Hybrid Interview: Tara Isabel Zambrano
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Tara Isabel Zambrano and our flash fiction section editor Kristin Tenor, who also essays about Zambrano’s debut collection Death, Desire, and Other Destinations. —CRAFT
Essay by Kristin Tenor •
Virginia Woolf writes in her novel Orlando: A Biography: “Nothing thicker than a knife blade separates happiness from melancholy.” Perhaps the same might be said by the characters inhabiting Tara Isabel Zambrano’s debut short story collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations (Okay Donkey Press, 2020). The fifty stories included in the collection, many previously published in literary journals such as Tin House, SmokeLong Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Mid-American Review, explore the intersection between longing and grief, as well as what lies on the periphery.
From the physical, carnal desire extended toward one’s lover to the yearning for inclusion experienced by a young immigrant as she makes a new country her home, desire takes on many forms throughout the collection. In the story “Piecing,” readers empathize with a woman who desires to bear children only to have those hopes soon diminished:
The next time you enter me, I start piecing the baby together. Cells build up on top of each other—a circus tent, taut, blistering. A few weeks later it collapses as if the stakes are pulled from the ground. For the rest of the week, I hunt jobs on the internet, create career profiles, Google search “miscarriages,” again.
The emotional range exhibited within this single paragraph impresses with not only its precision, but also the complexity derived through inference and juxtaposition—the building up, the collapsing, the hope one might be able to build anew. In particular, the intimacy of the woman once again Google searching “miscarriages” tugs at the reader’s core, drawing us even deeper into a world where grief and longing coexist.
Likewise, Zambrano conveys depth and resonance through characterization. In “New, Old,” 2019 winner of the TSR Short Short Fiction Prize and anthologized in Best Microfiction 2019 (Pelekinesis, 2019), the narrator’s father dresses in his wife’s saris and stirs her ashes into his tea. He consumes her until the transition is complete, and two again become one:
When do we distribute the ashes in the Ganges, you ask, your mind going straight to the urn.
He clears his throat. Her golden bangles on his arm jingle. We don’t need to, he says, creating anxiety as you imagine your mother swimming in his veins, blooming, rising behind the whites of his eyes, wanting to come out, wanting to stay in.
The father’s behaviors in grief, with their urgency and uncanniness, cause the reader to take notice. However, the universal thread woven throughout this collection remains unbroken, since the interconnectedness between death and desire is firmly rooted in the shared human experience. One empathizes with both father and daughter, regardless of the similarities and/or differences which may exist on the surface. It is as Zambrano writes in “Hum,” another story within the collection: “Everything is connected to everything.”
Zambrano’s skillful description and deft use of evocative, sensual detail also creates a fully immersive experience for the reader, such as the vivid landscape found in the opening of “Ghosht Korma”:
I dream about Ghosht Korma. Onion and garlic crescents shriveling in fuming oil alongside turmeric and pepper smeared chops. The old Hindi music swirling like gossip in the street. I wake up and see a stranger glancing my naked thighs. The heat is gathering and so are my clients.
However, not all destinations in Death, Desire and Other Destinations are conventional. “Lunar Love” invites one to a lesbian destination wedding on the moon. A couple and an alien engage in a threesome in “Nine Openings.” A woman travels across centuries in “Across centuries, the rumbling calls out to her.” Whether the piece is sci-fi, speculative, fabulist, or literary realism, the suspension of disbelief comes easily since the balance between the familiar and unfamiliar in Zambrano’s work melds rather than disseminates.
Sensual, intelligent, visceral—Death, Desire and Other Destinations is a captivating read.
Tara Isabel Zambrano and I had the pleasure of communicating with one another via email to discuss the inspiration and craft behind her debut collection, as well as how she toggles between the analytical and creative mindsets she embraces as both a semiconductor chip designer and writer.
Kristin Tenor: Congratulations on your debut collection, Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, Tara. What a wonderful achievement. The themes you’ve chosen to highlight in this collection, especially those surrounding death and desire, create such an interesting juxtaposition. What about these often intimate, yet dichotomous, experiences pique your curiosity?
Tara Isabel Zambrano: Thank you, Kristin, for taking the time. Desire is the testimony of being alive, while death is the end of a life, as we know it. While they seem to be on the opposite end of the spectrum, they intersect and influence our lives and give us a profound understanding of what we call experience, an experience to witness and connect via passion towards someone or grief because of their absence. These two diametric ends of the circle are my stakes on which I love to build stories because everyone can connect with them. While they are universal in nature, they are also mysterious in the ways they work on us, and that is where my curiosity, my interests lie.
KT: In Edwidge Danticat’s craft book, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf Press, 2017), she writes: “We cannot write about death without writing about life. Stories that start at the end of a life often take us back to the past, to the beginning—or some beginning.” Would you say the same is true when it comes to your own writing about death and grieving?
TIZ: Absolutely. I find death to be a beginning in reverse. In reverse, because once someone has passed on, we reconstruct them from our memories from the point they have departed. I remember writing a CNF piece, “A Glacial Slowness,” published in matchbook, that starts the narrative from the death of my father then goes back in time. It’s an attempt to bring the reader to the same perception of an endpoint and then go backwards.
