What, in four words or less, is your debut short story collection all about?
Lust. Revenge. Betrayal. Justice.
Do you think it’s unusual to have ‘unflattering’ portrayals of women and queer people of color so dominate a story collection?
I feel like the terms ‘flattering’ and ‘unflattering’ are sort of like terms used by a fading star to direct a photographer to a ‘more flattering’ angle. To one’s ‘best’ side. When the reality, in all its brutality and force and honesty, is just so much more dazzling to me, and really beautiful.
Is it important to you that sentences be beautiful?
It is, although that tripped me up as a writer for years. Literally revising the same set of about 11 sentences that opened a novel for years and years and years. It amazed me how many different ways there were to arrange the thing. Finally, I realized that except for version 2,348, nobody moved off the subway platform onto a subway train – they just kind of stood or paced. Once I got people onto a train, then moved the train, I found my way into actually writing stories.
How do you think having children changes you?
It’s not having them that changes you. It’s time. We all just look for somebody to pin that on.
Was it difficult, as a parent, writing about miscarriage, estrangement, abandonment?
The title story, “White Dancing Elephants,” was written in a burst of the first real sorrow I think I’ve ever felt, more crushing than anything I could imagine, soon after I’d suffered a miscarriage. I was in Europe – I remember exactly – sitting in front of a guest computer in a hotel lobby in Amsterdam, holding a fluffy white stuffed dog I had bought for my little son and missing him and feeling guilty for at the same time so intensely missing this baby, this child, who was fine on ultrasound initially but vanished by twelve weeks. That experience – that morning of bleeding – I wasn’t over it, not at all, when I started writing, and it was the first experience I had of spontaneously writing, not writing to meet some sort of deadline or make a contract or “finish a project” I had set myself. I was writing like a wounded animal. I was writing for her, to her, even though I didn’t know the gender of the lost child. Then somehow ideas from a list of “story ideas” I’d first written down ten years before entered into it – I’d always been fascinated by the Buddha’s birth story, how his mother had a dream of a white elephant first dancing, then dying, telling her and the world that heard the story of the doom of the young prince Siddhartha, how he would renounce power, lose the throne, leaving his family to grieve.
What do you love most about writing?
Same answer as: what do you love most about living. Everything. Pretty much.
Do you think there’s hope in the current political situation?
Every time I get a direct message, email, phone call about my book that is about queer people of color, people with disabilities, #MeToo experiences from women of color perspectives – about immigrant families, about forgotten histories of the enslavement of Indians by the Portuguese – from some bookstore in Indiana or Georgia or Tennessee or Kentucky. I know there’s hope. These are states that in zombie movie parlance, I used think of as having “gone dark” – but there are people nothing like me there who are exactly and completely LIKE ME. I do feel there is hope; I feel so strongly and instinctively that no one wanted this current political reality of marching neo-Nazis with tikki torches, concentration camps for immigrant children, the gutting of basic health care and public education, the spreading of rhetoric based on xenophobic lies. No one wants to live in hate. No one wants to create misery as a legacy. They believe what they’ve done is good. They believe wrong. But we won’t try to change them. That’s useless. And some are so hateful, we can’t waste our time with them. We push forward a restoration of basic justice and decency, then pray there are enough people who want this country to be kind, then teach by our vigilance that we can’t take decency and justice for granted. I believe all this. Even though, when you read my stories, you might find them “dark” as some of my favorite readers (Diana Abu-Jaber, Jeff VanderMeer, Amelia Gray) all have.