Interview by Katy Wimhurst
You’ve had a book of short stories published, The Weather in Kansas. What is it about the short story form that appeals?
For a writer, there’s a great opportunity to experiment with short stories – not necessarily experimental writing but a freedom to explore different characters and landscapes without feeling you’re committing to spending the next 100 years writing about them. You can have short stories that are like poetry, an intense shot. Or stories in a more complete sense of a tale told, including fairy tales, for example. Or stories that are glimpses of something, like looking into someone’s window from the top deck of a bus.
There’s also something very traditional about short stories. I think, in an age of excellent television series and films, it’s right to question the role of the novel – I’m not saying the novel is dead – but for longer narratives we do have these alternative forms. In fact, I’ve noticed that when people talk about characterisation in novels for creative writing talks or courses, I would say at least – at least – 50% of the examples they give are actually characters from TV or film. So you really have to ask, if you’re creating a long narrative, why are you choosing the novel rather than a screenplay? What do you do with a novel to make it something other than ‘printed television’ (it’s a phrase I remember Jeanette Winterson using in the 1990s, and I think it’s even more relevant now). It may be a pragmatic reason, in that getting something on to screen is necessarily collaborative, whereas writing a novel is still a solitary activity. And that’s fine – I’m an introvert, I absolutely get that. Although of course there are short films, I still think short stories don’t have a true narrative alternative elsewhere. So if you want to write traditional prose, I think short stories are a natural form to turn to.
You were born and raised in London and have Turkish-Cypriot and Filipino heritage. How has this cultural background or mix influenced the kinds of stories you tell?
It has influenced my writing, but in quite an indirect way I think. I probably don’t know much more than the next person about my parents’ respective cultures, apart from how to make chicken adobo. Both my parents were quite separate from their respective communities (we were an isolated family for various reasons, partly to do with proximity, but mostly I think because of personality), so my heritage, or parentage (I’ve never been quite sure what to call it) was always competing in a mix with mainstream culture, via television or school, and the cultures of the very diverse urban environment around us. And of course, competing with each other. I think it’s really the constant awareness of a mix of cultures that has been more influential than the individual cultures themselves; the gap between what I could see in the mainstream culture and what I could see in real life around me.
The street I lived on from four-years-old upwards was almost entirely populated by ultra-orthodox Jewish families (I think when we moved there we were the only non-Jewish family), who most of the time wouldn’t talk to us, and I think the surface of that culture has had quite an impact on me in many ways, however small – the aesthetic of their clothes, the dark suits and caps and ringlets, the mezuzahs that were on every door in our house, the low sounds of singing from the houses at Sabbath, they’re somehow part of my ‘background noise’. Then I’d walk a few streets away to primary school and it was what I think of as a ‘normal’ inner-city school with people of diverse backgrounds and religions.
In terms of how that influences my stories, it’s probably a sense of the way different realities interact in a very mundane, everyday sort of way. When I was a teenager there used to be a man in Clapton who I can only describe as a witch doctor – there were feathers and bones hanging outside his flat and sometimes he’d be standing outside in these odd garments (I can’t quite remember, but I think they involved more feathers) and painted markings on his face – I used to have to go down that street to visit a friend, and I was very scared and would always cross to avoid him, but at the same time, I’d be thinking, “what would it be like if I was the man who had to go read his meter?”, or “is he on good terms with the postman?
Many of your characters come from the margins of society: the eight-year-old Memet Ali from a council estate (in ‘1977’), who has a touching friendship with a young Turkish bride, Elif; Maganda, the daughter of a Filipino woman from a Hackney council estate, who attends her mother’s funeral (in ‘Maganda’); the female researcher (in ‘Marginalia’) who the reader suspects might be scarred or deformed under her hat, veil and gloves; the isolated teenager Miri, who gets beaten by the other girls (in ‘Signs of the Last Days’); or Vernon, the quiet son of a single mother (in ‘Scoter Surfer’), who loves birds and music. Why are you drawn to telling stories from the point of view of people on the margins?
It’s a strange thing, where the margins are and where the centre is. In ‘Marginalia’ there’s a bit where the main character points out that Britain is on the margins of many medieval world maps. I think the centre is moveable. The characters I write about do feel alienated in some way from their own life, or even their own bodies (as in ‘Marginalia’, ‘Maganda’ and ‘Freak show’), but I’m not sure they feel they are from the margins of society at large. The general background chorus of voices in ‘1977’ would probably be considered marginal to mainstream British society, but I don’t think they would view themselves in that way, and for the character Memet, they are the centre. I am drawn to characters who feel disconnected, and that disconnection might be to the people around them who are the centre of that particular mini-universe but might also be considered ‘marginal’ in a wider sense. I don’t consciously set out to write about ‘characters on the margins of society’, but I suppose it’s true I don’t feel much inclination to write about anyone who isn’t alienated in some sense.
