Shara K Sinor writes in the somewhat broad genre of literary nonfiction. In personal essays she writes primarily about her experiences and observations gained from travels abroad. In creative nonfiction she's fond of mixing in history with her personal experiences or framing her true stories in a fictional universe (akin to magic realism). She also writes the SKJ Travel blog and is the photographer of SKJ Photography. Welcome to her strange little world ... you can read many of her published essays below.
"The Road to Columbine Heaven" [read full text] Statesider. Who can I trust to share my wildflower secrets with? [location: Colorado]
"They Were Labeled Witches. They Just Had Dementia." [read full text] Narratively How an ex-pastor discovered a link between dementia and "witches." [location: Namibia]
"Mute Among the Qashqai" Phenomenal Literature Staying with traditional nomads to learn their ways [location: Iran] Reprinted in Wanderlust Journal [read full text]
"The Seedy Cafe" [read full text] The Art of Death A tanka haiku poem written with the first and last line provided as a prompt [location: a forest floor]
"Inside the Sagrada" [read full text] Burrow Press Review More on the aqueous nature of God [location: Spain]
"The Motion of Waves" [read full text] The Indiana Review Truth and legend, a Buddhist metaphor [location: China]
"Inca of the Maya" [read full text] The Florida Review History and reincarnation in Latin American tribes [locations: Peru, Guatemala]
"A Rough Guide to Astronomy" [read full text] Fourth Genre Eulogy to my dad, Jerry Sinor [location: Colorado]
"The Fish is Mute" [read full text] Sou'Wester Speculation on the nature of God [locations: Tunisia, China, Colorado]
"Eye of the World" New Letters Awards for Writers (contest) Deserts and consciousness [location: Tunisia]
"Artifact" read full text (page 16) at Chicago Memory House Another tribute to my dad, dealing with his death via archaeology [location: Colorado, archaeology survey] (byline Shara Johnson)
"Ghost of Ten" [read full text] Post Road Ancestors and daydreams
"Tracking" [read full text] The Bellingham Review Tracking higher powers [locations: Colorado, Utah]
"Chimps and Their Keeper" [read full text] The MacGuffin The unfortunate ironies of life in a Third World country [location: Uganda]
"Riding With Rigas" [read full text] Prick of the Spindle Motorcycling with enthusiasts [location: Greece]
"Botox" Blip Magazine [location: South Africa]
"Archipelago of Eve" [read full text] unpublished [location: Brazil]
Read many more documentary and travel essays at SKJ Travel
2005 Nomination for Pushcart Prize in Nonfiction
2006 Nomination for Pushcart Prize in Nonfiction
2006 Selected as Notable Essay in Best American Essays Anthology
2008 Honorable Mention in New Letters Awards for Writers
2010 Honorable Mention in Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference
2014 Spiritual Category Winner in Wander Women Write Contest
2020 Honorable Mention in Literary Taxidermy Morrison Short Story Competition
2021 Finalist in Literary Taxidermy Writing Competition, published in The Art of Death
2009 Prague Summer Program, Nonfiction
2019 Completed three-week La Wayaka Current residency in Armila, Panama
2020 Selected for four-week Cafe Tissardmine residency in Morocco, aborted when Morocco closed its borders due to COVID-19 (after I was already in Morocco and had 24 hours notice to get out!)
This poem was written for the Literary Taxidermy contest, which provided the first and last line of an existing piece of literature. Writers had to connect those lines however they wished. This is a 5-7-5-7-7 tanka haiku form.
The Seedy Cafe
I do not know why
I have such a fancy for
this little cafe
under fallen, rotting leaves
where the floor is always damp.
Lady bug corpses
make for stools at bitternut
tables dimly lit
by wearied firefly lanterns,
and it's where the fairies dance —
the elderly ones
who can barely tread air with
their translucent wings,
pale legs dangling and heads like
little caps. I sit and drink
cups of raindrop tea,
captivated and repulsed
in equal measure
for they remind me somehow,
disgustingly, of mushrooms.
This piece was written in order to enter the Literary Taxidermy contest wherein a writer must use the first line of an existing novel specified by the contest as the first line of your story and the last line of same novel as the last line of their story. The writer can connect the dots however they wish to make a unique story. For this contest, writers had to use the first and last lines of Toni Morrison's Beloved . Here is how I connected the dots (with a word count limit of 2,500 words). The piece was included in the Honorable Mentions.
I had the basic idea of this piece in my head for a long time but had never decided how to end it. When I saw the Literary Taxidermy contest advertised, I felt that it could be reshaped to fit the lines of Beloved . It was fun to simply get my brain working on the idea again, but this is not the original vision I had for the tear master concept. One day perhaps I will write a different version closer to my original ideas. And this was not written as a great literary masterpiece ... just a fun exercise to connect dots.
