Jo Saleska | 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize Winner
In the coming 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 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers by judges Venita Blackburn, Richard Chiem, and Dantiel W. Moniz.
Jo Saleska lives and writes in St. Louis, Missouri. Her fiction appears in Peatsmoke, Fauxmoir, Bone Parade, and elsewhere. Her story “Insomnia,” published by Alternating Current Press, was nominated for Best Microfiction 2023. She has an MA in literature from the University of Missouri, Columbia and recently completed her MFA at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where she was awarded the Mary Troy Prize for Fiction. Find her at josaleska.com.
“Acts of Creation” was originally published in Peatsmoke.
Here is an excerpt:
Dr. Mann assures me that nightmares, too, are common. […] I have dreamt of giving birth to a child with six mouths, all of which are insatiably hungry, and of one with beady eyes on the tips of each of its fingers, which watch me wherever I go. Tonight, I dream that I give birth to my tablemate’s cerulean statue. It cries blue paint, leaves blue handprints all over our upholstery. My husband is disappointed because he was so hoping for a boy.
When I wake, sunlight pulses through the blinds, sending fiery lines across the bed. I draw myself a bath and slide into the water, letting the cold push the air from the pit of my lungs.
What inspired you to write “Acts of Creation?” Where did the idea come from?
Maybe this is a boring answer, but I revised my way into the idea. I wrote the first version of the story longhand in a spiral notebook one night when I couldn’t sleep. The main character was a newly married woman who inexplicably receives a live garden gnome in the mail. The narrative was quirky and strange, and it had a strong voice, but the story wasn’t really about anything. I revised it probably a dozen times and sent it out to journals, but none picked it up—for good reason. When I got pregnant, a few months before the first COVID-19 lockdowns, I picked the story up and started revising again. My experiences with pregnancy (and that good ol’ pregnancy-in-a-pandemic angst) worked their way into my revisions, and things finally started clicking. I was like, “Ah! This is what the story is about!”
You say: “Women made all of humankind. We literally make people.” There’s a bit of a double entendre here, what with the main character about to give birth and her tablemate’s statue coming to life later in the story–how do these two things correlate? What do they reveal about the expectation for women to provide?
I heard a woman artist say some version of those words on a podcast interview years ago, and it stuck with me because it’s brilliant. I cannot now remember who said it, or even the name of the podcast, but as I was revising “Acts,” the idea found its way into the dialogue.
Yes, the main character is absolutely grappling with the expectation that women must set aside all else—career, artistic pursuits, personal pleasures and comforts, physical and psychological autonomy, etc.—to serve their children and future children. She deeply desires to make art, but as she prepares to give birth, she sees the possibility of creating anything worthwhile narrowing.
But as her tablemate points out, making and raising a human is itself an extraordinarily creative act. Are not we all just fleshy, rebellious little sculptures that move about the world, evoke emotion, make impact? So, the main character is left wrestling with one of the many paradoxes of motherhood: she is (justifiably) frightened that pregnancy and parenting will rob her of her ability to create; yet she is also already engaging in her own act of creation.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
I hope readers feel seen. If they don’t feel seen, I hope they momentarily experience the “inherent uncanniness of being a woman,” as Carmen Maria Machado puts it. And, of course, I hope readers are entertained and that their imaginations are provoked.
How has the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
I could not be more thankful for this prize, which came at a time when I was swimming in rejections. Even the nomination alone gave me a much-needed confidence boost and served as a reminder to keep going.
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
Write what you enjoy writing, not what you think other people want to read. Tell your inner critic to shove it. Read a ton, but don’t use reading as an excuse to avoid writing. Be kind to yourself.