Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Don Malkemes’ fiction piece, Only in Public
Sommer: The public space is a sad, scary one in this story. It brings to mind harmful things happening today in the public realm (forced separation at the Mexico-U.S. border; gun violence; homelessness) that play out in front of our eyes, but also the unhappiness and unfairness that plagues all of us at one time or another. How should we react to public demonstrations of despair? Violence? I’m curious about the sense of public vs. private in this story. The narrator’s thoughts about what he is observing are his private thoughts. How can he be sure that what he is observing publicly is being accurately reflected in his private thoughts? Or is that not the right question?
Don: We should react with more compassion. But how we currently define compassion is a bit cynical. And so, we see a lot more despair. I view the public space as a layering of social structures. These structures ineluctably trap and train us. We will defend the structures in which we are placed, according to our particular placement. In turn, we feed whatever entraps us, even if the structures are poisonous. The public and the private is a feedback loop. So the narrator has private thoughts about the public, but those private thoughts have already been shaped by the public. The reader should observe the narrator in the same way. What choice do they really have?
I appreciate how nothing is explicitly labeled in this story, from the name of the café to the name of the agency that the social worker works for, to what kind of situation binds together the husband, wife, baby, and mother. We can infer, of course, but are not necessarily given the information to make a specific deduction. I think this serves well the story’s theme of the pervasiveness and generalness of public trauma. Was it difficult to maintain that “non-naming” perspective as you wrote?
Not really. But I have an affinity for the no-name stories (I think it’s too many Spaghetti Westerns as a child). I want readers to overly infer, because—I hope—that will create some kind of tenuous empathy, but also a healthy doubt. I want that tension, that unease of empathy and doubt, to be felt. There’s one name in the story, and it’s placed so that a reader will mispronounce it (at first blush). That’s a dick move on my part. But readers should doubt themselves as much as they doubt the narrator.
There’s something interesting going on in the contrast between the oblivious Loan and the tragedy occurring at the table near them. To me it feels as if she’s lucky to have something to bury her head in, and the time and money with which to do it. If the narrator were less of an observer, or had his own study to sink his head into, he would not have noticed the other table. At the risk of sounding simple, is it better to be Loan or the narrator?
Woof, that’s a tough one. The narrator has been “educated” by the public space, so the narrator holds whatever awareness is afforded. Loan is being educated, literally and figuratively. So when a social collapse occurs, is it better to stick to our training and feign ignorance of the situation? Loan is lucky in that she has a singular struggle, learn English. Her oblivion is genuine. In time, will she learn to fake it, like the rest of us do? And does that focus on a singular struggle just become an excuse to amplify the negative feedback loop of public/private? If it’s time to focus on our society, it’s better to be the narrator. But if you’re having a really shitty week, Loan all day.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Only hate yourself for a year. When you rebuild your confidence, don’t go overboard. Somewhere between delusions of grandeur and complete self-abnegation is a little brat who sings, “I know something you don’t know.”
Thank you, and congratulations!
No, no, no, no. Thank you.