Short and Sweet: Helen Chau Bradley + Personal Attention Roleplay

May 10, 2022

Helen Chau Bradley's collection  Personal Attention Roleplay (Metonymy Press) was recently named a finalist for the 2021 Danuta Gleed Literary Award for short stories. Read on to see why Helen says "writing a short story often feels like solving a puzzle" and catch an excerpt from their story "Surface Dive."

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May is Short Story Month, and this year All Lit Up celebrates this under-appreciated form with Short and Sweet, a little series featuring 12 short story collections and their authors, who share brief thoughts on the short form.

 

A (short) interview with Helen Chau Bradley, author of Personal Attention Roleplay

All Lit Up: Describe your collection in under 100 words.

Helen Chau Bradley: The stories in Personal Attention Roleplay explore the excitement, dread, and disappointment of intimacy, whether between friends, lovers, bandmates, or family members—sometimes even with the dead. Its protagonists are sometimes isolated, sometimes multiply voiced—and more often than not queer, Asian, and disoriented by the details of the contemporary world.

 

ALU: What do you love about the short story form?

HCB: Writing a short story often feels like solving a puzzle—infuriating and full of limits and rules, and then, eventually, so satisfying. There is very little space in which to achieve what I set out to do, which is usually to get the narrative to a point of unbearable friction, or to bring the reader and the characters somewhere they could not have expected at the beginning. The form also allows a lot of experimentation with framing, with illumination and concealment—what to foreground and what to exclude are of such importance when a story lives and dies in 2500 words, or 1500, or 500.

 

ALU: Who is your fave short story author?

HCB: If I can give a few (I don’t like choosing one favourite): Silvina Ocampo, Julio Cortázar, Mariana Enriquez, Paige Cooper, Callum Angus.

 

An excerpt from "Surface Dive"

Slipping into the clear, pungent water is easy, like it used to be.

The tiles are smooth and reliable, a regular grid beneath her feet. The sun beats through the windows, set high near the ceiling, illuminating every corner of the pool. Light squiggles on the water as swimmers in pastel bathing caps churn up and down the lanes.

It is not the lake, she reminds herself. Everything in the community-centre pool is visible, knowable. The water is soft and warm, a gentle turquoise bath. The pace clock keeps time in the corner, its four arms turning like a patient windmill: yellow, red, green, blue, simple as kindergarten.

She chooses the fast lane. She’s never been tentative, was always the kid nabbing the first spot in line at the high dive, always called first guard when on duty, always bounded into the bone-chilling lake before anyone else when the spring ice broke open.

Snapping her goggles into place, she considers the rhythmic back and forth of the other swimmers, and launches herself from the wall at the correct interval. Good, she thinks, letting herself glide below the surface before the first pull of the arms, the first whip of the legs. No sign of panic in her chest. No sign of the full-body rattling that overtook her after that last swim.

The fast lane is moving at a satisfying speed. The swimmer ahead manages a clipped, measured butterfly. There is no crowding at the ends of the lane. Exhaling a thick stream of bubbles, she welcomes the underwater muffle, punctured by spurts of echoing noise each time she rises to inhale. She delights at the efficiency of her own motions. Her limbs and lungs have locked into rhythm, without her having to think about it. Turning at the end of the lane, she glimpses the teen lifeguard, red vest unchanged since her own days on the high throne.

Pull, pull, breathe, pull, pull, breathe, pull, pull, breathe.

As she swam through that other water, the sunset cast a glinting golden path to that bobbing head. Head-up front crawl was what you were supposed to do to keep the person in sight. It may look like they are trying to climb an invisible ladder, she’d been told, in her National Lifeguard Service course years before. It may not look the way you think it would. Keep your gaze focussed; don’t waste any time. Reading alone on the dock before dinner, she’d glanced up to see someone thrashing in the middle of the bay. She’d screamed for help, and launched herself from her deck chair into the lake with the same breath.

It could have just been another one of her grandmother’s disturbing stories, told in an urgent whisper in the quiet afternoon when the other adults were off drinking cocktails on the dock. A favourite great-uncle drowned during a swim to Lone Pine Point. He was fit, made the distance easily every day of every summer. Until. It was a terrible shock to everyone, Grandma said. No one could recognize his bloated body when it was found. You should never swim in the evening, after eating. You should never swim without someone watching you from the dock. And keep an eye out for strangers lurking around the property. It could have been foul play, you never know. Their family had owned the cottage and the land it stood on since the early twentieth century. Grandma and the other adults had an irritating suspicion of trespassers, of “people from town” or “vagabonds” infiltrating the woods, “stealing” swims in the lake. It was a shared attitude among all the cottagers in the area. A kayak paddle would go missing at the Dorions’ or the McEacherns’, and the phone in the kitchen would start ringing frantically, neighbours shouting down the line about padlocks and security cameras and “mandatory visitor passes.”

But she looked forward to cottage time every summer, to the sweet scent of sun-drenched rock, and the slow creak of the rowboat, and the moody blue-green lake, so easy to disappear into. She searched for signs of the great-uncle, who sometimes appeared as a smudged face in a photo full of smudged faces, easy to overlook. “Is that him?” she remembers asking her father, sitting beside him on the scratchy cottage couch. “Is that who?” He seemed puzzled, turned the filmy page of the photo album. “Turn it back! Great-Uncle Edmond—Grandma said that was him in the photo, when she came up last year.” Her father had looked at her blankly.

“The one who drowned, I mean. She said that sometimes she could still see him, swimming in the lake.” But Grandma’s memory was notoriously unreliable. “Don’t scare your sister,” she was told. “Don’t scare the cousins. No more Grandma stories, no more Great-Uncle Edmond.”

Kick, kick, evenly, without bending the knees, kick from the hips, kick, kick, don’t splash, don’t think about foot cramps, never think about those.

Her head-up front crawl was still strong, even though she hadn’t lifeguarded for a couple of years. “Hold on,” she yelled, face lapped by waves. “Just hold on, I’m coming!” Who could the person be? She could make out short grey hair, an open mouth, gaping at water level. An older man, she guessed. He looked somehow familiar, maybe he was a guest of the second cousins down the lake? A more distant relation? He was farther out than she had initially thought. Should have taken one of the canoes, she cursed herself. His head was now underwater more often than above. He was splashing less. He wasn’t shouting. Drowners were often silent, she’d been told. She propelled herself frantically forward, her thighs burning with effort.

 

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A photo of author Helen Chau Bradley. They look down toward the lens; clouds lit by the sunset in the background.

Helen Chau Bradley is a writer and musician living in Tio'tia:ke / Montreal. They are the author of Automatic Object Lessons (House House Press, 2020). Their stories and essays have appeared in carte blanche, Cosmonauts Avenue, Entropy Magazine, Maisonneuve Magazine, the Montreal Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Photo by Surah Field-Green.

 

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Don't touch that dial: you can  catch up with our short story month series Short and Sweet right here. And follow along on social with #ALUShortandSweet.


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