By Jacob Collins
Have you ever wondered what your relationship with someone would be like if you had met them at a different time in your life? Coby-Dillon English explores this idea in their short story, “First Date, Last Night”, which appears in the latest issue of CCR. I had the chance to talk to them about their story’s themes and their writing process.
JC: What was the inspiration behind this story?
CDE: I can’t really pinpoint my inspiration for this piece. Some stories take me a long time, and this was one I wrote over many years. I wrote the initial scene with Leslie’s name over four years ago and then set it aside. Then the form of the continuous first date came to me much later. I am working on a collection of insomnia stories, and for this story, I was thinking about the experience of playing a scene or situation over and over again in your head when you can’t sleep, questioning if you made the right choices, what could have gone differently, etc. That’s where I started with the story, that scene of a first date and that idea of spiraling around the same night, and the rest slowly formed around those two elements.
JC: This story is told in fragments, with sudden jumps into the past and future of Naomi and Leslie’s relationship. What made you choose this style of presenting the story over, say, a more linear one?
CDE: Short answer is because I find that more interesting! Longer answer is that, for me, the timeline in this story is a contradictory one. A lot of the scenes in the present or future are moments I view as possibilities, not exactly hard truths. Certain facets of the first date change, which then change those outcomes. Many of the dates fail, and thus have no future as it pertains to the story. All those possible changes and possible futures become all knotted together and I wanted the story to mirror that feeling.
JC: So much of this story takes place on Thursdays, especially Thursdays in September. What, to you, is the significance of this?
CDE: For the most part, this had a lot to do with setting. I wanted a moment in time to be our marker in this story, either as a sign that we are returning to something or to mark how far we have come. And the setting of Chicago was always clear to me. I was born in Chicago and have lived there in the past, and it is a city and a people that I love deeply. When I think about Chicago, I think of Chicago in the late summer, when it is bright, warm, and social. When I was thinking of a moment in time and space that I wanted to continuously write around, it was Chicago and late summer, and so that certainly influenced that choice.
JC: Names play an important role in this story, between Leslie not liking his name and Robin and Riley having unisex names despite Leslie’s desire to give them masculine names. It’s an interesting theme – what does it tell us about Leslie?
CDE: This is a story about the birth of a family, the various expectations of family making, and for me, gender is a big part of that. I was raised with certain ideas surrounding masculinity, as all people are in some way, and the names in this story were something I could play around with that spoke to those gender expectations. Leslie is a character who, at best, feels murky about who he is, as a man and as a person, and his name was a great way to expose that feeling. His name is a kind of live wire of masculinity that he is constantly being forced to reckon with. When thinking about the sons’ names, I was thinking about how people put a lot of expectations for themselves on their children. Giving his sons unisex names was a way to acknowledge that having sons was not going to save Leslie from the work of figuring out his own character.
JC: There are two scenes in the story in which Naomi seems to give up parts of herself to Leslie, specifically on the train when “Naomi felt two rib bones break off inside, making room for a man like Leslie” and when the two of them are talking about wanting kids and “Naomi plucked two molars from her mouth and offered them up to Leslie in the dim light.” What does this say about the nature of relationships?
CDE: I’m not sure what this says about the nature of all relationships, but for this one in particular, it’s a bit of a willing sacrifice. If Leslie doesn’t know who he is, Naomi doesn’t know what she wants, and she’s willing to give up pieces of herself in order to figure it out. Naomi has the confidence in herself to not lose her entire personhood in a relationship, but she can offer up a piece here and there.
JC: Leslie and Naomi go back and forth a lot in their relationship, constantly separating and coming back together again, but ultimately they stay together in the end. When you started writing this story, did you know what their fates would be?
CDE: Eventually, I did. For a while, the story was just a handful of scenes; I didn’t know what any of it would be. But once I realized the form it wanted to take, the ending was very clear to me. In order to explore the possibilities of who Leslie and Naomi could be to one another, I had to know where they would end up. The harder work was figuring out how we got there.
