Extras: Jenni Mazaraki and Lucy Zhang In Conversation
Extras: bonus content to complement the works in our issues: commentary, stories, interviews, and more.
Here, Issue 15 contributors, Jenni Mazaraki, a writer living on Wurundjeri land (Melbourne, Australia), and Lucy Zhang, a New Jersey native currently writing from California, explore points of shared interest in their respective pieces, Evolving and Growing Bones.
J: I was taken in by the world you created in your story. You showed an intimacy between your characters who had each responded to loss in their own way, which to me felt both claustrophobic and necessary. Can you speak about the importance of grief as a catalyst for Sisi's experience?
L: It’s really interesting you ask that, because when I first wrote the piece, all I was thinking was: wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a grave in the basement? I wasn’t thinking about grief at all. But as I kept writing, I found myself gravitating towards the lens of a child and how it captures loss and growth. I wanted to capture an almost childlike imagination with a blurred reality, and how this is isolating and often at odds with the way adults understand children.
Your story also depicts a similar surreal and isolating experience. I loved how elements of the sea were woven into the moments of recollection and habit, especially the line “When Evie’s dad left in search of land, and never returned, they began making cakes.” Why did you choose gills as opposed to something like wings, claws, horns, etc?
J: A grave in the basement is such a strong image. I understand how that became the initial idea for your story. Similarly, I had the idea of a body evolving to perform dual functions in response to climate change and rising sea levels. As a child I felt free in the water and would be disappointed when my lungs would not permit me to stay under the water longer. I chose gills for Evie in the story because of the freedom it would give her in a future world of water. An attribute that would potentially save her or alienate her. I love the idea of wings but hadn’t thought of wings, claws or horns. Perhaps they would have seemed too immediately visible whereas gills could be hidden.
In your story, the idea of the mother being spoken of as a commodity by the aunt, as though she was not a good choice of wife was heartbreaking. But I could see such a conversation taking place quite casually. As you wrote through the lens of a child, I’m wondering what Sisi would have thought about bodies and their usefulness, the purpose of what she is to the world around her?
L: I grew up exposed to a lot of those kinds of conversations when I visited my relatives in China. There’s a lot of value placed on a woman’s appearance (as I’m sure is the case for many cultures) and age. Once a woman is thirty or over, it becomes much harder for her to get married. According to my husband who grew up in China, many men will not even look at women who are the same age as them. Sisi, who prides herself on her good grades and maturity, sees her mother being distilled down to a few characteristics. Sisi now has to contend with how she has been defining value and how others assign value to those she loves. She’s at that stage where maturity means learning society’s value of the physical body and applying her metric-based value system to the body. She’s starting to see the cracks in this adult world and she’s left grappling with how to adapt.
On the other hand, Evie knows exactly how she’s adapting to the world around her. Do you think that’s a good thing? Would Evie’s mother approve of Evie’s gills? How do you find yourself adapting to the world—is it any different from when you were a child?
J: That’s such a good point about adapting. That’s what both Sisi and Evie are doing while in that stage of being between child/adult and existing in a time of flux. I see Sisi quietly taking in the implicit messaging about cultural expectations on appearance and age and what is considered valuable and feel a protectiveness towards her. When I think of Evie adapting to the altered world around her, it reminds me of those life stages which bring change and newness but also loss. There is no escaping it for any of us. I think Evie’s mother would approve of her gills and potentially view the change as a healthy separation. As we grow, we individuate from our parents and in this case, Evie’s gills are a concrete sign of being different to her mother. A sign that Evie has the potential to survive a world that her mother has tried to prepare her for. As for myself, I felt like I was in a bubble as a child, spending much of my time in my imagination and adapting to change as all children must by (mostly) doing what I was told. I’m not that much different now, except as an adult I am self-driven. But my imaginative life is essential to who I am and I’m sure it helps me adapt to change. Creativity is essentially problem solving.
And now I want to talk about the bones and the graveyard! The image you created of tiny bones reaching up from the basement is glorious! How do you feel discussing death? What was your understanding about death as a child? Did you hang out in graveyards as a teen?
L: I really like that concept of individuating. I think especially as children, we try to fit in more than we want to stand out, and I like that it’s ok for Evie to just be.
Thank you! The image of the grave and finger bones came to mind randomly, and I just had to write it down. Death is really prevalent in my writing—not so much the strict biological definition of death, but rather the irreversible ending of things. I suppose it’s because death is an end, but at the same time, it’s a ripple effect where so many other characters’ lives are touched. It’s in those ripples where I find a story. Death frequents my stories, but I like to think my focus is on life. As a child, I would keep myself awake at night thinking about how one day, I’d no longer have parents and one day, it’ll be the end of me too. That future was so far out but also so certain and I’d get into existential crises back in elementary school. It’s still something I think about and try to examine in writing, often with speculative elements which help render these abstract feelings more tangible. And I never hung out in graveyards for fun, haha. I did, however, see a lot of them in anime and manga that I consumed at a rapid pace as a teen.
A common element I noticed in several of your pieces is mothers/motherhood. Why do you think you gravitate towards that subject?
J: ‘The irreversible ending of things.’ That is a wonderfully constructive way of thinking about death and its purpose in your writing. Yes, the ripples felt by others sounds like a powerful place for your stories to be found. I can relate to your sense of existential crisis, except for me, it was discovering in primary school that the earth would eventually be swallowed by the sun. I think it set off an urgency in me that still propels me today. It’s not entirely morbid - it curiously motivates me. Similarly, when I write about the effects of climate change, there are many reasons to feel absolutely terrified but I need to have hope that we can make collective change. I write about mothers and motherhood because I find it a place of tenderness and brutal truths. When I write about the quiet, delicate intricacies of what motherhood looks like, alongside it sit loss and devastation - loss of self, of one’s body and of the realisation that our children need us but also need to be on their own in the world, without us. It’s in writing about climate change and motherhood that I try to negotiate the constant series of endings, but also to grasp hold of new ways of being.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts behind your story and the themes in your writing. I felt a connection to your story and it enabled me to sit with Sisi’s difficult experience of losing her mother while discovering something strangely hopeful. What’s next for you, Lucy?
L: I love that duality of both endings and beginnings you manage to explore in your work. Thank you for (virtually) conversing with me about these pieces. What a coincidence that both of our pieces were published in the same issue—they speak so well to each other!
I’m a very live-in-the-moment kind of person, so I’m not entirely sure what’s next! I’ve been dabbling a bit more in graphic narratives and interactive pieces as well as slightly more hard core science fiction, honestly whatever strikes my interest. The spontaneity is half the fun.
Read more: you can find Jenni and Lucy's stories in Issue 15 now.
Photo: Benjamin Earwicker