Posts Categorized: Fiction

Interview with 2020 Fiction Prize Judge Angela Flournoy

The 2020 Fiction Prize is open until March 31! In this interview, our fiction editor Jenna Wengler sits down with prize judge Angela Flournoy to talk about her writing influences, ghosts, and what makes a great short story.


Angela Flournoy is the author of The Turner House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times notable book of the year. The novel was also a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and an NAACP Image Award. She is a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree for 2015. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, and she has written for The New York Times, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flournoy received her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California. She has taught at the University of Iowa, The New School, Columbia University, Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Flournoy was the 2016-17 Rona Jaffe Foundation Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. She was awarded a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and is currently a Mary Ellen von der Heyden fellow in fiction at the American Academy in Berlin. 


The Turner House is in some ways deeply rooted in realism, as it explores the traumatic effects of the 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis on an African American family in Detroit. And yet, the novel opens with a chaotic encounter with a “haint,” and Cha-Cha’s struggle with the haint becomes one of the most memorable storylines in the novel. How did you negotiate the relationship between the characters’ brutal financial reality and the ghost story? Do you think about genre as you write, or does blending genre come naturally?

I think that for many writers genre is a concept you learn or are taught to take into account long after you develop your love of stories and storytelling. I don’t think about genre when writing, I think about the best way to tell the story I’d like to tell, as well as what elements feel real to the world I’m creating for my characters. In The Turner House, many, but not all characters believe in the possibility of a haint being real. My portrayal of the haint is rooted in exploring these characters’ relationships to their own beliefs. I never gave much thought to the conventions of incorporating this “magical” element into the story; I simply considered how it might impact my characters.

This introduction of the haint in the opening chapter of the novel feels like a reference to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. However, in a departure from Beloved, your ghost scene is injected with a sense of humor that continues to crop up throughout the story. How does humor function in a novel that also deals quite seriously with such topics as race, intergenerational trauma, and financial ruin?

The epigraph of The Turner House includes a quotes from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men: “The negro offers a feather-bed resistance. That is, we let the probe enter but it never comes out. It gets smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries.” This, in part, encapsulates my tonal approach to the novel. 

If a short story were a house, what would be its foundation? In other words, what elements do you see as most essential to crafting a great short story?

When I think about what differentiates an acceptable short story from a truly great one, it is skin in the game. Where is that kernel of true feeling or insight that elevates all other parts of the narrative?

What are your literary obsessions? What images or ideas do you find yourself returning to again and again?

There are way too many images to name, but I will say that compellingly-rendered human interactions trump abstract ideas for me in most cases.

And finally, what are you reading right now?

I am reaching Romance in Marseille, a newly-released novel by Claude McKay which was written in the 1930s but never published.

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Fiction Feature: “Self-Portrait” By Halimah Marcus

 

Self-Portrait

 

Going to the Frick was Mabel’s idea. The purpose was for her and I to get to know one another—me, the new wife, her, the old friend. Or not that old, really. She and Daniel had become close in the last year, which was unusual, given his moratorium on new friendships. Friends were demanding. Friends required time. Friends were a threat to the next drawer-bound novel.

            On the Q train he stood above me, feet apart, my knees between his. Daniel never sat on trains unless they were empty. How he considered the needs of others before his own, before mine, it made me feel inferior but I also respected it.

            “I used to have a company pass to the Frick,” Daniel said. That was back when he worked at the hedge fund, before he saved enough money to quit. “Maybe it still works.”

            I held the back of his knee and grinned up at him. “Either way,” I said.

            The three of us met on 70th street on a lukewarm spring day. I wore a short skirt with a crochet scarf—I didn’t like the outfit but suspected Mabel would, based on pictures of jewelry she’d made that I’d seen on her website, crafty stuff. If Daniel was anxious I couldn’t tell—anxiousness was not one of the qualities he displayed visibly. Those were limited to anger, satisfaction, and resolve. Most days, lust wasn’t even on the list. He made love almost entirely with a straight face, buried the lede on orgasms.

            As we milled about the galleries it was difficult for all three of us to stay together, so I drifted apart to the far wall or the next room. Whenever I looked for Daniel he seemed always to be with Mabel, their tolerance for each painting exactly matched. I sulked by pretending to be more independent than I felt, charting my own course through the wooden and white rooms.

            Truthfully, I wasn’t all that interested in paintings. I was practical—I appreciated culture but I didn’t confuse art as passion and I think Daniel liked that about me. I left room for him to be the creative one.

            Eventually Mabel came and brought me to stand in front of Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait” where Daniel was waiting. It was a brushy number with a lot of affectionate self-loathing in brown paint.

            I thought I was standing next to Daniel but then somehow Mabel was between us. “Peter Schjeldhal says this is the best painting in all of New York,” she said.

