(from the song Sài Gòn Đẹp Lắm)
I’ve traveled to Vietnam three times now, almost a decade passing in between each visit. In 2001, I was nine and experienced many “firsts”: I’d met my grandmother whom I’d never met before, saw my father cry, and discovered cây mắc cỡ, a plant whose leaves close at the slightest touch. The second time, I was in my first year of college, still finding myself. I vomited after drinking a mango daiquiri, in the very street of my mother’s childhood home. Now I’m twenty-seven, more reassured in who I’ve become but yearning to find more about my roots.
We landed in Saigon after a nineteen-hour plane ride: fourteen hours from New York to Seoul and five hours to Saigon. It’s a city of haphazard streets, packed with motorbikes and cars who consider traffic lights mere suggestions. The traffic kicks up the dust and dirt, and the motorbikes don’t slow, even at the sight of passerby crossing the street. Saigon, to me, is incongruous. Women in high heels drive motorbikes. This city was colonized by the French in the late eighteenth century and some buildings still follow Western architecture, though graffiti disfigures many of its facades. Businesses like H&M and Starbucks are common now, along with countless Korean and Japanese businesses packed into tight streets.
We stopped by Chợ Bến Thành, or Bến Thành market, to find the right fabric for our áo dài, traditional Vietnamese dresses to wear to my sister’s wedding later next year. The market is a maze, the aisles so narrow that you have to squeeze by–a task made more difficult by the vendors who aren’t afraid to get handsy, pulling you by the sleeve of your shirt to buy clothing, houseware, food . . . anything.
I’m sure we were ripped off, a fact that my mom didn’t acknowledge until today (as I’m writing this), when we visited another market, Chợ Tân Định, and bought more dresses, mine included, at a better price.
The food is, of course, delicious. I’ll write more in future blog posts 🙂
It’s funny: my idea–and I suppose my parents’ idea of Vietnam–is still quite backwards, without much reasoning! Or maybe I was still remembering Vietnam from when I was nine. I kept imagining no access to Wi-Fi and bathrooms in outside stalls. But, of course, technology moves faster than we expect, like a puppy morphing into a dog. People are just as buried in their technology as the people in the states.
I’m eternally grateful for the privilege to step back and take this trip with my parents, aunt, and uncle. Between writing my novel, my job as a book editor, and personal chaos that felt perpetually insurmountable these past months, I’ve felt removed from the act of living. But now, for about a month, I can truly focus on being present in every moment.
While food tends to act as a gateway to my childhood, music also summons the past into the present. I remember listening to Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply” as it played from our radio in the kitchen. I’d wondered how the singer planned to stand on a mountain (of all places!). During long car rides to Virginia, where my older cousins still reside, my siblings and I fell asleep to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” And Nsync’s “Bye Bye Bye” will always bring me back to the moment I made a complete fool of myself as I mimicked the choreography from the music video.
In old family videos, if I concentrate, I can hear my parents’ music playing in the background. A ballad or a saxophone here and there. This is the sound of nhạc tình yêu, or love songs filled with yearning. The genre is popular here with the overseas community since it recalls life in pre-war Vietnam.
I told my parents that I would try and translate the song, “Thành Phố Buồn,” but I committed an immediate faux pas when I chose the version by Đàm Vĩnh Hưng. Sympathetic toward the Communist government, he’s so despised here in the states that the Vietnamese community in California protested one of his concerts. They view him as a symbol of the government that drove them away years ago. An activist even pepper-sprayed him in 2010!
Instead, my mom referred me to Trường Vũ, whom she claims is one of the best singers still alive. As a child, I’ve seen him multiple times on “Paris by Night” (I thought of him as the weird-looking man. I’m sorry; I was just a kid). According to her, he sings sincerely and masterfully while Dam Vinh Huong sings “dở ẹt!”
I worked through the song with my mom’s help. The song’s set in a northern city called Đà Lạt. Đà Lạt back then felt like a Western city (thành phố tây phương), where people wore jackets and shoes mimicking Paris life and fashion–something that my mother envied. She had hoped to live there one day.
She told me about her visit to the city after high school. She stayed somewhere at a high altitude, so high that fog was suspended in the air. And she’d wake to the cold, refreshing air with a cup of coffee. A willow tree stood outside her friend’s house, red flowers in bloom.
With a landscape that inspires romance, it makes sense for writers to find refuge in Đà Lạt. Hence this song that I’m going to translate.
In general, this narrator is missing his lover. He’s drawing up their memories together in Đà Lạt, imploring her, from wherever she is, to do the same. The reason for their separation? Read on, but based on history only: the song was released in 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, during a time when carefree moments were punctuated with despair and casualty. Perhaps that’s what the songwriter was thinking about. In a way, I imagine it’s not just the woman the narrator missed, but the happier memories in general.
