Photo by Sarah Lundin
NER fiction reader Malka Daskal talks to M. Colón-Margolies about capturing everyday violence through surrealism, how psychology informs character studies, and her story, “Souvenirs,” from issue 43.4.
Malka Daskal: In your story, “Souvenirs,” the narrator is simultaneously faced with a pandemic, the challenges of living abroad and navigating the bureaucracies of a foreign country, financial insecurity, the sudden illness of her beloved husband, and new motherhood. How did this story come into being, and did these tribulations accumulate over time as you drafted the story or were they always a part of the narrator’s DNA?
M. Colón-Margolies: There is a seed of autobiography in this story. I live in Paris. At the beginning of the first lockdown, before there were vaccines or masks, my husband had to have brain surgery. The hospital he was taken to was collapsing at the time because COVID cases were peaking. Our daughter was 10 months old. But luckily, that is where the similarities between our life and the narrator’s end. The piece grew out of a curiosity I had about whether I could tell a story about a woman in a situation like mine who’s pushed farther than I was, and who, as a consequence, grows more desperate and begins to make choices she wouldn’t normally make. Part of the pleasure of writing the story was seeing what the character would do if I kept raising the stakes.
MD: Setting a story during the Covid pandemic is a risky choice. Readers will come to the story with their own associations and experiences, ones that will color, and may warp, their understanding of the story. But in “Souvenirs,” it seems like it is a risk that has very much paid off and, in fact, is integral to the intensity of the story and the question it poses of how one can “carry love and terror together.” Did you experience any hesitancy in choosing to set your story during the pandemic? Did story or setting come first, or did they happen in tandem?
MCM: I was worried about not being able to publish the story for this reason. But I didn’t think about this issue when I first started working on it. I wanted to write a story that captured the feeling of a specific time period while keeping the day-to-day historical facts a bit vague so the narrative wouldn’t feel didactic. I was thinking of books I’ve loved that have helped me to understand events as vast and incomprehensible as wars by simply exploring the everyday lives of the characters in them. Books like The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda or Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. I think Suite Française portrays French wartime collaboration with more nuance than any historical nonfiction I’ve read by showing what it feels like in terms of human psychology and relationships. The small thrill elites got when they ingratiated themselves with the new regime in order to avoid losing their status. The way resistance was eroded. In one of the narrative threads, a German soldier occupies a French character’s house. She hates him. And then slowly, still unwilling, she begins to accommodate, to wish to please him, and later, to love him. And you understand her, even as you recoil at what this love represents. My dream is to write a work of fiction that achieves something similar.
MD: Some of the most intriguing elements for me were the descriptions of the narrator’s sightings of burnt cars, abandoned buildings, and rat carcasses—sightings that, because they were unconfirmed and met with disbelief, added a pulse of surrealism to an otherwise highly realistic narrative. Their presence in the story also heightened the sense of the narrator being besieged by unknown and unknowable threats. What was your intention in adding these darker, enigmatic elements into the story?
MCM: I was trying to capture the way a violent event can make you feel like violence is lurking everywhere. In essence, how it can shift your perception. I imagined that when the narrator of the story sees things like more rats because pest control was lax during lockdown or burnt cars because of civil discontent—she would attribute a kind of surreal malevolence to the images she sees, and that she would feel, as you say, besieged. Of course, the things she sees are just a part of the reality of the city after lockdown. I thought a lot about The Plague by Camus and the Julio Cortázar story “The Continuity of Parks” while I was writing this story. In The Plague, rats function as a literal harbinger of plague, and I imagined that when the narrator of my story sees rats, she sees an omen, feels the proximity of death. In “The Continuity of Parks,” a man sits reading a novel in a chair and becomes so engrossed in the story that he doesn’t notice a man slipping into his room, a character from the novel he’s reading who intends to murder him. It’s a brilliant sleight of hand in terms of plot, but also in terms of psychology, because it captures how—when you’re in an altered state whether from reading or living in a menacing world—all kinds of strange things can happen.
MD: The narrator opens the story with reference to the notes she had scribbled during the time in which the events of the story take place and refers to these notes as she narrates, on occasion pointing out discrepancies between her recorded notes and her memory. Why did you choose to structure the story as one told in retrospect? When the story ends, we are still firmly in the past; we are not privy to the narrator’s present, nor the knowledge of whether her marriage or her husband survives. Why? How does keeping that information from the reader make the story more powerful?
