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Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Michael Don

Interview by Christopher Allen (Read the Story) April 1, 2015

Michael Don

art by Ashley Inguanta and Jason Cook

I chose your story “Discipline” for its precision and its focus on the power of imagination. Could you talk a bit about Norman’s imagination? Has he changed the memory of Harold’s “trick”?

Norman’s imagination occupies dark spaces, perhaps anticipating life’s tragedy, violence, sadness, and disappointment. His memory of Harold’s “trick” is tied up in his fear of and fascination with Harold.  I’m not sure if he’s changed the memory of the “trick” but I think it helps him feel less ashamed of angering Harold if he thinks of him as an extreme character, impenetrable and impossible to harm.

Is doing “harm” the centre of this story? Norman even imagines doing himself harm to cut off the “potential for further tragedy, for further worry over this one young person.”

Doing harm is at the center of the story in so far as Norman is sorting out who can cause harm to whom. I think he doesn’t understand why his parents refrained from intervening in Harold’s method of discipline—why are they just sitting at the dinner table stuffing their faces while pain is being inflicted upon their son? This angers him, but at the same time, I think Norman worries about the harm he will face throughout his life and how it will affect his parents. His morbid thoughts about death reflect his sense that ending his life would save his parents from the constant worry over all the small instances of pain he will encounter. Another center of the story is about memory and shame. The intensity of Norman’s reflection is tied up in the strangeness, taboo even, of being corporally punished by his parents’ friend in their presence. He feels shame for himself but also for his parents who appear powerless to intervene.

In the end, though, the parents are there “right where [Norman] left them,” as if Norman is in control of their actions. To me this feels like a dis- and reappearance act with Norman’s imagination as the magician.

I hope the child’s point of view combined with the story’s tone create space for this possibility. I hadn’t considered it, but this is something I really appreciate about flash fiction as both a reader and writer—more room for the reader to creatively interpret characters. I like the idea of Norman as magician—his way of having some control in an unexpected and uncomfortable moment.

You grew up in St. Louis but now live in Kenya. Tell us about your expat experience. 

Nairobi is an overcrowded, banged-up matatu [minibus] speeding alongside a shiny new Mercedes; a burning heap of trash underneath a flowering jacaranda tree; tin-roofed slums adjacent to leafy, gated compounds; hawkers slinking alongside traffic, peddling bananas, sunglasses, and gum to those en route to their downtown skyscraper offices; English and Swahili in the same sentence—in the same word, even; maze-like secondhand markets and sparkling upscale shopping malls; dusty, flat and hot; green, hilly and cool.

I came to Nairobi a year and a half ago because of my wife’s PhD research, and spend a lot time thinking about the polarities of the city. I teach at a university and am part of a writing group that’s starting a literary journal, which will focus on East African writers.

When will the first issue be out and will it be a print journal or online?

We’re hoping to put out the first issue this spring. Our plan is to publish two online issues a year and if we can get the funding, an annual print issue. Our temporary website is here, and we should be up and running at www.kikwetujournal.com in the very near future. Our focus is on East African writers, but we’re open to submissions from anyone on any subject. We’re only publishing fiction in our first issue, but are planning to include poetry and creative nonfiction in future issues.

Be sure to let us know about it through Submittable category “News/Award Notices from Previous Contributors.” We’d love to get the word out on the SmokeLong Quarterly blog.

Thanks, I’ll definitely keep you posted. And thanks very much for choosing my story and inviting me for this conversation.

About the Author

Michael Don is the author of the story collection Partners and Strangers (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019) and he co-edits Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature.

About the Interviewer

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

About the Artist

Ashley Inguanta is a writer, art photographer, installation artist, and holistic educator. Her work has most recently appeared in Atticus Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, and the anthology The Familiar Wild: On Dogs & Poetry. Her newest chapbook of poems, The Island, The Mountain, & The Nightblooming Field honors a human connection with the natural world.

This interview appeared in Issue Forty-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Forty-Seven
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Starting September 1, SmokeLong will launch a workshop environment/community christened SmokeLong Fitness. This asynchronous community workshop will happen on our dedicated workshop site. You will work in small groups of around 10 participants to give and receive feedback. Each Monday, you will receive a new writing task (one writing task each week) designed by the senior editor team of SmokeLong. The core workshop is asynchronous, so you can take part from anywhere at anytime. We are excited about creating a supportive, consistent and structured environment for flash writers to work on their craft.