JC: You’re currently completing an MFA at the University of Virginia. What has that experience been like?
CDE: The worst part is that it is coming to an end soon! I am very grateful to have had the privilege to study literature and writing for the past few years and to do so alongside some incredible writers and scholars. I have deep, deep admiration for my cohort, who are all brilliant, marvelous, and talented people. Literature and people are the most important things in the world to me, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend my time with some spectacular instances of both.
Coby-Dillon English (they/them) is a writer from the Great Lakes. A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, they are currently an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Virginia. Their writing can be found in Salt Hill Journal, Moon City Review, Yellow Medicine Review, and others.
Jacob Collins is an undergraduate student majoring in English on the Creative Writing track. He says that the best thing about interning at CCR has been reading the wide variety of stories that people from all walks of life submit for publication. Outside of school, he likes reading, writing, and playing D&D with his friends.
Cream City Review intern, Hazel Reese Ramos, recently connected with Bo Hee Moon to discuss her new poetry collection and themes of identity, hunger, and the connections that nourish us. Her poems “Generosity” and “Korean Little Girl” appear in our Fall 2022 issue, published under her previous name.
Bo Hee Moon is a South Korean adoptee. Her poems have appeared in Cha, Gulf Coast, The Margins, Salt Hill, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, published by Tinderbox Editions, is her debut collection of poems.
Note to the reader from the poet: In the interview, I move between describing my experience as the poet and the poetry itself.
Hazel Reese Ramos: I really enjoyed your collection Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs. The cover art depicts a rabbit, your zodiac sign, in red ink along with golden stars, and you mention many astronomical bodies throughout the poems. There are, for instance, stars in “An Adopted Korean Girl Imagines Her Birthmother at a Seoul Fish Market,” the moon in “How to Love an Adopted Korean Girl,” and Venus in “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Book of Shadows: How to Clear a Creative Blockage.” What is the significance of your zodiac sign in relation to the content of your poems? How do these celestial bodies represent you as an adopted Korean girl?
Bo Hee Moon: I am happy you mentioned the cover art! Nikkita Cohoon designed the cover of the book, and it was a joy to work with her. The rabbit is my Korean zodiac sign and appears in my poem “How to Love an Adopted Korean Girl:”
Ask her if she sees the rabbit.
there are two ways
of looking at almost everything.
This poem is about the emotional connection I feel with my birth mother, despite the distance and her death, and it is about my vulnerability as an adoptee. The rabbit is also tied to folklore. The National Folk Museum of Korea has an exhibition called the “Special Exhibition to Mark 2023, the Year of the Rabbit: Here Comes a Rabbit,” which says that “Everything from Goguryeo-period tomb murals to Joseon-period poems, folk paintings, and oral literature suggest that Korean people of yore believed a rabbit to be living on the moon.” My zodiac sign represents my longing—my longing for safety, for connection, and for a genuine understanding of my roots.
Imagining what my birth mother saw when she looked up at the sky, I also explore what may have been obscured from her sight when I ask:
in my poem, “An Adopted Korean Girl Imagines Her Birthmother at a Seoul Fish Market.” There is so much that she could not have predicted, such as who my adoptive family was, what my life would be like, and the kinds of challenges I would face. As I imagine my birth mother, there is the desire to know what my birth mother truly felt.
In my late twenties, I returned to South Korea to volunteer at an orphanage, visit my birthplace, and ask questions about my adoption. When I visited the adoption agency in Seoul, I received my birth time. Although adoptees’ records often contain errors and even fabrications, if they are available at all, it was meaningful for me to have my birth time. A birth time is helpful when casting an astrological chart. Astrology is complex and can be interpreted in many different ways. Venus appears in the poem you mentioned, and it reflects a path opening. There are no blockages which is reflected by “Venus has stationed direct.” It also makes me think of how our Venus placement can shed light on what we value, and I have often wondered if my birth mother was alive—what would she teach me to value?
