spec fiction
the KIS.list: October 2001


Vol. 9, Self-Defense

Prepare/Impact Self Defense Training Center
New York, NY

Eight years ago, while studying in the Dominican Republic, I was assaulted at gunpoint. This came at the tail end of a trip that was marred by serious sexual harassment, most of it physical. I had my body and hair touched by strangers more times than I care to remember. Not only my arms and legs, but the private parts of me were violated too. Here is a description of the assault.

"My last clash with a Dominican man happened at 3:00 in the morning. My friend and I made the questionable choice to walk down a side street on our way home from a club. We heard footsteps behind us and immediately stepped to the side. A man walked by, dragging his hand along my friend's arm as he passed. We had become so accustomed to Dominican men taking liberties with our bodies that we were not alarmed by this. Anger flared, we talked about how fucked up the men were, but we didn't think for one moment we were in any danger. We were wrong.

After the man reached the corner, I assume checking to see if there would be any witnesses, he made an about face and confronted us with a gun. "Don't scream," he demanded. Everything else he said was a blur. My Spanish comprehension evaporated as my mind scrambled to make sense of the assault.

He continued mumbling as my friend and I backed away. "Leave us alone," I repeated in a flat voice over and over again. We backed into a corrugated metal fence. The man reached up and pulled the shoulder of my top down to my elbow, exposing my breast. My gaze fell to his pelvis. I noticed his fly was open and his penis was dangling.

Despite the fact that I had not confronted any of the men who molested me during my nine months in the Dominican Republic, I fought this man. I kicked, I pushed, I did what I could to let him know he wouldn't rape me while I was alive. We struggled until the man stopped fighting. He stared into my eyes, then turned and walked in the other direction. My friend pulled me towards home and we ran."

After that confrontation, I promised myself I would take self-defense before I left the country again. [Ironically, I've never been assaulted in the U.S. (there has been an attempt or two), and I've lived in two of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., New Orleans and New York.] I saw that I had the heart to fight, I knew exactly where I should be hitting, but I didn't know how to deliver a blow. I didn't know how to force him to leave me alone. That was eight years and six countries ago.

The description of the assault is excerpted from an essay I recently wrote about sexual harassment on the street. When one of my friends read the article, she said, "you need to take this Impact course that I took years ago. It's full impact. It teaches you to defend yourself." "Yeah, yeah," I said, "I promised myself I'd do that and I want to but, I'm scared." At this point, I'm very comfortable on the street and, honestly, I was afraid to confront violence against women. I mean I think about gender violence all the time. I live under this incredible pressure of knowing that women are being raped and assaulted continuously and constantly all day every day and I'm constantly dodging veiled threats and aggression from men on the street, but I don't really want to see assaults, not even in the classroom. And I don't want to be verbally abused, not even to learn how to handle it. Then another friend chimed in: his wife had done the course and really loved it. At this point it's called what?: taking my medicine. I had promised myself and two friends were encouraging me. O.k., I said, I got on the phone and registered myself for the next class.

We fought during the first class! I thought we'd just learn things, but the teaching method is: you see an instructor fight, they break down the fight into steps, you drill the steps in groups with the male instructors. They show you posture, they show you exactly where you should hit, they show you which part of your body you should hit with. *** sound bite of a black woman right outside my window: "If I say I don't like whites or blacks, that mean I don't like nobody.*** The men are fully padded—shoulders, groin, head. So when we hit them in the groin, they'd say, "That wasn't hard enough." Or if we elbowed them in the head, they'd say, "That blow glanced off my forehead, you really need to aim between the eyes." Look at the target, was a big instruction on the first day. They were teaching us to BE in the fight. To hit hard and take our time. Then we fought. We went through choreographed moves to defend ourselves against an attacker who grabbed us from behind and threw us to the ground.

I was teared up for the entire first class. Not because I was breaking down or because I was frightened, but because there was so much courage in the room. Because we were being taught to protect ourselves, and after so many years of skillfully avoiding confrontation, it felt good to be finally dealing with it. There's a woman's class and a men's class: both classes deal with physical self defense, verbal strategies to avoid violence, boundary setting both in your personal life and with strangers.

