Emily in the Tropics

by Coyote Shook

Coyote Shook is a cartoonist and a PhD student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Their creative work examines intersections between disability, foodways, the environment, and their childhood in Appalachian Georgia. In addition to The Puritan, their work has been featured in The North Dakota Quarterly, The North Carolina Folklore Journal, National Humanities Center Humanities in Class Digital Library, The Baum Bugle: a Journal of Oz, and The Wisconsin Review. Their comic-novella, Coyote the Beautiful, was the winner of the 2020 Leiby Chapbook Contest with The Florida Review.


“Emily in the Tropics” is graphic essay written and drawn with ink on sepia paper. The first panel spans the top of half of the page and depicts a room with a brick fireplace with a black iron stove inside it. On the mantle, there is a clock and an old-fashioned oil lamp. The walls have wood paneling half-way up. The top half of the walls feature a mural of a beach with open ocean and a ship on the horizon. “Emily in the Topics / Coyote Shook” is written in cursive handwriting in the sky above the water.

The second panel reads, “When I was 8 years, I won a book of Emily Dickinson poems in a creative writing contest at school.” In the accompanying illustration, a figure the author identifies as Emily Dickinson is buried up to her neck on a sandy beach. The body of a mermaid has been sculpted in the sand covering Dickinson’s body.

The third panel depicts a close-up of Dickinson’s slightly frowning face, which is covered in flies. The edge of the water appears closer than in the second panel, as the tide comes in.

On the next page, the first panel spans the top half of the page. This panel depicts a three-tiered cake surrounded by apples and pears on a table overlooking a park bisected by a chain-link fence. On one side of the fence, there are power lines. On the other, there is a jungle-gym, a bench, and a tree, all of which are covered with crows. The accompanying text reads, “I spent that summer largely confined indoors recovering from a lasting lung illness. I read and re-read the book obsessively with a fascination I didn’t fully understand at the time.”

The second panel depicts a close-up of the top tier of the cake, atop which stands a figurine of Dickinson in a black dress with her hair in a bun. Behind the cake, a crow looms with its wings outstretched and power lines recede into the distance.

The third panel depicts a close-up of the apples and pears on a wooden table partially covered by a floral tablecloth. There is a bird skill on the table. There are flies on the fruits and one of the apples has a slice missing. A tag affixed to the apple stem reads, “For the fairest” in cursive handwriting.

Three horizontal panels divide the next page. The first panel reads, “Dickinson, herself chronically ill, excelled as a baker. While history remembers her lowering baskets of gingerbread from her window, most don’t realize she baked the sweeties herself. Queer scholars would eventually latch onto her relationship with Susan Gilbert. However, long before I knew anything about her adult life, I identified her subconsciously as a queer crip icon.”

The accompanying image depicts Dickinson standing inside in a kitchen. Her hair is in a bun and she wears the same black dress from the previous page. Behind her, there is an old-fashioned stove surrounded by bricks on three sides.

In the next panel, Dickinson and the stove appear on the shore of the beach from the mural that appeared on the first page. A boat sails on the distant horizon. A lobster lies in the sandy foreground.

The third panel depicts this scene from a distance. Dickinson is reaching into the stove. Seven lobsters surround her on the shore. The boat appears closer than in the previous panel.

The top of the next page reads, “Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake” in cursive handwriting above two narrow panels bordered with daisies.

The first panel depicts a recipe alongside a drawing of two coconuts, a bottle of milk, and a bag of flour. The recipe reads, “Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake. / 1 c. coconut / 2 c. flour / 1 c. sugar / ½ c. butter / ½ c/ milk / 2 eggs / ½ tsp soda / 1 tsp cream of tartar.” Below, the recipe is captioned, “On the reverse of the recipe, she wrote, ‘The Things that never can come back are several— / Childhood—some forms of Hope—the Dead— / Though Joys—like Men—may sometimes make a Journey—.’”

The adjacent panel reads, “However, with all my morbid, dramatic predispositions, it is probably in everyone’s best interests that I didn’t learn that until much later.” The accompanying illustration depicts a smoking chimney on the roof of a house.

The third panel spans the bottom half of the page. In it, two taxidermy macaws sit with their feet nailed to wooden perches with a slice of cake on a napkin behind them. The wallpaper behind the birds is black with a pattern of sliced oranges with leaves.

