Sonia Feldman | 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.
Sonia Feldman is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. She runs Sonia’s Poem of the Week, an email newsletter sharing one good poem a week plus commentary. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in literary journals like The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She is currently at work on her debut novel. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
“Outgrowth” was originally published in Waxwing Magazine.
Here is an excerpt:
I wake feeling whole, entire, a new integrity in my body. I blink into darkness, a moment passing before I understand where the light has gone. While I slept, the plants bent across the aisle above, enclosing me in a warm, green shadow. Several white flowers dangle just above my face. I take one by the stem. The whole plant looks swollen. Its white flowering head droops heavily. Its stamen, usually hair thin, clasped by the mouth of the petals, are thick, laden with pollen. My breath scatters a cloud of orange. Sitting up, I get dressed in my suit. I duck beneath the bridge of stems and flowers and make my way into the open. I get to my feet, and my chest draws in sharp and quick.
What inspired you to write this story? Where did the idea come from?
I was having a terrible time writing my novel. I decided I needed to work on something I could finish, a short text instead of a book. I read a story in a literary journal about an isolated male scientist who watches porn and then goes bonkers, and I thought—now that’s a plot I could write. Inheriting a premise and then making it my own felt more achievable than starting from zero.
One of my favorite deranged-but-is-she-really scientists is Poison Ivy. I watched a lot of Cartoon Network growing up, including many episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, a show I came back to during the pandemic after I started watching the new Harley Quinn. Both of these shows helped me develop the aesthetics of “Outgrowth,” the green and orange, the sense of enclosure within botanical life.
Ultimately, I was interested in thinking about how a person, in particular a woman, could endure (or even choose for herself) an isolation extreme enough to develop a connection with the natural world that supersedes her connection with the human one.
How do you use femininity and the natural world to convey a sense of power in this story?
I think this effect can be traced back to a reversal at the heart of the story. I set up a familiar power dynamic at the facility where Nomi works. Scientific knowledge is being used to manipulate nature. Nomi is the only woman scientist in a group of men, and she suffers through some of the usual consequences of that arrangement.
Her approach to the work differs from theirs—at first in the expected way. She’s working harder than they are. She cares more. She’s getting better results, and these results go unnoticed. Then the story starts to strain this dynamic. Nomi isn’t just doing a better job; she’s deviating from accepted protocol in a way that’s both dangerous and revelatory.
Sex—which normally connects humans to each other—which also reveals our status as just one more form of biological life on Earth—becomes a conduit for redrawing these initial lines of relation (of power). Nomi starts the story as one of the scientists and ends the story as one of the plants.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
Throughout the story, Nomi searches for relief from herself and her thoughts. That’s what reading gives me—the opportunity to think somebody else’s thoughts instead of my own. And that’s what I hope my writing might offer to someone else, a respite from the usual cadence of living.
How has the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
After winning the prize, I think I calmed down a little bit. I celebrated and then I took a breath. I’d been writing on my own for a while, no school, no deadline, no one waiting to read what I’d written. I found and continue to find a lot of pleasure and freedom in working this way, but at the same time, it’s an isolating experience (probably one of the reasons why I was interested in writing about a character experiencing isolation).
I often felt dogged by the unreality of my writing. No one had seen it! Did it exist? What was I spending all my time on? Even after the story had been published, these feelings persisted. I doubt they’ll ever go away entirely, but winning this prize helped make my writing and my progress as a writer feel real. Being able to come to the award ceremony and celebrate in person really helped me internalize the accomplishment as having happened. I’ve ordered the anthology from my local bookstore (shout out to Loganberry Books in Cleveland), and I can’t wait to go pick it up on publication day. I can’t wait to hold the story in my hands. I’m incredibly grateful to PEN America and the Dau family for this honor.
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
Every sentence you write is a placeholder for a future better sentence. Use this as license to write the worst (often most obvious) version of the information you need to convey or effect you hope to create in order to move forward. This will be painful because it will violate your sensibilities. Trust that your future self will also be disgusted by this bit of bad writing and come up with a replacement you’ll like better. Your future self can only do this important work if she knows what she’s trying to replace. You have to put the bad version in this draft in order to come up with a better version in the next.