Making art during a pandemic also clarifies your work, in the way that uncertainty strips away the unnecessary so you can focus on the essential.
In August 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, The Margins launched a new Flash Fiction project. One year into the fortnightly series, after reading over almost two hundred pieces, our editors got an inside peek into practices of Asian American and Asian diasporic flash fiction. Something we noticed was how flash fiction, with its urgent language coupled with its swift writing pace, has unique possibilities for writing into the present moment. Like a petri dish, flash fiction is an ideal container for play. The word count limitation can create bold experimentation. Also during the pandemic and an all-too-often dehumanizing news cycle, we thought about readers—those of us feeling isolated, those who were and are actively organizing, and those who were unable to garner the attention for reading longer pieces of fiction. From the enthusiastic response by readers, we saw the series was wanted and needed in a quarantine: a fictional world to escape to and escape quickly!
With the possibilities that the flash form afforded our writers, the series has been able to work with and publish poets, essayists, and even graphic artists. We’ve been able to distill the flash pieces further into astrological tidbits, where an evocative sentence from a story became a horoscope reading.
The five writers we’ve gathered here for a roundtable conversation have had varied approaches to writing through and about the pandemic. Sadia Quraeshi Shepard explored the fabulist possibilities that the early days of COVID engendered, with the struggle to get Desi groceries delivered. (Note: this piece was recognized as Wigleaf 2021 Top 50). Jireh Deng portrayed the claustrophobia that a queer college student feels at her Christian conservative home during Zoom sermons. Jemimah Wei wrote about the tragicomedy of elementary school kids in a virtual classroom, and reflects critically and compassionately on social and digital dynamics between children. Poet Chen Chen dipped his toes into his first published work of fiction, about the theater of retail encounters and what can and cannot be touched in a store during a pandemic. Jefferson Lee writes about a software engineer tightening his N95 mask as the wildfires in California burn red skies and grandparents’ death notices arrive from across the globe .
The five writers gathered to reflect on the genre of flash fiction, recommend other Asian, Asian diasporic, and Asian American flash writers to read, and share how COVID-19 impacted their writing. Plus, they all share favorite flash writing prompts. At the time of publishing this roundtable, the Submission Period for The Margins flash fiction series is open, and will close on December 5, 2021.
—Swati Khurana, Flash Fiction Editor & Yi Wei, Flash Fiction Assistant Editor
Recognizing both its ongoingness and its different phases, how has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your writing practice, the subject of your work, and/or your writing communities?
For me, writing had been a form of self expression, but I truly didn’t see myself as a serious writer until the pandemic hit. I turned to writing and the writing community for survival; in the summer of 2020 I took four writing classes online where I met some amazing people who really informed my own growth and development as a writer. In these spaces, mentored by other writers of color and queer writers, I saw the possibilities for my own writing to take shape in the unique landscape of Asian American literature. Making art during a pandemic also clarifies your work, in the way that uncertainty strips away the unnecessary so you can focus on the essential. I write with intentionality about family, community, love, and my desire to see culture shift. I hate to sound grandiose, but death makes you think about your legacy, and I want to be remembered in my writing by who and what I cared for and how I loved.
It was the complete opposite for me—and because of that I love hearing how the pandemic has been clarifying for other artists, because it gives me so much hope. For me, the pandemic completely interrupted my writing, my community, and my subject. I think my brain truly broke a little bit, because nothing I was working on before could proceed. I very nearly abandoned my novel, and it caused me so much sorrow. Everything I wrote was rubbish. I took online classes, trying to jolt myself into writing, into community, but I think my panic was so transparent that I found it hard to make coherent conversation with anyone I met in those Zoom rings, and I’m pretty sure I gave one or two of them a big scare with my non sequitur responses, for which I’m now deeply sorry.
I was trying so hard to force myself to persist in my writing that it was making me very depressed. But when I turned away and let myself free-write into the pandemic (which I also hated, and fought every inch of the way), I wrote stories and stories of hypothetical worlds confined within the current parameters of disaster. Some of these were then picked up and published, and when other writer-readers emailed me with their own panic, it made me feel less lonely, less gaslit by the nightmarish global situation which I simply couldn’t comprehend. From there, the panic gave way to rage, and the thing about rage is it’s less isolating than fear. I formed new and mutually encouraging relationships with other writers, started leaning into the imaginative landscape, and from there, very slowly, my writing started picking up again.
