Sabrina Orah Mark
in conversation with Vi Khi Nao


Prose poet and fiction writer Sabrina Orah Mark, author of the short story collection
Wild Milk (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2018), had the following conversation with poet, fiction writer, and cross-genre artist Vi Khi Nao live on Google Docs in the winter and spring of 2019.

VI KHI NAO

What is your relationship to calcium? Is it intimate or is it purely literary (if there is such a thing)?


SABRINA ORAH MARK

Ah, this is beautiful. My relationship to calcium is less intimate than my relationship to wool, but more intimate than my relationship to zero. Calcium would be a good name for a town in a book where there were no animals. “In the town of Calcium where there were no animals…”


VI KHI NAO

Tell me more about your relationship to wool. Your story collection, Wild Milk, negates its existence a lot. Why, oh, why did you ignore wool? Also, did you consume a lot of milk in order to write Wild Milk? I kept thinking, how many goats does it take Sabrina Orah Mark to write a book…

SABRINA ORAH MARK

There is wool in Wild Milk. That is a secret ingredient. There is also crying. And dry branches.

 

VI KHI NAO

You have been depicted as an absurdist, surrealist, and fabulist extraordinaire, but at times your stories leave me with the impression that you are more of a magician. You use unexpected narrative structures to misdirect, an important foundation both for magic and for humor. For instance, we don’t expect a character of yours to open her purse to reveal an ocean (an ocean as a monetary form of currency) or to open an oven, which is a place for baking and not necessarily a storage container for the heart, but your characters do exactly these things. Although you may not wish to label yourself, how would you characterize yourself as a writer, if only for today?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Once when I was a child I was told (by a teacher) that if you put a piece of challah bread under your pillow, go to sleep, and then wake up at midnight and look in the mirror, you will see your face as a very, very old woman. And I did. And I remember seeing my old face, though I’m not sure if I saw my old face or only remember seeing my old face. I think I write, always, with that reflection. Like some combination of the very ancient and the very unknown. The very old face sees things. I like to look out through that face. Even if it isn’t really mine.

 

VI KHI NAO

In terms of your writing rituals, when you walk into a roomful of stories you haven’t yet written and as you sit down to write them, are there constraints you adhere to? Such as, for instance: Father can’t be abducted by the kitchen table? How do you filter your water?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Yes, Father can never be abducted by the kitchen table unless the world that surrounds Father (breakfast, sunlight, wooden legs) was emotionally plotted in such a way that Father’s abduction by Kitchen Table was rooted to a necessary ground. Which is to say, I’m not a fan of shenanigan for the sake of shenanigan. But I do believe with just the gentlest turn of the knob (which is what absurdism is) we can change the whole weather, and this change will reveal something about reality (whoever she is) that we hadn’t before seen or known. Like all you need to do is put the smallest piece of bread under your pillow. Like all you need to do is add the “O” from the word “Old” and you can turn “God” into “Good.” This is how jokes are made. Also, visions.

 

VI KHI NAO

Readers who are less licensed to absorb the calcium content of your stories or absurdism will wonder how arbitrary the creative world is. What about arbitrariness un-fonds you? What can one use to gauge the fragile distinction between absurdism and arbitrariness?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

There are some readers who really do not like being lost, or if they’re lost they want their lostness to resemble their foundness. The wilderness is scary. But I do stitch little poems and prayers and maps into the lining of my stories. I think the difference between the absurd and the arbitrary is that with the absurd, a bus marked “Home” eventually shows up. It’s a question of patience. With the arbitrary, nothing shows up. You just wait and wait. And then it’s winter. And still no bus.


VI KHI NAO

Repetition (repetition of ideas, repetition of sounds, repetition of nouns [milk, mother, children, waves, clouds]) is an important rhetorical device you use to walk your literary hens into a room before you feed them your new town, Calcium. What other rhetorical approaches attract you?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

I like opening up metaphors. Is there a name for this? Surely someone from Calcium (population 2) might know. First you open up the metaphor, and spill out all her contents. Heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, bones, blood, brain… It’s good to know its anatomy. And it’s good to take her as far as she will go. Sometimes I’ll leave her for pages. Forget about her entirely. If she doesn’t return to me when I least expect her to, I know the story failed.

VI KHI NAO

“Spells” is my favorite story from Wild Milk. Will you take a look at it mentally or visually, or incandescently open the lid of its casket a little and break the story down for us? Where were you when you wrote it? How did the story arrive to you? In a flash? Over a few months? I really love that the nine sons turned into nine daughters. Also the lice part (“A piece of me already knows, when I wipe off the comb, and the dead lice spell out five of my sons’ names, marking the paper towel like it is a birth certificate, that something terrible is about to happen.”)

