Author's Notes for "Million Dollar Mustard"

I sometimes half-facetiously tell people that WRITING IS CHEAPER THAN THERAPY. It's only half-facetious because therapy is important for everyone, but working through my own feelings about things by writing fiction can also be highly therapeutic.

This story started out with just the first line of dialogue: "I'll give you a million dollars for that jar of mustard." I'm no longer certain where it came from--maybe I was really hungry for a sandwich at the time?--but it took me a while to figure out how to make a complete story out of it.

I don't write a lot of fantasy, but in this case I wanted to distance it a little from the real world. I knew it was going to be a story about violent revolution, since I was working on it in 2020, the year of George Floyd's murder and watching the Black Lives Matter movement grow. But I didn't want it to be a direct commentary on all that, because it was still too raw for me to deal with. For several months, there were nightly protests in my home city of Portland, Oregon, and some of my friends were injured by police. It was all too much.

I had recently read Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict  by Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan, which among many other things presents compelling evidence for the “3.5% rule”—the notion that no government can withstand a challenge from just three and a half percent  of its population. (Watch Erica's TED talk  or read this BBC article .)

But as interesting as I find academic nonfiction (I'm now reading The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber, whoa Nelly!), I knew this story had to be more personal, because I was working through my own feelings about civil resistance. When faced with something as big as systemic oppression, what can one person do to make any sort of difference? What are you willing to sacrifice, and what can you hope to achieve through your own small actions or meager donations?

I decided to express both sides of what I was thinking about at the time: the personal need to Do Something so you don't feel completely helpless, but also the realization that to really effect lasting systemic change, it takes more than just one person. It takes organization, collective action, building a team, EL MAYARAH BITCHES.

At the end of the day, though, we all have to live with ourselves. Like Dolly Parton says: "Find out who you are and do it on purpose."

Curtis C. Chen
May, 2022
Vancouver, WA, USA