Tara Isabel Zambrano’s highly anticipated debut flash fiction collection, Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, is a marvel. Possessing both an unflinching eye for detail and an uncanny ear for poetic juxtaposition, Zambrano simultaneously shocks and comforts, builds and destroys, condemns and redeems as she slices to the center of the human experience.
Although the characters and settings may be fantastical—lunar lesbian weddings, public restrooms with talking hearts, threesomes with tentacled aliens, and neighborhoods filled with dead, chain-smoking teens—the main themes of love, lust, jealousy, and grief, are wholly universal. All fifty of the wildly provocative stories that comprise Death, Desire, and Other Destinations are written with sharp intelligence and scorching prose; the book is an astonishing achievement, and Zambrano is clearly a modern master of the short form.
Zambrano’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Cincinnati Review, [PANK], Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She won first prize in The Southampton Review Short Short Fiction Contest 2019, and was a Finalist in the Bat City Review 2018 Short Prose Contest. Her stories have been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize.
As a long-time fan, I was excited to speak with Tara about her debut collection, her imagery and imagination, exploring themes of interconnectedness, and the importance of letting go.
The Rumpus: Your collection consists of a surprising and delightful mix of genres: literary realism, fantasy fabulism, sci-fi, magical realism. Would you describe yourself as a speculative fiction writer?
Tara Isabel Zambrano: Oh, definitely! Though I like to amend it a little—speculative with a literary bend or literary with a speculative bend. I believe our existence as humans on this planet is nothing short of being speculative, this miracle of life, this emotional and intellectual journey with our imagination and experience, all culminating into the level-playing yet mysterious field of death.
Most stories come to me as a speculative image or an unusual phrase. And I am excited to write the stories that have supernatural elements. There are a very few stories that are realistic and stay that way throughout. One of the stories, “Whatever Remains,” started as a regular story and towards the end, had a dash of speculative, rather a spiritual element. I love when I can do that, to give that glimpse that not all is understood by us.
Rumpus: You do that well. I’m thinking specifically of “Silent Spaces,” where two girls are trying to understand why people drown, and one says, “…because they don’t know how to let go.” A lot of your characters, indeed, do not know “how to let go,” but I’d say just as many don’t want to let go. Can you discuss this a bit more?
Zambrano: I remember going into my first lesson of swimming not too long ago. Just for background, I am afraid of water and afraid to feel water on my face. I can fly a Cessna, I have gone paragliding from a cliff, but water is a different story. In the first few swim lessons, I struggled to float, because I could not let go of myself. But once I understood the foundation of my fear, I was able to work around it. On an emotional level, my father’s death affected me deeply. I could not let him go, so much so that it started affecting my day-to-day life.
Until I faced my fear: it was much more than just my fear of dying; it was how he suffered and how I had reduced his life to the last nine months of his existence, how I wasn’t next to him, holding his hand when he passed away. That was unsettling for me and I held on to it until I understood that our mortality makes this life, this breath, valuable, in terms of how we can connect with others, how we can relate to their suffering and offer our compassion, how we can best serve them and by the same token, I should be kind to myself, I should forgive myself and move on with a renewed understanding.
Rumpus: This feels like a good time to talk about your endings. Few characters reach such a point of clarity as you have with your father’s passing. Your stories often have them hanging on the cliff of an epiphany, leaving at the moment or right before the moment of realization, which is profoundly effective in emotional resonance. Can you expound?
Zambrano: I think it’s the development of my craft over the years. I have also had some personal growth over the past ten years or so. A few years after my father passed away, while I was still lost and clueless, I attended a retreat at a Zen Center in Santa Fe. It was a three-day endeavor that focused on hospice caregivers and doctors. My eye-opening learning came from the fact that everyone is suffering because either they did not forgive someone and that someone passed away, or they haven’t been forgiven yet and they are worried that they never will be. It made me less alone in my grief, my regrets. I also realized that there are no endings in any story, there are only pauses, these brief glimpses in which you realize everything that your life has amounted to. I believe that’s what reflects in my work.
