also read that he hoped one day to live at an institution for the blind, so that he might meet a woman not distressed by his appearance. Keep all that in mind while you read the second paragraph (of just five) of Muslim's story:
Soaring, you realized it did not matter if you did not look like everyone else, with those propeller blades sticking out where your eyes and ears should have been. To us, you would have been ugly, a mechanical monstrosity; yet you could feel the wind over the woods, you could hear the ocean and the sloshing of the great fishes beneath it. Your arms were free to touch the rustling branches of treetops, the tips of smokestacks and church steeples. You were even higher than the highest mountain peaks, although only for a while, because the air was thin at those heights.
But the deformity of the boy is the vehicle which allows him to evade the notice of those who would gawk at him. Joseph Merrick was forced, if anything, to use his deformity to make money, because it was difficult for him to find people willing to overcome their distress at his appearance, and easy to find people willing to pay to gawk at him.
You're over there thinking, "what a stretch that is." Look at your face, you can't even believe what I'm suggesting. It's thought that in fact Merrick died in his sleep of a broken vertebra, but for a long while some supposed that he died of asphyxia, because the air was thin at those heights. It's been quite some time since anybody made me perform any type of close examination on a work of fiction, and the last critical trends I was exposed to were probably those current in, say, 2011 (COINCIDENTALLY ALSO THE YEAR OF THIS STORY'S PUBLICATION.) However in those days we weren't asked to defend our critiques from getting the intention of the author wrong, so if she never thought of the Elephant Man in the same place as the propeller boy, then good.
This story isn't an allegory for his late life. I hate allegories and think at least one thing in a story must possess its own meaning. See Gibbon's reference to the fourth book of Herodotus: "When Darius advanced into the Moldavian desert, between the Danube and the Dneister, the king of the Scythians sent him a mouse, a frog, a bird, and five arrows: a tremendous allegory!" This is the only allegory that I like, and I like it because I don't understand it. I hope Kristine Ong Muslim wasn't trying to write a story about a thinly-veiled Elephant Man. The man and the boy are merely kinsmen, they're not each other, don't you see?
And then there towards the end, she writes, as if you, the reader, are that poor propeller boy, "[t]he foragers discovered your body near the creek bed. A squirrel nuzzled your foot, and a toad had found its way inside your open mouth." What does that have to do with the Elephant Man? It might have more to do with the Scythian allegory than any other, where squirrel replaces mouse, toad replaces frog, the damn propeller boy replaces bird and in terms of arrows, the five violent images and remarks in the paragraph replace them:
1."your open mouth."
2. "The contraption ... was now a tangle of crushed metal and skull fragments."
3. "Even your parents found you unrecognizable."
4. "They said it could be just any boy who had played a prank that went wrong."
5. "It could be any boy who'd had the nerve to fly away from home."
1. is violent because the open mouth of a corpse is violent. 2. is violent because crushed metal and skull fragments are violent. 3. is violent because if you are so destroyed that even your parents don't recognize you, then some serious bond between you has been slashed in half. 4. is violent because the parents, like Saint Peter who denied Christ, denied their own son, yet not out of fear of persecution, but out of fear of the nightmare that would be acceptance of the little boy's fate. 5. is violent because it drills deeply and almost instantly into the psychological trauma of the parents and their desperately contradictory rationalization that, even though it's not even him, yes it actually is but he deserved to die for leaving them.
In 269 words the story exposes how ruthlessly human beings treat ugliness, solitude, and grief. For comparison, my story, "Knife Soup" exposed in 600 words maybe something about minor guilt, or maybe not.
What's wrong with you people. There's a little bit of tension in that DECLARATION, because on the one hand Kristine Ong Muslim's talent has been recognized by basically every online literature and poetry magazine there is, so it's not like I can say her work is being ignored, but on the other hand, she hasn't won the Pushcart Prize, despite having been nominated by those magazines eight separate times for it, so it's exactly like I can say her work is being ignored. Her talent absolutely overflows on one side of some invisible dumb-ass filter, but when the talent and the filter push against each other, the filter wins and lets Wells Tower through. Kristine Ong Muslim goes right on ahead increasing the density of her artistic success on the unlit, unknown side of the filter where people don't have to admit that she knows what she's doing.
I haven't even started talking about Muslim's Stranger poems. She wrote fifteen of them, and the first one is called "The First Stranger," and the second is called "The Second Stranger," &c. "The Ninth Stranger" is about how they find a stranger at the dump, and see little strangers climbing out of her mouth.
"That doesn't affect me personally so who cares"