On the next page, the first panel spans the top half of the page. The first panel reads, “While I didn’t yet know I was trans, chronic illness kept me confined inside, and, even at 8, I too felt most comfortable in the kitchen.” Beneath the text, Dickinson is depicted in a white dress. She is sitting in a chair on top of a pineapple-pattern rug. There is a framed painting on the wall behind her of the beach mural from the first page, though much smaller.

The bottom half of the page is divided vertically into two panels, the first of which reads, “Although Elaine Gerber deemed disability studies and food studies two parts of a ‘happy marriage,’ the question of such a union and domestic entrapment lands differently with trans-disabled people.” The accompanying image depicts a close-up of the painting behind Dickinson in the previous panel.

The adjacent panel reads, “For Dickinson, was baking an outlet to the world beyond her front door? Or was it simply something that brought her joy? Perhaps it was both.” The accompanying image depicts Dickinson’s empty chair in front of the painting. A person, too distant for features to be distinguished, appears on the shore of the beach in the painting.

The next page is split into two horizontal panels. The first panel reads, “Exotic ingredients like coconut and rum might have taken her mind far past the streets of Amherst.” Alongside the text, Dickinson is depicted standing on a beach in front of a rocky crag. It is nighttime. Dickinson wears a white dress. Behind her, two indistinguishable animals fly in front of the moon. Dickinson’s hair is slightly disheveled, with a curl hanging over her shoulder.

The second panel illustrates a view of two manta rays from beneath, which resemble the flying animals that appeared in the previous panel.

The next page is split into two horizontal panels. In the first, a faceless Dickinson sits on a beach next to a sandcastle recreation of her house in Amherst. In the background, a lighthouse casts light through a shaded sunset.

The second panel reads, “She once wrote, ‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted,’ a stanza I’ve thought about countless times when illness restricted me to hospital beds or living room sofas for weeks at a time. While ghosts are almost certainly present at those times, she hit the nail on the head when it comes to the vagueness of what exactly they’re haunting.” The accompanying illustration depicts Dickinson from above as she floats in water. Her hair and white dress both sprawl in the water. Beneath her are the black silhouettes of stingrays swimming above an ocean floor of sand and pebbles.

The next page is split into two horizontal panels, both with text below them. The first panel depicts Dickinson in a black dress. She looks out a window with shutters. The accompanying text reads, “It’s possible I’m conflating, concocting an alternate reality by transcribing Amherst’s self-described ‘kangaroo among the beauty’ over my childhood to give abstract questions about illness, food, and gender identity deeper meaning. After all, what is queer iconography if not that?”

The second panel depicts the sandcastle from the previous page, now surrounded by open ocean. A ship sails on the horizon. The accompanying text reads, “And yet, the further into that overgrown swamp of memories I wade, the more I find myself looking back to the control and order baking offered me in the untidiness of mental and physical sickness. Slightly transgressive when it came to gender, Dickinson and the oven’s hot yawns hover in my mind like ghosts … though I still couldn’t say what they’re haunting.”

Three horizontal panels divide the next page. The first panel depicts Dickinson from a distance as she stands on a sand and pebble beach, facing away from the viewer. She wears a white dress and her hair is in a bun. Beyond her, water extends to the edges of the panel.

In the second panel, Dickinson is again depicted from behind, though from a nearer vantage. She stands in water up to her waist. Her torso is bare and her hair remains in a bun. Beyond her, the shoreline is visible in the distance.

The third panel depicts Dickinson from the same vantage, though the water now reaches her shoulders. She is looking over her shoulder with a solemn expression. Her hair is loose and a curl sits on her back.

The next page is split into two horizontal panels. The first panel depicts a kangaroo in water up to its neck. In the distance, hills break the horizon and a setting sun sinks behind them. A small sailboat is tied to a dock near the shore. Beneath the image, the accompanying text reads, “At age 30, I finally baked Dickinson’s coconut cake…”

The second panel reads, “However, if the truth were told, I found its sweetness overwhelming.” The accompanying image depicts the kangaroo standing on the shore. Dickinson’s white dress floats in the tide. There are palm trees and white sails on the horizon.

 


Coyote Shook is a cartoonist and a PhD student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Their creative work examines intersections between disability, foodways, the environment, and their childhood in Appalachian Georgia. In addition to The Puritan, their work has been featured in The North Dakota Quarterly, The North Carolina Folklore Journal, National Humanities Center Humanities in Class Digital Library, The Baum Bugle: a Journal of Oz, and The Wisconsin Review. Their comic-novella, Coyote the Beautiful, was the winner of the 2020 Leiby Chapbook Contest with The Florida Review.

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