On Monday, we published the third place finalist in our 2022 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, “The Distant Daughter” by Brenda Salinas Baker, selected by Chelsea Bieker! First, read this terrific tale, and then dive into our interview with the winner, published below!
Chelsea Bieker describes “The Distant Daughter” as “a novel packed into a short story.” It’s at least relatively uncommon for a short story to cover this much ground, but it works so well in this piece, with (just about) each section centered around a different birthday. Was this a structure that you set out to use, or did it emerge through the writing?
I’ve always been drawn to myths—the stories cultures elevate to communicate values. Because the feminine is often missing from these narratives, I’m fascinated by female voices who willfully participate in their own myth-making: St. Joan of Arc, Antigone, Taylor Swift. We all make our own myths when we curate a social media feed or tell a story about ourselves. It wasn’t until graduate school, when I read Amber Spark’s And I Do Not Forgive You, that I gave myself permission to inject myself into existing myths and create my own. Across cultures, myths have some similar narrative properties. They feel huge. They are told from a point of clarity and confidence, have sweeping timelines and feature distinctive characters with strong stakes. As women, our lives are inherently epic. Acknowledging the strength it takes for us to move through a hostile world and bear children is a raw declaration of our power. I don’t believe a character has to go through something exceptional to be worthy of a myth. Our ordinary lives are extraordinary enough.
The protagonist in “The Distant Daughter,” is an ensemble character in another story, “Our Beauty, Our Virtue” my interpretation of the Tower of Babel. My thesis advisor, Lee Clay Johnson, encouraged me to explore Vera further. This was near my birthday, a time rife with self-reflection—a copiously-documented modern life. I wanted to examine the tension between these literal, external snapshots, and internalized, bodily memory. We are the only ones who know how the person in the picture really feels. This dissonance is a loneliness we can’t communicate to each other, except, of course, through fiction. I found that cataloging Vera’s birthdays like photos in an album, efficiently brought about Vera’s essential fierceness and the societal pressures suffocating her, her attempts to modulate herself, and limitations of these contortions. The structure rooted the story, giving bloom to its wildness.
This is a two-parter: “The Distant Daughter” is in that same family of stories as the old parable of the prodigal son. The relationship between Camilla and Vera is complicated, strained, but there’s love at the center of it, even if they struggle to find ways of expressing it. Do you often find yourself exploring family dynamics in your work? And what led you to the prodigal son, or daughter, in this case?
My collection, Dearly Domesticated, uses gothic tropes to explore modern-day femininity. In the Prodigal Son, there is a great relief when the father recognizes his son through the rags and grime. Gothic literature subverts the Prodigal Son: the family member returns a stranger. Mariana Enriquez plays with this idea, as does Karla Cornejo Villavicencio in her essay collection, The Undocumented Americans. Of course, this story is usually told from the point of view of the unchanged observer, which is not the case in “The Distant Daughter.”
The trope is haunting on several levels. It first forces us to acknowledge that we can, and will, experience traumas that alter us at our core. What then is our core? Do we really ever have one? The trope also reminds us that our loved ones are inherently unknowable. No matter how closely we hold them, parts of them are inaccessible to us. What we thought was our own love reveals itself to be a desire for control, for the sake of self-protection.
Mothers are the first enforcers of patriarchy. They train us—through shame and praise, guilt and intermittent affection—until our internal voices parrot theirs. This violence is an act of love. Mothers know what happens to daughters who fail to conform to gender expectations. This is why Camilla is able to have a loving relationship with her granddaughter—she is not responsible for her taming. Camila perceives none of her own culpability. In her mind, she should have been tougher on her daughter. As Vera becomes a mother, she begins to understand this; her anger becomes less targeted and more paralyzing.
The stories in this collection all started with questions that haunt me. The seed of “The Distant Daughter” is: what is worse? Accepting I’m not the daughter my mother raised, or realizing that I am exactly her? Examining my adult life, I can convincingly argue either position, and this exercise leaves me wondering, like Vera, what I really am.
One of the things I love about this story is how it resists being pinned to a specific time and place. There are echoes of a feudal or monarchical society juxtaposed with a fast-food-burger-joint playplace, witches and high priests and teenaged girls who “practice fellating phallic vegetables.” Was it hard to find a balance between recognizable, modern places and activities among the more historical landscape?
Is the world less real when seen through a kaleidoscope? My memories and observations are refracted, recolored and bejeweled. My world is infused with the stories I read, and those I tell myself. As a Latin-American writer, I have a tenuous relationship to reality and time. This is part of what drew me to the profession of journalism, a steadying method for proving as a way of conjuring truth.
I’ve always had very vivid dreams. I have distinctive memories of things that never happened and detailed maps of places that don’t exist. If an experience is not documented in my diary, I assume it didn’t happen. My imagination is constantly swirling, layering on top of what I see and hear. I walk around wondering, “What if this were actually that?” Sometimes I will return to a familiar book and realize that the story is very different than what I remembered. I inadvertently superimposed my own voice on top of it. As a teenager, I hated the ending of The Sun Also Rises, so I wrote my own. The ending I devised is so vivid to me, I have a hard time recalling Hemingway’s.
I try to remain an innate sense of wonder. When we are children, fast-food is just as magical as mermaids. Growing up in a devout Catholic household was tantalizingly confusing. What is the difference between angels and magic? Both are pure potentiality. Realism can minimize our stories, both deliberately and inadvertently. There might be no such thing as a lion-mane carpet. The patriarchy that Vera experiences, as well as her relationships with her mother and daughter, are real. What is the difference between her father being a warlord and an executive? One more concretely explains his role in their society. Removed from our reality, we can examine the emotional fabric of a story more objectively. In defamiliarizing the setting, I want to detach the reader from their assumptions about our world. Do the systems which govern us exist while we are sleeping? When we awaken, the numbers in our bank accounts have meaning. Is this true?
Who are the writers you’ve been loving recently? Who’s been on your reading list this year?
I am taking a year-long Dickens class at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn, so that is a lot of my reading these days. I’m constantly complaining about the length of the audiobook I just opened—forty hours! I also recently finished all of Evelyn Waugh’s novels for a speculative madcap novel I’m revising, which I’m looking forward to workshopping at the Tin House Writers Conference this summer. This month, I’m attending a class where Carmen Maria Machado will be lecturing on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting at Hill House, and I’m looking forward to re-reading that. Aside from that, I was recently at the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival, where I met prose writer Brenda Lozano and poet Zel Cabrera. Their work makes me want to get up and write. As Mexican writers, we all want the world to know that Elena Garro was a better writer than her ex-husband, Octavio Paz. I also got to thank Sandra Cisneros for being first. I am hopeful that our imaginations are reshaping the world.
interviewed by Cole Meyer