Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018


If the essay is an attempt, it lives close to failure. It never forgets about the possibility of failure, which is the premise of every attempt. Failure is the air in which the essay hangs, glittering. Failure is the essay’s sustenance.

I am Indian American, which means that failure is a type of cultural suicide, and that failure induces the dream of suicide (not cultural).

I am also white, half white, and I look white, and this is in fact a purely arbitrary occurrence, but it’s one I experience as a personal failure: failure to manifest the self.

I am thirty-three and still live, in part, off my mother’s money. I chose to put off earning my own: so that I could try this instead. I have been trying for fifteen years, more or less. There is a question about how much failure I am willing to accept, but I choose not to ask it. Instead, I make a home for myself in the question’s mouth.

What do I do with a life pressed near the brink of failure, that anxious, exhilarating precipice? In my favorite drama, everyone—kings, fools—is lost in the tempest, scattered drunk over the island. A servant runs into Caliban, the slave, and calls him “mooncalf”: monster, idiot, failure. The second OED definition of mooncalf is “an ill-conceived idea, enterprise, or undertaking,” as, in 1644, “The Parliament is in labour of a Moon-Calfe.”

I am writing a book of essays called Mooncalf, although so far it’s not entirely certain whether I am writing it or failing to write it. In writing this book, I might be in labour of a Moon-Calfe, a labour I hereby embrace.

My attempt in this book is to love failure, which is the shadow of my longing for creation, the twin of whatever art I have.

I was taught not to love failure. In 1976, my mother moved from Mumbai to Pasadena for her PhD at Caltech in electrical engineering. She was twenty-one. She had just graduated with her B. Tech from the India Institute of Technology Bombay, a university that admits fewer than 2 percent of its applicants; in my mother’s time there, women made up roughly 2 percent of each matriculating B. Tech class, and today the number is still barely higher than 8 percent. My mother’s GPA there was 9.95 out of 10, at the time the highest recorded GPA in the university’s history. Upon graduation, she was awarded the President of India Gold Medal, and in 2015 she was recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus. In a brochure celebrating IITB’s fiftieth anniversary, faculty describe her as “incomparably the best girl student” the university has seen. I found out a year ago that my mother, now divorced, has a million dollars in the bank, not counting her investments or property.

For years of my life I thought my mother, who stayed in California and married a white classmate, was a rebel—willful, willing to be an outcast in order to pursue her own vision. But later she told me that she was simply following a respectable, socially meaningful course in which the best Indian engineering students made lives in the United States.

My mother often made me sit at the kitchen table with her and do math problems. I remember this in particular at the end of elementary school: staring at a pen streak on the pale tablecloth, pretending to think about algebra, bracing myself against her anger at error, looking at her worn blue-flowered skirt out of the corner of my eye. Though my parents made and saved enough money for me, and then my brother, to attend four years of college at Stanford—no scholarships, no loans—they rarely bought nice things, never invited anyone over to dinner.

“Why do I need to work so hard all the time?” I asked her once. “Why can’t I just be happy?”

“Be successful first,” she told me. “People need to be successful before they can be happy.”

For a long time I thought of this statement as cruel. Now I think of it mostly as troubled, well-meaning. But at times it seems to me simply true, and then I wish I had heeded the warning.

I grew up in Silicon Valley, in a wealthy Asian American neighborhood of San Jose—the kind of place anthropologists call an ethnoburb. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal published an article called “The New White Flight” about the public high school I attended. In the new white flight, white people move away from certain cities or suburbs (ethnoburbs) because the public schools in their former hometowns are quickly populating with Asian Americans. The white people leave the ethnoburbs because they do not want their kids to have to compete with the kids of the Asians, whose strictness forged through old-country struggles burnishes their children to academic perfection until the gates to prestige glide open to welcome them.

