The Duck and the Dust Eye Decision
We are a family not suited to enjoying life. That’s what my mother told me when I was eight.
We have a medical condition, the three of us—myself and my father and my mother. We have a medical condition and we were born this way. The doctors, they have a name for it.
“Dust Eye,” the short, fat pediatrician told me. He had a limp, wet voice. “Very rare. You’re the first case I’ve seen.” He said there’s a medical name for it too. But I wouldn’t want to know it and, anyway, he said, I wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. “It’s your lacrimal apparatus that’s the problem. Your lacrimal glands. Instead of just tears your glands are producing gelatinous particles. We don’t know why or how.” The gelatinous particles are the dust. They’re not dry, but they are the color of dust: brown and tan and black. They ruin our vision.
We know—myself and my father and my mother—that there are colors. Distinct colors, like green is supposed to be very different from blue, which is supposed to be very different from red. Everything we see is washed over with shades of sepia.
Shahan Sanossian is a graduate of USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program and has had stories published in Quarterly West and Ararat. Formerly an architect, he has designed ticket spitters and parking bollards for malls in California and Nebraska. He was born in Beirut, lives in Los Angeles, and is currently working on a novel.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- SS: I was walking to get my morning coffee one day, and the first line of the story just came to me. I may have heard something similar somewhere. I wanted to figure out what it would mean for a child to be told that by a parent. I also picked at a piece of eye-crud as I was walking. I went home, drank my coffee, and started writing.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- SS: Revising it. I always agonize over revisions. I realize there are problems, but fixing them is so removed from the initial creative impulse that I tend to get stymied. In the first draft, my writing group commented that Grant described the physical world too clearly. I had to reconsider how he would see things. This effort actually led to some of my favorite descriptions. Thank you writing group. I also had difficulty with the ending. It has always been a challenge to write a tidy ending that isn’t overexplained. Hannah Tinti made a great suggestion that I gladly used. Thank you Hannah.
- HT: How did you come up with the Dust Eye? Did you base it on another disease?
- SS: My eyes are very sensitive, and I often wake up to find them glued shut. Allergies, I guess. It’s a near-daily part of my life, an annoying one, and so it ended up in my writing. It just felt right, although I wasn’t fully aware of the metaphorical implications until after the story was done. I’m slow.
- HT: Why are Grant’s parents so detached from life? Is it because of the Dust Eye, or is it a greater loss of hope in the world?
- SS: I think the Dust Eye is just an excuse. They have lost hope in the world, and they recoil from challenges. But their difficulties are mainly self-imposed. Instead of figuring out why they are unhappy, and what they can do to better their situation, they have isolated themselves and given up.
- HT: Where did you come up with Armenouhi and her brother? Were they based on anyone you know?
- SS: I’d like to know these people, but I don’t. I live in Little Armenia, a part of East Hollywood. It’s one of the many neighborhoods that make Los Angeles so distinct. Walking around, I often see very peculiar people (Armenians mostly, like myself) so I make up stories about them. I’ve done this several times, and the real people I base my characters on invariably disappear after my writing is done. Armenouhi physically resembles the many widows in black dresses that I see in my neighborhood. Some of her mannerisms are similar to the mannerisms of a housekeeper that I know who is very caring but in a detached, matter-of-fact sort of way. In the story’s early drafts, she made her entrance before her brother; she was a way for me to indulge my fascination with dialect. Armenouhi’s brother shares some characteristics with the men who drive around my neighborhood serenading the public with their loud stereo systems. Plus, the idea of an artist who is a criminal was very appealing. Armenouhi and her brother represent stereotypes of Armenians that I think some people have. I thought it would be fun to use those stereotypes but have it so that they were the most levelheaded and helpful characters in the story.
- HT: Did you find it difficult to maintain the humor in this piece?
- SS: It wasn’t really difficult, mainly because I laugh at my own jokes. That keeps me more engaged with the story I’m writing. I think a lot of the humor just naturally arose from the quirks of the characters.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- SS: I wrote the first draft in about a week. The second draft took a couple months. Then the third draft, after my writing group had read it, took another month or so. Then it languished. Then I wrote a fourth draft and sent it out. Then it was accepted by One Story. Then another couple drafts with guidance from the editors. I think it’s been about a year since that fateful day walking to get my coffee and picking at my eyes.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- SS: Two that have stayed with me came from John Rechy, who teaches at USC. The first: show don’t tell is a fallacy. He had us read great works by great writers in which they tell just as often as they show. The second: every word counts. He had us rewrite the first page of one of our stories looking at every single word to make sure that it was essential and there wasn’t a better substitute.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- SS: I’m flitting back and forth between a nearly completed story collection, set in and around Little Armenia, and the second draft of a novel that involves international espionage, NyQuil addiction, supermodel assassins, and the troubled history and possible demise of the Armenian nation. It’s a love story.