How many times have I mentioned that I adore a good short story collection? I feel like I’ve raised my hand at any appropriate moment, inserted myself in any conversation I can somehow relate to a short story collected, and have volleyed on behalf of this incredible avenue for storytelling. Fiction is most delicious to me in the forms of short stories- ripe and juicy clementines, bright orange and fast.
I’ve been looking forward to this book’s release for months. I adore the cover- the font, the slightly off-kilter alignment and odd use of floral fabrics, the strange looking creatures, almost mirrors of one another. And the title intrigues me, pulls me in- it’s a sister to Neverland or some other mystical realm, a world that is far off but still accessible, still, somehow, a land. I went into this reading experience having no past reading relationship with Aububel’s work (it hurts my literary soul that I had not previously devoted myself to her writing- two novels and another short story collection?! I can’t wait)- I didn’t know what to expect, and the book’s description didn’t offer much either. I deduced that Ausbuel implemented fantastical elements into her stories, that human themes were transferred and translated onto mystical beings. And I was cautious of this because I think it’s easy to get wrong. Ausubel, however, succeeded.
A collection’s organization is always something I take notice of- why did the author choose to place this story here, and that story after or before? Why, out of the many stories they’ve written, did these few end up in the same collection? What commonalities bring them together? What makes them different enough to stand out? How do you find the balance? Awayland‘s structure is even more interesting because of Ausubel’s employment of sections. The book is divided into four sub-sections, each containing a few stories in it. From my reading experience, this is not common. Typically, the stories exist via the binds of the book, and no other structure contains them. Another writer that comes to mind who has employed this structural technique is Jhumpa Lahiri- in her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri sections her stories into two separate sections, intertwining the two via shared characters and plot lines. I was floored when I read this book- it felt as if an entirely new reality of poetic prose had made itself apparent to me. And Jenny Zhang’s Sourheart, a story collection I adore from last year, also employs some interesting structural elements, like characters from some stories showing up in the peripheral of later stories. This is an innovative, deliberate, and creative stroke of brilliance that the short story possesses over the novel- a short story collection tells a quick story, firy in its brevity, but a collection can tell multiple stories, tied together delicately with the simplest of strings.
I took diligent notes on this collection during my reading (which only took me 1.5 days- I ate it so disgustingly quick) in order to deduce a thematical definition of the sections. I think the meaning(s) are expertly obtuse while still remaining openly inviting, making the reading so deliriously powerful.
The first section of the book is titled Bay of Hungers and includes three stories: ‘You Can Find Love Now,’ ‘Fresh Water From the Sea’ and ‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species.’ The first story, ‘You Can Find Love Now,’ walks us through a Cyclops (yes, a Cyclops) creating an online dating profile for himself. The Cyclops’ presence in the story only serves to further highlight the silliness inherently wrapped up in online dating, and the ways we describe ourselves in order to find someone interested in us- an elaborate hoax, a game likened to that of fishing. As the Cyclops says: “If you want me to set a trap, I’ll set a trap. A first date picking blueberries in the whitest, cleanest sunlight, tin pails. I’ll bring sandwiches and chilled Chardonnay and tell you that we are already the good people we wanted to become.” This story is a short burst through the bleakness of loneliness, an honest look at what it means to expose yourself in just the right amount to be interesting but not frightening. But what if you, yourself, are frightening? What if that’s part of your essence? “If I came to your house, tonight, where would I find you? The living room? The kitchen? Waiting at the door? I’ll call you Aphrodite and smell the sea in your hair and shuck oysters for you from the depths. I’ll tell you that I’ve never seen a real goddess until now. Come with me and be adored, deep below the earth. While you sleep, I will strike a huge sheet of metal until the shape of your body comes into relief. You never have to take me to meet your friends, you never have to take me anywhere. You never even have to see me in the light. Your grandmother will tell you that all the good men are gone, but then here I am, and I’m ready for you.”
The second story in this first section is one of my two favorites from the collection- ‘Fresh Water from the Sea.’ From a third person omniscient point of view, a tale of a mother and daughter grappling with death comes to fruition. The two characters, never named in this story but instead referred to as ‘the mother’ and ‘the girl,’ attempt to come to terms both separately and together with the mother’s upcoming death. The girl travels from Los Angeles to Beirut where her mother is living (a city, which we find out later, was her mother’s birthplace that she was forced to evacuate but never stopped longing to return to). There seems to be no cause for her mother’s impeding death, but rather an odd phenomenon- the mother is simply shrinking, losing bits of herself, becoming mist. The girl doesn’t understand what’s happening, but she understands that she must provide support for her mother, especially since the girl’s sister does not intend to see the mother despite her upcoming death. Throughout the story, the girl longs to be closer to her mother, for the certainty and hardness of death to create a more intimate connection between her and her mother. “She wanted to ask for forgiveness or clemency. Her mother hardly knew her at all, and she suspected the reverse was also true. She had always expected some midlife understanding, a trip to India in which they wore a lot of loose white clothing, finally revealed their true selves, said all those unsayables. On one of the little paper pee cups, in the marker that was meant to be used to write your name on the sample, the girl scratched: Give us more time, please. As much as you can spare.” The girl reckons with her desire to know more of her mother and the truth that her mother’s intentional distance throughout her adult life enabled the girl to have more autonomy; “her life was an unplanted field, and everywhere she looked something waited to be sown.” As the mother continues to deteriorate, slowly becoming mist, she thinks about her past: her utter devotion to her home country, her belief that loving anything else would negatively impact her first love. She tells the girl: “‘you can love as many and as much as you want. I thought I had to save my love up, that I would run out. It turns out it’s the exact opposite.'” The story ends with some of the best fiction writing I’ve come across in recent memory. “The girl remembered hearing her mother crying in the other room as a child. She seemed to be drifting on an unknown sea. Every day, many times, the girl had tried to turn herself into an island on which her mother could land. The mother and her daughter were nothing more than strange weather. The girl asked her mother to tell her that they were both going to be all right. That they were both going to be at home wherever they were. The wanted it to be true, something the mother could know from her perch at the edge of life. Out over the sea, the sun grew hotter. The girl remembered the water cycle: evaporation, condensation, precipitation. The mother closed her eyes. She was almost invisible now. She was just the faintest color, like the rainbows thrown by a crystal in the window. The air hung against the girl’s skin, heavy. The woman was the air; the girl breathed her in. She looked around the room and could not see her mother anymore. A storm broke over the girl, thunderheads, lightning, rain and rain and rain and rain.” I want to burrow into this last sentence; in fact, when I first finished the story, I closed my copy of Awayland and cried. There’s something expert in the way Ausubel chose to exclude punctuation in the last sentence- it gives the ending an ongoing rhythm, a wake of sorts to carry on. Life, like water, flows, and eventually, dramatically, slowly, ebbs.
