This month, we focus on four books by writers of short prose. And since this is an international issue, the writers we include here come from wide-ranging corners of the globe: Latika Vasil was born in India but has lived in Wellington since she was a young girl; James Claffey is an Irishman living on an avocado ranch in California; Catherine McNamara is an Australian who has lived in Italy and Africa and now resides in the UK; and Berit Ellingsen is Korean-Norwegian living in Norway and writing in English. We are pleased to feature these four talented writers this month, and we hope you’ll enjoy taking a closer look at their recent releases.
Latika Vasil, Rising to the Surface (Steele Roberts 2013)
Flash Frontier: Your book has a surreal look and feel, and you’ve said yourself that water plays a key role in your stories. The title also implies change and transformation. Can you talk about how the book feels as a whole? What common themes and moods do you explore? Is it a book mostly about floating or swimming (metaphorically)? Does this connect to your own experience as a writer who was born in India and immigrated as a child to New Zealand? And how does the wonderful watery/urban image on the front cover represent the book?
Latika Vasil: I’m hoping the book strikes the right balance between variation and coherence. It’s important that the stories feel like they belong together thematically and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I like reading short story collections where there is some sort of thread running through that keeps it all together. At the same time, there needs to be enough variety in terms of style, tone and narrative voice to make the collection vibrant and interesting to read. I’ve been pleased that several readers have said they’ve enjoyed the variation of characters and perspectives across the stories in Rising to the Surface.
Some of the stories are quite sad in tone but there’s also humour interspersed throughout. I’m drawn to writing that combines different moods and emotions as this seems more authentic to me. Emotions are often complex in real life and humour can be found in the unlikeliest situations. Binnie Kirshenbaum is a fiction writer who manages to cleverly combine the tragic and the comic. She has been described as a ‘stand-up tragic’ and I’d love to write in a similar vein!
While I didn’t set out to write stories to any particular theme, the themes that seemed to emerge when I was writing were how people deal with feelings of alienation and a lack of connection, especially in an urban environment; how people find purpose and deal with a sense of aimlessness; and how people balance settling and growing. In many of the stories we meet the characters at a transitional point in their lives. Having floated along in their own little bubbles for a long time they are now looking for meaning and connection and some sort of transformation. Many of the characters feel like outsiders, not quite sure how to engage with the world around them. I felt the surreal cover image of floating underwater inside one’s home, looking out on the world outside, wonderfully fit these themes and the overall tone of the collection.
Excerpt from “Surviving Earthquakes and Other Disasters”
There are two things I always do in the mornings. The first is, I make a pot of Earl Grey tea. The second is, I read the newspaper online. Though my world has gradually telescoped down to a small dot-like existence – just me and Alice or me and the laptop – the outside world seems to be ever-expanding. A calamity of biblical proportions occurs every few days – there have been tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The earthquake in Chile, we are told, is ranked in the top ten of all time. Who knew such a list existed?
Alice’s class topic is ‘natural disasters and survival’. Someone asked the teacher if the topic had been chosen because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The teacher replied that the topic had been picked last term, before the massive tsunami, and that they had ‘just got lucky’ with the timing. This was said straight-faced.
“Perhaps there will be an earthquake here in Wellington and we’ll be even luckier,” Alice had whispered to a friend.
Today, I’m embarrassed to say, the first story I read on the website, before the politics and natural disaster updates, is ‘Fetish black market for Japanese Airline uniforms’. In the corner of my eye I see a story about Belinda Wright. I quickly close the web page.
After my tea and newspaper browsing, the day proceeds in various ways, depending on what day it is. Today is Wednesday. On Wednesdays I have my weekly lunch with my mother. This is my mother’s treat and while this makes me feel slightly juvenile I don’t mind because my mother is rich, comparatively speaking, and I am poor – a solo mother and a student, double-dipping into the well of the financially wretched. We usually eat at a suburban café called Kalamata and the wall art – large mounted posters of Crete and Rhodes – and the bustling middle-aged female clientele always put me in mind of films like Shirley Valentine. I can almost imagine my mother running off to Greece with a thirty-five-year-old waiter called Costas. We order dolmades, tzatziki and spanakopita. I am vegetarian and this is one of several things about me that irks my mother. The other annoyances are usually lightly peppered into the conversation over lunch. ‘Your life is a disaster’ sits like a thought bubble over her head, unspoken. Instead she says things like “How’s the job hunting going?”
“Mum, I’m not looking for a job. Remember I’m studying.”
“Oh yes, the Creative Writing. I thought that was more of a night course – a hobby.”
“No, it’s full-time,” I say flatly, not betraying even a hint of irritation. I don’t mention that the course is online. I feel, somehow, that this will only further needle my mother.
