Split Lip INTERVIEWS
In 2018 at AWP in Tampa, Florida, I asked Teague von Bohlen why people from the Midwest are so tall and he laughed—surprised by my height, I think. I’m short. So short my parents used to joke that something must’ve been in the water in our Boston suburb. Then Teague said, “I think it’s all the corn” and mentioned a book of flash fiction he was working on about the Midwest, one that would pair flash fiction with photographs. I knew immediately I wanted to read it.
Flatland is a funny and tender collection, nostalgic but not sentimental. Teague writes stories about a place that’s disappearing and people who feel left behind, stories we tell about life in America and why. Britten Leigh Traughber’s accompanying photographs add a fascinating third element in a collaboration that is as successful as it is haunting.
Over the last few months Teague and I communicated via email, chatting about nostalgia, how to write with humor and emotion, and whether anyone can truly define flash fiction. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.
Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice: In the book's preface you mention the importance of writing about the Midwest and small-town American life because it's disappearing. It's interesting to think about how writers write about that which they miss. Almost like we write what haunts us. Flatland is a nostalgic book, but not overly sentimental, which makes me wonder about the difference between nostalgia and sentimentality. Is there a difference? Were you thinking about this while writing?
Teague von Bohlen: Nostalgia and sentimentality are neighbors with a shared fence, and they sometimes cross over. When there's a difference between the two--and yeah, I worked hard in this book to keep that fence strong--it's about honesty, I think. Sentimentality only remembers the good, the warm, the charming and happy. Nostalgia--when it's healthy--remembers all that, but also the not-so-good, the sometimes cold, the sorrow. There's a fuller measure to the memory, and in that, it means more. Lasts longer. We hold on to memory because it's what builds us, but in order to make that construction sound, it has to remain honest. Luckily, there's a raw nobility in an honest life, which is one thing I wanted to honor with the characters in this book.
I think your statement that "we write what haunts us" is well put. I certainly do. We're all haunted by these ghosts of our past--a history that may literally have only been our own, with some shared edges. We've all experienced this: we share a memory with an old friend, or family member, and we realize that we remember the same event very differently. The old saying is that you can't step into the same river twice, and that's part of what this book is about. But it's also about the idea that we're all stepping in different rivers, independent and solitary rivers defined and limited by our own perceptions. It's good to witness someone else's river now and then.
A new translation is always worth celebrating, but that is especially so with Bright by Duanwad Pimwana (translated by Mui Poopoksakul). According to the publisher, Bright is the first novel by a Thai woman to be translated into English.
Bright tells the story of Kampol Changsamran, a five-year-old boy who is unceremoniously abandoned by his parents to the charity of his tenement neighborhood. Shunted from house to house and experiencing true hunger for the first time, Kampol faces his new life with a youthful vigor that defies his dire situation. The story’s lighthearted voice braces against the hard truths of Kampol’s circumstances to create a devastatingly beautiful reading experience.
Kampol is a born explorer and uses his independence to stretch the bounds of his life. Told as a series of flash vignettes, Bright leaps from Kampol’s creative moneymaking enterprises to free rice day at the temple to dueling flea markets to the arrival of a Likay theater troupe. In one memorable story, the neighborhood grocer Chong tells Kampol a fable about a man who has not eaten for three days. The starving man becomes so deranged that he murders then robs a passing stranger, stealing only enough money to buy a single boiled egg. The story affects Kampol profoundly and, though destitute himself, he begins to study his neighbors’ faces. “When he really looked closely at each one,” the narrator tells us, “he realized that almost everybody looked rather hungry. But he wanted to find the person who was starving the most.” Finally he locates a man who fits the story’s description. He brings him to Chong’s grocery and asks politely for Chong to feed him before he hurts anyone. We may be tempted to call Kampol’s kindness naïve. Certainly a single meal can never solve the systematic injustice and poverty that have engulfed his neighborhood. But Pimwana purposefully builds Kampol’s survival one kindness at a time. He is offered a meal then a bed then a meal then a shirt. One neighbor pays him to massage his back. Another pays him to fetch people when they get phone calls at the neighborhood’s single phone. Sometimes, Pimwana seems to tell us, the small kindnesses are all that stands between us and desolation. And sometimes, that is enough.
It’s 1975. A teenage boy has unexpectedly died in the middle of a Denver winter after he falls through ice. In the wake of Sammy’s untimely death, a series of strange and painful lives bloom out of the frozen ground like wounded, four-limbed fauna. Through the lens of human loss, Wendy J. Fox’s If the Ice Had Held deals with mortality and the tightly linked relationship between death and new life. Fox’s novel explores a series of layered narratives, and the book poses difficult and compelling questions for readers. Questions like: how do we learn to live after loved ones have died or abandoned us? How are we changed by death? How can change feel like death? And speaking of living in the aftermath, what does it mean to survive at all?
If the Ice Had Held deep dives into the lives of several women and men in one small network of family, friends, and acquaintances. My favorite character, the novel’s central protagonist, Melanie, is written with a brazen complexity that’s refreshing to encounter as we follow her tangled life from youth to adulthood.