For example, the article tells us, when Ms. Doherty moved from Indiana to Cupertino seeking a good school district for her son, “she paid no heed to a real-estate agent who told her of the town’s burgeoning Asian population.” She “began to reconsider,” however, when her son was in middle school. When she came to pick him up after school, where he’d raced off to a game of soccer with his friends after the bell rang, Ms. Doherty watched “a line of cars across the street deposit Asian kids for after-school study.”

Further, the Asians secure jobs at tech companies and thus it gets harder and harder for the whites—or anyone—to afford to live where they once did. Now, thirteen years after the article was published, the Bay Area is barely habitable by anyone other than a coterie of the richest twenty- and thirty-somethings, many of whom live in apartments subsidized by Google or Apple, where they work, and many of whom are Asian. These youth are creative and competent and often brilliant and predominantly hard-working and kind. My friends from high school and college are among them. They live in San Francisco and inhabit the neighborhoods and bars scouted out for them by those of us with less money but with helpfully leftist and artistic sensibilities. These youth are the artists of our age, the best minds of our generation. They count their art classes toward their majors in project design. In Mission District coffee shops once populated by poets slinging well drinks by night, they gather to discuss ideas for apps. Their parents are proud. They are successful and articulate and sometimes visionary and they are beautiful and multicultural and their companies allow them 10 percent of their time to work on creative projects. They do not carry the same baggage of failure that I do; they are not that kind of artist. They carry instead slim bags—designed by their friends—as they bicycle to work. The bags contain imperceptible, airy, young technological devices designed by their friends.

Michelle is the name of a friend from my ethnoburb, a friend who grew up to take a shuttle to work: to lock the door of a condo every day and to step out onto the flat, pale, wide sidewalk of one of the rare, near-imaginary neighborhoods in San Francisco where the streets are white and empty as they were in Silicon Valley where we were teens. Michelle might stand there now, waiting for her shuttle, sipping a thimbleful of rich espresso and watching her phone shine. A twine of silk-dark hair might blow in her face, tangling for an instant with her lashes.

I am not, here, going to tell the truth about Michelle—not exactly. Growing up rich in this way, a child of Silicon Valley, I am tangled in a complicity no one quite talks about. We have heard a lot of stories about whiteness and its complicities. We don’t know as much about the Asian ones. Though it’s not possible, I would like to write in a way in which I betray only myself.

I met Michelle in the late hours of a debate tournament in high school—in the long, long weekend hours that began by putting on a suit at six a.m. on a Saturday, by tucking a yellow legal pad into a dark leather folder and brushing the specks from it so it would look whole and formidable. My folder would gather flecks of dandruff from the dark oil of my hair, evidence of my body’s misshape. I would brush and brush them away.

I met Michelle at nine p.m., my suit rubbed with palm sweat, both of us sitting on the floor in the hallway, waiting to find out who broke, which was debate lingo for making it to the final round. I was eating a bag of sour gummy worms from the vending machine, my teeth and tongue twinging with sugar: one worm lavender and cherry-red, one phosphorescent orange cut by lime green. I looked across the hall to see if anyone could see me eating, and there was Michelle, peeling apart a small tangerine.

“Want some?” she asked. I could tell that she was mixed-race, East Asian and white—she looked the way I imagined myself to look, her skin capturing its own gold, her eye shape a decisive meeting of narrow and round. When she reached across to give me the fruit, I saw slender cuts beneath a twine bracelet on her wrist. A feeling floated up from my pit: low and dredge-heavy, a reverence built of envy.

Michelle went to a different public school in the suburbs of San Jose, a school belonging to the same, strange genre as mine. These schools were, perhaps, theaters of fate in which the students were destined to travel the route from middle-class or upper-middle-class to a gleaming class high up in the meritocracy—the route, by way of hard work, to riches. Because they were children of immigrants, and because immigration is a walk across a frail silver thread in the unknowable night, they did not trust their destiny, but they longed for it. More accurately, they didn’t long for riches—they longed for success and approval, which is to say that they longed for perfection.