She sighs and concedes defeat for today. We talk about Alice and other less volatile topics. As we prepare to leave she asks me if I need any money. I say Alice and I are doing fine and that I’ve picked up a bit of proofreading work. Later I find two fifty dollar notes in my handbag. My mother is like a reverse pick-pocket. I don’t know how she does it.
Latika Vasil is a writer living in Wellington. She was born in India and has also lived in the States and Singapore. She has previously worked in the education sector as a researcher and lecturer and currently works as a freelance researcher and writer. Her stories have been published in various literary journals and anthologies and broadcast on Radio New Zealand National. You can find out more about her here.
James Claffey, Blood a Cold Blue (Press 53 2013)
Flash Frontier: You have a distinct and recognizable style and approach to short story, but you also like to play with words and content, and your range is quite vast. Can you talk about the content of this collection as a whole? How did you decide which stories to include in this collection? How do you know when a story fits? And also, please tell us about the title and the cover art, and the way they guide (or represent?) the overall mood of this collection.
James Claffey: In terms of choosing which stories to include in the collection, I decided for the most part to leave out a great many stories set in Dublin, and slated to be part of a novel I’m currently editing for publication with Thrice Publishing. I consciously included a number of unpublished stories that I never submitted to any journals or magazines, to give the book some element of balance between published and unpublished work. As far as how I know when a story fits, I decided to include mostly short, flash fiction pieces, with the exception of some slightly longer experimental stories I thought represented some of my strongest writing. For me, the book represents a view of who I am as a writer, a sort of kaleidoscopic gathering of stories that function well on their own, and together form a stained-glass window of words.
The title, Blood a Cold Blue, is a fragment from a story of the same name, and it’s one of my favorite pieces in the book, and appears in its original long form, as opposed to the edited version published at Word Riot. I feel the story illustrates the change in my writing since graduate school. I am far more experimental, open to taking more risks, with my writing now, than then, and the image in the story of the girl turning into a half-seagull/half-woman figure is probably a tip of the hat to the magical realism I read as a younger man when I was living back home in Ireland. I read Juan Rulfo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, and couldn’t believe their brilliance. The title also informs the book’s overarching themes, those of love, loss, decay, and hope.
The cover art was suggested by Kevin Morgan Watson, at Press 53, and I loved the image from the get-go. I’d rejected several of his suggestions, but not the bird! At first we couldn’t find the artist to get his go-ahead for the image, not through email, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, anywhere. We decided to move on and consider other images and even a title change and in a last ditch effort, I went digging online and found an old LiveJournal with an Icelandic email, and emailed him there. We heard from him the next day and he was happy to give permission to use the image. I think we were all mightily relieved to get the go-ahead!
On a side note, that cover bird brings me full circle from the days as a child I’d watch the birds through the kitchen window, pecking at scraps in the yard. As a youngster I was obsessed with birds, and would wander off with my dad’s binoculars and the RSPB Guide to Birds, and search for owls, hawks, and whatever other birds I could find.The image resonates for me, too, because I see this writing life as a sometimes lonely one, pecking away in isolation, trying to get that simple nourishment we all crave.
“Illuminating Every Fear”, from Blood A Cold Blue
The spot from where your future will appear, this great thing you wait for, is out there, in the fields, in the streets of some unknown city. Just like you were, or still are, out there searching. There’s something you seek like a buried jewel in Varanasi. You leave your body sometimes in search of it, a clod-covered ephemera to put your soul at rest. You’ve seen it before. It was in your father’s house when you were a boy. Your mother polished the treasure every week, gently handled its surface, rubbing it with cloth. Perhaps she has the answers, abandoned and sitting in her kitchen. She smokes cigarettes as the black clouds rumble across the window and drop sheets of gray water.
There must be a shift in how things are approached. Believe in possibility. It can take place, open a weal in your flesh, enough to place a finger or two, an entryway for fortune. Speak words of love, of life, of healing. Abandon words of death, of corruption, of impotence. Jacket warms your neck, collar up around your ears, eye slits narrow against sand that whips off the beach, dervish-like to the air. Choppy water, dolphins off shore, beneath the violence, and only stubborn gulls stand at shoreline, huddled together, bundled in feather to stare at a fierce sea. Now and again one caught by wind propels—paper boat in a hurricane. When wind tumbles gulls in gusts and hurtles them along, are they afraid, or do they revel in thrill?
Nowhere on the seascape can you find what you seek. Maybe you’re not in the right place. She didn’t speak of places geographic, only of places in the soul: fiercely buttressed vaults, dark cobwebs hanging from the eaves, a faint chink of light cutting pitch like a scalpel to illuminate fears you’ve touched. The cards pointed to the void—Knight of Cups, the Queen of Cups, the Magician, the Hanged Man—and your father who could die tonight while your five-year-old body lies awake in the dark listening, waiting for his breathing to stop, and the mourning to begin. Shall you grow up and fail? How will you make the change from child to adult without the map buried off on some barren headland?
