Recently we highlighted an Irish mother-of-two as finalist in both flash fiction and creative nonfiction in the same Wild Atlantic Writing Awards, now we highlight someone as a finalist in the same category in two separate WAWA competitions.
John Backman, 63, a bigender person who prefers to be addressed as ‘she’ and lives in upstate New York, ‘on land originally inhabited by the indigenous people known as Mohicans,’ left a successful career in marketing to help people overcome many of life’s challenges.
Describing herself as ‘a quasi-hermit and spiritual guide,’ John was selected among the Top Ten finalists in the creative nonfiction category in our inaugural competition with her story, ‘Looking for Bloom, I End Up With Billy,’ as well as our third edition with ‘Bigender vs. Buddha.’
She writes about ancient spirituality "and the unexpected ways it collides with postmodern life," and her work has included personal essays published in Catapult, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Tiferet Journal, Amethyst Review, and Sufi Journal. She is author of 'Why Can't We Talk?: Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart.’
Contemplation is a key element of John’s philosophy, which she describes as ‘living from the inside out,’ quoting monk and author, Thomas Merton, saying it is ‘a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source.’
John learned about the inaugural WAWA competition organised by Ireland Writing Retreat from FundsforWriters. “The parameters happened to fit two essays I’d written, and since one of them arose from an experience in Ireland (albeit Dublin), a contest based in Ireland seemed to make sense,” she said.
Asked how the idea for this story emerged, John talked about a fateful day in Dublin, “Wherever I travel, my ideal is to immerse myself in local neighborhoods and (as much as possible for a visitor) live the way residents live. Part of that involves haunting a regular breakfast place. A visit to Dublin for a conference brought me to a room in Ringsend and a daily Irish breakfast in a local café. There was too much raw material right there for a story not to emerge.”
In terms of story revision, she said, “It took a bit less than a month from first draft to submission-ready. Two years before, in 2018, I’d written about my encounter with Billy in a blog post, but with a different point entirely. That post served as a handy resource for the basics of what became ‘Looking for Bloom, I End Up With Billy.’ Without the post, I suspect the essay would have taken more time and more revision to complete.”
John faced little challenge in writing his story, “This essay was one of those wonderful pieces that starts out a joy and just gets more fun as it goes along. A rare bird indeed!”
As for title selection, she said, “I often wait until later drafts to start working on titles. I like ones that capture the essence of the essay—it makes comprehension faster and easier for readers. 'Looking for Bloom, I End Up With Billy’ did the trick. It was the only one I ever considered.”
Please don’t forget - there are only three weeks left before the September 30 deadline for our latest ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’
competition, any theme, any genre, 500 words max. 1,000 euro prize money
Asked how the idea for this story emerged, John said, “The paradox between gender identity and the Buddhist concept of no-self - both of which I cherish - fascinates me. For a while, I’ve experienced my own gender as two distinct personas: my vibrant saucy woman side and the male side I was assigned at birth. One day this paradox between two-self and no-self produced the opening line in my head, and I explored it from there.”
In terms of story revision, she added, “This story took shape faster and more easily than usual, maybe because I’ve been mulling the basic idea so long. The time from first draft to submission-ready was almost exactly a month, and that first draft contained the basic bones of the finished story."
John said the biggest changes “involved the Buddhist aphorism I tried to wrap the story around,” adding, “Initially, I was going to use Zen master Linji Yixuan’s, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him’ as the epigraph. But that didn’t work for my wife when she read an early draft, so I went in a different direction.”
One of the biggest challenges for John involved the idea of gender identity. “At least for me, gender identity is so deep and internal - so wordless, if you will - that putting words to it can be a massive challenge. That’s doubly true since gender vocabulary is still so new, and most people barely know what it’s all about. Translating all that into any kind of language—let alone language that goes deep into the experience itself—takes a ton of work and reflection.”
Asked about the title of her story and how she decided upon it, she replied, “Initially I liked the alliteration of 'Bigender vs. Buddha,’ even though I was using the label nonbinary for myself. The more I sat with the title, however, and the more I reflected on my inner self, the more I realized 'bigender' fit me better. So in a way the title has shaped the way I see myself.”
Our upcoming week-long ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ beginning September 20 in beautiful Donegal will focus in part on how to write award-winning flash fiction and creative nonfiction stories. Join participants from Denmark, Iceland, the US, Mexico, Ireland and the UK in what should be a lively and memorable experience. There are still two places left and one of them has your name on it. After more than a year of severe Covid restrictions, don’t you think you deserve a treat?
