Soma Mei Sheng Frazier on Approaching the Shark Calmly
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier‘s dad used enormous flashcards to teach her to read when she was a baby. He also taught her to put one in the ceiling after killing an intruder, so she could claim she’d fired a warning shot. Frazier’s Collateral Damage: A Triptych earned acclaim from Daniel Handler, Nikki Giovanni, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Antonya Nelson, Molly Giles and others – and was chosen as winner of the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize of 2013. Her current work is available in ZYZZYVA (issue 101), new stories are forthcoming in Eclectica Magazine this year and in Glimmer Train in 2015. And Frazier is at work on a novel she hopes will be forthcoming too, at a bookstore near you in 2015 or 2016.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Who’s asking? I used to lie my arse off, saying obnoxious things like, “I’m a shark hypnotist,” or, in special circumstances, “I’m a nurse, and yes, I make house calls.” Now I mostly tell the truth: I’m a deranged literary nerd who’s just left a successful career in educational administration and institutional advancement to work on a novel. A skilled literary agent is graciously providing guidance, and I wait on his editorial notes like a crushed-out middle school girl. On the phone with him I make awkward poop jokes.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I’m terrorized by the thought of leaving my daughter Zoe: not in the mornings, dropping her off at kindergarten, or via intentional abandonment — but by dying. The fear finds me at odd times: on suburban streets, in light traffic. On the couch as I paint my toenails. An old friend of mine nearly died of lymphoma, and on multiple occasions relied on a medical ventilator to breathe. Every few seconds, he said, there was a click and the ventilator paused. And the pause made him think: the power could go out; reserve power, too. The machine could malfunction, and I’d die. Well he’s a fighter, my friend. He’ll live forever, albeit with only half of the internal organs that most of us have. But what he told me resonated with this bleak thing I struggle with; the panic that follows the machine’s soft click.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Approach the shark calmly. Brush your hands over its nose. Well, that is actually what it feels like to transition out of one’s safety zone — but if you’re confident in your work ethic and have some savings or are prepared to go into debt, I say budget out a few months and get your scribble on. I’ve held down jobs serving others for years, so it’s a pleasure to nurture my own literary interests as I plan the next career move: hopefully, a transition into full-time Creative Writing or English teaching at the college level. (I’ve been an occasional adjunct at Gavilan College for years, on top of full-time jobs at Oakland School for the Arts, where I chaired the School of Literary Arts, and then KQED).
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes. Because I’m trusted by children and dogs.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare: Epic Rap Battles of History #12 or Gandhi vs. Martin Luther King Jr.: Epic Rap Battles of History Season 2.
My great-great-grandmother, who raised thirteen kids in rural China, unbound her own feet. Imagine that. When the blood rushed back into her toes, it must’ve felt like fire. Yet she continued to work in the rice paddies, balancing on small trays so her misshapen feet didn’t sink into the mud; standing tall till she passed away at 104 years old. Okay, I should rescind the “tall” part. My mom — also a powerhouse — is all of 4 feet 11 inches, and I believe she towered over Great-great-grandma.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I had this thing for Amelia Earhart; perhaps a longing to disappear, poof, and leave the world puzzling. But according to my mom, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always insisted: a rabbit.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Cold air sinks between dark mountain pines, infused with the faint scent of smoke. My daughter Zoe pokes her head from the tent, sniffing, and points at a billowing cloud. “Mommy?” I join her at the tent flap as a plane darts by, dumping red powder into the trees. My husband stirs awake as firefighters pass on the narrow service road, bellowing; urging us downhill to an inn with an elegantly appointed art deco suite. We break out the credit cards and pay for one night, not knowing we’ll add six more. While her dad and I reassemble the tent near a veined marble fireplace, Zoe opens the ornate double doors. Setting a bare foot gingerly onto the balcony, she stares into the wooded ravine.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
No. I would not. N/A. N/A.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
What’s wrong with society today?
Some of my forthcoming work will be set within our cannibalistic prison system. Researching the piece, I’ve concluded that a lot of what’s wrong with U.S. society today has to do with “justice” in the aftermath of slavery: economic disparity, violence, and the fearful maltreatment of African Americans. Perhaps I should’ve placed the quotation marks around “aftermath.”
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
For now, just the usual: caffeine, alcohol, god. Last year I had an oral bone graft, though, and for awhile was on antibiotics. My surgeon grew my new jaw from purely synthetic materials, drove titanium screws into my mouth, replacing the roots he’d pulled up, and camouflaged my fancy bionic parts with realistic dental implants. I was able to watch him work in the reflection of an overhead light, and the process was pretty damn cool. Now I floss those suckers like a set of 84s. Don’t even remember they’re fake.
What is your fondest memory?
Not the birth of my daughter. That’s for sure. My natural birth plan didn’t work out, and by the time they performed the emergency caesarian my husband had to hold my trembling shoulders and forehead down on the table. But afterward, when I held her in my arms…
How many times do you fall in love each day?
It’s an unending plummet.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
I’d like everyone to have enough water. There are other things, of course, but this is what sprang to mind first.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Whether or not it’s necessary, it’s unavoidable. Art is as much in the bend of damp grass blades, or three names scrawled on a steel lamppost in a leaning black Sharpie heart, as in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book or a soundtrack that pulls tears to the surface.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Well I like to have orgasms, dammit, but mostly I’m just trying to ignore the sounds from the other side of the restroom stall partition.
What are you working on right now?
Eliminating expletives and lewd humor from my writing. Also, I’m completing a major restructuring of my novel. It’s hard. I give up sporadically and fill my time with writing short stories or browsing tenure-track openings on college job boards. Some of them are in towns I’ve never heard of, so I look them up online. “We could live here,” I think each time, till I read a description like: Do you like strip clubs within strip malls? We’ve got those here.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I admire writing that’s unboring. It’s a subjective thing, the appreciation of literature, but generally I like very distilled work. Years ago at Sarah Lawrence, I took a class from Peter Cameron — author of Andorra and eight other books — and he had us cut 25 words from already-brief snippets of fiction, retaining all crucial content. I like the type of authors who’d ace Cameron’s class.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
As an East Coast native, I miss East Coast candor. Sometimes I’m not sure how to read Bay Area people, though I’ve been here since 1995 (with a brief lapse of sanity spanning 1998-2000, when I believed I could still handle N.Y. temperatures) and by now I count myself as one of y’all.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Dark bar? Yellow-lit café. House party where someone’s shot the lights out and someone else is bumping bass beats that shake my sternum? Intimate dinner with grown folks talking grown folks’ talk? Anyplace with my hubby, graphic artist Burgious Frazier. Alternately, I’ll roam Target after 9 p.m. with my daughter, who’s still small enough to hang off the side of a shopping cart without tipping the whole thing over.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Once, at a dog park, I saw a Chihuahua riding a Rottweiler. Little guy was up there in the breeze, hanging on as his companion dashed round and round doing doughnuts like an East 14th sideshow star.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
Sometimes you make $50 with 50 words, though often it’s closer to $5. But even with $5 you can make it drizzle in a strip mall strip club, or take a kid to a dollar store and make her really, really happy. 50 words answers one question for SF Weekly.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Rain on pavement. Coffee. New car.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I’d pay a bill collector to find Amelia Earhart. Bill collectors can find anyone, anywhere. Then I’d introduce her to my daughter, and listen to them chat.