Melissa Mesku

I'm a Pushcart-nominated essayist with work in National Geographic, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and dozens of others.

I'm the creator and publisher of the AI-backed literary publication ➰➰➰, and was the founding editor of New Worker Magazine which ran from 2013–2020. Right now I'm at work on a novel.

By day I'm a software engineer and have built apps and websites for a bunch of major brands. Some examples are below.

I hold a teaching certificate from Cambridge and graduated magna cum laude from UC Berkeley with a degree in rhetoric and in natural resource conservation. I've lived/worked in 5 countries and 7 US states, and traveled extensively in the US and in 35 other countries. Along the way I started a few organizations and companies, some I'm still affiliated with.


The question that has constantly circled in my mind is why are people this way, why is our culture this way. That has recently started to shift, which is fascinating. I am very curious about signs of collective transformation when I see them (in catastrophe, in group formation, in people on the same pills on a dance floor). These two things form a question that keeps me up at night: why do we uphold the dominant culture—what's it going to take for collective transformation toward sane/sustainable ways of living? I spent a decade actively trying to answer that in my own life. I avoided working for a living and instead exposed myself to as much as I could through travel, privation, and experimentation. Basically, I went around with a portal gun looking for utopia, then willed myself to change over and over to try to acclimatize to it. I've lived off the grid, and communally, and in transience; when I had to work, I worked; I've been a public high school teacher, a nonprofit lackey, a small time criminal. If all that sounds bizarre, it was! This world is a trip. Randomly I was gifted a laptop years ago and it ended up being a trap door to here: I fucked around and went full girlboss, “learned to code,” and began writing online. At least it brought me and this weird stuff to your attention. I'll soon be purging myself of all this over at substack and would love more kindred souls in my life if you want to drop a line.

Restoring the Ship of Theseus

Is a paradox still the same after all its parts have been replaced?

Lapham's Quarterly 2019

A philosophical investigation tracing Plutarch to Hobbes and Locke; Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn forever; copycat art vandalism; Maggie Nelson ripping off Roland Barthes' Argo (which he got wrong); kintsugi pottery repair, Katamari Damacy

🏆 Cited in Shipwreck Hauntography (2021) by Sarah Rich

🏆 Syndicated in audio by Curio

“The language of a paradox is not contained in a vessel; it is the vessel.”

Does the paradox remain the same if the ship is replaced with a knife, or a sock? Have we lost anything in Theseus’ paradox if instead we call it “John Locke’s Sock paradox”?

Many already have. An episode of The Good Place has “Locke—Parable of the Sock” scrawled across a classroom chalkboard. It appears in teaching texts like Philosophy for Dummies. References to it even outnumber news reports of a sock puppetry scandal involving a contemporary author named John Locke.

And that’s how easy it is for some worn-out socks to replace a two-thousand-year-old paradox. Except for one small problem. Scholars are unable to locate any references to socks in Locke’s work. The English philosopher discussed many questions of identity, but apparently elected to leave his garments out of it. This may or may not be enough reason to retire the sock version once and for all. It also may or may not explain why pairs of John Locke socks for sale on Etsy have neither holes nor patches.

Read at Lapham's Quarterly

Latinx Heritage Month

Who do you complain to when it’s HR you have a problem with?

Creative Nonfiction 2021

The doublespeak in corporate diversity initiatives; on being the ethnicity of the month; having to highlight your difference but make that difference undifferentiated.

🏆 Nominated for the Pushcart Prize

The photo editor works at the desk next to mine. I’ve often watched her remove high-res blemishes from patches of skin so zoomed in you can’t even tell it’s a face. On her screen right now is a thousand-pixel expanse of brown.

In the future, there’ll be an app for that—one that lives in your eye, letting you see people as unblemished, corrected. We could call it Mote. No—Beam.

Then I think—no. No one wants to see other people as perfect. They just want themselves to be seen as perfect.

It dawns on me that racism works like a shitty app. It is software that installs a mote, a beam in the eye. It runs in the background, and occasionally sends push notifications. No one deletes it because everyone else is still using it.

Read at Creative Nonfiction magazine

Escaping Paradise

My family's escape from the deadliest fire in California history

Guernica 2019

The 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California; escaping the town of Paradise, CA that burned to the ground; how to drive through flames and black smoke.

🏆 Anthologized in McGraw Hill's upcoming 2023 Power of Process textbook

“Hurtling into darkness, on the train home I read the news of the first reported deaths. Five found on Edgewood Lane, immolated in their cars. I know Edgewood Lane. It’s the only street that connects to my parents’ dirt road.”