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

This is my mother’s least favorite story in the collection. The story slowly emerged after I read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.” I loved the idea of boys all turning into something other than boys all at once. It took months to write, and in many ways of all the narrators in Wild Milk I might be closest to her (I too have the patience of the dead; I too would make an excellent Lice Lady).

 

VI KHI NAO

Why is it your mother’s least favorite story?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

First I thought it was the hatred of daughters, but it turns out it was the lice. She found them unbearably disgusting. The good news, though, is that she has an incredible sense of humor. But even so, she couldn’t get past the lice.

 

VI KHI NAO

Naturally, your name reminds me of Harrison Ford. I think it’s so effective and a little bit comedic that you occasionally invite famous people to couchsurf your stories. Which famous people won’t you abduct? I think this literary gesture is particularly interesting when applied to fairy tales. It alters the genre in a simultaneously poignant and humorous fashion.

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

I’ve described this before like this, so forgive me, but when I use a name I imagine it as a lightbulb that swings back and forth above the story. Either it illuminates or creates a glare. Sometimes (like Louis CK, like Hillary Clinton, like Francine Prose) a living story will eclipse the story I’m writing, which can get incredibly complicated, but also if the story is strong enough it should be able to live even as the weather of a name changes from storm to blizzard to a gentle rain.     

 

VI KHI NAO

If your sons were to interview you, what question do you think they would ask you? And, if there are characters that would resemble them the most from Wild Milk, which characters would those be?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

I think my sons would most resemble the sons from “Spells.” They too are wildest at dusk. And they too are always thirsty. And they too are always kind.

Noah would ask me a lot of questions about the moon.

And Eli would ask me a lot of questions about the sun.

I probably wouldn’t be able to answer a single one.

   

VI KHI NAO

Am I right that the original title for Wild Milk used to be “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt”? If it was, why did you change it?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

You are right. We changed it. Dorothy (my publisher) was worried. And then I began to worry. And then the whole town of Calcium began to worry.

I had my heart set on the cover art:  Li Shan Chong’s “Portrait of Lily Jane: Fools in Love.” And I loved how “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” read against the image of the girl with the sad eyes and the clown nose. But the more I see Wild Milk up there next to the girl with the sad eyes and the clown nose the more I realize it might be her very old tears.

 

VI KHI NAO

I like that title more, actually. Wild Milk gives me bone-heartache. What are you working on now, Sabrina? And, why did Dorothy worry? What did they worry about?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

I am working on essays about fairy tales and raising boys (in America) for a column called Happily over at The Paris Review. The one I just sent in is about Pinocchio and the golem and the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue and Trump and my son Noah’s “ghost people” that he makes out of wood chips.

I think the nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was so hard that all that nodding might send the Vonnegut fans running, and then when they got to me they’d go, “Oh shit, it’s her,” and then I would have to make a public apology, and then for the rest of my life regret I was Sabrina Orah Mark and not Kurt Vonnegut. But this is only a guess.

 

VI KHI NAO

By naming your bully “Beadlebaum,” you may have de-bullied the bully with such a charming name. This is where I think language can be so powerful. Where a swift switch in semantic pose can emasculate violence. Can you talk about your relationship to language?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Oh it saves me. All day long words save me. I know no other ways to manifest spells—except through love, which is the absence of words.

 

VI KHI NAO

Can you imagine an alternate path for yourself where you wouldn’t have become a writer? What would you have done instead?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Ah, my dear friend Amy Margolis and I have decided we should go to medical school, but with our arms linked. As a single student. I think they should accept us. We’d be the worriers. But we’d ask good questions. And we really want to find a remedy for all this pain everywhere.  

My mother wasn’t feeling well this weekend and then her tooth broke and so she carried her tooth around in her pocket and I said how are you feeling and she said not good and then she said and now not only am I not feeling well but also I have my tooth in my pocket and we laughed because it’s actually quite beautiful and funny to be carrying around pieces of your mouth in your pocket. Which is to say, language is a kind of salve I’d like to keep using.

 

VI KHI NAO

I am sorry your mother wasn’t feeling well. What is your mother like? Which story of yours is her favorite?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Everyone who meets my mother dreams about her afterwards for days and days. I don’t know which story is her favorite, but she likes appearing in flashes. If she didn’t have an amazing sense of humor, and have a lot of storyteller in her, she’d probably pour Wild Milk down the hole of my letter “O.” Good riddance, she’d say, with the glamour of the dead.