MCM: Because I wanted this story to be about the perception and psyche of a character, I thought that using notes as a framing device would allow me to capture the cognitive dissonance the narrator would feel once she emerges from months of crisis. I imagined her writing notes to herself during the pandemic that she forgets about, and then discovering them months later, when the reality of the world feels very different, so different that the notes she finds all seem to be describing a strange and far away place. I didn’t want to end the story by saying what happened to the characters because I think the story is about the precarity and uncertainty the narrator feels and that many people still feel in this particular moment. Even if all is well today, it may not be tomorrow.
MD: The narrator identifies as Puerto Rican and Jewish, her husband as Chilean; they are both expats from the United States, living in Paris. Displacement—a rootless searching—seems to pervade this story. When her husband pulls away, the narrator is left alone, isolated in her worries. How does living abroad influence your writing and your perspective on shared fraternity?
MCM: I think it’s given me a different perspective on a lot of things. My father moved to the mainland US in his early twenties from Puerto Rico. My mom’s family is Jewish and her ancestors are mostly from Ukraine, but she was born in Brooklyn and is very American. As a young person I felt very connected to my dad’s emigration experience and thought I understood the adversity he faced, but it wasn’t until I moved to France that I realized I had only a surface-level idea of what it was like for him. For example, I didn’t know what it felt like to get cheated because you have an accent and people think you can be taken advantage of. I think this kind of experience creates a feeling of solidarity with others who have gone through the same thing. This is maybe why I included the surgeon character in “Souvenirs.” I knew she would take extra care of Hector because she identifies with him, and I felt that scene of terror maybe also needed a note of grace.
In any case, to return to your question—I do want to say that I love France and feel grateful to live here. But it still doesn’t totally feel like home. Though honestly, when I go back to the States, I don’t feel fully at home anymore either. Maybe when you emigrate or live far away for long enough, you don’t feel quite at home anywhere. Though when I’m with my family I do. I think that’s the thing—when you live abroad for a long time, your family can become your country. I guess I was trying to convey this with this narrator.
MD: Basile is such a deliciously unappetizing character. From his wolfish smile to his patronizing behavior, I felt myself being simultaneously repelled and ensnared right alongside the narrator. She “doesn’t know why” she submits to him, but it seems to me he represents an escape from everything she truly loves and needs to protect, from the weight of all things precious and fragile. What were the challenges in making her decision to sleep with him so convincing? Or did the interactions leading up to that decisive moment happen organically?
MCM: Oh Basile! I set out to write a character that was the antithesis, in many ways, of the narrator’s husband. An older, wealthy French man. Effete, with an ironic, slightly mocking demeanor. I think you’re right that Nina submits to him because he feels like an escape or because she senses that he’s dangerous. She thinks so much about evading danger in this story that when it draws close to her in the form of this man, she’s seduced by it. I also imagined her feeling seduced by this character’s, for lack of a better word, privilege. I think she imagines that Basile leads an insouciant, indulgent life, and—though she’d probably never admit it—she probably desires to immerse herself in luxury, even if only for an afternoon.
In the early drafts of the story, I didn’t have Nina sleep with Basile. I portrayed him instead as just another looming threat. But my wonderful agent, Julia Kardon, and her wonderful assistant, Hannah Popal, encouraged me to develop his interaction with Nina further. Once they gave me this note, I wrote the scenes very quickly. It just felt like the right place for the story to go.
MD: I understand you are working on a novel. Is it your first? Can you tell us a little about it? Have you found the process of writing a novel-length work different from writing a short story?
MCM: Thank you for asking! It’s my first novel. I’ve actually just finished revising it and am hoping to go on submission soon. It’s about five foreigners living in Paris in 2015. Like with “Souvenirs,” I attempted to capture a historical moment by portraying the lives of ordinary people living through it. I wrote it as a sort of Suite Française meets Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, as I was trying to depict the unease and surreal feeling that settled over Paris after the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks. Of course, there is a lot of lightness in the novel too. The characters travel around Europe and fall in and out of love, while also dealing with illness and loss.
I tend to use the same process for short and long work. I begin by reading a lot and writing by hand. In the beginning, I try not to edit myself at all. Then I look at the pages I’ve written, which are usually disordered and discursive, and attempt to create a coherent narrative. Then comes the typing, and also a lot of walking and thinking about things like shape, pacing, plot etcetera. I find it easier to write short fiction because it’s so contained. But a longer work allows for more daring, and fun, I think. You have so much more space to see where things will go.
Malka Daskal, a fiction reader for NER, received her master’s degree from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Kind Writers, december Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, and Adelaide and has been anthologized in The Bookends Review’s “Best of 2020.” Her short story “Symbology” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and two sons.