In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Alvin Park discusses how his father’s short-lived rule that the family speak only Korean at home laid the groundwork for his love of flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Alvin Park
My parents tell me this story often: I was three or four when my father ordered that we only speak Korean at home. While my brother did fine, I didn’t have enough words, Korean or English, to navigate. I used what little I knew, but mainly stayed silent. My mother tells me that I would point and gesture, lips closed, but mainly stayed to myself.
As a writer, I started with bad poems. I was drawn to poetry’s rhythm, flow, and length. I was amazed at how so few words can cut to the bone, haunt me, or make my heart swell. Except that my poems had no real form, reason, or intent. They were nonsensical floods of words turned into columns that didn’t fit together. They felt frantic, desperate, and insecure.
Around the same time, I took a class on Faulkner. We read Absalom, Absalom!, and my professor pointed out the paragraph-long sentences broken down by parentheses, semi-colons, and ellipses. He suggested that the lengths that these narrators—Rosa Coldfield, Quentin Compson, Shreve—spoke was born from a need to keep secrets. The denseness of the story was undercut by the idea that none of the characters were actually saying what they wanted or meant.
A substitute instructor asked us to write a one-page story comprising one sentence. I tried to write with the rhythm of poetry but measured each word so that the story still made sense. I wrote about a man breaking a mirror, stripping off his clothes, and taking the moonlight into his skin. Frantic, desperate, insecure, but in a different way.
Flash for me works on this balance between what needs to be said and what doesn’t, choosing the right words and understanding how they work with the words that aren’t there. It forces me to focus my writing, doing away with long descriptions, drawing on the reader’s own memories and assumptions.
One of the first pieces of flash that stuck with me was Joey Comeau’s “Red Delicious.” It’s about a blind woman navigating the world. It’s about colors and flesh and blood. It’s about love. The narrator talks about how she prefers rolling car windows down manually, just the way she did when was young:
Emmett’s mother let him take the car once, to go for groceries. It had windows that you could roll down. I couldn’t get over it. When I was a little girl I used to roll and unroll the window when we went for Sunday drives. Now our car has electric windows. Everybody’s does. With a button, god knows what is happening. I like to feel the window move. I like to know. I rolled down the window and fastened my seatbelt. Then I rolled it back up again. Then I rolled it down.
That image of rolling down the window during Sunday drives offers smells, colors, the feel of the wind on her face, the plastic handle, all unwritten but still there. I think about riding in my brother’s car along the coast, windows down, stereo turned up. This sense of controlled freedom, safety, and escape.
I’m still learning. I think more about word length and syllables. I think about colons and how they can convey place and passage of time. I’m trying to be more honest and vulnerable with my flash. I’m trying to incorporate and connect with the Korean culture I pushed away for so much of my life.
My father eventually lifted the Korean-only rule because of my mom, who was afraid I would grow mute. Part of me feels like I’m still struggling to find the right words, still pointing and gesturing. Part of me realizes that all I need to say is already there.
Alvin Park lives and writes in Portland. His work has been featured in The Rumpus, the Mojave River Review, Wyvern Lit, and New South Journal. He has a long way to go. Follow him on Twitter @Chipmnk.