Friday, December 28, 2007

New Year Notice

Do you like this photo my daughter took this week? I'll tell you what it says. It says I you, friends! (Copyright 2007, Sonya Eberlein)

Starting today, I am on the road for two weeks, during which posting will be light. But there will be posts. Stay tuned.

Happy New Year, everyone!

"How 9) Strange" by Laird Hunt

Reading this story makes you feel there is no limit on the form of fiction, and the form doesn't have to be larger or smaller than the content; it can just fit. Thanks to Jim Ruland for recommending this story. Read it here.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tiger Farming in China

by V. Santhakuma, India

Tigers are back in the news. What’s not on the front page, however, is how tiger farming has for a while now been a big business in China.

China has only about 50 Siberian wild tigers left in the wild near the Russian border, while around 5,000 tigers are kept in tiger farms in different parts of the country. Of them around 2,000 are in two big parks – one in Harbin, north of China, and other in Guilin, in the southwest. Read more >>

(Photo source: FreeNaturePictures)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

New Work in Asia Literary Review

Asia Literary Review is an ambitious and handsome English journal published in Hong Kong. Its December issue (not on-line yet) has just arrived, in which my memoir piece, "Lost Letters," appears. The piece opens with the following line:

"In the year of the Snake – I remember because it's my daughter's sign – the image of a maroon suitcase made of camphor wood began to follow me like a phantom."

I'm happy to be alongside with admirable Chinese writers such as Su Tong.

Chinese Recipe for the New Year

Sweet-rice steamed pork ribs (糯米排骨)
(Aunt Jiang, Chongqing, China)


1 lb. pork ribs, cubed to 3/4" size pieces
½ lb. sweet rice (also called sticky rice)
2 sweet potatoes (or one small butternut squash)

1½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Pi'xian chili bean sauce (郫县豆瓣)
0.5 teaspoons ground Chinese red pepper (花椒粉)
2 tablespoons fermented sweet rice sauce (醪糟)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon cooking wine
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 scallions, chopped
dash of salt
cilantro (optional)

(all of the above are available in Chinatown's grocery stores or supermarkets)


Soak raw sweet rice for 2-3 hours. After two hours of soaking, mix pork rib cubes with soy sauce, chili bean sauce, ground Chinese red pepper, fermented sweet rice sauce, minced ginger, sugar, cooking wine, half of the chopped scallions, salt and dash of water in a container. Set aside to marinate for ½ - 1 hour (but no longer). Peel and cube sweet potatoes.

When all the above are ready, drain the soaked sweet rice. Mix the sweet rice and marinated pork rib cubes until the meat is evenly coated with rice. Place this mix in the steamer, and lay sweet potato cubes on top of it. Steam on high heat for an hour or until rice and pork are cooked.

When serving, flip over the steamed content onto a plate, so that the sweet potatoes stay on the bottom. Top with cilantro and the remaining scallions.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Chinese Christmas Recipe

We had a pot-luck Chinese Christmas party in a friend's house yesterday. The delicious dishes included:

Beef stew with dried cowpeas (干豇豆烧牛肉)
Lotus roots fried with ginkgo (藕炒白果)
Mushroom braised zucchini (蘑菇焖小南瓜)
Pork tongue salad (凉拌猪舌)
Sichuan cold noodles (四川凉面)
Soy sauce chicken (酱油鸡)
Sweet-rice steamed pork ribs (糯米排骨)
Sweet and sour eggplant (糖醋茄子)
Tingling spicy fish (麻辣鱼)

I'll start with the recipe for the simplest, a very popular dish – thanks to my friend Hong Jiang.

Sichuan Cold Noodles (四川凉面)
(Hong Jiang, Newton, MA)


1 lb. egg noodles (4 servings)
5 tablespoons olive oil (or any vegetable oil)
3 scallions, chopped
4 tablespoons Zhenjiang black vinegar
4 tablespoons Chinese soy sauce
2 large garlic cloves, mashed
1 small piece of ginger, minced
3 tablespoons sugar
hot-pepper oil (辣椒油) to taste (optional for you, but necessary to the Sichuanese)
Chinese red-pepper oil (花椒油) to taste (optional for you, but necessary to the Sichuanese)

(all of the above are available in Chinatown's grocery stores or supermarkets)


Whisk vinegar, soy sauce, mashed garlic, minced ginger, sugar, hot-pepper oil and red-pepper oil in a bowl until blended. Set dressing aside.

Heat ample water to boil, and add noodles. Turn off the stove as soon as the water begins to boil again, and immediately drain the water. In a large container, mix the olive oil with the drained noodles, and use chopsticks to thoroughly toss the noodles (see picture below) until they are cooled and evenly oiled. This treatment is important to avoid soggy or sticky noodles.

Serve the cooled noodles with prepared dressing. Top with scallions.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What Is Past Is

A month before the 114th birthday of Chairman Mao Zedong on December 26, a long forgotten photo of Mao with a young girl resurfaced on the Chinese internet, accompanied by a furor around the girl.

