Eric Tran is the author of Affairs with Men in Suits (Backbone Press 2014). His work appears in the Indiana Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. He is a medical student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. For more, visit veryerictran.com.
His essay, "Portraits of Handwashing," appeared in Issue Sixty-One of The Collagist.
Here, Eric Tran talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about medical school, imitating great writers, and the hidden joy of hand washing.
Tell us about the origins of your essay, “Portraits of Handwashing.” What sparked the initial idea for this piece?
I had just finished my first year of medical school and thought a lot about terrifying things that had become unhidden—not the expected sexy infectious diseases, but things I’d overlooked: while listening to parents talk about a toddler’s runny nose, a pediatrician will silently run through a mental checklist in regards to the baby’s growth and cognitive skills to see if development’s healthy. Similarly, we wash our hands not to get rid of bacteria we pick up from sick patients, but to temporarily remove native bacteria, like staph and strep, that could cause problems in a different part of the body. But I also wanted to explore the surprising, hidden joy involved with that same process.
Your essay begins with the inscription, “after Bernard Cooper.” Can you shed some light on the connection between this author and your essay?
Our connection? Simple: he’s better than me. I don’t mean this facetiously: “The Fine Art of Sighing,” which I shamelessly (really: not an atom of shame) re-wrote, he writes lyrically, intimately, and narratively—I could spend my entire life trying to match him in any of these categories and still come up short. But he does it all simultaneously in a way that makes them stronger as a whole. And of on top of all that, while reading the essay, it was clear that he was queer without him ever making a single reference to such. So to say it again: our connection is that he is miles and miles ahead of me and this essay was a step towards him.
The essay consists of five brief, numbered sections, each a paragraph of no more than about a hundred words. How challenging was it to achieve this level of concision? Were the sections always as small as they are, or did you whittle them down over multiple drafts?
I’ve noticed a strange development in the way I talk: either I have an outpouring of sentences, where I’m trying to gather speed and mass to make my point, or I’m trying very hard to find the exact phrasing and direction. I can imagine it now: I look at the ceiling or at the ground and say words slowly to buy myself time. Writing the essay—which is to say reading it aloud—was the latter: clipped sentences and with big breaths of air to consider my next move. Was it challenging? I don’t know. It just seemed the only way.
I noticed a turn from the end of the first section onward, from a predominantly lyrical approach to a more memoiristic style. (Section One contains “You” and imperative statements, while the other four sections contain “I.”) How did you determine how you would arrange the order of the essay’s five pieces? What made you decide to start with a section that stands apart from the others?
I originally had this harebrained scheme to start tiny and move outwards: in order to understand my conclusions about something the reader would first have to know the memories I brought with me. But I’ve found that the most effective writing for me starts with the larger context and slowly moves towards more intimate spaces. It takes time to build that trust, but when you hit the buried center and strike it, the feeling vibrates back outwards, touching everything that came before it.
What writing projects are you working on now?
Strangely, my bread and butter is the long-form essay, though I’ve produced far more lyric essay and poetry. Right now, I’m trying to be faithful to a memoir about the year I spent traveling with bears (large, hairy gay men) through North and South Carolina to various events like conventions, pageants, and orgies—a kind of self-ethnography of a Californian transplanted into the South. But of course I’m straying a lot (my friend and I often say ‘cheat on your writing with other writing’) with poems about what I’m learning and/or resisting in school.
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
God, everything. I call and text people too often to share a phrase or sentence that caught me by surprise. Last week, a lecture slide said that people with hemolytic anemia will just feel a sense of ‘impending doom,’ that something bad is about to happen.
In terms of books, House and Fire by Maria Hummel is devastating and gorgeous if you’ve ever been a parent, a child, a patient, or a health care provider, or, you know, a person. I’ve just started Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron, which is making me fall in love with books again in so many ways. When I’m working on specific projects I tend to re-read the works I’m trying to copy, so these days I’ll admit to pilfering from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City.