A Conversation With Best Debut Short Stories 2020 Author Ani Cooney
“Since March, how many have had to grow up fast and be valorous because of amoral, wicked, and cowardly leadership?”
Ani Cooney is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of UCLA, where he studied literature and creative writing. A VONA/Voices alum, he is the recipient of a Manuel G. Flores Prize from the Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. (PAWA). He is currently working on a collection of short stories.
“Evangelina Concepcion” was originally published in Epiphany.
You pulled your mother’s clothes inside out and wrote Evangelina Concepcion with a capital E and a capital C, respectively. In black ink, you wrote behind the wide belt loops, round and round the broad belt loops, until Concepcion, the last name, met Evangelina, and they read in infinity. You wrote the name on the fat waistline and inseams until it reached the leg openings. On the back and front pockets. Evangelina. Behind the zipper of the fly. Concepcion. Then you pulled the clothes back outside in, folded them, and placed them in a large box that you labeled Ma.
You would find new owners for your mother’s clothes. They would find movement again in a large body the size of your mother’s. Wouldn’t that be nice? you thought as you pushed the box in the closet. Her clothes fitted around someone else’s jiggle.
Two weeks had already passed and you were coping. Your mother prepared you for a time like this, after all.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
Like most writers, real life events inform my writing. A few years ago, I came across an online article about a car accident in my neighborhood and the mother driving the car, who sadly died, was never named. When I looked through the comments of the article, I saw someone leave a comment that presumed the mother was not named because the family was undocumented. The comment was not antagonistic; it was very matter-of-fact and it made me wonder if it was true. A few days passed and the article was updated with more information but it was about another person who was killed in the accident.
There was no mention of the mother or her family or what she did for a living or any heartfelt words from her friends or relatives. She was simply a one-dimensional description in an article, and I found it profoundly unfair and undignified that she wasn’t honored even with a snippet of who she was. It urged me to give her space in language, on the written page even though it’s fiction, and corporeality in my imagination. In the end, the story ended up being the strength of a daughter carrying grief at too young an age, honoring her mother’s wishes.
How long did it take you to write this story?
I wrote this while working on other stories, shelving one after the other whenever I got stuck. I would say a year, and then I revised it in a couple of writing workshops.
The story’s Los Angeles setting plays an integral role in the narrative. The fatal accident at the heart of the story, for instance, takes place in Koreatown, and when Lila goes to sell her mother’s clothes, she joins the vendors congregated around MacArthur Park. There are also references throughout to Echo Park, Hollywood, Los Feliz—some of LA’s most distinct enclaves. As an LA-based writer, can you describe the process of translating LA to the page, and its importance as the story’s oft-referenced setting?
Los Angeles is an enormous grid, and in stories, I often see the wealthier and whiter parts of the city as the focal location. In writing this story, I was hyper-aware of the world Lila and her family navigate, and I wanted to show that the part of Los Angeles they inhabit is central to their life and worldview. If you walk around and stand still in places surrounding MacArthur Park or Koreatown or farther east, you’ll observe that the streets are full of life, color, sounds and people who you don’t get to read about. Your perspective of the city changes significantly; Hollywood, Santa Monica, Los Feliz, Beverly Hills—all of those become peripheral and secondary when you observe the brimming life that’s present in the “margins.”
I wanted to convey the vastness of Los Angeles in the story by referring to those prominent areas, but I also wanted to show that where Lila and her family live is the center of their world and defines who they are. Everywhere else is extra.
Early in the story, Evangelina Concepcion tells Lila that when she dies, she must “be like steel.” Later, friends of the late Evangelina praise Lila’s “lack of frailty.” Can you talk about the relationship between Lila’s response to her mother’s death and the way her mother and elders valorize stoicism? Lila also faces so much pressure and responsibility—from caring for her brother to prepping for the SAT—while she grieves; is deeply felt mourning a luxury she can’t afford?
From early on, you see a mother passing a responsibility and duty to someone so young, and you see this weight in Lila’s stoicism after her mother’s death. In her household, grieving isn’t practical; it isn’t something Lila can take her time with and this forces her to grow up. You see this in the way she communicates with her unemployed father as he grieves. You see this in the way she tries to get rid of her mother’s clothes as her brother finds comfort in their smell. In my experience amongst my immigrant families and friends, it’s all too common to valorize this type of stoicism. It’s a method of consoling and burying necessary emotions that need to be felt which Lila is trying to fast-forward.
To be valorous is essential for Lila to uplift her family. It is her way of survival—for Evangelina and for her father and brother. I can’t help but connect your question today during this pandemic that has significantly affected families of color in low-income neighborhoods. How many Lilas have lost a loved one who works in essential services? How many Lilas are out there taking care of their family in their households at home while juggling virtual school? Since March, how many have had to grow up fast and be valorous because of amoral, wicked, and cowardly leadership?
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
The Dau Prize has given me space in the Best Debut anthology, financial support, and it introduced me to these talented emerging and established writers who live across the country and the world. I move forward knowing that there are readers out there who see me and my stories.
What are you working on now?
I am rewriting and beginning new short stories that are set in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and the Philippines—three places that are meaningful to me and where so much is transpiring as we speak. Maybe I’ll practice employing the deus ex machina in the stories or something just to help resolve all the conflict.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Social media has been really useful in discovering new writers and stories. Twitter and Instagram can be very intimidating at times but they’re useful windows to see what other writers are reading and what’s being amplified out there. I also look at a lot of literary journals to see who and what they’re publishing (if they’re only publishing writers with MFAs, PHDs, and people of a certain background, I steer away).
There are so many literary journals out there who are championing works from writers of diverse education, age, and cultural backgrounds—and those are the ones that I aim to support. Shout out toEpiphanyfor publishing my work.