Let's do this.

Somehow although I have always been a writer, writing something, it didn’t bother me to suddenly have no words. It felt as natural as having them and somehow I had this incredible peace that it was okay if I never wrote another word. 

LET’S DO THIS, TRACEY SWAN INTERVIEWED BY MARTIN CHIPPERFIELD #30


Well it happened on a Wednesday. I went from being quite healthy to being in acute pain. Four doctors and three emergency room visits later they discovered I had an advanced tumor in my ascending colon.

Quite rare, it’s rare for people aged under 60. Symptoms are almost non-existent. In three weeks I had three surgeries and started chemo.

It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through, the six rounds in Paris. I knew I had to get back to Texas.

I told myself this is not something that you and a couple of brave friends can handle, mostly you Martin my constant chemo friend, Roselyn who became like a second mom to my son, Joyce who got Colin to and from school, Inga who came by to brighten up my day, Lamine who bought groceries from the Franprix on the corner, Sarah who bought sweets for Colin.

The list is far too long and if I started the name game I would most likely forget someone. That’s one of the side effects, effet secondaire, of the chemo brain, a nice foggy memory. Thankfully in this second chemo treatment here in Houston they have modified my meds so the fog is lifting some. 

In Paris my then nine-year-old son and I led a very active life in the city, walking, scootering, going to the park, traveling all over the city. Suddenly I could not walk, or sleep, or eat, or stand the smell of food. We became confined to our fourth-floor apartment. And I watched my little boy’s life become consumed with cancer, the treatment, the side effects of the treatment, not very nice to see your mum sick to that extent.

I lost my job, actually I resigned, there was no way I could teach. Then I left the only city where I’ve ever felt at home. I had to leave in order to live.

My family came to the rescue, took me in, let us live with them. My mother, Berenice, and sister, Mitzi, moved States along with my sister’s two children and black lab. My auntie Joanne opened her home to us and took me to the many doctors appointments at MD Anderson where my treatment continues. 

The first twelve rounds of chemotherapy were grueling and then I said, “Hey this stuff is wicked, can we do something about it?” I finally spoke up and the good folks at MDA modified the brew and started giving me steroids, which apparently is good for the nausea and the chemo-induced anorexia. 

While I was doing the first rounds the medicine caused this incredible deep sleep. Essentially for six months I stopped dreaming. I am a very lucid dreamer so to go to bed was like slipping into a black hole. I had no sense of anything except blackness. It wasn’t a horrible or scary blackness, it was just completely being checked out. I would wake up and have no sense of time or place or even how long I’d slept. 

During that time I was also having lots of painful side effects and I could not write. There was nothing there, when I tried to think of a coherent sentence, nothing came. That was the inspiration for The Quiet.

But somehow, although I have always been a writer, writing something, it didn’t bother me to suddenly have no words. It felt as natural as having them and somehow I had this incredible peace that it was okay if I never wrote another word. 

My grandmother died from cancer when she was very young, aged 39. My mother was 16 I think and traumatized by what happened. She watched her mother die a very painful death. She never got over it and as a child I remember feeling this tremendous fear about that word—cancer—and feeling the absence of a grandmother (my father’s mother died before I was born too).

But when they finally figured out what was “wrong” with me and the source of the excruciating pain, all the fear left me. I prayed and said, “Okay God, let’s do this.” I know that sounds crazy, but that’s all that I could think to say. And when I said that the fear left. 

Over the years so many of my family members have died from cancer. Most recently my first cousin, who died in October just as I was finishing the first round of my chemo.

I thought since I exercised and ate reasonably well, not a lot of meat, no pork to speak of, lots of veggies and such, and I’ve never been a big drinker, that I was safe from many of the cancers that attack younger folk. But cancer in one’s family and close family members is probably the greatest predictor of one’s chances of having the disease in one’s lifetime.

Colon cancer is one of the most treatable cancers. if caught early it can often be removed without invasive surgery and treated if caught early without chemotherapy and radiation.

If there’s a history of cancer in your family, especially breast, cervical, colon or lung cancers, a history of polyps in your parents or close family members, get checked early. African Americans tend to have colon cancer earlier than the 50-year-old standard age to be checked, so if you are African American, the age is 45 for your first colonoscopy. If you have a family history, no matter your race or ethnicity, get checked when you turn 40.

