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  • Tessa Yang

Last month I returned to my alma mater, St. Lawrence University, to give a reading in the same writers series I always looked forward to attending as an undergraduate. It was surreal (in the best of ways) to walk around SLU's beautiful campus awash in fall colors, recalling my own arrival there twelve years ago when the prospect of becoming a published author felt so murky and unknowable.


Kirk Douglas Hall, brand new my senior year, sits at the end of the quad.
Reading in Sykes Lounge on Thursday, October 27. Photo credit: Alden Timm.
A pub cookie awaits me at Brush Alumni House. If you know, you know!

Among the many joys of being back on campus was having the opportunity to interact with SLU students, who were thoughtful, funny, grateful, curious, and kind. They asked astute questions about writing craft and publishing, but the question that really stuck with me has nothing to do with either of those. A senior English major approached me after the reading. We talked about grad school for a little bit, and then she asked, "And has your life after college been good? Are you happy?"


She looked anxious. I remember that anxiety well. All the stress and uncertainy of my final year at SLU can be encapsulated in a single question that haunts all college seniors: What comes next? You feel as if you have to have a good answer, and that lacking one amounts to failure. You are beset with fears that the old adage you've always heard about college being the best time of your life will in fact prove to be correct—that it's all downhill from here. The truth is that my twenties felt like a mad sprint toward a sense of professional accomplishment I could scarcely envision, let alone describe. College and then grad school and then my first full-time teaching gig in Indiana and then moving back to New York for a tenure-track job, where I enjoyed a single, blissfully normal semester before the pandemic sent shockwaves through higher education and around the whole world and I had to learn how to teach all over again, learn how to live with a dull constant fear and in solitude broken only by trips to Hannaford and Zoom hangouts with friends. Amid all that, I never paused to think about the ways my life has improved since college.


I'm thinking about it now: the odd combination of feeling more confident in myself and more uncertain about the world; how ten years ago, impostor syndrome forbade me from calling myself a "writer"; how being a residential college student comes with a certain simplicity I miss but a whole lot of headaches I'm thrilled to leave behind.


I didn't get into all this with the student. I told her, simply, "Yes. It has been good. Life gets better after college." She nodded. I signed her book and she left—maybe comforted, or maybe not. There were, after all, plenty of adults offering me reassurance and encouragement when I was nearing the end of my time at SLU, and I didn't believe any of them.


But I did know what I wanted. Some small piece of it, anyway. I felt the desire clattering against my sternum each time I went to the writers series events in Sykes Lounge and saw a stranger standing behind the podium with its red-and-white SLU crest. Pico Iyer was one of those strangers. Pam Houston. Rebecca Solnit. Lorrie Moore. I am not—will never be—any of those people, but what an honor to stand where they stood, facing a crowd full of my former professors and the next generation of SLU students and the memory of my eighteen-year-old self, sitting in the fourth or fifth row (too intimidated to get any closer to these extraterrestrial beings known as Authors) and thinking with mixed awe and envy: How do I get up there? How do I become one of you?

  • Tessa Yang

It's pub day for my latest piece of silly/rage-fueled science fiction, "The Four Sharks of the Apocalypse." Have I ever been this excited about a publication? Possibly not. After all, for many years, my author bio has identified me as a "shark enthusist." It's high time I lived up to that title and honored my favorite ocean dinosaurs with a story all their own.


Plus, the story is accompanied by this incredible illustration, which is also coincidentally what my soul looks like:

Source: Zooscape Issue 18

"The Four Sharks of the Apocalypse" appears in the August issue of Zooscape, an online magazine of fantastic furry fiction founded and edited by Mary E. Lowd. Big thanks to Mary for including my story in Issue 18! If you like speculative fiction with animal characters, be sure to check out the full issue. In Mary's words: "Visit the nightmares and apocalypses in these stories, and come out the other side stronger for having faced humanity’s collective fears… and possibly even made friends with them."


"The Four Sharks of the Apocalypse: Story Behind the Story"


I'd been wanting to write some kind of shark story for a long time. Motivation arrived last year in the form of a themed call from Reckoning, an online magazine of creative writing that centers environmental justice. In 2023, Reckoning would be releasing an Oceans issue—perfect! Browsing some of the back issues, I came across the haunting piece "Dead Horse Club" by Jude Wetherell, which details the spooky shenanigans of four resurrected horses on New York's Barren Island. I loved that the story was broken into four sections, creating a collage-like rather than linear structure. Wetherell's four horses also got me thinking about the biblical story the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After reading the verses from the Book of Revelation and learning more about what the different horsemen are thought to represent, I had my container: A story broken into four parts, each featuring a different shark-overlord and the disaster it delivers humankind.


Selecting the shark species that would stand in for the horsemen was the hardest part. I worried about hurting the feelings of the sharks I had to exclude, but alas: Life is full of excruciating decisions, and in the end, there could only be four. The White Horseman, who represents conquest, is evoked through Bull Shark, a notoriously aggressive species and one of the few sharks that's actually dangerous to humans. (Fun fact! The 1916 shark attacks that inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws were likely committed by a bull shark, not a great white). The Red Horseman, bringer of civil war, is evoked through Goblin Shark, a totally amazing, totally weird-looking deep-sea shark who would, I imagine, have built up a lot of resentment toward its perscutors over the years. The Third Horseman brings famine; who better to own that disaster than Tiger Shark, a species renowned for eating just about anything? The final horseman is unusual in that it has a name ("Death") and bears no weapon. I decided to imagine it as a kind of leader of the other three—a Doomsday Supervisor, if you will—and for that honor, I cast Greenland Shark, a slow-moving, cold-water species and the longest-living vertebrate on the planet. It just seems like it'd be jaded and wise, doesn't it?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Symbolism is usually an element of craft that occurs on the back end of a story: After it's been written, after trusted readers have told me what resonated with them the most, then I can go back in and start to tease out, oh so gently, the scattered little hints lying dormant in the story's quiet moments. It was freeing to write a piece where the symbols were instead front-loaded and deliberately heavy-handed. The sharks represent the horsemen; the horsemen represent their respective dooms.


But why sharks? a reasonable reader might be asking. Why not, you know, "The Four Cats of the Apocalypse," or "The Four Squirrels," or "The Four Squids." Could this story work just as well if a different species was cast as the horsemen? For me, not a chance. It had to be sharks—and not just because I'm a self-professed enthusiast. Sharks loom large in our imaginations. They are the ocean's ultimate monsters. And yet their monstrousness coexists with their fragility, of which more and more people are becoming aware. The fact is, sharks have a lot to be angry with us about. Their populations are collapsing. We've cast them as villains, but the irony is that we're the villains, and fully deserving of whatever vengeance the sharks think to throw at us. If Bull Shark ever rises out of the ocean with a crown of barnacles on its head, I'll be the first to bow down.


Interested in supporting shark conservation? Make a gift to the American Shark Conservancy today!


P.S.


Reckoning rejected my story for their oceans theme issue, so I dusted it off and sent it to Zooscape. Long live writerly resilience.

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Updated: May 12, 2023

Congrats to Shena McAuliffe (The Good Echo; Glass, Light, Electricity) on the publication of her third book, We Are a Teeming Wilderness. This brilliant, thoughtful, and tender collection surprises and delights with stories that range from 19th century Sing Sing to modern-day Ithaca where Odysseus reunites with his father. I had so much fun talking with Shena about research, ghosts, gloves, luminaries, how we define "success as authors," and more in this conversation hosted by The Cincinnati Review.


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