Because story-telling is both art & science, a writer may strive to use the right blend of history, culture, language, and colors of a place to enrich the narrative, and thus mold a piece in the best of what’s available and unique to the writer’s sensibilities. This fertile ground is made use of by many contemporary writers, writing in the Asian and African story-telling tradition. In flash fiction too, choosing such an approach, whether or not they be critical, reactionary to an event, or merely conveying a thought process or way of life, pays rich dividend.
To illustrate how this can be masterfully executed in the brief scope of flash fiction, let us bring “How We Were Born” (Lucy Zhang, MayDay Online) on the observation table. This story won first place in MayDay 2022 Flash Contest.
Lucy Zhang’s narration is fast-paced, inviting the reader into the dynamics of a scene. From its telling, this piece essentially plays with the closeness between the siblings, and yet their competitiveness, and dissects how, in the gaze of the outsiders who despise their non-conforming features, they are unified and one. Embellished with truly beautiful imagery (“the golden crow who burns earth with radiation and explosive flares”), the story spins complex dynamics without becoming imposing or serious. “There, they’ll kneel and pray to be less ugly.” is the core of this tiny piece — an ugliness of unbelonging we all identify with at some or the other level. I love the narrator’s voice, the unusual setting, the cultural references, and the sub-surface theme and messaging. It goes deeper and beyond the simplicity of a sibling rivalry between the narrator and her brother and spills into a binary field of knowing-unknowing, winning and losing, boon and curse, beauty and hideous-looking.
Like the coder Lucy Zhang is in her day-job, she manages to approach it with logic, and manipulates the situation into a malleable form where the outcome becomes unpredictable. The open-ended concluding lines adds to this, leaving the reader to ponder over the possibilities this scene might reach if the writer allowed it to take course. Such a methodical precision, as done here, requires restraint and is impressive.
As a Writer of Color, I understand the complexities involved in incorporating cultural references that wider readership may not be familiar with. The question is compounded by the brevity of micro-fiction and flash: the where, when and how much of it so as not to swamp the spinal storyline within the skeletal scope. Lucy Zhang does that with aplomb, starting with the Lantern Festival, and carrying it onwards with the mention of tangyuan, sesame paste and rice balls. “How We Were Born”, for me, works on multiple levels and is highly recommended as a study in form and structure.
It is also very important to remember that cultural/socio-political references should ideally transcend boundaries if one is writing in the English language and hopes to be read and enjoyed by readers globally. Simultaneously, it does seem that native real-time experiences of culture, people and events are more important and convincing than emigrant/diaspora viewing windows to look at a place/home country. It is the voice of one that lives in that place and chronicles the nuances of life unique to a place and people that stands out to readers. Here are some more examples:
“Haori” by P Akaska, who wrote this flash piece inspired by her grandmother who was a seamstress in Japan. “A Primo Place to Stay” by Melissa Llanes Brownlee that explores home in Hawaii, with sensory details and the connections to a mother. And, what can I say about “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid? In this piece, which runs to just a couple of pages, a mother offers advice to her teenage daughter about how to behave like a proper woman. Originally published in the New Yorker (1978), the setting – as Kincaid has subsequently pointed out – is Antigua, the Caribbean island where she was born and raised, and the reference to numerous local foods, such as okra, salt fish, and dasheen, all hint at the story’s Caribbean setting.
DIFFICULTY LEVEL 1: Pick a popular tourist place of the country you are a native of. Set your story in that place.
DIFFICULTY LEVEL 2: Summon a character from the history of your region/country. Conjure up a conversation with that charcter. Tell your flash through dialogues only.
DIFFICULTY LEVEL 3: A family must decide what to take with them when they need to permanently leave their home in an emergency (war/air strike/disease/famine/civic unrest/wildfire etc). Recount that scene as a work of flash fiction, and bring forth heritage, identity, language and culture through what they pick up and pack in.
FLASH FICTIONEER SPOTLIGHT:
The spotlight is on Jude Higgins (short listed for The Bridport Prize, runs the Bath Flash Fiction Awards, co-runs Bath Short Story Award and directs the short fiction press, Ad Hoc Fiction and Flash Fiction Festivals, U.K). Because we’re talking authentic cultural reference points in this blogpost, may I point you to Jude Higgin’s excellent stories in Flash 500, Storgy, and EllipsisZine, to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
Free to submit magazines & open in March: Splonk, MicroLit Almanac, Barren Magazine, Ruby Literary, The Minnesota Review, Passages North, Parentheses Journal, Heavy Feather Review, and JMWW
First workshop of 2023 is
A 90 minute Online Generative Flash Fiction Workshop on Sunday March 26: 8:30 AM ET/2:30 PM BST/7:00 PM IST
Description: Flash Fiction brings to mind something like coffee. Perfectly blended. Strong. Served fast and fresh. As a rapid generative session, sit with a cup of coffee, and before it gets cold, we’ll tap into everyday trifles and memories to quickly write five stories. Expect to experiment and have fun with unusual cultural prompts and published diverse stories to draw inspiration from.
Click here to read what previous participants of this workshop had to say!
PRO-TIP OF THE MONTH
An acceptance does not mean publication. Nor does a paying publication mean payment. There’s many a slip between the cup and lip. You’ll come across many such cases in public domain shared by writers themselves. Just make sure you’re aware of what you are getting into, trust the people at the helm but apply caution. Look for red flags such as: a) errratic scheduling of Issues b) Says paying on Twitter but no such thing in their submission guidelines page (recently withdrew an essay because of this ambiguity c) In the acknowledgement email of your work, the editor offers services or requests purchases, and d) Does not state any time frame either for publication or payment in their About/submission page.
Thanks for reading!
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