“I’m trying to draw attention to crises around the world—and children’s voices are free of political influence. Even in extremity, they are courageous and loyal and tenacious: they remind the reader of the distilled best of human relationships.”
Small Change (Gold Line Press, 2016)
What is your chapbook about?
It’s a series of short fiction pieces that highlight the stresses of living in socially and politically turbulent climates. The stories are set in the Gaza Strip, Libya and Morocco. In “30 Below” a boy crawls through a tunnel in the Gaza Strip to bring back supplies to his family and neighbors despite the high risk of the tunnel being flooded, gassed, or bombed. The second story, “Say That You Saw Beautiful Things” is set on the eve of the Arab Spring in Libya. A girl and her best friend disguise themselves as boys to train for a school sports competition, knowing that if they’re caught they will be severely punished. The final story, “Jewels We Took With Us”, follows the story of four young girls, three of them pregnant, who decide to escape their abusive husbands and attempt the sea crossing from Morocco to Spain.
What inspired you to write all three of the stories in Small Change?
Children are probably the most helpless victims of war or internal conflicts within the country. I usually get really angry when I read about this in the news—and anger is a really strong poke in the creative ribs for me.
What drew you to write about children instead of adults in Small Change? For example, why did you focus on young girls in a crowd of men instead of the men in the crowd in your story “Say That You Saw Beautiful Things”?
I’m trying to draw attention to crises around the world—and children’s voices are free of political influence. Even in extremity, they are courageous and loyal and tenacious: they remind the reader of the distilled best of human relationships. In “Say That You Saw Beautiful Things”, the Arab Spring is initially organized and executed by men. But women’s voices became stronger and women played a pivotal role (unfortunately under ISIS that has dramatically changed). So it was important that the girls be the focus and that we listen to their story.
What research and preparations were necessary before you wrote “Say That You Saw Beautiful Things” and “30 Below”?
For “30 Below”, the Emily Harris article “The Long History of the Gaza Tunnels” was really useful. There are even YouTube videos of the tunnels. “Say That You Saw Beautiful Things” was sparked by a newspaper article about the impact on tourism in Benghazi after the Arab Spring.
In what way are you personally connected to the stories you write? Do you feel that each story tells a part of your story as well?
Other than being an immigrant myself, I don’t feel the stories are connected to mine. But I do feel deeply connected to the characters as they plunge through whatever mayhem I’ve flung them into. Their dilemmas become real and important to me not only because the characters become dimensional, but because any of these characters could have a corresponding real life counterpart.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
“Small change” is a slang reference to little kids. It also refers to the minimal resources the kids have, as well as being seen as having little value of their own in their various cultures. Additionally, they get little back for the enormous efforts they put into solving problems or dealing with the adult world. And then, literally, there’s very little change they can make in their circumstances, despite those efforts.
I started with “30 Below” because it’s a single voice in a single situation: a boy in a tunnel. I thought this would be an interesting way for the reader to enter the kids’ worlds in this chapbook. “Say That You Saw Beautiful Things” came next because it had two voices and the situation broadened as the characters ran from place to place. “Jewels We Took With Us” is the most complex because it has two time strands as well as four characters. The history of the girls’ friendships is in present tense, moving along a backwards timeline which ends with the very earliest of the narrator’s memories with her best friend. At the same time, the plot moves forward—but in the past tense. I wanted to see if I could bend time by pushing forwards and backwards at the same time.
What was the process in getting Small Change published as a chapbook?
After it was chosen as Gold Line Press’s Fiction winner, they asked me for a proof-read version of the manuscript. I’m a picky proof-reader, anyway, but I also want to make changes AFTER I’ve submitted the “final” version. It’s horrible of me, and I try very hard not to do this. But my naggy internal editor never shuts up. Fortunately, Leah Bailly, then editor-in-chief, was really accommodating. After that, I exchanged a number of emails with the design artist, Ryan Hines, who came up with the beautiful cover. He asked a lot of questions about the book and the title, which helped him in his design choices. Then they sent me the galleys which I reviewed—with more editing suggestions. They gently pointed out that more editing wasn’t possible so I backed off-finally! After that, they went to press and in August, I received my copies. Since they’re a university press (University of Southern California), they don’t have a lot of staff so each person involved had to do a lot. Leah Bailly was the editor-in-chief, and Ryan Hines was the artist who designed the cover—and they both did an amazing job.
In your interview with Mud Season Review, you said that the revision process is endless. Does it continue once the book has been published?
I try to avoid reading my stories once they’re published because I know I’m likely to find some phrase, some sentence, where the pitch is off.
What is your least favorite part of the writing process?
The bit before I sit down and write. I will do anything—including cleaning the shower—to avoid writing. But once I’m there, I’m completely in.
How do you approach working with editors?
With respect and admiration. Their job is vital. They provide a clear-eyed perspective that isn’t available to me. When I’m writing, my view of the whole piece, whether it’s a story or a novel, is like trying to look at a Monet close up. You know “Impression Sunrise”? There’s one clear outline of a boat in the foreground. The rest is a blobby mass of water and sky and murky bits of boats emerging from the mist. That’s what my stories look like at first. But stand across the room—and everything makes sense. And if there’s a blob in the wrong place or has the wrong color, you can recognize it at once. So, editors are bad-blob identifiers.
How do you approach choosing how to end your short stories?
The endings can be difficult—or not. It depends on the story. I always try to take the cue from the story.
What is the strangest thing you have ever had to research for a project?
I didn’t research this one: Infectious. It’s a story about a guy whose job is to laugh at movie openings so that the audience is encouraged to laugh, too. He’s cocky about himself and his niche job. The conflict comes when he meets a young girl who’s also employed by his company to laugh at movie openings. He spies on her at a German movie, “Wo Bist Das Tur?”, and is amazed and angry at her ability, employing the Half-Ha and an Oh-HO-ha-ha-ha, to get the audience to laugh. He manages to get her fired but she turns the tables by taking a pic of him wearing his marabou thong and implying she’ll go public with it. Eventually he agrees to have her move in with him. Usually, I draw from real life, but this was completely imaginary and was a blast to write.
What are you currently reading and what are you enjoying about it?
Tomas Transtromer’s The Great Enigma. He’s a Swedish poet, so a lot depends on the translation. This one, by Robin Fulton, is just extraordinary. The poems have a bareness of language and a striving for exactness that are truly breath-taking. I’m also reading Sunjeev Sahata’s Year of the Runaways, which is downright gabby in contrast. It’s a story of immigrants—hence my interest—but it does more than show the struggle of the immigrant in the new country. It shows how and why the immigrant left, and that can be heart-breaking. I also just finished Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena—and that was incredible. I found myself holding my breath. Oh—and Mary Rakow’s This Is Why I Came made me cry. And that’s the power of transformative writing.
Sandra Hunter’s fiction has received the 2016 Gold Line Press Chapbook Prize, October 2014 Africa Book Club Award, 2014 H.E. Francis Fiction Award, and three Pushcart Prize nominations. Hunter’s chapbook of short stories, Small Change, was published in August 2016 and her debut novel, Losing Touch, was published in 2014. She is currently working on a novel-in-progress, The Geography of Kitchen Tables, set in post-apartheid South Africa. Hunter also teaches English and Creative Writing at Moorpark College, and runs writing workshops in Ventura and Los Angeles. Favorite dessert: rose-flavored macaroons.