My mother has become a shadow. I wake to find her leaning over me, a dark blur, the edges of her just visible in the thin morning light that filters into the tent. It feels early, but I can…
It’s difficult to pinpoint how this story began, as my stories often come from multiple beginnings. Instead, here are some questions I asked myself in writing and editing: How do I write English dialogue for a character whose first language is not English, without resorting to stereotypes? What do we do when our parents seem to be our only connection to an entire country or culture? How can fiction capture the feeling of being split between languages, between continents, and between relationships?
Dialogue and dialect are tricky, slippery things. Like many writers, I’m interested in what we don’t say, and how we misunderstand others, especially when we are dealing with grief. I made Lily and her mother speak past each other, tangentially, sideways, never fully face-to-face. Because Lily has control of this story, she is also able to recreate or invent her mother’s words and fill her silences with meaning. I’ve wondered if Ma’s story would be very different, or if there might be surprising points of commonality, if I’d written from her perspective.
Recently, I was told that something I wrote was “almost anti-narrative”. I suspect this is a recurring theme for me. The structure of “Body Language” was an early decision, one that developed organically with Lily’s character, her hopes and her fears. Time passing, and people passing—these are frightening in their inevitability. Scary enough to make someone jeopardise a relationship, I think, or drop their responsibilities to go searching for comfort. It felt necessary for Lily to interrupt the progression of her story in the present by dwelling on memories of the past. Refusing a certain narrative, perhaps. Then again, I don’t think narrative has to be action-filled and forward-marching. We are always tangled up in our pasts.
“Body Language” could be read as a pandemic story, but I hope that’s one of many readings. I wrote the first couple of drafts in 2019, which feels like a very long time ago, and I don’t know if I could come up with the same story now. This isn’t any sort of conclusion, except to say that I’m still struggling to write in this post-COVID world, trying to rediscover joy in it, and wishing the very best to anyone feeling the same.
TIAN YI lives and works in London, where she is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Visual Verse and The Fiction Pool. Her twitter is @tianyiwriting.