Interview with Tara Isabel Zambrano

Steven John, Fiction & Features Editor, interviews Tara Isabel Zambrano about her three Flash Fictions in Best Microfiction 2019, edited by Meg Pokrass and Gary Fincke. Final selections by Dan Chaon. Published by Pelekinesis

SJ: You moved with your family from India to the US at a young age. To what extent do your recollections of life in India, and your Indian heritage, influence your writing?

TIZ: I started writing when I was about nine years old. My earlier poems were in Hindi with a touch of Urdu. I was writing about death and heartbreak both of which were alien to me at that young age, but I was influenced by their finality, their damage and repair most of which came from my upbringing in such a rich, diverse culture. Over time, my language of expression changed but the influence of my recollections, my heritage stayed constant and visible.

SJ: When you’re not writing you’re an electrical engineer designing semi-conductor chips. Which came first in your life – your love of the written word or science, and how do the two disciplines complement each other?

TIZ: I believe, the first and foremost was the love of reaching out, to connect. In the beginning, the ambition was to become a doctor, help the suffering and when that did not work out, I dipped myself in technology, finding magic with flickering LEDs in the lab, multicolour simulation on my monitors to bring a different kind of joy in people’s lives. Science is universal in its appeal and so is good writing. One is based on emotions, feelings, experiences and the other is based on experiments and facts. Both are fuelled by the desire to know why we are here.

SJ: In ‘Feeding Time’ you tell a story of a family of sparrows in the corner of a living room. Where do your ideas for stories come from?

TIZ: A lot of my story ideas emerge from a single snapshot, a moment from past. In this story, I used my childhood image of my home in India where sparrows would build nests in the corners of our bedrooms/living rooms, where they’d come rushing in to feed their young ones and sometimes would be killed by the blades of a moving fan. I recall so many summer and monsoon afternoons, profusely sweating, eating our lunch, keeping the fan switched off.

SJ: In the unsettling story ‘ New Old’ there’s a surreal marriage of Indian cooking, Indian traditional dress and a grieving, cross-dressing father. How does the short form work for these dream landscapes?

TIZ: The short form works well because it leaves the reader with wanting yet providing all the essential details. It’s a delicate balance to start something as huge as grief, death, illness and converge it in a few words. When I start a story, I have an outline, I also have an end in mind, but in the course of writing it, something else emerges, usually more powerful, more human, stranger. And I count on that magic every time.

SJ: ‘Snowstorm’ is a story of those ‘nothing’ days when we barely get out of bed and yet you pack in life stories of the two single characters and them as a couple. Could you give us some insight into how you wrote this remarkable cameo?

TIZ: I have always wanted to write stories about people living inside their homes, tucked against each other during a natural disaster/event like a flood or a snowstorm or at other times like a curfew when they run out of doing things that they normally do and have to face their innermost thoughts and fears against the backdrop of the people they are connected to. Growing up in India, I had to spend a lot of evenings without power. Often there wasn’t much to do except sit in dark and talk until the words ran out. Those times made me realize the power of our minds, the fears that we were able to suppress everyday and tell ourselves that everything is fine.

SJ: The ending lines in all three of your microfictions are so well judged. In flash, what should we aim to achieve with our closing sentences?

TIZ: A convergence, a node that may not be an end point but a beginning of something else or even continuation. A clean pause. In my opinion a flash should claim a reader’s mind by reiterating our vulnerability, our compassion, our imperfections, our interconnectedness.

SJ: How do you know when a story is ready to submit?

TIZ: I read and reread it. I keep editing it until it sends down a shiver down my spine, until it feels it accomplished more than I set out to do. Until it seems unsettling, and I feel I should set it free.

SJ: If you could choose a weekend retreat, one-to-one writing tuition with any writer past or present, where would it be and who with?

TIZ: Undoubtedly, Gabo.

SJ: What are your personal career ambitions for your writing over the next ten years?

TIZ: Read more, listen more. Applaud other writers and their achievements. Write better stories even if they are fewer.

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Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer. Her work has been published in Tin House OnlineThe Southampton ReviewSliceTriquarterlyYemasseePassages North and others. She is Assistant Flash Fiction Editor at Newfound.org. Tara moved from India to the United States two decades ago and holds an instrument rating for single engine aircraft. She lives in Texas.