Smoking With Tai Dong Huai

Read the Story December 15, 2008
story art

What were you like when you were thirteen?

I was pissed-off. I was skinny, had a bad complexion, and spoke with a speech impediment known as a “velopharyngeal inadequacy.” I wanted blond hair and round eyes and a boyfriend. I was painfully sensitive, a perfectionist, an overachiever. (As I write this, I realize how little I’ve changed.) I was also extremely upset that our house had no upstairs.

The “powerlessness” of this kid really gets me in “Thirteen.” Is there any way for a kid, any kid, to escape the fate of powerlessness and assert his/her destiny?

I think the powerlessness you mention comes from the realization that we wish our parents would die, except then who would drive us places? We want independence like a drowning person wants air, but at thirteen we can’t even see the surface.

I don’t doubt there are kids who are confident and self-assured at this age, and I image most of them have their own shows on the Disney Channel.

“What do you want?” the kid is asked in “Thirteen.” How would you have answered that question at thirteen. How about now?

I would have wanted to live alone in a log cabin in Vermont with a border collie and an endless supply of Slim-Jims. There would be a really hot guy who lived in the next cabin over who would be madly in love with me. We would both realize our romance was doomed since I was so much smarter than he was and I could play the violin while he was more the accordion type.

Twelve years later, this is still pretty much what I want, except the guy next door has been replaced by a really good sound system.

What draws you to flash fiction‹as both reader and writer?

If my writing began with a story or characters, I suspect my pieces would be longer. But I generally start with an image. My challenge is this: how succinct can I be by using this image to transfer an emotion? If I spend sixteen pages telling a reader that I’m really angry today, I’ve given him/her nothing. If I can, in a page or two, make that same person taste the cold, bitter coffee I drink while waiting my turn at the DMV, I’ve made a connection.

I read flash because it tends to stick with me. (I can read a novel and forget the entire plot within a week.) It’s also readily accessible, and there are some terrific people doing it. Brandon Hobson’s work amazes me. Meg Pokrass writes so well, I want to copy her stuff down in longhand just to see how it feels to write it.

How’s your collection I COME FROM WHERE I’VE NEVER BEEN coming along? What are your hopes for it? And great title! Why that title for this collection?

Thanks for asking.

A year ago I figured I’d put together a bunch of stories, sell the collection for seven figures, and ask Lucy Liu to play me in the film adaptation. What I’ve learned is that great collections (and I’m not for a moment taking on the karma of calling my own “great,”) have continuity and structure. Excellent reads like Jayne Anne Phillip’s Black Tickets and Tricia Bauer’s Hollywood and Hardwood are seamless. My collection right now seems like a pile of wood, tarpaper, and shingles; I just need to build the roof.

The title refers to China, where I was born. I was five when I was adopted and remember little more than the orphanage and sitting in an airport with two strangers who held my hands and couldn’t communicate. Simply put, I feel as distant from my own birthplace as a person in O’Hare Airport feels from the City of Chicago.

About the Author:

Tai Dong Huai was born in Taizhou, China. Fiction has appeared, or is scheduled, in elimae, Hobart, Thieves Jargon, rumble, Underground Voices, Wigleaf, Word Riot, and other terrific places. "Thirteen" is from a collection in progress I Come From Where I've Never Been.