Devi & Tara
Devi S. Laskar and Tara Isabel Zambrano talked about “Alligators” over WhatsApp.
Devi: Good morning!
Tara: Good morning
Devi: How are you, Tara?
Tara: I’m doing great, how are you?
Devi: Very well—really enjoyed your story!
Tara: Thank you so much, means a lot.
Devi: Shall we get started?
Tara: Yes, please
Devi: I read Kamil’s note after I read the story—I was fascinated that your main character was originally male.
Devi: Why were you drawn to writing a male character here?
Tara: I think that’s just how the story initiated in my mind, a male traveling through the desert, meeting a gypsy girl.
Devi: Terrific—like a dream!
Tara: Yes, and the story was quite simple at that point, there wasn’t much background about the parents.
Devi: I think the addition of the mother especially is very important.
Tara: Yes, it adds a new dimension to it. That come out after I changed the main character from male to female.
Devi: What went in to your decision to have the narrator wear her mother’s clothes?
Tara: Well—my mother is still living, but I have worn her clothes at times, and it makes me feel like her, like I am living under her skin, if that makes sense. I was thinking of a child connected to her mother in the womb, the umbilical, a part of her, all at once.
Devi: Nice image. I feel like that’s what the art is indicating too, interestingly. How did that come together?
Tara: So, after Nahal read my story, we talked about the key elements in the story and the color scheme, and a minimalist typography. The first draft was a huge success! She just captured the essence of the story, even though it wasn't what I was expecting in the beginning. It wasn’t perfect, we exchanged a lot of emails on what was working and what wasn't. Nahal took all the feedback and worked with the colors, really bringing in this wonderful texture and layers, covering her art work with this a grim sheen that was creepy and unsettling, like the story. It’s a surprise to me how she transformed the first image into the final product you see now. As an aside, Kamil, Nahal and I talked about the title, originally it was “Unspooling,” actually, but I love this one. How it curls around the story just right, snug, not letting you out?
Devi: Yes, that’s terrific! So, this story is a nightmare realized—what myth or tradition or history are you drawing on? What does the alligator symbolize in your mind?
Tara: When I was little, I used to hear stories about gypsies, the beautiful women and the witchcraft they would perform on you and so forth. I was always fascinated with the beauty and danger the stories offered.
Tara: The alligator symbolizes the darkness within all of us—in my mind.
Devi: I was very curious about the gypsy girl’s dream - how she dreamt about the alligator too. What did you want the reader to take away from her presence?
Tara: I think I was/am going for the interconnectedness we share as co-inhabitants of our world and I used darkness/alligator in the physical realm to accomplish that.
Devi: I’m always interested in juxtaposition—I thought it was direct and effective to introduce the mother’s demise so quickly. I felt that the mom and the old woman and the gypsy girl and the narrator all take up valuable real estate in the story, and I feel as though the father and the boys on the truck are less developed. What was your thinking about their limited interaction?
Tara: I think it’s predominantly because I write flash fiction on a regular basis! And I’m very aware of the word count—
Devi: Ah. Yes. Word count. 😊
Tara: So the real estate is sort of limited in my head, and I have to make a choice of what will work better (it may or may not) with that kind of limitation. But once I switched the character from male to female, the flow of the story was such that I didn’t have too much room to expand others, they were mostly observers. But it’s a great observation. I’m thinking it would be fun to write this story with that in mind!
Devi: I see! I don’t write flash regularly so I’m not as familiar with its established rules. More of an audience question, but did you have an audience in mind as you wrote this? I usually don’t—I have one friend in my mind as I write…
Tara: I have my daughter in my mind, she’s in my profile picture. She either discards my stories or accepts them.
Devi: Excellent! As a mom do you ever censor yourself? Do you ever take something out because you don’t want your child to read it?
Tara: No, I don’t censor. She’s 21 now! 😄 She knows more 😂
Devi: My children are older too — still I am always curious about parents who write. Does your child write?