HRR: All the poems in this collection are short-lined couplets with a quiet and somber tone. What is the relationship between the sound and form and the content of your poems?
BHM: The form and lineation reflect my desire to purify a poem to its essence. While in the revision process, I often ask certain questions—Is it true? Does it feel complete? Can I be more clear? Shedding the unnecessary aspects of a poem is connected to the content of the poem. Removing the embellishments and persona forced onto the speaker is a part of her purification process as she seeks to come into contact with her true self. In some ways, “An Adopted Korean Girl” is a fantasy, a carefully constructed figure who meets the needs of her adoptive family. By naming the abuse and exploitation, there is a process of removing the artificial and what is untrue and does not belong to her. The poetry reflects an internal process of discovering the speaker’s personal truth as she contemplates her heritage, her birth mother, and her origins. Some questions continue to recur in my writing and my life, including where do I come from? What does it mean to be a Korean adoptee? As I contemplate these types of questions, I focus on getting to the heart of the matter and coming into a deeper level of understanding. The sound reflects the music of my internal world and the rhythm that is created between what is spoken and silence.
HRR: I noticed your poems have an anti-fairytale feel to them, yet they still seem very dreamlike and even nostalgic towards Korea—a place you mentioned you have little recollection of. How does this style represent your feelings towards Korea, as an Asian American woman living in the Midwest? Has it changed since you first published the collection?
BHM: The dreamlike quality of my poetry suggests I am trying to access a way of understanding my roots through a nontraditional venue, such as through dreams. Many avenues have been blocked from me, such as records and information about my birth mother and my birth family. I am also trying to access my memories. I was adopted when I was three-months-old and came to the US. An article in The Scientific American discusses how infants can form memories. Vanessa LoBue says, “Within the first few days of life, infants can recall their own mother’s face and distinguish it from the face of a stranger.” Charged with emotional energy, dreams can be non-sequential and symbolic.
Before my trip back to Korea, I received a phone call and learned of my birth mother’s death. Once I was in Seoul, I walked upstairs at the Bongeunsa Temple, past two women talking, and began sobbing. My birth mother was dead, and I was back in my homeland, completely grief-stricken. The dreamlike quality of my poetry allows me to draw connections between things that may seem unrelated but are related to me, such as my grief, rebirth, the jellyfish floating in the COEX Aquarium—and how during the time of writing this collection, I grew into becoming my own mother, which means I am flawed and sometimes fail at being a good mother to myself. I included dream-like imagery and a meditative thread in my poem “An Adopted Korean Girl Visits the COEX Aquarium, a Temple, and a Korean BBQ in Gangnam.” Prior to the trip, it was difficult to fathom what returning to Korea would reveal to me and what I would feel once I was there. My birth mother and birthplace are a part of me—though I may sometimes feel disconnected and far away, I have not completely forgotten. By including elements, such as the Korean language and Hangul, cities, and imagery related to Korea in my poetry, I am expressing my need to honor my birth mother and my heritage.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was one of the only Asian girls in my classes and neighborhood. As a Korean adoptee-girl, I often felt removed from my country of origin. In my poem “Luck of the Rabbit & Blood Type AB,” I say that when “I found a baby rabbit / near the childhood fence, / I thought my mother would save it.” This poem reveals the precarious and vulnerable position I held within my adoptive family. Determined to survive, there were many times I felt that I was waiting for the opportunity to leave, not necessarily Illinois, but I was waiting for the chance to be free of abuse. The anti-fairytale feel emerges from the truth of my experiences as a Korean adoptee, dispelling the fantasy that I would be loved and protected by my adoptive family. Since my first collection, my writing style has changed in a subtle way that is difficult to explain, and I may be able to speak more about it once I have finished my next collection.
HRR: In poems such as “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Good Luck” and “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Imaginary Chuseok Korean Moon Festival Tradition,” you reference not only traditional Korean foods, but also the theme of hunger. How does hunger connect to your experiences as a young woman?
