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At Work

by Steven Dunn

Issue Two: May 23, 2019

Sarah said my sister’s name, Sha’Queesha, was a made-up name. As if the name Sarah floated from the sky with a snowflake and her mom caught it on her tongue and it dripped pure onto the crown of Sarah’s then unnamed baby head.

Hunter hung his Seasons Greetings sign on the cubicle while straightening his Santa hat and asked if I was in the spirit. I said, No. But that I was ready for Kwanza. He said Kwanza was a made-up holiday and offered me a candy cane.

But . . . over time, your people, have gained equality, said Bill when I told him I didn’t celebrate Independence Day. Because my great, great, great, great, great, grandparents were certainly not watching fireworks on July 4th, 1776. But everyone loves summer time and cookouts and freedom, he said, it’s so fun, plus there are all types of sales. How can you not love the 4th??

Heather rolled her eyes to herself at Bill. In the break room she told me privately that what Bill said was pretty messed up and insensitive, and that it is unfortunate that other white people continue to talk over people of color. It’s just chatter chatter chatter, she said, that’s all it is, is just chatter. Which made me think of white noise. And how Heather won’t say anything about it to other white people. So that is white silence.

But whatever, I can leave work. I don’t even have to go to any of their all-white neighborhoods to their dinner parties where I’m the only non-white person, like the last few times I went.

I’m also a writer, and I’ll probably read this little piece aloud at some point, which means I’ll be reading it in a room full of white noise and white silence. And I’m not sure if this piece is adding to the noise or the silence.

So I gave up on writing about my lived experiences and became a fantasy writer. I am currently shopping around my first fantasy novel: where white people, who realize they too have made up names and holidays, genuinely celebrate non-white people. And white authors write stories about racism, participating in racism, perpetuating racism, benefitting from racism, and so on.

There is a publisher who is very interested. He says the writing is great but it’s too serious, and a tad too didactic, and not very fantasy-like. I try to argue that this shit is serious for a lot of us, and besides, there’s nothing more fantasy than that. He says, I know, I know what you mean, I really do. But what I mean is fantasy for the people who will be buying this book.

So I change the setting from a progressive metropolitan area to a vague British-like countryside with castles and fog and shit. And I change white people to elves. My fantasy novel is now selling well, and I get a lot of fan mail from white people who are just shocked and disgusted by those elves’ previous behavior.

I’m now on book tour. All the cities have started to blur, all the bookstores feel the same. All of the interested white faces in the audience. And the occasional Black and Asian face.

Before I start my reading, I make eye contact with the only black dude in the audience. He gives me the nod, the right-on-do-ya-thang-my-nigga nod, and I return the nod, the you-gotdamn-straight-my-nigga nod. I start with the same shit everyone starts with:

Hello everyone, thank you for coming out tonight. And I’d like to thank Pages Bookstore for having me. It’s such an honor to read here. You all do so much for artists in this city (I know this is bullshit. But it sounds good. So turn it up a notch), so it is truly an honor to read at this incredibly amazing venue. Now I will be reading from my novel The Elves of Estelarta.


Chapter 1

As a troll, I travel every day from my foggy marsh to the crystalline Elven province of Estelarta. Upon entering the glowing gates atop the lush, verdant knoll, I take a left past my old leather smith shop and continue to my new employment amid the scribe enclave. There aren’t many trolls in the enclave. However, elves abound, flitting to and fro fulfilling their scriberly duties.

Not many elves here have interacted with very many trolls, although we don’t live far from them. On occasion, some Elves like to touch my troll hair and ask about our foreign customs. Some elves think I was only appointed my position because of a law called Confirmatory Process.

Meldiriell, one of my elven workmates, asked me about my recent leave, and I mentioned that my sister, Garlockqua, and I journeyed to the shores of Malkna and frolicked amongst the flora. Meldiriell said my sister’s name, Garlockqua, was an invented name. As if the name Meldieriell sprouted from a Glistleberry tree and her mother squeezed the juices onto the crown of Meldiriell’s unnamed infant head.


I glance up at the black dude in the audience. I know he feels me. My nigga. I keep reading, blasé-blah, whoopty-whoop, Shakespeare reference, hyperbolic adverbs, whatever-whatever, until I’m done. Thank you all for listening. I’ll be signing books right here at this table.

I sign a few books, some white people tell me they’re shocked and disgusted as usual by the elves, fantastic work, that I have an ear for musicality in language, and that I’m what happens if Toni Morrison and Tolkein had a baby.

The black dude is walking up, and I rush a white dude out of the way because I know I’m about to have deep convo with the homie. He gets to the table and I start to give him some dap, but he just looks me up and down and says, What’s up, brotha? Thank you for coming, I say. Don’t thank me, he says, I only came to see yo sell-out ass read this bullshit. I look at him like, Man don’t confront me like this in front of these white folks. But he keeps on, You used to be about something, but now you writing about elves and shit, tryna make white folks happy. The white guy I rushed off steps back in and says, Excuse me, sir. Could you please have a little respect for the author. The black dude says, Naw, he should have a little respect for himself, ol’ sell-out ass nigga, ol’ tap-dancin for the man ass nigga, ol’ I love my massa ass nigga. I say, Look bruh, I’m just having fun, it ain’t that serious. He says, This shit is serious for a lot of us. C’mon man, I say, you know how it is. Naw nigga, he says, I don’t know how shit is. Do you though, and sign some more books. Have a blessed day.


Shortlisted for Granta magazine’s “Best of Young American Novelists,” Steven Dunn is the author of two novels from Tarpaulin Sky Press: water & power (2018) and Potted Meat, which was co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize and finalist for a Colorado Book Award. Steven was born and raised in West Virginia, and after 10 years in the Navy he earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from University of Denver. He is currently an MFA candidate at Goddard College.

An earlier version of At Work is available at Literary Orphans.

Read an HBR interview with Steven Dunn here

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