It has been 41 years. She was 18 or 19 at the time. More >>

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tiger, Tiger?

One day in October, Zhou Zhenglong, a 52-year-old hunter in the mountains of Shaanxi Province in central China, was astonished to find himself face to face with a South China Tiger. He risked his life to take a photo of it, or so he claimed to reporters and government officials.

It is a remarkable photo, but more remarkable still is the furor it has raised. The photo quickly reached the hands of the province's Forest Bureau, whose excited director held a press conference to publicize the photo. It surprised everyone: the South China Tiger was critically endangered; most believe it is now extinct in the wild. Zhou himself had spent a year guiding scientists in the vain search for tigers in the forests.

But as the Chinese adage has it: flies don't cling to uncracked eggs. As quickly as people across China learned about the photo they decried it as a fake. A poster publisher even claims, "It is my tiger!" He says the tiger is taken directly from a Chinese New Year poster that he had printed in July 2002. A respected botanist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing dismisses the photo as having a false tiger image imposed on a real plant image, probably a photo of a photo set in the forest. For two months since, the entirety of China has been arguing about the photo's validity.

Zhou and his province's Forest Bureau maintain its authenticity, and I have no special insight into what is true. (This particular photo looks suspicious to my human eye, but then, Zhou possesses over 70 of others that I haven't seen.) It is remarkable that such a small photo, hoax or not, could raise so much interest. There is lots of talk on Chinese blogs and probably most of those talking have never even thought about the South China Tiger before this incident. To have such intense interest in such a small thing – why, it looks like China is really catching up to the US.

The latest update: China's National Forest Bureau has ordered the Shaanxi Province Forest Bureau to "scientifically appraise" Zhou's tiger photos. "The public finally feels relief," commented People's Daily.

This quick move of a national bureau is a bit odd, matching itself to the oddly engaged public. But investing in a harmless subject is harmless, I guess.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"The Dynamics of Windows" by Kuzhali Manickavel

This is a story of literal and literary possibilities, well worth reading. So is the author interview. Thanks to Alicia Gifford for recommending it. Read it here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Maple Fights Her Art Teacher in Shanghai

My younger sister, Maple, who did not get a chance to go to college in her youth, is taking an art class in an adult school in Shanghai. It was a big decision for her, but she is enjoying it. One day last week she reproduced an oil painting as her homework and submitted it to her art teacher. At the point the following dialog took place:

Art Teacher: Where is the original from? That doesn't look like ours.
Maple: I bought it from a bookstore. Our school's oil painting selection is all bold strokes. I prefer the fine, smooth, classic kind.
Art Teacher: There are many in that style, why did you single out Pan's?
Maple: Is he not good? I felt his Chinese landscape paintings intimate, pretty and realistic.
A Classmate: I, too, think he's good.
Art Teacher: His work indeed sells well. But his taste is a bit low.
Maple: (smile) Then my taste is low as well. Does your low opinion come from his high market value?
Art Teacher: Not that. There are high sales with high taste. Like Chen Yifei.
Maple: Could you teach me how to tell whether a painting has high or low taste?
Art Teacher: That is a complex issue. For instance Pan likes to paint beauties, make you feel that…something.
Maple: Didn't Chen Yifei often paint beauties too? Is it because Chen is famous, a so-called "great master," that your assessment is different?
Art Teacher: It is different. Look at it as you would a portrait, Chen uses much more refined composition and color, while Pan always likes bright, cheerful colors, catering to the market's popular flavor.
Maple: Speaking of color, I rather like bright and simple primary colors, or secondary colors. Didn't Van Gogh and Gauguin both like bright cheerful colors? Who would say they have low tastes?
Art Teacher: That's because they played the refined for too long and got tired of it. You as a beginner should practice more with the greyer tone of composite colors. That's the right thing to do.
Maple: Exactly because I'm a beginner, I have no idea where to start my brush with the gloomy complex colors. I also love Cezanne and Levitan, but their works can only be enjoyed but not copied. That is an artistic mood, I just can't copy.
Art Teacher: You are not old, how can you be so obstinate? You’ve seen lots of paintings have you.
Maple: I'm a lot older than you are. Even if I don’t eat pork, it doesn't mean I haven't seen pigs running.
Art Teacher: (laugh) Your temper does suit an artist. Do you know about He Duoling and Zhou Chunya in your Sichuan?
Maple: Heard some.
Art Teacher: Do you like their works?
Maple: I liked He Duoling's early works. His new works I can't comprehend. The infants floating in the air? Don't know what it means.
Art Teacher: Then you must like his "Spring Breeze Has Awoken"? That's too old fashioned clodhopper. Changing means making progress. Some modern works, you have to use more brain to be able to understand.
Maple: I can understand Dali, looking at his works is like looking at nightmares. But some works of so-called post-modernism or surrealism are so hard to understand, like emperor's new clothes, still you don't dare to say you don't understand.
Art Teacher: (laugh) You saw my works in my studio, do you think they are good?
Maple: You are my teacher, of course I don't dare to say they are not good. But I didn't understand them.
Classmate: I didn't either.
Art Teacher: How depressing!
Maple: (laugh) If your goal is to have nobody understand them, so they are no longer clodhopper, and that means success, then you have already succeeded!
Art Teacher: Did you go see the galleries on Moganshan Road? You must like them?
Maple: Those are commercial goods, not art. No point to say I like them or not.
Art Teacher: Goods and art shouldn't have strict boundaries, don't you think? I sell my paintings too, but I invest lots of emotions in my work. Even artists have to eat rice. Maybe you are too rich so you talk like this?
Classmate: This I agree. You must have lots of money to talk like this.
Maple: I thought real artwork is for collecting? This is a confusing topic. Lets stop here. Would you like a cup of coffee?
Art Teacher: I especially dislike coffee; it is bitterer than Chinese herb medicine.
Maple: Your taste is a bit low.
Art Teacher: (laugh loudly) Revenge comes real quick!