            I let her stay there. “And what does he say is the best pizza?”

            Daniel intervened. “I think he posed it as a question—is Rembrandt’s ‘Self-Portrait’ the best painting in New York?”

            “Well, I think it is,” Mabel said.

            “Have you seen them all?” I couldn’t help it.

            “At least the permanent collections.”

            We sidestepped to the adjacent painting, which was also a Rembrandt, and I asked her to send me the article. At least I was trying. “The Polish Rider” had more hope to it, an out-of-sight sun that was either rising or setting and a white horse that caught the light.

            “I will,” she said. “And I brought something to read about this one. But I’ll save it for dinner.”

            “You’ve made quite a syllabus.” A comment that Daniel, poor guy, let me get away with.

Read more…

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Fiction Feature: “When They Spoke” By Katherine Romba

 

When They Spoke

            When cockroaches started speaking, most people thought that they were imagining things. Someone would encounter a quiet conversation between roaches in front of the refrigerator. Or would hear one talking to itself in the back of a drawer. Or would even happen upon a roach perched on a baby crib, squeaking out a lullaby. And that someone would shake their head, chuckle, and continue with their day.

            Yet only a few days after this had begun, enough encounters had been documented to convince people that roaches could now speak. Children began chasing them and packing them into jars, while scientists ran them through a battery of tests. Talk shows sparked controversy on the phenomenon. “Isn’t it interesting that these insects—which are the most likely of all living creatures to survive a nuclear holocaust—have now developed the ability to speak?” mused one expert. Incredulity turned to curiosity—and suspicion. But the roaches never spoke under duress, whether at the hands of an interrogator, scientist, or little boy; in fact, they never conversed directly with people at all.

            Until the fire. The fire started in a subway tunnel—some said that the cockroaches themselves started it, while others believed that failing electrical wires were at fault. No one could deny, however, that it was the cockroaches that saved hundreds of people from potential disaster. Even before the alarms could alert subway personnel, even before the thick black smoke began pouring into the tunnels, swarms of cockroaches had collected onto the two neighboring subway platforms and had begun warning the waiting passengers. Voices normally disappear quickly into a subway’s cavernous spaces, but when the cockroaches spoke, in unison, their voices simply became louder and clearer. All of the people under- ground escaped safely—although thirty-eight roaches died in the rescue.

            After the fire, suspicion changed to approval and gratitude. But it was unclear where to direct these feelings, because the cockroaches had suddenly disappeared. People, ready with praise, searched the dark corners of their apartments. And when they found no cockroaches to coax out into their homes, they became unsettled and then increasingly disconsolate. Questions quietly plagued them. What had they in fact experienced? What had it all meant? What had they been given, and why had it been taken away?

            And in a desperate attempt to regain it—whatever “it” was—people began treating with reverence any other insect they could find. Spiders, ants, centipedes. People took down sticky fly traps, swept away boric acid, left cobwebs where they were found. Crumbs were summarily left out on counter tops. Yet the attachment people formed with insects seemed lost on the insects themselves. Moreover, these insects, no matter how ardently venerated, no matter how dotingly cherished, never spoke a word, and never saved a life, so far as anyone could tell. They simply continued doing what they had been doing: searching for food, creating nests, and dying rather ignominiously on kitchen floors, in bathtub drains, and in the crevices of window sills.

Read more…

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Fiction Feature: “Staccato” By Peter Tieryas Liu

 

Staccato

 

Six weeks of every year, I take a trip to Beijing and invent a new “me.” I usually pick

international hotels because everyone there wears a costume too. Mine is “Esau Zhou”

and I sell vitamins to cows.

*
The hotel is in the Wudaokou area near one of the main universities, Tsing-Hua.

There’s lots of exchange students here, a thriving cultural mishmash in Beijing.

*
Partly drugged by jet lag and nocturnal remissions, I chat with Jean, a Korean art

student who paints noses over fingers as a motif on misguided sense. Abraham, a

disillusioned meteorologist, likes to ask, “If rain were as heavy as bullets, would people

have found a way to change weather, or would they have invented bullet-proof

umbrellas?” The German brunette across from me refuses to give her name, only dates

rich Chinese guys, and has a row with them every night before loud, raucous sex.

*
I talk about vitamins with the other guests. Cells normally subdivide until they die, I

explain, a vestige of reincarnation sucking away at the original. A healthy dose of

vitamin E can prolong age and life by increasing the durability of cell regeneration after

mitosis.

*
The first time I see Sarah Chao, she’s holding a violin with broken strings, sipping on a

cocktail in the lobby. She’s Chinese but has placid blue eyes that appear to drift.

Riveting is a word I shouldn’t use carelessly, as I’ve had bad experience with rivets. But

her eyes are riveting. Read more…