by Jim Harrington
Suzan Palumbo lives in Brampton, Ontario with her husband and two daughters. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she is an ESL teacher who loves Alfred Hitchcock, curry, music and growing tomatoes. Her stories are often inspired by clashes of culture and the gap between expectations and reality.
by Suzan Palumbo
Emily retraced the route she used to escape her parents’ biases. When the memory of her father’s fist cracking the kitchen table threatened to make her turn the car around, she glanced at Zoe asleep in her booster seat and continued down the old familiar roads.
Her mother’s prophecy had been half true. Zaid left but he had not used Emily and flung her aside. They were separated by the hot wheels and flesh distorting metal he used at work. Emily held Zaid’s hand, surrounded by wires and tubes, until he let go. Then, she clung to Zoe, whose pecan coloured skin and quick smile solidified his fading existence.
In her parent’s driveway she woke Zoe and let her skip down the path to look at a peach tinted flower. Emily’s mother came out from the side yard.
“Hello, are you lost?” She was confused at finding a small child in her garden.
“No, mom, she isn’t.”
Emily’s mother stood quietly staring at Zoe and then crouched down next to her.
“Would you like to help me plant a flower?”
“Yes!” Zoe flashed Zaid’s smile.
Emily’s mother showed Zoe how to dig a hole and not damage the flower’s roots. When they were done she wiped Zoe’s hands with a handkerchief and invited them both inside. Emily nodded and Zoe ran towards the front door.
“What about Dad?” Emily asked her mother.
“He’s been trying to fix the kitchen table.” Emily’s mother stepped aside and let them in.
Jim Harrington: What was it about the contest prompt that led you to write Emily’s story?
Suzan Palumbo: I zeroed in on the word bias and saw the image of Emily returning home with Zoe, hoping to prove her parents wrong. I also liked that the word route, as a homophone, has opposing meanings. Roots keep you grounded; they also don’t let you move, whereas a route is a course we use to leave. I felt these contrasting meanings did a good job of symbolizing the conflicts Emily has been struggling to overcome.
There are aspects of my own life in Emily’s story. My husband and I are from different cultural and racial backgrounds. We’ve never experienced the level of intolerance that Emily and Zaid encountered, but there have been a few people who were skeptical that we could find any commonalities on which to base our lives. Emily knows that Zoe has the ability to shift her grandparents’ perspective better than any well reasoned argument. Zoe is the commonality that this family needs to come back together.
I also want to recognize that this is also part of Zaid’s story. It was difficult writing about his death, as I felt I connected with him on a cultural and emotional level. He is definitely a character I’m going to explore further in the future.
JH: Final Judge Meg Tuite commented on the “beauty of its language and the use of dialogue to tell the story of three generations.” Many authors struggle with getting the dialog just right. Do you have a secret to writing effective dialog?
SP: Whenever I write dialogue I try to keep the question, “So, what’s your point?” in the back of my head.” If what the character is saying has no impact on the plot, character or meaning of the story, I try to take it out or rework it while trying to keep the exchange realistic sounding.
Moments of silence are also important. In my personal life I don’t always have a snappy, well thought out answer when I’m trying to have a meaningful conversation. People dialogue without speaking all of the time and I think it’s important to include aspects of non-verbal dialogue in our writing.
JH: I like how the story circles back to the father and the kitchen table. What did you hope the show the reader by doing that?
SP: Emily’s father realizes his anger and intolerance have cost him his daughter and family. He wants to rectify the situation but doesn’t know how. I hope one day this family can sit around their kitchen table and eat and laugh and talk. Of course, Zaid will be missing and the crack in the table will never completely disappear. This absence will always be present when they sit down together. I don’t think reconciliation is going to be easy; there are going to be missteps, but I wanted to show that they were all willing to try.
JH: Writing a captivating story in 250 words or less is a challenge. Do you write stories of this length or shorter regularly?
SP: Yes. I’m currently working on a series of one hundred word stories. It’s challenging but I like that the length forces me to consider the effectiveness of each word since each word may need to fulfill more than one function. I’m also working on a piece that’s around 1500 words. I tend to stick to pieces that are under 3000 words.
JH: Do you have other works online that we can point our readers to?
SP: This is my first published piece. It’s been a very rewarding experience. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and for organizing a great contest.
Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.