43.1 Feature: An Interview with Eric Tran
Eric Tran is a medical student at the University of North Carolina and holds an MFA from UNCW. He is the winner of the 2015 New Delta Review Matt Clark Prose Award and was a finalist in the 2015 Indiana Review 1/2K Prize and the Tinderbox Poetry Prize. His work appears in or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, Best of the Net, and elsewhere.
Interview by KAYLEB RAE CANDRILLI
Listen to Eric Tran read from IF ASKED from 43.1.
Black Warrior Review: “If Asked” is such a stunningly emotive piece, and in an astonishingly short amount of time. How do you navigate the flash form? What opportunities does the flash form hold for you in terms of communicating an emotional core?
Eric Tran: In my third year of medical school, my regional campus had a biweekly ethics and humanities seminar where we were to answer (or more often ignore) a prompt with a piece of writing about a clinical experience. Our facilitators had the difficult task of convincing us not to reach for conclusions or even try to fully process what we had witnessed; every session, the same: just name the different feelings and thoughts and conflicts. I think the overall aim was to stymie emotional burn out. Rather than trying to run over our feelings to more quickly achieve the ‘acceptable’ one, they wanted us to deepen our capacities for emotions, help us learn to carry what we had to hold.
I wrote a lot of flash and prose poetry during this time, mostly because of this seminar. I didn’t really care about end points, didn’t care about before and after, just where I was. Partially because the year never seemed like it would end (for better and for worse), partially because I knew the bulk of what I needed to learn was in the present, not at any cut off point. For me, flash is concerned with what you have on hand at that moment, not about where you could go or where you came from, just what is.
That approach made some of my flash incomprehensible. But other times, I think it made the experience more coherent. At the time, I lived alone and was single and spent all my time at the clinic or at the gym or at my desk writing, so hardly anyone in my life knew or shared in what I was doing day-to-day. And my flash imagined as writing to other people was my way of asking, How do I let you know where I am when you have no idea where I’ve been?
BWR: I know that you are a medical student at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “If Asked” pulls on this experience. How does the language and essence of medicine find its way into your writing?
ET: During one of my psychiatry rotations, one of the attendings would muse aloud about the field. When I went home, instead of writing the patient notes I was assigned, I instead transcribed his impromptu lectures. One of them was about medicine, particularly psychiatry, as a practice that requires varying degrees of comfort with the ambiguous and ambivalent. How far will we push for clarity when we know none exists—how many more lab tests or diagnostic procedures? Of course for every situation, the amount of ambiguity we can tolerate will and must shift. Pneumonia? Fairly little. Capacity for refusal of unnecessary catheter? Moreso. I connect with—and I suppose this is a way to say I try to model my own work on—writing that revises its stances, constantly experiments with how much ambivalence and conflict its structure—and audience—can bear.
BWR: What advice can you give to young writers about the importance and implementation of self-care practices when tangling with difficult material? How can young writers keep themselves safe when writing on their more difficult narratives?
ET: This is easily the most difficult question I’ve been asked about writing. In one sense, when you feel in danger is also when you know you’re onto something—the closer you get to the fire, the higher risk of burn. That said, we clearly do not have to be sacrifices to the art, nor is the only way to the fire barehanded. One way I’ve done this is to stop short entirely and say I’m not ready—to me, that’s OK. Writing is a lifelong art: you can come back to it, you can try it again another way. It’s not going anywhere.
But when I have pushed too far—accidentally or purposefully—I’ve on many occasions sent the draft to someone else. A trusted friend and writing colleague. Sometimes I say they don’t have to read it at all and just help me hold the writing. Other times I find someone who gets it—whatever oppression or heartbreak or destruction the writing contains—and ask them specifically to read it and offer something to keep me afloat.
I understand this is not readily accessible to everyone. The writing I want to read the most is from the most vulnerable people, who write because there’s no other way to find someone to listen. Which is perhaps a deflection: I’ve made this a call for more organizations to create and support methods for minority writers—transgender people, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, and all the intersections—to connect and produce.
BWR: Can you recommend us some contemporary writers, musicians, and visual artists? Who should we know? Who do you turn to for creative inspiration?
ET: As reminders for “what I’m doing,” I keep on my desk Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, House and Fire by Maria Hummel, and Missing You Metropolis by Gary Jackson. On my desk as newer writing are In Which I Play the Runaway by Rochelle Hurt, Hover Over Her by Leah Poole Osowski, and Prayer Book of the Anxious by Josephine Yu.
BRW: I always like to ask about guilty pleasures (though I don’t believe in being guilty about pleasure). Can you tell us a few of your “guilty pleasures?”
ET: I agree with your parenthetical—I once had a boss who didn’t like the idea of labelling any pleasure guilty—at the time, it was kind of a kill joy during our employee retreat ice breakers, but I get and believe in the idea more now. (Why do we who need the advice most ignore it the most?) But in the spirit of the question, some things I’m doing now that aren’t necessarily the Lord’s work: two regular Dungeons and Dragons campaigns (in one I am a quasi-demonic bard, in the other I’m a dwarf fighter-turned-cleric) and trolling my weight-lifting partner in Asheville (though he is 40lbs lighter than me and is only 10-15lbs behind me in our lifts).
BWR: What do you have in the works? Is there anything you can get us excited for?
ET: The only thing I can say for certain is some research about mental health needs assessments in transgender folks. I’m working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to set up a community-based assessment in North Carolina to combat post-HB2 (and now presidential election) effects on transgender people’s mental health.
In terms of writing, ever revising a book of essays from my MFA. I’m submitting a chapbook of poetry for consideration as well.