The words in bold are meant to signal words that go together in phrases. To translate the verses, I first looked up the typical definition or consulted my mom. It was difficult since I wanted to translate the song word-for-word, but as you’ll see below, the straight-forward translation doesn’t always make sense, so I needed to think about the artist’s intention.
Vietnamese: Thành phố nào nhớ không em?
Direct translation: City which remember/miss don’t you (younger woman, his lover)
Artistic translation: Which city do you remember, Love?
I thought the singer was personifying the city, that the city was doing the “remembering,” remembering his lover, who he refers to as em. The Vietnamese language emphasizes pronouns and age differences. Usually, em is someone younger than yourself. Here, it’s the pronoun for his lover.
My mom tells me that he’s asking his lover if he remembers their city.
Nhớ in Vietnamese also means to miss (someone).
Nơi chúng mình tìm phút êm đềm
Place we seek minutes tranquil/serene
The place where we found tranquil times
The tense switch isn’t obvious, but here the narrator refers to their time in the past. êm đềm was a new word for me, because I’ve heard of êm, which means comfortable or soft, but đềm apparently acts as an adverb that softens êm even more. So: tranquil, serene, fond.
Thành phố nào vừa đi đã mỏi
City which is enough to walk until tired
The city where we walked and walked
Okay, so: My mom laughed at how literal I was with the translation. “He’s just saying the city is small. Small enough to walk and be just a bit tired, not completely tired.” The city has hills, requiring steep climbs, which is how he remembers their walks. So, it’s not the distance this couple walked that the narrator remembers; it’s the route that they had taken. It’s a beautiful memory, a further indication of how action affects memory, how the smallest of gestures linger in our mind afterward.
Đường quanh co quyện gốc thông già
Road winding/zig-zagging tangled roots of old pine trees
The winding road with tangled roots of old pine trees
Here the author continues to describe the scenery. When I first translated this line, I thought: “Pine?” The Vietnam I’m most familiar with has coconut trees and palm trees, but pine seems so . . . Northeastern! However, Đà Lạt is in the north and is known for its pine trees. The soil can handle it better, as well as other vegetables like cabbage, carrot, and cauliflower (did I mean to use alliteration, you’ll never know).
When I looked up gốc, the word origin came up, which made me think of roots. Here I imagined the kind of roots that live above ground, all tangled up so that you’d need to step over it. My mother made a face at this: if the songwriter wanted to use roots, why didn’t he use rể?
We’ll agree to disagree here.
Chiều đan tay nghe nắng chan hòa
Afternoon knit hand hear sunny pour dissolve (?)
In the afternoon, we held hands, letting the light pour into us, bringing us a feeling of peace.
I know. You’re thinking: That’s too many words, Loan!
I was confused as hell translating this since I took it literally. My mom’s eyes lit up at this verse. To describe holding hands, I’ve heard mostly nắm tay, but dan tay, or knitting hands, feels rather specific, more artfully done.
Hòa bình is the word for peace; hòa alone isn’t often used alone, according to my mom. I figured the songwriter omitted the second word because the sound isn’t as pleasant as the word alone.
So, nghe means hear. I adore the songwriter’s synesthesiac take here. The narrator doesn’t just feel the light. He hears it. Isn’t that more powerful? It’s not about feeling light, which seems fleeting, but an emotion deep inside him: peace.
Instead of understanding this line word-for-word, I think I felt it more.
Nắng hôn nhẹ làm hồng môi em
Sunny kiss lightly makes pink lips yours
The sun kisses your lips, turning it pink
I imagine they’re close now, so close that the narrator sees his lover clearly.
Mắt em buồn trong sương chiều..
Eyes yours sad inside dew afternoon
Now, in the foggy/dewy afternoon, your sad eyes . .
Anh thấy đẹp hơn ..
I see, beautiful more
. . . Makes you more beautiful
My mom thought sương meant fog, but I would think the artist meant dew, which feels more romantic, right? Then again, it depends! In some horror movies, fog = serial killer stalking me, get away, please. In other usages, especially Pride and Prejudice, fog = a hunk emerges. Plus, THAT MUSIC YO!
Một sáng nào nhớ không em?
One morning which remember don’t you?
Which morning do you remember?
Ngày Chúa Nhật ngày của riêng mình
Sunday day of private/especially us
Sundays which were ours alone
I had to wonder again what drew them apart, what took them away from their Sundays.