The Tear Master
124 was spiteful. Nearly everything above 90 was a negative emotion. Tears of anger, tears of loathing – self and otherwise – tears of fear, anxiety, distress, grief and injustice. Tears cried while feeling unforgiving, contemptuous, and 124 was designated to be spiteful.
It takes a lot to work up to such a pitch of spite that tears spill out. Percival had been figuring this out for awhile now – how to order emotions so they build upon one another in a crescendo to the final desired emotion. Spite was a more complex one than he first imagined. It had a histogram of black fury and hatred on one end leveled with the movement of time, diffused with calculations and imagining the future, but then the intensity had to build back up to summon a tear, this would come only when the object-of-spite’s suffering became clear – the climax of spite is the execution of a particularly hurtful action.
For Percival’s wife, Deirdre, her tolerance of her husband’s artistic endeavor, his emotional navigation, often rendered her the object of Percival’s experimentation. It was just the two of them in their apartment, and she was gone all day house cleaning. Since he lost his job at the paint factory he was home alone during the day, which is when he worked up all his emotions to unleash on her when she returned.
When he told her he wanted to pursue an artistic project until he could find work again, she figured he meant painting. He had always wanted to dip a delicate brush in it rather than make it by the bucket. So she embraced his desire, it seemed like a healthy way to wait out the joblessness, as he seemed so dejected. They could scrape by on his unemployment check for awhile. Her friends chastised her for being overly generous with the situation: she should be encouraging him to get back to work immediately instead of fiddling around the house. She disagreed, but then never in her life did she imagine what was coming when the microscope arrived in the mail.
The day he had been abruptly laid off, Percival had bought a fancy bottle of whiskey and sat all night on the porch. “I’ll tell you tomorrow, love,” he said when Deirdre pressed him to explain his actions. He stared up at the stars while he drank. Like an omen, meteors were showering in the Perseids. He used to think of them like fireworks, blazing across the sky with a festive feel, as if the sky was rejoicing. This night was different. How did I not realize this before? he thought. The sky is crying.
Some of heaven’s tears were bright and brilliant as they fell, and some were just faint, brief sketches. Are the big bright tears sadder? This provoked him to think about his own tears. What did they really look like? They surely had some sort of internal structure that shaped the individual tears into discreet droplets.
He perked up as he downed the last of the whiskey meant to lull him into a stupor. He couldn’t wait for the morning! He was up first thing, Googling on the internet.
“Aren’t you going to work today?” Deirdre had finally asked as she was fastening barrettes into her long and wavy jet-black hair. He had not dressed, and he would normally be eating breakfast by this time.
“Ah.” His mind raced, he hadn’t formulated a speech yet to break the news to her. But now he didn’t want to spend the effort on it. “No, love. I’m not.”
“Are you not feeling well?”
“Ah.” Here was a chance to put off the news. “No, love. I’m not.”
“Well you should be in bed, not tapping on your computer. Shall I make you some tea with honey?”
“No, that’s OK. I’ll get back in bed shortly, you just worry about yourself. Have a good day.”
Never one to hound or pester her husband, she had left without further conversation. Later that night he told her the news. The microscope and slides had already shipped that afternoon, express delivery. She’d supported the idea of a “project” and agreed they would tighten their belts for awhile.
“Well then,” Percival said out loud to himself, setting the microscope on the kitchen table two days later. “Let’s get started.” After a few deep breaths, he realized he didn’t know how to start. He hadn’t considered the fact that tears wouldn’t just spring out of his tear ducts like a geyser. He would have to will them to the surface. He lowered his willowy frame into a chair and furrowed his brow until his thick eyebrows almost knitted into one.
He tried thinking of things that had made him cry in the past. He thought about when Skip, his Dalmatian, died. He thought of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” the book that makes everyone cry. He thought of “Old Yeller,” the movie that makes everyone cry. He started to feel melancholy and pressed on, thinking about the time he found his neighbor’s tabby cat on the side of the road, hit by a car.
He looked over at Mittens purring on the couch, his sweetheart for fifteen years. Their apartment was so small, he could just about reach her from the table. Without thinking, he smiled. The melancholy vanished.
“Shoot!” he slumped down in his chair, feeling deflated over the scope of his investigation and his failure to foresee how difficult it would be. He hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, so he decided to make himself an omelet. While chopping bell pepper and onion, he exclaimed out loud, “Ah ha!” He put down his paring knife, put his nose down to the onion and breathed in. His eyes began to sting. He inhaled deeply once, twice, soon his eyes were watering. “Yes!” he ran over to the slide box and extracted one. He pushed the slide into his cheek below his eye just in time for one big luscious tear to roll onto it.