BHM: Nourishment and hunger are themes I explore in my poetry. In my poem, “An Adopted Korean Girl’s Appetites: Table for 1—Dinner in Rural Arizona,” I am investigating what it is like to have a big appetite as a young woman. In the collection, my hunger is often insatiable, because I grew up with substitutions rather than real nourishment. The lines:
I’ve got an
refer to the hunger I feel for reconnecting with my birth mother and the Korean culture. The lines “bellyful / of shame” relate to how my birth mother may have felt when she was pregnant with me and could not hide the pregnancy. She was an unwed single mother and most likely ashamed. In this poem, I touch on how my birth mother and I are similar—both females with appetites and hunger that cannot be hidden. I investigated how shame is a result of societal oppression that punishes women for our natural desires and our need for nourishment.
When I visited Korea, I was interested in the food: the traditional treats at a tea ceremony, green onion pancakes after a hike in the mountains, sweet red bean filled pastries and slices of Asian pear. By sharing meals, I learned more about the roles certain dishes play in the culture, like what is considered “health food” and what is celebratory food. During my travels, I was thankful for the food and the generosity. However, the food was not all the nourishment I needed. My heart and body ached—my birth mother was dead—and I was left with my feelings around my adoption and the beginning of my life on earth. I meditated on what it was like to be given up for adoption as a newborn, to be born in the Junnam Maternity Clinic, and to be taken to an orphanage in Seoul. In my poetry, I continue to be interested in discovering what truly nourishes me as a Korean adoptee and as a woman.
HRR: In your thank you letter at the end of the collection, you write, “and thank you to all the little girls who deserve to be seen, to be safe, and to be heard.” Has writing helped you feel safe, seen, heard? When did you start writing?
BHM: I began writing my collection about ten years ago. During this writing process, each poem revealed itself to me and guided me on my journey as a Korean adoptee. Through writing, I uncovered my truest desires and needs—which illuminated, for me, the importance of returning to Korea and my birthplace. During this time, I had an exceptional therapist who inspired and encouraged me to be brave as I healed from the past. Writing this collection allowed me to see the girl I once was and what I survived.
Within the poetry community, there are inclusive spaces that are transformative and empowering. When I read at the “Growing from Our Roots Showcase: An Asian Debut Authors Showcase” (an offsite event at AWP in Philadelphia), which was organized by Susan Nguyen and Joshua Nguyen, the kindness of the audience was significant. Afterwards, during the book signing, I connected with some of the women who were in the audience—they were incredibly supportive and loving, and we had quiet conversations about poetry. Those seemingly small moments of connection and tenderness are something I treasure.
I loved attending the showcase in Seattle and powerful panels at this past AWP like “The Writing Lives of Roe v. Wade,” moderated by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs; “Memory that Pricks the Skin: Five Asian Women Poets Writing About History,” moderated by Marianne Chan; and “Adoptee Representation Is a Human Rights Issue,” moderated by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello. As an Asian American woman, these experiences made me feel like I am a part of something larger and surrounded by radiant poets, writers, and artists.
There is a bright constellation of adoptee poets—last year, I was on the poetry panel with Mary-Kim Arnold, LM Brimmer, and Lee Herrick, which was moderated by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, at the Adoptee Literary Festival. This festival was founded by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and Alice Stephens and offered a range of dynamic panels. It was fascinating to hear how our experiences as adoptees have been similar and different. Additionally, I am continually inspired by the works and positive energies of other poets. I am moved by brilliant, shimmery poets like Lee Herrick, Su Hwang, and Sun Yung Shin; who radiate warmth and supported the launch of my book. Writing and sharing my poetry in an atmosphere that is supportive, rich with diverse perspectives, and uplifting has helped me to feel seen. Similarly, I hope that readers feel a sense of connection through my poetry. Thank you so much for your generous reading of my collection and for your thought-provoking questions.
Hazel Reese Ramos is currently a junior at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee majoring in English. She recently started an internship with Cream City Review and hopes to become an editor after she graduates. Outside of class, you can find her working at the Milwaukee Public Market. In her free time, she likes to read the latest romantic comedy with an iced matcha in hand.