Rumpus: Earlier you mentioned compassion and connecting with others, and this makes me think of a line in “Hum,” where the dwarf says to his lover, “Everything is connected to everything.” This is a more subtle theme, but I felt this underlying message of cohesiveness throughout your collection. Have I hit on something here?
Zambrano: Yes! I strive to demonstrate interconnectedness in a bunch of my stories and am so glad you inferred that from “Hum.” Interconnectedness is such a primary ingredient in the survival of our species: what we do today in one part of the world, ripples its effects to another. Our current situation is a burning example of the consequences if this principle is ignored or not comprehended.
Rumpus: I am impressed with how much story you pack into these flashes. It feels like magic. How do you do it? Do you ever think a story will be longer?
Zambrano: Thank you for that generous compliment. I have gone back and forth on some shorter pieces and made them longer, and often I have shrunk longer stories. But when it comes to expressing a human condition, stories should feel the same way, regardless of their length. I try to create a world even within a limited space of flash. It’s challenging and alluring; it’s an exercise that stretches the extent and the spectrum of my imagination
Rumpus: And what an imagination! You are an electrical engineer, which seems a bit of an oxymoron—being a scientist and also a writer—but I have a hunch it’s helped you creatively.
Zambrano: My job as a person of science has immensely helped me to revise my work, to keep a tab on the structure, the sequence of events and the operational characteristics of a story. Without that framework, my stories will be a rambling, with no cause and effect, no rational flow. My job as an engineer has also helped me to objectively view my work and improve and enhance it every time it is rejected.
Rumpus: I’ve noticed that rejection is a constant undercurrent in this collection. For example, after the narrator in “Scooped-Out Chest,” extracts her own heart and, later, watches it crawl out the front door, she says “I wonder if I’ll die in a moment, an hour, or never, if my heart ever belonged to me.” How would you say this relates to your other themes, of death and desire? Of self-worth? Of shame?
Zambrano: Most of life is coming to terms with what cannot be. And I don’t mean it in a disappointing way; it’s an important lesson to learn to cope. Death is the best example of experiencing a profound shift in one’s thought process to understand that nothing belongs to us, not even our bodies. They are all a gift to witness this life, to connect and to feel desire, to understand and improve upon who you are as an individual and in the social scheme of things (self-worth and shame) and yes, in the end, no matter how dear or how horrible it is, to let it go, to reach a state of equanimity.
Rumpus: Would you describe your stories as existentialist?
Zambrano: As an artist, if there is one thing of most meaning to me, it’s being experimental in my work. It also means taking risks and failing and falling flat on my face but that’s fair game. I believe our day-to-day life is a trial and a test. And as I meet more and more people and listen to their experiences, I realize truth is far, far stranger than fiction and that gives me some hope that my experiments bring my work closer and closer to reality even if in the beginning they sound absurd and awkward.
Rumpus: This is a very sensual book; sex appears as a moody character in nearly every story and in all variations, even taboo ones. Sometimes it’s perfunctory and visceral, needful yet unfulfilling, at times a balm, other times a poison. Can you talk more about the role of sex in this collection?
Zambrano: Sex is one of the outcomes of desire. Since most of my stories are roped in desire, quite a few of them lead to sexual fulfillment and conflict. I find sex to be an incredibly unique human need with numerous dos and don’ts, each forming a funnel of possibilities and their outcomes, that it is interesting to investigate it in different forms in the ways it is initiated and acted upon. That’s what I have been trying to achieve through my work, a narrative that, hopefully, touches on different aspects of this intimate, necessary, and mysterious gift.
Rumpus: “Nine Openings,” a story about a married couple having sex with an extraterrestrial, is certainly one that touches upon the “different aspects” of sexual gratification, or rather, non-gratification. I remember it getting a lot of buzz when it was first published at Squalorly. Why do you think this story resonates with people?
Zambrano: Thank you! I believe “Nine Openings” is a story that showcases the raw desire, greed, and self-destruction, some of the human flaws that we all can relate to. When I first submitted it, I wasn’t sure if anyone would like it because it’s gross; it just puts out all the feelings in the open, unattended, rotting. But when Pete Stevens, a talented writer and the fiction editor of Squalorly, loved it, I was over the moon. He connected with it because of what it represents, and I think a lot of people who read it do, too.
