“Elegant falsehoods”: An Interview With Guest Reader Nancy Au

by Shasta Grant See all Guest Readers
story art

You are co-founder of The Escapery, a collective of teachers who are dedicated to diversity, and to writing and art as a form of resistance. Can you tell us more about The Escapery? What sparked its creation? What’s your mission?

I co-founded The Escapery with Carson Beker, who is an incredible writer and artist and friend. And earlier this year, we teamed up with Haldane King, who is also an amazing writer and friend, as well as curator of the Terra Incognita reading series. The Escapery is based in Oakland, California, and offers thematic and blurred-genre writing workshops, drop-ins, ekphrasis museum fieldtrips, online classes, and editing/coaching services. We created The Escapery to provide supportive and inspiring art spaces that resist the hierarchical and competitive nature that can often permeate toxic writing workshops. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have worked with and learned from wonderful writing mentors—Peg Alford Pursell, Carson Beker, Carolina De Robertis, Michelle Carter, Barbara Tomash, Toni Mirosevich, Nona Caspers, Andrew Joron, and many others—who taught me how to foster inclusive learning spaces, how to empower and inspire my students.

You have an undergraduate degree in anthropology and an MFA in creative writing – and you teach writing to biology majors! I’m curious about how your education and teaching influence your writing.

I am constantly in awe of how big the world of Knowledge is, how much I have yet to learn (and most likely could never master within my lifetime). I am fascinated by the natural processes that I depend on to live: my physical anatomy and microbiology, the chemical processes that make it possible for me to breathe and eat and walk and type this sentence, the mechanical physics that make cars Go and planes Fly, and more. I did not major in science as a college student because I had difficulty in moving the science off the page and applying it to the world around me. So, instead, I pursued a degree in anthropology. I love studying the intangible How’s—the how and why we do the things we do, how and why we speak the languages we speak, or how and why individuals utilize certain (mutable and subjective) social currencies, such as basing a person’s worth on their level of education, or their physical appearance, or whether they pick their nose or fart in public, or the type of job they have, etc.

I love how, as an artist, I can write my own answers, craft impossible origin stories, rewrite endings, explore the past, imagine a different future. I believe that anthropology shares this quality with creative writing—both practices require piecing together artifacts from people’s histories and cultures in an effort to tell their story.

You write everything: short stories, flash fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. What do you think is special about flash fiction?

Flash fiction holds a very special place in my heart. I love the succinct way that it reaches into a moment and tells a small truth. I love how flash can be dense, packed with saturated color and wooly textures, sharp sounds and vivid tastes. I love how every word counts. I love how, in flash, a writer can also use the tight space to be incredibly playful with language and syntax. I love how flash looks and feels on the page—a compressed truth that the writer crafted by pulling in all the disparate pieces of their own or their characters’ lives. I love flash because I can read a piece in one sitting and sit there for many minutes afterwards, still shaking, haunted. And I love how I can also sit there, laughing and nodding in wonder about a truth that I connected deeply with, a small truth that is so utterly human, so direct and simple, something that I myself had witnessed or felt a hundred times before. I love how flash defies genres, that it is simultaneously poetry and story and truth and elegant falsehoods.

I recently read Sung Yim’s novel of interlinked flash, What About the Rest of Your Life. In this collection, the author elicits powerful connections, sometimes in the space of just fifty words. I return to this piece over and over:

“You need your mother. Your mother beats you. Translation: You need your mother to beat you. Your mother loves you. Your mother beats you. Translation: Sometimes love looks like this. You look for a love that looks like this. You love your mother. Your mother hurts you. Translation: Pain becomes a beautiful thing.”

I recognized my own mother while reading this piece, the difficult life she lived with her conservative Chinese parents. I recognized our shared difficulties in expressing and receiving love. I also recognized that I had inherited my mother’s pain from the very first time she slapped me, or when she compared me to my siblings, or quantified my worth based on the number of pimples or pounds of fat my body carried. When I lashed back as a teen, my mother would respond, Why are you always so angry? Why so defensive? Go look in the bathroom mirror. And, from the doorway, arms crossed over her chest, she would share my reflection in the mirror, and ask, Do you see your face? Do you see how ugly it is when you are like this? Is that what you really want to be? And I would remain silent because I didn’t know how to answer her questions.

It has been fourteen years since my mother died, and it has been many years since she asked me those questions in the bathroom mirror. After reading Sung Yim’s work I realized that perhaps my mother was speaking to her own reflection, that she did not feel worthy of her family’s sacrifices. And that perhaps she was hoping that my reflection would argue with her, question her parents’ cruelties, validate her, prove that she was not the source of her mother’s pain. I hope that she learned to see her own reflection before she died. Translation: I am no longer part of that equation, where Pain equals Love.

Translation: Reading flash started me on the arduous journey of redefining for myself what I want Love to look and feel like.

Translation: I know that the definition will change countless times in my lifetime. But, right in this moment, I can tell you that love smells like my dog’s paws (warm corn chips), tastes like pesto, reads like poetry, and heals like art. 

What kind of story would you love to find in the queue this week?

Just like in Sung Yim’s flash, I am in search of stories that might challenge a reader to think differently. I am in search of moments that might be simultaneously heavy and light, or nourishing and depleting, or agonizing and healing. I am in search of characters holding tangible space in the narrative—maybe it’s sitting on the sticky floor, or hidden beneath peeling wallpaper, or overhead in the trembling, yellow leaves of aspen branches. And, I am in search of characters and writers from diverse cultural backgrounds.

But, mostly, I am in search of your stories! Guest-editing for SmokeLong Quarterly is truly a dream-come-true! I am so excited to read your incredible writing! So, send me your stories! I can’t wait to hear from you!


About the Reader:

Nancy Au is a writer and teacher based in Oakland, California. Her fiction, essays, and poetry appear in SmokeLong Quarterly, Catapult, Lunch Ticket, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Pinch, Tahoma Literary Review, Foglifter, Forge Literary Magazine, among many others. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. With Dr. Matthew Cover (California State University Stanislaus), she co-designed and co-teaches BIOL-4040 Writing for Science and Life. In this writing course, Nancy incorporates creative exercises to assist students in crafting unique personal statements for graduate school, fellowships, and job applications. With Carson Beker, she co-founded The Escapery, a writing and art unschool. Nancy was awarded The Vestal Review’s 2018 VERA Flash Fiction Prize, and her work is included in the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology. Her full-length collection, Spider Love Song & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Acre Books (University of Cincinnati) in Fall 2019.

About the Interviewer:

Shasta Grant is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She was the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow and she won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, matchbook, MonkeyBicyclewigleaf, and elsewhere.