This year’s Cream City Review Summer Prize in Poetry will be judged by the poet and memoirist E.J. Koh. In this micro-interview conducted by Editor-in-Chief, Su Cho, E.J. discusses moments of surprise during her writing process, what makes a poem memorable, and what she’s working on now. Read on for the full interview.
E.J. Koh is the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize for Poetry and the memoir The Magical Language of Others (Tin House Books, 2020). You can learn more at www.thisisejkoh.com.
1. I’m so glad I got to see you read from your memoir, The Magical Language of Others, at Boswell Books in Milwaukee this year! I couldn’t help but notice that you opened your talk with a very generous explanation of 잘 부탁합니다 (jal butak hapnida) and how your poetry collection A Lesser Love opens with “Showtime,” which also summons this phrase of goodwill and trust. You say, “This translates into, Please be kind to me / but it suggests: // Even if I shame myself, / please be kind to me. This might be a selfish question, but what made you choose the formal phrasing instead of the informal?
My spoken Korean tends to be formal. Korean was the language for home, church, and times with my grandmother, who brought me along on visits with her friends in Milpitas, California. My mother would laugh because I sometimes use phrases that are now out-of-style or might date me to the time when my parents immigrated to the States. My Korean is, in some ways, trapped in time.
2. I’m always taken by the voices in your poems—as though their footsteps walk with me through the book. There’s such an alluring inhabitance of the places we explore. I feel like everything is watching, alive, and demands urgency. Could you talk more about voice, and how you cultivate it in your poetry and/or prose? Is there a difference for you? I’m particularly struck by the last poem “Alki the Town of Dreams” and the couplet “As casual as a bird sailing into its fullest wingspan / towards me, as if he’d been there since the beginning.” Can you talk about this presence in the book? Was it something consciously woven into the book or did it come naturally?
I read the poem aloud as I’m writing it. If you sit by me, you can hear me say each word. The practice of reading out loud has been with me since the beginning. The voice a reader hears is the voice I’m speaking through. If you asked me to write quietly, poetry or prose, it would be difficult. I imagined my work to be read the same way—to be spoken into a room, connecting acts of writing and reading intimately.
3. It was really nice to see how the themes from A Lesser Love resonated through your memoir, The Magical Language of Others. The complexities of belonging, maintaining relationships, and grappling with the tethers of life were comforting and eye-opening for me. So much of it is navigated through language, translation, and interpretation. You so generously outline it for the reader in the memoir—were there moments you felt protective of your knowledge and/or experiences?
I feel open. There are things left unsaid or stretches of quiet. My hope was not to keep the reader out but to allow for possibilities. Fluidity rather than stiffness; where things could’ve gone right, not only where they’ve all gone wrong.
4. Were there moments of surprise and delight while you wrote A Lesser Love and The Magical Language of Others?
The poetry book and memoir were published close together. In that time, I reunited with my family in Seattle. I fell in love with somebody. I started a family. I focused on my mental and physical health. I began rock climbing. I started going into the water. I was writing and reading, gently. What surprised me was how I learned to take care of myself. How I learned the books could take care of themselves without me.
5. What are you working on now?
A novel is coming. I’m curiously walking along the path of fiction. I’m reading, writing, and researching. Listening, watching, asking questions. I love the making of a book.
6. And lastly, what makes a poem memorable to you? In your own writing process, how do you determine if a piece of work is ready for the world?
To see if a poem is ready, I look at how I am in the world. The poem itself can be written without end. But I ask if I can let it go. Sometimes, I’m not able to. It’s not done with me. The poem has to change me, and I have to accept that change, then show it through the evidence of my life to say that I can move on.
Submissions to the 2020 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for the full guidelines!
This year’s Cream City Review Summer Prize in Fiction will be judged by award-winning novelist and short-story writer Lucy Tan. In this micro-interview conducted by Fiction Editor Jessie Roy, Lucy weighs in on class and power in fiction, how “things” shape our relationship to place, and what she loves to see in a short story—and makes some excellent reading recommendations. Read on for the full interview.