Monday, December 17, 2007

U.S.: Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

A decade ago, in 1997, the United States refused to sign the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, which applies to industrialized nations only. This position has been criticized frequently in the years since.

Then last week, many countries sat down again, this time in Bali, to discuss a new set of emission standards that will replace the Kyoto accord set to expire in 2012. Out of Bali comes a framework for negotiating a new agreement, expected to take two years to finalize. It is to include but distinguish developed and developing countries. Not surprisingly, the US and China were both in the limelight during the conference.

Once again, it was the United States and not China that stood up and said no. After extending the talks an extra day in the hope of consensus, the US representatives said they were not willing to support the process. This brought about a great deal of jeering. According to CNN, at this point, the delegate from tiny Papua New Guinea dared the US to lead, follow or get out of the way. Whether rising to the challenge, intimidated by the jeering or simply making a course change, the lead US representative reversed herself and gave the thumbs up to start the more formal negotiations.

There are some indications that the US may have tried to influence China and India in the position they took at the conference, requesting that those countries reject any binding emission targets. Indeed, China did just that: China’s representative stated that it was not "fair to ask developing countries like China to take on binding targets." Whether this statement was the result of US influence, or was China’s own response from the start, will probably never be known. If something was attempted, the ironic twisting of the knife came when China said that the US should bear the brunt of the cost of new measures to control global warming.

So in the end, the US, China and almost every other country in the world, did declare a willingness to be part of the process. As far as I know, there are indeed some initiatives in China to move toward the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This summer in my annual visit to China, I was surprised to see a good sized wind farm on the edge of the South China Sea when I flew out of Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. And certainly the Three Gorges Dam (which I hate) on The Yangtze will, assuming it lasts, produce a great deal of hydroelectricity for China. Both are renewable resources with little pollution.

But in all of this I have to go back to a conversation I had with an official from the Transportation Bureau under China's Central Planning Committee, back when I myself was a transportation engineer, shortly after my graduation from MIT. At the time, China's auto industry boom had just begun. During a business meeting in Beijing, I commented to the official that China would have the chance to develop a more rational public transportation system and not be driven into a corner by the automobile as happened in the US. Usually mild mannered man, he got really mad and said, "You Americans already got the good life, now you don't want us to have it!"

At the time I was taken aback (I had always considered myself more Chinese than American), but on reflection, the response is not unexpected. Everyone wants to be able to choose the dream they want to pursue, and nobody wants others to tell them not to. Not making it, not getting what you want, living in misery – these are all things that the Chinese have faced with equanimity for thousands of years. Now they are wholeheartedly pursuing rapid economic development. Should that falter, or come to a crisis, there is no doubt the Chinese will adapt. It is the imposition from outside that is not tolerable.

Now that the world is facing a severe environmental crisis, it brings us to the essential question: Is it more feasible to stop poor nations from developing, or to change behavior of the rich ones?

I don’t know the answer to the question, but it is important. It will be interesting to see the story unfold.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Books I Really Wanted but Can't Get for Christmas

Someone recently responded to my recommendation of a writing craft book by saying, "I'm sure this book has great advice from somebody who doesn't sell fiction." I lamented over his ignorance and narrow mind. He has to read Sven Birkerts and James Wood to know great literary critics don't have to be (and in fact often are not) fiction writers. (James Wood has actually written a fine novel, The Book against God, but reading his works of literary criticism is far more exciting.)

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
by Sven Birkerts
Availability: This title will be released on December 26, 2007.

How Fiction Works (Hardcover)
by James Wood (Author)
Availability: This title will be released on July 22, 2008

The two very different authors are literary critics I admire the most. Sven's column in each issue of AGNI, "Editor's Note," unfailingly enchants me with its peculiar language and contemplating tone. James Wood's book reviews have been the reason for my subscription to The New Republic. Now that he has moved to the New Yorker, I am moving on, too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cloned Rabbit in China Is Three Months Old

China's Liberation Daily reports today that the world's first transgenic-clone rabbit is now three months old and living happily in Shanghai. The rabbit was cloned from the skin cells of a 20-day-old embryo, which were then implanted into the oviduct of a female rabbit.