One shorthand for their perfection was “Stanford,” a place in Palo Alto where the sidewalks are white and empty too. Palo Alto borders East Palo Alto, where the sidewalks are not wide nor white and where, in 1992, the most homicides anywhere in the country occurred. The residents of East Palo Alto are not white either, nor are they—for the most part—Asian. Stanford students don’t go to East Palo Alto unless they’re making a trip to IKEA or volunteering in a public school to bolster their resumé.

Elsewhere than in the ethnoburb, girls burn to be flaxen-haired and milk-skinned, bright-lipped and laughing as boys turn their heads. But in elementary school in San Jose, California, my idea of visual perfection came from a particular cultural standard: quiet, slim, golden, pale; mindful voice, smooth arms. My vision of perfection resembled Michelle, though I hadn’t met her yet. But my own arms were hairy and my voice loud and high. I had messy handwriting, unusually dark, pressing violently into the page.

One day in fourth grade when we had a substitute teacher, I made a plan to curate myself—just for that day—toward perfection, so that the substitute would think I was one of those girls whom the parents whisper about with approval. When the substitute teacher spoke, I put my hand up in the air carefully, quietly. I think she was deceived.

In high school, where my unweighted GPA was 3.92—low enough by the standards of my high school that I feel a little, even now, like I should lie about it and say it was higher—I walked around declaring that I was a failure. “I’m totally worthless.” I wasn’t alone in this. “I’m incompetent,” my friends and I would complain to each other. “I’m not good at anything.”

As far as I can remember, I didn’t actually believe this—at least not at first, or at least I couldn’t tell whether or not I did. I was terrified of not being good enough, so I uttered these mantras to ward off the possibility of their accuracy.

Everyone around me was infected with the longing to be perfect. Looking closely at anyone, you could tell. The more admirable she was on the outside—good grades, prizes in extracurricular activities, graceful, athletic movements—the more likely it was that she glittered with pain on the inside. “I’m worthless,” she would say, following it with chiming laughter.

The night I met Michelle at the debate tournament, a parent came in to the community college cafeteria where we were gathered and tacked up a piece of paper with letters and numbers written on it in marker—codes identifying those of us who had made it to finals. All of us crowded in, straining our eyes to see a code that meant us—LX486 or EA309, the letters indicating the school we belonged to, the numbers holding within them the personhood of whoever among us deserved to feel joy. My number was not there.

“I didn’t break,” I told Michelle when I saw her again.

“Me neither,” she said. Her eyes had grown luminous, sad.

I said abruptly: “I used to cut myself too.” I bared my forearms for her, palms upward, trying to show the imperceptible lines. Both of us feigned embarrassment. In fact, interior pain, if successfully portrayed as carefully hidden, was a mark of honor. It indicated an exacting, relentless mind that would secure unbelievable success.

In truth, I worried that I was not a very good or motivated cutter: it was difficult to get myself to press the scissors with enough force that they would draw blood, let alone leave a mark. It wasn’t until freshman year, New Year’s Day, in my first-ever semester of drinking, that I woke with the night forgotten and with two precise, parallel scarlet lines near the crook of my elbow. Satisfied then with my cutting success, I stopped.

In this late-morning light at my desk, I can see the thin scars now. When I look at them I still feel inexplicably proud.

When my mother was eleven, once, and crying—this was in Kohlapur, a city of sugarcane and mangoes—her mother slapped her on the cheek. “No one older than ten cries, except at funerals,” my grandmother said in her gentle, unschooled Kannada. Later that evening my mother looked out the window and saw a man attacked by a long-horned buffalo. “Did God do that because I cried?” my mother wept to her mother. “Probably,” her mother said in a kind voice.

An ethnoburb looks like any suburb, if you look at its surfaces but not at its people. The quiet streets take on a transcendent quality—as if they might be able to escape themselves—only at dusk. It is California, so there is no winter—only, in January, the abstract notions of cold and of death.