At one time during the chemo in Paris you said you had never been happier, a startling thing to say under the circumstances.

What I meant by that was I suddenly realized how precious life is. Most of the stress and anxiety that I struggled with was self-imposed or influenced by my perception of the situation. 

I started to pray again diligently and to meditate. It was as if my eyes were opened to how much I focused on the negative in my life rather than the positives. Clarity came despite my physical state and I knew then God was with me. God is love and my heart was just filled with love. That may sound super mystical. Every day is a gift, a day we’ve never seen, and when it’s gone we will never see it again. We all face challenges in life but much of how we are affected is determined by our perception of the challenge. 

Cancer is no joke don’t get me wrong, but if I’m going through this physical challenge that in itself can make me feel bad in my body, do I also have to be miserable mentally as well?

I asked God for joy and the ability to look beyond my physical condition to see the joy in my life today and to see myself well in the future. 

Gratitude is the best medicine. It’s hard not to smile when you think on the good in your life. I have so much to be happy for and every day that I get up is a day that I beat cancer!!! I’m a survivor!!! 

So you have ruined my next question but i’ll ask it anyway, when you first found out about the cancer, the extent of it, the prospect of the surgery and the chemo, it must have been a totally devastating shock!! As you say, you came to the point where you said okay God, let’s do this, but can you say what that was like, what you went through, for you to take a hold of yourself up from that first shock and proceed with what amounted to a kind of joy??

After the surgery my surgeon came into the room and started telling me what he saw and what he removed. I was quite incapacitated, I couldn’t lift my head from the bed. They had given me this hand-held device with a bright red button on the end. This was an automatic patient-controlled dispenser of morphine. All I could move was my right thumb to push this button. 

The doctor’s words were blurry. He never said the word cancer, he just said in two or three weeks we would begin chemotherapy. That was it. 

I suppose my upbringing has always made me calm when I am first thrown into chaos. The calm may not always last but it is my first response. For me I had no other choice but to choose joy—I was in a foreign country with my young son, I couldn’t just fall apart. I wanted him to continue to have as much as a normal life as possible. Even though I knew we would have to adjust to a new normal. 

Life is very short, we wake up expecting to make it through the rest of the day, we make plans for summer vacation, but none of us have a guarantee we will ever see the next hour. For me I had to choose to love being alive one day at a time. The peace came with surrendering to God and being okay with not being able to say, I’ll do this next month, or next year. It made me live in the moment, something I have always struggled to do. 

Being given a cancer diagnosis is very surreal. Being isolated inside my apartment broke my heart. Initially I started to become afraid to even attempt to go outside...what if I became weak on the street, what if I fainted, or passed out. I would watch the world go by outside my window. The place that I felt most at home, the city we had made our own, became strange and unfamiliar, because I had lost my mobility. I could not walk up and down our four flights of stairs any more. Just walking two blocks to my son’s school was impossible. I could not take the subway because there were too many people about and at that time the chemo caused my blood counts to drop making me susceptible to all types of bugs. The walks we used to take wandering through the city were lost to the illness.

At first I started searching on the internet reading as much as I could about the cancer, but these words were so overwhelming. I had to stop. 

Instead I started listening to music, gospel, jazz, anything I could tolerate, and singing lots of gospel music, LOL. This was the only thing that seemed to settle my mind and drown out the what if’s. Then I started praying and meditating, writing encouraging words and scriptures on paper and putting them up on my wall. 

I would stay in bed all day and try to be up by the time that my son came home. If I felt bad or sad I kept it to myself or tried to get over it by the time my boy got home.

I don’t know how we made it through those first days except for Angels carrying us. 

My mother is a strong woman. There are two great characteristics of the women in my family, we do not look our age—we age very well—and we are strong. My stubbornness served me well and may have kept me alive.

Now you are writing?

I’ve started writing poetry, it’s about all I have the patience and mental quiet to complete. I want to put some of my short stories together in a book.

I’m just happy to be writing.