Thành phố buồn nằm nghe khói tỏa
City sad laying hearing smoke spread
In the sad city where we would lay and listen to the spreading smoke
Perhaps the singer compares the fog to smoke or refers to both of them in one. My mom thought he was describing the mornings where people would cook for themselves, the smoke of their rising fires.
Again, I really appreciate his use of nghe (hearing a sensation instead of feeling it).
Người lưa thưa chìm dưới sương mù
People thin/sparse sink deeply fog
Thin spread of people lost inside the fog
What a beautiful image. Imagine, people wandering into thick fog, sinking into the fog. GAH.
Quỳ bên nhau trong góc giáo đường
Kneel beside each other inside
We kneel beside each other inside the corner church
I’m the last person to talk about anything related to religion. But the act of kneeling calls to mind marriage, a partnership, a Hallmark movie in which a young blonde is crowned princess besides her prince . . .
In a way, I’m imagining this is their unofficial version of marrying one another, showing their love before their god.
Tiếng kinh cầu đệp mộng yêu đương
The sound prayers beautiful dream/wish love path
The beautiful sound of prayers of dreams and love
Can you see it in your head?
Chúa thương tình, sẽ cho mình mãi mãi gần nhau
God loves, will let us forever and forever near each other
God willing, He’ll let us be near each other forever and ever
Love the reverence here.
Since Vietnamese classes at the Center have started up again–and we’re required to speak and write entirely in Vietnamese–I’m trying my best to read and write Vietnamese every day in some form. I’m aiming to start a segment called “Lost in Translation.”
Translating even a portion of this took a bit out of me. I haven’t been able to tackle the second part of the song, which takes us on another emotional journey.
Stay tuned for the second part in the near future!
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Yeah, I take Vietnamese classes on Wednesday nights.
But . . . aren’t you Vietnamese?
At first, I thought learning Vietnamese in a class setting would only further embarrass me. It’s gonna be full of non-Vietnamese people and they’re going to look down on me. They’ll think, “Why is she in this class?” I always felt self-conscious speaking in my mother tongue. Even worse: I couldn’t read it! Me, a reader and writer who couldn’t read or write in Vietnamese?! The shame!!! Just as shameful as using three exclamation points in one sentence.
I was glad to discover that my classmates were like me: Vietnamese-American adults who spoke the language as children, then lost it along the way. After taking level one and level two, which will, sadly, conclude in two weeks, I’ve steadily grown confident. And that’s something I want to celebrate.
I appreciate the camaraderie inside the classroom—we easily trade American jokes mixed with some typical Vietnamese craziness—but most of all, I love the cultural aspects that inevitably come from our lessons. Our teacher is young and more modern, and I’m learning how some commonly used words may seem outdated to younger Vietnamese people. One example is the word for hospital, which is bệnh viện. When I told my teacher that I’ve only used nhà thương, he kind of chuckled, saying that gave away my parents’ ages (mine are older than most of my peers’ parents). Other times, the vocabulary varies based on region, and your word choice will out you immediately.
The class remains especially enlightening because it’s giving me a taste of what my parents had learned as children. In Vietnamese schools and homes, children are taught ca dao, or folk poems. These pieces teach life lessons, and some sound as rigid as one would expect, while others are quite lovely. A common subject centers on the child’s duty to his or her parents, a notion that’s entirely absent in the American school system, where students are mostly taught to obey teachers.
But for Vietnamese people, the real teaching starts at home. I want to share one ca dao just to give you a taste of my language!
Cá không ăn muối cá ươn
Con cãi cha mẹ trăm đường con hư
English (translated roughly word-for-word and disregarding syntax)
Fish that don’t eat salt goes rotten,
You (child) argue with us (parents) in a hundred ways you are bad.
Essentially, the poem says children who don’t listen to their parents or take their lessons to heart will turn out unruly. As someone who’s still navigating the language, I can’t quite confirm whether the author was trying to be playful . . . BUT I noticed the use of đường, which means sugar: muối and đường, salt and sugar. At the same time, đường also means road or path.
Next up: I’m attempting to translate a song I’ve been listening to non-stop: “Thành Phố Buồn.” Even my mom says this might be hard to translate correctly! Challenge accepted.
When I read tragic news, I imagine the deceased’s family and friends might read the articles and find the summary so trite and generic. But I understand that news is about boiling things down so that strangers can stay informed, then move on with the rest of their lives. I just never thought that the news would be about someone I once knew.
Let me define “knew,” because that word is nuanced, and I would never want to exaggerate a connection when there are family, colleagues, and close friends mourning someone they interacted with every day. I knew Ms. Yamamoto in the sense that I was in her classroom for nearly a year, hearing her calm, hey-life’s-going-to-work-out voice most days of the week. I knew her as the teacher who possessed both fine qualities of John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society, and Bill Anderson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; she was the storm that lit my passion for literature and the calm that quieted my frenetic worries as a high school junior. Later, I knew her a bit more through her poetry and blog posts, which, when written by a true writer like Ms. Yamamoto, makes you feel as if your souls are connecting for an instant.