As weather does, high school social activity in the ethnoburb follows idiosyncratic rules particular to the ethnoburb. These rules are mostly irrelevant to the high school’s white students, who, although they make up only 30 percent of the population, go around acting as if they belong to a normal high school: they cheerlead and play football and are elected prom king and queen. Despite their numerical minority, they are recognized by the entire school as popular.

As for the rest of us, we are supposed to be studying. We rarely go to movies on weekends; we rarely drive around and hang out in parking lots. It would not occur to us to go to a party, as drugs and alcohol exist for us only in lore. On weekends we are found at debate tournaments, and on weekdays we sometimes stay at school until nine p.m.: we have water polo practice, then debate, then mock trial, then production for our award-winning school newspaper. When we got home, we go into our bedrooms, where each of us has a computer, and sign on to the Internet. On AOL Instant Messenger, we greet one another again.

We are taking four or five AP classes each. We are taking Calculus BC at sixteen. (If you take it at seventeen, your senior year, it’s a black mark, meaning you’re gifted but not very.) We have so much homework that when we get home from school we do not start it. Instead, talking on AOL Instant Messenger about our inner pain, we put it off later and later, until at eleven or midnight we finally begin. On AOL Instant Messenger, we brag about our procrastination, which is our brand of adventure. “I haven’t started yet!” we declare. Our screens gleam in our otherwise dark rooms—we try not to wake our sleeping parents and risk their formidable anger. Staying up late to procrastinate is a kind of extreme sport, its purpose to demonstrate how long we can put off starting an assignment but still receive a perfect score.

“I got two hours of sleep last night,” we proclaim the next day, with pale faces and sparkling eyes, clutching coffee. “I got only half an hour.”

To calm ourselves in agitated moments, we dream of success. What is success? It’s hard to tell, except that it is not failure, which is the wild and terrible sublime lurking at the edges of what we can conceive.

At some point during the high school years when I believed in success, I acquired the kind of boyfriend to whom it is necessary to lie, if you are tired of performing sexual acts in order to stave off someone’s anger. Downstairs, my parents slept. Upstairs, on my own phone that glowed green against my sodden cheek, I spoke to my boyfriend at two a.m., trying to delay the humiliating dirty talk he would later demand. “Weird things are happening at home,” I lied. “My dad stays at work for long hours and we don’t know if that’s where he really is.” In hopes that my boyfriend would refrain from calling me worthless, I began to wax cliché, inventing my father’s affair, and I did so in complete ignorance that seven years later I would learn that this affair had actually been happening. “It’s just that I’ve realized we’re too culturally different,” my father would say to me as he divorced my mother, and two years after that, I would meet her: bird-lipped and vivacious, a high-powered engineering executive from Iran.

My strategy—lying to elicit my boyfriend’s sympathy—backfired. “Then you should stop treating your mom like shit,” he said.

In college, free of this boyfriend, studying feminist and race and trauma theory, volunteering at the women’s shelter and the free clinic for trans people, organizing hunger strikes for the Student Labor Action Coalition, dating liberally and bisexually and often simultaneously, I decided that I would reject the entire strategy of existence on which I had been raised, and that I would become a writer. I developed dual obsessions: with dismantling structures of privilege, and with getting stoned. My favorite night pastime was to wander unkempt rooms in fragrant smoke. I believed that the purest good could be found there, in bewildered meandering through the sultry dark.

At nineteen, I got a tattoo of a quill, whose purpose was to remind myself that I was a writer. If I found myself later in life in a lucrative job, doing something other than writing, I would see imprinted on my skin a message from the person I’d betrayed.

Michelle and I both got into Stanford; we became roommates. I met her brother, Winston, right around the time Michelle was beginning to find me questionable. I was not spending very much time in our dorm room. Winston went to Berkeley and was a year older than we were, and he did not have a girlfriend. Michelle revealed to me that her parents—upon meeting me for the first time—hoped that Winston and I might hit it off. He had a crew cut and Michelle’s mixed-race skin; he had an assertive, though boring, stare. Touched that her parents thought me a good candidate, I covered my tattoos when he visited.

