She Is a Battleground

June 2019. Our first interview is with Nancy Au, the winner of Vera 2018 (flash fiction published in 2017). The Final Judge Michelle Richmond has selected “She Is a Battleground” nominated by Lunch Ticket.

Mark Budman: In a battle for the readers’ attention the title is the first salvo. “She Is a Battleground” follows this unwritten advice. Lui yun, whose first name means “consent” in Chinese, is anything but a peacemaker. She is a battleship. She is a tank. She is a laser canon. What went through your mind when you selected this title?

Nancy Au: In a theory of translation seminar taught by Andrew Joron at San Francisco State University, one of our assignments was to write a piece utilizing Anthony Burgess’ invented Nadsat language. The final story is an iteration of the results of this writing experiment.

I wanted to write a story honoring the women in A Clockwork Orange. As I wrote, I thought of F. Alexander’s wife, the cat lady, and the teenage girls. I thought of the violence, the rapes, the deaths. I thought of how women’s bodies are written and used in literature. I imagined that the wife had survived her brutal attack, lived to be an old woman, and this was her new story.

The evocative, textural sounds of Nadsat – the brilliant faux-Russian-influenced language – felt like thunder in my ears, a crashing roar out of the mouths of the violent teenage boys. The name I picked for my character in “She is a Battleground” honored a woman I saw as a rogue, a hooligan, a response to the teenagers’ violence. A faithful tomboy in her heart who moves swiftly.

MB: This battleground is a place of inter-generational warfare. Your sympathy seems to be with the old woman, not the boys. Why did you choose sides?

NA: Your observations are insightful. A Clockwork Orange showcases tremendous violence against females, and much of my writing explores intergenerational relationships within families. As a woman, I must constantly be aware of how I live within my skin, how I move my body, of how to take up space in this world. It felt very natural for me to empathize with the pain and suffering of the female characters.

I was also very close to my grandmother, whom I thought of as my best friend. She died around the same time that the piece was originally published. So much of my writing is inspired by my grandmother’s defiance and resilience and strength. She survived the Nanjing Massacre, and brutal years of the Communist takeover in China. I think of the incredible strength it required to carry and raise children while fleeing soldiers. The courage required to leave China with nothing but what she and my grandfather could carry in their pockets. I think of her grief, of losing her son (my father), nearly twenty years before her own death. I have so much reverence for her humor and kindness and for how much life she lived in her 96 years.

The power-dynamic is such that the boys felt emboldened by their size and numbers in relation to a solitary old woman. They saw themselves almost as a separate species, much in the same way I did at age fifteen when I struggled to understand my parents’ and grandparents’ ways of thinking. The teenage boys in the story could not, maybe because of their youth, recognize or acknowledge the churning turmoil – the layers and depth, the imagination and intelligence, the profound history and knowledge, the validity, the anger and strong emotions – within the mind of an elderly person.

MB: I remember when I was a kid, I felt women were a separate species. Let alone old women. As a grandfather now, I can see it clearly. Same goes for Lui yun and your grandmother. They are “the skeleton keys who understand little criminals.” I love this line and its place within the story. Do you edit a lot, moving sentences around for the most effect?

NA: The revision process is one of my favorite aspects of writing. I love how new meanings and images and layers of depth can be found with each revision. I love discovering new things about my characters – their strengths, fears, weaknesses. I love returning to characters that I’ve written years before, and meeting them as if they are strangers. Simultaneously, I love returning to them as if they are old friends who have lived these interesting lives far away from home. What have you been up to? Where have you been? What are all the wonderful things you’ve eaten? What intriguing sights have you seen? What gossip do you have for me?

Relatedly, for my forthcoming collection, Spider Love Song and Other Stories(Acre Books Editor) Nicola Mason helped me explore elements in my older stories that I never saw before (or might have not been ready to explore when I first wrote the pieces). I was inspired to more deeply investigate complex themes in my writing, such as sexuality, grief, sex, race, belonging. As Nicola searched for continuity issues, she provided notations and comments that helped me interrogate my own motivations and desires. Over the course of a year, I rewrote nearly half of the stories’ endings, and added dozens of new pages.

I’m excited to share that “She Is a Battleground” is the opening story in my new collection.

MB: I love the way you integrate sounds and meanings, blending them into music for the soul.

Congratulations on your upcoming collection. And thank you so much for answering my questions. I was so glad that the Final Judge Michelle Richmond chose your story.

NA: Thank you so very much for your kindness and support, Mark!  And thank you so much, Michelle Richmond, for selecting my story–I have felt so awed and thankful for this honor! And I am thankful to Katelyn Keating, Adrian Ibarra, and all the editors at Lunch Ticket, who first published my story and nominated me for your incredible award.

I truly enjoyed our wonderful conversation!

Read the story HERE.