Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Olivia Gunning’s fiction piece, The Arrangement
Sommer: You do a wonderful job in this story of showing what it feels like to not be welcomed, to constantly be viewed as an outsider. Yến and her mother are women and Asian in an Arabic country, repeatedly treated as objects. For safety, they remain passive. If they had been men, in what ways would your story have changed, do you think?
Olivia: Imbalances between men and women in Morocco (and not only there!) persist, that’s for sure. It’s accepted for women to have a daughter, mother or wife status, but other definitions are pretty volatile. Things are changing but change always feels so slow, too slow.
What is particular to the women in this story is the fact that they’re foreign, and in Morocco there’s a marked preoccupation with “foreign-ness”—a fascination with the outside. While Morocco may be seen from the outside as a place people want to escape, globalization has led to an increase in the number of people coming to North Africa, especially to the major cities. Reactions to Southeast Asians are, to be diplomatic, mixed. Vietnamese communities are not new to Casablanca—there is some interesting history here, since Moroccan soldiers were sent to Vietnam fighting for the French during the colonial period and returned home with Vietnamese wives (as my story mentions). Yet these communities remain rather hidden, and treatment and attitudes aren’t always very…erm…politically correct. Having several friends from Southeast Asia, I’ve experienced directly the kind of teasing and remarks we see in the story. So to get back to the question, the story could have been different had they been male but the experience of being ‘from the outside’ is similar for both genders. I think.
Yến seems to have two options: blend in and try to disappear (as her mother does), or “shout” her identity from the rooftops. What do you think the future holds for her?
It’s a good question. I feel like Yến has more of a challenging nature and that she may eventually bite back, protest, rebel or even try to flee. She does know how to adopt the same stoic stance as her mother in terms of behavior, but the first-person narrative allows us to access to her thoughts and emotions. And there we find a whole range of indignation and pretty strong-minded, emotional opinion. As she grows up, she may develop the bravery and audacity necessary to forge a different route from her mother’s.
It’s sad to me how Yến’s mother seems to only live her life in her nightly “cinema.” Whereas Yến is very much trying to face her actual life in Morocco by noticing everything and being more honest. The differences between mother and daughter are subtly and nicely rendered. Do you think this generation gap is exacerbated in immigrant communities worldwide?
I’d be reluctant to make any comments on a global scale since I fear my own experience is too limited to my own contexts of the UK and Morocco. What is interesting about Yến and her mum, Lan, is that Lan has lived in her native country (Vietnam) and Yến hasn’t—she knows only Morocco. This is of course common among immigrant communities that have existed for two or more generations. I imagine that the host context is definitive here, as far as the extent to which the non-native is accepted, allowed to integrate, the treatment and attitudes received. While Lan’s dreams were always of Vietnam, at the end it’s insinuated that she has new dreams. This is poignant, in a way, for Yến as she sees her mother, her protector, her ally, forming relationships within the local, host culture that has often been disconnected, or even hostile. I imagine this to be a fear-filled, yet inevitable, situation that will certainly affect the two generations.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
I have a whole spectrum of reactions to rejection but I guess my favourite is seeing them as positive instead of weeping and whining about how useless I am. I can’t remember who told me that each rejection is a victory in some way. I try to enjoy them, weirdly. Of course there are days I hate them, but it means the day I get an acceptance is deliriously happy. Someone else also told me that rejections don’t matter because it means that I’m submitting and it’s the submitting that’s the most important. Writing, finishing, editing, sending. It’s a process and a necessary one. A rejection is better than being ignored, I guess.
What are you working on these days, and when can we next read some of your work?
I have a piece coming out in Pithead Chapel soon about a religious conversion. It’s my shortest piece yet. I have several others in the submissions pipeline and two or three more being (re)written. My computer is a bank of simmering pieces waiting to be either overboiled or cooked up properly. We’ll see. I always mention new work on my Twitter or Instagram.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you. I love The Forge and I’m so honoured to be included.