I would like to love failure because I would like to love myself. So far in my life, I have wasted a lot of time—traipsing senselessly across the Internet, taking selfies whose purpose is to examine the extent to which my face has aged. I have lived sometimes in a state of constant fear induced by my failure—a fear that always breeds more failure, more days of staring through my diaphanous terror at the static landscape out the window.

Of course the question is, in the first place, whether or not time is something one can squander: or whether, unbelievably, it just presses on, and what goes on will go on—will blaze or falter toward death.

There is a more important reason to love failure, which is that many people in the world live in a state of failure all the time, one that they did not choose for themselves but one which the world recognizes as failure nonetheless. This is something you learn if you work as a case manager at a social-service organization in a city, which I did for three years, beginning right after college in San Francisco, where I lived in a three-bedroom apartment in the least gentrified corner of the Mission District with four other people, including Michelle.

If you are a case manager you manage the cases of others. You get a sense of what it might be like to be a person who is a case. As a case manager you often have an unmanageable caseload—mine varied from 40 to 80 families. I was horrendously inadequate to all the tasks I was assigned, but this failure was not my own. Rather, it was a failure of urban priority, of urban thought, which postulates that the population of a city always includes failures—so that the rest of us can measure our success.

As I kept working I got marginally better at this job, thus partially surmounting both my white and my Asian guilt.

Last winter—living in the brown, icy wasteland of rural Missouri, where my pursuit of failure (and of a man) had led me—I talked to Michelle on Skype. We hadn’t spoken for more than a year. She told me that Winston was in prison.

The last time I’d talked to Michelle, years before that, she told me her investments were being audited—that she’d received official-looking orders asking her to provide massive amounts of paperwork and she hadn’t known why it was happening. It turned out that in 2007 and 2008, at the age of twenty-four, Winston—who worked at an investment bank—had orchestrated an insider-trading scheme and deposited some of his profits in her account.

I looked up Winston’s case online, which accuses him of “unjust enrichment” of more than five hundred thousand dollars.

Michelle told me that she knew that Winston would be okay. He was taking a community-college course in the prison to keep his mind active. It had cost her family a lot of money, and she was glad she had the kind of job in which she made enough money to help her family out.

“It made me think about the prison system,” she said. “I know securities fraud is bad, but they treated him like a criminal.”

A recent survey of formerly incarcerated people found that 79 percent of them had at some point been denied housing because of their records. According to another study, 30 to 50 percent of people on parole are homeless. A third study showed that when people were released from prison, living on the street made them twice as likely to get arrested again. But working as a case manager, I found that homelessness had much less to do with criminality, addiction, or mental illness than with poverty itself. I met families in which three or four generations had lived in the projects, until, for some reason or other, they were evicted. If you were a member of such a family, when you turned eighteen, you could sign up for Supplemental Security Income yourself and get on the waiting list for Housing Authority. The waiting list was years long, often eight years, and the reward for waiting was that you got to live in the projects.

I am not sure whether the Indian-American hatred of failure I grew up with indicates a belief in self-determination. There is one sentence I love from the Bhagavad Gita: “Work without regard for the fruits of your labor.” This mantra is contrary to the work ethic of almost every Indian person I know, who has believed in hard work for no other reason than that it yields prestige.

In my mother’s way of being Indian, prestige is the only shining grail. Everything else, especially money, is a by-product—now that my family has already paid for a Stanford education for both me and my brother, she can’t think of what to do with it. Money would suggest irrelevant projects such as remodeling the house and buying expensive glassware for dinner parties. It would suggest leisure, in which, ultimately, my mother is not interested. She is interested, for example, in the status of your college. For an Indian American in the Bay Area, college is a form of caste, a way of parceling out what you deserve.

One day at work in San Francisco, two girls who were younger than I was came into my office: two girls with skin of deep shades. When I came to the question on my form about their race, both of them said that they were mixed.