He carefully carried it over to the table, so full of glee he could hardly keep his hand steady. He set it down to dry and waited for his eyes to clear before hopping back over to finish his omelet. “I must remember to make omelets for Deirdre,” he admonished himself. He intended to treat her with extra care and appreciation during his “sabbatical” from work.
Once the tear had dried, he skimmed over the directions for how to use the microscope. At first sight, he drew in his breath. It wasn’t at all what he expected but he was enthralled.
Now he wanted to see a different tear. Since he’d been unsuccessful at sadness, he decided to try laughter. He loaded up some of his favorite fail videos on Youtube, bookmarked for their high amusement factor. His elevated mood pushed him quickly into laughter and soon he started to shake. His stomach tightened and he could feel a tear working its way to the outer corner of one eye as a cat in the video crashed through bedroom blinds.
He collected that one and stared impatiently at it on the slide, willing it to dry. Stunned at how different the new tear looked, he proclaimed, “I must look at so many more!” He soon realized his own life was too pedestrian to summon much emotion, so he fell into a very deep, consuming world of imagination.
He made up stories of sappy romance, of touching sacrifices Deirdre made, of her infidelity, her backstabbing, her illness, her secrets both good and bad. She never knew when she came home whether he would be in a rage or grief-stricken or laughing with happiness from a story about made-up children.
He had imagined her death so convincingly she found him weeping beside the bed. He was so engrossed in his loss that he nearly forgot to collect a tear until Deirdre held the slide sitting beside him on the floor up to this cheek. Then she had to run and get more as they transformed into tears of relief. “Oh my darling, my love! You’re alive! Thank god. Quick, capture this tear!”
Over time, the pathway between his tear ducts and the emotions he worked up in his imaginary scenarios shrunk until the tearful response was almost immediate. He began to conjure both more complex and more subtle emotions. He tried to differentiate between joy, bliss, happiness, for example, and later between hate, fury, anger. He logged all his observations of the different tears.
As Percival began working his way past positive emotions and up into the dark realms of the 100s, Deirdre dreaded coming home to the tense and acrid atmosphere, having to decide each time whether to wait it out or defend herself against whatever story he had made up that day. She felt as if she was slipping down into a hole she wouldn’t be able to climb out of, as though her house was a funnel and there was nothing she could do once she was inside to halt the downward spiral.
Percival seldom left the house anymore, and he knew he was trying Deirdre’s patience, so one day he decided to do some shopping for her. As he was standing in the check-out line at the grocery store, he noticed a child waiting with her mom in front of him. She was meticulously cutting a paper snowflake with scissors. He watched as she carefully carved into the paper. She opened it to assess her progress, closed it, envisioned her next move and made more cuts before another assessment to decide how to proceed.
Percival’s heart fluttered. He felt flush and his eyes popped open as if he’d just drunk a pot of coffee. Now he knew the point of his research; he knew what his real project was. He would try to custom craft his own unique tear. Just for the sake of art, finally to be an artist. He would need to study the characteristics of the different emotions’ tears and learn to create sophisticated emotions that could incorporate features from different base emotions. For example, he already knew he loved the floret patterns common in his sadness, and wondered if he could arrange the long crystal tendrils of other emotions into a specific design by concocting even more complex stories in his head, maybe work in some of the features of food-induced tears – eat a Thai chili pepper, say, with anger at Deirdre simmering just under the surface (for some made-up infraction) while watching Schindler’s List! He felt that same sense of giddiness he had when he saw his very first tear.
Starting with 108, he would manipulate his emotions and master his tears to form a work of art.
One night after he’d told Deirdre about creating his perfect tear, he seemed particularly aggressive. She tried to pull him out of whatever story he was living in.
“Don’t take me out of my rage, dear,” he said. “I need to keep it and work on it.”
“Work on it?”
“Refine it, shape it, build on it; I can’t start all over again from scratch tomorrow. Please just let me keep this overnight.”
Reluctantly, she turned out the light. The sooner he created what he wanted, the sooner this would all be over.
Percival indeed worked on it, refined it, shaped it into something quite monstrous overnight. As Deirdre left for work, he watched her with simmering eyes, swollen from lack of sleep. She glanced back at him through the bedroom doorway, unnerved as he robotically petted their cat next to him. “Don’t … don’t hurt Mittens,” she said.
This took him aback. “Never!” he exclaimed and pulled the kitty to his chest with a kiss on her head. “Why ever would you think that?”
“Sorry. I wouldn’t,” she regretted her words. “Thank you. Have … um, have a good day.”
