Originally from Western New York, Jasmine Sawers now lives and writes outside St. Louis. Her work has appeared in such publications as Ploughshares, Fairy Tale Review, and [PANK]. She is a proud Kundiman fellow and graduate of the MFA program at Indiana University. She can be followed on Twitter @sawers.
We’re happy to interview her here and republish her story . We would be remiss not to point you all to this awesome interview Joel Coltharp did with her for Smokelong with Jasmine’s excellent “All Your Fragile History” which placed 2nd in the recent Smokelong award for Flash Fiction.
Here is the Flash Monsters!!! Interview!!! Thanks so much Jasmine for taking the time to do this and telling us these stories. Your answer to the hopes and dreams question is inspirational and total Monster spirit!!! Roar indeed.
The Monsters love hearing stories of influences and sharing those magical times where we’ve been energized by something we have read, the kind of material you have to tell everyone you can about. Do you have some favorites of those or any that helped you see the possibilities of how you wanted to write?
Of the books I’ve read in the last couple years, I have been most affected by The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, Circe by Madeline Miller, and Monster Portraits by Sofia Samatar with illustrations by Del Samatar. I’ll try to be brief on what each did for me, and send up apologies for all the influences that came before.
The People in the Trees is a sort of contemporary Lolita that deals not only with a heinous act but the wages of whiteness, privilege, racism, and colonialism in broader American culture but also in science specifically. And, like Nabokov, Yanagihara renders the vile, misshapen soul of this charismatic figure in language so lush, so graceful and precise, that each sentence has you singing. This book became, to me, the gold standard of how to write a sentence.
Circe is exactly up my alley in terms of subject matter: a retelling of myth, the filling in of a figure whose previous portrayals have not offered much insight into her motivation, past, or personality. What really got me, however, like The People in the Trees, was the use of language. Rhythmic and suitably mythical but also completely accessible to the ear of the modern reader. I was especially struck by the dialogue—how did she make it sound like the gods of old were speaking, but never hit a note of old-timey droning, diction, or corniness?
I bought Monster Portraits without knowing what I was getting into. I loved the idea of profiling various monsters, the cover was cool, it was a novella-in-flash. Done and done, add to cart. Imagine my surprise when, as I got deeper into this book, I realized I was reading a meditation on the state of being mixed in America—something I am intimate with but have rarely seen articulated so sensitively, in language so playful but lyrical and aching. Sometimes the first conception of the self a mixed person has is as a monster—a creature in between, belonging nowhere, hated everywhere—and sometimes that’s foundational, the enduring image ofourselves we carry. But what makes a monster? Samatar’s Monster Portraits was a mirror, and it delivered me my truest self. I might try my hand at a novella-in-flash someday.
This has been a brutal year. Have you found anything new in print or screen that has either given you some freedom to escape or possibly been a light of hope?
I’ve been watching Letterkenny, Anne with an E, The Terror basically on a loop. Writing this out reveals my not-so-unconscious longing to be Canadian. None of these are new this year, but they are what I’ve been using to anesthetize myself. Sometimes with more pain rather than less!
Letterkenny is a comedy that revels in its language use. It’s a writers’ dream—an entire show that revolves around wordplay and linguistic jokes, topped off with performances that never falter around a script this challenging. Equal parts send up of and love letter to rural communities, Letterkenny may be quintessentially Canadian but I think anyone with experience living in a small town can relate and find joy in this series.
I was an Anne of Green Gables superfan as a kid, loved the books to tatters, had a porcelain doll I never played with but admired greatly. This iteration of it stays true to the spirit of the books while updating it to reflect certain realities that Montgomery ignored while writing a nostalgic version of the “red-headed heroine” that was popular at the time. And who could blame her, when what she needed to write was an escapist fantasy for herself? In Anne with an E, Anne is a girl who comes from great trauma and the show leans into that instead of pretending being adopted erases it all, but Anne wouldn’t be Anne without being almost recklessly hopeful and optimistic and brave and, yes, dramatic. The show adds queer characters (and I maintain that Anne herself is a bisexual icon from the first), characters of color, more overt feminism—all of which would have existed in the margins of Canada at the time. I sink into this universe and fall in love with Anne and Marilla and Matthew and obviously Gilbert Blythe, platonic ideal of boyfriends, and I get to feel feelings again.
The first season of The Terror imagines what may have happened to the Franklin Expedition, which became ice-bound in the mid 1840s on the search for the Northwest Passage (which was, of course, an imperialist wet dream that claimed the lives of countless Europeans who ignored local Inuit advice and help since the search first began in the 17th century). This season is so tightly, beautifully written and shot (not to mention the sets and costumes and pitch-perfect acting by every single person in the ensemble cast), I don’t believe I’ve ever seen better television. Come for the naval mystery, stay for the unraveling of the imperialist dream, the interrogation of masculinity, and the tenderness amidst violence and despair. Also, there’s cannibalism. The Franklin Expedition’s doom was spelled out in the same years as the Donner Party, actually, so it was quite the time for eating your friends.
What are you working on now? Any hopes and dreams you want to share or do they keep secret until they come true?
It feels like a dick move in 2020 to say I’m bursting with stories, but that’s where I am. After completing my MFA in 2013, I hit a wall and basically stopped writing. I had been told by multiple parties that no one would ever publish a collection of flash, that no one even wanted a traditional short story collection without an accompanying novel, that if I didn’t have a novel to sell, my career would go nowhere. Whether this was my intent or not, it became a punishment: I wasn’t allowed to write unless I was writing a novel. But holding your own creativity hostage is no way to feel happy or fulfilled or get anything done, much less the Sisyphean labor of a novel. So, for years at a time, I might grind out one short story or one piece of flash. I didn’t publish a single story between the end of 2016 and the end of 2019.
Last year, I was accepted as a fiction fellow to Kundiman, a writers’ conference/retreat for writers from the Asian diaspora. The community I found there allowed me not only to be vulnerable but to find power in that vulnerability. They embraced me and helped me realize first that my work was wanted and necessary, and that I had been running from my identity as a queer mixed Thai American writer. After Kundiman, my second (or third, or fourth) life as a writer began: one where I didn’t try so hard to write toward a white gaze, a cishet gaze. But I was rusty. I still only wrote one traditional-length short story that year, but it represented a turning point in my writing life. It was me saying, hey, I’m Thai, I’m mixed, I’m queer, my characters might be Thai or mixed or queer, I’m drawing on this part of my heritage and history and I’m not pretending to be something I can’t anymore. That story opened the floodgates not only to the plenty of 2020 but to my elusive novel, currently (finally!) in progress.
This year I’ve written a veritable boatload of flash and two short stories with one more coming down the line. Inspiration for a piece of flash, now that I’m writing a lot of it, can happen anytime and I’m always ready to at least take notes. This is what I was missing for so many years, what I’d somehow forgotten: creativity begets creativity. If you’re not writing, you won’t write. You cannot hate yourself into a manuscript.
And, all the naysayers were wrong: this summer my collection of flash fiction, tentatively entitled The Weight of the Moon and Other Measurements, was accepted for publication by Rose Metal Press. We’re staring down the barrel of a long timeline until release, but I’m still riding high on the news, so I’ll talk it up a little.
As a queer, mixed Thai kid growing up in the suburbs of Buffalo, I looked to fairy tales first to escape the pain of being othered, and then to make sense of it. But, like the proverbial vampire, my own reflection was nowhere to be seen in the stories of the West. What monstrous creature was I, to be so erased? As I grew older, I looked to the myths and folktales outside the reach of my sleepy white bread hometown. While the ghosts and god-kings of Thailand’s legends dazzled me as much as The Snow Queen and The Twelve Dancing Princesses once had, I found there were still stories untold, spaces unfilled. I was the only dashing knight-queen available to save myself from the tower.
In these stories, I combine the myth and the modern, the realist and the fabulist, the fictional and the nonfictional to build the legend of my own hybridity: Thai and white, Muslim and Catholic, Buddhist and atheist, second-generation immigrant and umpteenth-generation American, male, female, both and neither.
This story first appeared in Scrimshander Books #3: Facts You Should Know About Digestion.
If You Wait an Hour, There Will Be Bread Fresh Out of the Oven
Everyone has opinions on where Mama’s ashes should go.
“She liked the sea,” Uncle Tommy says. “Dump her out over Niagara Falls.”
“She liked the mountains,” Uncle Rory says. “Throw her off the top of an Adirondack.”
“Sea,” says Uncle Tommy.
“Mountain,” says Uncle Rory.
And so on, until a casserole dish breaks and there is blood on Mama’s special occasion table linens. Coraline-not-Caroline takes the urn into the kitchen after that, but no one is deterred from seeking her out and telling her what to do.
“You can let me take care of it,” Aunt Abigail says. “Some on Grandma’s grave, some on Grandpa’s, and some on your father’s. Simple as pie, girl.”
Pie is complicated. Finicky. Coraline-not-Caroline has tried her hand at pie.
“We’ll make a jewel out of it,” Cousin Orla says. “I know a guy who does that for a fair price. You can hang it round your neck, or put it in the doorway to ward off evil spirits.”
How like a noose Mama would feel, and how dark an omen in the jamb.
“Put her back in the earth,” Cousin Mick says. “She was fed; now she’s feed. Everything’s cyclical, Carolyn.”
Coraline-not-Caroline has taken out the plastic bag of ash, has hefted the surprising weight of it in her hands. Mama is dust and bone and nothing nourishing.
“At the dentist’s office, for her many years of service,” someone says.
“Underneath that old oak tree where she and George first knocked boots.”
“On the hood of her prize Ford.”
“In Hoffsheimer’s pond up on North Creek.”
“At the bingo hall, where she was happiest.”
They argue. They insult each other. They bandy about Mama’s name as if invoking her ensures a victory. Coraline-not-Caroline knows better. Coraline-not-Caroline knows where Mama belongs.
She slips away from the rising din in the living room. No one notices amid all the knowing better than her. In the kitchen she takes out all the fixings for the first thing Mama ever taught her how to bake. Coraline-not-Caroline still has the scar, pucker-pink like a sloppy first kiss, where Mama held her arm to the coils. For weeks after the accident, the house smelled of burnt bacon.
Irish soda bread. Her hands know this practiced choreography. On the counter: four cups of all-purpose flour, four tablespoons of sugar, one teaspoon baking soda, one and a half salt, half a stick of butter, a cup and three quarters buttermilk, one large egg, a teaspoon of orange zest, a cup of raisins.
There is a lot of Mama left, going by volume. Coraline-not-Caroline thought she would be made smaller by this, but she is here and heavy as ever. Coraline-not-Caroline cuts the bag open carefully. Mama is gritty, and the shards of her bones are sharp as sunlight. She smells how the smokestacks smell after the rain. Coraline-not-Caroline takes out a mixing bowl.