How did John feel about being named finalist in two separate competitions out of hundreds of entries? “I can be self-deprecating at times, so when I heard the essay was a Top 10 Finalist, one of my first thoughts was ‘Oh, OK, so they got 12 entries.’ Hundreds? Seriously? I feel honored beyond words. Thank you so much.”
Enjoy below John’s two stories ‘Looking for Bloom, I End Up With Billy’ and ‘Bigender vs. Buddha.'
Bigender vs. Buddha
by John Backman
It’s a bitch being two people at once, especially when neither may actually exist.
There’s the maintenance, for starters. One of the two, in my case the girl, lurks in the background, reclusive or ignored or both, so she needs extra support. Painting nails qualifies, and so do affirmations. You’re not fake, Janelle. All this care takes time and energy. Fortunately Janelle’s twin, a boy, resembles the person people think I am at first glance. Amazing how fast that works: their eyes flick over me and every scrap of cultural expectation swoops in. So I don’t worry about The Twin; a whole civilization has his back. But Janelle needs attention, and I don’t begrudge it. Maybe you’ve got kids, or you grew up with siblings, and one of them shone like blazes and the rest didn’t get noticed. It’s like this.
Zen masters use that phrase all the time. They talk about no-self (or the Dharma, or emptiness, or whatever’s being discussed) and then say it’s like this. I mention no-self because it’s germane to our discussion here, the essence of what I said earlier: especially when neither may actually exist. No-self is what it sounds like: the concept that there’s no permanent self—let alone two—in these skin bags we call bodies, just a myriad of causes and effects and conditions that swirled round and round and one day made (in my case) me. You get the idea.
I don’t mention no-self when Janelle’s in tears; she’s got enough anxiety about her own nonexistence. As if that could ever be true. She’s the furnace who heats the rest of my self, or no-self. Think saucy, vibrant, sex-positive, resilient for someone who’s lived in the shadows so long. But every now and then something skewers her, and she cries floods. The other day we hung out with a large group of trans and genderqueer folks. She found her tribe and got lost in it—thrilled to see people like herself, horrified that her big point of uniqueness is something millions of other people have. She’s back to invisible. You’re not fake, Janelle, I coo over and over as I cradle her.
We’ll have the no-self talk someday. Or maybe not. Maybe instead I’ll tell her another Buddhist saying: In the beginning, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; later on, mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers; and still later, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers again. I think it means you get to a certain point where you realize both may be true—you exist and you don’t. That gives Janelle a legitimate claim to being real. Can you pick and choose your Buddhist sayings like this? I don’t know, but I’m going for it. There’s a girl here and she’s tender right now and she needs my help.
Looking for Bloom, I End Up With Billy
by John Backman
The cook at the Ringsend café was frying up my breakfast—bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans on the side—and I stopped at the counter to thumb through the newspapers. Just my third day in Ireland, so I had to guess journalistic caliber from the format. I picked up the Irish Times and walked toward my table in the back.
On the way I ambled past Billy, and he growled at me.
I knew his name because someone had shouted good morning to him on the cobblestone street near the café, the way people seem to do in this Dublin neighborhood. I say growled but that’s a guess: I’ve heard similar growls from the ancient and stooped, and Billy was all of that. On the other hand, maybe my hearing loss made his words impenetrable.
Either way I didn’t take his meaning, so he moved his newspaper—the Mirror, hovering an inch from his face—toward me. The café owner whispered that he wanted me to take it, so I did.
I’d jumped at the chance to come to Ireland for a conference. I’ve read Ulysses four times, so on my first day I set out to tour the novel’s scenes by myself—to walk the path Leopold Bloom walked for 700-odd pages in 1904. My stroll began in Ringsend but I couldn’t find anything, even with a map. An afternoon of this crushed my spirit, so I gave up and sulked in my hotel room and wound up the next morning in the café, with the Mirror.
The Mirror is not my idea of news. A front-page story on Irish politics, then spread after spread of celebrity gossip and local murders and beaches to visit, sports section in the back. Like the Daily News in New York, closer to where I’m from. I didn’t know that till I got to my table, sipped the coffee, and looked inside.
I’d like to think Billy was welcoming me to the neighborhood with his kind gesture. That sounds stupid even as I write it. I’m in the Q of LGBTQ+—with wild hair and nail polish to match—so welcomes from strangers don’t come round very often. More likely the growl meant “You don’t want to be reading that liberal shite in the Times. Here. Here’s a good paper.”
You could say that’s a kind of welcome, but actually it’s something more. I soak up Ulysses for the real in every word: Bloom’s passing thoughts, ballads in pubs, a kidney for breakfast. Today’s text includes old men who growl, the Mirror, baked beans. I’ve caught up with Bloom at last, just not the 1904 version. But then I don’t get to choose which real is mine. I just get to revel in it.