My favorite short stories and novels often play with some omission of truth, a secret that spins out of control. So, it’s no surprise for this fascination to find its way into my short story, “Admission,” where a secret grows within my teenage protagonist, physically and mentally, until its release does irreparable damage.
Whenever I plant a secret in my stories, I envision it as a dotted line that interacts with two solid lines: the character’s emotional arc, and the story arc. I think every secret deserves a line of its own because it has a life of its own: a beginning, the point at which the secret becomes a secret; a middle, as the secret fights for release; and an end, when the secret is out and tilts the story in numerous directions.
Secrets are kept for good reasons, and in the beginning of “Admission,” I intended to give readers a slice of Minh’s life. At home, she tries to be a dutiful daughter but is treated like a child; yet, with her lover, she’s more daring, more like herself. Her secret would upend everything good in her life—not just the engagement ceremony, but the tough-love relationship with her mom and the dreamy refuge spent with her lover.
But we all know that secrets seek an escape; they take on a physical weight inside us, and threaten to come out. I wanted to show this through Minh’s backstory. History repeats itself: As a child, Minh tried to hide the rice she couldn’t finish for dinner. To me, it made sense to juxtapose this memory with Minh’s present and far-more-serious deception. Despite the difference in circumstances, she’s still very much a child.
I also rely on dialogue to make secrets tangible in scene. So much can be expressed in what’s not said and what the character chooses to hear. (If any writer wants to learn more about subtext, consult Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, which I enjoyed re-reading during this pandemic.) In the scene where Minh’s about to follow her mother’s suggestion and rest up, she sees her mother lost in thought, standing out in the bracing cold. She begins to ask a question, but never quite receives an answer. Her mother, being a mother, knows something is off, but she doesn’t push it.
Of course, secrets get out and most of the time, it’s not by willing choice of the secret-keeper. Instead, a confrontation might apply just enough pressure. Minh’s lover visits her unexpectedly and asks her for the plain truth. And she gives it to him, but unfortunately he’s not the only one to hear it.
I wish it were true that revealing secrets will solve everything wrong in our lives. Make our slates clean. But the truth is, the consequences of secrets echo, from big to small moments, in spoken words and in more unsaid moments. The cháo gà is meant to be a comfort to Minh, as it is for any Vietnamese kid. Instead, it scorches her.
LOAN LE is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer whose work has appeared in Mud Season Review, Angel City Review, and Submittable. Her debut young adult romantic comedy, A Phở Love Story, will be published by Simon Pulse in February 2021. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the low-residency program at Fairfield University, also her alma mater. She works as an associate editor at Simon & Schuster’s imprint Atria Books. Visit her website writerloanle.me or her Twitter @loanloan for more information.