The photo shows the cloned rabbit (left) and her surrogate mother.

That Spam and This Spam

So last night, when an email from an unknown sender arrived, like 99% of the daily emails I receive, my smart hand went on the auto-deletion path without consulting my brain. A moment later I remembered having caught a glance at my name in that email, which was spelled wrong with an extra 'e,' and I went for a second look in the trash folder. The email, as it turned out, came from an international literary magazine that wanted to pay $250 for my essay they were publishing. It – the email, not my essay – had "bank details" in its subject line, a perfect spam title.

I empty the trash everyday. My husband does it once a month. Who's the smart one?

Ten minutes earlier, I had found on Laila Lalami's blog a hilarious author scam story and emailed the link to my husband. We were sitting across a coffee table from each other by the fire, a laptop on each one's lap. "Read it," I said to him. He temporarily broke away from whatever code he was writing, and clicked his inbox. "I didn't get anything from you," he said. We waited for a while. Still nothing. "Check your trash," I said, and he found it there right away. He had deleted it the first thing as he opened his inbox. He blamed me, "Why did you title it 'funny'?" Because it was.

Apparently the spammers have used up all the common title vocabulary.

On a side note, when I was young in China and meat was scarce, a can of Spam made a favorite dish. We cooked it in cabbage soup, and it was delicious. Or so I thought until I came to America. One day a few years ago I bought a can – after forgetting about it for two decades – from a supermarket in Chinatown. The Classic Spam looked exactly the same, and with a certain nostalgia, I cooked it in cabbage soup, exactly the same way from my childhood memory. It tasted so awful I ended up dumping the entire pan of soup. Not sure which was changed, Spam or I.

If you did not already know, here is the history of how that Spam devolved into this spam.


P.S.: For your entertainment, here's a partial list (sorted alphabetically) of spam titles came this morning:

· A Beach Bum Made $237,000 from His Lap Top
· A realistic $250K First Year Income potential.
· Add up to 4 inches to yours penis 3d45
· Are you a real man?
· belief notwithstanding
· bissette
· Celebrate a New Year with an unforgettable night of love!
· Cheap and excellent software - too good to be true?
· cheap oem soft shipping //orldwide
· Christian Values Company Expanding Nationally
· Corel Draw
· Estelle Aubrey
· Exquisite Replica
· Find financial aid for your online education
· For xje
· Grow an anaconda out of your trouser snake!
· Intensify her sensations by increasing your love stick!
· Last night, for the first time ever, a porcupine showed up at our
· Lowest price worldwide
· Msn money
· No doctor visits
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· PharmaStore
· Prove that you deserve better s'e_x!
· punch parishioner
· Rep|icaWatches OmegaRolexBreitlingBvlgari GucciLongines & all at LOW-PRICE... 2jsfgg2j3omz71vezs
· Shop and compare coverages
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· SOLD OUT -LIMITED OFFER-Looking for perfect gift? Buy Rolex 1ia
· The Sexiest Gift for Your Music (Lover)
· The volume of your male meat is absolutely essential!
· Tiiiiiiw
· Via.gra Email from ED.
· You won't need to furtively put socks into your trunks anymore!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Make a Scene with Rosenfeld

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is the author of two books for writers, Make a Scene: How to Craft a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time (Writer's Digest Books)—and with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life (BeijaFlor Books), January, 2008. She is a contributing editor to Writer's Digest magazine, a book reviewer for KQED Radio, and has been published in The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times , Marin magazine, Petaluma magazine, and Seattle Conscious Choice among others.

Plot—Introducing the Significant Situation & Your Protagonist

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Burn these words into your consciousness now, and forever more: Plot and character cannot be separated. Your significant situation happens to or with your protagonist; it is her problem first and foremost. Through other plot twists and complications, the significant situation may lead to a whole host of trouble for other characters, but not at page one. Therefore, in the first scene you will introduce both the significant situation and the protagonist at the same time in one way or another because it is the reason for your narrative’s existence.

In a nutshell: Something bad/difficult/mysterious or tragic happens to your protagonist in real time action.

Hopefully the significant situation happens within the first couple paragraphs. If you force your reader to wait too long for the event that they hope is coming, you stand to lose them ever getting to it.

For example in Lynn Freed’s novel House of Women the first scene opens with a beguiling description of a man, called only “The Syrian” as seen through the first person point of view Thea, a seventeen year-old-girl with a protective mother. It is quickly established, through the lyrical way that Thea describes the man, and then herself, that she is a romantic girl who feels smothered by her mother. Significant situation and protagonist are introduced simultaneously: The Syrian—a friend of her father’s—has come to take her to live with her father against her mother’s wishes:

The Syrian stands on the terrace, staring down into the bay. His head and shoulders are caught in the last of the light, massive, like a centaur’s. He could be Apollo on his chariot with his hair blown back like that. Or Poseidon. Or Prometheus. He is the darkest white man I have ever seen. It is sort of a gilded darkness, gleaming and beautiful. Even an old man can look like a god, I think.