I definitely, definitely get the “my brain truly broke a little bit,” thing. If we’re trying to focus just on the writing parts that broke, I found that I could not for the life of me figure out if anything I’d written was working. I could crank out a few pages, but when I went back over them it just wouldn’t really register at all. I told myself that writing was just like anything else, and as long as I maintained a practice, it’d even out. So I tried to get a little stricter about having some set time every day, and that kind of worked. It felt good to have some routine. But also, if it weren’t for some really great friends/readers who, for whatever reason, were willing to help me sort through all that mess I was generating, I really don’t know if I’d have stuck with it.
I know, right? I would read, and reread my work, with a sinking feeling that it was all hot trash. Somehow, having a routine didn’t work for me, it just made me more aware of how much I was failing as a fiction writer. But on the other hand, I started as a weekly columnist at No Contact Magazine (it’s bi-weekly now) and that external deadline really helped. At least I was writing 800 words a week, even if it was essentially 800 words of me talking frankly about how panicked and depressed the pandemic was making me.
Sadia Quraeshi Shepard
The idea of feeling drawn to and also distanced from a daily writing practice really resonates with me. Like so many writers with young children, in early pandemic days I found myself juggling work, homeschooling, and domestic tasks instead of writing. Instead of working on my book I was washing the groceries. Remember washing groceries?! Writing began to feel very far away. One bright light in this period was participating in Jami Attenberg’s project 1000 Words of Summer, which reminded me at a time when I needed it most that it was possible to write a thousand words in a day. What I ended up working on were a series of flash fiction pieces in the voice of a single character who is part of a long project of mine. While I’m not certain these fragments will end up in the final manuscript, I came to know my character in a very different way writing them. And Jami’s daily missives felt like a creative lifeline. Another bright spot was moderating a Kundiman/New School webinar about myth and memory in the diaspora featuring Hala Alyan and K-Ming Chang. As much as I have acutely missed attending readings and talks in person over the last eighteen months, the huge proliferation of literary events online has made participating in book events much more accessible and affordable (no childcare!) than pre-pandemic. This has been an unexpected silver lining.
I’ve been thinking about how I should really attend online classes, too—in particular, generative workshops. I finished my PhD in English with a Creative Writing focus in 2018 and, at the time, I could not imagine ever being a student again. I was so done with school, though I was transitioning to teaching as my main occupation. In 2020, I felt lonely and isolated, as a university teacher, expected to go on doing my job—and completely online—without any break, without any real space for processing pandemic grief and rage. I felt like I was constantly giving and had little time to replenish my creativity. Writing poetry seemed impossible; it went very, very slowly. And I was avoiding returning to work on my second full-length collection. That book, so focused on crisis, from the Trump administration to mass shootings, and also largely set in a deeply conservative city in West Texas (where I did my PhD coursework), seemed already too full of difficulty and I had no desire to add more to it by writing about the pandemic. I turned instead to craft/personal essays and my contribution to this flash fiction series. I’m so grateful to the editors who’ve asked me to write prose, though I tend to do that even more slowly—these opportunities gave me a way out of my writing slump.
It was only in the spring of this year that I was able to return to my poetry manuscript. Big thanks to my friend Sam Herschel Wein, who visited me in the Boston area after he was fully vaccinated; he kept nudging me to get back to the collection and finally, when we got to have in-person conversation again, I felt reinvigorated and like I could find my way through. That book is now slated to come out from BOA Editions in September 2022. I’m surprised at how quickly it ended up coming together, once I had some other source of motivation and inspiration, through reconnecting with a friend. I’m excited about this book again, as sorrow-filled as many of the poems are. Still, I know I need to take better care of my creative mind/heart; I need to keep myself nourished.
Do you typically write flash fiction? If so, what draws you to the genre? If not, what genre do you write in and how did it inform your process?
