An Interview With Daphne Kalotay
In the interview that follows, Daphne Kalotay talks with TMR intern Angela Horina about her story “Heart Scalded” (TMR 44:2). Viv, the story’s protagonist, is a terminally ill cancer patient who attends a Halloween Party and endures a painful encounter with her ex. You can read the story here:
Angela Horina: Every time I read “Heart-Scalded,” I find another layer that I didn’t see before. You’ve managed to blend several themes into a traditional breakup story that touches on many topics: Viv is a terminally ill cancer patient, and she and Aziz broke up over moral divisions. How did you come to balance the different issues and themes in the story?
Daphne Kalotay: For me, the story is about understanding both that things come to an end—including our own lives—and that there are consequences to our actions, including grave ones for our planet and the people and plants and animals trying to survive on it. These themes were naturally entwined for me because the story was inspired by my dear friend, Judy, an environmentalist who was often morally enraged by a lot of what she saw around her (without being outwardly annoying about it) and who lived with terminal cancer for nine years. So the balance of topics occurred organically.
AH: Did you begin with the idea of a terminal illness story or the idea of a breakup story—or were the two intertwined from the start?
DK: They were intertwined from the start. During a summer toward the end of her illness, my friend attended a party (not a Halloween party, or a pig roast) where she knew her ex (the great love of her life) would be with his fiancée, whom she had never seen before. It struck me as incredibly brave. Then, before she died, she told me she hoped I’d write about her and her ex (with whom she was still close and who came to be by her side at the end). I still haven’t figured out how to write about that relationship, but the idea of the party where she faced meeting the fiancée stayed with me. Finally, last year, I was able to sit down and do something with it.
AH: “Heart-Scalded” is an incredibly visual story, and the setting itself acts as a kind of character (the references to color stand out). Why did you place so much emphasis on the visual?
DK: In part, I was simply imagining what the character would notice, since the story is a companion piece to a story I wrote a few years ago from Viv’s friend’s perspective, in which we learn a bit more about Viv’s paintings—so I knew that Viv, as an artist, would think visually and notice colors. And because the story is so internal, it reflects the way she experiences the world around her. As for that green color, green was Judy’s favorite color, and a couple of the walls in her apartment were painted a vivid green. She had many plants growing all around. So I’m not surprised that I seized on that color specifically.
AH: Viv’s vulnerability in the story is poignant: her dealing with shame of being “so Viv,” her facing her own mortality, and her seeing other people get stuck in their own decisions all force the reader to assess their own decisions. Was it part of your intention for the reader to experience Viv’s pain?
DK: As a writer, I want my writing to be true. I don’t mean that the story is a true story; I mean that whoever the character is, I’m being true to how that character would feel in the moment. And I think that when a writer does this, the reader is able to experience, to a certain degree, whatever the character experiences in a way that, as you point out, reverberates, so that we reassess our own experiences and decisions.
AH: There are pointedly political elements to this story. Would you consider, or have you ever considered, working on a political novel or series of stories?
DK: My first novel, Russian Winter, was about the lasting repercussions of totalitarianism, and my most recent novel, Blue Hours, is about white privilege and Western paternalism, with the second half of the book specifically about American intervention in Afghanistan. So it’s possible I’m unable to write a book that doesn’t in some way touch upon the political!
Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning Sight Reading and Russian Winter, the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories — shortlisted for the Story Prize — and the new novel Blue Hours, a 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read.” Published in 20+ languages, her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, among others, and her story “Relativity” was the 2017 One City One Story Boston pick. She teaches for Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing but makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Foreword: Moving On
When excited about a piece of writing, I often sense a largeness to it that exceeds what I first fully understand. As an editor, I’ve had that experience too often to remember. I love something and then struggle to articulate why, and it may take me a while to do so with any certainty. Perhaps it comes from rightness of form and richness of theme, including a necessary ambiguity in the subject. I may not fully get it at first because often the best writing is, in fact ,wonderfully complicated, both in what it is about and sometimes in the way it’s done. Literature has an almost biological element: its DNA shows similarities to past writing as well as newness and variance. It carries a suitcase or wears at least some of its clothes from the past. It doesn’t simplify life but sees and shows its messiness. This is shown in much of this issue, with the theme of moving on while at the same time still in ways still carrying the past.
4 Poems by Tiana Clark
Self-Portrait at Divorce
After reading Stag’s Leap again and finally knowing
what the hell Sharon Olds was writing about
The day my husband left
I accidentally set off the house alarm
and the dog finally curled into my chest
like a warm croissant of cream fur and you
had replaced the trash bag for the last time
and the recycling and I walked into
your office and I wept and wept inside
your pillow on our bed (whoops) I mean my bed
a California king our biggest bed yet because
we wanted space for our long bodies to stretch
and room the for the dog to splay and I put water
in the dog bowl and I told myself that I had to remember
to do that because you had always done that simple task
On Defeat and Diego
On Defeat and Diego
Once, while I was training at the Police Athletic League in Oak Park, Diego “Chico” Corrales walked into the gym holding a trophy half his size. He was a local amateur standout, a home-grown offensive dynamo poised to terrorize the professional ranks in another year or two. My dad followed his career in the newspaper, so I’d been told about his reputation as a heavy-handed bogeyman. I watched Diego balance the trophy against his hip. He was still a teenager then; I was seven years old.
