Susan Tepper: Women and their hair. I’ve started believing it must be in our DNA to have this hair obsession. Kari, your story “You Take All” begins with hair, but of a different sort. What made the story begin as it does?
Kari Nguyen: Not too long ago, my aunt walked into my house, wearing my mother’s old wig. She was proud to show me. My mother followed behind, smiling. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I felt overwhelmingly connected to that wig right then. It had returned, years later, to stand in my kitchen. I hadn’t expected it. After that, I knew I wanted to write about a wig and its place in a family. The wig had to be central, its own character. And it had to demand attention. I wanted to convey some of this in the story’s opening scene.
Susan: I love when a story springs out of a simple kernel of something real then sprouts into something deeply magical. You write:
Your mother’s wig is a honey-red, a melting heat. You imagine your mother to be wearing her heart on her head. When the wig first appears, you run through the house, screaming, ‘It’s ALIVE!’
A wig, an inanimate object, with great possibilities for transforming a person, becomes an alive, hot heart thing.
Kari: So true. The wig, to this child, is full of possibility. She’s unaware of its meaning or why her mother wears it. I wanted to capture that child-like wonder.
Susan: The mother-daughter bond is very strong in this piece. I especially love when they are sitting looking through old photos, and the wig is there, too, on a photo of her Grandmother. But as you write: the odd, grainy photos….
And your narrator is thinking: The past, apparently, was a time without color.
This line stopped me cold. It’s a sobering thought. Is the past a time without color? Kari, is that true for you in the writing of this story or does the past blaze?
Kari: I remember, as a kid, looking back at old photographs and having trouble believing that these people, in their black and white worlds, had actually existed. I imagined the narrator feeling this way. I think it’s probably hard, sometimes, for young kids to accept the fact that things – people, lives, etc – have come before them. In actuality, the past, in this story, does blaze, as you put it. The grandmother, the first to wear the wig, chose to stand out, when she could have simply blended in.
Susan: Yes! There is a lot of strength in the story, in these characters, the choices these women make. And I sense in the narrator the importance of keeping close in a spiritual way to the ties and bonds of her mother and the women relations around her. Is it a blood bond or almost a fear that keeps the status quo alive for this narrator? Because, you are, in the story, talking life and death. Even though we’re going out of our way not to divulge too much plot.
Kari: I tried not to let fear play too big of a role. It’s more about their bonds, their rituals, all that they share.
Susan: Fear didn’t play a role, in fact quite the opposite: The story is fearless. But me, with my inquiring mind, I like to scratch around and dig things up. So what I’m trying to find out is whether your narrator did fear for her future? Regardless of how she carried herself with attitude and dignity and a certain aplomb. But, when push comes to shove, was she afraid?
Kari: I don’t think she’d like to admit it, but of course the fear was there. I think, though, from early on, there was a sort of acceptance, followed by resolve, so that there was less room to acknowledge it.
Susan: About the narrator you write: “Your reflection is unfamiliar, your skin is awash… You’ll wear your heart on the outside too. You are the rituals of your women gone before.”
Read “You Take All“ by Kari Nguyen
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.