Vanessa Veselka

October 25, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Vanessa Veselka's debut novel, Zazen. Veselka is the author of the novel The Great Offshore Grounds, which won the Oregon Book Awards' Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award and the novel Zazen, which won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. She has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex worker, a union organizer, an independent record label owner, a train hopper, a waitress, and a mother. She lives in Portland, OR.

I went to work and a guy I wait on said he was leaving. He said everyone he knew was pulling out.

“Canada is just not far enough. Mostly Mexico. A bunch to Thailand. Some to Bali.”

He always orders a tofu scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook. No soy sauce in the oil mix, no garlic, extra tomato, no green pepper. Add feta. Potatoes crispy and when are we going to get spelt. He holds me personally responsible for his continued patronage. I hope he dies. I’d like to read about it.

My brother, Credence, says people who leave are deluding themselves about what’s out there. I just think they’re cowards. Mr. Tofu Scramble says I should go anyway, that it’s too late. I want to but I can’t. Maybe when the bombs stop, or at least let up. Nobody thinks it’ll stay like this. I call it a war but Credence says it isn’t one. Not yet. I say they just haven’t picked a day to market it. Soft opens being all the rage. My last few weeks down at grad school it was so bad I thought everything was going to shake itself apart. I tried to focus on my dissertation, follow the diaspora of clamshells, but every night it got worse. It’s not any better here: Here, there, now, tomorrow, next Wednesday—geologically speaking it’s all the same millisecond. The gentle rustle of armies crawling the planet like ants. Anybody with any sense knows what’s coming.

I was in yoga yesterday and this girl started crying. Raina, who teaches on Mondays, went over, put her hands on the girl like a faith healer, her fingers barely grazing her shoulders. She closed her eyes and let the girl cry while she breathed. Everyone was watching like they were going to see sparks or something. I was anyway. I would have liked that. The girl calmed down. Her breath was hard and her eyes swollen. Raina talked about being okay with how you find yourself on the mat, and I thought there’s no one here who’s okay with that. If you took the roof off we would all look like little gray worms, like someone lifted the rock; too close, hot, bent, and wet. Well, maybe not hot because of the mud but that’s still what I thought when the girl was crying. I was glad it wasn’t me.

Credence says if half the privileged white marketing reps in my yoga class voted for something other than reductions in their property taxes, something might actually happen. I’d like to see something happen. Something big that wasn’t scary, just beautiful. Some kind of wonderful surprise. Like how fireworks used to feel. Now I’m no better than a dog.

Still, there’s something true in that yoga manifestation thing because I feel different when I believe different things. Only I don’t know how to go back to feeling how I did because I can’t re-believe. When the first box-mall-church went up in the blackberry field I wanted some kind of rampant mass stigmata with blackberry juice for blood. It didn’t happen. It’s not going to. They win; they just roll, pave, and drive over everything that’s beautiful: babies, love, and small birds. On summer nights with the windows open I hear joints cracking like crickets.

I wake up sometimes and feel the nearness of something, but then it’s gone and I’ve started to wonder if it was ever there. Lately I’ve become afraid that the feeling I used to feel, like something good was waiting, is what people mean when they say “young” and that it is nothing more than a chemical associated with a metabolic process and not anything real at all.

I waited on Mr. Tofu Scramble. He had a date at lunch and they both ordered blackberry smoothies. Vegan. I thought about slipping his date a note telling her that he was a big old cheese eater when she wasn’t around. But who am I to stand in the way of love?

I went into the kitchen and pulled a five-gallon bucket out of the fridge. They stack the tofu in soft blocks at the bottom of a bucket of water. With dirty hands I scooped out the tofu and threw a handful into the blender, little white clay hearts. Then I filled it to the brim with blackberries. I pressed the “chop” on the blender because it’s louder and takes longer and in a second the blackberries stained those little white hearts and turned them as dark as a bruise. I left the blender on. It took over the restaurant. Everyone tried harder and harder to ignore the noise, but the more they did, the longer I let it run. There should be some price to pay for all of this ugliness, especially the pretty kind, especially the kind you don’t always see.