The final story within this first section is titled ‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species.’ It focuses on a small Minnesota town and its mayor, Tom. The town, similar to a town in Russia, struggles with low reproduction rates, and the mayor feels obligated to make a change. He uses his Russian counterparts as a model, and tries to inspire consummation across the town by offering an automobile as a prize for the couple who gives birth on a specific day. We see Martha and Jeff, a couple who utilize the day to indeed conceive. Martha, a very aware woman, contemplates the fact of motherhood: “When the baby comes, Martha knows, it will make her wonder whether anything else has ever been true. You thought all that mattered? The world will say. That old life was a set, just a painted background.” Humorously, Ausubel introduces us to another couple, known as the wrestling coach and Nathalia. The wrestling coach desperately wants to win the prize, and pressures his wife to give birth on the set date. When Martha gives birth, she is two minutes early to the specified winning date, and the wrestling coach cheers. “Martha looks at her baby, who knows nothing yet of the world waiting: corruption, bribery, teenage drivers, being flat-footed, having too little money and too much beer, doing the dishes, going out for dinner and being disappointed in the overbuild spaghetti sauce, getting up for work before light, coming home after sunset, the roses wilting on the table, the list of jobs that need doing around the house: cleaning the tiny screen on the faucet, breaking down the boxes your aunt sent and writing a thank-you note for the terrible-smelling bubble bath that was inside, scrubbing the frozen-on pink sticky in the refrigerator. This is life. It can be difficult to see the miracle in it. To her bundle, she offers an out clause: you were born, innocent and beautiful and straight from the lips of God, but if you look around and see the potholed streets, the mud puddles, the old nurses in too much makeup, and you decide you want to be an angel instead, I will understand. I will wrap you up in a soft blanket, cover you up completely and allow you to make your decision in private. If I open the blanket and you are gone, evaporated, I will forgive you for it. But if you are still there, pink and fussing, I will know that you have chosen to stay, to endure the old world. And I will try to teach you the tricks to make it easier. How to get on the bus without buying a ticket; how to pay for one movie and see three; how to fight with your father so that you always win; how to ensure maximum darkening of the skin in the sun; how to find your life’s horizon- that place just far enough in the distance to keep you moving forward but not so far as to be discouraging.” Martha embarks into motherhood, promising the bare minimum, which is the most.
In this first section exist three very different stories. Each of them hold some element of fantasy- the cyclops character in story 1, the dissolving into mist element of story 2, and the low-reproduction rate of story 3. The first story seems to focus a bit more on fantasy than the other 2; while the fantastical elements almost fade into the background of the second two stories, the cyclops stands firmly at the center of his. The Bay of Hungers, this first section, tells stories of hungry people. They are hungry for love, for companionship, for courage. But mostly, I think, they’re hungry for guidance. There are deep, hallow unknowns for the characters in this story- what does it mean to expose your flaws to another? What does it mean to watch your mother die without the time you expected to get? What does it mean to be a mother in a world you don’t quite see the light in? Despite how human these questions are, how undeniably present they are in many lives, the answer is still unknown. They pool, congeal, forming a slow-current, a Bay of Hungers.
The Cape of Persistent Hope, the second section in Awayland, holds another three stories: “Mother Land,” “Departure Lounge,” and “Remedy.” “Mother Land,” we quickly learn, is a story concerning the distant and cold sister from “Fresh Water From the Sea.” Her name is Lucy, and while her twin sister (who she deems as perfect), cares for her dying mother, Lucy travels to Africa with ‘The African,’ her white boyfriend. Lucy wrestles with the concept of foreignness throughout the story, pondering what it meant for her mother to never feel at home, for her sister to be good, for her to feel so out of place. She discovers that she is pregnant, and feels a sense of sadness at the fact that her baby may also not have a clearly defined home- she perhaps worries that her child, like her mother, will never have a ground to feel confident standing on. Throughout the story, Lucy ponders her relationship with the unnamed boyfriend, wondering how long their relationship will last, wondering when she will reveal to her family that she is pregnant. The two witness a political riot, and Lucy contemplates her upcoming murder. After not being murdered, Lucy’s true fears divulge: producing a child that feels alone. “‘All babies are foreigners. None of us knows what we’re going to get. Isn’t that the beauty?”