Once the door latched behind her, Percival sprang out of bed and began pacing the floor. He knew what tear he wanted to create today, for it would meld several different emotions. Along the way, he logged tear 123: vengeful. He didn’t take time to look at it, staying focused on his goal: spite. It was a delicate and involved navigation to dip into forgiveness briefly, then back out while losing energy for a grand revenge, a lot of stewing and grumbling and diving into self pity then self righteousness until he despised the woman who had left the house that morning.
Knowing she would come home dead tired as she always did, he began pulling things out of drawers and closets, even out of the trash, and threw them all over the floor, the furniture, the countertops, until the place looked a wreck. She would be horrified. He really couldn’t stop himself now. A few minutes before his wife should be returning, he began eyeing Mittens, his companion through all of this without judging him. “Come here sweetheart,” he said, luring her easily into his arms.
He waited until Deirdre had a chance to look around, stopped nearly in her tracks barely inside the door by clutter covering the floor. “What on earth?” she exclaimed.
She waded a few steps toward Percival. “What are you …?”
“What am I doing with Mittens?”
Deirdre felt frightened. “Never mind,” she whispered. “I’ll fix you dinner.”
“Will you, now,” he said like poison dripping from a snake’s fangs. She took a step toward the kitchen. Percival lifted Mittens up by her throat, dangling her as she pawed the air frantically. “Let’s see, what was I not supposed to do today? Not hurt Mittens?”
Deirdre froze. Percival threw the cat toward her. She lunged to break the cat’s fall, and Percival’s mastered tear was triggered. Deirdre was instantaneously tripped up by the junk at her feet. She went down so fast, it took Percival a stunned second to realize what had happened as Mittens sprinted off to hide under the bed.
She lay utterly still. She hadn’t even had a chance to throw her arms out toward the cat. Reflexively Percival fell down beside her and watched the blood spreading out from her head across the wooden floor.
“What have I done?” he lifted up her long hair. “My patient, tolerant angel. Why did you let me do this? Why didn’t you stop me? My darling, my beloved.” He buried his face in the waves of her tresses. The remorse had come too quickly for him to collect the crafted tear of spite. He could only whisper for her over and over, “Beloved.”
In 2007 I wrote a collection of ethnographic essays about a small peasant village in northern China. They made up a book I titled, Burning the Bank of Heaven. It was categorized in the extremely small niche genre of "ethnographic memoir." A niche it turns out to be extraordinarily difficult to publish in, for it doesn't fit cleanly into a more traditional genre of either ethnography or memoir. My experience with interested publishers was that they wanted me to either strip out the memoir part, which was important to me, or tone down the ethnography, which was the point of the book — to document these disappearing traditions, the customs and ways of life. Since I don't have an academic degree in ethnography or anthropology, my ethnographic contribution was often not taken seriously. In spite of receiving glowing compliments on the writing itself from all who read the manuscript, I couldn't find a publisher who wanted to publish MY book — if I took out one component or another, it would be *their* book. (I also got lines like these: "Beautiful writing, but I can't envision this as a movie.") It was an agonizing decision not to write and publish "their" book.
So instead I published over time a selection of the chapters as self-contained essays on my travel blog. At the end of the day, they've probably gotten more attention there than from some tiny publisher I might have finally found to agree to my book. Even better, I could include loads of photos which would not have been included in a printed book. I think the photos are a very valuable addition, and this inclusion helps soothe my disappointment in the print failure.
To read some of these chapter essays, please follow the link below to the collection I've published on my travel blog. This doesn't include all of the chapters from the book, but the majority of them, listed in no particular order. (Without the entire book's structure, I don't think order matters much.)
Additionally, I published some smaller self-contained excerpts in the section of my travel blog called Tuesday Tales. Here is the list of Tales from the village, if you'd like to read some smaller snippets.
Secrets in the Earth Evading the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.
The Road to Jia Xian Is it better for a traveler to have a tale or a smooth ride?
The Foreigners Are Washing Their Hands! The town officials of a small Chinese village show us amazing hospitality as guests of their annual rain festival.
Mystery in the Riverbed Creepy and intriguing ... how and why did this end up in the sand at my feet?
An Abandoned Past An old man has a sudden burst of pride in his past home.
The Tree A memorable incident that happened one morning while I was living in a traditional peasant village in China.
Revelation on a Rainy Day My friend's family sacrificed so much for him, more than he even knew.
A Simple Joy The smallest gifts provide such joy; whether it's more joyous for the receiver or for the giver is hard to say.
Above: In traditional Chinese culture, people burn these bank notes from the Bank of Heaven at the gravesites of their ancestors to send them money in heaven.
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