As I've mentioned many times, one of the best benefits of working on Instafiction is the element of random discovery. In many hours of story research, there's a fluctuating mix of tedium, dead ends, and stories that seem promising but turn out to be the opposite. In August of 2011, I happened to come across a story called The Counterfeit, a 2010 piece in Asia Literary Review. What seemed like a standard mystery/crime tale turned out to be a stunning layer of contemporary criminal justice in foreign countries and a study of a cultural divisions that yield frightening implications. After the story was featured, we received a very thoughtful e-mail from the story's writer, David Yost. It was one of our first communications from someone we featured, and was therefore an indication that the project could effectively bridge the gap between a daunting number of readers, writers, and publications.
Out of curiosity, I did more research on Mr. Yost, and his work and publications are nothing short of impressive. He has been published in a variety of journals, including American Short Fiction and The Minnesota Review, and has done work with the Peace Corps and Amnesty International. His stories explore a wealth of international ideas, with an emphasis on cultural differences and immigrant transitions. This last idea is prevalent in All Their Riches (featured by Instafiction on December 26th, 2011), a Sun Magazine story about Karen immigrants in Milwaukee. After visiting his website and finding out more about his life and work, I contacted him via e-mail to request an interview. He graciously agreed to answer my questions, and his answers provided genuine insights into his work and creative process. He was also kind enough to share details of his forthcoming novels and translations, and the breadth of his work combines the rare dual threat of entertainment and education.
Jamie Yates: Jeremy [Bushnell] posed this question to me over the summer, and I find it to be an effective ice-breaker: If you're comfortable sharing, can you describe what you would consider to be the worst piece of writing you've done?
David Yost: I can give you the exact sentence: “But in the rainy season, the landmines slid and shifted in the mud, transforming the hills of Karen State into a smorgasbord of death.” But of course, the magic of writing is that nobody ever has to see these boneheaded rough-draft sentences but you.
JY: You've previously volunteered with the Peace Corps, and you're active with Amnesty International. Since your short fiction draws heavily on international politics and the plight of refugees, did your work inspire you to write fictional takes on these issues, or did you just combine two passions?
DY: My interest in writing came first, actually, but after I made my first trip to the Thai-Burma border, I knew I’d be writing about that for a long time. I worked there in a hospital for victims of the ongoing Karen State conflict, and I could hardly believe the things that I saw and heard: forced labor, mass rapes, whole villages destroyed, children dying of landmines and preventable diseases that have been eliminated in almost everywhere else on earth. And yet despite having gone on for six decades, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, despite the region having the highest mortality in all of Asia and the most landmines per square mile in the world, no one talks about this war; most people don’t even know it’s happening.
Getting to know people from a conflict zone changes your life. It’s one thing to see something like that on the news and say, “Oh, how awful.” Meeting them in person forces you to acknowledge that they’re as human as you are, and that the destruction of their hometown is every bit as terrible as the destruction of your own hometown would be. And once you’ve acknowledged that, how can you not help? It’s an experience I want to bring home to readers however I can.
JY: In your story The Counterfeit, a young man faces a harrowing ordeal with a foreign police system. What was your inspiration for this piece?
DY: The usual hodge-podge. One night, a friend told me about his nervousness exchanging money for his students; it was such an obvious “What if…” that I had a finished outline figured out before I’d even finished walking home. I’d once had a development colleague who had gone overseas to put Kantian theory into practice; bits of him went in, too.
JY: Do you feel that immigrant experiences vary depending on the region or country, or is it a generally collective experience?
DY: I suppose you can draw broad similarities between any cultural transition experience, but things vary widely between nations, groups, and even individuals. Karen immigrants are portrayed in immigration office handbooks as a group that has particular difficulty in adapting to the US because of the comparative modesty of Karen culture, particularly the strictures on asking for help. Yet I’m still in touch with friends and former co-workers who have adjusted quite smoothly.
