A few months ago, my friend Audra Kerr Brown forwarded me a link to a story from Milk Candy Review. It was “To Ever Love One Girl” by Melissa Llanes Brownlee. I was immediately taken by this story. The delivery of such a painful lesson through this brilliantly rendered flash silenced me. I was in awe.
Now, after several email communications, I find myself in awe of this woman from Hawaii who currently lives and teaches in Japan. Melissa has been stirring it up with multiple published pieces over the last couple of years. And dang, she even plays the ukulele.
I am so happy Melissa agreed to an interview with The Burning Hearth and I’m delighted to share it with you now. Be sure to watch her fabulous reading of “To Ever Love One Girl.”
The Burning Hearth interviews Melissa Llanes Brownlee
I’m always fascinated by people who leave their home country and begin a new life elsewhere. I left my home state but I can’t say there is that much difference between Iowa and Wisconsin, other than every drinking vessel in Wisconsin is called a bubbler. A bubbler and a drinking fountain are two different things in Iowa. I’m curious, how long have you been living in Japan now? What was the most difficult thing to adjust to, culturally or otherwise? Do you plan to stay long?
I have always been interested in the linguistic differences of Standard American English across America like pop versus soda versus Coke. For me, a drinking fountain is a water fountain, so probably a west coast influence on Hawaii?
Anyway, I actually moved to Japan in 2008. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a difficult decision to move here, mainly because I was able to visit Japan for my MFA program in the summer of 2006, and also, I was struggling to survive in Las Vegas with a full-time job, plus teaching and writing. I was burnt out, so one day, I asked my husband how he felt about just moving to Japan and teaching English, and here we are.
As for adjusting to Japan, growing up in Hawaii, there were many things I learned that were influenced by Japanese culture, like being able to use chopsticks since I was a kid (I mention this because it’s always a surprise for Japanese people to see a foreigner use them), eating Japanese food like natto or sashimi (even though fermented food and raw food are not exclusive to Japanese culture), so some of the things most foreigners deal with I was able to avoid. To be honest, there isn’t really one particular thing that’s more difficult than any other. It really just depends on the situation and the people. Some days can be just normal and other days I get shocked back to remembering that I am a foreigner and will always be one here.
We never expected to be here for as long as we have been. We just keep renewing our contracts every year and living our life. Japan is a beautiful country and I have grown to love camping and hiking which I never liked before moving here but there are onsen (hot springs) all over, so you can always take a bath, and convenience stores almost everywhere you go, so there is always food and beverages and essentials available if you need them. I will say that the pandemic has made me reevaluate my life and my priorities so I am not sure how much longer I will be living here.
I was just over at your website and counted 7 pieces published in the month of July and 9 for the month of June. I think it’s fair to say you have been more than a bit on fire this summer. Are these pieces that have matured over time, or have they been written recently and quickly reached a point where they were ready for submission?
Most of the pieces that have been published this year were written during #the100dayproject. I participated in this event, which started on January 31, 2021, by creating a 100 days of flash project for myself. I made an Excel document with a prompt a day, and I tried my best to write a complete flash every day. This project proved to me that it was possible for me to write every day if I set myself up for success.
I hadn’t written or published anything since the previous summer, but I had done a few creative 30-day challenges during the fall like illustration, watercolors and ukulele so I knew it was possible for me to do this.
This year, I also participated in writing workshops with Kathy Fish, Tommy Dean, Meg Pokrass, and Kathryn Kulpa, among others.
I made the conscious decision to really work on my writing, to focus on it and to make it a priority in my life instead of something I did whenever the muse decided to smack me on the head.
I haven’t been able to keep it up but I write something daily whether it’s focused on writing my novel, journaling or working on new flash.
I would like you to elaborate on one piece in particular, “To Ever Love One Girl” which appeared in Milk Candy Review July 2020. This piece is so powerful for any reader whose very personhood has been disapproved of and dismissed by a parent. This piece, for me at least, is so powerful because of the POV. We are not with the girl being beaten, we are with the watchers, and we are left with the message they are given vicariously through paying witness. Did the story present itself this way? Was it intentional from the beginning for the reader to be with the watchers?
This piece was very difficult for me to write. It is actually based on a bit of truth. I have wanted to write about it for a long time but I could never find the voice or the narrative structure until one day I took a Skillshare class from Kathy Fish and her exercises gave me a way to write about it.
The choice of first person “we” narrator is essential I think to narrowing the distance between the reader and the narrator(s). I placed the reader as witness as you say but this narrative closeness is more powerful than having the reader experience the abuse from the first person POV because the story isn’t only about a girl being beaten for loving another girl but that any girl watching this happen could be “Cousin” for not submitting to the expectations of the men in their lives. I wanted the reader to feel the helplessness of these girls, these teenagers, these women, who have been conditioned to not only accept physical and mental abuse but also sexual abuse as well.
I understand you’ve had a short story collection accepted at Juventud Press. Congratulations! According to your announcement on your blog, you’ve been holding steady with this one since 2016. Please share what the collection is about and the process you’ve gone through from writing it, to submitting, and now, to acceptance.
Thank you so much! This collection, Hard Skin, is set on the Island of Hawaii, or the Big Island as I grew up calling it. Most of the stories have children as their main characters, and they involve family, death, myths, legends, magic, ghosts but most importantly they deal with these characters coming of age in a time where they are learning to navigate their place in a world filled with multi-generational trauma, their culture marketed as a commodity, their lives controlled by Protestant and Mormon ideals, basically the eighties (or any time really). I also use Hawaiian Pidgin Creole throughout the stories.
The first story I ever wrote for it was actually in my undergrad at Boise State University in a class taught by Anthony Doerr in 2002. This story was my application for my MFA at UNLV and from there I wrote what I could during my program there. I stopped writing when I moved to Japan. Then, I started writing again in 2014 as well as submitting which led to my first publication.
I started submitting my collection in 2016. My first submission was to Black Lawrence Press with a very nice rejection, and my longest submission of about four years with Blaze Vox had no response. I submitted it to two contests, New American Fiction Prize and The Brighthorse Book Prize which I placed in both as a finalist. I have actually added new stories throughout the years with the last one being Da Pier published in 2020. In total, I have submitted this collection about twenty-five times before it was finally accepted. I will say that I was about to throw it all away and give up because I figured no one understood what I was doing even though every story had been published previously, but I decided to just keep trying. Then, I found FlowerSong Press, who were looking for work by BIPOC artists, but they wanted non-simultaneous submissions so I decided to withdraw my collection from everywhere and put myself in their hands and they accepted it! I will be honest they actually asked me if I was interested in my work being published with their imprint, Juventud Press, which is their press for children and young adults, and I had to think about it for a minute or two because my writing is literary fiction but I came to the realization that my work is about children and young adults and offers them a view into a world they might not have seen before, and for those children and young adults from my own culture who might find something that resonates with them.
Melissa Llanes Brownlee (she/her), a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan, has fiction in Booth: A Journal, The Notre Dame Review, Pleiades, The Citron Review, Waxwing, Milk Candy Review, Claw & Blossom, Bending Genres, Micro Podcast, (mac)ro(mic), The Daily Drunk, Necessary Fiction, Have Has Had, The Birdseed and elsewhere. She was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. Hard Skin, her short story collection, will be coming soon from Juventud Press. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.
Big thanks to Melissa for chatting with The Burning Hearth. I hope you have enjoyed our conversation.
Not sure what’s coming next month but I do hope you’ll stop by and find out. Until then, travel lightly and be kind.