Tara: Yes, she writes songs, sonnets etc.
Devi: That’s lovely. My kids write too, off and on, and I’m always amazed at what they produce—how good
Devi: Anyway, back to your story. What is the one thing you would add if you didn’t have a word count?
Tara: I think more of the dad, I’d like to show the layers in him.
Devi: Yes I agree. His comment about the hungry shadow was fascinating. Is there something you wanted to say on behalf of your story that I didn’t cover?
Tara: I think you went over it all! The thoughts behind its initial draft, the current state, its characters and so forth. So it’s pretty much covered, I think.
Devi: 👌 Actually, one question I always ask is: do you think this short story could be the start of a longer work? My debut novel started out as a short story back in 2004.
Tara: You know—it could be. But I’m a very impatient writer, so it’s hard for me to imagine something bigger. But yes, it’s possible. What did you think? You’re a far more experienced and wonderful writer, your input will help me.
Devi: I think there are five vivid characters in this piece—the narrator and her parents, the gypsy girl and the old woman she’s traveling with. I think it’s worth exploring. Great work!
Tara: Oh, thank you! 😊 I really appreciate your time and questions.
Devi: It was my pleasure! ❤️ Have a great rest of your day! 😘
Tara: You too!
Kamil: I really want to ask you stuff, haha! I feel like you took the note to switch the character's gender exceptionally well. I remember you had some trepidation actually doing it, but you ultimately...just did it, and I didn't even find out there was any trouble! My question is sort of about whether there was an actual difficulty doing that, both intellectually, and in the actual mechanics of the story to write not just about a girl who was traveling through public spaces in India, but also regarding a sexual encounter with another girl? I remember we discussed an Amparo Dávila short story (or was it two?) that your story really reminded me of: what did you end up taking away from that? The product you turned in seemed to me like it was always there, so I was sort of astounded as to how you managed to pull it out so organically!
Tara: The Amparo Dávila stories—it was Musique Concrète and Haute Cuisine, I think—opened so many possibilities for me! I found a concealed similarity between her work and mine (you mentioned the same and it's such a huge honor) and I wasn't even aware of her before you mentioned her. She just struck a chord, and that made me confident with the idea of changing the gender, weaving it into the story as seamlessly as possible. I think I went with my instinct and found there were traces in the original piece I could use, as if there was a layer waiting to be peeled. And it was wonderful discovering that about my work.
Kamil: I'm curious as to how you felt about Indian literature growing up, if you did at all, and what effect what you know both about the history and the present about “back home” (home is such a tenuous word!) had on you as a writer?
Tara: As a teenager, I found solace while listening to ghazals/classical music and writing (but never published) Hindi/semi-Urdu poetry. I read Mirza Ghalib, Amrita Pritam, Premchand, Gurudev Tagore, heard Ghulam Ali Khan Saa'b, Pandit Jasraj, Bhimsen Joshi, listened to Amjad Ali, Bismillah Khan. I never read any contemporary writers of my time, for some reason I could never grow out of the maestros mentioned above. Because of them, I was/am under a profound influence of what art should be: accessible, consumable, and soulful.
Kamil: And as a flash writer? Was that something that came about in the literary world here alone?
Tara: You are right about flash fiction, I was introduced to it later, here in America, and I found it convenient, available, efficient. As an engineer, I am attracted to it, because it makes sense to me. What needs to be said, what doesn't? A glass of juice from half-a-dozen oranges, an extract.
Kamil: I know Devi's thought about this because her book’s being released in India by Hachette India, but when and if you do publish a book, what do you think your ideas are about an audience there as compared to an audience here?
Tara: Yes, if I ever publish a book, I will write about India/South-East Indian characters, there’s no question in my mind. It’s in my DNA. I think as we turn into global citizens, my hope is to have it received more or less the same way anywhere. And the onus of making that happen is on us, and thank you for what you’re doing Kamil!
Kamil: You’re the sweetest, Tara. Thanks! So excited!