Many of your stories are what might be called magical realism: that is, largely realist, set in a world recognisably our own, but with mythical, magical or supernatural elements. This narrative style has been popular among those culturally marginal within the West, such as Latin American writers (e.g. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel Angel Asturias), Afro-Americans (e.g. Toni Morrison), or migrants to the UK (e.g. Salman Rushdie). This is partly as magical realism acknowledges cultural heterogeneity and allows divergent cultural views (rational and mythical, western and non-western) to coexist, giving equal weighting to both. Are you drawn to this narrative style for this reason or does this story-telling style appeal to you for other reasons?
It’s a difficult one, because at the moment, I’m moving away from magical realism, or at least, the ‘realism’ is starting to outweigh the ‘magical’. You’re absolutely right about it being a means of expressing cultural heterogeneity and that’s definitely an instinctive draw for me. But on the other hand, I don’t really like the idea of non-western being the equivalent of the mythical – although I’m certain I do it/have done it myself. There’s a jostling for reality, a conflict at the heart of magical realism, which is obviously appealing, but I’m not sure I want it to be an unending struggle. I think it’s more about acknowledging the gaps between how reality is portrayed in, for example, the news or at school, and the evidence of our own eyes and experience.
Maganda, from your powerful, eponymous story, attends the funeral of her estranged mother; she defiantly wears a red dress, and goes to the wake, which turns out to be a karaoke event at which her mother’s Filipino crone friends sing. Maganda takes off home, back to the Kingsmead council estate in London, but en route encounters something supernatural, maybe a Tikbalang, a half-human, half-four-footed creature of Filipino myth, that is said to lead travellers astray by mimicking the voice or appearance of a close relative. In this case, it seems to combine her inang or grandma (who was kind to her and used to tell her the old Fillipino stories) with her mother (who was abusive and dismissed the stories as nonsense). In the story, the supernatural element could be interpreted both as a literal (fictional) rendering of Filipino cultural beliefs and as something expressive of Maganda’s own psyche and relation to her past. Did you have both these interpretations in mind when writing the story, or do you see this event another way?
I’m very very tempted to say, ‘Oh, yes, that’s exactly what I meant’. I might start telling people that’s what it’s about… and maybe it is. I certainly don’t want to shut down readings that differ from my original (conscious) motivation.
‘Maganda’ is one of my earlier stories. I wrote it for the Decibel Penguin Short Story competition, which was a huge boost to me at the time because I hadn’t been writing for very long at all when I got the news that I was one of the winners. The format of three generations of women – grandmother, mother, daughter – is a generic standard in post-colonial or immigrant fiction I think, and ‘Maganda’ was my way of acknowledging that and getting it out of my system/getting it out of the way. It was something I needed to address. In terms of the appearance of the Tikbalang, I was very much influenced by Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, and Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, where stories travel with the people who tell them, and the manifestation of gods and mythical characters is entirely dependent on the believers. ‘Maganda’ is really my version of Beowulf (no-one has ever spotted that, so you’ll have to take my word for it). I’m afraid I was thinking of a mash-up: Anglo-Saxon myth meets urban legend (when I was a kid we did really scare each other with stories of a bear on Hackney marshes) meets ‘stories that have come to England from somewhere else’ (in this case the Philippines, although technically that would apply to Beowulf too). So the Tikbalang becomes real, and the bear of Hackney marshes makes a fleeting appearance and becomes real. It’s what we were talking about earlier, the jostling of different realities.
In ‘Maganda’, the protagonist says, ‘I believe in the truth of all stories, but that doesn’t mean I believe they’re really true.’ Could this also be a reflexive comment on your own stories?
It’s more a comment on how I feel about religion, which is a form of narrative I think. I’ve been very see-saw about religious matters, veering from devout religiosity to Richard Dawkins-levels of atheism. I think as I’ve got older I’ve become more balanced and am probably now at a general level of harmless agnosticism, which I think is what that statement in Maganda expresses.
‘On Skar, and matters pertaining’ is an intriguing story with, to my mind, something of a Borges flavour. It is an ethnological account of the (invented) peoples of the remote island of Skar, a place where women significantly outnumber men, where there is no visual art but there is poetry and song, where no word for vertigo exists, and where men tend to fall to their death from high cliffs, sometimes during courtship rituals. The story is told from the detached viewpoint of ‘the Academy’, although there are heated debates within this Academy – some, for instance, suspect that anomalies in Skar are evidence of a second Earth, connected to this one through a deep ocean current. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to write this story: where the idea came from, how you chose the voice? Was Borges an influence or is that connection incidental?