The male instructors talked about their experiences in the course and they noted similar benefits to the ones the female instructors talked about: more self-confidence and an enhanced ability to set boundaries, in addition to larger self and environmental awareness and the confidence that they could defend themselves when necessary.

The women's course deals specifically with the way women are attacked and the way women fight. While men are usually attacked face-to-face, women are often attacked from behind, snuck up on in a predatory way. While men have upper body strength, women's strength is in their hips, so we power our moves with that part of our body. A major component of the course is developing the will to fight. The official stance of law enforcement towards women and rape has been, "Don't fight, it isn't worth it to lose your life over this type of assault, you can't win anyway." I was in tears in class because the assumption that women shouldn't fight for our bodies is what we were all battling in that class. The official party line that we should give in is something we were overturning and it was very emotional for me. Apparently, law enforcement has recently changed its tune, their research has shown that rapists want easy targets and many women have been successful in fighting off rape. That isn't shown in film and on television, but often women who fight, win. And those who lose were in danger of being raped anyway. Fighting does not heighten the possibility that you will die. In my case, I don't care if there is the possibility of death, if you want to take this from me, you'll have to knock me unconscious or kill me.

In the second class, the fights started diverging from the choreography. Sometimes when it was time to throw an elbow to the head, the attacker would be somewhere else, and we had to improvise and react to his movements. Sometimes when we were on the floor kicking him, he would grab our foot and we had to switch feet. During this class the major lesson was using our options. We have two weapons: our hands and our feet. There are two targets: head and groin. When one of our weapons is taken out of the game, use the other one. When one of the targets is being protected, attack the other one.

Also, they began to teach us the rhythm of the fight. Instead of going ballistic on the attacker and depleting our energy, we were taught to settle ourselves between each blow. If we hit hard and our blow lands, then we have time to set up the next blow. It's hard not to go crazy and just struggle against the attacker wildly, but the training is in how to keep a cool head and keep going. And oh yeah, I was in tears that whole class too. It was the type of tears I get when I watch people beat odds, like people racing in the Special Olympics or children being their amazing fierce selves. (We also got into verbal self defense in the second class. Clear direct language and setting clear boundaries. I learned that although I'm good at communicating when I'm uncomfortable or angry or threatened, I never set a clear boundary because I don't want to "tell people what to do.")

The third class was about openings. This is when we started learning methods of fighting back in rape scenarios. They're called reversals. The scenario is we're sleeping and a man jumps on us. The whole key to those fights is total relaxation at the beginning. We learned to feign cooperation (that is much harder than clear direct language and boundary setting), then when we had an opening, we attacked. There were many what-if's floating around at this point of the class, what if he doesn't do this or that or the other. With a rape, we learned, there has to be an opening for him to rape you (unless he ties you up with a rope), he has to use his hands to take off his clothes or yours. He has to allow your legs to be free to enter you. There is a multitude of opportunities to protect yourself. This was difficult to deal with for some of the women, for me, these were the most emotional fights because we were so up-close and personal. We learned moves that would get the attacker off our bodies, but he was still right there, so we had to be ready to follow up.

During the third class there was no more choreography, we were grappling. The men were doing everything but hitting us. Some women found themselves with both legs and one arm pinned, and they would get frustrated and say, "What do I do now?" in the middle of the fight. We hadn't learned any of this. The instructor would yell, "Find an opening, find an opening." And you could see the woman's gears turning, thinking and there was always an eye or a groin free. And she attacked that and continued with the fight. (Another major component of the course was don't struggle against being held, if the man is holding your arms, don't fight to get your arms free, attack the groin. If the man is holding your legs, don't struggle to get your legs free, attack the eyes. It was a whole new take on fighting for me, another level of controlling the interaction.) It was totally bugged out and R-E-A-L. The pretty choreography was gone, we were just fighting for our lives. (We also did boundary setting exercises with pretend bosses, coworkers, friends, and family. This was the hardest part of that day's class for many people. Learning how to stand up for what you want with loved ones and people who have power over you isn't the easiest task. It calls on you to protect yourself against people it would be inappropriate to fight and who are not threatening you with physical violence.)