Her death makes me feel a type of regret that I’ve tried to avoid—that’s why I’m always chasing my dreams, not taking my aging parents for granted, and treasuring small wonders. It’s too late to ever connect with her again, and now I only have my memories of Ms. Yamamoto.
But they’re great and precious and I want to write about them because I think it’s a fitting way for me to grieve.
In AP Language and Composition, an environment where it was typical to measure myself against peers and feel pressured to chase perfection, Ms. Yamamoto eased my mind. I never felt like the outcast, despite feeling different from my amazing classmates—future lawyers, doctors, dentists, and scientists. The divisions that separated us—real or imagined— disappeared. I was much more of a listener, but I felt included in inside jokes like “I like to eat blood in the morning” and sentences that included the word “bosom,” which always had us breaking out in laughter. Ms. Yamamoto would indulge us, sometimes exasperated, sometimes confused.
Ms. Yamamoto assigned us the usual homework and we read Ethan Frome, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea (we were, after all, an AP class). But there was one assignment I adored: Occasional Papers, something she might have picked up from her own time as a student or from a fellow teacher. Occasional Papers were sparked by occasions or inspirations or things important to you. You. That was Ms. Yamamoto’s focus. She saw each of us as individuals. I’m not saying that other teachers didn’t acknowledge this—but perhaps she stood out the most because in a time when I was losing my Me-ness, she had offered me a way to find myself again.
In one essay, I wrote about always losing my Cheshire Public Library card. Another one was about music, I think. With each paper, I began to see my classmates and their passions.
Ms. Yamamoto might not have known this—or maybe she had; high school students can be really shitty secret-keepers—but a classmate named her Admiral, after someone from some war, and that became her nickname. So we, by association, became her Soldiers.
(Or Souljas—because we were teenagers and utterly ridiculous.)
She took pride in us. That was undeniable. Ms. Yamamoto had an office—or the English Department did—where each student was able to hang a poster listing their college acceptances. And that made us proud of ourselves. The next year, I think we tried to keep the class together, gathering occasionally in the office. And I think after college, most of us met up for hibachi. It was nice, but it wasn’t the same; we all seemed to know that shine was gone, couldn’t be replicated again. But in a way, doesn’t that show the value of our time together? How perfect it was? How perfect Ms. Yamamoto was to bring us all together?
Ms. Yamamoto and I became Facebook friends when I started college. I can’t remember who Friended whom. Maybe I did in a rare moment of bravery. She read some of my blog posts and said she loved my voice and when I wrote about our class, she wrote, “You guys were a really special class.” Wow, she got a nose ring? (Or was it always there?) In turn, I followed her blog. Based on some posts, she was writing to work through some things–like all of us. I should have messaged her more often. Liked more of her posts. Emailed her for coffee (Cheshire is not so inaccessible from Manhattan).
I still have her copy of The Elements of Style. I even named a teacher in my YA novel after her. She’s this no-bullshit art teacher and mentor–a woman small in stature but fiery and compassionate in her voice and manner. I couldn’t wait to publish the novel, then return one day to the fun house-shaped halls of Cheshire High School, place it in her hands, and say, “Don’t be freaked out, I know we haven’t been in touch much, but you inspired someone in this book.”
As news outlets report on Ms. Yamamoto’s passing, I worry that my vision of her will chip away. So, as her still adoring student, I’ll remember her here.
My mind is cluttered with the humiliation from awkward conversations with my crush, looming tests, and other responsibilities. But Ms. Yamamoto tells us that someone has an Occasional Paper. Her voice calms me immediately. We set down our pens and pencils and shift our uncomfortable metal chairs to face the front. The person with an Occasional Paper chooses to stand or remain sitting. Smooths out a wrinkled notebook page or unfolds a computer printout. I look at Ms. Yamamoto who waits patiently. Silence nets the room. I breathe at my classmate’s inhale, and before long, a singular voice takes up my mind, redefining a language I thought I knew so well—until now.
Thank you so, so much, Ms. Yamamoto.
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In one of my groups, a nonfiction writer who was testing out a chapter of a novella lamented that fiction was more difficult to write than nonfiction*. His admission stunned me because I thought the exact opposite. He argued fiction writers had more groundwork ahead of them; he struggled the most with creating situations and characters. True, I said. But the act of purposefully summoning a memory that you’ve spent your whole life running away from or writing about people close to you terrifies me. Nonfiction writers possess the fortitude to admit their flaws, excavate truths hidden in their bodies. This isn’t easy, especially for an introvert like me.