The Body Was There
The Body Was There
Six months later she was pregnant. The curves of her hips opened up; her breast grew heavy. The blue cotton dress, the dye fading into something lighter and unhappy, whispered the secrets of her changing body to those who made it their business to know what was happening with the women on Bilkens Farm.
Patty was one of those women. She’d been born on Bilkens Farm sometime during the 1820s. when Bilkens’s father still ran the plantation. Her weathered face showed the signs of years of rice work, and her hands were nearly permanently callused and chafed. She kept a watch on all the young girls, particularly those who were married off on Marriage Day. During the day, as she directed the cutting of the rice stalks into large piles waiting to be stripped of their grains, she studied all the women slaves that came into her view. Young girl. Teenaged girl. Woman. After a woman’s gray hair grew in and the lines in her face settled deep into her face, Patty knew she could stop watching them. But until that point, Patty diligently monitored the women’s midsections for any signs of growth, their swollen feet. She even sniffed around the fields and the cabins at night for the acidic smell of bile held in the heated South Carolina air. For Patty, her mission, her main job on Bilkens Farm, was to catch every single pregnancy. She hadn’t missed one yet.
Samantha Xiao Cody
In the days after Mr. Huang was arrested for killing his son, we began seeing the dog everywhere. The Huang house was swarmed with reporters and curious passersby, but every time we crept near, we were swatted away and scolded for being nosy by one of the lao nai nais who were always standing there, soaking up information like sponges. The Huang house stayed silent, the shutters drawn, but we were sure Mrs. Huang was still inside. “I can’t even imagine,” our mothers whispered, shaking their heads. Some of our mothers, like Eddie’s ma, made food and left it out on the back lawn of the Huang house in the afternoons, and though we never saw Mrs. Huang emerge, the dishes were always back out on the lawn in the morning, empty and clean.
Twilight’s hazy glow, the world covered in gray lint. Viv hailed a ride and set out toward the crumbling edge of town.
Though it was nearly November, leaves still clung to branches, some in the blazing colors of life, most a parched brown. Odd how warm it is, her driver said, as they rose over the bridge that just months ago she would have crossed on her bike. A cluster of figures slipped toward them along the walkway, dressed strangely, like characters in a play. She turned to look, but they were already past.
Fun plans for the evening? her driver asked. The streetlamps weren’t yet lit, and the fading sky looked thick enough to touch.
I’m going to a pig roast.
Poem by V. Penelope Pelizzon
Of Vinegar Of Pearl (an excerpt)
V. Penelope Pelizzon
“The elements return to the body of their mother.” —Paracelsus
Like pulp-and-spittle wasps’ nests
built in their season to last
only until winter, bones
crumble in her as she sits.
She sections the day’s clemen-
cies into mouthfuls, hawks out
any bitter pips, swallows
good pungence with sips of smoke
—Lapsang Souchong or Laphroaig,
depending on the hour—
preferring solitude to
solicitude from the kind,
including her children who
were hard to bear and are hard
now to hear. Nine decades have
drawn her, masterwork of ten-
don and vein illustrating
frailty condensing to one
ferocious node, a will still
refusing to cede. But now?
When the heart no longer turns
the blood’s tide. When fluid pools,
refusing to be sluiced back
into its channels. She’s walked
so far down the strand that seals
barely lift their heads as she
steps over them, returning
finally to her sisters.
She’s up to her knees now in
a flosh of her body’s own
sea-wash. Dying? Or dying-
ish? Is this it? Is it this?
My new boyfriend and I have been fighting a lot recently. We’ve only been dating for six months or so, so it’s to be expected, I suppose, that things will come out, aspects of the other’s personality previously concealed or ignored, strange living habits, uncontrollable facial tics, troubled relations with one’s mother, preferences for whole grain mustard or Dijon, etc. I’ve been surprised by the theme of these arguments, although I suppose they aren’t arguments, per se. That would imply that our conversations lack civility, intent facial expressions indicating active listening, measured and thoughtful responses. Still, the fundamental thing about these conversations is that we can’t agree. We start far apart, and after an evening spent going back and forth, nodding thoughtfully at the other’s point of view, presenting our own, invoking our piecemeal knowledge of the relevant fields of academic study—sociology, biology, epistemology, phenomenology, zoology, and all the rest—we always find ourselves farther apart than before.
5 Poems by Nancy Reddy
Spooky Action at a Distance
In the Nashville airport, in gate C-84, in the industrial carpet and molded
where we all wait to be carried elsewhere,
a baby sleeps against his mother’s
chest. His right foot is froglegged up to meet his chest. He’s that new, his body
soft and curled
as if to fit still the small space of the womb.
The universe is thin. Even across this gate—