Maybe You Can Go Home Again, Again (A St. Louis Homecoming)

Adrian Todd Zuniga
7 min readNov 5, 2022

In two days, I return to St. Louis — city of my birth; city of my youth; city of my mother’s death — to debut Literary Death Match. The show I co-created 16 years ago, have toured the planet with, the show that will likely be the first line of my obituary, and vitally: the show my mother never once saw.

And let me tell you, it is making me emotional.

I’ve taken Literary Death Match to 70 cities before this. From Beijing to Helsinki, from LA to Bucharest. From New York City to Brisbane. But only now am I taking it “home.” Like, what the fuck’s that all about?

In 2018, my debut novel Collision Theory released, and I went on a mini-tour that included St. Louis. That, I believed was a homecoming. My lifelong goal of becoming a novelist had come true! And I was returning home with my dream realized. I filled Left Bank Books and my dad — who basically never leaves the house —even came. My brother drove all the way from K.C.; my grade-school-era best-friend’s mom showed up; an old friend I never see made an appearance. I sold enough copies to make the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Best Seller List. For one week, in St. Louis, I outsold Haruki Murakami. I mean.

Collision Theory — buy it now from so I can topple Murakami again

The next day, I went to my mother’s grave, sat and wrote her a on the title page of my novel while tears poured down my face. I leaned my book against her tombstone and thought: She died in 2011? Oh. I had lost track of what year.

I didn’t imagine I’d ever go back to St. Louis. I was living in London; my time in America was concentrated in LA; a move to Australia was on the horizon.

In January of 2022, I shot and directed my first short film: HOLD ME, DON’T TOUCH ME. It’s based on a feature film I wrote, and I decided that this would serve as both a proof of concept for the feature, and a standalone short to submit to literary festivals (if you’re curious the logline is: While mourning the loss of her young son, Aidy’s life is upended by Stella, an eager but ill-equipped stranger intent on helping Aidy work through her pain).

Once it was finished, I started submitting it to festivals. My goal: be an Official Selection at any of them. My stretch goal: be an Official Selection at an Oscar-accredited festival. Partly because it was edited by St. Louis native Rish Manepalli, I eagerly submitted it to the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. I can’t express the glee I felt when it was accepted, and I can’t explain the storm of positive emotions I felt a few weeks later when I found out— while sitting in my new home in Australia—that my short had won Best Narrative Film (Under 20 Minutes). I won? Wait, what? HOLY SHIT, I WON!?!

I won? HOLY SHIT! I WON!??!

Which led to my short being accepted to the St. Louis International Film Festival, an Oscar-accredited film festival (!!!).

And no way I could miss that.

The poster for HOLD ME, DON’T TOUCH ME

So amidst my autumn Literary Death Match tour, I plotted a stop in St. Louis to see HOLD ME, DON’T TOUCH ME on the big screen (it’s playing at the fancy-pants St. Louis Galleria, a mall I’d go to in my teen years, where my lame-brained advances would be rejected by rich girls who knew better). And then I thought: maybe we do a Literary Death Match whilst there?

Because of Deborah Taffa — who is a Kranzberg Arts fellow, with her debut book coming next year — the St. Louis debut of LDM started to materialize, and when it was confirmed, I felt so many emotions at once. It wasn’t specific, just a fizz of excitement and wonder and sadness. The time was right, and it was happening. And the first thing that came to mind was how I close every show, since my mother’s passing, with “Call your mother, she misses you.”

Actually, no. The first time I ever said those words to close a show was January 26, 2011. I was on stage at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City while a blizzard pounded the city. My mother was in St. Louis on what would soon be her death bed, and I had left her to do two shows (one in Boston; one in NYC) and at any moment she could go. It was a huge mistake to have left, and now a blizzard would make getting back to her nearly impossible. I had fucked up, and as I stood on that stage with a 1000-mile stare, I needed to talk about her, I needed her to be present, but I had the presence of mind to know that I didn’t know the narrative, and if I started talking about it, I wouldn’t stop.

So I ended the show with, “Call your mother; she misses you.”

The next morning, a miracle: I got on the one flight out. I got to her in time. She passed away the next evening, surrounded by all eight of her children, while I held her hand.

After HOLD ME, DON’T TOUCH ME had been accepted to a handful of film festivals around the world, I called my father to tell him. I had grown up with him and I going to movies, and while he has terrible taste (we saw countless Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis-style action flicks), it was a foundation of my youth. I came to realize that making that film was a way to impress him.

Which got me thinking: if that’s what I was doing to impress him, then what was I doing to impress my mom?

Aside: I should say here that my mother loved me very deeply. It has given me a level of comfort and confidence that has been invaluable. I have lived my life trying to do extraordinary things as a way to live up to the love I received.

For years, I always thought of me hosting Literary Death Match as a way to honor my mother. She was incredible at making people feel good amidst the constant chaos. So LDM was my way of making an audience, authors, and judges feel like a million bucks, while I added a degree of difficulty by creating a competitive show. Every show felt, in the end, like a win — like we’d all crossed a tightrope together. For so many years, I moved through the world believing the show was my way of honoring her.

ATZ embodying his mom at LDM Midland-Odessa, Ep. 4 (2022)

Until I had the revelation about film and my father. if that’s what I was doing to impress my dad, then what was I doing to impress my mom?

Which made me understand that I am not honoring my mother when I host Literary Death Match, I am embodying her. For 90 minutes a night, I am, in a sense, becoming her.

Yesterday morning I got an email that while in St. Louis, I’ll be interviewed on KMOX, the radio station of my youth. Which was also emotional. It serves as one of these things that have occurred to me over the years, which I label as “dreams come true that you didn’t even know you had.”

Moreover, it serves as another confirmation of a true homecoming. My film, Literary Death Match, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch best-seller, being on KMOX.

I called my dad to let him know I’ll be on the radio, and told him about the screening of my film. He said he’ll be coming to see it (he’s not going to like it, as there are no explosions, but I’m certain he’ll be damn proud).

And while it pains me that my mother won’t be in the audience two nights later, at Literary Death Match St. Louis, Ep. 1, I don’t mind since she’ll be on stage with me, as me, and we are going to make everyone in that room feel like a million bucks. We’re going to bring the fucking house down, together.

My mom, age 6, scared as hell and mad that she had to get “on that goddamn horse”



Adrian Todd Zuniga

is an award-nominated author (Collision Theory), award-winning director/screenwriter (HOLD ME, DON'T TOUCH ME) and the creator and host of Literary Death Match.