Interviewed by Sommer Schafer

Read Maya Alexandri’s fiction piece, The Hug

Sommer: “She can give people the fright you get when you think something’s a rock, or a statue, and then it twitches or breathes and you realize, it’s alive.” This line so perfectly shows us Raquel’s feelings of fear, isolation, and embarrassment, living with a mother who is severely disabled. By not backing away from this truth, you create a vivid and complex twelve-year-old girl. Did you have any challenges writing about disability in this story?

Maya: This question is really interesting. Readers (and editors) provide new perspectives on what a story is “about”! Writing “The Hug,” I was not thinking that it was about disability. I thought the story was about a tween girl who was embarrassed by her mom.

In terms of writing Magdalena, the character living with a disability in “The Hug,” I had a lot of help. I had met the remarkable artist, Elizabeth Jameson, who makes visual art that incorporates her MRI images. Like Magdalena, Elizabeth Jameson has multiple sclerosis and is quadriplegic. Elizabeth Jameson is an unusual person—she is imbued with grace, and so generous with herself that others are lifted up in her presence. Although my interaction with her was fleeting, her spirit stayed with me and animated Magdalena.

Raquel changes in this short story, going from feeling embarrassed and isolated by the way her mother looks, to feeling love, joy, and acceptance for her mother and herself, and by the community. Was it difficult to create this change in your main character within the span of such a short space?

The space constraints were a particular challenge in this piece because so much of the story is taken up with Raquel’s dance. Because the story takes place on the first occasion when Magdalena gets to see Raquel dance, I knew I needed to describe the dance and Raquel’s performance in detail. The key to the character transformation working, I think, is that the dance builds up tension. But the tension provides the momentum for her to catapult into change as the story draws to its conclusion. I like to think that I built the story like a spring-loaded device to lob Raquel (gently) out of one frame-of-mind and into a different spiritual posture.

It is particularly uplifting to read a story about girls coming together in support and love instead of jealousy and meanness. Were you conscious of this effect as you wrote? Do women writers have a particular social responsibility to do their part in uplifting women? [Big question, I know!].

In terms of the interactions of love and support between the girls on the dance team, this may sound surprising, but I was working with the concept of the girls being in a platoon. I am in the Army, and I have been amazed and impressed at how platoon-mates can support each other, and how being in a platoon makes one “more than oneself.”

In “The Hug,” I was interested in writing about children of soldiers. Children replicate many dimensions of their parents, and I was interested in how these girls replicate the positive dynamics that can prevail among soldiers in a platoon. Although I did not include this information in the story, the girls live in Killeen, Texas, where Fort Hood is. Raquel’s father and Leia’s mother both work at Fort Hood, as do the parents of the other girls on the dance team. The girls are familiar with the camaraderie their parents share with their platoon-mates, the high esprit de corps that is a goal in the service, and the mutual respect that is expected (and frequently prevails) among soldiers. And in “The Hug,” the girls do their parents proud.

As for the obligation that women writers have to uplift each other, instinctually, I side with taking on the social responsibility to help each other up. In what might be a relevant example, whenever I see a woman smoking, I have to restrain the impulse to mount a public health intervention and say to her, “So much of society is stacked against you, designed to put you down and keep you down—why help out the forces against you? The effort to be well in a sick context—isn’t that a complete protest-and-victory?” I do not say it. (Yet.) But, yes, I had an uplifting story to tell about girls being great, and I took the opportunity to tell it; if that discharges a social responsibility, I am happy to do it.

Do you have any advice to writers on handling rejection?

I wish someone would give me advice on handling rejection! Since a rational approach to rejection is to give up and do something else, my approach is to be as irrational as possible. Everything irrational about me—my imagination, my emotions, and my spiritual dimensions—runs my writing life. As much as possible, I get my numbers-crunching, comparison-making, market-watching, evidence-based, post-Enlightenment, thinking mind to take a nap while I am writing. Sometimes, I have to wake up the rational mind to do some research, but then I send it straight back to sleep! This approach has cost me so much money in outright expenditures and lost opportunities, and made me all-but incomprehensible to a significant number of people who I value, that I cannot in good conscience describe my experience as an example for, or god-forbid, the basis of advice to others. All I can say is that rejection is intrinsic to the task of completing a written work—that is, allowing the work to come to life off the page when it is read by someone other than the author. And if completing the written work is something you feel compelled to do, then invite yourself to do something really “crazy”: savor the rejection.