The Road by Tracey Swan

how I hated the 

lines and grooves

the road of life 

had made

as I blazed trails

and tread treks

I must needs make 

putting off the

settling down and

sowing of seed

for later

his little hand 

on my tummy 

as if remembering

it better when

his embryonic 

form took shape

grew stretched and

kicked made room

floated inside 

a warm cocoon

he looked at me

and smiled as if he 

recognized home

and his smile

made my longing for a

flat pre-maternal 

barren unploughed 

form seem as shallow 

as the dust 

that had settled 

on the table


The Quiet by Tracey Swan

I had no words to show

to say or to put

in place

they disappeared

into the space the cracks

in the floor boards

and the walls the foundation

shifting beneath unstable

between the slanted

uneven slope of muscles

where they cut and removed

the part of me that

could not be contained

that grew unchecked

over and above

slipped inside the dark

and hidden place

that only God knows

to kill what refused to die

invisible to man’s eye

and even mine

rogue unruly striving

frantic and crazed

not an axe more precise

than that resecting

not a knife sharper than

that dividing

not a scalpel finer than

that until there was none left

and I grew comfortable

with the silence

accepting the quiet

unfazed by the way

my mouth refused

to make them


Convalescing by Tracey Swan

Lying in your bed

your eyes focused on

The flat plane of a ceiling

Painted the color of

Homemade vanilla ice cream

Confined for the moment

to layers of covers

on your back convalescing

a quilt across your feet

with a doll pattern sewn repeating squares matching

Bonnet bloomers and skirt

Forget about the bottles and the stages and the word

We dare not name

One every three hours

Two every six hours

One every two hours

As needed for pain

Remember walking along the

Champs Élysées

Eating gelato on the Via Del Corso that you’ve seen

The white hills on the way to Barcelona

Remember the way the sea smells how the breeze tastes

the grittiness of sand between toes the tingling cool sprays on your skin

Remember running your muscles capable your legs

Carrying you feet meeting

Pavement strides three

to five breathe

steady and sure, strong

Remember this bed is not

Your home,

This bed is not your home

Things to do before dying by Tracey Swan

Eat lemon heads and cotton candy before dinner

Go to bed with your

make up on

Drink beer and burp

without covering your mouth

Stay up all night and

sleep all day

Sing at the top of your lungs

Dance til you get tired

Laugh til your stomach hurts

Kiss the one you love

in a room full of strangers

Argue until you can’t any more

then be first to say

I love you, I’m sorry, I’m wrong

Even if you’re right

just to make peace

Make peace make peace

And love...love...love

friendly fire by Tracey Swan

you say the words

and i feel the pain

as they go in deep

bypassing my safety

guard of apathy,

which keeps me safe,

keeps me sane,

not a knife from behind

you’re standing right

in front of me;

you open your mouth

i welcome them in,

let them come

a thousand times,

let them assault me

to the core

make me bleed

make me cry;

i see your lips move

dripping, sizzling acid burning

my insides and outside,

stripping away

my skin of distance,

which keeps me safe,

keeps me sane,

oh your lips of fire,

but i don’t care

i want to kiss them

let them melt my lips,

my face away;

you say the words

and they go in,

ripping tearing hitting

arteries obliterating capillaries,

flooding my insides,

hemorrhaging,

and i am stunned,

i see them coming,

but i am glad,

i welcome them

saving me from the numb,

not a stab from behind

or taken by surprise

you are standing right

in front of me;

you open your mouth

i welcome them in

i see them coming,

it is no surprise,

this is not a stab

in the back from behind,

but one in the heart

because you are standing

right in front of me;

you open your mouth

i grab them, these words--

because they’re yours--

i push them in deeper,

deeper still, still deeper

since this is not a stab

from behind and

you…you...you…

are right in

front of me.

TRACEY SWAN

In my writing I draw from personal experience, from growing up in the South, from being raised by a single mother, a veteran of the US Army, and from being the primary caregiver to my young son.

I am aware that my perceptions and understanding of the world permeate the words and extend far beyond what is on the page and between the lines; my background is the bedrock I draw from to create my narratives.

I am a writer because I seek to give voice and to voice the stories that have not been told, that have not been heard. The stories I write, such as My Story Begins with… published in the Louann Atkins Temple Series, Women in Culture Anthology, Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academics and the Austin Project, (The University of Texas Press, July 2010), are about the conversations people have with themselves, the inner dialogues that one has when facing a challenge.

I am an Editor of the 34thParallel Magazine (a co-founding Editor) and a Fulbright Scholar.

I attained an MA from UT Austin and a dual MFA at Chapman University. I was awarded a Fulbright Grant for research in Paris on gender and race in the Parisian jazz age during the interwar period.

My poetry and fiction has been published in numerous journals including BluePrintReview, apt, and All Things Girl.


