Melissa Llanes Brownlee (she/her) is a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan. She is the author of Hard Skin, a short story collection, and Kahi and Lua, a novella-in-flash. She received her MFA in Fiction from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can read her recent work in SmokeLong Quarterly, Reckon Review, The Hennepin Review, Cheap Pop, Milk Candy Review, Lost Balloon, Atlas + Alice, Fictive Dream, Maudlin House, Five South, and Cotton Xenomorph. She is in Best Small Fictions 2021, Best Microfiction 2022, and Wigleaf Top 50 2022. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.
This interview was conducted over Zoom, which Melissa joined from Takasaki where she teaches English, along with her husband. On the wall next to her was her grand ukulele collection. Though we were thousands of miles apart, her warmth, infectious laughter, and animated gestures made me feel like I was in the room with her. We spoke about how she found her authentic writing voice, her MFA experience, and her love for flash fiction. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
Shipra Agarwal: Both your books – Hard Skin and Kahi and Lua – talk about Hawaiian culture, myths, people, food. Was there ever a doubt in your mind that these will not be accepted? Or, were you always sure that this is what you wanted to write about?
Melissa Llanes Brownlee: During my undergrad creative writing classes, I wrote the traditional short stories of white people. But I was also taking literary criticism classes in which I read post-colonial literature and that really influenced me. I read literature by people who were colonized, written in the language of the colonizer. I read a lot of Indian writers and Nigerian writers. And I thought, why am I not doing that? I could be writing this. I am from a colonized culture.
Anthony Doerr was teaching there while he was writing his first book, The Shell Collector, and in one of his classes I wrote my first ever story about growing up in Hawaii and about poverty and family. I wrote it in Hawaiian Pidgin Creole. It was the first story of my collection, Hard Skin.
It wasn’t easy to get the book published, though. I sent it everywhere. I sent it for about five years to contests, publishers. Every single story of that collection was placed in literary magazines, but nothing. Still, I kept sending it. You gotta have faith in your work.
Last year I noticed that FlowerSong Press was publishing a lot of Latin writers and other writers of color. They had a non-simultaneous submission policy, but they promised a quick response. So, I withdrew my book from all the other places and put my eggs in one basket and submitted to them. Within a few weeks, I got a response asking if I would consider my book a YA [Young Adult]. My stories were literary fiction and had been published in literary magazines but the main characters were all young adults and children, so I could see it working in that category. They were starting a new imprint focusing on YA and wanted to publish it.
SA: Did Kahi and Lua also go through a similar journey?
MLB: Oh, god no! Kahi and Lua was very different. Nancy Stohlman hosts FlashNano, which is in response to NaNoWriMo, on Facebook. So, I wrote this novella-in-flash based on the daily prompts for FlashNano using the same two characters. I had a vision of what I wanted, so for every prompt I wrote toward those characters. It was a crazy thing. It’s such weird experimentation. It pulls a lot from the different aspects of my personality. I love pop culture, and food, and Hawaii, and science. It was so fun to write it.
Alien Buddha Press has a really eclectic mix of writers, so I just submitted it to them and it got accepted. Now, it's out in the world.
SA: How did you move from writing short stories to flash fiction?
MLB: I have always loved flash. In the early aughts, it was called Sudden Fiction. I was reading it then, and I was copying it and giving it to my composition students because I wanted them to see that they could write something meaningful in a short space. For me, Araby from James Joyce’s Dubliners is the perfect epiphany story. It’s my favorite story of his.
So, I was trying to write flash back then, too, but in workshops everyone was like, write longer, write longer. That’s what everybody wanted. Some of the stories in Hard Skin, I had to force myself to make them longer. That’s the world we were living in back then.
Now, I barely write more than three hundred-word stories. Even my art, my doodling, is about how I can make it simpler.
SA: Your undergrad was in linguistics and creative writing. Was becoming a writer always the plan? How and when did you start writing?
MLB: One of the first stories I remember writing was when I was about twelve. I was in the sixth grade. The story was about a diamond heist; someone had spilled paint and diamonds were soaked in the paint. I was very proud of that story. But of course it went nowhere, because I was a kid. Although now-a-days there are so many journals that publish work by young writers.
Then, I wrote another story about prom. One of my friends who drew in the manga anime style, made a cover for me. But I wasn’t serious about being a writer until I went to my undergrad. Originally, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I really love the stars, I love reading science fiction, even though I can’t write it, I’ve tried. Then I took math classes and I struggled with calculus. Math is a language I have no way of understanding. I tried, I put in the work, I went to study labs, had study partners, but nope. So, I had to give up my dream.
When I graduated from high school and went to university the first time, I had to drop out after a semester because of financial constraints. What happened was – and I didn't understand this before I attended – that my scholarship was so large that I didn’t qualify for loans and was not allowed to work part-time while I studied. It covered my tuition but everything else – books, living expenses etc. – my parents were supposed to pay for it. They couldn’t afford that, so I had to leave school. I became a hairdresser; I was a hairstylist for about six years. Then, my husband and I decided to go back to school. We finished our undergrads, after which he went to law school, and I did my MFA.
SA: How was your experience of doing an MFA?
MLB: I wanted to get an MFA because yes, I wanted to write but I also needed to earn money so I wanted to teach. MFA is the terminal degree if you want to teach creative writing. Or, it was back then. Now some places require a PhD. So, if you want to stay in academia, getting an MFA is good. But the problem is that the market is so saturated that getting a tenured position is next to impossible. Most people who have stayed in the system teach as PTIs with a five to six class workload just to make ends meet.
My MFA program used the Iowa Writers Workshop method, in which the writer stays quiet and takes notes while everyone else talks about you and your writing. I’m not a big fan of that method; I like dialogue. People didn’t understand what I was trying to do. They said you need a dictionary or glossary at the back of your book because no one’s going to understand what you’re saying. I couldn’t say anything, of course, but I thought, Screw you, I’m going to write what I want to.