Lucy Tan is author of the novel What We Were Promised, which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a Best Book of 2018 by The Washington Post, Refinery 29, and Amazon. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Ploughshares, Asia Literary Review, and McSweeney’s. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Lucy is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Seattle.
Jessie Roy holds an MFA in Fiction from Syracuse University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she serves as Fiction Editor for Cream City Review. Her short fiction has recently appeared in American Literary Review.
1. In your novel What We Were Promised, you write with insightful attention to the politics of class, the lasting effects of former precarity, and the intimate power dynamics that shape the relationship between domestic workers and their clients. I’d love to hear how you developed the character of Sunny, who works as a housekeeper for the Zhen family; her voice opens the first chapter and introduces us to the Zhen’s home from a backstage perspective, which keeps the reader’s eye on domestic labor for the rest of the novel. Why do you think it’s so important to focus our creative vision on class and power?
I think any kind of art that looks critically at social issues is valuable because it expands and deepens our conversations about our world. But if I’m honest, I can’t say that I set out to write my novel with the intention of focusing on dynamics of class and power. It might simply be impossible to write a novel set in modern China—especially in a city—without also writing about changing social classes.
What We Were Promised is largely inspired by my time as an ex-pat living in Shanghai from 2009-2011. As someone who is ethnically Chinese but born and raised in America, and as someone who speaks less-than-fluent Mandarin, I immediately felt like an outsider. I wonder if this made me extra-attuned to other types of outsiders—people who were from other parts of China, but who had moved to Shanghai for work; foreigners and expats; and even some locals, who were overwhelmed by the swift economic development that displaced them from their homes. I became interested in the ways these different groups interacted with or avoided one another. One of the most startling dynamics was relationships between wealthy expats (some of whom were ethnically Chinese) and their Chinese household staff. There was such a wealth and cultural gap between these groups, though they often spoke the same language, and though just a generation ago, their family members might have worked in the same fields.
I found it curious that people of different backgrounds could share the same space for hours and days and weeks on end without truly getting to know one another. I wanted to explore this, and so the character of Sunny was born. Although she’s the character furthest from me in terms of class and life experiences, she’s also the one I felt closest to when writing the book. The American in me identified with Sunny’s outsider-ness. The writer in me identified with her loneliness. Through her eyes, I was able to push back on perspectives my other main characters take for granted.
2. As we conduct this interview in May of 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic is forcing us all to think about distance differently. There are suddenly many places we can no longer go, and no certainty about when we will be able to reach them again or what they’ll be like when we get there. At the reading you gave at UWM last year, I remember being struck by how you talked about the Zhen family returning to China after decades away, and having to build a relationship on new footing with a place that used to be familiar. I’d love to hear how you approach place and distance in your fiction, which so often centers diasporic and transnational experiences.
I am a person who writes a lot about things. I don’t know why this is! My fiction is filled with material objects, which, along with natural sights and sounds, seem to make up a sense of place. I think that in each material object we handle, there is also an implied history of a place. An object is also a record of commerce, of art, of its owner. But place can also be formed by a set of cultural norms and expectations—the coffee you pour yourself in the morning, the conversation with your neighborhood fruit vendor. When our routines are suddenly changed, whether we’re confined to our homes during a pandemic or immigrating to a new country, there’s an acute sense of loss because place is rooted in our identities. When our experience of place changes, we need to discover ourselves all over again.
The concept of distance, for me, has always been about relationships. Distance can live in the space between what characters feel and what they say, what they know and what they tell themselves, what they’ve experienced in the past and what they’re experiencing right now. I’ve always thought of distance as out of sync-ness, and I think that’s what we’re all feeling right now: out of sync-ness from the world as we once knew it.