These girls were in a relationship, and one of them was pregnant. The pregnant one, the seventeen-year-old, was quiet the whole interview. The other one, darker-skinned, spoke first. They’d met in foster care. The pregnancy was the result of an unwanted encounter. The father of the baby was someone they’d known in foster care too. The father was someone they’d thought was a friend, and when they aged out they had gone to stay with him.

“But we learned that he wasn’t,” she said.

The years that I worked at my job in San Francisco were a study in flatness of voice. It was the restraint that Michelle and I had spoken about so long ago, except here it was terrifying: here the person on the other side floated on the other side of a sea, unreachable.

My task in this job was to conduct a one-hour interview in which I asked my clients the details of their circumstances and then—once I knew the details—to give them a place on the waiting list for shelter. I was supposed, also, to “refer them to any resources” (there weren’t many). The job was, then, usually, to watch a story unreel before me and to sit there, helpless. These two girls were the same age I had been in my own hours of dark sweat, in my own worst time with a manipulative boyfriend. But their time was worse. I let them talk for two hours, and then they left my office. I promised them that I would connect them with resources. But I never saw them again. When I called them to check in, both phone numbers they gave me had been disconnected.

Dorothy Allison writes, “The fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it. I have learned with great difficulty that the vast majority of people believe that poverty is a voluntary condition.”

In The Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad writes that Indians and other Asians are figured in the American racial imaginary as “solutions” to the “problems” caused by less “hard-working” immigrants and minorities. This is a strange way of being asked to be “of color.” He asks us not to accept this position.

My way of being of color is yet another degree stranger, because it’s impossible to see the color. “I don’t want to have to hear this from a white lady,” one of my clients in San Francisco yelled at me. My name, Shamala, means dark in Sansrkit.

Because I am impulsive, if someone gave me the irrevocable opportunity to paint my skin darker—to render my color visible—I would do it. This is not to say I believe it would be the best decision. But I would do it instantly, and, come to think of it, I might exercise this power upon others as well, if I could, especially upon smug men in suits as they stood at podiums—thus eliciting a gasp from the crowd.

Theodor Adorno compares the essay “to the behavior of a man who is obliged, in a foreign country, to speak that country’s language instead of patching it together from its elements, as he did in school. He will read without a dictionary.” This behavior, for Adorno, is admirable, worthwhile: he will learn the nuances of each word as they occur in actual, awkward speech.

(I did something like this one summer in Oaxaca when I was young. I fell in love with my Spanish teacher, who was eight years older than I and living with a Canadian woman my age, a former student. Once I saw him in the zócalo with her. She had long hair, her back turned to me. Once they saw me—out dancing and drinking with a dreadlocked man, a musician, a stoner, who had been my coworker’s former Oaxacan boyfriend. I didn’t see them, but I danced wildly, with sadness. One of my last nights in Oaxaca, my teacher lied to his girlfriend and told her that he was working late in his father’s shop, and he and I went to a hidden bar that consisted of a fridge of Coronas in the courtyard of an old woman’s house. By then I could speak Spanish fairly well, in the fluency of desperation. My teacher had dark skin and a short, muscular build—he looked like my high-school boyfriend. We talked about suffering—we decided that people from India, from Mexico, don’t make a big deal about it. It’s only among whites that we learn to treat our pain delicately, as they do theirs.

On my very last night in Oaxaca, I called and called him from the pay phone in the Internet cafe, and he did not answer. On the night we stayed out late, I declared that I would eat chapulines, grasshoppers, though I’m a vegetarian. We ran all over the city looking for them. He walked me home. We talked deliciously about how we would not kiss, and we didn’t. He began speaking in English for the first time, though he was, in fact, fluent, and I suddenly saw him the way someone in America might—through racist eyes, as a stumbling, dark man.)

“Just as such learning remains exposed to error, so does the essay as form,” writes Adorno. “It must pay for its affinity with open intellectual experience by the lack of security, a lack which the norm of established thought fears like death.”

