I realize if we lived here we could be home by now. So how do you suggest we communicate? Do we receive and appropriately reciprocate the words of another? Do we communicate the internal gestures of our own healing or projection of trauma? How are we loved? In each encounter we address elements of verbal and nonverbal communication. Soma Mei Sheng Frazier is a writer who focuses on the rigidities and relaxations of our verbal and nonverbal cues and how this intimacy is shaped through the body of our words as well as our actions. In this interview we take a close look at Frazier’s fiction chapbook Collateral Damage: A Triptych, winner of the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize in where she intimates, “every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done?”
Some characters need to “hit rock bottom, in a way that [they] wouldn’t forget.” Some characters have found “peace, so there’s little left to write about”. There are gender tensions present in the work to which Frazier points out, “I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.” Gender aside we are reminded how, “as adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.” Perhaps it is more about the patience we have with others and how we learn to live in our sentences as well as our bodies.
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s debut fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, won the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize of 2013 and earned high praise from Nikki Giovanni, Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Antonya Nelson and Molly Giles. Soma’s writing has placed in literary competitions including Zoetrope’s and the Mississippi Review’s, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, been named a Notable Story of 2009 by the storySouth Million Writers Award and won nods from Robert Olen Butler, Jim Shepard and others. Recent work is available in Glimmer Train (Issue 89) and online, at Glimmer Train (Bulletin 72) and Carve Magazine. New stories are forthcoming inZYZZYVA this year and Glimmer Train in 2015. Soma is at work on a novel that walks the line between traditional and urban lit.
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
When I was four, I played boys’ games and wore boys’ jeans: Toughskins, and at least two pairs of dark denim monstrosities whose tag, “Husky,” stuck straight up from the ass. Given my odd interests, stout form and not-so-swank style, I found myself with plenty of alone time.
That year, I picked up the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series – asking my dad for help with larger words; persisting even after Burroughs cracked civilized Tarzan on the head with a rock so he could start from scratch again – and somewhere around Tarzan and the Leopard Men I started wanting to write too.
Once I devoured Grace Paley, Joy Harjo, Nikki Giovanni, Raymond Carver, Maurice Sendak, Judith Budnitz, Kiese Laymon, Kobo Abe, Louise Erdrich, Bob Butler, Tupac Shakur, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Yasunari Kawabata, David Foster Wallace, Stephen King, James Baldwin, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Denis Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Shel Silverstein, Molly Giles, Uwem Akpan, Richard Bausch, Paulo Coelho, Simone de Beauvoir, Sara Teasdale, Joy Williams, Thomas Hardy, Richard Wright, Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Ann Beattie, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Molly Giles. Many more. Nowadays I’m so fickle or time-strapped or both that I can barely make it through a book. I read a lot of anthologies, piecemeal, as well as poems by Charles Bukowski and Charles Simic (I do like me some Chuck). I have an enduring fascination with Daniel Handler, who was kind enough to blurb my little fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, and my favorite writer to talk with in person would have to be Arisa White.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
Hmmm. Burgious Frazier; Shannon Williams-Zhou; Candice “Antique” Wicks, of Antique Naked Soul; Colleen Chen; Marty Rippens; Arisa White; Robert Mezey, who once told me I had “the ear;” Sarah Lawrence College mentor Myra Goldberg, who pointed out that if I was too stubborn to write accessible stories I might as well keep my work to myself; Lisa Schiffman, author and friend; Dartmouth professor Li Hua-yuan Mowry, AKA “Mom.”
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
My work was once vivid; striking. Now it’s factual and quirky, as I’m disenchanted with drama. What is it that Queen Latifah said in “U.N.I.T.Y?” “Uh, and real bad girls are the silent type.” I guess I like work that sneaks up on you to get its hand around your throat.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
I have a hard time delineating genres, but I’m interested in translation – from gut feeling to motion, understanding to imperative, experience to page and screen.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
But of course, world domination. Muahahaha!
I’ll be completing a novel this summer. Shortly thereafter, I’m hoping to secure a full-time, tenure-track teaching gig someplace in the Pacific Northwest.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
I’m always getting surprised by women’s work – Lori Ostlund’s, last week – and I’m hoping that the industry will surprise me as well, by correcting the imbalance that leads to more men’s books being reviewed than women’s, and more males being commissioned write reviews. Women are, after all, the primary consumers of American literature. Another lingering disparity is the industry’s disproportionate whiteness.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Akemi Johnson, Muthoni Kiarie, Arisa White.
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Oriental Cracker Mix. (Delish!)
9.) “leave,” is a short prose story about an aggressive abusive familial relationship. Jason we learn, “is an alcoholic; but it’s not the drinking that’s the problem. It’s the problem that’s the problem, and drinking is what he does to avoid thinking about it. […] The problem is that our government trained him, and neglected to untrain him.” The feminine persona here, Sarah, is first mothered by her child, Lilli. Sarah lost her breasts to a double mastectomy when she was eighteen. Her mentally abused passive personality regularly leaves their home to avoid physical domestic abuse when her daughter tells her, “Mama, leave”. But Jason is not a machine. Sarah tells us, “And that is how I knew that the military had left some part of him untrained, and that, if I ever needed to, I could touch that part and be rid of him.” And she does. She traces his humanity, insulting him and calling him a “sodomized friend-killing LOSER!” He hits her repeatedly; close to the point of death. She tells us, “Oh free oh free oh free. I smile up at him, just for a moment, and let my face fall slack.” And then it is she who tells him, “Jason, leave, […] evenly.” And she knows that these words will keep her safe. I am at point most attentive to the juxtaposition between Sarah and her daughter. The transfer of responsibility, and how both parents seem to have gone through degenderizing identity creates friction; Jason, through his military experience, and Sarah through the removal of her breasts. When you were creating Sarah as a character, what do you believe gave her the strength to sacrifice herself, to address Jason? And also why he knew, that what she spoke to him was in fact the pain he needed to face, in order to allow her to leave?
