Our 2015 1/2 K Prize Winner was Nghiem Tran for his flash piece “House.” In this interview, he discusses his inspiration for the piece, favorite reads, and advice for this year’s submitters.
Nghiem Tran was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and moved to Wichita, Kansas when he was seven years old. He is a Kundiman Fellow and a graduate of Vassar College with a BA in Educational Studies. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Hyphen, Duende, and Reservoir.
1) One of my favorite aspects of “House” is the juxtaposition of genuine fear with humorous dialogue and critique. Can you explain your inspiration for using elements of both comedy and tragedy?
I was reading Sandra Lim’s poem “Wintering,” and there was this line, “Yet loss keeps thudding past my house, telling me I’m not done.” I was so struck by this personification of loss that I felt like I had to copy it! Of course to avoid plagiarism I had to change things up a bit, and so I chose to personify grief, and when I thought of grief as a person, I thought of a really petty and annoying spouse, who was completely oblivious to the pain of the narrator in an oddly endearing way. I’ve never lost anyone close to me due to death, but I imagine that grief isolates the person grieving until it is all that person has left to keep them company. I also just like to be funny in wacky ways, and this piece was a rare instance when the humor worked.
2) The source of the narrator’s grief is never mentioned in this piece. What motivated you to create this negative space?
The form of flash encouraged me to leave things unsaid. I have a terrible habit of over-explaining in my short stories, and with this piece, I set out to do the opposite. Honestly, I have no clue what the source of the narrator’s grief is, and even now it just doesn’t seem important for me to know. Once I made the decision to have this negative space, I felt free to focus on the fun, but also frightening, aspects of the narrator’s domestic life with grief.
3) Given that your piece appears in our GHOST Issue, I’m wondering if there’s any subject matter that haunts you as a writer. Are there themes you return to again and again?
What haunts me is that some people never recover from trauma that they’ve gone through, and their friends and family members can’t do anything to help, no matter how hard they try. These kind of stories are deeply moving for me to read, but I can’t write about the subject. It puts me in a terrible state of mind. And writing really shouldn’t be a painful process. And so I’m constantly trying to figure out how I can write about my childhood as an immigrant with as much joy and wackiness as possible without overshadowing the emotional truths of the experience.
4) What writers and / or works are you excited about right now? What should I add to my bookshelf?
The novel that I keep returning to is NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Her prose is like nothing I’ve ever read, and her child characters go through so much violence but they never lose their love and wonder for their homeland. I also really enjoy Dan Chaon’s short stories, especially “What Happened To Us,” and Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy. I am so proud to be a Kundiman Fellow, and I would recommend checking out the poets and fiction writers involved with the organization because they’re all doing big things for Asian-American literature.
5) What was your process of putting together your submission for the 2015 ½ K Prize? Any tips for this year’s submitters?
I wrote “House” before I knew about the contest, and I mainly edited the piece for clarity issues before submitting it. I almost didn’t apply for the prize because I didn’t think my work was “literary” enough, especially when compared to other pieces. But I went ahead and submitted because “House” excited me in a way that my writing never had before. My main tips are to follow that excitement and not overthink the piece. Honestly, sometimes I read flash and I have no clue what is happening! But the rules of the form are so nebulous and dynamic. If you have a good feeling that the piece (or poem) is doing something different and cool, then I would trust that feeling and make edits based on it. I’m so glad I did!
The 2016 1/2K Prize will be open from July 1st to August 15th. For full submission guidelines, click here for our Contest page.