But of course, he isn’t old. He is just older than I am, much older. I am seventeen and a half and have just lost twelve pounds at the slimming salon. My body is curved and firm and brown. Until now, I have been plain, as my mother is plain, but in a different way. My mother is slim and elegant and plain. I have been sallow and lumpy and awkward, and too clever by half, as she says.

Since I lost weight she has become more watchful than ever. If a boy whistles at me on the street, she says he is common rubbish, he wants one thing and one thing only, and if I give in, I will be his forever. The result is that every night I dream of common rubbish…

The Syrian turns. He shades his eyes against the sun and smiles. “Join me?” he says, holding up his whiskey and soda.

Thea, being naïve, has no idea of the consequences of what “joining” him will bring. That she will have to marry the much older man, for starters. That she will become a young mother who is isolated and just as trapped in her new life as she felt with her mother.

When you kick off your significant situation, be sure that it directly involves your protagonist and reveals something about their character—whether you only show their actions, or you let us into their interior world. Your situation should challenge challenge your protagonist’s status quo. Plot and character are bound together and one without the other will cause your first scene to flop.

In your first scene you aren’t going to do much character developing, rather your goal is to introduce your protagonist as quickly and with as much intrigue as possible.

So, according to the rules of character development and motivation from the Core Elements:

1. The first scene should provide:

A significant situation that challenges your protagonist’s status quo:

The Syrian’s appearance as the messenger to bring Thea to her father is the significant situation that starts the plot and challenges Thea’s character, her future and her innocence.

An antagonist or catalyst to interact with: The Syrian is not an antagonist, he’s a catalyst—because of him Thea will change. Though Thea’s mother Nalia is not present physically in the scene, her mother’s wishes for her are, so Nalia is the antagonist—the person who wants to thwart Thea's goal of leaving.

(Read more in Make a Scene)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Darby Larson Finds Fiction in Video Games

The discussion on flash fiction (see post below) sparked an interesting comment from Darby Larson:

How do you relate flash fiction to video games?
What a fascinating question. I think there is a relation to a very specific kind of surreal fiction (I don't think it relates to *flash* per se) if you dismiss the fact that video games are the way they are in order to account for interactivity. I've always thought of video games as a way of looking at a plot through very surreal goggles. Death doesn't mean the same thing, carries no emotional impact. The rules of death are very specific and odd. You can be hurt a specific number of times and then you lose one of a specific number of lives (?), then when those lives are finished you can restart history over again. The only motive is progression. Progression for the sake of progression. There's a wonderful moment in an old Family Guy episode where there's a distinct cross-over from real to video-game-surreal when everyone learns the rules of death no longer apply and suddenly our human tendencies to be violent take over and everyone shoots everyone. There's a fascinating place somewhere in the midst of that crossover where a very particular kind of surreal fiction rests.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Flash with Kim Chinquee and Rusty Barnes

After serving eight years as a med tech in the Air Force, Kim Chinquee received an MA from the University of Southern Mississippi, where she studied with Rick Barthelme, Steve Barthelme, and Mary Robison. She also holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A Pushcart Prize winner, she teaches creative writing at Central Michigan University. Her collection of flash fiction, Oh Baby, will be published in March 2008 by Ravenna Press.

Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia, and received his M.F.A. from Emerson College. After editing fiction for the Beacon Street Review (now Redivider) and Zoetrope All-Story Extra, he co-founded Night Train. A book of his flash fiction, Breaking it Down, was published by Sunnyoutside Press in November 2007.

Q. Welcome on stage, Kim and Rusty. At AWP early this year, Brigid Hughes, the editor of A Public Space, asked me what flash fiction was. I thought I knew, however I could not come up with a quick answer. So I'm passing this question to you now: what's your definition for it?

Kim C.: Thanks. In September, I gave a presentation and reading on flash fiction, and I believe my definition then was something like: a brief emotion rendered on the page, like a photograph, or snapshot. Though now I believe that definition is a bit too elementary. I've been doing a lot of research lately on the prose poem, and trying to read as many prose poems as possible. I'd like to read everything there is about the prose poem and flash fiction before even accurately trying to define them.

Rusty B.: I think flash fiction can be a story under 1500 words, as often language-based as plot-based, which deals with the impact of a moment or a couple moments as opposed to a full-length story which attempts to cover more material.

Q. Interesting. So Kim, what relationship do you see between prose poem and flash fiction? And Rusty, do you think flash fiction is more often language-based than longer stories? Can you give a good example of language-based flash?

Kim C.: I'm beginning to believe that flash fiction is simply another name for prose poetry, although the term prose poetry has been around a lot longer than flash fiction. Baudelaire published a series of nine poems in 1861, the first to be named prose poems, and his collection Paris Spleen reads to me like a collection of flash fiction. In C.W. Truesdale's Introduction of The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry, he identifies seven different types of prose poems: The Object Poem, The Surreal Narrative, The "Straight" Narrative, The Character Poem, The Landscape or Place Poem, The Meditative Poem, and the "Hyperbolic" or "Exaggerated" Poem. I was able to relate to each and could adequately categorize my own flash fiction based on these criteria. Perhaps flash fiction is more "story-like," with a bigger focus on plot, yet maybe not.

