4 Editors on Writing Unlawful Acts
The topic we picked for our 2024 themed issue, Unlawful Acts, is a broad one. It can cover actions ranging from misdemeanors to felonies, war crimes to white collar crimes, abuse in the home or at work. It spans a wide range of genres and subgenres—true crime, outlaw ballads, horror stories—yet can just as easily pop up in “traditional” literary fiction. And of course, crime is defined by those in power, and literature frequently challenges those laws that shouldn't be laws in the first place.
For this post, we asked four of Iron Horse Literary Review’s editors to share some of the stories, essays, and poems about unlawful acts that inspire them.
Here’s what they said:
The essay that I choose is D. Winston Brown's "Ghost Children," which was originally published in 2006, in Creative Nonfiction's Essays from the Edge (Issue No. 28), when I was the copy editor for the magazine. I've never forgotten it and teach it often in my workshops—whether it's a true crime workshop, a general workshop, or a CLE clinic for lawyers. The essay explores generational encounters with gun violence—and is ultimately an essay about racial inequities experienced by the grandfather, father, and sons of one family living in Alabama. The way it moves in and out of flashbacks, commingles parallel events from one generation to another, and teaches the reader so much about history is simply brilliant storytelling.
I suggest Junji Ito's “Long Dream” from his manga collection titled Shiver (VIZ Media, 2017). This story is about a medical doctor who is treating a patient with a very strange illness: he experiences long dreams in which days, years, decades seem to pass over the course of a single night. His body slowly mutates and, eventually, crumbles away. The doctor then discovers crystals left behind that were hiding in the dead patient's brain, which he uses to conduct an illegal treatment on another patient in the same hospital to learn more about their nightmarish powers.
There are many reasons to love Junji Ito's work, but when I read this story, the suspense and tension are what kept me going. The characterization and setting situate you as a reader firmly in the world of the work, and the dialogue feels incredibly natural. These elements enhance one of the story’s greatest strengths: the fright of the characters. You can feel the depth of their emotions and fear, how that fear feasts on the healthy aspects of their lives. It is this sense of humanity that drives the story’s plot, and wanting to know the consequences of human actions is what kept me engaged throughout my reading. How far does one go to satisfy their passion or need, like the doctor? What risks are we willing to take to succeed?
Taylor Byas’ poem “I Don't Care if Mary Jane Gets Saved or Not,” from her chapbook Bloodwarm (Variant Literature, 2021), invites us to reexamine justice as embodied by American superheroes—and specifically, by one of the most popular fictional crime fighters of the modern day, New York’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Composed as a pantoum, Byas opens and closes with variations on the line “I can't lie, I tried to imagine myself,” inviting introspection about what types of people Spider-Man looks after, who he cares about enough to protect against evildoers and save from the clutches of supervillains. For the speaker, that group exclusively comprises the dainty white women Hollywood has relied on for years: “my black ass would never be / in Spiderman's grip. My ‘damsel-in-distress’ / don't look like Kirsten Dunst or Emma Stone.” As the poem continues, weaving between film references and examinations of real-world racism, we as readers begin to imagine ourselves in the worlds Marvel and DC have created for us. Would the heroes we love catch us if we were thrown off the building, out of the airplane, into the alligator pit? Indeed, would our heroes love us in return?
Teju Cole’s essay “After Caravaggio,” from his collection Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time (University of Chicago Press, 2021), twists two primary strands: Caravaggio’s work both before and after his murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni—that is, both before and after he began to paint as a fugitive—and Cole’s travels to view Caravaggio’s paintings in Italy in 2016, during which he grapples with contemporary global politics and witnesses evidence of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean firsthand. “I could no longer separate my exploration of Caravaggio’s years in exile from what I was seeing around me in contemporary Italy,” Cole writes: “the sea was the same, the sense of endangerment rhymed.” The painting The Adoration of the Shepherds reminds him of that “simplest and most complicated of all human needs: a safe and decent place to spend the night”; he makes sense of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, in part, by considering video clips he watches of men being sold as slaves at a market in Libya in 2017—in which “life turned inside out, life turned into death, just as I had seen in Caravaggio’s painting.” In this way, Cole uses art not as a way to escape life but as a way to tune more keenly into it. The paintings serve not as blinders but as lenses to make others’ present suffering more palpable. “I seek [Caravaggio] out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge,” Cole writes; “I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear, and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.”
In both this essay and the rest of Black Paper, Cole helps me to understand something nearly inarticulable about the ethics of witnessing “[n]ot simply what ought not to be,” as he writes, “but what ought not to be seen”—and what we can’t help but observe (indeed, are duty-bound to observe) anyway. “Moving through the world, finely tuned, encountering others who are also finely tuned, their bodies mingled with ours, their intricacy and subtlety: all of this bears on our ethical responsibility toward those others,” Cole writes in “Ethics.” He goes on to remind readers of the duty to feel, and thus act, when we encounter another person’s suffering: “to observe what I sense and transmute that into shared responsibility, into a knowledge that my body—our bodies—were made fit for it.”