What We Wish to Carry Forward: An Interview with Tara Isabel Zambrano by Kara Oakleaf

Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer. Her work has been published in Tin House Online, The Southampton Review, Slice, Triquarterly, Yemassee, Passages North, and others. Her full-length flash collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations, is out with OKAY Donkey Mag/Press. She lives in Texas.

Kara Oakleaf: Congratulations on the book! This is a collection of mostly flash fiction, a form you’ve been writing in for a few years. What is it about flash that appeals to you?

Tara Isabel Zambrano: Thank you so much, Kara. Flash writing keeps me disciplined with a word limit; it challenges me to express a human experience in a tight space. This requires a certain conflict and a story, layers, movement, a quality of language that can paint worlds, rhythm, and a surprise that has been building all along. Flash is also very rewarding to read. It’s interesting to see flash writing becoming more and more acceptable and a part of many literary submissions today.

KO: I was also thinking about the movement and rhythm of these stories in terms of how they were put together as a collection—I think there are a lot of decisions that go into ordering a short story collection, but it must be an even bigger challenge for a collection of flash, which has so many more pieces to put in order. How did you go about ordering the collection and what were you noticing about the stories as you arranged the collection?

TIZ: Most of the ordering of these stories is instinctive. Consciously, I’ve only tried not to club together all the stories of death, I have dispersed them throughout the collection, same goes for desire and such. I believe, in a flash collection, especially the kind I have, where stories are written over the years with multiple focuses on dying, longing, are difficult to sequence or rationalize in a certain order. Ultimately, if the reader feels satisfied with the way they are arranged, I feel I am successful.

KO: It does feel like the way the stories are ordered creates a natural rhythm, moving back and forth between death and grief, desire and intimacy. At the same time, you have stories like “Alligator,” “Spaceman,” “Mumtaz in Burhanpur,” “Poison Damsels,” “Enfold,” with characters caught up in intense sexual encounters while grieving, or under the specter or threat of death, and sex and death are very much intertwined in these stories.  Does writing around one of those themes naturally lead into other for you?

TIZ: I’m glad to hear that you sense a rhythm in the sequence. It also makes me happy that the title of the book highlights the veins of desire, longing, a journey towards a common destination of death effectively.

Desire is an aspect with an intense physical attachment, while death and dying are removal of that physical/sensory connection. And perhaps that’s the reason, grief or mourning is a long process to make sense of things when someone we desire/love passes on. It’s to, perhaps, understand, and differentiate between the physical presence versus a memory. I believe, most of our lives spin around these, or in between these focal points and while diametrically opposite on the spectrum, I do find my work weaving a thread from one and culminating into another. It’s natural for wanting so much to have an experience of that wanting and moving on.

KO: Many writers find writing sex scenes to be a huge challenge – has this ever been challenging for you, or do you find it comes organically, given the themes you’re interested in?

TIZ: Sex is an outcome/manifestation of desire. I write about it as openly and naturally as I feel for the character. In the end, it’s an intense human connection that we seek with the ones we desire/love and it should be written with that same intensity and most importantly, should make sense in the context of the story.

KO: I wanted to ask about incorporating fantastical elements into your stories, because a lot of those intense moments of connection also have an otherworldly feel to them—I’m thinking about stories like “In Its Entire Splendor” where the narrator is literally swallowed by her lover, or even a story like “Up and Up,” where the story is depicted realistically, but there’s still a dream-like feeling permeating everything that’s happening. Can you talk a bit about writing surrealism and how that connects with the other themes in your stories?

TIZ: Kara, you have picked two great examples: one with apparent surreal elements and other with a dreamlike feel.

The first, “In Its Entire Splendor,” the setup is surreal but there’s a logical structure to support it and then an emotional blanket to make a human connection. Those elements are necessary for me, as a writer, to have a good surreal story.

In the second story, “Up and Up,” the setup, the characters are realistic and the situation is full of conflict, grief and confusion. So, in order to balance the heaviness, I have kept the story light in terms of details, which give it a dream-like vibe, perhaps.

Coming to the themes in my stories, both desire and death have mystical rings to them. On how they influence us in our thoughts and actions, how they transform our understanding of living and dying. Good surrealism, in my opinion, is the same way. It manifests itself in a dream-like or what we may consider non-real/fantasy elements and yet forms a connection to our reality.

KO: I love that idea of fantasy highlighting very real, human experiences. Some of the most memorable pieces of the collections for me were ones where you not only have a surreal premise, but the fantastical elements continue to build through the story. Those stories take big risks that end up being very effective. “Nine Openings,” “Uncoupling,” and “Hum” are a few I’m thinking of here. How do you decide when to keep pushing the boundaries in a story?

TIZ: I believe I push boundaries in every story. Sometimes I am successful with its execution and the fidelity of details with respect to the story, sometimes I am not and I have to pause and go back to the point the story elements allow it.

In “Nine Openings”, since I began the story with the crash landing of a spaceship, the ground was wide open for experimentation. In some ways, “Uncoupling” also allowed me to wander and pick up the best I could think of. However, with Hum, the setting of the story was rooted in reality and insertion of surreal elements and their progression was a bit tricky, and I am glad to hear that as a reader, it worked for you.

KO: Some of your stories experiment with time—”We’re Waiting to Hear Our Names” captures how brief even a lifetime can feel, or “Across the Centuries, the Rumbling Calls Out to Her” which incorporates thousands of years of history – but there are many other images dealing with time that stood out to me as well—a father changing setting clocks to  significant times in his relationship with his wife, God wearing a radium watch, a narrator making a wish on a two-thousand year old pillar in a mosque. How do you think about time in your stories, in terms of structure or theme?

TIZ: I did think of the timeline in both the stories you mentioned. Because time is the basic partition that allows me to showcase the growth in the characters. Also, in Piecing, where the narrator makes a wish on a centuries old pillar, it is a symbol of faith, culture and the presence of both across time. And as a wannabe parent, life is a lot about what it is we wish to carry forward. In another story, about the father setting the clocks is, once again, a relationship and its memories marked by a timeline, because that is how our minds register them so. As a structural construct or thematically, I enjoy using time, twisting it, hiding it as long as it does not get too tangled up on itself.

KO: What are you working on right now?

TIZ: For now, I am just writing a lot of flash/micro and submitting and getting rejected. As a writer, that is my ground, always. It gives me satisfaction and hope. It gives me a path forward, to learn, to cope, to improve. Maybe, a new collection in the future but a lot of planning takes me away from the present moment and its vitality, so I do my best not to do that.

Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in Booth, Matchbook, Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2020. She lives in Northern Virginia, where she teaches at George Mason University and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival. Find her at karaoakleaf.com or @karaoakleaf.

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