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Smoke & Mirrors with A.J. Bermudez

Interview by Michael Czyzniejewski (Read the Story) March 21, 2022

A. J. Bermudez

A. J. Bermudez

“Rabbitfish” is a first-peripheral narration, a POV I’ve always associated with larger-than-life protagonists—Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, etc.—characters perhaps too large and/or difficult to capture from the inside. Does Tomás fit this model, or is this choice more random?

I love first-person peripheral narration, and I think the device is perfect for something I really believe in, which is teasing the reader, giving them just about 90 percent of what they want. You’re dead-on that it’s always, to some degree, about characters who are too large to capture from the inside. It’s about not granting the reader full access, and with good reason: We’d presumably be crushed (or at least annoyed) within the firsthand intellect of Holmes or disillusioned by full access to the myth of Gatsby. Tomás not only fits the larger-than-life model, but I’d argue that he subverts it. Who we treat as larger-than-life, as too great or complex to be fully accessed––both linguistically and experientially––matters. Gatsby and Holmes are elevated by status, privilege, wealth, powers of deduction, what have you, but what if we acknowledged that a Latinx nine-year-old in the public school system also merits the first-person peripheral?

I was just trying to explain to my students how the one word of one-word titles has to do a lot of work, that it’s loaded, with metaphor, double-meaning, and irony. I think this speaks to the complex layers hidden under the surface of “Rabbitfish.” What do you think?

Absolutely. I work as Co-Editor of The Maine Review, and we talk a lot about titles. We’ll ask a writer to revisit or replace a title if it’s not right for a piece. The title of a story always has to do a lot of heavy lifting, but single-word titles are especially primed to lead or mislead the reader, and to set the tone. They’re also very trendy, which is a danger (I’m put in mind of a slew of one-word adjective titles in horror films, often awesome-sounding but meaninglessly interchangeable), but done right, I think they can (and must) hit all the marks you’ve described. The title “Rabbitfish” means about five different things to me in the context of this piece, but the reader might find fewer or more, which is great. I won’t say too much about meanings, but the book in the story, where Tomás discovers the rabbitfish, is a real book, which I used for research on a story I wrote called “The Lady Will Pay for Everything” (another admittedly loaded title) for the Alpine Fellowship last year. I’ve become sort of fascinated by oceanic creatures as a touchstone for exploring privilege, colonization, and how civilization interacts with the natural world. Fishes of the Maldives has rabbitfish, parrotfish, scorpionfish, goatfish, and so on. There’s a lot there about what it means for a thing to be named for another thing, who gets to do the naming, and how absurdity and authenticity can be sort of inextricably nested inside one another.

Did you invent Schrodinger’s lobster in this story? Because I think you did.

Yes. Schrödinger’s Lobster is also the name of my band, and you can catch us Friday nights at Erwin’s House of Existentialist Blues.

Back to the peripheral thing: We don’t get a lot of the teacher here, but when we do, we see an observant and creative educator, one with outstanding diction and an extraordinary vocabulary. What about Tomás captivates your storyteller? Why Tomás, and his execution of this assignment, for the story that’s chosen to be told?

I think that really good educators are defined by curiosity. I also think that nothing haunts them more than limitations on their ability to support students. Many extraordinary teachers are beholden to disturbingly broken educational systems. Our narrator finds herself in one of these systems, and there’s a kind of convergence between curiosity and limitation that’s exemplified by Tomás. There’s so much to be curious about––his insight, intelligence, playfulness, imagination, sensitivity, dignity, understanding of his environment, objection to the status quo, etc.––which makes him quietly larger-than-life. He mirrors the narrator’s curiosity and frustration with limitations. He’s also a genuinely tragic figure—a lot of nine-year-olds are.

This is such a great assignment, Tomás not only demonstrating impressive creativity, but it has gotten him totally interested in his subject, the rabbitfish. All I could think of was how that fish needed some rabbit ears, maybe a fluffy tail. What I’m asking is, would I get a better grade than the nine years olds, or worse? 

It’s hard to say (art is so subjective), but I think you’re looking at a “Good Job” sticker and decent prospects for a fridge-door solo exhibition. With that said, brilliant artists are rarely understood in their own time.

About the Author

A. J. Bermudez is an award-winning writer and director who divides her time between Los Angeles and New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review, Boulevard, McSweeney’s, The Masters Review, Story, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Diverse Voices Award, the Page Award, and the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize. Her first book, Stories No One Hopes Are About Them, will be published as Winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award in fall 2022.

About the Interviewer

Michael Czyzniejewski’s fourth collection of stories, The Amnesiac in the Maze, is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books in 2023.

This interview appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Five

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