In my time knowing writers, I have come into contact with many who go to AA. I love this kind of writer and wish that I were one, but even though I’ve been sober for three years, I have trouble naming myself an alcoholic. What I love about these friends but can’t claim for myself is the destruction and resurrection, the journey to the hard bottom and then the rise from the ashes. What I love is their belief that anyone, even a failure, can become basically productive, basically good: that even a failure can become worthwhile. And in fact, the AA writers I know are some of my most successful friends, and one of them is among the most at peace.

But their narrative is, again, one that believes in success—one that is not satisfied by our remaining in abjection. In contrast, I want the abjection to be all, but that, perhaps, is no longer an essay. That is the antithesis of essay: it is lolling about in a sea of failure.

Perhaps, then, I was wrong: perhaps the essay can’t claim failure as its own after all.

Still, I have been interested in failure for its own sake: reveling in uselessness, reveling in waste.

One day at my social-services job in San Francisco, some kind of leadership trainer was hired to guide us through a power shuffle. The one hundred employees in the company had to line up in a row in the center of an auditorium. The trainer then called out statements and asked us to take steps forward or backward if the statements applied to us. “Take a step forward if you grew up taking family vacations.” “Take a step backward if you are a person of color.” “Take a step forward if you went to college.” “Take a step back if you have been to jail.” By the end of the activity, we were stratified all across the room, so that we could become aware of the social power we had in relation to others. Taking a step backward to indicate that I identified as queer, I bumped into Leo, a Guatemalan American former drug addict who had worked at the company for ten years. My friend Veronica was in the back row next to Alex, who yelled, “We’re bumping into the wall here. There’s nowhere else to go.” Our boss, Aram, was in the very front.

“That was embarrassing,” Veronica said. “I didn’t like that.” But I was twenty-two then and the power shuffle had given me a secret glow. Here was the world.

To burn myself gold instead of white, I spent years in Texas in blazing blue pools without sunscreen. My face is complicated now with early wrinkles, and it is now winter in a colder, later, state, and my face is pale—but expressive, marked with everything I meant, and I suppose that finally I am proud.

What is failure? Many of the streets of San Francisco smell of shit. That is one reason San Francisco was so glorious for me when I lived there: what is terrible is apparent. The city does not hide its failures.

When you are a case manager, it is your job to take on the case of the wreckage upon which society floats. You are the manager of what we would like to keep unseen. I loved this work with a deep and ugly passion, because it asked me to look out on the wreckage, to put the despicable background into the foreground. It is an unwieldy life, and it is the closest I’ve gotten to goodness.

I did not grow up with the belief that everyone is equal. I don’t mean to blame this on my parents. In the Gita, Arjuna is in anguish because he is supposed to fight a battle in which he has to kill some members of his family. Krishna appears to him, however, and tells him that this is okay: that his purpose on Earth is to carry out his duties, to accept the position that he has been given. Such a belief also underpins the caste system, which asks you to uncomplainingly inhabit the identity you have been assigned.

It was late in my twenties by the time I started to believe that anyone—no matter where she had been—would be able to make a worthwhile life for herself. It was not determined by who she was. She stood, like anyone, on the precipice of failure.

My thirties so far have been composed of three to five months of incapacitating self-hatred, each followed by a briefer and blissful release into its opposite. For the failure seasons, I’ve taken pills, though I’ve done so with suspicion: can a pill undo a fixation on failure? Desiring an appealing shorthand, I’ve taken up clinical terms for this condition and call those seasons depressive episodes. If I’m speaking honestly, the malady I possess is a different one. It’s an immigrant disease, an Asian one, meaning: an American one. It is the a vestige of the culture of climbing that is not visible in my skin, nor my income, nor my practices of being.

What will I be if I one day get free?

Shamala Gallagher’s poetry collection, Late Morning When the World Burns, is forthcoming from The Cultural Society. She is a Kundiman fellow and graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, and her work appears in PoetryGulf CoastBlack Warrior Review, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. Originally from San Jose, she has worked and volunteered for a decade in homeless services all over the country. She’s now a PhD candidate in Athens, Georgia.