It's hard for me to tell, when writing my own pieces what to call them exactly. I think my flash fictions are becoming shorter, and lately I've been writing one-paragraph pieces. So, do I call them prose poems? By default, I call them flash fictions, though they could probably be either. I'm teaching a seminar next semester, focusing on flash fiction; I found that there was no way to teach the class properly without discussing prose poetry, so I have incorporated prose poetry into the course, and lately I've been reading everything I can about flash fiction and prose poetry, and I have stacks of material to work through, thanks to the generosity of Robert Alexander, a prose poet himself, who wrote his dissertation on the prose poem in 1982 at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And of course, there are the anthologies on flash fiction by James Thomas and Robert Shapard, which I am a fan of, and discuss regularly in the classes I teach. I hope to have a clearer sense of prose poetry and flash fiction as I read more. But to put it simply, to me flash fiction and prose poetry go hand-in-hand.

Rusty B.: If I can be forgiven, and I hope I can, for talking about the work of my Night Train comrade and friend Cami Park, I think her piece from SmokeLong Quarterly, 'On Mondays Francesca Takes the Stairs' is a nice example of what I mean, even if I wasn't precise enough in my original phrasing. The entire piece is one long sentence that works so well in its cumulative effect because of the near-perfect placement of its commas. She begins the story with the quick phrase and the semicolon, and then each phrase after that turns in on itself, adding what I call forward-momentum details (since it's really not appropriate to talk about plot-points in a story like this) that augment our understanding of Francesca and the very simple, but wondrous in its implications, progression up these stairs. It's a near-perfect illustration of a moment, which is something that impressive flash does as well as or perhaps better than a traditional story. Another good example of what I mean comes from Night Train's Firebox Fiction archives: Lydia Copeland's 'In the Air a Shining Heart.'

And to get back to the question, in my own circuitous way, I think flash tends to come in two or three distinct forms: the traditionally-shaped (but shorter) story, like many of mine; the open-ended moment-illustration, which I think most shorter flash--less than 500 words, maybe--tends toward; and the sort of pungent minimalism affected by Lydia Davis and Diane Williams. Which is a long way of weaseling out of the question, I guess. Okay--here goes. I think flash fiction can be more language-based and in many cases I wish more of it was language-based. I think the work in the anthology PP/FF, from Starcherone Books, illustrates the various methods of the form better than I can explain, while a number of other equally excellent anthologies like the well known Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction anthologies approach the work from a more traditional view.

Q. Great stuff from both of you – very educational and thought-provoking. I wish we had more time to discuss this! My next question for you is, what do you like about writing flash compared to longer stories?

Kim C.: In writing flash fiction I'm able to indulge more in the moment, or scene, the image or circumstance, where as when I'm writing longer stories, I tend to think more about the bigger picture.

Rusty B.: It's incredibly gratifying to finish something within an hour or a few hours and either polish it for publication afterward or let it germinate into something longer. My life is such that my writing often comes in hour or two hour bursts 3-4 times per week if I'm lucky, and it's helpful for my psyche to feel as if I've completed something that might be publishable within that very limited time frame. Still, it's an odd week that goes by where I don't write one or two or three flashes, and usually at least one of those is something I'm interested in expanding into longer material. Writing flash is the way I work now, and I like it.

Q. In light of the above, what kind of readership is flash fiction aimed at?

Kim C.: I like to think it's aimed at everyone and anyone.

Rusty B.: People with short attention spans, people who spend a lot of time on their computers, people impatient with plot and tradition, people who don’t think they have time to read.

Q. Which is the best piece of your flash and why? Where was it published?

Kim C.: That changes in my eye from moment to moment. Perhaps my most successful is "Formation," which was published in the 2005 NOON and won a Pushcart. A lot of time I think my best piece is the one I'm currently working on, though I realize that after I get some distance from it, this is not usually the case. Like any writer, I tend to favor whatever I'm focusing my energy on. Maybe some of my best work appears in NOON; Diane Williams has had quite an influence on my work. She's a great editor--careful and precise, which I am grateful for. Also, I have a lot of work in elimae, which is edited by Cooper Renner, who is another one of my favorite editors. He's currently editing my book, Oh Baby.

Rusty B.: I have no idea what the best one is. I'm most proud of a flash I published in SmokeLong Quarterly, "Love & Murder," because it's a key scene in the novel I've been writing off and on for four years, and it feels nearly exactly right to me in both tone and character, and every time I feel like abandoning even the idea of a novel—I've failed miserably at three before this one—I come back to that story and say to myself 'no—don't let these people go—finish it!'

Q. How do you relate flash fiction to video games?

Kim C.: Yikes. I really don't. The thought of video games gives me a headache—the noise and stimulation, seems like the polar opposite of flash fiction to me. Though I don't really know much about video games.