The island is inspired by St Kilda. I was on holiday in Skye, and there was an exhibition about St Kilda in the basement of a castle there, including these very haunting photographs of the villagers. I bought a book about the island called The Island on the Edge of the World by Charles Mclean, which was an odd read, because there’s no sense of chronology – everything is described in a sort of timeless bubble. I then read a book about St Kilda by George Seton, who had visited the island in the 1870s. In fact, a lot of the material in there had been duplicated in the Charles Mclean book, or at least, it seemed so to me. I’m a fan of Borges, but I do think it’s the George Seton book that was the influence for the tone of ‘On Skar’. Those things about vertigo being unknown in the population, and the extreme acts of daring on the cliffs, come from Seton’s observations of the St Kildan villagers. The actual trigger for writing the story was something else though, a news item about a vintage toy washing up in Japan I think, part of the plastic and rubbish debris from one of the ocean gyres. That was the first time I’d heard about the gyres, and of course, they’re big news now, as they should be. I think of ‘On Skar’ as a story about the environment. That’s how stories often are – I knew I wanted to write something St Kilda related, but something else had to come along too; there needs to be a meeting of at least two different ideas or elements to create that spark that eventually becomes a story.
Could you say something about the link between The Wizard of Oz and The Weather in Kansas? The Judy Garland film is referred to in several stories, such as: ‘The Weather in Kansas’ story, set in Cumbria, which mentions a film in which ‘a girl and her dog are caught up in a storm’; ‘Maganda’, in which an old Filipino woman sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ at the wake; and ‘There’s No Place Like Home’, the title of which is a nod to the film.
Ha. Well, I love musical films. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was a useful shorthand for that, and of course, the film itself has all sorts of resonances regarding home, which is undoubtedly one of my preoccupations – where and what home might be, where does a person belong. There are the competing or disparate realities with Kansas in black and white and Oz in colour, and that yearning for somewhere else or another life that’s expressed in the song ‘Over the Rainbow’. The fact that the great wizard proves to be a fraud is important too, and for me is an unspoken element in the title story, where the character is waiting for a grace that never comes. So there are genuine strong thematic links for me, but also… I love musicals.
Which contemporary short story collection(s) would you recommend to our readers and why?
I’m currently reading The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey which came out recently (Dedalus, 2018) and I would definitely recommend it to your readers. I happened to be watching a 101 East programme about nuclear testing on the Bikini atholl at the same time I started to read it, and the first story ties in with that, but you don’t need that kind of coincidence to appreciate it; there’s a light touch and intelligence in the stories that I’m sure most readers would find appealing.
Another collection that I’d recommend is Monstress by Lysley Tenorio (Harper Collins, 2012), particularly for anyone interested in writing from the Filipino diaspora, although in practice that mostly means from the U.S., as it does here. I love the title story in particular, where Filipino makeshift-horror meets down-at-heel Hollywood, and ‘Help’, which focuses its action around the fallout of an infamous Beatles snub against Imelda Marcos – I had my own personal ‘Beatlemania’ when I was about 11, much to my mum’s bafflement, and I still love them. The whole collection is fantastic, there’s life and energy in the writing, and a deep humanity.
What are you up to at the moment? Any writing or story-telling projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell our readers about?
I’m currently working on some more short stories, which I hope will form a coherent second collection. I’m not writing with specific themes in mind, but they are tending to fall into two groups – ghost stories, and landscape-y, humans-in-the-environment stories. I generally find it hard to talk about work-in-progress, not because I think talking about it is a no-no, more that I end up sounding like a madwoman, or pretentious (or both) if I try to go into any detail. They never really make sense until they’re finished.
Crista Ermiya grew up in London and lives in Newcastle upon Tyne. She works as an Editorial Assistant for the academic journal Landscape Research. Her first collection of short stories, The Weather in Kansas (Red Squirrel Press, 2015), was selected by New Writing North as a Read Regional title and included in Best British Short Stories edited by Nicholas Royle (Salt, 2016). Intermittent tweets @cristaermiya
Katy Wimhurst studied anthropology before doing a PhD in Mexican Surrealism. She also worked in publishing, but now has a chronic illness. She writes non-fiction and short fiction and has been published in various magazines and anthologies. She has a particular interest in magical realism and surrealism.
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