I think Sarah’s devotion to Lilli led her to provoke and abandon Jason. I’ve watched people kick bad habits when faced with a child’s reliance – even conflict-averse, starry-eyed addicts who aren’t fully sold on their own worth. A kid is a strong incentive. Hell, I’ve kicked a few habits myself for my daughter Zoe: people, substances, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. (Okay, I lied about the last one. But I eat them furtively now, and mainly in the winter so I can blame my red fingertips on the cold. Brrr.)
Jason – he needed to hit rock bottom, in a way that he wouldn’t forget.
10.) When we enter into, “everyone is waiting,” we see how spectrums of suffering effects how we are able to relate to one another. The main character Dan is in a fruitious relationship that ends tragically and unexpectedly with his partner Lena when she vomits blood and passes away almost immediately. He is befriended by a woman who is the only one he feels can relate to his most intimate soft spots. Similar to “leave,” even though here the woman is only a friend, we see how the experience of trauma can unite people in a space that is alien to most. Ancanit, who we learn was in the LRA was kidnapped, most of her family was killed, and she was abusively held captive to save her family. There is a dissonance between Ancanit and Dan. While she is able to comfort him, we are left we a startling image of her with a gun at the end of the story. One that seems to haunt her. The women in both of these stories seem to assume responsibility for the pain of their male counterparts. Why do you believe the stories evolved this way, and why do we not hear more about the muted counterpart to the relationship?
Every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done? I wrote “Leave” as Sarah’s story and “Everyone Is Waiting” as Dan’s. The secondary characters are less visible, but in some cases more solid. For example, Acanit is practical. At thirteen, she’s withstood more pain than Dan. She handles business and lives with the repercussions, and she’s also a very direct person – whereas he’s tentative; skittish; prone to hiding in facts and figures, turns of phrase. No matter how precarious her situation, she’s found her peace, so there’s little left to write about her, whereas we can still speculate about Dan finding his.
I hadn’t noticed that both Sarah and Acanit took on more emotional responsibility than the men in the first two stories, so your question gave me paws. Meow. Perhaps I was writing from the experience of watching women step up to deal with emotional matters on men’s behalf. I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.
11.) “charlie golf, charlie golf one” is the concluding story of this chapbook in which we meet Mike and Celeste. Mike narrates the relationship and describes, “I’m the one who enlisted at eighteen, shipped out at thirty for one last tour in a field artillery MOS and stepped on a goddamn pressure plate.” The story is one of a “perfect wife” relationship, until the trauma. And Mike cannot tell her, he does not want to tell her about his memory. That after the explosion he heard: “‘Holy shit! His legs! His fucking legs! Where the fuck is fucking Medivac?’ Over and over he shouted those words, but I heard what he was really saying. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you Mike.” He admits, “I want to tell Celeste this story. More importantly, I want to say that I need her—Charlie Golf, Charlie Golf, for God’s sake, don’t watch me sink—but it’s like I lost my language when I lost my legs. Both of us lost our language.” The language of disaster is loss. Communication is lost. He needs her to listen, but in a way he also knows just as in the previous stories that his words will somehow falter to the devastation of trauma. There is a shift in the story when both characters realize that language is not enough, but the relationship and love through eye contact is. They speak to each other through their eyes. Can you please speak to how we utilize language to intimate the trauma, where it stifles, and how bodies possess the ability to speak past language, to something perhaps more human that allows us to persist in love?
I have a Pit Bull. He’s sentimental: smiles up in the way that Pits do; leans into our legs without language. At night, the dog sits quietly at the window in our stairwell, listening to creaking trees and other questionable sounds that might harm us. His expressive ears twitch. They stand up and sometimes he does too and then, slowly, he sits back down. When friends come to the door he rolls over and submits – lets their children grab his tail. The kids hear him loud and clear,and take advantage. Yet when we go walking, there are always a few pedestrians who flinch away from my tail-wagging dog. Some step off the sidewalk entirely, right into the street with the cars.
My husband is a black man and people react to him the same way, sometimes even while saying Nice to meet you. So I’m guessing most folks who own dogs or are attuned to racism, classism or other under-the-radar isms already understand how bodies speak past language.
But for politically insensitive readers with dog allergies, I will simply defer to multiple studies indicating that human communication is heavily sight-based; less than 10% conversation-based. Even our speech is shaped by nonlinguistic elements: voice quality, pitch, volume, rhythm, intonation, accent and pace. When we’re babies, we’re fluent in all of this. As adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.
While some courageous, desperate, immodest or impatient people always take full advantage of language, most of us only gesture toward trauma with words.
My father was quick to use his hands, we might say, on both me and my mom. And then comes the rest of the communication, in micro and macro expressions; a slight lean forward or a slow lean back.