NEA Literature Fellowships

Kate Small

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2002 - Prose)

from "Maximum Sunlight"

I used to imagine meeting my Dad.

"Hey l'il gal," he'd say. I'd forget I'd already gotten to America. I'd see myself meeting him at the airport, me short and dusty in an ugly plaid dress and carrying things: a fan, an oar, a fern. A television crew would film the whole thing. My father would sweep me up in his hairy pink arms and Peter Jennings would dab his eyes and shake my father's hand. I would be renamed Veronica or Debbie or Ashley, and Peter Jennings would send me money for college and buy the baby a wheel-chair. But I started looking at the pictures of GI's people leave here, field photos glued onto cardboard and wrapped in plastic. I stole one, of a boy with ragged teeth, a belt full of bullets, and a dangling button. Who had the time to hold something like a needle, to bend the eye away from the horizon, shadows in ditches, or the motion of the trees? And thread is too clean, too much like women's fingers which smell like soap and roses. He must have let the button fall away. My stolen photo-boy stared like a man, but baby-white creases showed where dirt kept the sun out of his neck. His bayonet held a souvenir skull, front teeth chipped out like a child's. He must have boiled or rubbed it clean with sand. Even though my hand would fit that face like the curve of the moon, even though I am tied to the flesh by the karma of a female birth and must repay the parents in this life, I tore up the picture.

My mother says the mundane recollection of objects of the past are obstacles to progress on the Buddhist path. But she saves things, like the deck of cards in the sleeve of a sweater beneath a bag of unstrung beads in a shoe-box behind a suitcase under the bed. The 6 of Clubs is on the top. The Queen of Diamonds has one breast propped in her own hand but no one bothered to draw fingers. The King rubs his sword. The Jacks have faces like babies. She saved these cards he played and cheated with, held in the same hands which ran over her laundry-soaped self, when self is a word he would never have recognized in Vietnamese, even if it sat feathered on her tongue, a bird not swallowed to the side of the yanking, she for him the flesh around empty.

I find a cracked plastic Avon compact inside a sock. "I hate a mirror," my mother sometimes says in Vietnamese. But in it I see what she was: a beautiful girl covered in lice, flat bellied, fragile and hard. I see the tires on the roof behind her, and behind that, a curve of workers in a field. She was a good runner.

In her sleep, she tells me there are big white-winged birds which know how to hide when choppers drown out their thick tree-top conversation. In her sleep, she wonders if the sound returns as the smoke goes down, a little like a thousand poker chips falling on a hard dirt floor.

Kate Small's work has appeared in Nimrod, The Boston Review, The Madison Review, Chelsea, Other Voices, Prism International, and the anthology Best New American Voices, edited by Tobias Wolff. She is a contributor to the forthcoming collection New Stories From the South: The Year's Best. She is this year's recipient of the Lorian Hemingway prize, and a Vogelstein Foundation grant. She recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She is currently finishing a book based on Maximum Sunlight, the story included here. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Author's Statement

"Maximum Sunlight" was inspired by three days vigil at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington DC. I watched people come and go. I became fascinated by the intimate, confrontational aspect of Maya Lin's Wall: one must go close to read its texts, and in so doing, face one's own reflection in the polished granite. The wall's visitor's are various, but published writing which explores their relationship with it, isn't. There is very little English language literature which presses us to consider the insignificant role the Indochinese have played in the American debate over that war. During two generations of involvement with Indochina, most Americans have seen Southeast Asians as people to be destroyed, pitied, rescued, and kept at bay. The story included here is part of a novel. I hope that Mira, its speaker, will put some pressure on the phenomenon of "compassion fatigue" in America.