Hej studerende i Danmark! Hello students in Denmark! Thank you for writing to me about my short story Fishbone (see comments).
“Fishbone” was first published in 1989 in the literary magazine TriQuarterly. The story has since appeared in several anthologies, but I especially like the version in the Danish textbook Looking for America (edited by Bjorn Christensen) because of the glossary in the margins: “Trailer court: camping plads til campingvogne (ofte permanent).” I don’t know what it means, but I like the sound of it.
I wrote the story in the mid-1980s, not long after taking a poetry writing class. “Fishbone” began as a love poem to my grandmother, and it just kept going and became a story.
Unlike the main character Wanda, I have never been pregnant. However, one summer I did move in with my grandmother after I’d suffered a great loss.
She was living on a farm where she retired after many years working as director of a history museum dedicated to Texas hero Sam Houston. My grandmother began her life on a farm with ten brothers and sisters, and she thought farming would be a good way to end her life too.
As for the political subtext of “Fishbone,” there isn’t one except as expressed through the characters. This story has been reprinted in anthologies that specialize in regions and ethnicity, such as New Stories from the South 1990. In the introduction of Growing Up Female: Stories by Women Writers From the American Mosaic, the main character of “Fishbone” was labeled a “white nomad.”
While I have never lived in a trailer, I am familiar with the lifestyle. Most Texans are. And, unfortunately, most Texans know at least one person like Ed.
I can now say—because my grandmother and her husband are deceased—my grandmother was married to a retired military man very much like Ed in “Fishbone.”
His intolerant attitude is all too common in Texas and the South. One friend of the family remarked, “Ed is so extreme, people will think you exaggerated or made him up. But you didn’t.”
The character of Wanda was based partly on me and partly on a plucky young relative. Despite her difficult life, she has retained an optimism and a naive innocence.
Wanda named her baby crazy names like Fishbone and Logarithm because she had decided to give her child up and the odd names helped her remember that fact.
I have written and published other stories, but “Fishbone” is my favorite. Although the story was written to honor my grandmother, she never actually read the story. I wouldn’t let her. My grandmother was a proper Victorian lady and the widow of a college professor (my grandfather). She would not have approved of the profanity and conflict, not to mention the sexual content.
When TriQuarterly of Northwestern University in Chicago accepted “Fishbone” for publication, I was not worried my grandmother would see it. In America almost nobody reads literary magazines except for the editor, the editor’s mother and perhaps three of her friends.
But then the story got nominated for some prizes and was reprinted in several books. Still, I was not worried.
Then Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art requested the right to have an actress perform “Fishbone” as a monologue on stage. I knew my grandmother would be proud of me—honored in my home state of Texas!—so finally I told her about the story. But I instructed her that if anyone ever tried to show it to her, she must refuse to read it.
I sent her an expurgated version of the story that was about a third the length of the real story. My grandmother wanted to know why my story was so sad, and why at the end Wanda is just standing there with no place to go. To me, the ending of “Fishbone” is happy—or maybe bittersweet—but I could not explain that to my grandmother.
For the record, another reason I am partial to the Looking for America version of “Fishbone” is because only that book and Texas Bound II have the complete story. A few years after my story was first published, I added this paragraph:
Mr. Lamont tried to act natural. He looked down at his desk and poked his index finger with a clear plastic letter opener. Inside was a four-leaf clover, frozen forever. I thought about how millions of years from now an alien might dig up this letter opener. Maybe he’ll write a term paper on what the clover means. Luck, I thought as hard as I could, in case the aliens will know how to read minds of people who used to be alive. It means good luck.
Students, thank you for reading “Fishbone” and, in that small way, keeping the memory of my grandmother alive. I hope I’ve answered your questions. If you have any others, ask away. Tak igen!