“Consider the Shape of Your Fist” was selected by Sherrie Flick as the second-place finalist for our 2020 Flash Fiction Contest. Today, we are proud to share this interview with the author, Leah Dawdy, who discusses the inspiration for the story and importance of nature in her writing.
It is hard to write about disease well, and yet you succeed here in such a short amount of time and space. What about writing flash do you feel helped you accomplish this?
Flash has the benefit and challenge of forcing me to condense my feelings and ideas. This piece in particular has a lot of my personal history mixed in—my own polyposis and loves and losses that had huge impacts on my life. I tend to get expansive when I talk about these, which makes me lose track of their core, but I’m at my best when I force myself to stick to the heart of the story.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen American Sign Language incorporated in a story that I’ve read at Masters Review yet, so this one definitely stood out. In the same way I feel you handled the topic of disease, you brought ASL in very organically, a light yet significant touch. Did it feel challenging to translate that to the page, or does it come naturally for you? Have you done this before or often in your writing?
This is the first time I’ve featured ASL in my writing and I had so much fun working with the signs. The idea for this piece started when I took my first ASL class. I couldn’t get over the fact that a fist, which to me stood for power or aggression, could also be used for something as tender as an apology. That came first and everything else followed. The signs I chose happened to be simple enough to describe, so I guess those descriptions came naturally. More complex ideas like Uncle Sean’s advice at the end definitely would have been a descriptive challenge. ASL places a huge emphasis on your expressions and your energy as you sign, plus nearly identical signs can mean different things, which makes it difficult to get them just right on the page. Because of this, and to stay true to the heart of the story, I chose to use a hearing narrator to translate Uncle Sean’s signs at the end of the piece like traditional dialogue, which took some of the descriptive pressure away.
The moments and memories are strung along so well in “Consider the Shape of Your Fist,” like constellations—echoing the presence of stars and the Perseid meteor shower that shows up in this story. When writing this piece, did you have a handful of other moments you chose to edit out later, or is there any reason these particular ones came to mind over others?
Because of the nature of this piece as a collection of small moments, the first draft did include lots of irrelevant muck I couldn’t justify squeezing in. It was hard to narrow down the essential, but once I started cutting I saw how the remaining details built on each other.
I love the earthy, working-with-nature undertones to this piece, like “Cut [the grape shrub stick] long, just above a knot, so it grows wild again.” Is this a theme you explore in other pieces of your writing, and if so how?
It’s definitely one of those recurring themes for me, but specifically nature in this particular place. My family has gone camping here every summer since the 1930s so it’s precious to all of us. The images tied to this forest in the summertime—the flowers and Perseids in particular—appear in a huge chunk of my writing. It’s all about recapturing those places where nostalgia meets homesickness.
If you had to pick a song to go along with this piece, what would it be?
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw