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by Elaine Chiew

A Tibetan poet. Not just poet, but also Tibetan.

Another says he’s a Palestinian writer. Kurdish essayist. But also an Uzbek prince.

Uzbekistan has princes? I whisper in my boyfriend Dave’s ear. I’m pregnant; almost eight weeks in, but I haven’t told him. Dave might lose his shit.

He leans in, the whorl of his ear like the bowl of a minnow trap. His idea to try this model United Nations–type bootcamp for writers. Neither of us is a writer; we came because of the free smokes. Dave claimed he was a Canadian migrant, I said Cambodian refugee, which is true, except this was many years ago.

Dave whispers back, Why not an Uzbek prince? Was probably Russian royalty. Some rebel Russian dude in the 19th century stormed Tashkent with a 30,000-strong militia and a Russian Orthodox priest.

Dave swallows Wikipedia for digestion, after too many boxes of pizza. Oh, he’s also a failed philosopher. Flunked out of SUNY, and his dad cut off his allowance. We drive around in a yellow Impala, and work odd jobs to afford the laundromat. Clear as paper/clean as laundry, we can’t afford no baby.

Workshop leader’s name is Mustafa. Has a pencil-thin moustache and wears a slim brown tie you could see was stained even across the circle of writers and all that brown. Where’d you think he’s from, I whisper to Dave who says, shh. Dave wedges his pencil tight behind his ear. It sticks out like an ochre-yellow 2B weapon; a violent stab to the body and blood will spurt out.

Saudi oil magnate, I whisper, a little too loudly. Mustafa looks in our direction. Dave squirms in his plastic seat; it squeaks like a baby with a balloon.

Mustafa writes something on the board. Five words: Imagine a many splendored thing.

Why would an oil magnate need to teach a freaking class full of stumpy writers? Dave’s tone implies if you’re stupid, you’re stumpy. Possibly you shouldn’t have been born.

Everyone in the room is dumpling-shaped, short and thickset. Pillsbury dough people.

Do you think they’re stumpy because of the part of the world they come from?

Dave tokes deeply from his free cigarette.

A many splendored thing.

I look around the room. Everyone is busy scribbling away. Dave too. He writes with hunched shoulders, hiding what he’s writing from me. His hand holding the cigarette creeps up to his brow. All that heaviness in there, needs propping up.

I peer over his shoulders. Weltschmerz. Foreign. A word I can’t even pronounce.

We’re writing and smoking.

I’ve lost my pencil. I take several deep drags. If I have a baby, I’ll give it ambition, teach it things. Wikipedia factoids. Philosophic shit I learned from Dave. And geography. Definitely geography. You never know when bringing in Phnom Penh and Hotan and Kashgar might make you sound like you know what you’re doing, or where a body is headed.

Elaine Chiew is a writer and visual arts researcher. Her flash fiction has appeared most recently in Best of Short Fictions 2019, SmokeLong Quarterly, Lost Balloon, MoonPark Review and New Flash Fiction Review. Her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming with Myriad Editions UK and Penguin SEA. She lives in Singapore.