I’m not new to nonfiction writing, but I’m still an acquaintance. I guess this website, where I publish most of my stupid thoughts, counts as nonfiction. In college, I took a creative nonfiction class—the class that launched my serious commitment to writing. We had to write a political essay and a personal essay. It was such a wonderful experience seeing my inner thoughts—mine, not another character’s—crowd the pages. One of my pieces eventually won an English Department award; I felt honored and my parents were there to hear a reading. Since the piece was about my mother’s late younger sister, I was moved when she cried and told me she was proud of me.
But as rewarding as the piece made me feel, I think revealing myself in this medium led to an invisible wound. I wanted to collect my words and thoughts before they could be put under further scrutiny. I shied away from nonfiction until a few months ago honestly. I tackled a nonfiction piece about fan fiction writing that’s been sitting in my files for ages, and I’m pleased to say that it’ll be up on Submittable in September. As the subject might suggest, it’s not exactly a “serious” creative nonfiction piece, but it’s a piece where my voice dominates the pages. And it’s honest. I’ve been lying way too much with fiction!
My next piece-in-progress deals with a childhood incident that’s bled into my writing and into my life as a young woman. The latter was a recent revelation. The writing process for this piece is similar to being in a car that’s alternatively stalling and jerking. I’m resisting my instinct to “pull away” in my writing—like if I touch it, I’ll get burned. Knowing this, I’m still clawing my way to the finish line, not for the purpose of publication or likes or follows, but for myself.
I’m writing this post at the point where I’m starting to think I should just store this piece. Then again, there’s a fifty percent chance of me abandoning it . . .
I’m quite jealous and awed by a nonfiction author my imprint had just published. Michael Arceneaux, now the New York Times bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus, makes a living writing things that are true, but this book of essays is all about him, his sexuality, his family. I saw him at a Strand event, where, despite being nervous before speaking to an audience (about 100 people!), he seemed incredibly at ease with the fact that his life is laid bare in this book. The aftermath of catharsis, I suppose.
What nonfiction reading material would you recommend to a short story writer experimenting with the genre?
*my initial thought: well, yeah, you’re writing a novella.
Rain slaps the windows of my Uber as we cruise past bright lights on Eighth Ave. The driver talks at me but I am away. Lightning flickers; outside Duane Reade, I hear a soundless argument between a couple. A large man claws at his chest, his heart, as if to say, this is what you’re taking from me—here, have at it, while his companion hides her apologies behind her hand. On the next block, there are friends huddled on the stoop of a familiar French café, underneath its flapping awning, talking of someone they know who’d strayed or turned wayward. Another stop. A girl shrieks as her foot sinks into a puddle. My driver lets his questions rest; I listen to the wipers swipe to the rhythm of soldiers gone to war underneath thunder-soaked clouds.
Fleeting Thoughts is a space where I can release my imperfect, unfiltered words that often occur when my body is still but my mind is racing.
Other Fleeting Thoughts
Hooray. I just graduated. Rather than write a reflection, which I still might do in the future, I thought I’d share the preface of my final thesis [a short story collection], in which I attempt to trace my roots and my writerly interests, and also predict my undetermined future as an emerging writer.
I’m from a town in Connecticut called Cheshire—pronounced Chess-sure, not Chess-shire, which is the British way—and it used to be a place other state residents probably never heard about. The most exciting thing to happen to the town was likely a new tenant moving into 7 South Main Street, which was home to a pizza shop, a tailor shop, a deli, and today, for now, a Thai restaurant. The only “club” nearby is Costco. People left their front doors unlocked during the day. Our summer block parties were legendary.
Then, in 2007, a woman and her daughter left Stop & Shop without noticing who was driving behind her, and they led, unintentionally, a man and his partner into her home. She and her two daughters were raped and killed. Her husband was beaten in another room, but managed to escape before the house was set on fire. To say this was a blessing would be wrong in this case. He had lost everything.
The illusion of Cheshire as a place where Nothing Ever Happens was shattered. At the time, I didn’t acknowledge how much the incident fascinated me, but now I cling to the darkness of it all. Before this event, to be clear, I never had a great affinity for happy stories. I disliked—and today, to some degree, still dislike—Disney-animated movies. I filled my brain with titles by Robert Cormier, Douglas Preston, Ellen Hopkins, and Carol Plum Uccie. In sixth grade, I wrote a short story from the point of view of a Holocaust prisoner in Auschwitz, then later did a book report on Jose Saramago’s Blindness. But the Cheshire invasion was something that happened for real, and the tangible reminder of it lives as a memorial garden where the Petit house once stood.
