Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Raul Palma

by Sarah Freligh Read the Story December 18, 2017

The beginning of this story is so tantalizing! In two brief, beautifully imaged paragraphs, the reader understands that each character knows something that he/she may not divulge. Could you talk a little bit as to how you see this working in terms of setting up tension and conflict for the story?

Thank you! Yes. Though I’d resist the idea of “setting up” the tension, only because I think the story is activating an already existing and invisible conflict. The narrator and his mother have, up until now, chosen to conceal and shape their personas to neatly fit the place of son and mother. In these two paragraphs, we see that it is the mother performing her “motherly” duties by bringing him coffee, and it is the son who is protecting his mother from the case. For me, there’s something troubling about this: Neither the mother nor the narrator is seeing each other beyond the capacity of their relationship to one another. They’re trapped in their gendered roles, performing their love for each other in ways that alienate them.

She spills, he doesn’t. How come?

 The son is telling the story, and his compulsion to reanimate this incident is contained in his outburst: “What am I supposed to do with this information, Ma?” This is a precarious moment for the narrator, who is standing on the threshold between the comfort of knowing his mother and the terror of not knowing her. This is his limit, what the narrative is obsessed with repeating and retracing. Something we don’t see, because of this limitation, is the mother’s perspective. We don’t have access to her point of view, which means we don’t really know how she’s reading her son, or how successful he is at concealing the pain of the investigation. What I can say, however, is that she is making herself vulnerable to him because she loves him; her act of shattering the silence is an act of empathy.

I’m a sucker for second person. Could you talk about how you arrived at that point of view and how you see that working in the story?

 I love second person, too, and I use it quite often when I’m drafting, but I usually can’t justify it as the draft evolves. Here, the narrator’s ambition to rein in control—of concealing the investigation from his mother and pretending all is well—complements the imperative nature of second person. There’s a confidence to the narrator’s instructional telling, which the mother’s confession undermines. Even in the end, the narrator continues to list off instructions despite being unable to really process his own emotions.

What are you reading? (Perhaps the literary equivalent to the red carpet question, “Who are you wearing?”)

While I was writing this story, I happened to be revisiting Daphne’s Lot, by Chris Abani, and Joy Castro’s collection How Winter Began, and, in many ways, this piece is paying tribute to those books, each of which explores motherhood. Presently, I’m reading Eleanor Henderson’s The Twelve Mile Straight and Kristi Carter’s debut collection of poetry Cosmovore.

Truth: Can you get good café con leche in Ithaca, New York?

Yes. At my house. My mother ships me packs and packs of Café Bustelo, and every morning I sit my four-year-old daughter on the kitchen counter, and she helps me make it. I don’t know how I’ve become so brave, putting a toddler so close to coffee. Of course, she gets a little cup of milk and cinnamon while my wife and I drink the real stuff.

I’ll say, too, that Gimme! Coffee makes a mean cortado, which my friend Jen Tennant turned me onto. It’s not quite a café con leche, but it does the trick when I’m on the run.

About the Author:

Raul Palma is a diversity fellow at Ithaca College. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he is pursuing a specialization in ethnic studies. He serves as fiction editor for Prairie Schooner. Most recently, his work appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Alimentum, and Sonora Review. His fiction was distinguished/notable in Best American Short Stories 2016.

About the Interviewer:

Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Other books include A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing, and Sort of Gone. Her work has appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has also been featured on Writer’s Almanac and anthologized in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2006 grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation.