Q&A with Sophia Terazawa, author of “Daughter’s Guide to Lavender”

Sophia Terazawa’s “Daughter’s Guide to Lavender” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on September 9, 2019. Q&A conducted by Mary Pappalardo, Assitant Editor, Fiction

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Mary Pappalardo: I’m struck by the complicated relationship you present between the narrator and her mother; it encompasses so many different ways of being to and with each other, like protectiveness, responsibility, betrayal, memory, forgetting, storytelling, obfuscation. In your writing process, when did that delicate, intimate relationship come into focus? Was it the impetus for this story, or did it emerge as you worked with other aspects of the piece?

Sophia Terazawa: There’s a hummingbird, to my left, outside my window. I wish you could see her. The eyes, obsidian, looking into mine. But now, I’ll start from where I live.

Recently, I just moved into a small, one-room casita in the middle of a desert in Tucson, Arizona. It’s really lonely out here, near the mountains. In the north, out of my window, I see tall saguaros poking at the sky. Beyond that, a hawk dives into a cluster of greasewood. I like the loneliness out here, in my Little Abbey facing the north. The isolation helps me think.

The hummingbird, which hovers outside my window, barely touches the glass with her beak. I hear the gentle tapping, and then another — taptaptap — as the hummingbird hovers to her left and then a sharp right, darting to another spot on glass. I look down at my hands. My hands are brown. They rest upon the keyboard, typing out this answer to you, as I speak aloud, again, to myself, not daring to stop or revise anything I’ve just now written.

Perhaps the hummingbird is gazing at a reflection of herself: all wings and face; a furious, galloping wind of heartbeat. I think of my own writing in this way: a wall of glass, behind it, a tiny heart bursting at the loom.

Does the hummingbird ever see me — lying on my back, like this, with my laptop open to a new document and a tiny Panda named Panda, propped up on his pillow, just now stirring awake — does it matter if the hummingbird ever sees us, on the other side of glass? I don’t know. My storytelling process, I guess, comes out like this: a continuation of threads, dizzyingly turquoise, green, and red; the single image which darts back and forth like a hand to the needle, or bones, the beating chest bones of a bird suspended in air.

In simple terms, the relationship between my narrator and the mother, in my prose, is a matter of texture and movement. How can I portray the truth, my mother’s truth, like a bird flying through mountains. It’s a reflection of time, after all. Will the mountain open? None of this makes sense, but I have to write it. New paragraph —

Before drafting “Daughter’s Guide to Lavender,” what I affectionately called an “essay” for my mentors and friends, and for you, Mary, The Offing, I first started with a photograph of my mother, specifically, a younger version of my mother who posed for a photograph at a refugee camp. We have the photograph in a family album today. I try to look at it whenever I come home to my mother, in California.

How can I depict the story of a photograph when all I’ve ever learned about that moment was the silence in my mother’s face? How could I read her face? How can I read it now? She’s hungry, in the photograph. I can tell. Beyond that, her eyes are like that of the hummingbird: dark, obsidian.

In my imagination, my mother stands for another photograph. We’re in Dallas, Texas, the place of my birth, allegedly. My mother sets up a new sewing machine at the table in our kitchen. She sits down. The table is brown. My father goes outside. He’s Japanese. He takes a photograph of a bird sitting in a tree. Click —

In my mind, the table shakes, collapses, and then turns into a boat. Just like the hummingbird, I have a hard time perceiving a proper order of events, one image simply leading to another in clear, logical steps. Perhaps this explains a nature of our exile, rather, writing in spite of exile: first, we were here; then we were there. What happened in between is a matter of fiction.

I want to also get my mother’s stories right. I want to set them into a place that, at the same time, doesn’t hold her down. My mother once said that her stories, her memories, are both true and false, but new for her as they are for me, the receiver, just like waking up from a dream in which one has seen herself reborn. “It all happened on a boat,” she once said to me at the kitchen table, in the past tense. I assume that she wanted to say, instead, “And you, my daughter, are charged with the task of forgetting it all.”

My words repeat like this, into a blip of furious wings. Language has been knotted, for me, like a stone at the bottom of a lake. I have to be delicate when picking up this stone. It makes a web. The action, a fall.

The stone becomes many: first, in the English language, and then into everything else I cannot say in my mother’s tongue. When I write these words stones down, as words of language, it feels as though I’m writing backwards, like a spider unraveling her web. The stones are too heavy, of course, for the web, for the mouth of a web, like a cave opening to time. But I try anyway.

MP: I’d love to talk about the multimedia aspects of this story — you incorporate not only photographs, but video and spatial art, as well as citations from academic monographs. Could you speak about the connections that exist between these forms, both in this piece but also as you understand it more broadly? I’m especially curious because I know you yourself are an artist that works across genre and medium.

ST: When I turn to prose, I have to find a year to anchor my text. That’s the simple explanation of how my stories often find themselves inside a form, around a form. It all meets in the middle of time. For instance, I like to know when people were born and when they died, and how. Their documents, in life or death, tend to come after this, in my writing process. Trần Anh Hùng, for instance, is the Vietnamese filmmaker I reference in “Daughter’s Guide to Lavender.” He was born in 1962. He’s still alive today, as I write this now. Yes, I want to meet him — and his wife, the actress Trần Nữ Yên Khê, who stars in most of his films. She was born in Vietnam, 1968. I adore her, too. I adore them both, the way they work, in time, to make films about their people, my mother’s people, moving in scenes of grace and tenderness, depicting daily, gentle lives despite the war.

For Vietnam, in writing about Vietnam, I find that photographs and other forms of spatial art, outside a centralized Vietnamese identity (read: Western gaze, centering — inside and around — the forms of war) tends to flatten the Vietnamese experience. In other words, trauma and personhood are centered in the four lines of a frame. The image happened in time, be it a refugee posing at the camp, a bomb upon impact and the silence after. The audience reflects. The photographer, refugee, and descendants, even the roots of a mango tree, fade into the margins. I want to do something else, to go back into that reflection of time rooting itself in silence; to make sense of a life, still lived today, through texture. I want to make a new end out of the colors, space, and smells. I want to live, in simple terms.

My mother often scolds me today, “Why does my daughter always have to write about the war?” She never addresses me by name or the second-person you, directly when launching this accusation, as she does with most accusations around my writing. Perhaps it means I’m guilty of not truly being right by her story, as her daughter, of flattening a mother’s experience to the experience of war, land, and death, despite all of my intentions otherwise. I’m Western, after all. And she’s Vietnamese. We can’t be both. Therefore, we can never truly meet, except, I hope to think, inside the story, in my writing.

Perhaps, on the other hand, I’m trying to break through glass, always facing north; to work across a genre that renders text with video and scholarly artifacts, alike, into a space that lets the hummingbird come in.

MP: In addition to incorporating other forms into the piece, you also evoke aspects of the documentary, both explicitly and implicitly (I’m thinking of your mention of David Duncan, the photojournalist, but also in the framing of the piece as a kind of interview with the narrator’s mother). In the same vein as the last question, where do you see the connections between documentary forms of representation and fiction? Where do you see those two modes of representation diverge? What can each of them do that the other has less facility to accomplish?

ST: Oh, I love this question! It’s like another interview, post-interview, the mirror turning in on itself, an inverse of the camera’s shutter clicking. Whatever image that makes out of time, if possible, is another conversation, behind glass. Do you sense it? I smile.

You ask about “the connections between documentary forms of representation and fiction.” I misread the last word as friction, not fiction, and hope to answer the question as such. The friction, which lies between documentary and timing in my stories, move like two plates of earth. This friction tells the same event twice, but in different frequencies, over a period of forgetting and then remembering. This creates for me, quite literally, a seismic shift in memory, and how I’m able to render these memories, collectively, with my mother and maybe other descendants like me. The process of remembering becomes both personal and impersonal, in the space of fiction. In other words, my reality is most true when defined by the documents I’m given. I trust you to believe, as a reader and maybe a writer, too, that we have to fill in what’s missing from the artifacts: a girl in a field, a girl on a boat, a girl in the sky. None of this is documented, until my mother gives me another image.

MP: Your panda appears in this story as a character and I know you’ve been traveling with him this summer. Could you tell us more about him and his role in your writing?

ST: Panda jumps to attention. He waddles to my shoulder, hops down to my chest, stomach, and finally down to my computer. He presses the space bar on my computer exactly ten times with his foot — and stops to stares up at the screen before turning, finally, to stare back at me. His eyes are misty with tears. He’s grateful and overwhelmed. Suddenly, the tiny Panda grunts like a little piglet and scratches at his butt. “Itchy,” he whispers.

