On August 22, Catapult will publish PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017 , the inaugural edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the weeks leading up to publication, we'll feature a Q&A with the contributors, whose stories were selected for the anthology by judges Marie-Helene Bertino, Kelly Link, and Nina McConigley, and awarded PEN's Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Submissions for the 2018 awards are open now.
Laura Chow Reeve is a writer living in Jacksonville, Florida. She has an MA in Asian American Studies from UCLA and a BA from Bryn Mawr College. She is a VONA alumna. In her story, the mournful “1,000-Year-Old Ghosts,” memories can be pickled in jars like vegetables.
Popo taught me to pickle memories when I was thirteen. It’s just like cucumbers, radishes, cabbage. I learned to cut them into even squares. Memories cut like apples; the knife slides through their protective skin with a crisp snap. I packed them in jars filled with salt, sugar, vinegar, and water. No herbs and spices because they can distort the memories, make them seem too sweet or too bitter.
“It’s a family secret,” she said to me. “It allows you to forget.”
“Forget what?” I asked.
“Anything. Forgetting does not come easily to the women in our family. We have our jars.”
“What are we trying to forget, Popo?”
“So many questions. Chop this into smaller pieces.”
We started with minor moments: (1) When I dropped my underwear on the floor of the changing room after swim practice at school and Abigail Kincaid picked it up and showed the whole class. (2) The time I tugged on a strange woman’s skirt in a Costco checkout line because I thought, for a second, that she was my mother. (3) A recurring nightmare of being alone in an abandoned building with no way to get out.
Catapult Books: Where did the idea for the pickled memories come from?
Laura Chow Reeve: I wanted to write about memory in a very physical way. Pickling interested me as both a preservation process and a process that alters whatever is being pickled, and I think it speaks to the way people remember and forget. As I continued to write, these layers of intergenerational trauma, how memories and culture are shared, and what gets passed down to later generations became more apparent. The more I worked on the story, the more pickling made sense as a process and a metaphor; food and family recipes are often such important vehicles for sharing culture between loved ones and through multiple generations.
Can you speak to your decision to intersperse Katie’s narrative with Popo’s memories?
Katie’s narrative is about what we inherit (or don’t) from our elders and ancestors, and the ways in which our elders’ decisions and their beliefs about what is best for us influence how we understand ourselves and where we come from. Popo’s memories are ones that have been pickled, memories that she did not want to pass down to her daughter or granddaughter. They are feelings that she was unable to reckon with. I wanted to intersperse those memories within Katie’s narrative because I believed we needed to know what Popo was trying to forget in order for that moment when Katie finds all of her jars to have the greatest impact.
The description of Popo “dissolving” is striking, as if she’s putting herself piece by piece into the jars; it’s a familiar image to anyone who has witnessed dementia or Alzheimer's. Was this a purposeful evocation?
Yes, definitely. Having lost a grandparent to Alzheimer’s when I was very young, I only remember fragments of how it affected my family and my father. Part of what I wanted to capture is what families lose when someone can no longer remember, both important pieces of that person as well as these larger bridges and connections that person helped hold. The biggest difference in my story is that Popo chooses to “lose” her memories and ultimately becomes dependent upon this perpetual forgetting. I wanted to explore why someone would make that choice, why someone would choose forgetting over remembering, and how it would affect those who loved them.
Can you tell us why you chose the title “1,000-Year-Old Ghosts”?
At a very basic level, “1,000-Year-Old Ghosts” was inspired by century eggs, a Chinese dish of preserved eggs soaked in a saline solution. Yet I also wanted the title to reflect the way each of the women in the story are haunted by memory, either the lack or abundance of it; the pickling process is a way for Popo to dispel her ghosts, and those jars continue to haunt Katie after Popo is gone. I hope the title speaks to the way we carry our ancestors’ ghosts and their trauma with us; how they remain present within us even after death, for centuries.
How long did it take you to write the story?
I initially wrote a flash fiction piece about a daughter finding her mother’s pickled memories throughout their house for a fun-a-day project when I was living in Philadelphia; I wrote a short story every day during the month of January. I picked that idea back up and expanded upon the original story when I entered UCLA’s Asian American Studies MA program. It eventually became the first story in my thesis, a collection about the queer mixed-race body. While I was focused on this particular story for about three months, it was very much a part of the overall work I did during my program for two years.
How has the Robert J. Dau prize affected you?
I feel so honored to be included among so many great writers, and to have had my work read and chosen by the judges, whom I greatly admire. Some of the attention the award has brought to my writing has been surprising and unexpected. I’m mostly trying to enjoy it all without putting too much pressure on myself.
What are you working on now?
Right now, many of the short stories I’m working on are about Florida. I moved to Jacksonville a year ago, and I’ve become so inspired and excited by this place. I think people in other parts of the country easily dismiss Florida, but there is so much beauty, magic, and resilience here. I’m also at the very beginning stages of a novel.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Primarily online! I definitely spend time looking through online journals, but I especially love reading recommendations from friends I’ve met through writing workshops like VONA.