Archive for June, 2012

Literature and taboo have always had a close relationship, so much so that it can be hard to tell at times if taboo is created by literature or if literature creates taboos. For a closer perspective on the conflict of taboo and writing, I interviewed an award-winning flash fiction writer: Randall Brown. For those unfamiliar with flash fiction, it is a genre of writing which centers around brevity (most flash pieces are often somewhere between 50 to 1,000 words.)

Randall Brown is author of Mad to Live (Flume Press 2008). In 2011, a deluxe edition was published by PS Books.  Brown is also the founder and editor of Matter Press. His work can be found in various journals. For more on everything flash fiction, go to Brown’s website: flashfiction.net.

How do taboo subjects influence your writing?
I had to check my online OED to make sure I understood “taboo.” The meaning seemed to switch from its past meaning (those things “cut off” from the mass of people and thus restricted only  to the use of a god/priest)  to my semi-understanding of taboo: a subject considered by social custom to be offensive and best avoided. I think I have no problem writing “made up” things that touch upon some taboo subjects, but there are my own personal taboo subjects, too. These probably stop me from writing certain stories. Just as relationships have things that are considered to be banned from conversation, I think the relationship I have with my own “writing self” has certain things that, if I write toward them, end up being unwritten and put in a drawer somewhere. I do think that partially what makes these things taboo for me is that sense that they are best avoided, that they contain danger, that they are best kept hidden. When we stop running from the “monstrous” thing and turn around to face it,  we often get a sense of relief and acceptance in that moment. It reminds me of when Scout finally sees Boo Radley as her guardian angel and her own prejudice as the monster in the story. In other words, it was her making him “taboo” that was the evil in the story, not Boo himself. I hope that makes some sense.
When you are writing a flash fiction piece (or any other piece), do you make a conscious effort to write around a taboo subject, or do you write to break down the constrictions of taboo?
I’d have to say probably neither. I think I write to figure out what I have to say about a particular thing and see if I discover anything surprising or insightful. I think certain writerly rules might act as taboo subjects at times, as might all those other stories that have been written before mine. I think when I purposely set down to “break down the constrictions of taboo,” I’d end up writing something for its “shock value,” its willingness to boldly go where others fear to tread. I think the truth is what scares me, not a subject’s relationship to the social custom. If truth could be found in a guy having sex with the eye sockets of his dead mother’s skull, I might go there. But it wouldn’t be to break down the constrictions of taboo. It would be to find something there, something no one else could, something recognizable. So maybe that is breaking down the constrictions of taboo. Hmmm…I think I’ve thoroughly confused myself at this point.
When you are reading submissions for a journal, do you turn down pieces that seem too controversial?
I think there has to be a point to “going there” beyond “look at where I went!” I’d say many of them have that “Look at where I went” feel to them and seem to want, from the reader/editor, this response: “Wow! You went there? That’s a gutsy thing to do.” I don’t know if just going there is gutsy or not. I think going there, staying there, and finding something beyond the controversy and the shock is gutsier.
Are there any subject matters that you don’t write about because you consider them taboo, or were there any in the past?  
I don’t think I ever didn’t write a story because I thought that the subject matter was perhaps too offensive. But I’m sure there are many stories that don’t reach my conscious awareness of them because I consider them taboo. I think that “block” probably has less to do with “social custom” and more to do with some interior spaces I rather not explore.
Have you ever encountered prejudice towards the genre of flash fiction, so much so that the genre was almost considered taboo?  If so, what were some of the reasons others considered it taboo, and what would you say in response to such a label?
A small thing, such as a flash fiction piece, can oftentimes be perceived as a diminished thing. It is, I’ve been told, not the thing to build a writing career upon, these very tiny things that anyone can write and take very little time to complete. If the very act of writing flash cuts me off from the real writers, I think I’m okay with that. I find it a bit motivating to make diminished things matter.
In your writing, do you attempt to create/perpetuate taboos or destroy them?
I’m sure I do both. I’m always surprised when a writer from one of my workshops tells me the stupid “taboo” I created for him or her by saying “never do this.” I do think engaging a reader with new, fresh stories and subject matter is important, so a willingness to go beyond the confines of social custom might not be a terrible thing for a writer to do. I’d say I’m not destroying many taboos in my writing. Such things can feel gimmicky to me, but I’m sure that’s my own defense mechanism that arises to save me from writing that great skull fucking flash piece and instead write about that checkout line at the ACME that clearly states exactly how many items one is supposed to bring to the cashier.