I mainly write poetry and identify as a poet; I think I bring a poet’s love for lyricism, imagery, compression, and swift turns to my writing in other genres. I don’t typically write flash fiction, though I enjoy reading it and if I ever were to write a book of fiction, it would likely consist of flash. I love the overlap between flash fiction and prose poetry (one of my favorite MFA classes explored both genres). And there can be overlap with nonfiction, too—I’d say “Summer,” my flash piece in this series, has elements of personal essay as well as lyric essay. I’m drawn to poet Mary Ruefle’s approach in her prose books, The Most of It and My Private Property, in which she doesn’t distinguish between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—the books are simply all prose. I think of Sawako Nakayasu saying, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”
I wrote “Summer” last summer, as some stores in the Boston area were reopening and experimenting with different “customer experiences.” I was having a great deal of trouble writing poetry. So, when I got the invitation from Swati to contribute to this series, I thought, well it’s been ages since I’ve written fiction, but maybe that’s what I need to do to find the language for some of what I’ve experienced during this time. I hope what I’ve brought over from poetry is an attention to the music of language and the rhythm of feeling. Too, an openness to dream, to surreal imagery, to leaps, and to lingering over the sensory and sensuous.
Sadia Quraeshi Shepard
In my teaching life, one of the exercises I do with my students is writing loglines and summaries for documentary and fiction film projects before they begin shooting and writing. I love the way that compressing a story into a couple of sentences can act as a kind of crucible to help you find the story that you want to tell. Who is your protagonist? What do they want and what is standing in their way? What is the catalyst for this story? Similarly, I find that the compression of flash fiction can act, as editor Swati Khurana has said, as a kind of pressure cooker. In “Monsters” the compression of the form also suggested to me something that I haven’t tried before—incorporating fabulist or surreal elements into a piece of otherwise realist fiction. This is definitely something I’m interested in experimenting with again in the future.
I’m actually generally really long-winded. Pre-pandemic, my stories were about 10,000 words, and my novel now stands at 130,000 words, which is really, you know, not anything that someone who isn’t Hanya Yanagihara should do. But to Chen Chen’s point on having a great deal of trouble writing at all, I experienced something similar in that nothing I wrote during the early months of the pandemic could go over a thousand words. So I was quite unceremoniously dropped into the world of flash fiction, but what a delight it’s been. I think what Swati said in her introduction to this series, back in August 2020, about comparing flash to an instant pot is exactly right. Dancing with pressure and tension has been incredibly exciting, and it’s now been a year and I’m still dabbling with different instant pot recipes for the flash form.
130,000 words! That’s super impressive. I think the longest I’ve ever written clocked in at like 15,000, maybe. I write flash once in a while, but still mostly think of full-length, 3k-7k-word short stories as my focus. Still, I’m not where I want to be with that yet; I’m a lot more comfortable riffing at a language or scene level than understanding how a plot should be constructed, how tension should be built and resolved. When the right idea comes, flash gives me the opportunity to work in those areas I’m more familiar with. It’s a welcome respite from banging my head against another story’s structure or pacing problem.
Like Chen, poetry is my main form of expression, but that’s why I love the intersection of poetry and flash fiction, because both rely on the efficiency of your words and scarcity of the page. There are a lot of similarities between structured poetry and the constraints of flash fiction; the container for the putty of my words helps me to create a more defined shape. I also appreciate that Chen referenced how poetry doesn’t differentiate between fiction and nonfiction; it reminds me of what my poetry professor, Patty Seyburn says along the lines of “Poetry is more about sincerity, than honesty.”
It’s interesting because I, as a journalist, see that the profession is obsessed with objectivity and accuracy. But as creative writers, we understand that our proximity and distance to the subject we are writing about is a fallacy. “Queeranteen Sermon” has a lot of details from my own life, but it’s also about so much more.
What literary possibilities do you think the large tent of “Asian American Flash Fiction” or “Asian Diasporic Flash Fiction” allows? Is there anyone in the genre, or a related compressed one (i.e. flash memoir, prose poetry, social media posts, hybrid genres), whose work excites you?
