Author Amy Dupcak recalls being an introspective child, fascinated by her own imagination. It is no coincidence that her debut collection of short stories, Dust, tumbles headlong into the dreamy space of adolescence like a whirlpool of recovered memories. Read on for a sample from Dust and to learn more about Amy’s thoughts on “strong female characters,” on older men dominating the youths of girls, and why her teachers teased her for putting her feet on her desk:
Excerpt from “In Limbo” in Dust
The cafeteria smelled like a swimming pool.
At exactly 12:25, a hundred and thirty girls lined up single-file to walk through the cafeteria’s backdoor, along the path by the parking lot, and into the fenced-in playground and field. The playground was a mixed ensemble of new plastic equipment and rusted metal apparatuses. The chains of the swings were particularly antiquated.
Kristen and Jenny, with matching ponytails, held Tara’s hands and pulled her to their spot behind the swings, which squawked like hungry birds. They sat cross-legged on the blacktop while Tara hugged her bare knees to her chest.
“Make another keychain, we need a lot more to sell at Jenny’s tag sale on Saturday.” Kristen pushed her lunch-box, filled with plastic lanyard, toward Tara’s feet.
“I’m tired,” she protested, squishing the bottom of her face against her knees.
“Oh, come on,” Kristen persisted.
“She doesn’t have to,” Jenny said.
“Whatever.” Kristen took her half-finished lanyard out of the lunchbox. “What was wrong with you? You missed the math quiz when you were absent. It was easy though.”
“No it wasn’t,” Jenny mumbled.
“I don’t know, I guess I had the flu.” Tara rested her chin sideways and sniffled as evidence.
“Did you get to watch a lot of TV?” Kristen asked. “Soap operas and stuff?”
“Or those shows where guys throw chairs at each other?” Jenny added.
“No,” Tara sighed, tugging the ends of her hair. “My mom said she didn’t want me to infect the whole house, so I just stayed in my room.”
She remembered how she’d lingered in a state between wake and sleep for most of the week. At night, she’d watch iridescent particles flutter around the room like moths. In the interim hours between Monday and Tuesday, she’d woken with the weight of gravity pulling every muscle. A landscape of shapes buzzed and hummed and bubbled on the ceiling. She’d tried to rise, but crumbled to the carpet. Half crawling, she inched down the hallway until she’d reached her parents’ door, only to find it locked. She’d knocked softly, careful not to “wake the entire house,” but then her heart picked up pace and something caught in her chest: trapped, frantically beating its wings. She knocked three more times. Still no answer. She’d imagined her mother and father lying dead like supermarket fish.
Mika had entered the hallway wearing a t-shirt and socks. She’d picked up Tara and carried her to bed, wringing a wet washcloth and placing it on her forehead. “Go back to sleep, you’ll be okay,” she had whispered. In the morning, Mika left a note for Naoko, who took Tara’s temperature and reluctantly called in sick for the both of them.
“That sucks,” Kristen said, “I always get to watch TV when I’m sick.”
Jenny nodded in agreement.
“Hey Tara, I can see your underwear!” The voice could have only belonged to Natalie, who had been teasing Tara exclusively since second grade. It used to be about her glasses, which Tara refused to wear anymore, though she had to squint to see the chalkboard and faraway people were immersed in fog. Other times it was about how quiet she was, which made the teasing all the more possible. Mostly it centered on Tara being the only East Asian girl in the entire grades 1-8 Catholic school. Half-Asian, actually, with a non-practicing Jewish father.
Natalie walked closer with her friends giggling nearby. Her corkscrew curls caught the sunlight, shining storybook gold.
“I don’t care,” Tara said, stretching her legs and covering her knees with the navy jumper. The blacktop felt warm under the noon sun. She wished she could lay every inch of her skin on it.
“Of course you don’t care. That’s because you’re a slut!” Natalie and friends erupted in laughter. Tara knew she should feel offended, but she wasn’t sure what this new word meant.
Kristen stood, gripping her keychain and narrowing her eyes. “Leave her alone, Natalie, she didn’t do anything to you.”
