Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Bayveen O’Connell’s fiction piece, Because I’m Just Your Mother Not Your Speech Therapist
Sommer: There is such an interesting balance going on in this story between the themes of women choosing not to speak, and being silenced. How torturous for the mother narrator to witness the self-silencing of her normally loquacious daughter, and to in turn be relegated to only thinking instead of speaking. Yet choosing not to talk is part of the daughter’s power. There is so much here! I’d love to pick your brain on this interchange between female silence as power, and female silence as oppression. Thoughts? And was this theme something you purposefully planned, or one that revealed itself afterwards? Great writing, after all, often unconsciously coaxes out great truths.
Bayveen: The idea was sparked from a conversation with some female friends where the phenomenon of selective mutism came up. After a little research to delve into the who and why aspects (usually girls after some sort of trauma), I was interested in exploring the effects of mutism on a mother/ daughter relationship. The story came in one sitting, and surprised me by being in the stream of consciousness of the mother. The power/ language dynamic revealed itself as I wrote it, though I realize now that I was drawing on feminist theories I’d studied as an undergraduate – that language is gendered and male-centric and thus, the seat of authoritative expression and control. Starting originally from a position of ‘other,’ the mother and daughter are alienated further by making each other ‘other.’ Through her stream of consciousness, though, the mother is free from the self-editing/self-censorship tendency that women engage in, both consciously and unconsciously, especially when talking about emotion. Despite the fact she is locked out and lonely, she owns her silent words. There’s a delicate balance at the point in female relationships where we withhold a secret or share the burden, second guessing what family and society will think. The mother fascinates me in the way she wants to coax her daughter to speak again: both for political and selfish reasons.
The reader feels how unbearable the narrator’s pain is. I’m interested in how you evoked such powerful sentiment in such a short piece. It’s truly remarkable.
I imagined the mother going through the bargaining stage of grief, wanting to make palpable the sense that the daughter is slipping further and further away from her although she’s still alive. I also pictured the mother standing in the dark, haunted by memories, after her child has switched off the mother/daughter connection. There’s something brutal in being consumed by loneliness when one isn’t physically alone; she conveyed herself to me as though she were trapped in a prison of her daughter’s denial and ostracism.
I love and greatly admire how you create the presence of “daddy” by his absence. In fact, this is very much a story of three characters: mother, father, daughter. When you write a piece of flash fiction, are you aware of everything in the story that is in fact happening “off stage,” and how those things impact what is happening “on stage”? How do you create the impact of something that is mainly not even there?
My flash pieces that I’ve been most excited about recently have had a ghost of some past influence or a presence on the fringes. I find that the mere suggestion of something on the edge can create great motivation and/or conflict for characters. I find less is more; it’s best to trust the reader and leave them wondering, primed only with one or two mentions. Hemingway was a genius at this. I’m also really enamored with the notion that absence holds its own presence, like an empty place set at a table. I saw the family in this story as a very disturbed trinity, with the father perhaps having the most power of all in spite of/because of his absence. I’d almost call him Schrödinger’s dad!
And on that note, do you approach writing flash fiction in a different way than longer fiction? For instance, when writing flash, do you find yourself editing things out more afterwards? Do you have any advice for writers wanting to tackle writing flash fiction?
My flash often come in one sitting, prompted by a picture, a news article, or a word, whereas with longer fiction I’ll have an idea but I’ll let it bound around in my head for a few weeks or even longer before I can bring it to the page. Even when I have a really good feeling about a flash, I leave it for a few days before I come back to it with fresh eyes. During the time between, I often have eureka moments when I realize what I could tighten, clarify, or re-word, and these ideas go into the memo on my phone. I always handwrite my first drafts, so my second drafts involve typing up and editing at the same time.
I think flash fiction should be lean in language (make verbs do the work of adjectives) but furnished with specific detail, and it should pack a punch in theme and character so it resonates with the reader. Writers should capitalize on titles, beginnings and endings, and paring back, or pruning, is essential to the flash form. And start in media res.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection? What keeps you going?
When you’ve put blood, sweat, tears, and creativity into a piece, rejection can really hurt. Hope, perseverance, getting feedback from writer friends, and developing a thick skin keep me going. Read and select the type of lit mags on the same wavelength as your writing—I’m a huge believer in finding the right ‘fit’ for a story. Some stories are rejected because they’re submitted before being polished to be the best they can be, so time spent editing is well worth it.
Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!