Last week was, as they say here in NYC, bananas! I thought, how much further could they go? They pulled out "extended reversals" on us. I've already said that a reversal is when you go from zero (total compliance) to 100 (total fighting). An extended reversal is after you've already dealt the attacker a knock-out blow, he keeps fighting. In other words, he fights past when the fight should be over. Up until now, when the female instructors fought an attacker, they'd come off the mat looking unruffled and in control. They fought the extended reversals first, and they came off the mat looking like they'd been through some shit. Their hair was out of place, they were breathing heavy, and the whole class was silent in shock. The men were taking the level of the fight to the next notch. My period started that day and I had NO energy, but when I got on the mat to fight, I fought like I had all the energy in the world. I had to. And because I was so exhausted, I couldn't plan an attack. I didn't think about the end of the fight, and I could feel myself waiting for him to come to me. All I did was look for a target and hit it until the fight was over. You have true tunnel vision when you're on the mat, it's you and the attacker and the voices of the women screaming.

So Saturday is the graduation. It's our last class and during one hour of the class we're going to invite our friends and family to watch us fight [If anyone in New York City is interested in self defense (male or female), feel free to come down. Prepare Training Center 147 West 25th Street, 8th Floor (between 6th & 7th), 3:45 (promptly) to 4:45 p.m.] It is an amazing experience. It's shocking to watch and it's liberating to do. And I'm looking forward to the ripple effect of setting stronger boundaries and taking less mess in every area of my life. Yeah, this is basic information everyone (male or female) should have. It's like knowing how to cook for yourself and wash your clothing. It's self maintenance, self development, self care and self love.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

: : : August 2001 - present : : :

Publications: 3
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Publications: 1
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0


Well, I got another rejection, ya'll. It was for an erotic anthology. I made it to the last tier (as I have in grant applications), but then I got cut. I happened to meet the editor this summer while I was at the Clarion West writing workshop. At one of our weekly parties she said, "Will you be available to make changes when you get back to New York City?" I thought, "Uh-oh, this doesn't look good." I haven't heard from her since then, she recently sent me an email saying I was not included in the anthology. She said she thought the story was really interesting, but the other editors didn't share her opinion. She invited me to submit stories to her anytime (she has an online magazine and other projects). So, again I get validation in the midst of rejection. Balance is good.

Also, on Monday I put another grant application in the mail and two weeks ago I submitted another essay for (possible) publication.


Vol. 8, Editors and Writers

Phone Call from an Editor
Brooklyn to Manhattan, NY

A friend of mine asked me to write a short bit of catalogue copy on catcalling. His organization is doing an exhibition attempting to stimulate the experience of walking down the street and having men yell at you. Men will have the opportunity to walk through the catcalling exhibition and perhaps have a momentary understanding of what it's like for women. I asked him: what type of writing do you want. He said: anything you want to do is cool. I said: do you have some copy that you like that you can email me to show me what you're looking for. He said: no, whatever you want is fine.

I sent him the copy last week, two days ago he called me and said: ummm, I need to talk to you about your copy.

It just so happens that I'm writing a full-fledged essay on catcalling. Perhaps that's why I didn't want to be all lyrical with my copy. Perhaps because catcalling in and of itself is such a hurting thing. As I wrote a few hundred words for his exhibition, my language kept getting barer and more concise. In the end, I settled on a listing of what catcalling is:

1. Catcalling is an intrusion.
2. Catcalling is presumptuous.
3. Catcalling is sexual harassment.
4. Catcalling is veiled aggression.
5. Catcalling is disempowering.
6. Catcalling hurts.

Under each of those numbers I wrote a brief description detailing exactly how catcalling intrudes, presumes, harasses, etc. "It's so bam, bam, bam," he said. Because we're friends, I didn't have to keep up a professional façade. "Why do people do this to me?" I said raising my voice. "It's not just you, you know."

