Ariel Chu | Your Heart, Among Other Things
an excerpt & interview
from annalise’s turtle
"Have you ever seen a soft-shelled turtle?" she asked.
"What?" Lydia looked genuinely surprised. "Why?"
"Come to the sink," Annalise said. A ripple of glee ran through her. The last time she felt this way about Lydia, she'd been mildly drunk in a frat house. She'd been hyperaware of crafting an incoherent text to her, wondering how much shock she could elicit.
Lydia approached the sink. "Oh God!" she gasped, jumping back.
"I got it at a supermarket in Chinatown,” Annalise said. “You know, the grungy ones with the tanks full of frogs. I've always wondered who actually buys these things."
"Apparently you do!" Lydia gave a half-laugh, standing on her toes to peer at Toby. "What, so it's just gonna live in your sink forever?"
"No," Annalise said in delight. "It's for dinner."
The color drained out of Lydia's face in a way that Annalise found incredibly pleasing. She brought a large pot over to the sink and began to fill it with water. The sound made Toby retract his head. "Good," she found herself saying out loud. "Now he won't try to bite me when I pick him up. Did you know that these turtles can take your finger off?"
"I had no idea. That's interesting," Lydia said. "You know, this really seems like too much trouble. I'm fine with rice and whatever else, honestly."
"I insist," Annalise said. "I've wanted to try this for ages. I hear it's delicious."
She put the pot on to boil. She could almost feel Lydia tensing behind her. "So tell me more about Jared,” Annalise said. “Are you guys together?"
"We've been together for a while, actually," Lydia said. The question seemed to dispel some of her uncertainty about dinner. "Anyways, I think he's going to pop the question soon. Ex-ci-ting."
Annalise's laugh sounded harsher than she intended. "'Ex-ci-ting,' she mimicked. "What's gotten into you? I thought I was supposed to be the romantic."
"Oh?" Lydia said. She seemed genuinely interested, which made Annalise feel strangely guilty. "Anyone in your life?"
"No. Too busy.” She glanced at the pot, arms crossed. She wondered if Lydia remembered the poetry they used to write together, those afternoons spent lounging in their English classroom after school—Lydia chattering to Mr. McDonald about Truman Capote, Annalise drawing on the white board to make it seem like she wasn't listening. It was pathetic in retrospect. She had been pathetic. One evening she'd rediscovered the wire-frame glasses she used to wear in high school. It was only after trying them on again that she realized how ugly she’d been.
Lydia drummed her knuckles on the countertop. "I've actually been thinking about you a lot," she said. "Don't know why. But even before we bumped into each other, I was wondering ‘Oh, how’s Annie doing?’”
“Really?” Annalise asked, and loathed how earnest she sounded.
“Yeah. I wondered if you were making any films, if you had any books out. Silly things."
"Oh," Annalise said. She suddenly regretted not having cleaned her apartment. Lydia’s presence threw every stain in her kitchen into relief, and she wanted to turn off the stove, confess that she hadn’t been serious about the invitation. She wondered why she’d wanted Lydia to visit in the first place.
Your characters struggle with their public lives being pitted against their inner ones. How has writing and developing these stories helped you navigate that struggle?
I think fiction is so useful because it reflects my personas back to me. I've told many friends that my characters are thinly-veiled versions of me, only to be met with confused looks. The person they think I am isn't always the person that comes across on the page. Even when I think I'm being "honest" and "vulnerable" in my writing, there will always be a split between my inner self and the person I am to others.
In general, I'm obsessed with the relationship between authenticity and performativity. In the past, it was sad to me that I couldn't reconcile my "true" self with my outer life. These stories were partially borne out of that anxiety and grief, the fear that people can never really get each other. Since writing these pieces, I've come to accept how interesting it is that people constantly talk past, misinterpret, and project personas onto their loved ones. On top of that, it's fascinating that people construct narratives about their "authentic selves" and protect them so ardently.
I love fiction precisely because there's no pretense—of course these characters are constructed, and of course authenticity is a moot point. Yet, we still empathize with our favorite characters; we see ourselves reflected in them; we learn from and love them. Things don’t have to be true in order to be real. By that token, maybe it’s less important to “know” people completely, and more important to honor the myriad ways they’ll remain unknown, ineffable, and incredibly complex to us.
The characters of Your Heart, Among Other Things are rendered with such care and humanity, especially the women. What’s your process for developing your characters and ensuring they’re multi-dimensional?
Most of my characters are formed after I take stock of an emotional reaction, then envision a future when I follow these feelings to their logical (and often unhealthy) ends. Annalise, from "Annalise's Turtle," is who I imagine myself to be if I hadn't dealt with a high school inferiority complex. "Ad Astra" imagines a future where I never questioned compulsive heterosexuality. "Terminal" was written after I had an argument with someone close to me, then concocted the unhealthiest possible version of our relationship. I wouldn't go so far as to say that my characters are literal versions of me, but they all originated from authentic emotional experiences.
While writing these stories, it was also important for me to consider the dissonance between how people see themselves and how other people see them. There's only so much complexity you can write into a character who never interacts with others. Throw in a host of other characters—each with their competing "readings" of a person—and you see how protagonists can chafe against certain narratives, embrace others, or remain blind to how others perceive them. I'm fascinated by how many versions of myself exist in response to different people, and I'm interested in exploring this in my characters as well.
There is a thread within the chapbook of things unsaid and how people talk past one another, especially in “Ad Astra” and “Good Night.” Do you find silence to be liberating, protective, or something else, and how?
Silence is often viewed as disempowering, and I agree—so much violence arises from the suppression of marginalized voices. At the same time, there's also a power in making yourself illegible, especially to those who seek to commodify or exploit your experience. I'm interested in how people navigate silence for themselves: are they resigned to it? Or do they wield it as an agentive tool? I do believe silence can be empowering, but only if you choose it for yourself.
In my stories, my characters tend to think that they're protecting themselves—or even honoring themselves—by remaining silent. Yet, they consistently view themselves as victims of circumstance, and don't consider that they could change their surroundings by speaking up. It's a difficult line to walk; in my personal life, I've had to wield silence pragmatically in order to survive. But when you're among friends, among family members, among those you claim to love, what stops you from speaking? What keeps you silent? Even among those they "trust," my characters find themselves unable to articulate their needs and desires. At that point, silence might become less about self-protection, and more about self-denial.
Putting together a collection can be so daunting. How did you go about organizing these stories? Do you see them as individual pieces or stories that are linked together to create an overall narrative?
While working on these stories, I was interested in the idea of internalized resentment and how far people go to protect their inner lives. Aside from those shared themes, I didn't actively seek to link these pieces together. It was my college thesis advisor, Jim Shepard, who told me to find the overall emotional arc of this collection. How do my characters' responses differ from story to story? Do these responses form any kind of trajectory?
After some thought, I decided to organize these stories along a continuum of increasing self-disclosure. In "Annalise's Turtle," the protagonist never vocalizes her rage, but displaces it in an act of extreme, unconscious violence. In "Good Night" and "Ad Astra," the main characters are aware of their internalized anger, but actively choose to stay silent or cope poorly. The collection ends on "Terminal," where the protagonist actually expresses herself—only to be dismissed by her mother, who’d modeled so much self-denial and emotional withdrawal in the first place.
While this arc might seem a little grim, I did think it was important for the collection to end on an act of self-revelation. As futile as our acts of communication might be, there's a power to finally admitting who we think we are out loud. In any case, I'd like to think that the ending of this collection is optimistic. Maybe in finally confronting who we think we are, we give ourselves an opportunity to define ourselves anew.
Ariel Chu is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Syracuse University and an Editor-in-Chief of Salt Hill Journal. The winner of the Fall 2018 Masters Review Flash Fiction Contest, she was also a finalist in the 2018 Black Warrior Review and Sonora Review Flash Fiction Contests. Ariel's writing can also be found in Nat. Brut, Wildness, and Stirring: A Literary Collection, among others. Visit her at ariel-chu.com.