The second story, “Departure Lounge,” is a first-person story of a chef, one who works on the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii where a Mars training mission operates. The narrator interacts with the astronauts-in-training, the courageous people who have defined themselves willing to sacrifice life to start anew on an inhospitable place. She narrator does not feel a part of them- after her divorce, she wandered until finding this world within a world, this strange place that was far away while being close. Eventually, while working as the chef, the narrator gets back into contact with an ex-boyfriend from college, Peter, who is now gay. The two exchange intimate and quick emails, learning who the new versions of themselves are, coming together in their aloneness. Peter reveals to her that he wishes he had a baby, and the narrator hatches a plan- she leaves the base, illegal for all workers there, and descends the mountain into tourist-fluent Hawaii to meet Peter. “There were so many miraculous far-aways on this planet and yet they couldn’t find enough to keep them here.” Her and Peter end up sleeping together, which does not result in a pregnancy. Still, they keep up the charade, meeting once every few months in hotel rooms to, they tell themselves, work as tools for reproduction. The two do form a kind of connection, a bridge across the vast expanse of two lonely lives, two empty kitchen cupboards. The narrator contemplates what this strange relationship means (as if it needs to be deduced into something so transparent as a meaning); she goes walking and comes upon a group of teenagers sitting together and laughing. “I remembered being sixteen and feeling so in love with my friends that it seemed like they would be enough to sustain me for the rest of time. We wanted to be together all the time, six or eight of us, lying on someone’s floor, pointing out shapes in the puckered ceiling as if the expanse above us were as beautiful as the heavens. I knelt down in front of the teenagers and said ‘Stay as long as you can.'” Peter and the narrator decide to use a surrogate service in India where the price is discounted. As they prepare to fly to India, Peter asks the narrator to pose as his wife for his upcoming visit to his dementia-ridden grandmother, giving her a bit of peace before she dies. The narrator feels warmth at this facade, admits the warmth that she feels from Peter, a new warmth, a new far-away bubble of never-before-lived-on rock, just like Mars. “So much was possible. Here we were, on our way to a life of meaning. ‘Are you ready?'”
Next, in “Remedy” (which is probably my favorite in the entire collection), Summer and Kit, a beautifully in-love couple, grapple with the reality of death. Summer witnesses her neighbor man die falling from his roof; this spurs the story into motion, inspires Summer into paranoia, a new force in she and Kit’s small secluded world of two. She spurs conversations on with her husband, telling him that she will be the one to die before he does. “What he doesn’t understand is the relief she feels. Not knowing is worse than any answer, and Summer wants this the same way she remembers wanting other comforts: sweaters knitted by hand from the wool of rare rabbits, tiny landscape paintings with gold frames, important books she’ll never get around to reading. Before she met Kit, Summer prayed to die every day. She imagined the ghosts of her parents in a living room with leather couches and bookshelves that required ladders. She imagined that her mother would have plenty of yogurt to eat and her father wouldn’t need to bother with food at all. Except the occasional pecan pie, delivered at exactly the right moment, before he even realized he wanted it. There would be a chair for Summer there. A reclining chair, and outside, a garden. Every day with her foster family she thought of that place, wished for that place.” We learn that both Kit and Summer are orphans, alone in the world together. Summer continues to believe that she is dying, her symptoms nonexistent and the cause of death meaningless. “He disagrees with her diagnosis, with the idea that she can suddenly be dying of nothing in particular, but Kit believes Summer. That’s the whole thing of it- believing each other is what makes living feel real.” Eventually, Summer comes up with a plan, caving to her paranoia- in order to stay somewhat together after her impeding death, Summer hopes to transplant one of her hands onto Kit, and one of Kit’s hands onto her dead body. She writes to a doctor hoping he will agree to the procedure. “Kit looks at his hands. He imagines that one of them is his lady-love’s and that she is stumped. Kit feels a kink in his heart. His girl is in the shower, soaping every inch of skin. He cannot see the maze of tubes and cavities inside her body. He cannot know what is pumping right and what is pumping wrong, how each of those slippery organs is tucked against its neighbor and whether something bad is truly blooming there. Whether, even if her body is perfect, a truck will lose