 

VI KHI NAO

Your story “Pool” may visually look like a poem, but it reads more like a story to me. There may be an aesthetic arc in the way you move through the world: first writing poetry, then prose poetry, and now you are immanently more drawn to narrative prose structures.” Have others given you a hard time about how you format or classify your forms? Would people ever say of your highly innovative work: “We love it, but we don’t know what to do with it?” And, what is the best way to respond to rejection, Sabrina? What advice would you give, especially to those who feel homeless in their aesthetics?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

In the town of Calcium where I now live (population 2) there are these stones, and if you put your ears to them and listen, you can hear stories. None of those stories inside the stones were published, or given awards, or applauded on a beautifully lit stage. But they’re there. And they mean something. And they are human voices speaking in all different kinds of languages. I don’t know that the stories in the stones are any more or less powerful than the stories in the books. My best advice is to go to Calcium, listen to the stones, and write everything down.

 

VI KHI NAO

I have always felt that parsnips make excellent bastion due to the nature and intensity of their roots. In your new story “The Professor,” appearing in Bennington Review alongside this interview, the professor keeps on repeating quite ironically and sadistically about self-protection: “I need to protect myself as a human being.” What do you think is the best way for women to protect themselves in the #MeToo movement and in their literary careers, in general?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

This question might be the same question I once found written on the side of a parsnip I couldn’t harvest. I pulled and I pulled, but there was no way I was going to take it from the earth. To be honest, I pulled for years and the only thing rotting was me. Which is to say, I am afraid of movements, and the language of the crowd’s cheer. I think sometimes what we think is protecting us is actually throwing tiny pebbles at our head. Leaving us ever so slightly dizzy inside a “safe” box.

 

VI KHI NAO

“Tiny pebbles” remind me of the biblical passage about being the first to throw a stone if one is flawless, has never committed a sin? As in not passing judgment. Sin has been defined as “missing the mark”—when readers read your work, what is the best sin to commit with you? And, if not best, what is the opposite of missing the “Sabrina Orah” mark?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Ah, I love your brain. No one is flawless. We all have little pieces of monster growing on our hearts. But to go back to the pebbles, and your question about #MeToo—so often what begins as a beautiful, unraveling movement becomes a singular knot in the pit of the stomach. Maybe it will grow a new fruit. If it does, we can name the fruit “Penny” [the name of the student protagonist in “The Professor”]. And I pray it feeds us all. Is enough to sustain us. I don’t know. I just hope it’s not a fruit that could make us all sick.    

 

VI KHI NAO

When Abraham places Isaac onto the sacrificial stone in anticipation of his son’s pending execution, do you think questions that are shaped/structured for more questions (in response) require faith/leap of faith so that the questions are not always guided with more questions but mediated by a ram? Are your great-grandmothers good with taking care of rams on the hottest day of the year in a language you know so well?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

My great-grandmother, I’ve been told, was a dreamer. When her husband, my great-grandfather, was taken to Dachau she was visited by dead relatives who gave her clear instructions. “This is how you will get him out,” they said. “Do this. Do this. Do this.” This was early on. She got him out. Which is to say, yes. She would be good with the rams. But I get what you’re asking. It is dangerous to be too porous. I am too porous. But there is also a parsnip at the center of my heart that holds me steady. It’s a parsnip that keeps me from climbing the mountain with my sons. There should always be one answer you keep entirely for yourself. Right now I’m calling it a parsnip. Instead of by its secret name.

 

VI KHI NAO

Did you wake up one day and write this piece? Or has it been percolating like coffee without cream in your consciousness? Are you done with it? Or are you still working on it, perhaps thinking of removing a patio or adding a garden to it or even some indoors ceramic tiles? Can you talk about your process of renovation? What is the best way to renovate a story, Sabrina?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

I’ve been trying to write this story for twenty years. There is, right now, something missing. Which is not to say there shouldn’t always be something missing. There should. But the thing that is missing from a story should be the part of the plot where the body is buried. And right now I’m making sure I don’t have an empty grave on my hands.

My students tease me because I always answer their questions with more questions. So far, I think, I’ve answered nothing. I tell my students the worst thing a story can do is answer a question unless it’s a question your great-grandmother asked her mother long before you were born on the coldest day of the year in a language you barely know.

 

VI KHI NAO

Two decades. About two Trojan Wars. Do you wish to work another score or so on it? I love that it has taken you only a blink of an eye to compose, which I think what twenty years can be equated to for some people. Speaking of an empty grave on your hands, have any of your stories ever visited a funeral home without you or without your permission? Have they come back to you carrying a bouquet of perennial flowers?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Yes. Twice. Both times I forgave them. Which is part of my problem. I forgive everybody. And lately, I’ve been forgetting too much too.