Of course he isn't the only one who does this, and of course I'm not the only one who experiences it. This type of interaction has been going on between editors and writers forever. It's the nature of commissioning work. Any artistic work that is commissioned has some expectations attached. You may try to get the commissioner to articulate their desires. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won't. They might know your work and think, "I love everything you do, I'll love whatever you make for me." Well, I'm here to testify that that just isn't the case. The longer I write, the more I'm learning to accept the push and pull between editor and writer as the nature of the business. Where you draw the line depends on the situation.

The first time this happened to me, an editor asked me to write a journalistic piece on the floods in Mozambique. This was way after the floods and she was paying me less than .25 cents a word, so I was certain she wasn't expecting no major investigative journalism. I turned in the piece, she said she liked it and I thought I was done. A few weeks later, she called and said, "Well Kiini, this doesn't really break any new ground. All of this was published in newspapers already, what I'd like you to do is write a story on the relief efforts. I have the names and numbers of two women in Chicago who are donating clothing for the flood victims. Can you reposition the piece from that perspective?" I said, "Are you recommissioning the piece?" She said, "No, your job is to work on the piece until I'm satisfied with it." Now I'm not a journalist, so I don't know exactly how writers and editors operate in the profession, but I do have enough experience with the job of an editor to know there is a world of difference between asking for a piece on "the floods in Mozambique" and asking for a piece on "two women who are doing relief efforts for the victims on the floods of Mozambique." I wrote a letter to the editor telling her so. I agreed to do the new piece for the same price, but I told her it is my job to deliver the piece she commissioned in satisfactory condition, but it is her job to commission exactly what she wants. And if, after I've written the piece, she changes her mind about what she wants, then she should bear the financial brunt of that decision. Now someone who is a journalist may be able to email me and tell me who stepped over what line in this situation, but she and I never had that issue again.

I've also had this type of confusion happen with fiction. (Those of you who read the report from the When Butterflies Kiss New York promotional weekend know this story.) The editor of When Butterflies Kiss (WBK) invited me to participate in the collaborative novel. Again, he said "write whatever you want." Now, I write speculative fiction among other things. I meditated on what I wanted to write about and decided to recast this experience I had in Cuba [as well as recast the issue of catcalling (that keeps coming up in my life)] in the life of Dante, the main character of WBK. In WBK I wrote about Dante being attacked by a pack of dogs. In the actual experience, I saw a female dog in heat attacked (basically gang raped) by a pack of dogs. In WBK, I drew it as this bizarre supernatural experience; I didn't define whether it was real or not. After I turned in my chapter, I got a call from the editor. He said the dogs were a little intense, and he wondered exactly when Dante fell asleep to start dreaming about the dogs. It wasn't a dream, I told him. But the next writer picked up where I left off and made it a dream. After going back and forth with the editor, I changed the scene to a dream and cut the dogs down from 20 to 10 to five, till I finally boiled them down to two. In the moment, I was not happy about these changes. I felt I was given freedom to do what I wanted, but then I was limited when my choice turned out to be too weird. As it turns out, even though I translated the experience from some mysterious bizarre event into an actual dream, many readers are still getting a mystical feel from the chapter. Some readers are questioning whether Treasure, the female character is "real." I wrote her as real, but it pleases me that the question exists.

It turned out to be a great lesson to me that even though I didn't "get my way," my vision was in no way compromised. I think that is the area that the give and take of a writer and an editor should revolve around. Any changes an editor asks for or suggests should not compromise the writer's vision. Magazine editors are by far the most involved editorially in the work. Sometimes, an editor can approve an idea, then once it's executed, she sees a better way to go about the piece. Is this frustrating? Hell, yeah. But in the end, the editor wants to get the most powerful piece possible for her magazine.

I pitched a piece entitled "No" looking at how I learned to say "no" to men on the street who wanted my number and/or my attention (again, catcalling asserts itself into this conversation). The editor approved it, I wrote it and turned it in. She called me and said, well, the editorial staff really likes the mood and tone of the piece but we really think it would be stronger if it incorporated a range of moments where women have to learn how to say no. Was she right? Certainly. If I expanded the theme, the piece would be more universal and relate to a wider range of women. Was I happy about this? No way. "Hey," I'm thinking, "but this is the piece you approved!" Tough titties (as we would say in elementary school), I had to suck it up and get to writing, my deadline was a few days away.

