Interview with Shannon Sweetnam: Winner of the 2018 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction
Dec 14, 2018
By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Esther Hayes
Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based essay and fiction writer whose work has appeared most recently in the Chicago Tribune, terrain.org, Cleaver Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Golden Key, Literal Latte, the Pinch, Crab Orchard Review, Nano Fiction, and Georgetown Review. She is the winner of the 2016 Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Contest, 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, and two Illinois Arts Council grants. In addition, she won second prize in the 2014 Literal Latte Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2012 and 2013 SLS Summer Literary Seminars, 2013 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, 2013 David Nathan Meyerson Fiction Prize, and 2012 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction. She currently works as a real estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices KoenigRubloff Realty in Lake Forest, Illinois, and as a community outreach coordinator for Karam Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of Syrian refugees in the United States and abroad. Married with three boys, Shannon plays competitive hockey and polo in her spare time.
1. I have noticed a recurring theme in your work of girls using education to escape—either metaphorically or literally. Of course, I am thinking about “Aisha and the Good for Nothing Cat” and how Aisha finds comfort in the concrete nature of numbers and words, but I am also thinking about “Mirabel River Girl, Champion Speller” and “I, Ester.” Is this type of solace something that you experienced as a child? Where do you think that comes from in your work?
The stories that you mentioned are all coming-of-age stories, which are my favorite to write. As a teenager, reading and focusing on education is the best thing that you can do to escape difficult situations and to find hope for the future. I don’t want my characters to fail. I don’t want them to make bad decisions. I want them to be positive role models for other young people, which is who these stories are really written for.
To answer your question: without a doubt. I was addicted to math—I was on the math team and couldn’t wait to do my math homework every night. My mother was a high school math teacher, so you’d think I would have rebelled and snubbed my nose at algebra, but I didn’t. I also read voraciously as a teenager. Growing up in a small town in coastal Alabama, I often felt isolated, like the world was going by without me. I read novel after novel and on the weekends, my mother took me to the library, which had copies of the New Yorker. I sat in the magazine room in back and read about the art openings, what was in the theaters, and which dance companies were performing. I pretended to choose which events I would go to and which restaurants I would eat at in between them, until my mother finally caved in and took me there.
2. Could you speak to how “Alphabet War, Alphabet Letters” evolved into “Aisha and the Good for Nothing Cat”? What made you want to revisit that story, or did you always intend to return to that piece?
I wrote “Alphabet War, Alphabet Letters” to call attention to the plight of child victims of war. After writing that story, I “adopted” a Syrian refugee family that arrived in Chicago after spending four years in a refugee camp in Jordan. I spent an incredible amount of time with them. After getting them on their feet, I took a part-time job as a community outreach coordinator at Karam Foundation in order to help more Syrian families in the area. I heard about and witnessed incredible stories of resilience, and I wanted to share them. I felt that writing a story about a specific refugee girl would help humanize the Syrian crisis. “Alphabet War, Alphabet Letters” had the mixture of innocence, hopefulness, and longing that I wanted to portray in my new story, so if felt right to start there.
3. You write Aisha’s heartbreaking story with such grace and without oversentimentality or preciousness. As a mother, do you find it difficult to write about children that are suffering? How have you handled getting into that headspace?
I see children and adults suffering all of the time. It’s a lot harder for adults to get out of a bad place, but with children, they bounce back easier. I worked with a refugee girl in Chicago who had just finished treatment for liver cancer, only to get hit by a car while crossing the street and get sent back to the hospital with numerous broken bones. She was twelve when that happened. I saw her soon after she got out of the hospital, and she was back to smiling and joking around with her sister. She was back to just being a kid. So no, I don’t find it difficult because there is so much grace in this world. And all along, I knew that Aisha would reach a better place by the end of the story.
4. Lately, I have been wondering about the healing potential in fiction. Have you discovered throughout your career that you have come to a sense of closure about any of the issues you write about, or do you find yourself revisiting familiar themes in new ways, or a bit of both?
I often revisit that feeling of “settling,” which must be universal. I like to explore people coming to terms with what they can and cannot change about their lives and trajectories, both circumstantially and because of who they are. Like most people, I probably think every day about the things I want to change in my life that I don’t have control over. And then I think of the things in my life I want to change that I do have control over. It’s those decisions I make each day, however minute, that give me joy and a sense that I have some authority over my destiny. That’s something I have definitely learned by writing fiction.
5. Lastly, what are you working on now?
I just finished writing a love story about a young woman in her early twenties. Things do and don’t go her way, and I’m sure readers will have very different views of whether she made the right decision in the end. I’m working in a spare, minimalist style, influenced by Japanese literature and the work of Lucia Berlin, whom I’ve been reading lately. The work is subtle and understated. It doesn’t come to any grand conclusions. Sometimes it’s best to leave the story open, to stay on the train with the scenery blurring past you, letting the reader wonder about the final destination.
Read her winning story, “Aisha and the Good for Nothing Cat,” here! And if you’re interested in submitting to the Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, check out our submission guidelines and learn more about the contest here.