its brakes, tumble off the road where Summer is walking. There are storms beginning to twist in the warm oceans to the south, and make they will whip this way, tearing the houses like paper. The ferry could sink beneath them; poisoned gases could leak into the air at any time. The melted ice caps are washing toward them. They’re both dying- everyone is. The schedule of death is not made public. Love’s job is to make a safe place. Not to deny that the spiny forest exists, but to live hidden inside it, tunneled into the soft undergrass.” Oh, my favorite sentence of the collection. That spiny fucking forest- it’s there. Not even love can make it untrue. Kit adores Summer- it’s his adoration for her, his absolute wish for her not to suffer, that indices him into creating a fake email account posing as a doctor in Thailand, willing and able to do the hand transplant. He hopes that by choosing this far-away, foreign land, the truth of his lie will not be made public. He thinks that they will arrive at the supposed doctor’s office and be greeted with a non-English speaking person, a miscommunication turned into a vacation in a tropical isle for the couple. Upon arrival, Kit and Summer take different trips to meet the doctor, both telling him not to do the surgery, both feeling stupid in thinking that he might have any idea what they’re talking about. At the actual appointment, the couple laughs, realizing that instead of a hand transplant they’re getting massages. They fall asleep, and when Summer wakes up, her hand is not her own. “And finally she sees skin. She can’t tell if it’s her own because it is so swollen. Waterlogged. This hand looks twice the size of the one she used to carry around on the end of her arm. And at the wrist: a bracelet of stitches. X X X X. It is the way she would have sewn something, not knowing how to sew. Beneath, there is a clean cut. It is beautiful, the cut. The cut is absolutely perfect.” The cut- a metaphor for awareness, for a learning and growing moment independent and together. A marker of love gained and transcended.
What binds these three stories together? My first reaction is that less fantasy is implemented within these three stories; instead, Ausubel takes us to different kinds of awaylands, remote locations far away from the character’s normalcy (Africa, a Mars-like simulation, Thailand). Location is key in each story, as the characters attempt to thwart their domestic problems by vacating elsewhere. Lucy vacates to her partner’s home country, hoping to feel closer to a sense of belonging than she did in her familiar California life. The narrator in the second story runs away from her solitary bubble of astronaut trainees on a slim hope that she will create a renewed life with an unlikely partner. Both Summer and Kit travel far away to be alone together elsewhere, Summer in the hope that her idea for love transcending death will prove true, Kit in the hope that it will not. All of these characters are confronted with their problems, their loneliness, their fears, in their new awaylands, and each of them receive hope, a persistent, slow walk forward into the unknown. The Cape of Persistent Hope.
Next, in The Lonesome Flats, three stories tell different tales of solidarity. The first story, ‘Club Zeus,’ frames a first person narration around a 17 year old high school student working at an all-inclusive resort in Turkey. David, the protagonist of this story, longs to escape Orange County, where his senior year of high school and the questions of the future await him. He wants an escape, a reprieve from his predictable schooldays and his hyper-spiritual mother. Club Zeus offers that to him, but in the exotic, adventurous way he expected. Instead, he dresses up as an old, bearded man, and retells Greek myths for interested vacationers and lives with an older lady he affectionately calls Grams. Even across the world, David finds monotony and banality. One day, though, this spell of sameness is broken, when one of the vacationers drowns in the main pool. David sees the man’s lifeless body, and struggles to feel that same sense of predicatableness as before. David wanders across the grounds of Club Zeus, grief-striken and pained. He finds the dead man’s wife, an older woman who eventually begins the early stages of sex with David. Although he resists at first, David gives into temptation, admitting to the reader the glorious, wrongful appeal of her grief. Their coupling is interrupted by David’s boss, and the story ends with a retrospective David, announcing for the reader: “My mother was right: pain is an enzyme and I am softened. A year from now, when a girl asks me if I’ve ever been in love, I will lie and tell her no, but only because I will not know how to explain this night. Love, I want to say to the widow, love is an island. But when I open my mouth, the words get tangled. It begins to rain again. Emir clears his throat, trying to prompt us all to return to our separate lives. But when I lean into the widow’s hand, she holds my head up. Below us: all the world’s water.”
“High Desert,” the next story, again takes on the omniscient narrator role, telling the story of a childless mother and husbandless wife, who moved to a dry city in New Mexico to escape her traumas surrounded by water. At fifteen, the narrator’s daughter vanished in the sea, and quickly afterwards, her husband drowned himself. The story takes place much later, trailing the woman into her older age as she gets a hysterectomy due to her uterus literally beginning to fall out of her. As she’s healing from her surgery, her daughter appears, fifteen still and soaking wet from the water. The two talk as they fill the mother’s bathtub, which begins to overflow. “‘Did you ever encounter your father? He went in after you.’ ‘There are a lot of ways to take care of someone,’ the girl says. ‘He did his best.’ ‘Don’t tell me if you suffered. Don’t tell me what it was like in the water before you got used to it.’ The bath is full to the brim but no one reaches to turn it off. The woman puts her head on her daughter’s shoulder. Water begins to spill over the lip of the tub. It is warm and good. The floor is wet, the bathmat is wet, and the water keeps pouring. The mother lies back in the warm wet room and the daughter lies back in the warm wet room and they put their arms out. They grab hands and float.” Next, in a quick 2.5 page story titled ‘Heaven,’ a male protagonist describes his current living arrangements- a property that borders heaven and hell, which frequently sees sinners on their way to repentance. The man contemplates loneliness, and the concept of togetherness: “On a strange bright day, sun where there isn’t usually any, a dress catches on a branch. It is red, meant to tie around the waist and be untied by a true-lover and holding it makes the man feel suddenly very far away. He imagines pulling the dress’s woman onto the good earth, a vision, her whole self bared and holy and ready, everything unbeautiful washed away. How long it has been since he’s touched someone. The man hangs the dress as carefully as it is the woman’s shell. The arms are empty and begging, and the man comes close and wraps them around his body. They are grime-wet, and they stick to his skin. He is held on to.” These three stories exist in The Lonesome Flats, an arid, muted place that serves as some kind of purgatory; David’s life seems to take on a before and after because of a stranger’s death in ‘Club Zeus’; the mother in ‘High Desert’ ascends to a better understanding and acceptance of her lost motherhood; and the citizen in ‘Heaven’ reckons with his lonely boredom, and what his choice to choose this place out of convenience rather than love has meant.
Finally, the story collection ends with The Dream Isles, the last section of the story comprising two stories, both with elements of deeper fantasy than most of the book. In ‘The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following,’ Ausubel cleverly plays with humor to address the ironies of human entertainment; a museum boasts marketing strategies on behalf of the mummified Egyptian animals thanking the museum-goes for attending. Each of the said animals scoffs at the sign, explaining their lofty roles in the Egyptian society before being put on display in a fluorescently-lighted room. My favorite mummified voice in the story comes from ‘the eggs’: “The eggs wish to thank the idea of life, which has reassured them over the centuries that they were preserved in earnest, not simply because the priests mummified anything they could get their hands on. The eggs have been waiting for three thousand years to find out what they will hatch into. Will they become crocodiles or hens? Surely, when the egg mummies finally crack, it will be a god who has broken them…. What if, the eggs imagine, they have not yet left the shore, the tossing waves of the Nile are still ahead, and beyond them the true afterlife: kings and queens wait to receive rodents, baboons and cats, their royal arms open, welcoming home their great, delicate slaves.” Awayland finishes with ‘Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender,’ a story the begins with a sexual assault committed on a nine-year-old girl by her father, a ship captain. The daughter defends herself with a knife, which fantastically sets in motion the ship’s wreck a day later. As most of the passengers freeze in the Arctic Ocean, the captain (Halvar) and two other men, Esa and Paer, find themselves stranded on an unfamiliar shore. Paer has lost his wife to the sea, and the captain has lost his livelihood; Esa, as he admits, has lost nothing. Each of the three men come into contact with the same phenomenon: a beautiful, cold, near-death mermaid. Esa discovers her first, and decides to keep her presence a secret from the other two men- “From something that warm to something that cold. That is how Esa had always thought of love: a shock to the skin.” Paer discovers the mermaid next, and believes in spite of the evidence to the contrary that she is his drowned wife, returned to him. Finally, Halvar finds the mermaid, and misbelieves that she is his daughter, returned to him as his rightful property. He attempts to have sex with the mermaid, who cuts Halvar severely across his body with her tail. Each man reckons with what they know to be the truth- there is no way this love is probable or possible (none of them ask, interestingly, if she is reciprocating their interests, which she is not).