Born and raised in Ireland, James Claffey grew up in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar, and came to America in 1993. He has lived in California for seventeen years and spent three years in Louisiana at graduate school. These days he lives with his wife, writer and artist Maureen Foley, and their daughter, Maisie, and, sometimes, his son, Simon, on an avocado ranch close to the ocean..
Catherine McNamara, Pelt and Other Stories (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2013)
Flash Frontier: Your new collection, while wandering across continents and nationalities, contains themes of belonging, home, displacement and perceptions of the ‘other’ in terms of race, class, gender and sex. And your stories contain beautiful and raw depictions of emotion, conflict and pain. Do you think of your stories as politically and culturally charged or are they driven by individuals and the choices they make – or are those two things inextricable from one another? Related to that, how have your own experiences of living abroad, sometimes in challenging places, impacted your observations of characters and changes that inevitably occur in their own emotional or intellectual landscapes? And finally, what was the inspiration behind these stories in the first place, and how did these stories come to you as a collection?
Catherine McNamara: I would say the stories are driven by individual situations and dramas rather than being politically or culturally charged. I always start with a specific sentiment or angle in mind and depart from there, and then the context shapes around this. I have a keen interest in the historical exploitation of Africa and its contemporary fallout, which seeps into a lot of the African stories. But it’s not my mission. In Europe I’m particularly interested in our abuse of the landscape and how I think we should still be humbled by nature. And there are urban stories dealing with sex workers, drug addicts, physical decline, eroded relationships, where the social environment is entwined with each character’s situation. But it’s a risk to let this bear too much upon the story, as I feel it’s so important to allow everything to shift along smoothly. Short stories have to be so compact and for me this technical resolution is perhaps more essential than transferring weighty themes across to the reader.
It’s true there is a direct conduit to some of my experiences in West Africa in the stories. Years ago, I lived in a diplomatic context and the work I produced had a filtered vision, even though it was praised and published. As a white Anglo in Africa one is always the Other, but when I began to live with my Ghanaian partner my perspective shifted enormously in economic and social terms. In a way, after giving birth there, running a business, dealing with a host of situations, I feel I ‘acquired’ the right to see certain things from the inside. My title story “Pelt”, told from the point of view a pregnant Ghanaian woman trying to hold onto her German lover whose estranged wife comes to town, is a story I would never have been able to see/feel/imagine when I was living as a privileged Westerner. And yet, being a part of both the Western and African worlds made it possible for me to represent the Germans as well.
In Ghana we lived through a range of very rich and raw experiences, travelled widely and I enjoyed my work (traditional art gallery). They were years where I hardly wrote a word but lived first hand – even hand to mouth! – that now form a major part of my writing ‘bank’. My story “Infection”, published in Wasafiri journal and appearing in Pelt, is an account of what happens when Eugene, a failed doctor returnee from the UK, son of the inspired Independence movement, comes back to the seaside Ghanaian town where his step-sister is dying of AIDS. Though the story is fiction and was challenging to construct, it draws upon some aspects of contemporary reality in West Africa that became clear to me.
Each story for me springs from an idea – a sentence, a notion I’d like to explore, a person whom I’ve watched walking someplace. Or maybe something that’s happened close to me. If I think of “Pelt”, the title story, well, one day this tall German guy walked up to our house in Ghana. He said he grew up in our house. He looked around a little, and asked if he could go out the back and show us where there was a monkey cage originally. Later, he walked away down the street again and I could see him through the hedge. He had a stiff back, as though he had an injury that couldn’t be put right. For me he became Rolfe in that first story, even though there were no monkeys and Rolfe didn’t have a sore back. And I don’t have a facial image of either of them. It was just his essence that came to me when I needed a lover for the girl who starts the story off. Her voice was easy. I’ve lived with lots of Ghanaian women in the house: employees, friends, lovers of friends. But I never take notes. For me that takes away the magic of discovering the story that you are in process of writing. The act of generating a story – for me – is very exciting, and frightening.
The collection didn’t come together easily. I submitted it in various forms, and kept adding the new stories I had published. Since I’ve moved to Europe I’ve been trying to shift location away from West Africa, but it’s hard as the ideas won’t go away. At one point a reader friend even suggested I do a book of only African stories but I didn’t agree – I didn’t want to be a white person writing about Africa, I wanted to be a writer producing good stories, no matter where they were located. So I imagine my next collection will be just as much of a mixed bag.
