Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction
Ploughshares is pleased to present Ramona Ausubel with the fifth annual Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction for her short story “Fresh Water from the Sea,” which appeared in the Summer 2015 issue, guest-edited by Lauren Groff. The $1,000 award, given by acclaimed writer and Ploughshares advisory editor Alice Hoffman, honors the best piece of fiction published in the journal during the previous year.
About Ramona Ausubel and “Fresh Water from the Sea”
Ramona Ausubel’s new novelSons and Daughters of Ease and Plentywill be out in June 2016 from Riverhead Books. She is also the author ofNo One Is Here Except All of Us(Riverhead Books, 2012) andA Guide to Being Born(Riverhead Books, 2013).Her work has appeared in TheNew Yorker,One Story,Electric Literature,and elsewhere. She is currently a faculty member of the Low-Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
What inspired “Fresh Water from the Sea”?
The very first version of the story sprang into my head when I was talking to a friend about an argument she had had with her mother, who was very different from my friend. My own mom and I are similar, and it struck me as an amazing truth that a person might give birth to someone utterly unlike herself and that a child might grow up in a family that she does not relate to.
Then, a few years later, my family and I spent a year in my hometown, which I have always loved and missed (I moved away when I was seventeen). Coming back was surprisingly sad. I missed missing home. Being a person at some distance from her upbringing had become part of my identity, and I didn’t know quite who to be once I came back.
Somewhere in my brain, these two stories made sense together, and I chose to set it in Beirut because there are many more Lebanese people living outside Beirut than in it and it seemed like the ultimate missed home. I spent exactly two days there several years ago and otherwise my information is imagined.
What did you discover or grapple with while writing it?
I grappled with the mechanics of the mother’s disappearance. I wanted a physical thing to happen, for the emptiness of not being able to miss her home anymore to actually make her body thin out, like a cloud. It took a long time to find the exact right imagery for this, for it to feel actual. Meanwhile, I worked to make the relationship between mother and daughter as sharply specific as possible, for the city to be all hard lines and real materials, for the years spent away to be a rich soil for the mother’s nostalgia.
How does this story fit with the rest of your work?
“Fresh Water from the Sea” comes out of a new collection of stories I am finishing entitled Awayland. All of the stories take place in different parts of the world and are about people far from home in many different ways. Some are fantastical, like this one. There is an online dating profile written by a Cyclops and a story that enters the consciousness of a group of mummified animals and a story about three shipwrecked Vikings who discover a dying mermaid, and others. Whether there’s magic or not, I’m always interested in the ways in which love forces us to stretch, sometimes in strange and unimaginable ways.