Sadia Quraeshi Shepard
As Asian American writers we draw on wildly diverse histories, homelands, and literary traditions, which I find hugely inspiring. In my own writing life, the idea of the fragment and how it might suggest the fractures and dislocations of memories and border-crossings is a recurring fascination. One collection that I return to frequently is Saadat Hassan Manto’s Siyah Hashiye (1948), translated from Urdu into English as Black Margins. The stories are extremely short—some as short as a single line or paragraph. To contemporary readers in the aftermath of the Partition of the Subcontinent, the book’s title would have likely recalled the way that incidents of trauma or violence were reported in local newspapers with a black margin around the text. The narrative voice of Black Margins, which fluctuates between wry humor and at times a kind of affectlessness, reminds me of how the repetitive cycle of bad news can leave an imprint of numbness.
A recent piece of Asian American flash fiction that I think works with similar ideas and speaks to our current historical moment elegantly and economically is Eugene Lim’s “What We Have Learned, What We Will Forget, What We Will Not Be Able to Forget” published in The New Yorker’s online summer Flash Fiction series.
I was also excited to see some fantastic Asian American writers featured in the most recent Wigleaf Top 50, curated by series editor Shome Dasgupta and guest selecting editor Molly Gaudry. Two stories that stick with me are “Deal” by K-Ming Chang, and “Lovebird” by Hanahah Zaheer.
I had that same experience with “Deal.” K-Ming truly is a delight. Her flash and short fictions all over the web are incredible. “Gloria” comes to mind. As does “Radish Head.” And how could I leave out “Ghost Bride,” also part of The Margins’ flash fiction series? Other emerging Asian writers I’m excited about include Vanessa Chan—her flash piece, “The Ugliest Babies in the World,” is an absolute riot, and I can’t even say how incredible it is to see another Southeast Asian writer claiming space. I was also obsessed with Melissa Hung’s “The Aunties at the YMCA”, and when I finished Gina Chung’s “Mantis”, I yelped.
Since you mentioned social media posts—I spend way too much time on Twitter, and have really enjoyed Chen’s project over @olicketysplit, as well as the top-tier shitposting by Tony Tulathimutte (his short stories and novel are also great).
Thank you for the shoutout to the lickety~split! Editing that Twitter journal has been such a joy. I also run the online journal Underblong, and issues of that take much longer to assemble, as it’s a highly collaborative process, and we receive a high volume of submissions. I started the lickety~split in part because I wanted to work on a journal more independently (I’m the only editor, plus my “assistant editor,” the lazy egg Gudetama) and I wanted to publish many more poems on a regular basis (which turned out to be every weekday). Of course, given that the lickety~split only publishes poems that can fit in a single tweet, the main reason for creating this journal was to open an affirming, celebratory space (within a social media platform known for literary discourse, good and bad) for very short work, something I’ve always enjoyed reading, though it’s not what I usually write. It’s funny that I’ve published a flash fiction piece now, as I also think of “Summer” as a longer poem. One of the most popular poems I’ve had the honor of publishing on the lickety~split is Steven Duong’s absolutely delightful “Good Dog,” which I can totally see being read as a work of Asian American flash fiction, too.
I’m so glad that Sadia mentioned K-Ming Chang. I’m such a fan of her work and how she compresses language on the page (I think that poets make the best fiction writers, look at Ocean Vuong, but I’m of course biased). As I was reading her most recent book Bestiary, I was so shook, I had to sit with each page for a minute. I may be wrong but the reason why I think that Asian American writers (and writers of color in general) particularly thrive in the blend of genres like flash fiction is because we’re living compressed histories. The ways in which we navigate cultural differences means that we aren’t as timid to commit faux pas in the literary world when we are trying something new and inventive. I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which queer expression and also language barriers have erased the ways we can use words to describe ourselves so we have to be making something new to hold our identities.
I think of genre bending work in Asian American literature and I’m thinking about Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, a novel written in the form of a screenplay, and interdisciplinary works like Naomi Shihab Nye’s The Tiny Journalist, which uses poetry as a means to record Palestinian histories, loss, land disposession like a journalist preserves events in time. Bending the rules or borrowing another form of writing can open new doorways. I’m always excited when another writer finds a new way to write about [enter something mundane] that gives me an existential crisis about my own work. It means more possibilities and an entirely new frontier of expression we have yet to unlock.
