Behind the Words: Michael Chin

Posted by on Jan 18, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Michael Chin

Michael Chin has had work in various publications, including The Normal School, Passages North, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Iron Horse Literary Review, Front Porch Journal, Bellevue Literary Review, Prairie Schooner online, Waccamaw, and Word Riot. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize Best New Poets, Best Microfiction, and Best of the Net honors  and had work on the Longlist for Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions (2017). His debut novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours came out from Cowboy Jamboree Press in 2021.

Here, we discuss his Issue 10 story, “Contortions.”

What I love about this story is the relationship between the two sisters, how realistic it is — that combination of resentment and caring feels so true. Was there ever a draft of this story where the contortionist was wholly sacrificing? Or one where she was wholly selfish?

To be honest, this story came out relatively whole—there was a fair amount of re-working at the sentence level, but the character dynamics and most of the plot were there from early on. In my mind, it was pretty foundational to the protagonist that she’d have been influenced—if not defined—by this relationship with her sister and how she lost her. The illness and the loss are the biggest pieces, naturally, but all the sibling baggage, including the resentment that shouldn’t be, but inevitably is there was all intrinsic to the character and situation.

It’s so interesting that the contortionist chooses this hobby to pass the time while her family is away for doctors’ visits. What is it about this character that makes her choose contortionism rather than, say, baking or archery?

This was one of the last few pieces I wrote in Circus Folk, a full-length collection that came in 2019 from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle that’s all about different circus performers and, often as not, what led them to their circus careers. After I’d written a lot of the longer, core pieces, I started brainstorming other kids of performers I might address, and the idea of writing about a contortionist stemmed from that list-making process. I started to envision this contortionist’s act ending with her folding herself up into a box something like a coffin, and the rest of the story sort of reverse-engineered itself from there. 

The parents are mentioned here briefly, but otherwise they remain offstage for the story, giving the impression of the sisters against the world. Is this isolation intentional?

It was quickly clear to me that this was going to be a flash piece and as such, I wanted to keep the cast of characters tightly contained. I suppose that having the parents more present might have opened up additional avenues for this story to explore, but I wanted to focus on the contortionist act itself, and how the character arrived at it, and so the ‘camera frame’ narrowed to the sisters pretty exclusively. I don’t know that I’d very consciously thought about them as being so isolated, but that does seem right upon reflecting on the piece.

As Brenda grows weaker from her disease, we see the contortionist becoming stronger in her chosen vocation, incorporating her sister into the act, finally choosing the moniker Brenda to perform under, almost as if she is using her strength to keep her sister alive. Does this work, metaphorically speaking?

There’s definitely an element of these two separate bodies and personalities converging into one, and the idea that the contortionist is living for the both of them as this story goes on. I suppose that her folding herself into the box to be carried away at the end of her act is an extension of that dynamic—accessing in a very literal, physical way what the original Brenda might have.

That final image is such a powerful one, the contortionist secreting herself into that small, small box and being carried away, “wrapped,” as you say, in darkness. Do you think, sometimes, that she is tempted to stay? Or is it a relief for her, backstage, to unclasp the lid and pull herself out, bit, by bit, length by length?

A lot of what I explored with these circus pieces was the idea of how art is made and what it means to people, particularly as they link their identities to what they make or perform. There’s a significant element of the contortionist’s act that is about representing, reenacting, or honoring her sister’s experience. As such, I think there’s a way in which the contortionist lives and dies each time she takes the stage, and who she is off the stage is a separate person altogether. 

To make a clumsy comparison, it’s like how the version of me that’s writing is different from the version of me that eats chicken wings and watches pro wrestling, or the version of me that puts stuffed animals on his head to make my four-year-old laugh. The different versions are linked, no doubt, and even inform one another sometimes; they also exist on different planes, though, and are often oblivious to each other’s existence unless they’re forced to interact.


Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Wigleaf, Passages North and Black Warrior Review, as well as being included in Best Microfiction 2019.