Natalie’s friends cried, “Oooh,” with hands over their mouths. Tara’s fourth grade class and Natalie’s fellow fifth grade girls were craning their necks from various spots on the playground to witness the showdown.
“You better watch your mouth, little girl,” Natalie threatened, moving closer to Kristen. “Who wears red underwear anyways? Tara is such a slut, she probably makes money doing it.”
A possible meaning clicked in Tara’s mind as Natalie pinched the pleats of her skirt and performed a small curtsey. The big girls strutted, still laughing, back to their clique camped out by the parallel bars.
Kristen sat down again, obviously shaken. “That girl is so immature!” she gasped, gripping the lanyard. “She’s the one who’s a slut, right?”
Tara could only sigh in response. She didn’t think Kristen really knew what she was saying, and she tried not to care what Natalie thought. It was old news, and she felt so very tired.
When the bell rang again, the girls formed a crooked line and Sr. Lucille led them back into the building. Before ducking inside, Tara caught a glimpse of two clouds swimming in sync, stilled in slow motion. She reached out to grasp them, but they were much too far away.
This story is so nostalgic; is this inspired by your childhood? What were you like at this age?
I’m naturally nostalgic, so my childhood tends to inspire me creatively. Like my character Tara, I also went to Catholic school, although mine was more racially diverse and I wasn’t bullied. At that age, I was bold and outspoken; my fourth grade teacher made fun of me for constantly putting my legs on the desk and trying to cut off my hair with safety scissors! I loved dancing, telling stories, and performing skits for the entire class, but I was also introspective and serious like Tara. I’ve always been distracted by the intensity of my dreams and imagination, and I tried to convey this internal landscape in “In Limbo.”
Are the other stories in Dust inspired by true events?
Some of the stories are thinly veiled fiction. For me, writing is most cathartic and authentic when I’m reflecting on past experiences and transforming them for the page. But even when I invent characters and storylines, my personality often sneaks in; since any form of art is inherently subjective, it’s almost impossible not to inject myself into the narrative. For example, the main character of “Anything To Save Her” is a friendless twelve-year-old boy obsessed with superheroes. On the face of it Jacob is nothing like me, but if you inspect him further, you’ll realize that his hearing aids, love of words, nosey curiosity, and heightened sensitivity are all parts of me too.
Do you write strong female characters? What is a strong female character to you?
I do consciously write strong female characters, and my stories come from a feminist perspective, though perhaps not overtly. Many of the female protagonists in Dust are trying to figure out who they are, so they’re confused about how to make good choices or express themselves, especially to men. A strong female character is multidimensional: vulnerable yet resilient, cautious yet tenacious. She isn’t confined to gender norms and doesn’t exist as an object or reward. Above all, she’s active, realistic, and fallible, not someone’s fantasy or attempt to represent all women.
What do the characters in your stories say about girlhood and womanhood?
Girls often grow up faster under more critical scrutiny, with the pressure to be polite, demure, attractive, and sexually submissive. These patriarchal expectations make it difficult for girls to be vocal or assertive about what they actually want, and without a healthy way to express the anger or aggression that’s permitted for boys, girls often take it out on themselves. My story “Skills” speaks to this most, since it’s set in a group therapy session for college students who self-harm.
Throughout Dust, my female characters wrestle with their emotions and desires as they internalize pressures from the outside world. Some of them navigate toxic situations with older boys or men who seek to harm, seduce, or manipulate them. Many of my characters simply want to be taken seriously, which I think is common among women today. Some also learn that, as women, saying no can be more powerful than saying yes.
What are your stories about, and what do you hope readers will learn or take away from this collection?
My book explores themes of alienation, longing, self-destruction and ultimately self-awareness in the formative phases of youth. The protagonists in Dust range from ages nine to thirty, and they take risks, make mistakes, and learn painful truths as they seek out meaningful connections. I hope readers will see themselves in these characters so they can reflect on their past in a way that’s honest and not just idyllic. I want readers to understand the difficulties many face as they cope with the loss of innocence and naivety. Lastly, I’d love for readers to embrace their own eccentricities and find beauty in our everyday reality.
Top photo: Flickr/Joanne
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