That was one of the most traumatic writing experiences of my life. I spent the next few days moving things around, adding, cutting, I couldn't make it work. "Hey," the editor said, trying to make me feel better, "Just write what you need to write, don't worry about the word count (magazines commission articles by the number of words. You are paid a rate multiplied by the number of words). We're really good at cutting." "That's not consolation to a writer," I told her. I don't want nobody cutting my words for me. But in the end, a piece in a magazine does not belong solely to a writer, it belongs to the magazine. It represents the magazine's vision, mission, and perspective.

When I turned in my rewrite, they liked it. They made some minor changes and we were done. But I felt like they had dragged me through the mill over the last few days, when really I was dragging myself through the mill because I didn't want to give them the raw material and let them cut.

I still don't know what the "right" answer is when writing a magazine article. (Of course, there is no "right" answer.) It feels really bizarre to know that the piece wouldn't exist in the form it's in without the input of the editor. Editors have everything to do with the way a piece turns out. The writer certainly creates and powers the work, but the editor (to borrow a metaphor from a friend) puts little stones along the edges (as one would to build a riverbank) to guide the work along the path she envisions. Editors and writers are collaborators. Writers like to think they are individuals, standing on their own two, but in many cases it can be more of a dance, a call and response (I have to shout out my mother Tayari kwa Salaam for that terminology. She is a Ph.D. student in Curriculum Development and she often calls me to discuss her theories. She works with the concept of call and response as an individual's interactions with their community to develop self... also as a writer's interaction with their community to develop art.)

In the end it is impossible to split the originators of the ideas from the editors of the ideas. I made up the concept, the editor pointed me in another direction, I jumped off from that direction into a whole new territory and she pruned the edges. It's an interesting exercise in surrender and I'm still deciding how I feel about it. For the WBK chapter, I told myself I can use the attack of 20 dogs later in another piece, I still own that idea and can use it in its "pure" form whenever I want, but in this case, in this collaborative novel, this is how it's going down.

In my most recent magazine article (which I found out was cut out of the magazine by eagerly opening the just-released November issue and discovering that I wasn't on the contributors page... That's a whole nother conversation: how you get cut from magazines after they already commissioned and bought the work. How your piece may be cut or trimmed from 12 pages to 3 to accommodate a name writer or a stronger piece.) my editor told me the topic she wanted me to write about. I told her I didn't know where to begin. She is a writer too, so she said, sometimes I think we try to come up with the "best," most polished thing immediately, why don't you just write what you can off the top of your head and send it to me unedited. I looked at her like she was crazy. "I know you feel strange, but I think the first draft holds a power and I think if you gave that to me, I could tell you what I'm looking for." In the end, it was a pretty peaceful experience. I wrote something off the top of my head, lopped off the first half (because it was random thoughts just getting me to where I wanted to be) and sent it to her. She replied with suggestions of what to develop, I developed it and sent it back, she sent back some more suggestions. (I think I might have had a brief fit somewhere at that point. In addition to wanting it to be done, I proposed a dramatic departure and tried to slip some listing in, but she wasn't feeling it… The essay format is so much more beautiful and lyrical, she told me. Why do people keep dissing the lists?)

Which brings me back to my editor friend. I know what he wants. He wants something beautiful, something well written, he doesn't want a dictionary entry. After I raged and was irritated and displaced my anger on the thirty million messages in my email box, I took a deep breath and said, I understand exactly what he wants. I believe in this project and I want him to be happy, so I'll see what I can do. How do you know when to stand your ground and say "Nope, I'm not changing it!"? I guess when your meaning gets pimped or when you think the format is intrinsic to the message. In this case, it's not. It's just what I felt like doing. For him, I don't mind trying to flip it in a different direction. Who knows, I might come up with something more profound.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

: : : August 2001 - present : : :

Publications: 2
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Publications: 1
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0