Short Shorts: Flash Fiction
Flash fiction feels like that sliver of a space between prose poetry and the short story. These are a few I'm exploring that may find themselves in my forthcoming thesis collection that focuses on family, immigration, belonging and identity. This includes a reflection on the Chinese literary works we read in class that informed the piece(s).
She swept up bits of this and that into a dust pan, using her old broom that always stood ready in a corner near the kitchen’s back door until the dishes were washed, dried and put away. She almost did not hear them as they arrived from the city. When the lady of the house’s only daughter came to live with them again, she brought her only child with her at the time, also a daughter — a four-year-old named Minnie. As the little girl settled in, the house soon turned into her playground. In Minnie’s small hands, the broom became a miniature horse with a silky mane and swift tail, whipping through the kitchen. Whinnying Minnie would steer her proud steed in figure-eight paths around the house, onto the back porch, over around and back again, before returning to the warm kitchen where Aling Lydia might be making rice, steaming fish, or rolling lumpia, the little girl’s favorite, for the family’s dinner. Other times, the broom transported Minnie the witch through flights of wonder, as she pointed her wooden spoon wand around her world, cackling and casting spells that turned Minnie’s dolls into fairies of the wood, Aling Lydia into a powerful wizard lady, Minnie’s kitty cat into a fierce but friendly Bengal tiger.
Then the day came when the lady of the house’s only daughter answered a knock at the front door and a man in military uniform stepped in. The man was the only daughter’s husband, and he came from a place called Maryland in a country that Aling Lydia would not see for another 10 or more years. Aling Lydia straightened her apron and held out her hand when they introduced him to her. It was in the middle of the kitchen where she was baking. She told them that Minnie should be returning from galloping on the porch any minute. Lydia realized that soon there would be less rice to cook for dinner, less dishes to wash, dry and put away. And soon the old broom would rest quietly in its corner by the kitchen’s back door. She would not have to make lumpia spring rolls quite as often, but Lydia would learn English at the American’s Clark Air Base in nearby Luzon, and she would learn how to write long letters on onion-skin thin paper that she would send in blue envelopes via airmail to a place called Maryland.
Before she was my mother, she grew up in a small coastal village in Dagupan in the Pangasinan province of the Philippines. The oldest daughter of a fishing family, she learned early how to cook and clean, how to care for her younger siblings while her parents would leave early in the morning just before sunrise to launch their long outrigger boat into the Lingayen Gulf, casting their nets throughout the day to haul in pounds and pounds of bangus milkfish or squid that had traveled over from the South China Sea. My mother would have rice and fried fish ready when they returned in the late afternoon for dinner. She would already have dressed her little brother and sister, having bathed them earlier in a lather of soap donated to their village from the missionaries, and rinsing them as they squealed under a cascade of cold water from the hand-cranked pump they shared with their neighbors.
Before she was my mother, she dropped her favorite book from the missionary school as she hurried out of the thatched roof house with her family as they fled during the night while their village became engulfed in the flames of World War II. Japanese Imperial soldiers captured and killed her father and thirteen others, while she along with her siblings and mother found the safest hiding place miles away, water to their chests, deep inside the rice fields.
Before she was my mother, she was hired to clean at the small makeshift hospital in Luzon, to help tend to the wounded along with the nurses and nuns. It was here that she found herself pregnant from a man in uniform who made her feel pretty, a man who promised to return, but never did. It was here that she met a woman a bit older than herself who came from a place called Ohio. She had red hair and freckles. The young woman was a nurse who helped my mother when it was time to give birth to me.
My mother had just become my mother when her red-haired friend brought her to meet a woman with gentle eyes from a good family, a family with a big house full of rooms but empty of the sound of children. It was explained to my mother that this gentle woman had just lost a baby for the third time, and could no longer be able to have another. My mother handed me to the woman who at that moment became my new mother, and the only mother I would know for most of my life, until now.
As I sit and wait for my own daughter to walk across the stage in her cap and gown, I hold onto a blue envelope, containing a long letter written on pages and pages of onion-skin thin paper.
Reflection on Readings: How They Influence or Inform
The Chinese readings that informed and influenced my writing samples are the short-short forms in Loud Sparrows and Roy Chen Tsung’s memoir Beyond Lowu Bridge. As a fiction writer who is prone to narrative that is full of description along with a number of secondary characters populating the main protagonist’s world, I wanted to challenge myself to try to edit some stories down to the essentials, avoiding too many adverbs or metaphor as well as leaving out dialogue.
I used Wang Meng’s “Learning to Talk” translation as inspiration for “Magical Broom” and hope that despite the extremely short form’s constraint, the feelings of emptiness when the child-wonder energy of Minnie must leave Lydia’s orbit are still conveyed without a need to delve too deep into Lydia’s interiority. The exercise helped to keep me focused on action and fact, keeping the story devoid of dialogue and staying in an omniscient third-person with appropriate narrative distance.
For the piece “Before,” Tsung’s Lowu Bridge memoir in first-person informed my writing most. Perhaps because his writing is not a translation, for me it feels slightly more accessible and relatable. Using the filter of his ‘Strunk-&-White’ straightforward approach, I also used the device of anaphora “Before she was my mother” to frame the scenes, which are told more through telling/exposition rather than in showing/revealing. Again, this was a bit of a challenge for me given the years of instruction I’ve had that encourage American writers to show rather than tell. My goal was to pare down sentences to their essence, keeping any complex emotional character perspective(s) up to the reader to make his/her own inferences. In this piece, I also was inspired by the historical backdrop that is always alluded to in Tsung’s work. Instead of the totalitarian Mao era of anti-intellectualism and anti-individualism, “Before” refers to the imperialist intents of World War II along with an underlying social commentary on issues of societal class, poverty, access to education, and subjugation of women particularly in the third world.
Overall, the Chinese readings for me have helped to re-tune my ear for narrative that can appear deceptively sparse, or even quiet, on the surface but can still convey humor, horror, emotion and historical significance with plenty of dimension that live right beneath the words and, as we say, “between the lines.”
Copyright 2018, Eva Quintos Tennant, all rights reserved.