My sister texts me, “Finally heard from mom. Still stuck in gridlock, in the flames. The house is probably gone.”

At first I don’t know what she’s talking about, but then I remember: even though it’s November, it’s still wildfire season. Since my parents and little sister moved to Paradise fifteen years ago, they’ve had to evacuate multiple times. My mom keeps boxes next to the front door labeled FIRE for things like her checkbook and my grandma’s tortilla recipes. Keepsakes are permanently stored in a hauler by the road, ready to be hitched.

I call my sister back while panic-Googling “California wildfire news.” I learn its name just as she picks up. “Camp Fire,” I say.

“More like hellfire,” she answers.

Read at Guernica

Around the U.S. National Parks in 5 Books

A literary tour through our remaining wild lands

National Geographic 2018

Taking in the Everglades, Saguaro, Canyonlands, Yosemite and Mesa Verde National Parks.

🏆 Included in Great America

Canyonlands rivals the Grand Canyon when it comes to vistas, yet the park receives a fraction of the visitors. It’s the kind of place you can hear a hawk take to the wind, or watch in silence as the sun falls over miles of pastel bluff. The inherent value of being able to experience open land this way is what Wallace Stegner extolled in his 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” which helped get Canyonlands designated just four years later.

But the writer most often associated with the region is Edward Abbey, the beer-drinking, iconoclastic patron saint of nearby Arches National Park. The two writers, whose very different philosophical and environmental legacies have marked this part of the West, are the subject of All The Wild That Remains, part biography, part travelogue, part meditation on the last of the wild West.

Read at National Geographic

The Financial Aid Loophole That Cost Me Thousands

I was on merit scholarships and need-based grants—then the scholarships cancelled out the grants

The Billfold 2017

The absurd ins and outs of Federal financial aid reporting that often negate merit scholarships for the poorest students.

🏆 Cited in support of a bill that passed legislation

“Scholarships should be for improving your financial situation in college, not improving your college’s financial situation.”

As it turns out, the amounts in grants I was, well, granted, would indeed have been higher were it not for the scholarships. As a low-income student, I qualified for the full amount of available state and federal grants. But I received less grant money than I qualified for because of the scholarships. The way they calculate it, the scholarships lowered my need, so I qualified for less grant money. The scholarships I had worked so hard for ended up canceling out my need-based grants dollar for dollar.

So where would my scholarship money be going? Apparently to some combination of the federal government and the school itself. There would be no payout—not to me at least. Huh?

I ditched class to spend the next day in the waiting room at the financial aid office. It was like any classroom, students nodding off in antique chairs, except when they woke up they were confronted with a bail-bonds-waiting-room level of anxiety.

Read at The Billfold

Bright Houses (in print only)

Casas Brillantes

Carve 2018

I had a slightly irrational fear that I might not recognize my home from all the others—that I'd ring the doorbell of some other house and they'd let me in thinking I was their child. Part of the fear was the strange sense that it wouldn't matter. That it would be OK to just live in a different house with a different family because, out here in the suburbs, it's all the same.

Given enough time and gravity, trajectories can become orbits. They—we—will center around something, even if it looks like there's nothing in the middle.

#155: The Pretenders

On Chrissie Hynde and the first Pretenders album

The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time2017

The rollicking story of how Chrissie Hynde came to be; trying to marry Johnny Rotten, and then Sid Vicious, for papers; on almost joining Devo, then The Damned, then The Clash; turns out Chrissie is a hell of a writer.

“Hynde’s attitude comes across in interviews and lyrics alike; in at least three tracks on Pretenders, she’s telling someone to shut up.”

Before the band, before the punk scene, was the gig she landed writing at NME. The second assignment she secured was, of all things, to interview Brian Eno.

It’s worth a read; she’s an incredible writer. In her conversation with him, Eno explained an interesting phenomenon. “I'm always prone to do things very quickly, which has distinct advantages—you leave all the mistakes in, and the mistakes always become interesting. Any feature can be the most important one—as long as there is one. There are so many bands who present you with a large number of well-done features, none of which are important.”

The conversation with Eno made me rethink my assessment of Pretenders. If there is one feature that makes the album stand out, it’s Hynde’s voice: its strange vibrato, its keening sound. It bruised, and once heard, it stayed with you. As she wrote in her memoir, “Distinctive voices in rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, arrogance, narcissism, or just sheer perseverance—anything but a teacher.”