Excerpt from “Infection”
Eugene washed down the gauzy bread with a searing cup of instant coffee. Breakfast in the hinterlands of West Africa. His eyes strayed around the bar. Four plywood walls and a bamboo-clad ceiling, posters for competing national beers. The waitress sashayed out through plastic streamers nailed over a door frame. Five years down the road and she might look like Becky at home – a frail assembly of limbs, her organs kernels without an orbit.
He paid then headed back onto the sandy street. A way off was the beach. Last night he had heard a king tide booming against the small headland holding the fort. The massive sock of two heavyweights ramming shoulders. Wave versus sediment. Seas versus earth. Maybe the Prussians had listened to the same collision as they lay perspiring in netted beds. Hadn’t they erected the minor fort before it passed to the Dutch? Two centuries before Wilberforce deplored the trade in slaves along the coast? The whips, the cassocks, the brass. And all for what? Tit for tat between Europe’s restless third-born sons, the empire-builders and crackpots. And then Bismarck’s tailspinning thrust that fractured the deserts, the quiet rivers and villages, the colossal forests with their soaring primordial virginity.
There had been chatter last night at the fort. Two women speaking English had arrived carrying large knapsacks down the narrow hall. They had settled. Not without opening his lockless door looking for the bathroom and making the standard exclamations upon discovering the tap was dry. The generator had long ceased its putter. One knocked on his door and asked if they could borrow, or well, have, a match. Wide awake, he lit his own candle, then threw over a lighter. He saw the usual type of African adventuress. Apologetic, too smiley, a printed headscarf. She said they had a bottle of whisky if he’d like to join. Eugene declined. He blew on the candle, turning back to the sea.
Sleepless, his skin was a mask of sweat, suctioned into the hollow before each wave propelled its mass against the rock. Each boom worked upon his subconscious with a ravenous deconstruction, leaving palpable rivulets in the wake of the breeze.
It must have driven them insane.
Catherine McNamara is a novelist and short story writer. Her collection was released in September 2013 by Indigo Dreams Publishing UK. Her commercial women’s novel The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy was published in April 2012. She also wrote the children’s book set in Ghana Nii Kwei’s Day. Her short stories have been published in England, Australia and USA. More here.
Berit Ellingsen, Beneath the Liquid Skin (firthFORTH Books 2012)
Flash Frontier: Your book has been said to embrace both the sensual and scientific world. Tell us about your relationship to the environment and how these stories reflect your own experience with geography, climate and culture. How does writing fiction bring you to new worlds and root you more to this one? How does the relationship between myth and reality impact the way you go about writing short stories? And tell us a little about the marvellous title of this collection, too.
Berit Ellingsen: I wrote the stories without planning a common theme. But when I started to put the collection together, I saw that many of the stories revolved around our relationship to the natural world and the ecological environment. It’s a personal interest as well as a professional one since I’m educated as a biologist.
Because of the theme I initially called the collection Anthropocene, the word some scientists use for the current geological era. It means “the age of humankind”, ie the age where human activity affects the planet more than any of the natural large scale processes.
But this is not a very common word. Moreover, the publisher loved the line “beneath the liquid skin”, which was used to describe the surface of water in the story Gold-Flecked Water. We then realized that many of the stories had water or the ocean as image or part of the plot, such as “Boyfriend and Shark”, and “The Love Decay Has for the Living”. From then on there was no other choice for the title. Instead we used “Anthropocene” as title for the last story in the collection, which describes one of the outcomes of the age of humankind.
Our generation is the first that is truly aware that we are making our planet’s environments less habitable, for many other species, but also for ourselves, yet we are so addicted to the way our societies work that we seem unable and unwilling to change them. I think much of my writing comes out of an indignation and guilt over that. Some of the stories that deal with this are” A Catalog of Planets”, “Polaris”, and “In all the Best Places, Lightning Strikes Twice”.
To me, our destruction of the habitability of the planet is also caused by the narratives we tell ourselves about what we are and what we need in our lives. I address some of these myths in the collection, particularly in “The White” and “The Story That Wrote Itself”.
Excerpt from “Sliding”
When we are sliding fast toward winter, daylight narrows to silver as the eaves of the wooden houses and the corners of the hedge-bounded gardens grow dark.
Leaves slap yellow and orange and green against the bare birches and the moist cobbles in the courtyard, and aim for the mountains across the bay.
The light swells and swells inside us until we are ready to come off the ground like scabs from the skin, and the sky pulls us quickly apart.
But we can’t stay in this moment for long; we yearn for it to pass. We need to be something else again.
Denser clouds drift in and the sun sets unseen.
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have appeared in Unstuck, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Metazen and other literary journals. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in 2012. She was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the British Science Fiction Award that year. Berit’s novel The Empty City was translated to French and published as as Une Ville Vide (PublieMonde) in the summer of 2013.
Find out more at http://beritellingsen.com.
Please see the October 2013 issue — rescued — here.