I really like this question! I’m excited to try and work through all of the recommendations here. K-Ming Chang has truly been crushing it—she had a story in McSweeney’s that was a little bit longer I think but still truly wonderful.
I feel like flash fiction’s advantage is that it’s so flexible. Some of it is very narrative focused, the language largely a vehicle to reveal the story’s structure. Others seem to lack narrative almost entirely, and are constructed on the language level. It’s all fair game, and given how diverse Asian America is as a demographic population, this flexibility might allow us to see a lot of writing we otherwise wouldn’t.
Can you share what inspired your specific piece published as part of The Margins’ flash fiction series?
I’m interested in in-betweens—the space between bullied and bully—and I was already doing research into the ways schoolgirl politics has changed in the last decade, especially with the pervasiveness of the internet. When everything went online, this story just bled right out of me. The pandemic has been disgusting, but I wondered how that disgust might be self-directed, especially for those who have the option to look away.
Sadia Quraeshi Shepard
Writing “Monsters” grew slowly out of my experiences in early lockdown, finding myself reluctantly awake at 4 AM, besieged by images and ideas from the news. I began to think a lot about fear and what scares us awake, as well as the mundane household worries that can spiral in times of extreme anxiety. With “Monsters” I wanted to explore the emotional world of a well person who loves someone who is unwell or vulnerable in this precarious time. Several years before COVID-19 I spent a lot of time with my late mother and father in hospitals while they were both sick, and during this period I became acutely aware of what felt like a parallel world of the chronically and terminally ill, a world I was all too eager to leave and yet found myself irrevocably changed by. We all handle fear so differently. How does naming, or making tangible, our fears animate and give strength to one person and torment another? Lastly, I was very interested in writing a story where the characters’ South Asian identities are present and important but not central to the narrative.
Like Sadia, my piece was inspired by events both before and during the pandemic. It’s probably pretty obvious, but I was thinking a lot about the California wildfires, the death of my grandparents, the tendency to trot out the old, tired caricatures of parental sacrifice, and the difficulty of engaging with global phenomena (COVID-19, climate change, immigration) through anything other than a personal lens.
I was also thinking about how hard we can be on ourselves. It sometimes feels like a personal failing that I haven’t read Grace Paley or Edward Said, or that I don’t get Stokes’ Theorem, or that I couldn’t fix one of the burners on my stove last year when it stopped lighting. I’ve always been especially hard on myself for not speaking Korean, and generally not knowing “enough” about Korean culture—I wanted to explore that more here.
As I’ve mentioned, I wrote “Summer” last summer, in the midst of a weird period of stores reopening and experimenting with, I suppose, how to be stores during an ongoing pandemic. As I kept writing, the sales associate Carol became an increasingly important character in the story. I loved working on her sections, which veered into the surreal and somehow also the divine. I also think of this story as a longer poem, a love poem, and I got a big kick out of bringing in people and places, like Carol at Williams Sonoma, that one wouldn’t expect to show up in a love poem. And I was surprised by how the narrator’s mother comes into the story, after a major tonal shift in one section; I hope that’s surprising for readers, as well. I was thinking about precarity, about vulnerability to both serious illness and societal neglect, about such vulnerability being deepened by the pandemic and by failures in leadership. One of the things that’s made me so angry and sad during this time is seeing how inequities in healthcare and education have largely worsened. In writing this story, I struggled with a feeling of helplessness, a feeling that felt bottomless; I tried my best to find ways through, if not out.
“Queeranteen Sermon” really emerged out of the frustrations during the pandemic when I was grappling with the fact that I had come out to my family at the most inopportune time, when I couldn’t just avoid the truth by staying away at school for eight hours of the day. I didn’t particularly like this piece because it felt too long to be a poem and too short to be considered prose. It was only after a writing friend pointed out how it read like a sermon that I found a lot of creative licence to push the piece in new ways that I hadn’t seen before.