Read at The RS 500

The Silent Refugee

It's possible to not have a country. But is it possible to not have a language?

Mask Magazine2015

A story from my days as a high school teacher. A student of unknown origin becomes a tabula rasa until she can speak for herself.

“I kept coming back to the possibility that this girl might live in a completely unintelligible reality. I tried to imagine an inchoate mind grasping but having nothing to hang on to.”

I handed her a pencil and asked again with my sweetest teacher voice. She limply held the center of the pencil in her fist and made no indication that she knew what I was saying.

I can’t even introduce her to the class without knowing her name, I thought bitterly. Why won’t she say anything? But a bigger thought shut me up. What if something’s really wrong—what if she can’t talk at all?

I’d heard some crazy stories since I'd started teaching. Some of the worst were from our Lost Boys, the umbrella term for the 20,000 Sudanese boys who traveled thousands of miles escaping soldiers, lions, and starvation until they chanced upon U.N. camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The Lost Boys are said to be the most severely war-traumatized children in history, and I had a number of them in my class. Though I’d never met one, there had to be “lost girls,” too. Might she be one?

Read at Mask Magazine

Oblivious, With Brown Hair

Math 2018

When the lecture ended, in his frumpy sweater and ill-fitting slacks, he edged his way out of the row and down the aisle. There was a fundamental awkwardness to his gestures, an angularity. It almost seemed like doubt—as though he weren't entirely sure whether his arms, his legs, were to be trusted.

Neither were mine. I had to force myself to wait until he had left the building. Then I let myself get up. Out on the street, my eyes were starved. I took off past the Szechenyi Bridge toward Váci Utca.

As I meandered I got progressively more disoriented; labyrinthine streets unfurled and little landmarks vanished when I turned back. I thought about my desire to lose myself in the streets and how little it carried over into the rest of my life. This crush disturbed me. I thought I couldn't stand clueless man-boys; I'd dated the charming, oblivious type for years before I lost my taste for innocence. I was glad the sky was turning to night—the way I felt made more sense in the dark.

Chola Makeup

An object lesson in the art of becoming

The Hairpin2017

How to segregate by race when you're mixed race; punks, cholas, and other options in the all-you-can-eat teenage rebellion buffet; Hood-era Gwen Stefani; girl gangs; when a girl takes off her hoop earrings, you know it's on.

“If I wanted to be fierce and intimidating, wouldn’t a bare-faced female who doesn’t give a shit about makeup or identity be the fiercest of all?”

With their dark lipstick, vicious eyeliner and big permed hair, the chola girls at my school were by far the most iconic and fierce. Their look, an integral part of their whole attitude, represented something I still worship in women: the ability to simultaneously be gorgeous and scare the shit out of people. As a scrawny half-Mexican twelve-year-old, it was something to aspire to.

I was nearly there, maybe. My chola friends had already given me a nickname, the misspelled Flacka. When we weren’t ditching school together and tagging walls, we were passing notes in class full of gossip and fake calligraphy. It was all very innocent now, but I knew that when I got older I would be expected to fight, prove my worth, and get jumped into the gang they were trying to join—an exhilarating prospect that filled me with cold dread.

Read at The Hairpin

Getting Off On Entrepreneurship Porn

And getting off of entrepreneurship porn

New Worker2014

How business journalism glorified entrepreneurs to absurdity; sex metaphor LOLs; oh elusive success!—so much easier to just open a magazine, stare at a glossy spread and imagine I already have it.

“There is only one subjective experience, that of the big swinging dick. Everyone else is an object. No thought is given to how the thing gets made. And certainly no thought is given to who gets fucked.”

Fast Company, Inc, Entrepreneur: it’s all porn. The stars that grace their covers titillate us with their fetishized activities, from the pivot—an invigorating change in thrust—to the Silicon Valley money shot, the big IPO. Every act entrepreneurs engage in has received a flattering centerfold; even “failure” has been upcycled to now conjure the image of an experienced man of the world. At the center of it all is the successful entrepreneur: the powerful and ever-ready stunt cock. Following the pornography 1.0 model, we’re not looking at a prick we want, we’re looking at a prick we want to be. The entrepreneur is the dick we identify with through envy. His exploits are the stuff of fantasy, and the world he dwells in—at least what little we glimpse of it—becomes a deep-seated fantasy of our own.

My first notion of this came one Saturday night while I was reading Fast Co alone on the couch. I had that moment every young, virile person has on a Saturday night, which is Really, is this what I’m doing on a Saturday night? My answer was a frustrated Yes. I’m reading Fast Company because I am going to own a fast company one day, goddamn it! (I already fucking owned a company, it just wasn’t a fast one. Have you heard of the slow food movement? It was like that, but without the food.)

