Eman Quotah‘s fiction has appeared in Pindeldyboz and Gargoyle. Her story “London Fog” was a top twenty-five finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short-Story Award for New Writers contest and appears in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press). She has been the John McClelland Historical Writing Resident at the Espy Foundation and received grants from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County and the Maryland State Arts Council.
The night his grandmother died he went to an off-campus party intending to get blackout drunk. He stood in the middle of the living room wondering when his friends would show up, too lazy to text them, about ready to refill his red plastic beer cup. The hosts had pushed the sofas to the wall, and music blared from the adjoining dining room. He tried not to squeeze the cup and dent it, but he couldn’t help it. The plastic cracked under his fingers.
A girl he knew—Jenny? Julie?—came up to him, the kind of girl who already thought of herself as a sophisticated hostess, obligated to start conversations among total strangers. “This is Lara,” she shouted. “She’s got that thing where you remember everything.”
Lara stood with her calves against the mustard velour couch cushions, as though she couldn’t choose between sitting and standing. She raised her hand in a limp half-wave.
He didn’t feel like talking to someone new, but he couldn’t get out of it. He leaned in so she could hear him. “What’s your name again?”
“Lara. Pronounced ‘La, a note to follow so.’”
“I have an Aunt Lara.” The coincidence thawed the ice in his chest a little. He liked Lara’s halfway gestures that suggested she wanted to step back from people, to keep a part of herself closed off to anyone who was too interested in her. It seemed a kind of modesty.
When I first learned about hyperthymesia, the ability to remember one’s past in exceptional detail, I wrote a story from the point of view of a woman whose daughter had the condition. Something about the story just wasn’t working, and a couple years later, I took a stab at writing a completely different take. The inspiration came when I was on hospital bed rest during a complicated pregnancy and saw a TV news story about an actress with hyperthymesia. I started thinking about what would happen if someone trying to forget—someone grieving—met someone who remembered everything. I wrote the story in my mind overnight, and typed up the first draft the next day in between ministrations by my nurses.
I think it matters that the main character is a man, and that his difficulty understanding the woman with hyperthymesia is also a difficulty understanding how to relate to a romantic partner, how to relate to other people, how to be in the world, and how to deal with pain. He’s young and not perfectly likeable, and I think those things are important to the story too. Sometimes people are jerks, but we’re still human, and the jerky things we do are perhaps the things we bury in our memories or else focus on obsessively.
I’m half white, half Arab and I’m Muslim, so a lot of my other fiction is explicitly about Arab and Muslim characters. In my mind, both characters in “Hyperthymesia” are Arab-American, but making that clear without coming off heavy-handed was tricky in such a short story, and I ended up leaving their ethnic identities ambiguous.