Months after, fear hung like impenetrable fog over Cheshire. People had to look over their shoulders as they exited Stop & Shop, nested in a busy shopping plaza. I took from this home invasion the idea that everything is not as it seems. Tragedy causes life to veer from normalcy, leading us to question everything. If we look harder at something, we can never look away again. This message is the crux of my short story collection.
Like many short story writers, I did not consciously write to form a collection. Only for this collection did I acknowledge that my characters are often broken from a daze by tragedy. The narrator in “Recycle” is a police officer on a regular night watch when he finds a woman pushing a dead baby on the swings, forcing up memories of his own daughter who died from SIDS. The narrator and his father in “The Boarder” have led a reticent life since the death of the mother and wife in the 9/11 attacks, but a new tenant adds more tension to their fraught relationship. A stripper in “Honey” is reminded of her abusive stepfather when a handsy client gets rough with her and suddenly, she wants out of that world.
These eight stories are experiments. Pulling from and stitching together MFA lessons, conversations with writers, and weekends of imagination, I became like Frankenstein and somehow, several Monsters have emerged. I leave these stories in this collection to note my sense of accomplishment in writing them and a recollection of my journey in learning to craft characters, backstories, and endings.
Cure for Sleepwalking
My characters are always keen observers. I think this is because most of my characters mirror parts of me. I have always been shy; at parties and social gatherings, I prefer to stick in the corner of the room. I am not quick to share an opinion unless asked. Like Callie, the protagonist in “Gaw Gaw,” I was never comfortable in school and tended to shield myself with books. But the problem with observers is that they can become quite dull and passive. My first-semester mentor, Hollis Seamon, spotted this issue in the first draft of “Recycle.” Believing the character was too mired in grief, Hollis wrote: “Give him much more to do, show us how/when his feelings break out of passivity into actions—even destructive, disturbing actions—rather than just allowing him to sleepwalk through the story.”
I had to wake up my characters; they had to act. So I started reading stories with astute fly-on-the-wall characters who still felt alive in the story. Jennifer Egan’s protagonist in the short story “One Piece” showed me how. As a child, her older brother had accidentally killed his mother when he was playing behind the wheel of a car, and this incident seemed to indicate to others that he can never be trusted. The protagonist is stuck between pitying him and wanting to help him. The story would have been boring if she continued to stay inside her head. But Egan didn’t allow that to happen. “So many things are wrong I can’t sit there. I feel crazy, like worms have crawled inside my bones,” the narrator says, at her breaking point (Egan 85). She knows she needs to change others’ perception of her brother; he is not a killer, he can be a savior. At a bonfire gathering, she climbs a tree, waits for people to notice, for her brother to see her. And she jumps. Her brother springs into action, puts out the fire, redeeming himself in everyone’s eyes. I remember the character for her vision of the world—but this action had defined her for me, this action made her character.
For other notes on characterization, I turned to Janet Burroway’s section in Writing Fiction on how to make complex characters. She borrows Aristotle’s term consistent inconsistencies (Burroway 148). Consistent refers to actions that make sense and fit in with the rest of the details created for the character. One character might be a painter; a writer can extend the nature of her occupation by describing the paint stains on her hands and her favorite pair of jeans spotted with paint splatters. But an inconsistency or contradiction in this character might be that the painter is a clean freak. Every time she paints, she layers her whole studio, ceiling to floor, with clear plastic and she dons a plastic suit as well. To me, I can understand this character—she is both real and odd. I kept Burroway’s lesson in mind when I crafted the father figure for “Gaw Gaw,” an academic whose head is full of history and facts, but doesn’t have much room to remember general tasks like cleaning his house or noticing that something is wrong with his daughter.
I also find inspiration for characters from my daily life. Living in New York City does not necessarily affect my setting so much as my compendium of written and soon-to-be written characters. New York City: it’s full of weirdos—vagrants have imaginary conversations to subway walls, pant-suited women wear Hello Kitty backpacks to say I’m a big little girl, and there is a strange species called hipsters, whose diet consists of kombucha, kale, and tofu and can be found living in Williamsburg. In “The Curious Vietnamese Boy,” the laundromat is inspired by the laundromat I frequent in Bed-Stuy, and I also stole the owners’ likeness from this place. I am sure the owners sometimes wondered why I was staring so much.
Writers are often told to “write what you know.” This is not meant to confine the writer; it is not a rule saying to write only what we know, but rather it is a sensible tip to have a real-to-life foundation and quality, especially with people; then from there, we can allow imagination to go where it pleases.
