How We Fit In
In our modern world, we are so often defined by labels – our nationality, our skin colour, our gender, our sexuality, our age, our marital status, our job, whether we went to University, whether we support Liverpool FC or Wolverhampton Wanderers, whether we spend our weekends doing park runs or Morris dancing or making papier-mâché dinosaurs. These labels, the groups we belong to, shape us - from the big stuff (our cultural references and world view) right down to the minutiae of our personality - but we are much more than them. As in everything, humans are complex and individual.
Often, when viewing people at a distance, we have a tendency to only see their labels and not the individual underneath. We rely on stereotypes. We make presumptions, sweeping generalisations; racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia all still rife despite the many lessons that should have been learnt from the past. On top of that, we often fail to understand that the groups someone fits into don’t align like some wonderfully symmetrical Venn diagram. Someone can be a Morris dancer and also enjoy moshing to thrash metal on a Saturday night.
The challenge for a flash fiction writer wanting to write something powerful on the topic of identity is to work on both these levels – that of the individual so we, as a reader, get a sense of a character to connect with; and that of the wider identity, the group or label to which the character belongs; to remember that no one fits perfectly within any particular box and to avoid clichés and stereotypes.
Identity is something so personal that, even in fiction, authenticity is usually only conferred by writing about a group with which you personally identify. And the six pieces I’ve picked out for my blog this month are all drenched in that sense of authenticity. The emotions in them are real – the anger, the sadness, the humour. They cover DNA tests for dogs, a community of clowns, fashion and clothing, food, photography and monsters. They are imbued with powerful messages. Their narratives take us on unexpected journeys. As always, read and enjoy.
Jasmine Sawers | SmokeLong Quarterly
I’m a sucker for a one sentence story when it’s done well – but the trick is making the form enhance the story rather than allowing the story to be ruled by the form. Here, the lack of punctuation helps build the rhythm and tension of the piece from absurd beginning through contemplative middle to gritty ending; the conversational tone lulls the reader into a false sense of security. At its heart, this piece is all about labels (and our obsession with them). I love the level of detail in the descriptions – the dog described as a ‘malfunctioning Furby’, the ‘labcoats [putting] his elementals in a centrifuge and spin[ning] it around until they could draw out all the threads of him’. There is wonderful humour in the opening and the shift to something darker is cleverly imperceptible. It’s in the word ‘weirdo’, the reference to Huckleberry Finn – and there are so many words or phrases that resonate later in the piece. For example, the phrase ‘wanted to make a point about my hypocrisy’ chimes like a bell when we’re confronted with the multiple micro-aggressions of the white people even though we’re all ‘cobbled together of fractions’. Everything builds towards the heart-breaking conclusion and this is where the choice of a single sentence really comes into its own. We, as the reader, feel like we have been taken on a roller-coaster ride and because of that, the emotions in the final image bleed off the page.
Avra Margariti | Milk Candy Review
The opening to this wonderful piece is all about defying the readers’ expectations. We see the words ‘King’ and ‘throne’ and think of opulence and gold whereas the reality we are confronted with is ‘a dripping faucet’ and ‘starbursts of mold’; in the next sentence, the Clown King is female rather than the expected male. I love the sense of atmosphere; the balance of sadness and humour in the fact that the ‘apartment can fit a troupe of forty.’ The second paragraph goes through several tonal shifts. There is grittiness to begin with, something wistful in the Clown King’s perusal of flowerpot geraniums and a note of threat in how she is ‘ever-vigilant.’ In the ‘coulrophobic incidents’, we start to see the layer of allegory to the piece and there is a fantastic attention to detail here in picking out the different subcultures, the micro-aggressions, the lived experiences of the various groups. This piece has so much more story than what is on the page and we are left with the thought of the clowns’ ‘kaleidoscopic dreams’ – a nod to the rainbow flag, perhaps – that leaves us with a sense of hope for a better tomorrow.