Mr. Tofu Scramble looked around and I thought, yeah, that’s right, it’s you, you Big Old Cheese Eater When She’s Not Around. His cheeks reddened and his jaw shifted side to side. He started to look so much like a little kid staring down at dirty candy that I turned the blender off. It’s not all his fault. It’s not his fault he’s in love and wants quiet blackberries. It’s just not his fault.

Even Credence fell in love and got married, although I think he secretly wants a medal for falling in love with a Black woman. Our parents were so proud. Now, if I could only abandon my heterosexual tendencies as uninvestigated cultural preconditioning and move in with some sweet college-educated lipstick-lesbian bike mechanic, they could all finally die happy.

I’ve lived with Credence and Annette for almost three months now. At first I thought that because Annette was Black I wasn’t ever supposed to get mad at her. I acted like I was living with an exchange student who spoke English really well.

“Jean-Pierre, what do they call baseball in France?”

“Annette, do you like macaroni and cheese?”

“Daisuke, how is the rebuilding going?”


Credence has a missionary’s belief in community organizing. He says “grass roots” like Bible thumpers say “Jesus.”


Credence and I stopped aWalmart from opening once. It was earlier in the year and it lasted about a minute. Four months of door-to-door organizing, leafleting, town meetings, petitions, land-use hearings, senators, phone calls, cold, free doughnuts, and sermons to the choir in the rain with balloons whipping around our faces in the wind while we chant and people drive by in heated sedans and look confused. Take pictures and send them out to everyone who couldn’t come to the rally. And it worked. For about a minute. It’s hard to do the same thing twice. It’s hard to feel the same way you did, especially when you really want to.We just set them back a couple of months on their timetable. Chipped teeth, flags, crosses, and white sugar.

I moved in with Credence and Annette the week of Walmart’s grand opening.That was back in May when we found out Annette was pregnant. They said I could stay until the twins are born.They gave me the attic. It has dormer windows and a leaky skylight.When I go to sleep I stare up through the glass and pretend that none of us are here.

Out of a desire to understand, I began collecting maps and putting them on the walls. Gift-shop maps with sea monsters on them and beveled, unfamiliar coastlines; Cold War maps with the Soviet Menace spreading like leprosy. Pink East Germany. Red China. Maps of Pangaea and Gondwanaland from back before the seams pulled apart when we were all still one big continent—Deep Time, where countries turn to silt, silt turns to stone, and we can now tell time by comparing the rates of nations collapsing. Biostratigraphy? Patriastratigraphy? Following the law of superposition, one thing always follows another: map of the Trail of Tears, bike map, subway map, and one I drew when I was twelve and wrote “Della’s World” in scented marker at the top. Historical, geological, topographical, ideological, and imaginary. Sitting in Credence’s attic I tried to figure out if culture was just geology. Maybe Rwanda was caused by mountain-building. And the Russo-Japanese War by glacial till. Maybe you need pirated rivers in the headlands before you can have a Paris Commune.

I found a picture online of a man setting himself on fire. It didn’t say where he was or what he was protesting. Next to his leg was a gas can. He must have just dropped the match because I could still see his clothes. His arms were raised and flailing. I thought of Buddhists who can sit, as quiet as well water, and burn like candles, like in that famous photo where the Zen monk is sitting cross-legged on fire in the middle of an intersection while cars drive past and people watch. Everything near him is blurry, the cars, the people, because they’re moving. But he’s not. He is absolutely sharp because he is absolutely still. Every detail of his robe, his eyelids, and the oil from the smoke is absolutely clear. I first saw that picture in high school. I remember telling Credence about it.

“On fire?”

“On fire,” I said.

“You’d have to move.”

“They don’t move.”

“Della”—like I was doing it on purpose—“Della, their bodies would make them move. They’d have to.” His voice thinned and climbed. “It’s biological,” he squealed. “They wouldn’t have any control over it.”

In 1969 in Prague it took Jan Palach three days to die because he wasn’t trained to just sit there. It was more like what Credence said. He had to move. It was biological.


From the book Zazen by Vanessa Veselka. Copyright © 2021 by Vanessa Veselka. Published by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

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