3. Your essay On Falling in Love with the Language I’ve Spoken My Entire Life for Lit Hub introduced me to the Qiaomei Tang translation of Eileen Chang’s story “Love,” which beautifully spans a whole life in just over 200 words. It’s fascinating to see Chang working in miniature, and somehow still achieving the grand scale of her novellas and long stories. Can you talk a little bit about scope in fiction? Can a short story be ‘big’? Can a novel be ‘small’?
If we’re defining scope in terms of time and place, writers like Eileen Chang (and Alice Munro, and Annie Proulx, and others) are able to accomplish “bigness” by managing jumps in time and shifts in narrative distance. These give the reader a sense of large-scale movement—even, maybe, the sense of totality we associate with novels—in spite of limited word count. It’s this movement that contributes to the feeling of grandness, I think. And it’s so hard to master! A writer has to know which details to include and which to leave out, where to employ changes in tone and point of view. For instance, “Love” begins like a folk tale in the way it sets up a non-specific village and a “beautiful girl” who could really be any girl. It then moves into realistic, emotional detail when it describes her meeting with her would-be lover. Finally, it pulls back into that same folk-tale-ish tone again. In doing so, it leaves out the factual details of the tragedies that have happened in the intervening years. It’s like Chang is playing with the lens on a camera, zooming in and out at just the right moments on just the right details, and leaving the rest to the imagination. What we are left with is a sense of both wonder and knowing.
Given this definition of scope as ground covered in time and space, a “small” novel I love is Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. It takes place over a short amount of time in a single place, with minimal time jumps and changes in perspective and tone. There is an intimacy offered by the narration, a careful, constant feeling of closeness that allows you to live alongside the main character as if you were her. Strange Weather in Tokyo is told from the first person perspective of a woman who meets her old teacher at a bar one night and continues through a series of introspective thoughts and meetings with him. We listen to their conversations, we go home with our narrator, we are with her when she cuts fruit, hunts for mushrooms, arranges her next meeting with her lover. In this series of mini-events, we come to feel a deep knowledge of her life, of who she is as a person. I don’t think you can achieve this same type intimacy in a short story, purely because of the constraints of length. The effect requires hours of time spent reading, a steadiness of gaze, and an accumulation of details.
Of course, “scope” can be defined in numerous other ways, the most mysterious of which might pertain to topical or thematic concerns—the way a novel or short story circles questions about politics and people, the way we think, what we hope for, and the way we live our lives. But fiction that contains clear answers is usually dead on arrival. Rather, good fiction is fluid, just a journey provided to the reader. What one person will see in a story, another will not. So maybe the question of scope begins with a writer’s craft and ends with a reader’s individual experience.
4. Which books or authors do you turn to for comfort? And who do you read when you want to be challenged, or to learn?
Because I’m an American author, I read mostly American fiction, but I try to challenge myself to read outside my country of origin and genre. Elena Ferrante is a big comfort author for me. I love her Neapolitan novels. In general, I am comforted by books that evoke a strong atmosphere and take me to a specific place. Sometimes that place is not defined by a fictional world, but by an author’s voice, as in the case of Helen Oyeyemi or Lorrie Moore. Recently, I’ve been trying to alternate between reading a classic book and a contemporary one because it helps to hear many different voices as I’m writing. Together, they present a wider range of possibilities.
5. What do you love to see in short fiction? What draws you into a story, or makes you sit up and pay closer attention?
I respond strongly to a sense of honesty and authenticity in fiction—which doesn’t mean that a story must be true in any sense, but rather that it must come from a place of unguardedness within a person. A place that is private, that resists the temptation to perform for an audience, that is often searching rather than knowing.
Submissions to the 2020 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for the full guidelines!
Interview with 2019 Summer Poetry Prize Judge
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Oceanic. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her collection of nature essays is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions and she is professor of English in The University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Su Cho is the Managing Editor of Cream City Review and a PhD student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is an Advanced Opportunity Fellow. Her poems are forthcoming/can be found in Colorado Review, Cincinnati Review, Pleiades, The Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere.