Read at New Worker Magazine


Translating strange loops in Douglas Hofstadter's strange loops of translation


Coding a way to switch pronouns in a text; natively genderless pronouns in Finnish; feeling like a bigot when I trip over ze/zir; how to scaffold unweildy complexity; is there room for the singular pronoun, 'I,' to be made plural?

🏆 Monograph appears in The Strange Loops of Translation by Douglas Robinson (Bloomsbury, 2022)

“The Walt Whitman quote, 'I am large; I contain multitudes' still manages to twice use the singular pronoun 'I.' What if the 'I,' that solitary statue, were to be shattered into multiple pieces—how would we think of ourselves and others then?”

It occurred to me there was something I could do. I could create, with some code, a way for readers to switch the pronouns in Douglas Robinson's text. It would remove the cognitive load of translating in place. And it would let me get around potentially embarassing myself with the esteemed professor.

Before I got a chance to reach out to Robinson with my idea, he sent me another draft. This kind of exploded my plan. The new draft also used genderless pronouns throughout, but instead of the original singular ze/zir, he went with the plural they/them—and then added a new layer of complexity by pluralizing the very notion of the individual and even created a new lexical structure to convey it (yes, pluralizing the word “I”).

The final outcome, for Robinson’s “The Strange Loops of Translation,” was that we worked together to create a switch whereby the reader can choose to toggle the pronouns. In pedagogy, scaffolding is the practice of using tools and aids to accommodate students where they’re at so they can engage meaningfully in lessons that would otherwise be beyond their understanding. Consider this a scaffold to help aid the uninitiated in navigating a dense text that gets at the heart of how meaning is made, and lost, in translation.

Read at ➰➰➰

That’s a Good Idea

Precarity and the Profit Motive

Institute of Network Cultures2017

Frederick Taylor’s scientific management techniques from the early 20th c.; now that everyone's their own boss, it's just us exploiting ourselves; a drinking game for the entrepreneur-proletariat.

🏆 Included in Silvio Lorusso's The Pervasive Labor Union (2017)

“We work so hard; somebody must be exploiting us. Who is it? Take another drink. It’s you. The workers and the managers, two historically opposing entities, are now one and the same.”

Kill me, everyone is full of good business ideas. At my local pub, I’ve seen patrons offer the bartender cash if he’ll wear their Fitbits while he works up and down the bar. My local cafe, where I keep spare keys for my Airbnb guests, is now turning the key thing into a side business. Actually, these are pretty crap business ideas. But they’re good enough to build a business around, probably. At the very least, I can see how these ideas could become a thing. If I don’t do them, and they don’t do them, I’m sure someone else will. Then they’ll have the cash and the cred, and I’ll just have what I have right now—debt and regret.

Not so long ago, a good idea was nothing more than a throw-away thought. That your bartender should wear your Fitbit so your insurance company thinks you’re exercising—it’s a joke; at best you might earn a laugh between pints. But with precarity shifting us toward the entrepreneurial, a good idea is now more than an idea: it’s an injunction. To put it in the parlance of Andy Warhol: in the future, everyone will be an entrepreneur for fifteen minutes. Not because it’s cool, but because it’s fucking necessary.

Do Android developers dream of electric sheep? Perhaps they themselves are the electric sheep, producing the raw material the fabric of our economy is based on.

Read at Institute of Network Cultures

No Turning Back

Protesting at the second inauguration of George W. Bush

Mask Magazine2016

Witnessing the complete breakdown of civil discourse; the intimacy of staring your political adversaries in the face; collective memory is the mob of the mind; the logic of the arena; how battle lines get drawn.

“Here the battle lines of partisanship have already been drawn. Even if she and I have the emotional depth to make a nuanced assessment of each other, it will not happen here. The environment is too charged, the hostilities too high.”

We were there to stage a massive protest called Turn Your Back on Bush. I would be among many yet mostly alone, in with thousands of ticket-holding Bush supporters on the capitol lawn to see the president get sworn in. I would turn my back during Bush's inaugural address, and only then when more bodies had turned would it become clear who the other protesters were. I imagined we’d then send each other knowing glances and that I would finally have that feeling of being part of something I was proud of.

When the president began to speak, I knew it was time. I turned around.

