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Smoke & Mirrors with Anita Lo

Interview by Millicent Borges Accardi (Read the Story) June 19, 2023

Anita Lo

Anita Lo

There is such an attraction between food and memory. How did you select sushi as the focal point for sacrifice in the story?

My grandfather held quite a grudge against the Japanese for invading and occupying Hong Kong, and in my limited understanding of his mind, that extended to sushi. When I was younger, I’d accepted his aversion because we frequently made accommodations for everyone’s preferences; cooking a steak on the side for Grandpa and saving the fish cheeks for one of the kids was just another way of caring for each other. After my grandfather passed, my father spent months translating my grandpa’s memoir, wherein he shared his memories of the occupation. I had never spoken to my grandfather directly about it, so I associated those stories with what I assume was his attempt to disavow them: his refusal to eat sushi. It’s possible that he just didn’t like raw fish; I never really thought to ask.

In Portuguese there is a word, saudade, which translates (some say) as a longing for what you never had, is the taste of sushi like that for the people in the story?

The people in the story have plenty of sushi! But I think it might be applicable here. They aren’t able to eat it together, and I think that they understand each other differently once it’s revealed that they have all been eating it in their own lives. I imagine sushi together tastes different from sushi alone.

Reading this makes me curious why the family was not allowed to eat sushi.

I was going to dispute whether the family was “allowed to eat sushi” here, but upon reflecting I think it’s a valid application of the word. I was “vegetarian in public” for a few years, meaning that I’d eat meat with my family, and not with friends or colleagues. It was embarrassing to explain, partly because it felt I was somehow getting the somehow morally superior reputation of meatlessness without truly having to deal with the repercussions. But it was also awkward because sharing a meal is something you expect to be equalizing, an activity you can do with anyone, but my policy more explicitly drew a line between “people with whom I’ll split a roast duck” and “people with whom I will not.” I think the main change for the characters is the set of people in front of whom they are “forbidden” to eat sushi; prior to their grandpa’s death, they were still giving something up. The way that I want to refer to their abstinence as a “pretense” is more revealing of how we demand consistency in the food realm in ways we wouldn’t elsewhere.

Was setting fire to the chopsticks and soy packages at the grave a burnt offering?

My family has burned joss paper for deceased relatives before, and I’ve always understood it as a method to send money to the deceased, for use in the afterlife. That feels different from the offerings that people offered the Greek gods, who had no use for entrails and first fruits of the harvest. The former is in itself valuable to the recipient—it’s a remittance—whereas the latter is valuable to the offeree because it is valuable to the offeror. I think most likely, the chopsticks and soy sauce packets precipitated in Grandpa’s underworld kitchen like smoke hitting a ceiling; I’m not sure whether the nigiri and sashimi would have materialized cooked or raw, though, and I suppose the physics of it all determines whether this was a remittance or a sacrifice.

Does producing art often involve great sacrifice?

I don’t feel qualified to answer this question; I feel I gave up very few things in life to write these stories on the side! But I think probably yes, or if not great sacrifice, probably at least a little bit. Or: Producing art often involves great luxury, which in some cases is preceded by great sacrifice. Or: Sacrifice requires, in all but the most ascetic settings, some level of excess that you could do without. Or: In the story there are a few references to Grandpa’s painterly abilities, which are deferred and impeded by the Japanese occupation. He sacrifices a lot for self-preservation and asks his family to sacrifice in their own ways as well. Would they all be better artists for it? I don’t think so, but it’s at least something they could write about.

Did you consciously use all five senses in this piece?

Not consciously! I just wrote hungry.

About the Author

Anita Lo grew up in the Pacific Northwest and now lives in New York. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fractured Literary, AAWW‘s The Margins, and American Short Fiction. She is the winner of the 2022 Halifax Ranch Prize for Short Fiction.

About the Interviewer

Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Quarantine Highway (Flowersong Press, 2022). Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant), and Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal).

This interview appeared in Issue Eighty of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty
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"The Shape of Things: Movement, Momentum, and Dimension in Flash CNF" with Steve Edwards

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From sentence-level craft concerns to questions of overall approach, this 90-minute webinar will explore strategies for adding shape, intensity, and depth to your flash creative nonfiction.

Steve Edwards is author of the memoir BREAKING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a 95-acre backcountry homestead along federally protected Wild and Scenic Rogue River in Oregon. His work has appeared in Orion MagazineThe Sun MagazineLiterary HubElectric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives outside Boston with his wife and son.