JY: You write as an American inhabiting the role and feelings of contemporary Karen immigrants in All Their Riches. Is there a contemporary Burmese writer whom you feel serves as a spokesperson for the people?
DY: Wendy Law-Yone is probably the most acclaimed Burmese writer on the world stage, and her Coffin Tree is excellent. I’m not aware of any Karen authors writing fiction in English, though Zoya Phan’s recently published memoirs are an excellent first-person look at the conflict.
JY: The Last Days Of Menilek II has traces of politics, but is one of your more explicitly historical pieces. When writing, do you think in broad thematic terms (such as "political" or "historical"), or do you put more emphasis on a more concrete plot idea?
DY: I usually start with an accumulation of raw material that catches my interest, and trust that a theme will emerge later. I read about the electric chair he had imported to Ethiopia, and that got me started reading more about his life; I probably read seven or eight biographies just to write those four pages. When I had enough interesting details—the bizarre treatments of his international medical staff, the strokes that caused a secession crisis, the rumors of witchcraft—I started drafting, later whittling down to only my favorite details.
JY: You're working on a translation of Massa Makan Diabaté's The Lieutenant of Kouta. Is this your first translation? If so, what themes or plot points do you feel will speak to English language readers?
DY: It is my first translation, and I’m happy to say an excerpt from it just appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review. I think The Lieutenant of Kouta is, quite simply, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read; it’s raunchy, fast-moving, and ruthlessly satirical. Yet it also asks some serious questions about cultural conflict, as its Malian protagonist finds himself caught between the French colonial government, the traditional Malinké aristocracy, the town’s imam, and the colony’s growing independence movement.
JY: Aside from colloquial and structural differences, what is the most challenging aspect of translating a novel?
DY: Translating anything into a synonym-rich language like English is a time-consuming process. I’m lucky to have found a skilled (and far more fluent) co-translator in Shane Auerbach, and he and I can sit and argue about the precise difference between, say, “struggled with his conscience” and “wrestled with his conscience” for hours at a time.
Another unique challenge of translating The Lieutenant of Kouta is that Diabaté himself is writing in French instead of Malinké, and so he’s already translated these idioms and cultural concepts into one foreign language. To give a small example, a hangar-like shade roof called a gwa is a common outdoor structure for Malian households. Diabaté usually calls this a hangar in his French novel, but to avoid confusing readers, Shane and I bypassed the French to give a clearer English description of a gwa, a “shade roof”.
JY: Would you be willing to share any thoughts on your own novel in progress?
DY: Sure—it’s called The Altruist’s Children, and it’s the story of two well-intentioned American volunteers who travel to the Thai-Burma border, only to find themselves pulled into the violence of the civil war. It’s based in part on a series of interviews I conducted while working there, and I plan to donate any proceeds to the Mae Tao Clinic, the Thailand refugee hospital at which I used to work.
JY: Are there any people or regions you wish to explore further in future novels or short stories?
DY: Too many for one lifetime! Right now the story I’m dying to write is about the Australian “Emu Wars”, in which the Australian government sent armed soldiers to eliminate its growing emu population. But I’m also got pieces in the works about Satchel Paige’s stint with the white religious commune/traveling baseball team “The House of David”, and Swedish explorer S. A. Andrée’s disastrous attempt to cross the Arctic Circle by balloon. My second novel, which is also in progress, is the story of a voluntarily homeless Karen immigrant who becomes an unwilling media sensation when he saves the deputy mayor of St. Louis from a mugger (tentative title: A Kingdom Lost for a Drop of Honey). Lastly, I have some research on 1960s Uruguayan resistance fighters left over from The Altruist’s Children that I’m interested in building on. But in all honesty, if you close your eyes and pick a country at random from the map, I probably want to write about it; researching new topics is my favorite part of being a writer.
On behalf of Instafiction, I am very grateful for David Yost taking the time to answer these questions, and I am looking forward to his future projects.