    

VI KHI NAO

One of my favorite passages from “The Professor” appears like so: “Her accent is slightly damaged, possibly by wind. She speaks like a roof with a few broken shingles.” What understated pleasure of this pluvial age of metaphor gives you deeper insights into shingles? Do you often view a character’s voice as being a house with a roof? Or is it an infrequent occurrence?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Isn’t a word a house? I could’ve sworn my first-grade teacher taught me this. Don’t words look exactly like little houses? I’ve been writing a story about a very gentle family who live inside a war with a bright red door. If you enter the war through the back door you enter raw. Which is why there is the war. Because of raw. But that’s not in the story. Thank goodness.        

 

VI KHI NAO

Some Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Chữ-nôm' characters do look like houses to me! Twice this week, the name “Penny” (which never visits me literarily nor genealogically) arrived at my dining table and wanted to have tea with me. (“‘What’s your name, again?’ ‘Penny,’ I say. ‘Penny Spiegelman.’ She stares at me and signs the orange form.”) What is your relationship to that name? Did you base this character off a person you may know in real life?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

She is the smallest currency, but she also answers prayers. Like a wishing well. I know her, yes. Once she reads this story, she’ll probably never speak to me again.

 

VI KHI NAO

Your prayer walls in your story reminds me of Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates, about the venerated eighteenth-century Armenian poet and musician Sayat-Nova. How do you like to pray? Is writing a form of prayer?

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Yes, my writing is my praying. As I mentioned, I’ve been writing a monthly column on fairytales and motherhood, which is a different kind of praying. I’ve been forgetting a lot in order to remember. Is that prayer?

 

VI KHI NAO

I did not expect the professor in the story to offer her student dried apricots.

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Dried apricots look like little ears. The Professor was preparing Penny to listen to her for eternity.

 

VI KHI NAO

In a prior interview with Black Warrior Review, you observed that, “My feeling is that everything we write is autobiographical. Everything is autobiographical because it’s based on the way we absorb the world”—can you speak more about this absorption? What do you mean by it? When I read these two sentences from you, I remember liking them very much. But that liking was also opaque, like seeing a pair of chopsticks in a smoothie, because I had a vague sense of what I thought you meant, because I could see that the pair of chopsticks had been carefully inserted into the smoothie, but I am not entirely sure now. When I think of absorption, I think immediately of reading. I suppose a person can have a pre-existing autobiographical life purely through reading, but it doesn’t seem nonfictional enough somehow.

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Our imagination is marked by the desk we sat in in first grade, and the small orange our father peeled, and the black spot on the dog’s left paw, and the hailstorm, and the copy of The Little Prince no one ever read, and the plastic bag full of pennies, and our brother falling out of bed, and the nightmare with the houses getting smaller and smaller… And how we digest these things (how they become nutrients or toxins) affects the pen, and how it makes letters and then words and then poems and stories.

When I was a kid, my dad visited my class to show everyone how an electrocardiogram works. He hooked one kid up. His name was Ezra (which means help in Hebrew). And watching the machine record the electrical activity of his heart was like reading a sentence spelling out all the secrets Ezra would ever keep from himself. I wanted desperately, in that moment, to write in that language. I still do.

 

VI KHI NAO

I just had an electrocardiogram done on my heart. I know what you mean.

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

Years ago, my friend Oni Buchanan came to stay with me. And we agreed to exchange poems. She handed me a stack, and I handed her a stack. We moved to separate rooms of the house. And when I began reading, I realized we had been—without our knowledge—writing to each other for over a year. She was writing a series of poems called “Dear Lonely Animal,” and I was writing a series of poems called “The Oldest Animal Writes a Letter Home.” It was beautiful because there is a secret place where we can speak to each other. Like another plane. And it revealed itself to us. I think you and I should write to each other in electrocardiogram.

 

VI KHI NAO

Oh, and oh, what do you think of Benjamin Netanyahu? I was hoping he would appear somewhere... I guess here, for now.

 

SABRINA ORAH MARK

He will eventually appear in a story, but I can’t yet find the stone. If you find it in Calcium let me know. In Calcium (population 2) everyone gets along.


SABRINA ORAH MARK is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim TsumWild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. For The Paris Review she writes a monthly column on fairytales and motherhood entitled Happily.


VI KHI NAO


Issue Six
13.00
Quantity:
Add To Cart