Souvankham Thammavongsa on a Narrator from the Margins

In this week’s story, “Trash,” a young woman who works as a supermarket cashier marries one of her customers after a whirlwind romance. When did you start thinking of this scenario?

I was listening to Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car,” and started thinking about the checkout girl. And wanted to write something like that. I was also thinking of parties, and how, when you get older, the first thing people want to know about you is what you do for a living—as if that is all you are, and how judgments are made about you on the spot. And how they slowly find someone else to talk to if they think you’re not impressive.

The story is less about the husband than it is about his mother, Miss Emily. Indeed, the narrator refers to him throughout as Miss Emily’s son. How deliberate was that choice?

Very deliberate. Usually, in other scenarios, the narrator would be a bit part, or seen briefly in a scene. In the margins. I wanted to make a voice and put it at the center.

The narrator had to find a job quickly when she was young, but she’s been working at the supermarket for more than a decade now. Why is she so comfortable there? Do you think readers—like Miss Emily—are likely to dismiss this kind of job?

I think she loves what she does. The supermarket has given her a place to go to every day. And, when you don’t have ten dollars, it is just like not having a million dollars—you just don’t have it. You can do good work, meaningful work, but sometimes it is the case that you don’t have the money to show for that.

The narrator initially believes that Miss Emily cares for her. She confides in her and is grateful for her attention. Do you think she’s looking for a maternal figure in her life? Or does Miss Emily offer something else?

I leave open the idea that Miss Emily does care for her. You get the sense that, if the narrator were a lawyer, Miss Emily would still come blazing in and saying “Oh. So you haven’t made partner yet? And, um, how long have you worked there?” or “Oh, so you don’t own your own practice. Is that something you might want to think of in a few years maybe?” Miss Emily is deeply insecure, and this sabotages everything around her. Miss Emily is looking for someone to confirm for her that her choices in life—who she is—are important. The narrator may be looking for a maternal figure, but she’s actually forced to be one to Miss Emily. There’s a moment where the narrator thinks about the generosity that’s required to be a mother. That generosity is instead given to Miss Emily by the narrator, in the way that she sees Miss Emily and sees her feelings, even though it’s something that needed to be offered by Miss Emily in that moment.

Miss Emily’s attitude appears to change quite suddenly, when she turns on the narrator, angered at how untidy her home is. The narrator is looking back on events from a later perspective. Did she understand what was happening at the time? Do you want the narrator—and us—to feel that there were signs of Miss Emily’s displeasure that she missed all the way through?

In a first reading, it seems Miss Emily does turn suddenly. I held back on creating Miss Emily’s voice for as long as I could. There aren’t dialogue markers until she turns. And then when you go back to reread the story, once you’ve heard that voice, the tone of the story changes. And you can’t undo that tone. It’s really subtle. It’s also possible the home isn’t untidy—it’s Miss Emily’s interpretation.

The title, “Trash,” is both the first word we encounter and the last. How wounding a word is it?

For a long time, the last line in the story was actually the first line. As a first line it didn’t work, but as a last line it fits exactly right. No matter what I write after encountering a title like that, a reader is going to have ideas, and I work with that. We think it’s the narrator who’s seen as “trash,” but it’s actually Miss Emily’s behavior that’s in our minds when we encounter that word in the end. For me, though, it’s the word “too” that stands out in this story, as, for example, when the narrator recalls Miss Emily observing that, “for as long as she could remember, all she ever wanted was a family, too.” No one has said anything about wanting a family, but Miss Emily forces the idea on her with this one little word. Miss Emily is a person who thinks that a woman wanting or having a family is a measure of her achievement—it’s such a narrow view, and so wounding. And when the narrator says, “I’d worked my way up, too,” we see how impossible it will be for Miss Emily to understand the difficult work involved in getting to be a cashier at a supermarket. “Too” is not all that grand as a word in itself, but it is in this story. It is so ambitious, and it’s so doomed in its ambition to connect two people.

The story does a lot in a relatively short amount of space. Do you think of yourself as a concise writer? What are the benefits of brevity?

I want to do what Agnes Martin does with her paintings. The stunning thing is the proximity to being nothing, and not being that. What can be built with the fewest possible resources.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *