Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Elaine Chiew

by Sarah K. Lenz Read the Story September 21, 2015

The conflict in “Aquarium” comes from the narrator’s failure to understand her brother’s new life in a new country. You’ve lived in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and now England. How have your experiences in new countries shaped or inspired your writing?

It’s an interesting word, “shape.” I’m pulled into a new shape each time I live in a different place; what’s remarkable is that gradually I realize that as elastic and unrecognizable a shape I am to others, at my core I haven’t changed. It’s that dynamism and elasticity interacting with the core of who I am that I’m trying to funnel through every time I’m in front of a blank page.

In this story, the narrator and her brother connect over animals (and their deaths). You write “A farmhand had taken a bandsaw to a dead cow and dismembered it; Ewan and I had applauded.” What led you to this startling incident?

Underlying menace, I find, can be in a lot of our relationships, submerged in our subconscious because it’s easier not to deal. That menace can form a very strong bond between people who’ve experienced it. They were children who had known violence. When violence comes from an authoritative figure, it can be interpreted by children as “role modeling.”

The narrator hints at a difficult, possibly even abusive, father, yet never reveals why thinking about him is so upsetting. Why did you choose not to disclose more backstory?

I wanted to reflect her state of mind—the inability to come to terms—to even confront—the violence suffered at the hands of an abusive dad, but I believe our subconscious works like this—circling and circling around that which pains us deeply but never daring to go close. Mo Yan has an incredible phrase in Red Sorghum to describe the past, “The eternally living past, the unstoppable present.”

One repeated sensory detail is coldness. How does the recurring description of sleet, icicles, and frost reveal the characters’ motives?

The “frozen” imagery when contrasted against the “tropical” fish, for me, is to show the rupture in the bond between Ewan and his sister. They were bonded by violence, but in this new “cold country” Ewan is changing (“unstoppable present”), and the narrator is deathly afraid of the change this would wreak in her sibling relationship. Actually, she’s the one buried or frozen in coldness, in “staticity,” because she is still stuck in the same place, still circling.

“Love is many things, but it’s also a bloated tropical fish.” I love this line. Can you explain what it means?

I would love to hear what readers think: will they conclude she did something to the fish? And if she did, is her love for her brother now a dead fish? But she doesn’t say “dead.” I know it can be very annoying when a writer makes it vague like this—I do it here after a lot, a lot of thought. I think our narrator’s motives/desires are hidden from herself. How much “bloated” love is there for her brother? And by doing this, is she subconsciously trying to remind Ewan of that love?

About the Author:

Elaine Chiew is a fiction writer and visual arts researcher. She is a two-time winner of The Bridport Prize, amidst other prizes and shortlistings. Her debut short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora, will be coming out with Myriad Editions (U.K.). She is also the compiler and editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015), and has had numerous stories in anthologies and journals. She also writes flash fiction (named Wigleaf Top 50 twice, along other honours). In October 2017, she was the Writer in Residence at Singapore's premier School of the Arts. She received an M.A. in Asian Art Histories from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2017. In addition to writing freelance on Asian visual arts for magazines like ArtReview Asia, she also blogs about contemporary Asian writers at AsianBooksBlog and the visual arts on her blog, Invisible Flâneuse.

About the Interviewer:

Sarah K. Lenz’s nonfiction has appeared in Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, The Fourth River, Entropy, and elsewhere. Three of her essays have been named Notable in Best American Essays. In 2015 she received the New Letters Readers’ Award in nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Georgia College and teaches composition and literature at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

About the Artist:

Katelin Kinney is from the hills and fields of Southern Indiana. She attained two BFAs from the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, IN. Her portfolio consists of fine art and commercial freelance work.