Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor Sara Mang

Sara Mang’s prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Quarterly, Canadian Literature, Room, and CV2. In 2018, she was a contender for the Malahat Review’s Poetry Award and the Bristol Story Prize. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia.

Sara's essay “Table(s) of Content" will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 13, for special savings.

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What I love about “Table(s) of Content” is the wonderful description of details and place. When writing this story, how did you juggle the relationship of place with the idea of a traditional narrative that helps propel a piece through that place?

My favourite stories leave me with a textured sense of place. As in Lorrie Moore’s story, “Community Service,” when she describes her library as a muted place where books are treated as tenderly as dishes or dolls. Such detail creates a potent atmosphere that seeps into the story. “Table(s) of Content” evolved through my own exploration of grief following the death of my mother. Such melancholy territory has the potential to be static in its sentiment. I include details that are lived in and lovingly collected because they usher movement throughout a life. The descriptions of bedroom closets, dining room tables and frost-covered clotheslines in the middle of a Labrador winter, was meant to portray cinematic snapshots of a family life and of friendship, with the overall narrative arc spanning the short but delicately woven life of my mother in Labrador.

You are currently an MFA student at the University of British Columbia, and the story you have published with us takes place in Canada. Can you share some of the Canadian authors whom you have enjoyed or looked up to as you started your writing career, and why?

Canada is where many short fiction giants roam! Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, and Lucy Maud Montgomery are but a handful of our glorious pioneers. In one breath, Munro has been likened to both Chekhov and Flaubert. We couldn’t ask for more. But we have much more. I admire Lisa Moore’s layered style and winding prose that offers the very consciousness of her characters. Heather O’Neill enchants, Miriam Toews devastates, Kathleen Winter distills with whimsey, and Paige Cooper mesmerizes at breakneck speed. We have an endless feast for imagination up north and our authors deliver. You should read them!

Juggling the various methods of conveying a story while being able to detach somewhat from a familial situation can be a challenge for any writer. How did you go about the process, and what advice can you give other writers attempting to do the same?

The structure of “Table(s) of Content” is a kind of cubism, really—layering angles, refusing to allow one perspective to obscure another. I don’t know that this was my intent at the story’s inception, but I was eager to avoid a maudlin account of my mother’s passing while maintaining its profound essence. The tables and their contents, and their owners for that matter, provide a focal point for the story. The tables are something to lean on during a conversation that is ultimately devastating. Although there are numerous conversations happening in this piece, the principal one exists between my mother and me, its subject being one of terminal loss. Periods of intense grief are often accompanied by an earnest maintenance of rituals: haircuts, laundry, homework, as a means to cope. It is often through rituals that a certain realm of comfort permits the surfacing of deep-seated truths. The benign construct of the tables allowed me to generate the more precious elements of sentiment surrounding the life and loss of my mother.

A piece of advice that I often share is from Joy Williams who said we must listen ruthlessly for the swiftly moving current that flows beneath the surface of the story.