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Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Alex Eaker

Interview by Christopher Allen (Read the Story) March 19, 2018

Alex Eaker

Photograph by Ryoji Iwata

Alex, thank you for sending “Cubalub” to SmokeLong. I love the tone of this story. There is a lilt to it that counterbalances the narrator’s frustration and anxiety. And since there is no question in that, I’ll ask this one: What is a cubalub? Give me your top three definitions.

I found the word “cubalub” on a piece of work done by the Cuban artist Roberto Diago. I wrote this story sitting in front of his piece, so a lot of credit has to go to him first, although he has no idea who I am. To me, cubalub is an exclamation. It’s what someone says when they walk into a room and want to be noticed. That’s how the story begins. By the end it means a collapse—a collapse of communication and understanding between parent and child. It’s the precise moment a parent loses touch with their child and vice versa.

“Family” is such a trove for storytelling. The way I read “Cubalub,” the mother is the main character. Right? Is this a story about a mother’s anxiety about losing contact with her son? Or is this a story about the alienating power of (foreign) language?

The mother certainly drives the narrative, but the story is more about the messy nuances and trap doors in daily communication than it is about any one character. In her relationship with her son, this is illustrated through a language gap. Their divide is most apparent because they literally cannot understand each other. But the mother also has these smaller moments when she fails to fully connect with the old man at the hardware store, for example. The end results are the mother’s complete isolation. I think it’s fair to say that people do this all the time, misinterpreting not only strangers, but people they most care about. Often it does come from simple trip-ups in language or the failure to read non-verbal cues. In this story, all these mess-ups seem so magnified. I hope it’s even comical to some degree.

I love the family dynamic you construct here. As is so often the case in real life, the father is blissfully out of the loop, but in this case the mother purposefully keeps him in the dark. Why does the mother in this story want to keep all this curiosity to herself?

At this point in the story, the mother has no idea what’s fully at stake for her family. She’s almost playing a game of detective with herself, but even by the end of the story she doesn’t completely understand that her son is likely gone for good. This is one moment in the story where the mother actually has some agency—she can decide to tell her husband or not tell him. I think her decision is made because she doesn’t want to lose that bit of agency she has; having her secret is somehow a bit of empowerment.

Do you speak another language besides English? If so, do you have a favorite foreign word? Mine is poubelle, which to me sounds like a very pretty name for a little girl but in fact is the French word for rubbish bin.

Unfortunately, I speak such poor Spanish that I may regret even mentioning it. But to answer your other question, my father is one of those New York-raised Jews who didn’t enforce any kind of spirituality on us but has some very good moments. He likes to use the word mensch a lot, which for us means someone who is a good man. A lot of fathers say they’re proud of their sons, but mine called me a mensch, and I have to argue that that’s much cooler.

What are you working on these days?

I’m currently working on the thesis for my MFA program at the College of Charleston. It’s going to be a collection of short fiction, with some sprinkles of flash thrown in.

About the Author

Alex Eaker lives in Charleston, South Carolina. He is an MFA student at the College of Charleston.

About the Interviewer

Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press, 2018). His work has appeared in Flash Fiction America (Norton, 2023), The Best Small Fictions 2019 and 2022, Split Lip, Booth, PANK, and Indiana Review, among other very nice places. Allen has been the publisher and editor-in-chief of SmokeLong Quarterly since January 2020 and was the 2023 judge of the Bridport Prize for flash fiction. He and his husband are nomads.

About the Artist

Find more of Ryoji Iwata‘s photography on Unsplash.

This interview appeared in Issue Fifty-Nine of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Nine

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