Getting Inside Their Head
Continuing to experiment with characters, I played with perspective in this short story collection. Three short stories – “Gaw, Gaw,” “The Boarder,” and “Recycle” – began as third-person stories, which is what I normally write. My former aspirations to become a journalist and the years spent at my college newspaper made me believe that third-person was the only way to write, the only way I can write. But I loved first-person, loved how they fooled me into believing a character could be a friend. I pitied and envied Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower as he told the story of finding where to belong in high school. Despicable Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita felt like an artist describing a spectacular masterpiece—his language masking the vileness of his actions. Reading such literature showed me what I lacked in my own attempts at first-person: conviction. I needed to write a story where readers feel they can only hear the story from this character, and no one else.
I looked to Denis Johnson for more offbeat voices, especially from Fuckhead in his collection Jesus’ Son. Johnson exposes the ridiculous and the pathetic side of humanity through fascinating characters. The narrator of the “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” sticks with me: he is bitter and vicious and uses drugs to drown out the world that he feels has wronged him. But his thoughts feel like rollercoaster rides. He describes a scene in the hospital, after he, the driver, and the driver’s wife were in a car crash. “She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us,” the narrator says (Johnson 9). Who would think of an injured woman as “glorious”?
To re-craft “Gaw, Gaw” I imagined observations that only someone obsessed with fairytales would say. I made a list and asked, “How would she feel about Halloween after years of being fed fairytales and academic literature on Halloween by her academic father?” Callie used fairytales in the way we would use logic.
Capturing first-person voice is also a matter of dynamics. We are told to always have dynamic characters – show reactive characters — but I like hearing how voices change according to circumstance. My initial attempts at writing first-person perspective also disappointed me because the voice was always a failure. My narrators always managed to sound perpetually angry and snarky, and this voice, like in real life, builds a cement wall between the reader and the story.
In this case, the saying “action speaks louder than words” take a backseat. I like to hear a long monologue once in a while, where it’s just the narrator reaching past the pages and grabbing hold of us. Just as I love the inflections and pitches voices take, I like hearing in my head the colors in a character’s voice. I read André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, a novel I picked up during Banned Book Week about the emotional and sexual yearning a boy feels for a male tenant at his family’s house in Italy. In Jandy Nelson’s beautiful YA novel I’ll Give You the Sun, Jude’s yearning as she reminisces on her broken relationship with her twin brother bursts from the pages: “This is what I want: I want to grab my brother’s hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders” (Nelson 245). Same goes for her brother’s judgments about his family: “Because I can see people’s souls sometimes when I draw them I know the following: Mom has a massive sunflower for a soul so big there’s hardly any room in there for organs. Jude and me have one soul between us that we have to share: a tree with its leaves on fire. And dad has a plate of maggots for his” (Nelson 30).
To That End . . .
Examining this collection, I remember how long I had spent thinking of endings to finish up my pieces. I used to prefer shock endings—twisting endings like the one in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or in M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Sixth Sense. Both storytellers planted asinine clues through their works that hinted at their endings, but they didn’t dwell on them. Viewers never focused on how the protagonist’s wife didn’t seem to acknowledge him because we just assumed it was a symptom of a dying marriage. We never thought the lottery meant killing a town resident because it just seemed like a town hall meeting. The closing words “then they were upon her,” still sticks with me today (Jackson 302). My intent to have similar twist endings fell short mainly because my intent was to shock readers and not benefit the story. Reading shocking endings and twist endings become tiresome—you can only feel a certain way about the ending once. Other endings, however, have more of a timeless quality because you regard them in a different way with every read.
I have read endings that felt so natural in the story, felt like it belonged, which made the story’s message more profound. During my first semester, I learned the term “rhyming action” from Hollis Seamon who was quoting Charles Baxter. Rhyming action is a moment of “déjà vu, which is only an eerie sense of some repetition, of a time spiral, of things having come around back to themselves” (Baxter 111). Something that happens in the beginning of a story—a detail, a word, a feeling—appears again in the end. But our impression of this detail, word, feeling differs greatly because the story has led us “toward a new state, a new condition, into the future of manifest possibilities” (Baxter 113). I spotted the occurrence of rhyming action in Jennifer Egan’s “Why China?”
It’s the story of a man facing an embezzlement investigation that jeopardizes his career, his family, and his moral compass. The story begins in an open-air market in China where the protagonist Sam spots the con man who had started his downward financial woes. They are the only Westerners around. Sam approaches him, but it seems that Stuart does not remember him. Throughout the story, Sam gets closer to him, a motivation to perhaps understand what had made him the target and to distract himself from his impending downfall. In the end, we see Sam and Stuart converse face-to-face again. Like the beginning, it’s just the two of them existing, for a moment, in their own world. But there are notes of differences: the setting of a noisy market is swapped for a quiet Buddhist mountainside temple, and here, Sam finally reveals that he was from Stuart’s past—and to Sam’s surprise, Stuart knows him, too. There is a sense that we have come to the same spot, but only when Sam tells that truth do we realize that, no, it’s different this time, that things will change and can never go back.
In one of the stories in this collection “Look See Wonder,” I also experimented with rhyming action. The story is about Nina who mourns her relationship with her sister as they run in different crowds, experience different things—she fears no longer knowing her. In the beginning, they had been close; Nina remembers how her sister had tried comforting her after a bad fall, “cradling Nina in her arms, shushing her, smoothing back her hair.” At the end, under difficult circumstances—“Margie’s warm hand tightly clasping hers in accord”—she receives her sister’s support again.
I also hear I like to use zero endings, but I’d never heard of the term until taking Al Davis’ Fiction class. With a zero ending, according to Al, “you bring the story’s central dramatic action to resolution but with a whimper rather than a bang, so that a bit of the work takes place in the reader’s mind. ‘How have things changed?’ she might ask. The result of such an ending is an impression that life is epiphanic, with its high moments and breakthroughs, but not explosive or decisive.” This is evident in Raymond Carver’s short story “The Cathedral,” which charts one man’s prejudice against a blind man that his wife had befriended. He doesn’t really understand what it means to be blind, making snarky comments here and there. But in the end, the blind character tries to make him understand, by having him sketch a cathedral with eyes closed, as if he was blind. “His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now” (Carver 14). In this moment, the protagonist doesn’t say anything—the judgment is absent from the character, and he begins to understand how the blind man sees the world. Yet, we can only guess at what happens after the moment ends.
Writing each story individually can be described in a mix of ways: painful, necessary, tedious. Yet, putting them together into this imperfect collection felt surreal and gratifying. Some stories I wrote before the program. Others I wrote while in the trenches of writing my packets, some as a distraction from my packets. For some stories, I remember exactly why and where I wrote them. Even after revising, I still sense the pauses and hesitations, which sentence I gave up on, what characters I never felt satisfied with. However, for my more recent stories, I read them and seriously question if I had written them. I like it when this happens; I take it as a sign that I am letting the story speak for itself, and I, as the writer, disappear.
After this program ends, I’ll continue to revise with the intention to submit short stories to magazines and journals. Revision is my favorite process. An editor I admire said, “Revision is a re-‘vision’ as in reimagining the work, not just revising.”
While advancing my writing career, I’m also on the opposite end of the spectrum as I pursue a career as a book editor. I recently acquired my first novel, which will be published in May 2018. At this very moment, I am editing the first draft. What I can take from this program is a sense of knowing what to look for in good stories. It is crucial to not only recognize strengths and weaknesses in the submissions that come through, but also express these opinions to help the writer. Just as Hollis Seamon, Eugenia Kim, and Al Davis did for me, I want to be a mentor to writers. I want them to experience that wondrous feeling of growth that I gained after three semesters with Fairfield University.
This foot in the publishing world also lends me some advantages, but not in the way that most people think. There’s no increased likelihood of me being published; we have turned away “publishing insiders” because sometimes the writing is not up to par. I know, however, that I am more knowledgeable of the publishing process. I already know how to query, who to submit to, and what to say, while others might need to do more research. I am also heartened by the opportunity to learn from editors who still admire great writing. Publishing might seem like a space where art competes with commerce, but there are people inside who value the art and do their utmost to defend the fictive worlds spun by authors.
I envision a long writing career for myself and will fight to guarantee it. I don’t think I can ever escape writing. Because here’s how my writing cycle usually works (by this point, I’ve gotten a sense of the rhythm my writing life follows): There will be periods where I will not write. I will do anything I can to avoid writing. I will watch dark, twisted Netflix shows, read pretentious literature, cook up a storm, decide to treat my friends decently, and book an overpriced trip. But eventually, I will daydream while having a conversation with a friend or start hearing snippets of conversations that never happened, between two people—characters—I have never met. To get them out of my head, I will write—on my laptop, fingers pecking on my cell phone screen, me dictating a story to my iPhone. When I finish the first draft, I probably will celebrate. I will feel triumphant. I will tell my mirror self that I am the best writer alive, until I return to my story and see all the faults that my addled brain refused to see during the writing process. I will edit, while my insecurities and doubts, like Churchill’s black dog, breathe down my neck. To escape, this feeling, I might step away and there will be periods where I will not write.
This cycle is something I cannot break. I don’t want to either.