KT: Many characters in your collection appear to be driven by their sexuality. How difficult is it to strike a balance between physicality and emotion when approaching sex scenes? Where do sensuality and resonance intersect for you?
TIZ: I believe, sex is the one of the closest interactions of a body with another and therefore one of the most consequential. I believe in lacing a sex scene with a certain emotion, depending on the story, because as humans, we feel everything, we observe, and we act upon what we are driven by in a certain moment. Without a feeling, it’s not a human connection to me, whether as a writer or a reader, and that is what I strive for.
KT: Your piece, “Wherever, Whenever,” explores the complex dynamic between immigrant parents and their children as they leave one country and make another their home. The story’s narrator says, “Tania and I are at the border: our citizenship is a string of digits on our passport, our ethnicity a questionnaire our parents wish we knew the answers to. We can look on either side and not find a home.” You’ve mentioned in the past that you and your family moved from India to the United States when you were quite young. What about that experience has haunted you? In what ways have those memories defined your own personal definition of home?
TIZ: I moved to the US from India in the mid-nineties. Initially, it was a big cultural shock for me. I could not connect with the food, the unbearable winter (we landed in Philadelphia in February that year), the accent. I missed our families, the ease of speaking in my native language, my favorite television channels. I realized how the physical distance between India and the US mapped in my mind: extremely far. But after I started working, meeting people, and getting busier with my life, it got better. I still craved going to the cities I grew up in, being with my friends and family, but the idea of home here in the US started taking shape. It meant creating a familiar space that reflected my values and my choices, my heritage, my memories of my home in India.
KT: Some of your stories tap into the uncanny or surreal. In “Scooped-Out Chest,” a woman’s heart crawls out of her chest to become her companion and confidant. In “Nine Openings,” an alien spacecraft crashes into a couple’s backyard. What inspired you to write within these unique landscapes? How challenging do you feel it is to ask the reader to suspend disbelief?
TIZ: In the beginning, these surreal stories came to be as a phrase or an image. And I challenged myself to write about the common, everyday emotional connections with these strange settings. You can ask the reader to suspend belief but only for so long. Ultimately, the progression of such a story should be rooted in a rational cause and effect structure, in a setup that is physically possible, humanly relatable. And that continues to be the challenge every time I write a story with magical, supernatural elements.
KT: “After his death, my husband lives in the walls and fixtures of our home. They rumble and shake when he’s pacing inside them, bulge and contract. Sometimes, an outline of a face emerges out of the paint. I blink hard, and it’s gone.” This description from your piece, “Enfold,” creates such an evocative tone. What advice do you have for other writers when it comes to choosing detail?
TIZ: I write and rewrite sentences with different details to convey the same meaning. Then I pick the ones that seem original and familiar. And this requires a lot of observation, a lot of experimenting and editing to finally say, yes, this is one of the best ways I can describe this particular detail and move the story forward.
KT: Besides being a writer, you also maintain a career as a semiconductor chip designer, and your story, “Cubes,” gives one a glimpse into that environment. The analytical and creative mindsets are often characterized as being somewhat polarized. How do you go about transitioning from one mindset to the other when you sit down to write?
TIZ: When I started writing stories with surreal elements, it was a challenge to switch back and forth. Over time, I realized it’s a strength to have a job and training that urges me to stay rational and have a footing in the real world because that allows my stories to connect with their readers. As a process, I allow my creative side to come up with the most absurd scenarios for a story/flash piece. Once I have the idea or the opening in most cases, I start reverse engineering as to what will stick and for how long. Accordingly, I set a framework and allow my creativity to soar again and come back to fit the pieces logically. A lot of rinse and repeat.
KT: I’d love to take this opportunity to thank you for your time today, Tara, and for sharing your insights. It is appreciated. Before we go, what are you currently working on? Do you see another collection on the horizon?
TIZ: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity, Kristin. Currently, I have a bunch of flash and short stories and some creative nonfiction in the submission queue. I do see another collection on the horizon, and am tempted to do short stories this time, but we will see.
TARA ISABEL ZAMBRANO is the author of Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, a full-length flash collection published by Okay Donkey Press. Her work has won first prize in the 2019 TSR Short Short Fiction Contest, been a finalist in the 2018 Bat City Review Short Prose Contest and the 2018 Mid-American Review Fineline Contest, as well as anthologized in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020. Her stories have been also nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Texas and works as a semiconductor design engineer.
KRISTIN TENOR finds inspiration in life’s quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her work has appeared in the Midwest Review, Spelk Fiction, Milk Candy Review, Bending Genres, Anti-Heroin Chic, Emerge Literary Journal, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, among others. Her flash fiction piece, “Pruning Season,” has been nominated for Best of the Net 2020. Kristin is also the flash fiction section editor at CRAFT. She and her husband call Wisconsin home. Find more at kristintenor.com or on Twitter @KristinTenor.