Please welcome author Mariah K. Young on for an interview to share about herself and her award winning story collection about people of all walks of life Masha’allah and Other Stories.
In Masha’allah, emerging writer Mariah K. Young brings readers deep into
the varied lives of remarkable individuals at the fringes of dominant culture.
Set in the lively and unpredictable landscape of East Oakland, Young’s subtly
crafted stories and unforgettable characters continually surprise and delight.
In each of these nine tales, Young invites us into the worlds of a diverse cast
of genuine, hard-working people: we take a ride with a hired driver who gets
more than he bargains for with an unusual fare; we meet a day laborer whose
search for work leads him to the edges of human sacrifice and hope; we join a
plucky house cleaner named Chinta, who sets up impromptu beauty parlors in the
houses she cleans.
Please tell me about yourself –
I was born in the Bay Area and spent my childhood going back and forth between the Bay and Hawaii, which people seem to think is very exotic. I went to school in both places, but attended university in California–I finished my undergrad at CSU East Bay, and then attended UC Riverside for my masters. I now live in Koreatown in Los Angeles, where I teach writing and literature, and I have learned that kim chee improves just about every dish. When I’m not grading, I write and jot, I play the ukulele, I read, and I drink more coffee than is probably good for me.
What is something about you that no one knows? –
I have no idea how to operate a dishwasher, and though many tell me that it’s a wonderful machine that will change my life, I have absolutely no desire to learn how to use one.
What are you reading now? –
I usually jump between short stories and novels, but right now “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz has my complete attention. I am also enmeshed in Susan Straight’s Rio Seco trilogy–I just finished “A Million Nightingales,” which borders on poetry in many ways, and I’m eager to read her most recent offering “Between Heaven and Here.”
Some favorite books and authors –
Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” is the book that made me want to be a writer. I read it when I was a teenager, and I often pick the book up and reread it when the wheels of my own writing are sticky. I love novels that entwine family and legacy, and two of my favorites in this vein are Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” and Edward P Jones’ “The Known World.” If I was trapped on a deserted island with the collected works of Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor, I would only be in a slight hurry to be rescued.
What is your work space and writing routine like? –
I envy writers who write at a certain time or have a word-count goal that they meet every day. Whenever I try to impose those kinds of structures on my writing, I fail miserably. I have never been an early riser, and word counts make me overuse adjectives, or write sentences that I know I will cut as I write them. While a scheduled writing time is elusive, I do write something everyday in the form of little notes and phrases. I keep a flimsy little notebook with me, and when I overhear a comment that’s jagged in my ear, or see something that makes me stop or say “Oh! That’s ripe for writing,” I jot it down, and maybe throw in a few details or ideas that it triggers. When I finally do get to the coffee shop with time to write, I first take out my notebooks and rifle through my observations and overheard moments, and use them as the first bricks in stories. The notebook has been the only method I have found to write every day, and in addition to giving me a cheap sense of accomplishment (Yes! I wrote today!), it reminds me how there is literally inspiration everywhere.
Why short stories, what about them do you enjoy? Do you have plans for a full length novel? –
I often think of a short story as a stop watch—all you’ve got is twenty pages, so work it out and get right to the point. Each page is a tick towards the time’s up buzzer, and I didn’t have time to dawdle; every sentence had to do work, every image and bit of dialog had to be purposeful. However, lately the characters I’ve been writing about have demanded more space, more pages to be fully realized. So I’m letting my characters boss me around and I have been giving them more room on the page. It is pushing me to think about how to arrange and sustain a larger work, while keeping the same sense of tension and purpose in every line that a short story requires.
You’ve written stories from many different view points and from very diverse people did you do any research? –
I did some reading about underground labor and the black market as I began writing the collection, but most of the research did not come until after the stories were drafted. Then I went back to refine the details, and made sure that the particulars of this world as true to life as possible. I spent a lot of time investigating the words and phrases my characters use, since I was often using different languages and work lingo in the stories, and I wanted to make sure that I got those elements right. One of my goals was that the characters not be defined by their ethnicity or culture–if anything, I wanted their ethnic identities to be incidental as opposed to the defining thing about them. Thus, most of my research was centered on the logistics of their working lives–what streets the characters lived on and where they worked, the trappings of their jobs, the terms they would use. I interrogated my hairdresser about the tools of his trade; I read up on the ins and outs of marijuana cultivation to make sure I had not left out (or invented) any important details; for the title story, I must have revised Sully’s route from San Francisco to Oakland at least a dozen times, and I called my dad (who is not only a Bay Area native but a truck driver) to make sure that I had the highway exits and skyline details right. Getting the details of place and the sense of language helped me to refine these people and the worlds they live in.
What inspired Masha’allah and other stories? –
I began working on these stories as a graduate student, where I fell in love with a handful of novels about working class life, and I wanted to add to the limited offering of books that praised work for how it shaped and illuminated people’s lives. I found a smattering of books on underground labor, and as I read sociological studies and economic texts about the black market in America, wading through data and scholarly interpretations of why people worked these “dead-end jobs,” I began imagining the people who comprised those statistics and percentages. I was less interested in the statistics as in how the costs and benefits of under-the-table work expressed itself in people’s lives, so I started writing about the spaces where this illegal labor took place, and who was doing these jobs. I imagined the people who populated these spaces, and how ultimately they go home to their spouses and parents and their own children, and how their work colored their sense of who they are and what their prospects of the future could be. Putting faces and histories to the numbers became far more intriguing to me, and that’s when the stories began to truly take shape.
Is there a genre in particular you’re interested in trying out? If so why?
If I get enough courage up, I’d like to try my hand at speculative fiction and sci-fi. I have always loved Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, in that they could create these worlds that were far away from the “real” but were still fully imagined and tangible, and had a clear sense of place without being hokey or gimmicky. Making the unreal seem common and then using it in service of the story (as opposed to the crux of it) is a rare and wonderful thing, and so if I ever feel brave enough, I want to write a story where robots and rocket ships and machines that eat people’s dreams are part of the landscape and as ordinary as tv and traffic.
You’re an award winning author at such a young age and so early in your career does this inspire you when writing or is it more pressure, how do you feel about being recognized for your work? –
It is both enthralling and nerve-wracking to have my work mentioned in the same breath as James D Houston, who was a master at creating a vivid sense of place and using simple details to speak volumes about a character’s experience and dreams. Reading his work has made me feel not unlike a sapling underneath an old oak, whose branches and leaves caste shade far and wide. I am slowly getting over the Ringo Starr feeling of Awww-shucks-I’m-just-happy-to-be-here, and the award, as well as the reactions from readers, has been an unexpected and inspiring experience, which makes me eager to write more.
What do you have coming next and when do we get to enjoy it?
I usually write about what’s in front of me, so I’ve been writing sudden fiction pieces about Los Angeles, and they are beginning to be told by an array of voices which all know each other and argue, so I may have a novel (or a novel-in-stories) on my hands. Also, for years I’ve been working on a story about an Oakland family who ran and then lost a machine shop over the span of several generations. The story was originally going to be included in Masha’allah, but it was getting too big for the collection. It’s the story that always calls me from the drawer of rough drafts, and I think I’m ready to finally finish it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mariah K. Young received the James D. Houston Award in 2012 for Masha’allah and Other Stories, honoring books by writers whose voices reflect humane values and a thoughtful literary exploration of California, Hawai’i, and the West. Young is also the recipient of the RV Williams prize for fiction. Born in Alameda, California, she spent her childhood living in the Bay Area and in Lahaina, Hawai`i. She is a graduate of California State University, East Bay, and UC Riverside.