Rusty B.: I love both of them, but my hand-eye coordination is much better suited to flash fiction. Having said that, though, video games allow me to fulfill my dream of suiting up and throwing down a nasty dunk in Shaquille O'Neal's grill.

Q. Aha, here we see a real difference between you two. Now, what's your advice to other writers who want to try flash fiction?

Kim C.: Read anthologies and literary journals that publish flash fiction and prose poetry. Study them. Think less about plot--if you're writing from the heart, the piece will come alive through your choice of detail, and the language.

Rusty B.: Write a lot of it. Write to prompts, write without prompts. At one point I wrote three flashes a week on a schedule, every week for a year. Do that or more. Read it, as much as you can find, online and off, good and bad. Send it out and get it back, I don’t know—all this advice is dumb, basic. Make sure you tell everyone in your life that every moment of every story you write is true: it'll make your family reunions and interpersonal lives much more exciting.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Rusty Barnes: Breaking it Down

They say that great things come in small packages. Measuring in at 4 ½ by 5 ½ inches, Barnes' little book tells 18 stories that are both poignant and memorable. Barnes is a master of Flash Fiction, who says more in a paragraph than can usually be found in a page. The characters and imagery quickly grabbed me, and held me in their short embrace. For the past week, I read a few each evening like savoring a delicious bitter-melon dish, a Sichuanese favorite, before falling asleep with a heavy heart.

The stories have an intensity that surprised me. Frequently, the situations described are grim, sometimes helpless. In the opening story, "What Needs to be Done," a farm wife of 30-years has to balance the guilt of infidelity with her 19-year-old brother-in-law, against any hope of a moment's happiness. The concurrent senses of right and wrong from a simple heart reveal unexpected complexity.

Many of the stories are set in rural America, often hinting of the South, and the characters are usually unsophisticated. Barnes, however, has managed to mix a variety of cultural overtones into the characters that made me reflect on myself. One of my favorites is Beamer, the opera loving farmer who, to his last breath, sings Arias to the dancing cows. Coincidentally, "playing music to the cow" is a Chinese adage that derides someone who speaks to the wrong audience. In the story "Beamer's Opera," our innocent writer unintentionally turns the saying around, as Beamer's whole life unfolds in a few pages and ends as artfully as it is portrayed.

Despite all their woes, the characters take the situations in stride, and Barnes renders this with authenticity. Presented from a number of different points of view, the narration never gets in the way of what is happening. Even those written in second person, which I almost always have trouble reading, came through crystal clear. This was another surprise to me – I did not expect a flash to have as complete a storyline and characterization as a "regular" short story.

I have not been what you would call a fan of flash fiction; Barnes makes me feel that should change.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Here are some interesting statistics on about this book:

3,156 of 3,265 people found "the most helpful critical review" (which rated the book 1-star) to be helpful;
441 of 452 people found "the most helpful favorable review" (which rated the book 4-star) to be helpful.

A number of Amazon reviewers, such as the most helpful critical one, have argued more eloquently than I could that this book's patronizing writing and judgmental presentation makes it read like totalitarian propaganda. I wanted to point out another bit of irony that no one else seems to have brought up.

In her previous book, Wild Swans, which has writing I admire but content that could benefit from more honesty, author Jung Chang notes in front that "in order to describe their functions accurately" she has changed the translation of "xuan-chuan-bu" ("the Department of Propaganda") to "the Department of Public Affairs." The author's father, a heroic character in the memoir, had been a co-director in such a department (in my home province - Sichuan).

Guess how she translates the same "xuan-chuan-bu" in Mao: The Unknown Story? Well, you guessed it. It is changed back to "the Department of Propaganda." Mao once headed such a department. This time Chang does not provide a note on how much she cares about the translation accuracy.

So why the need to deploy hypocrisy?

Because: though Jung Chang was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, and her parents were active and loyal members of the Communist Party, they did nothing bad. They were all good. Objects that were once associated with them must be translated in commendatory terms accordingly. "Love the house, love the crows stopping on its roof."

And: Mao was evil from birth to death. He was all bad. Thus the same objects, when associated with him, must be translated in derogatory terms.

In China we call this "Red Guard language." Jung Chang was a Red Guard at the critical age of learning – and she apparently picked up the language well, even decades of living in the West have not made her drop it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Interview with Two NEA Grant Winners

Viet Dinh comes from a Vietnamese immigrant family. He holds a MFA from the University of Houston and teaches English composition at the University of Delaware. He was the fiction editor for Gulf Coast and now an associate editor for Night Train. A widely published short story writer, he is currently trying to find a publisher for his collection, I (Heart) Disaster.

Jim Tomlinson was born and raised in a small town in northern Illinois . He lives and writes in rural Kentucky. A realistic writer, his debut collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, won the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award.

We learned yesterday that both Jim and Viet are among the 2008 NEA Literature Fellowship winners.