As someone who grew up going to church that was majority first to third generation Chinese American, there’s a very particular style in which I heard messages growing up. In American churches, sermons would follow a kind of three act structure like it was an essay with a topical sentence that would then lead into more specific points. At the Chinese American churches I went to, there was no linear structure to the stories or lessons. We knew there was a central theme to the sermon the speaker was trying to get to, but it was more of a circular maze and we inched closer and closer to the target. “Queeranteen Sermon” tries to follow that in a similar way in which the lineage of trauma coursing through the main character’s body doesn’t follow a neat or defined path. It’s curving around the edges of her ancestor’s stories and the end is more of a beginning revisiting the tenderness and hope that emerges when a child is born.
Keeping in line with the art of compression, please share a flash fiction writing prompt.
There’s a great Lydia Davis essay in which she describes how “Susie Brown Will Be In Town” (later published as “Nancy Brown Will Be In Town”) was inspired by a group email. Building off this:
- Keep track of (or go back through) pieces of text that you interact with regularly (patient charts, subway ads, YouTube comments, etc.). Remain open and receptive; when you find something that surprises you, write it down.
- Read what you wrote. Figure out why it surprised you.
- Expand and/or cut the text to amplify this surprise.
That’s amazing—thanks for sharing!! Here’s my contribution. Write a story that uses ______ to solve ______. For both blanks, pick from the below in any order and write towards it:
Duck fat, an ear infection, sleep-talking, wireless charging, overly salted meat dishes, organ donation, plagiarism, a broken AC unit, expired instax film, shared fridge space, obsession over a second degree acquaintance’s Twitter feed, mynah birds, and sexy ghosts.
Sadia Quraeshi Shepard
Here’s an exercise I do with students which I call “The Walk.” Filmmaker Agnes Varda said: “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.”
To use Varda’s idea, what are your landscapes? Make a list of 3-5 places you have unique access to. This might be a neighborhood/city/town where you spent time as a child, a place that your family is from/has a connection to, a place you have worked, etc. Choose one of these places, set a timer for one minute and write down every detail that you can think of. What do you see? Hear? Smell?
Now that you have this rich list of details, you will invite two characters to walk along a road in this location. One character is someone you know well. This could be you, an alternate version of you, or someone else entirely. The other person should be a new character that is suggested by this location. As you imagine these characters, answer the following questions: What are their names? Where are they going? What do they want? All of this information should be suggested by how they appear. Spend one minute writing down everything you know about character #1. Now take another minute to write down everything you know about character #2.
Now imagine that these two characters are lost. As they walk, one character should try to convince the other character of something which is unrelated to their current predicament. What does the first person do and how does the second person react? Do their needs and fears match up with how they appear? Or not?
I love the prompts that everyone shared, and here is one that I’ve created for a poetry class that I think can also be expanded into a flash fiction prompt. I’m drawing on my background and appreciation of math to kind of help us grow comfortable with thinking about narrative as not a path but a total sum.
Read the following:
- “L’Hôpital’s Rule” by Lucy Wainger
- “How to Find the Center of a Circle” by Tiana Clark
- “f=[(root)(future)]” by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
Trace your family tree; write out where the lines curve or stop abruptly //or// trace your connection to someone. Where does the thread begin and how do your stories intertwine and then unravel. How do you calculate the distance between two hearts, how do you subtract memories or add love? Write an equation with math symbols (or not) of how you write a story in its fullest sum.
Ah, these prompts/exercises are great! Here’s one I’ve adapted from a haiku and tanka exercise.
In person or over Zoom, compose out loud a story of only four to six sentences. Each sentence must be 12 syllables max; feel free to use your fingers to count. You should do this with one other person or in a group of up to five people. Lean into the spontaneity and interactive nature of telling a story this way, as you would around a campfire. Let yourself reconnect with the oral tradition! Don’t worry about every sentence being polished; focus instead on making the story surprising and entertaining for the person or people you’re sharing it with. It may be helpful to first practice with a very low stakes version of this exercise, such as recounting something mundane that occurred last week. When you get into constructing your actual story, try telling it twice (and you can revise out loud, too, but I recommend not dwelling on that part too much), and then write it down. From there, you can really revise as you see fit, which may include expanding or—if you want to go super microfiction/haiku-esque with it—condensing it further.