Tracey would have approved the cover image. She hearted it on Instagram a few days before she died.

TRACEY BOONE SWAN BY MARTIN CHIPPERFIELD #38


Tracey Boone Swan, co-founding editor of this magazine, born 23 June 1969 died while being treated in Houston, Texas for cancer on 26 July 2016.

One day in 2007 Tracey said to me how about we do a magazine, and she came up with the name too. At the time we both lived on the 34th parallel, just in different hemispheres, Tracey lived in Orange County, California, and I lived in Adelaide, South Australia.

Tracey played a major part in the design and concept of the magazine, wrote for it, interviewed other editors and writers, and established and promoted the mag in the US lit mag universe.

Tracey was always writing.

“I am a writer,” she said, “because I seek to give voice and to voice the stories that have not been told, that have not been heard. The stories I write, such as My Story Begins with… published in the Louann Atkins Temple Series, Women in Culture Anthology, Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academics and the Austin Project, (The University of Texas Press, July 2010), are about the conversations people have with themselves, the inner dialogues that one has when facing a challenge.”

Tracey’s poetry and fiction has been published in numerous journals including BluePrintReview, apt, All Things Girl, and a few stories and poems in this mag.

She attained an MA from UT Austin and a dual MFA at Chapman University. She was awarded a Fulbright Grant for research in Paris on gender and race in the Parisian jazz age during the interwar period.

Tracey came to Paris with her son Colin and was laying out a career in teaching. I loved her beyond words.


Zillions of things run through your mind. Then you think, what do you write? You ask yourself this question and you don’t know what to say. Is it fiction? Is it prose? It’s not poetry, since you don’t think of yourself as a poet—what the hell do you write?

WRITING, DYING, AND OTHER THINGS WE DO ALONE BY TRACEY BOONE SWAN BLOG POST 13 FEB 2007


So, you’re a writer.

You’ve heard this haven’t you? You’re at some party, at something that someone you love convinced you to attend and in the course of chit-chatting to yet another person (whose name you forgot three seconds after they told you) they ask this question: What do you do?

Now, you’re at this thing (probably led there kicking and screaming the entire way) and just when you think you might make it through the evening without completely embarrassing yourself or the person you came with, you get this question.

Really, it isn’t the question that bothers you, since this is what people ask at these get-togethers. No, you expect the question.

What throws you is the reply you get after you answer the question, you get: So, you’re a writer.

If you’re like me, you try to discern every nuance in this phrase—was that a smile or a smirk at the corner of this person’s mouth? Were they asking you a question or making a statement? Do they want you to elaborate or are they saying they’re finished and you should just cough and excuse yourself?

And if you’re like me, by this time you are completely confused and fresh out of catchy comebacks. So, you just nod and say a weak, Yeh, I’m a writer.

Now, sometimes there’s more, you get this next question: What do you write? (HAHAHAHA, the hundred thousand dollar question, right?)

Zillions of things run through your mind. Then you think, what do you write? You ask yourself this question and you don’t know what to say. Is it fiction? Is it prose? It’s not poetry, since you don’t think of yourself as a poet—what the hell do you write?

You hold back from saying, I write shit, or if you’re like me you hold yourself back from saying, What do I write? Absolutely nothing (smile).

Instead, you say to this person you’ve had some stuff published, but you don’t say stuff, no, no. You say, “I’ve had a few of my pieces published in (insert the names where your stuff was published here).” And you mention the book you’re halfway through writing, leaving out the fact that you don’t have an agent, or a teardrop’s chance in hades of finishing it—let alone getting it published.

This seems to keep you afloat for a moment…

But, only for a moment.

Then the person says, “Oh yeah, like Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, I loved that book. The only book I’ve read in years. It was great.”

You just nod.

Someone more interesting moves into the spotlight and pushes you out of it. You drift aimlessly from one side of the room to the next. And suddenly you are alone in a room full of people.

Alone.

And isn’t this where you always find yourself? Or if you aren’t alone, you are seeking to be left alone so that you can write.

Writing is a lonely business, grueling, and monotonous. But of all the things to do alone (and most millions of times more pleasurable) nothing compares to agonizing over a sentence all night long—all because you’re a writer. Grand isn’t it?

Still consider this, from the death of your social life can come great things: beautiful words that will exist and have a life of their own long after you are dead and buried.