BackStory: Four Questions with Kristen Loesch
Author of Tapeworm
What inspired you to write ‘Tapeworm’?
I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about Hong Kong recently, a city to which I have travelled often and where I lived for about a year. I have family there, and I hope I can go back one day soon! For this story in particular, I happened to come across a fascinating, poignant article about a couple who swam through a typhoon to get to Hong Kong from China following the Cultural Revolution. That couple swam daily for months in preparation for their journey. I thought of all that swimming…swimming…swimming…and I suppose that’s where things took off. Flash is a bit funny like that, it can flow from a single thought.
What is your favourite piece of historical flash? What do you like about it?
One of my all-time favourites I found right here on FlashBack: ‘Plum Jam’ by Frances Gapper. I think it may have been one of the first pieces of flash I ever read, in fact – long before I started writing any myself. I remember being in awe at how something so short – the story is just a dab of a paragraph really – can be so powerful. Thinking of it now still makes me shiver. That was the moment I realised the tremendous thing that flash fiction does, how much it says without saying.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
There were several. For example, I read somewhere that HK-bound swimmers often cut themselves up on the oysters – a culinary delicacy – that extend a ways out into the bay. There’s something visceral, ironic, horrifying about this. Someone could probably squeeze an entire story out that fact alone. In ‘Tapeworm’, I thought perhaps there were too many slippery living things already mentioned, and I didn’t want to overdo it! But if I cut something from one story it may find a more meaningful place in another, so I tend to hold on to any interesting bits and pieces I come across.
Could you tell us about the process and motivation behind your translation of ‘Tapeworm’?
To begin with, this was absolutely, 100%, just for fun. My first thought was that if the main character herself were telling the story, it would, of course, be in Mandarin. My second thought was that it might be interesting to give it a try. Tapeworm is only 200-odd words; how hard could it be? – Needless to say I quickly went running off for help from my parents, whose support and patience were boundless! In the end, the translated version has a bit of a different feel to the original. Anyone who understands both languages will be able to tell immediately (from the title alone!). I made the discovery that tiny things that worked in English just did not feel or sound right in Mandarin. I don’t know yet why. But I have no experience with flash fiction in any language other than English (and only in English since earlier this year), so I opted for simplicity, for the emotional sense of the story over the style.
A caveat: I am Taiwanese-American and the characters in the text are Traditional. I tell myself that maybe a few decades after this experience, Mei has picked up Traditional from living in HK for so long, so she uses it to write her story down for posterity, and that’s what’s happened here…does anyone else create these elaborate unseen stories for their characters? Tell me – I’d love to know!
Kristen Loesch is an Asian-American writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children. She placed runner-up in the 2019 Mslexia Short Story Competition and the Funny Pearls Short Story Competition 2020. Her flash fiction has been shortlisted for the SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction and the Flash 500, and received Honorable Mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction and Highly Commended in the Lunate 500. Most recently her stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly and Timeworn Literary Journal. She is currently at work on her first novel and is represented by Zeitgeist Agency. Twitter: @KShaoling
Postcard of Hong Kong, circa 1950, via private collection.