- “Paer did not know how the next steps went, how a man turned into a fish. Yet knowing rarely made the journey easier.” The mermaid watches the men dote on her with an exasperated sigh- she has loved many and is done with that stage of her life. She lets the men take comfort in comforting her though, as she sees how forlorn and alone they are. “Esa went to his mer. He would stay all night, brush the snow off. He worried that she was cold, though he knew the deep water must be just as chilly. He said, ‘I can’t live in water and you can’t live on land, but we can stay here at the edges. I’ll build a house on stilts, over the sea with a hole in the floor and a ladder. The place where air and water meet- that’s our home together.’ Sometimes it takes a shipwreck, he thought. Sometimes it takes a tragedy. The mer washed back and forth with the waves. She looked into Esa’s puddle-brown eyes. It was good, a service, to let someone believe.” At the end of the story, all three men lie with the mermaid, all four close to freezing to death: “Esa had enough blood to love the mer but not enough to be the only one. He wanted to kiss her but Paer was already there, his beard frozen and his mouth warm. Esa was freezing, every living thing was, and the world had slowed down so much that Esa was not sure it moved at all. The water had turned to ice, stopped lapping. The air was hardly breathable. Time had quit on them. Esa lay down in the snow and put his head on the mer’s belly. Home had found him, he thought. The differences were no longer the point: warm and cold, home and away. There was only this hour to move around in, and what it contained: bodies, ice, water, earth. On the horizon, the frozen edge, green light spit across the sky. The whole endlessness split open and bled.”
It’s a haunting image- this otherwordly sunrise of green breaking into the irises of four dying creatures, each a metaphorical (and in one case literal) fish out of water. Esa has achieved something to lose, Paer has achieved an epic love again. There’s a parallel between the fluorescent light that the animals see and the green light that the stranded men see- a sort of unrelenting passing of time. The Dream Isles– a literal island full of love-sick, deranged, dying men, and an exhibition room, a fantastical home for the once-beloved animals. They’re not necessarily happy dream islands but are instead places in which the characters can achieve a dream-like peace that they perhaps do not deserve.
I had the astounding pleasure of meeting Ausubel in Los Angeles at Skylight Books tonight. She read the first story in this collection, and shared a powerful and light-heard Q&A. She talked of the difficulty in writing magical realism, her troubles in finding the ‘crack of relatable reality and human emotion’ in the absurd. She warned of the perils of knowing what your story is about and enticed writers into letting a moment create a story instead of a plot creating itself. She said that a successful story revolves around an unseeable but forceful black hole, an unavoidable gravity that a story abides by.
I asked my question- the one about structure, and the reason for implementing sections within the story collection. she mentioned that her past story collection (which I am SO thrilled I still have yet to read- like a little hidden treasure!), ‘A Guide to Being Born’ was sectioned in terms of the life cycle- birth, gestation, conception, love. She mentioned that she first introduced sections into her story collections because she was worried that the plots weren’t different enough, that she was writing the same story again and again. The organization helped her differ the stories enough while still keeping overarching and central themes (blackholes). Awayland focuses very much on place, both geographical and fantastical; the sections, Ausubel says, helped her place each story in terms of exile and the concept of home- what the definition of home meant partially depended on which geographical place (section) the stories took place in. All of them exist within the larger place of Awayland, a fantasy land both familiar and nonexistent.
I loved this book so, so much. It gave me hope and it gave me sadness. It made me laugh and it made me cry (twice). Ausubel was such a dynamic presence- look at that dress! It matches the lovely cover oh Awayland. I’m so excited for what else Ausubel’s work has to teach me.