1. Every time I read your poems, I can’t help but see the value of the joy of discovery, and that joy, in turn, creates community. During this tumultuous political time, maintaining and nurturing joy is not only important but also work. How does this feel for you? Do you think this relationship has changed for you over time? Or do you see it manifest in different ways as you keep writing?
Oh thank you so very much! It’s not exactly a conscious development *towards* joy and wonderment, but rather an insistence for it. And it is most definitely work—though my pals would absolutely say I’m an optimist, my very closest pals know I’m a worrier and over-thinker, especially in light of the political and environmental concerns we’ve been facing. But this is nothing new. As a woman of color, I have known for a very long time that the world operates very differently for me than say, my white husband. Add that to us raising two mixed boys who have some of the most kind and wondrous hearts I know and even though I have an overwhelming sense of dread and despair most days for the world they will live in when I am long gone—it becomes even more imperative for me to point out beauty and yes, joy on this planet for them. This doesn’t, however, mean that I ignore darkness and ‘scary’ topics in my writing. But I suppose I do try to lean toward light. I think for many people, it’s more helpful to fight for things we love, rather than out of a reflex of fear. I mean—many of our political leaders would rather women of color be in a constant state of fear and panic. So when I turn towards joy and beauty in my writing, it is most certainly work. But it’s the most beautiful and important responsibility in work I’ve ever had.
2. You’ve written so many great collections of poetry. How would you describe your journey as a writer and teacher from Miracle Fruit (2003) until now? What has evolved? What has remained steadfast?
You are too kind, but talking about my work this way gives me the heebie-jeebies—I’d rather you or other readers make such conjectures/observations. But I will say I definitely feel more comfortable to push against my love/hate relationship with linebreaks and to make my lines and white space more expansive than the tight/neat blocks of my earlier poems. Over the course of four books, I think—I hope—I’ve expanded my gaze to larger concerns of the natural world. And there’s at least one constant for my poetry: that most of my poems can be read as love poems. Or at the very least, born of love.
3. What makes a poem stand out to you? Is there a poem or a book you can’t let go of right now?
When I get to a poem, I want to be surprised—with the poem’s music, images, and/or the physical look of it on the page. I don’t ever want to be able to guess the next line or image, or know how the poem will end, and I want to also feel like I don’t want the poem to end in the first place. I want to stay in that poem’s world, like stepping into the landscape of one of those snow globes—I want to be shaken up and even after all the shaking settles down, I want to look down at my feet and know my world is not the same. I’ve recently loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, and a new poetry collection out any day: Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, by Michelle Peñaloza, and just read the astonishing new one from Carmen Gimenez-Simth. Oooh—and Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón.
4. If you could travel to the past, what would you tell your past self? If you could go forward in time, what wouldn’t you want your future self to forget?
I’d tell my size-2 twenty-something self, that I wasn’t chunky in the flippin’-slightest, and to tell my twenty-something poet-self that the only advice ever worth taking in the literary world is: to floss, assume kindness in those you don’t know (unless proven otherwise), and give thanks by helping out others who come after. I was always going to write—no one needed to remind me to write and read widely. But simply put: doing these very specific things would always keep me writing, and give me more opportunities to write and teach. And I’m a Capricorn—I don’t forget things. 😉 But I’d try to forget who told me if I wanted to be a successful writer, I needed to keep writing at the forefront of my life, no matter the cost (sleep, relationships, etc). I’d argue that I’d feel better about myself when writing isn’t at the front of my life—that I’m a more expansive writer and mentor because I have other interests and people with whom I love to share them with, not in spite of. And my folks are still alive, but they live far away in Florida, so I’d remind my former self to drive and visit as often as possible back when they lived just an hour away from me when I was in grad school in Ohio. Also I’d always want to remember our family vacations: both when I was a little girl, sleeping in the backseat of our blue Oldsmobile, and also now that my boys are still little(-ish) and begging for us to stop at any rock shop they see advertised on the road.
Submissions to our 2019 Summer Prizes in Fiction and Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for full guidelines.