From biblical adventures to chicken sexing, Zoe Ballering’s short story collection “It’s Only Us” inventively explores what it means to be human

Portland writer Zoe Ballering, author of new collection of short stories It’s just us (University of North Texas Press, 192 pages, $14.95), attended her first writing group in high school, where she fell in love with storytelling and discovered the power of the workshop.

After majoring in English, she pursued a master’s degree in creative writing from Western Washington University, where she encountered what already looked like a lifelong writing group. Although she has heard horror stories about MFA programs, her experience could not have been more positive.

“I always heard people say, ‘You’re going to become an automaton, you’re going to have to write a certain way in your program.’ But I didn’t find that at all,” says Ballering WW. “I met other writers who I’m still friends with, who I still share my work with.”

Ballering is far from being an automaton. Her work is imaginative and speculative, playing with themes like loneliness, pain, and what it means to be human. The characters are sometimes otherworldly but believable and adorably real.

Ballering first started publishing short stories in literary media like Arts and crafts and Electrical literature— and once her story “Double or Nothing” won the 2021 Rougarou Fabulism & Speculative Fiction competition, she was on a roll. She then submitted a manuscript of It’s just us for the 2022 University of North Texas Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction and won.

It’s just us examines the connections between family, young love and, as Ballering notes, mothers. She wrote the two main mother-themed stories in the collection, “Mothers” and “Ark”, around the same time.

The latter is a modern look at Noah’s Ark and features Karis, a young woman who is in charge of the ark’s bird pairs and mistakenly breaks the two-by-two rule when she gathers two roosters together. instead of a rooster and a hen. This rookie mistake forces the ark to turn around before the flood destroys life on earth, so the Chosen go back to the same place where Karis got the roosters in the first place: her mother’s house.

The inspiration behind the story? “When I was a kid, I was just obsessed with sexing chickens and the fact that it’s actually a job,” Ballering says. “You can make a lot of money! But I was fascinated by this process. And so I thought, what is – at least in the Western canon – the first example of where this would matter? »

Animal sex aside, the story is really about a young woman who doesn’t take her mother’s mortality as seriously as she should. It’s a look at a common experience: that feeling that loved ones, especially mothers, will always be there, and the all too belated realization that you’ve taken your time with them for granted.

As for the biblical implications of “Ark,” Ballering takes a nuanced perspective. “I don’t have a religious background,” she says, “but I’m very fascinated by the question: is there anyone up there? If so, why do they never respond? And why is the world the way it is?

It is the theme of “Here I Am”, which inspired the cover of the collection: a naked mole rat, another animal that fascinates Ballering. “They don’t feel pain, and I think that’s a really fun fact,” she says. “Although I’m not quite sure how you determine that.”

Ballering’s mother works with people with chronic pain, which led her to wonder: what if people could somehow not feel pain? “I think the question [of that story] i.e. what price would people pay for not feeling pain? ” she says.

Given that Ballering spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest, it’s no surprise that many of his stories touch upon places in Portland and surrounding towns or mention them outright.

She says she can imagine exactly where certain scenes would take place.

Take “Substances: A School Year,” about a group of high school students obsessively revolted by a variety of substances, from “soup-like substances” on the floor to what they perceive as feces or vomiting. The story ends with a scene in which a character is walking, all eyes on her. “In my head, she’s on 26 and Powell,” Ballering says.

Of course, emotional geography is just as important as physical geography in It’s just us. Ballering sums up his collection well: “I think these are stories about navigating relationships and also navigating lack of closure when our worlds are changed.”

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