An Interview with PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize Winner RZ Baschir
In the upcoming weeks, we will feature Q&As with the contributors to this year’s Best Debut Short Stories anthology published by Catapult. These stories were selected for the 2022 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers by judges Sabrina Orah Mark, Emily Nemens, and Deesha Philyaw.
RZ Baschir is the 2021 Winner of The White Review Short Story Prize. She lives in London and is currently working on her debut short story collection which explores the themes of repetition, body horror, and the relationships between waking and dream life.
“The Chicken” was originally published in The White Review.
Here is an excerpt:
They say bleeding hurts. But they also say that it’s the cut that heals itself. It can’t kill you. Cuts always heal themselves. Usually what happens with cuts is they sort of go all jammy and itchy before new skin is made to cover up the hole. It starts with a yellow filmy layer, which keeps growing on top of itself, pulling at the good skin all around the hole, and then the yellow stuff dries up and hardens until the hole is patched, and then there’s a sort of ring around it, around the new skin there’s an outline, and this new bit of skin doesn’t have the same lines or texture as the old skin. And I think, is that what will happen down there when I bleed?
Can you talk a little bit about the horror element in this story, the narrator’s metamorphosis? How do you navigate the surreal as a writer?
For me, horror and the surreal come from the same source: a psychic terror, a fear of the dark, a fixation on the devouring mouth, the thing that’s not quite right, the thing that’s going to ‘get you’. In this sense, the metamorphosis of the narrator into a chicken, a commodity item, and a pathetic sort of bird – the opposite of a dove or eagle for example – is a symbol for the girl’s growing sense of her own fear and vulnerability, even though she doesn’t have the language to understand it. Surrealism and horror come from dreams and play, and I rely heavily on both to take my stories to places that feel unexpected.
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
I spent my twenties wanting to write and beating myself up about not writing. I did very little actual writing in those years and looking back on it, that was just as it should have been. I couldn’t have written the stories I am writing now back then. I wasn’t honest enough with myself about the things that really troubled or obsessed me, and I didn’t have the confidence. So, my advice would be: don’t rush it, pay attention to the things your mind constantly turns to, the things you have a vague feeling of excitement about. Over time you’ll realize there’s a story in those random images or notes you’ve collected. Write that story once without worrying too much about how it works or looks. Expect to write it over ten times, with each new draft you’re adding and crafting and building a world. Try to give yourself the time to do that.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
A vague feeling of dread.
What inspired you to write this story? Where did the idea come from?
The main source of inspiration for the story is my own experience of being a woman and a person of color. The characters, locations, and events are a composite of images real and imagined from different parts of my life.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
I had no expectations of the story resonating with an audience beyond the UK so the prize has been a lovely surprise. It’s a huge confidence boost, and it’s great to be connected to the other winners at such an early point in our writing lives.