Q. Congratulations, Jim and Viet! Could you describe the moment when the phone call came from NEA in November? Who called you? What did he/she say? What was your reaction and response?

Jim T.: Thanks, Xujun! Chloey Accardi, Division Assistant in the Grants Office, phoned and told me the news on November 15th. I was stunned. That much I remember. Most of what she said after that is a blur. I know she asked for a bio, a photo, and permission to use an excerpt from my work sample on the NEA Writers Corner website. She also said to keep the news quiet until the December 4th press release. I told my wife, of course, and two or three close friends, but no one else.

Viet D.: I didn't receive my call until late November -- I was called by a nice man who wanted my social security number, so I was suspicious that this was a phishing scheme. But, since my credit rating is nil anyway, I threw caution to the wind. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted to discover that this was the real thing. My previous plans for the day: go to the DMV. My revised plans: have a hamburger and take a nap at home.

Q. LOL! Now, which story did you submit to NEA as a writing sample? Where was it published? In which way is the story representative of your writing?

Jim T.: I sent “First Husband, First Wife,” which appeared in Five Points and leads off my short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind. Most of my stories are about characters and relationships that appear to be one thing but then unfold new layers. I think that’s especially true of Jerry and Cheryl in “FHFW.”

Viet D.: I submitted "Substitues," which appears in the most recent issue of Five Points. I'm not sure this story is representative of my writing as a whole -- my style and subject matter vary vastly from story to story. But I felt it was the best story I had on hand at the moment, so off it went.

Q. Both in Five Points! Isn't that an interesting coincidence.
In one sentence, tell us what sets you apart from other contemporary fiction writers in America.

Jim T.: I’m just another fish in this river, like every writer I know.

Viet D.: I'm lazy.

Q. How are you going to spend the $25000 grant money?

Jim T.: Living expenses, mundane things, too many to list. Research trips to southern Indiana and western Kentucky, certainly. Possibly central Illinois, too. These are settings for my novel-in-progress.

Viet D.: I plan to upgrade my computer, take a semester off from feeding knowledge to the animals, and perhaps travel to India, where my novel will be set.

Q. If the grant were for $25 million is there anything you would change about what you are trying to write?

Jim T.: Interesting question, Xujun. I want to say I’d be trying to write the same kinds of things. I also want to say that that kind of money wouldn’t be a ruinous thing. But it just might be.

Viet D.: Not really. I'd just be writing in much more luxurious surroundings. Attended to by servants. And unpaid college interns who will do my typing for me. Plus, perhaps, a carousel drawn by a live donkey.

Q. What's your advice to other writers who want to apply for the NEA grants?

Jim T.: Send your very best work as a work sample. Fill out the paperwork neatly. Send it off, and then try to forget about it.

Viet D.: The same advice I'd give to anyone submitting their work anywhere: give it your all, give it your best, have an accountant deduct the postage from your taxes later in the year. #

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Two Writer Friends Received NEA Grants

Jim Tomlinson and Viet Dinh, who I have known from Zoetrope for years and whose writing I admire, received NEA grants this year. The great news was announced this morning, though they received the call on November 15th. You can read more details about this on Jim's website.

Check out Jim's award winning story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, in my virtual bookstore. And read Viet's impressive story, "Lucky," on Zoetrope All-Story.

Monday, December 3, 2007

"Inside-Out China" Is Out of China

My younger sister, or anyone in China for that matter, can't access my blog. I was afraid this was going to happen. This summer when I visited China, I was unable to access any of my writer friends' blogs on Blogger. Apparently Beijing has blocked our host's IP(s). Writers who host their blogs on their own do not have this problem.

I see this broad brush blocking as a challenge to the commercial providers.

Blogger, can you come up with a clever strategy so that people from the most populous country on the planet can read our posts?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Separation of Church and State

There is nothing in the Chinese Constitution about the separation of Church and State. On the other hand, of course, for a long time even a hint of any religious leaning could get people in trouble. That is changed. Nowadays there are a lot more people worshiping to different faiths. Not surprisingly, there is something of a hands-on approach taking by the Chinese government to that process. There was a blow up with the Catholic church a while ago as the Chinese demanded to approve appointments made from Rome - but things seem to be smooth now as both the Vatican and the Central Committee have agreed on the appointment of a new Bishop for Guangzhou (there had not been one for 6 years).

On a higher plain, it seems that the Dalai Lama can still easily irk the powers that be in Beijing. He has called for a referendum to determine whether and how the next Dalai Lama will be chosen and this has caused some consternation. Coming on the heels of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Dalai Lama, that must really have stung. Beijing wants a say in who the next one will be; CNN says they are looking to recruit a pro-Beijing leader. I guess that would be the baby born with the iron rice-bowl in its mouth.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

I Can't Find My Sister

Today is my big sister's birthday. She died in the summer of 1968, before she turned 17 and a week after this sword-dance photo was taken. I don't know if she had seen it.

For over 30 years I could not bear to look back at her death. I finally managed to do it by writing an essay,  "Swimming with Mao."