Have you ever considered what it means to face history? It sounds grandiose, but once I turned, I knew its face. So do you; we see it all the time. It is a face whose mind is made up. It looks like a crowd, a mass, a mob, uncountable thousands becoming a single thing one order of magnitude larger and more terrifying than we can grapple with, the infinite minds of an infinite number of people all melding into a single rigid shape.

Read at Mask Magazine

Clarice Lispector and Experiments with White Heat

Stalking inspiration with pen and paper

Gulf Coast 2018

Água Viva by Clarice Lispector; flash floods of euphoria turn to waterlogged prose; paper is a feeble catchment device.

🏆 Gulf Coast's guest blogger, Winter 2018

The text was too slippery. There was nothing to hold on to. No characters, no plot. Just flashes of illumination waterlogged by amorphous prose. I was moved, but it wasn’t clear to where.

Since then, I’ve learned I am not the only one with a white heat novella in the closet. Some of my closest friends have written uncannily similar things. Only, it wasn’t the zeitgeist uniting us, nor the rudiments of what we’d been taught. It was accidental. We each, alone, had had a mystifying liminal experience and chose to pursue it in writing. We each created our own lexicon, parameters, process. Some were wild like mine; others, less jarring. Yet, for the infinitude of possibility, the work we produced is disturbingly similar.

In plotless pursuit of the intangible, we were on to something, stalking the ineffable. I suspect it is not achievable, for its very nature may preclude the possibility, but to me that makes the documenting of it all the more significant. What pursuit is more worthy of words than trying to locate the source behind them?

Read at Gulf Coast

Mourning Jade Sharma, Her Irreverence, Her Audacity

Remembering the author of Problems


Author Jade Sharma had the audacity to die at the age of 39, in July 2019. When I found out Jade had “fucking died,” as her editor Ruth Curry put it, I compulsively went back through our texts and emails. I was plagued with a question. It wasn’t how; I was pretty sure how. It wasn’t why exactly, either. Then I picked up Problems and read it again.

“What, really, are we doing—what the fuck is this life, what is it for, where is it going? What really matters, and what do we do? I only trust people who are addled by this question, even when I fucking hate their answer.”

The night I met Jade Sharma, I saw her verbally shit all over the guest of the evening, Paul Auster, at a literary event in New York. From the back of the audience, she stood and assailed him at length over a minor point related to Beckett. Look, she said witheringly, I studied Beckett. I mean, I’m sure you know stuff—they, like, paid you to come here and talk, but… It was incredibly rude, totally uncalled for. I liked her immediately.

What had drawn so many to her and her critically acclaimed novel was a caustic wit that might repel anyone else. Here is Maya, the female narrator of Problems, on women: “Imagine the voice-over in a car commercial… ‘The female body, luxurious and roomy, can accommodate three cocks and three babies at full capacity.’” On marriage: “Sometimes I thought the only natural ending to our relationship would be a homicide/suicide. Anything else would feel like a letdown.” On heroin: “High. Walked down the street like I had a cock. Like the city was my bitch and I was fucking it in the ass.”

And yet, Problems is a gentle book. It is plainspoken, funny, wise, and bears none of the audacity of its irreverent narrator. If anything, it’s about the interiority of an intelligent woman losing her grip on life. For Maya—for Jade—the questions of love and life are exploded. Everyone’s the wiser for it, but everyone is a casualty.

Read at LitHub

Media Appearances

I've appeared on CBS This Morning, CNBC, and in AM New York, Business Insider, The Cut, Fast Company, Levo, MarketWatch, Money, More, MSN, and USA Today.

My writing has been syndicated, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and will be anthologized in a McGraw Hill textbook in 2023. My most recent "literary" interview on air was in August 2019 on the Essay Daily podcast, and my most recent literary interview in print was in the Summer 2018 issue of Carve. Back when public appearances were a thing, I used to read my work sometimes, most recently at Ditmas Lit in July 2019.

In my role in coworking and the future of work, I've been interviewed by Coworking Europe, Deskmag, NY Tech, Shareable, Social Workplaces, and on a number of podcasts. My last interview about "work" was in April 2018 in Optix's Future of Work series. Most of my "future of work" work is thankfully in the past.

In my role as a random person hellbent on overcoming barriers, I was selected by Michelle Obama to appear in a feature she guest-edited (about first-generation college graduates) in print magazine More (see). I've talked in a bunch of places, Vandal's Curious World probably being the most interesting to listen to, and Courtney Martin's book The New Better Off: Reinventing The American Dream (2016) the most interesting to read.

I can be found on twitter, substack, and via email at email[at]