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Smoke & Mirrors with María Alejandra Barrios

Interview by Tara Isabel Zambrano (Read the Story) December 21, 2020

María Alejandra Barrios

María Alejandra Barrios

Your work is a beautiful combination of potent imagery and intimacy with the second person POV that draws the reader in. What inspired you to write this story in this format?

Thank you! This felt like a very intimate story since the start. It was one of those that could only be written in the second person because it was only addressed to someone in particular, despite the largeness of the story outside of it (the dystopian tone, the end of New York), what matters to the narrator is the recipient of the story. Not much else. And maybe that’s the thing about writing about relationships: It’s a world built on intimacy and specific details that when it ends or it’s interrupted, these moments and details don’t have anywhere to go or to be directed to. Like interrupted communication—maybe that’s why this piece is in the second person, because in a way it’s possible that it is a one-sided conversation. A conversation that will never be had or read.

I am intrigued by your selection of plants for this piece. How each one of it triggers a memory and unravels details. Did the title of the story come first or was it something you found as you wrote the piece?

It came to me as I wrote the story. I moved in with my boyfriend to our first apartment in New York without roommates in June. Besides how weird (and difficult!) moving during COVID-19 was, it was also a strange time: We were entering a lease while it seemed that everyone else was trying to get out of their lease. I started spending a lot of time on Craigslist to furnish the apartment and I started finding a lot of plants. Plants that I’ve never heard about before (Like birds of paradise—which turned into plants of paradise for the title) and hearing everyone’s stories about leaving. Every plant that we bought came with a lot of instructions and stories about the owners. There was a woman for example that was selling all her plants that were about six foot and that she had had for many years. It felt like the end of something, something that stayed with me and eventually became this story.

This piece is 880 words long. Is flash a characteristic style of your work? Does it come naturally to you?

Yes, it is. I love writing flash because I like how compact it can be and how it forces me to really reflect on language. The story has to have a motivation and an intention. I don’t have the most focus as a reader sometimes, and I need for things to have a forward movement. That’s why I love flash: When done right, it feels like a perfect moment in time. One where there is no uncertainty because hopefully, we’re moving towards the answer, the heart of the story or the moment of change. Life is not often like that; it drags out, thoughts become rambling and unfocused, but flash at its best stays compact.

Recently, I read an article called “Is New York Over?” The writer said it wasn’t of course. That could never happen. Cities like New York go on and on until nothing else is left standing. I love the way you urge the reader into introspection here. What are your thoughts about New York or the transformation it has gone over the years due to several events?

I’ve only been living here a little over two and a half years. It has been a very tumultuous time due to the instability that comes with moving to another country and finding one’s footing. I heard this when I first moved here and I believe it to be absolutely true: When times are hard in life, in New York they are twice as hard. Everything is harder in this city, so things also feel earned. I carved a little space for me in this city as an immigrant, and it has come (and continues to come) with a lot of sacrifice. All of this to say, that I don’t know if I’ve gotten to experience New York in normal times, whatever that means. Just when I felt like I was about to, COVID-19 hit and a lot of people started leaving the city, and things became more isolated. But the spirit of it remains, too; there’s something beautiful in that, in witnessing the growth of community, interest in social justice, and how diverse and accepting the city can be. I love that and it’s what continues to push me to live here. So, New York feels slower, but it also feels more friendly and more involved. When I first came here, I was appalled that at parties people were always asking me about my professional life and what I was going to do next, etc. It felt very invasive but also harsh, like people always had to be doing stuff twenty-four-seven and they weren’t valued because of who they were, but due to what they did in life and accomplished. Maybe because I’m not going to parties anymore, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore. I think there’s a collective consciousness now that has shifted in New Yorkers, where it’s not about those things anymore but about survival and support. Not so much about what you do professionally but about what you are doing to take care of yourself and others at this time, and that feels like a good comeback to me.

About the Author

María Alejandra Barrios is a pushcart nominated writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has lived in Bogotá and Manchester where in 2016 she completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester. She was selected for the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Performing Literary Arts for the city of New York in 2018. Her stories have been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, Bandit Fiction, Cosmonauts Avenue, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, Vol.1 Brooklyn, El Malpensante and Shenadoah Literary. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review. Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center, Caldera Arts Center and the New Orleans Writing Residency.

About the Interviewer

Tara Isabel Zambrano is the author of Death, Desire and Other Destinations, a full-length flash collection by OKAY Donkey Press. Her work has won the first prize in The Southampton Review Short Short Fiction Contest 2019, a second prize in Bath Flash Award 2020, has been a Finalist in Bat City Review 2018 Short Prose Contest and Mid-American Review Fineline 2018 Contest. Her flash fiction has been published in The Best Small Fictions 2019The Best Micro Fiction 2019 and 2020 Anthology. She lives in Texas and is the Fiction Editor for Waxwing Literary Journal.

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