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Sabrina Orah Mark: Writing in the Surreal

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Lauren Cortese (Fiction, ’21) and Samantha Watson (Fiction, ’21)

Writer Sabrina Orah Mark shared her work at the College of Charleston on Thursday, October 17th. Second-year MFA fiction student Matt Manco introduced Mark. He described the “creation, anxiety, bravery, history, and persistence” that meet and form her “works of condensed brilliance.” Manco highlighted the surreal aesthetic of Mark’s craft, noting her work’s ability to explore “something familiar in a new and profound way.” Mark invited the audience into her realm of contemporary fairy tales and lyric musings on motherhood, reading excerpts from her collection Wild Milk and an essay from her column Happily published in the Paris Review

Mark describes her transition into prose writing from a background in poetry. “I very much began as a poet and then my poems started cracking open and stories started falling out […] I now have essays falling out of my stories.” This unfurling of narrative led to the creation of Wild Milk, Mark’s debut short fiction collection. The collection blurs the distinctions between poetry and fiction, and in doing so delivers hauntingly ethereal stories that bend reality and render it anew. She shared the collection’s titular story, which details a mother’s anxieties over leaving her child at daycare for the first time. The story culminates in a moment of tempestuous roaring when the daycare teacher begins “snowing.” She read, “Miss Birdie is snowing, hard. I try to walk toward her but there is a great wind and I can barely see through the big white flakes.” Throughout her stories, she skillfully weaves absurdist situations such as this to create a surreal experience for both her characters and readers. She views these moments as a collision of two unalike images becoming a hybrid, or in her words “bringing two things together that don’t seem to belong and now suddenly they inexplicably belong to each other forever and ever.”

Mark also shared an essay from her column, Happily, which features personal essays that focus on fairy tales as investigated through the lens of motherhood. She read, “Sorry Peter Pan, We’re Over You,” an essay about trying to guide her children the best she can as they choose Halloween costumes. The audience laughed along with Mark when she recounted her elder son deciding the day before Halloween that he no longer wants to dress as Peter Pan, but instead as Martin Luther King Jr. She then expressed her worry, “What am I supposed to say? You can’t be Martin Luther King Jr., I already bought the green tights? Or, I prefer you imagine yourself as a very, very old boy than as the most visible leader of the Civil Rights Movement?” In these essays, Mark blends the past—as exhibited through familiar fairy tales—with modern anxieties, grappling with an uncertain futurity for her and her sons.

During a conversation with the audience, Mark further discussed her craft, detailing her transition from poetry to fiction to creative non-fiction. In particular, she describes her process of writing fiction. “The way that I imagine the structure of a story is very much how I imagine the structure of a poem. Because I come to all of this through poetry, I superimpose the structure of the poem onto the narrative of the story.”

Sabrina Orah Mark is from Brooklyn, New York. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and her PhD from University of Georgia. Her first collection of poetry The Babies won the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. She has also published a collection of poetry titled Tsim Tsum and a chapbook, Walter B.’s Extraordinary Cousin Comes for a Visit and her work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, among many others. Wild Milk is her first collection of short fiction, and she was awarded the Georgia Author of the Year for Short Fiction.