Storyglossia Issue 38, February 2010.

An Interview with Shanna Germain


Shanna Germain's "How to Learn a Language" appears in Storyglossia 38. Here, Shanna discusses the origins of the story, the use of second-person, her narrator, the ways that language unfolds itself both in fiction and in life, and what she's currently working on.


Anne Valente: Where did the premise for this story come from?


Shanna Germain: The premise actually came from a variety of inspirations all mixed together, as many of my stories do. I actually waited tables at a restaurant when I was in high school, where I learned a whole different kind of Spanish than the one I'd learned in Spanish class.


Most of my stories begin with a character, someone who's speaking to me in a very particular voice. This story started with a vision instead, an image of this young girl and boy smoking in the rain behind a restaurant. I wanted to know what they were doing back there, and why she was leaning into him—not touching, but so close—and what he was telling her as the rain dripped from the roof. And in order to find, I had to write the story.


AV: Why did second person feel like the right point of view for this piece?


SG: I don't usually write in second person—I think it's a really difficult point of view to do well, because at any second you could lose the reader by implying that the "you" of the story is the "you" of the reader. Also, to me, many second-person stories start to sound the same; most of them have a certain rhythm that can make them seem similar to each other.


However, right from the get-go, this story spoke to me in the sound of second-person, which to me is often a teaching/learning kind of sound, the sound of parables and cautionary tales. And I wanted the reader to feel this girl's growth process, her misunderstandings, her fears and desires and hopes. There was something about second person that allowed me to play around with creating a certain kind of intimacy that wouldn't have worked as well in first or second person.


AV: There is a strong underlying tension here of class and cultural ignorance—the narrator mentions her parents, who only dine at fine restaurants, and how her mother worries about her at the restaurant where she works. Yet the narrator too seems blinded by her own assumptions, wanting Robert to be more 'exotic' by calling him Roberto. To what extent is she trying to rebel, and to what extent does she share the same lack of awareness as her parents?


SG: I think this narrator is very unaware and yet very curious, very open to what could happen, and that puts her in precarious situations. I don't think she's attempting to rebel so much as she is driven by curiosity and a desire for knowledge by experience. It's one thing to be told something, and another to have the chance to discover it on your own. She has not yet become purposefully ignorant of class and culture; her ignorance is much more innocent, more malleable. And these early experiences she has—at the restaurant, learning a language, spending time with Robert—these will all guide her into who and what she will become, as they do for all of us. The question as the story ends is: what will she choose now?


AV: The detail of Robert's "Fuck Peace" hands is such an interesting one. How did you come up with this? How does it serve the narrative for you?


SG: When I started writing this story, I was thinking about how language unfolds, just as people unfold. You get a glimpse of a word that you don't know, and it's pretty to look at or to listen to, and that captivates you even though you don't know the meaning. And then you learn what it stands for, and things become more clear and beautiful or dangerous in a different way. And then you gain maybe another meaning of that word, or learn how it's used in a sentence, and everything shifts once again.


Here, Robert and his Fuck Peace hands echo that unfolding. First, neither Robert nor his hands mean anything to her—just something interesting to look at and be curious about. Then, comes more knowledge, and a little more, and a little more, until she thinks she understands him and his tattoos. But, of course, there's always another layer, to both language and people, that hidden, secret meaning that we may never fully uncover. This is something that the narrator is just beginning to understand, as part of her transition into adulthood, but is a lesson that Robert seems to have learned a long time ago.


AV: What are you currently working on? Any forthcoming works that we can point readers to?


SG: I tend to juggle a bunch of projects at once—that's the way I work best, it seems. So I have a novel in the works, as well as half a dozen short stories, some poems, and a non-fiction book. I have stories and poems coming out in Alison's Wonderland, Blood Fruit: Queer Horror, Hint Fiction, The Space Between Us and a couple more. Readers can always see what new projects I'm working on at


Shanna Germain claims, in no particular order, the titles of Leximaven, Girl Geek, Wanderluster and She Who Fears Spiders. Her work has appeared in places such as Absinthe Literary Review, Best American Erotica, Eclectica, Juked and Salon. As the paperboys by her house yell, "Read all about her!" at