Rumpus: Speaking of the moon, it is a recurring image in your stories. What does the moon represent to you?
Zambrano: One of my childhood dreams was to be an astronaut who walked on the moon. Of course, that didn’t happen, so the next best thing is to write about the moon. As a writer, I find the moon alluring. As an engineer, I know that it’s a cold, gray mass that is responsible for ocean tides and atmosphere. The moon is also incredibly significant in the Hindu, Islamic, and several other religious calendars. On a spiritual level, it represents a cyclic pattern, a change on a day-to-day basis emphasizing the importance of impermanence in our lives.
Rumpus: In what other ways do religion and spirituality play a role in your stories?
Zambrano: I have had a serious amount of religious grooming both in childhood and during my adult life. I am not much of a religious person, but I do see the merit and significance in some traditions and vice versa, and that reflects in my work. While Hinduism is considered and branded as a religion, I’d like to argue that it is a way of life, and its foundation comes from the ancient scriptures of Vedas and Upanishads. They may have several interpretations depending on when you are reading them, what point in time of your life you are connecting with them. But overall, the message is of interconnectedness, compassion and realization that all attachment is suffering and in order to obtain enlightenment, one must let go of their attachments. I have tried to demonstrate this line of thought in several of my stories, be it in the ruminations of the sex worker in “Ghosht Korma,” or a newlywed girl standing in a line, next to her husband, in “A Thousand Eyes,” and even the narrators in “Nine Openings.”
Rumpus: Concerning the ancient scriptures, you say, “they may have several interpretations depending on when you are reading them. If you wrote this book twenty years ago, how would you interpret your themes? How would these stories be different?
Zambrano: I believe every artist evolves with time, and, as a result their art evolves, too, because art is a culmination of their experiences and imagination. So, yes, my story collection might have been different in structure, language, even content—but not in its underlying concepts.
Rumpus: Is there a significance to the order these stories are presented?
Zambrano: I have tried to not lump all the stories of death or desire together; I have tried to disperse them throughout. Same goes for the newer and older stories. I am hoping all this separation adds flavor and novelty to the collection. In the end, the reader is the judge.
Rumpus: Which story is your favorite, and why?
Zambrano: “Shedding,” the last story. It came to me as a single image of Sweetie Rockstar dancing on the stage, and the way this piece manifests itself, in my opinion, is remarkable. It has human flaws and strengths hooked by surreal metamorphosis. Also, the narrator is my favorite character in the collection because she has a range of emotions and realizations throughout the story and feels closest to me.
Rumpus: You primarily write from a first-person perspective. Would you say this point of view makes it easier for you to explore these “emotions and realizations?”
Zambrano: First-person narrator immerses me in these stories; it makes me more than an observer and gives me opportunities to share my reflections via the characters. I have done some experiments, where I have written the first draft of the story in first person and then changed it to third person and see which one reads better. “Hum” is a good example of that.
Rumpus: Earlier we discussed interconnectedness between people, but what about other types of connections. In “The Fortune Teller,” the narrator says, “The future that is, and the one we imagine, are as different as life versus a dream. And a good fortune teller always sees something that connects them.” As a writer do you ever feel like a fortune teller? How does a good writer see the connections between the real and the imagined?
Zambrano: I do feel like a fortune teller in some stories, where I start the story knowing how it’s going to end, but that doesn’t last long because almost all of them end in a different manner. And that’s what fortune telling is all about; it speaks of a prediction in a definite time-space coordinate and if anything changes from that point, the future replicates the change. I believe a good writer should be able to see how the imagination is best manifested in a real, concrete word. Even if it’s a surreal story how are its elements grounded in our physical, cause and effect driven world. Otherwise, a reader may not be able to connect to it and appreciate the magic it is supposed to bring.
Photograph of Tara Isabel Zambrano by Aadhar Kulshrestha.