H.A. Eugene | FlashBack Fiction
The genius in this piece is how it reads as a genuine police report, matter-of-fact language that appears objective, so that we don’t initially question the incongruity of two iPhones appearing in the first paragraph of a story in FlashBack Fiction, how the facts of the ‘robbery/assault’ shift like quicksand. It would be easy in lesser hands for this to become quite a dull phone-book style read but there is real attention to language. In the first paragraph, we have lots of short vowels, an alliterative quality to all the words beginning with A, the rhythm in ‘222 Club’, the tongue twister hint of ‘red leather’ that feels quite clipped. The first sentence of the second paragraph, by contrast, flows together in a way that naturally picks up steam. Despite the seriousness of the subject-matter, there is also a tongue-in-cheek humour (see 'combed his hair menacingly') flecked throughout. I love how the story meanders back towards the past through the descriptions of fashion and clothing. It’s so evocative and picks out how we are often judged by what we wear. Ultimately, the constant shifting of the men going back through time serves to illustrate how police reports, although seemingly objective, are (as mentioned in the accompanying interview) ‘loaded with prejudices about out-groups.’
Emily Devane | Flash Flood
There is something about this piece that just makes me smile every time I read it. On the surface, it is so light, a lyrical quality to the writing that feels quite magical. There is an inventiveness to the language. In the first paragraph, I love the simile ‘bunch up your tongue like a concertina’ and, later on, the words that come out ‘rinsed and tangled like oddly coupled socks from the wash.’ Each of the images is carefully chosen to convey so much more than what you see on the page – ‘the bum shufflers’, ‘a way of speaking into our shoulders’, the bodies that stay ‘folded and small’. There is something brilliantly powerful in those two lines divided by a paragraph break about ‘step[ping] on us’ and ‘Never cover us with newspaper’, and it becomes clear that there are layers of meaning underneath the light façade. This piece reads like a recruitment drive for the Hopeful Monsters Club but it is also an instruction manual of how to interact with Hopeful Monsters. ‘With that in mind, please leave us be. In time, we may return, our eyes a little shadowy in their sockets but otherwise intact.’
Samantha Xiao Cody | Jellyfish Review
Food is such an important part of who we are. Here, it is used as a starting point for a flash that wraps in so many facets of its narrator’s identity. In the first paragraph, I love the use of juxtaposition between ‘the spinning center of a banquet table’ and ‘shoved in my mouth on a roadside.’ I love the imagery of granola bar wrappers ‘silvery like fish skins’, how the shame of them becomes a ‘tomb’ and then a ‘boneyard’. Really good flash fiction stretches beyond the page in past, present and future. Here, the threads of the mother’s life are painted so beautifully that we get a fully formed picture of her history and why she reacts to the narrator’s eating as she does. And from there, we catapult onto the future. There are so many powerful word choices in the penultimate paragraph – ‘infected’ (which harks back to the ‘new viruses’ of the opening), ‘murdered’, ‘birthed’. We get a sense of history as a burden as the narrator swallows ‘their love, their whispers, their moans, their dreams’ but there is also a strange sort of hope that, despite all the prejudice, the constraints of tradition and family, the narrator might still end up with the future she wants for herself.
Winston Bribach | FlashBack Fiction
The topic of this story feels even more important than when I first read it back in March; the idea that history as it appears in textbooks and photographs is not necessarily the whole truth. Structurally, I really like how we start with pinpoint focus on the fact that the Chinese have been told ‘to stay away from the photographer’. We aren’t given a place or even a time and that makes the opening feel suitably untethering. From there, it is as if the camera pans out to show us the railroad, the history of erasure before focusing back in on the narrator vanishing from the world. There is a wonderful juxtaposition in this piece between the precise descriptions of what takes place (‘The blast came before we could pull them up to safety, burying them underneath immovable rock’) and the magical realism element of the narrator’s ‘skin fading, turning invisible’ which subverts the fear in the opening paragraph that being photographed will make them ‘lose their souls’.
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