First, I have to say that Panda has saved my life, many, many times over these past few years on Earth. For instance, when I arrived here from Saturn in 1589, Panda first met me in a rice field. From there, he guided me to the temple chamber of my heart. I won’t say much else about this now, except, there the tiny Panda taught me how to be human: to eat and clothe myself; to fall in love and be rejected, among other things. There, in the tiny temple chamber of my heart, he also showed me how to be brave as a being of war, for example: to check-in with time; to remember mortal ways of air and light; and, above all, to count my lucky stars. I have five. We won’t say more.

In our writing, Panda and I always share a driving force, which is that of love and justice. The two can never be separated, in our minds, and perhaps this moves at the core of my work: justice in the face of time taking away my ability to subjectively human, in human time. In other words, how does exile after genocide — in the astronomic breath of time it takes to forget that I am, and have always been, a murdered body, a body of a mother without homes, the body of a home bombed to pieces — how do I, as a writer, continue to insist upon learning the ways to love, wholly and gently, my killers? How do I write about that love across a great and shattered distance between us, me and my mother? Cue Céline Dion, “My Heart Will Go On” —

Saturn is much too far from me by now; Vietnam, even farther. But I have to hope for a quiet return in the future that feels warm and just, as well, a tiny Panda always by my side, for I am Lua, wife of plague.

MP: This story is at once a kind of excavation of a history of borders and refugees from Vietnam and an indictment of present-day border practices and refugee treatment along the US-Mexico border. What drew you to meditate on these myriad manifestations of borders? How do you understand the intertwining of that history and this present moment?

ST: I also have to say that most people on Earth are kind to Panda. I’m deeply grateful for this. Maybe it also says something about the nature of his heart. Furthermore, I’ve been debating lately with myself, and some other stuffed animals in my house, about the possibility of submitting manuscripts of work under the name of Panda. This could help bring out the recognition he truly deserves, to allow him a space to meet new writers and readers, to have conversations around the world, and to get funding, of course. Unfortunately, Panda is very shy. So I write most things under my name, not his.

We travelled recently to the southern border as part of a Field Studies program at my university in Arizona. I wrote a blog post about it here. My tiny Panda observed and commented on the wall. I remember that very distinctly. He refused to cry.

We visited, also, a migrant shelter in Nogales, among other spaces of rupture, healing, and waiting. To go back to your question, perhaps what manifests in my writing about the borders of history, comes out in the work of witnessing and documenting. I cannot do it alone. That’s why I have Panda. I also think about the words of scholar Vijay Prashad in his book, The Darker Nations, “The Third World was not a place. It was a project.” And, from what I’ve seen so far on this Earth, the new world, in the colonial imagination has always been a project of displacement through border-making and re-making. The landing strips, for example, which were used in Vietnam for the U.S. Air Force, are now being repurposed at the U.S.-Mexico border; steel and wire, mounting the sky, for the same purpose of two wars: to terrify the people who look upon it, and to keep hope out. I have to write about this. A hummingbird flies into a mountain. We have to dream.

MP: You were recently in Slovenia for a residency and you did some performances there — beyond the scope of just this story, I’d love to hear about your writing and artistic life more broadly. Do you find yourself drawn to the same themes and ideas across your work or do different forms invite the interrogation of different material?

Mary, I have to also tell you about my dreams a little more. A few nights ago, I dreamt of a coin pouch. A few nights later, I dreamt of boarding a train from an island, my mother island, to Kyoto, Japan. I didn’t have time to pay for a ticket and was worried I’d be caught. Last night I dreamt of another river, crossing through an ocean.

In Slovenia this summer, I had the reoccurring dream of falling in love with Eros, and time. Time took, again, the shape of water. I have to explain how this goes into my work. During a performance in Ljubljana (I’ll include a photo below), I felt the flow of water, the same water of justice across an ocean, in my body. The audience walked around me in a circle. I requested this, which created a powerful but tender rhythm for my poetry. Thinking about it now, perhaps my poetry, or the performance of it, came directly out of a people’s movement, and not the other way around. My material and written text, therefore, can no longer live on the page alone. I have to speak it. And live, as fully as I can, through voice, the blinking of poetry on the floor of pink light.

A woman lying on the floor illuminated by magenta lights

Let me go back to the hummingbird now. She’s gone, of course. But I want to close this cycle of an interview out, with you. Can you breathe, Mary, just for a moment, like you’re on top of a mountain? Reader, can you breathe with us? Tell me how this feels.

Daughter's Guide to Lavender

Ask about the truth. Then ask, again, about the romance. Know that one might cancel out the other. Do not ask any more questions. Count backwards, three to one. Desire more.