Today, we’re pleased to share this interview—conducted by assistant editor Jen Dupree—with Reena Shah, the author of our 2nd place finalist in the 2022 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. Shah’s “A Single Mark” was called “[e]xquisitely nuanced and superbly particular” by our guest judge Ye Chun. Read her story here, then check out the interview below!
I’m drawn to complicated motherhood, and both Deepa and Ruchi are facing their own kinds of complicated motherhood. How did this story develop for you?
Motherhood is complicated. Also, this story had experienced a convoluted trajectory. It started out as part of a novel-in-stories or linked story collection, which has since morphed into a novel. Earlier stories, now chapters, were from Ruchi’s point of view, so when I first started writing “A Single Mark,” the goal was to write from Deepa’s perspective. I had her voice in my head, this woman who has recently become a mother because that’s what was expected of her, but it turns out that she’s wholly unprepared for the experience. Though, to be fair, who really is prepared? The animating image of the story, the one that got me writing it, was of Deepa spoon feeding her daughter alone in a cavernous, tube-lit kitchen. I could see the blotch of daal on the floor, which, looking back, feels appropriate. Feeding a child is an intimate act of love but also a source of extreme anxiety, an example of the pressure placed on mothers.
I was really fascinated by Deepa because she does and thinks a lot of things that are, in a lot of ways, unlikeable. Her impatience, although not expressed outwardly, with Ruchi on the way home from the appointment, for example, could be read on the surface as cold, but I see it as a symptom of her own despair: “Could she not just cry, big and messy? Could she not just scream if she had to? Anything but this hesitance to make a single mark.” I’m drawn to the complexities of these characters and I’m curious to know what led you to create Deepa in this way.
I didn’t know Deepa until I started writing this story, which I guess is true of everything I write. I wish I knew more before I set out, but it hasn’t worked out that way for me so far. Though, before writing “A Single Mark” I’d spent a lot of time inside Ruchi’s head and knew how Deepa appeared to her friend, as this vibrant, magnetic woman. But unlike Ruchi, Deepa struggles to show vulnerability. She very much wants to be in control, a way to mask desires that she’s uncomfortable with and that she feels she shouldn’t have. She maintains a strict wall around her interiority and prefers to reside in her public image, a woman eager to be helpful, to offer support, but also deeply insecure and unsatisfied with her life, despite the economic status she enjoys. She buys into the idea that immigrants should be strivers insofar as she feels required to fulfill it, to at least appear to meet expectations. But the conflict between what she’s supposed to want (a second child, a McMansion, sex with her husband) and what she might truly want (independence, a home, autonomous pleasure), makes her sometimes think and do mean things.
I found the woman in Deepa’s dreams to be almost a kind of haunting, especially because she—or a version of her—appears at the end. Can you talk a little about the dreams and how they function in this story?
Yes! The dream is a kind of haunting. I wanted the image to feel sharp but the line between dream and spirit to feel vague, especially later in the story. The dreams have a sexual energy to them, though Deepa views them at first with a level of clinical detachment, like she’s a passive observer of them, though she ultimately can’t maintain the distance. I probably felt closest to Deepa while writing these dreams. It’s the closest she allows us to get.
“A Single Mark” builds tension not just with the sonogram and the results, but with the relationship between these two women. Was the competitiveness Deepa feels for Ruchi (in which she sometimes sees herself as ahead and sometimes worries she’s falling behind), always part of the story, or did it emerge as you were writing it?
I’m so glad that the tangled friendship between Ruchi and Deepa comes through as a central tension in this story. What I hope is that the experience of the ultrasound becomes another complicating factor for these two women, a relationship girded with compassion but also, as you said, competitiveness, especially for Deepa. I didn’t know that competition was going to be part of the story when I started out, but through revisions and rewrites, it came into clearer focus. To a degree, the tension between Deepa and Ruchi is exacerbated by their displacement, the physical and emotional impacts of motherhood, and a sense of being cut off from who they were before coming to America. But also, as I kept writing, their friendship became truer in that I think most deep friendships are paradoxical, that closeness results from tension and arguments and even envy as much as it does from love and compassion.
In the end, it’s Naren who witnesses Deepa’s shortcomings as a mother. It’s an interesting choice, because in some ways he and Deepa reflect one another, but he’s a largely unknown character until that scene. What made Naren feel like the right choice for this pivotal moment?
None of this was intentional at first. I think the first couple drafts didn’t have Naren appearing at all. But after a while the story felt claustrophobic. It needed another person for Deepa to push against. I don’t know if Naren was the right choice, but it feels like the most natural choice because, as you mentioned, the two characters reflect each other, even if they don’t particularly like each other. Naren is having a fearful and ambivalent response to the prospect of becoming a parent, which is pretty close to what Deepa feels. It unites them and for a few moments at least, they see each other clearly, perhaps too clearly.
To me, this story speaks to society’s value of image—that, essentially, it’s more important that everything looks beautiful than be truly “good.” How do you see this story in conversation with that idea?
I think it’s hard to be “good” because the definition keeps shifting. Who decides on the criteria for goodness, the image of goodness? Magazine covers? Economists? The 1%? It’s a set up for failure, and not that different from social media avatars today that make it seem like most people are having beautiful, well-lit, successful lives. A lot of what Deepa is struggling with is the image she thinks she needs to maintain, that her life needs to conform to an idea of goodness, one that’s connected to wealth, to have value. Otherwise, what was the point of immigration? This is a question that Deepa doesn’t want to confront, but she can’t quite shake the feeling of being unmoored. Deepa’s got “everything” but has no history in the Connecticut suburbs of the 1970s, nothing to tether herself to except memories of a girlhood with Ruchi that lies on just the other side of motherhood. Their friendship is a struggle, but its also a lifeline.
interviewed by Jen Dupree