Imaginary Colors I Saw That Summer
I knocked on your door, just like I had every day that summer. We’d made it our routine: I would pick you up when it was still dark, and you would fold into my car, sticky heat already weighing down our backs. As sunrise smattered the sky, we’d reach our destination: the field of blackberry bushes in the middle of nowhere that never seemed to run out of blackberries, large, juicy ones the size of our fingertips. We spent every morning picking them, but by afternoon, our hands grew empty and our stomachs full.
You always gorged on the berries, shoving fistful after fistful into your mouth, your teeth little violet-stained neon signs. My eyes still hurt remembering the shine. I, habitually, ate them one by one, savoring the pop of each individual sphere against my tongue, swirling the flavor in my mouth.
“Look, magenta,” I said today, like I had every day that summer, cracking my mouth open to show you my purple-coated gums.
“Imaginary,” you replied like you had every day that summer, not even looking up from your favorite bush, the one with leaves speckled brown and yellow. I didn’t know how you always found the ripest berries there; the only ones I could grab from its leaves softened to mush in my hands. I swatted a fly and moved over to another bush, my steps languid against the dirt. Silence fell, but it was a comforting one, the same soundless expanse that made it feel like we were either at the end of the world or the very beginning.
The day stretched on, like always, until the tip of afternoon when the heat grew unbearable and we gathered in my car, talking about nothing and everything all at once. The sun dripped down the sky too quickly, as it had so many days before, and too soon sunset came. We stared at the kaleidoscope of colors through my dirty windshield. Sunsets and sunrises, those fingerprints of the universe that streaked the sky morning and night, were the only newness we looked forward to each day.
To read “Imaginary Colors I Saw That Summer" in its entirety, please order Reed Magazine Issue 155.
MattY Heimgartner's Commentary
Antara Gangwal’s emotionally-driven narrative about the uncertainty of a relationship’s standing captivates the reader from many different angles. “Imaginary Colors I Saw That Summer” uses painterly vocabulary to create vivid imagery in the reader’s mind. While the protagonist and supporting character share the same physical space and have a recent history of togetherness, we experience the fallout in slow motion through the protagonist’s emphasis on repetition and loss of confidence. From the immaculately descriptive language, to the poetic one-liners, to the very last heart-crushing sentence, Gangwal takes her readers on two adventures—a physical journey through a field of blackberry bushes, and a psychological one in the protagonist’s mind. This story leaves me with the satisfactory yearning that I typically reserve for artwork found on a gallery wall.
in conversation with
MH: Antara, you use such beautiful descriptive language in “Imaginary Colors I Saw That Summer,” to create a surreal feeling for the reader. It’s reminiscent of a painting. Aside from writing, are you a visual artist? Additionally, when writing, what inspires you most?
AG: Thank you so much! I’m so honored that you made that comparison because I truly was trying to achieve a surreal, almost whimsical writing style to match the dreamlike setting. I do love creating visual art—it’s one of my biggest hobbies. I enjoy recreating photographs of nature with mediums such as oil pastels or watercolor paint, and attempting to recreate portraits with graphite or colored pencil.
With writing, I feel much more comfortable creating work that is more experimental and fantastical. I think what inspires me most is the setting around me, and little things I like to notice; I love people-watching and daydreaming, and a lot of that results in story ideas. I find that I often subconsciously take elements of the setting around me—such as the colors, scents and sounds— into my writing as well, realizing that I’ve unknowingly incorporated them into a piece much later. And for just writing and creating art in general, my biggest motivation and inspiration would have to be anytime I read/watch/listen to a piece of media that deeply touches me, leaving me overcome with a desire to create something of my own.
MH: What was the foundation to this story; what idea did you have first? Was it the Blackberry Field setting, perhaps the characters, or the storyline?
AG: The foundation of this story was, funnily enough, quite literal: I was actually eating a handful of especially sweet and ripe blackberries one summer afternoon when the image of a wide, isolated blackberry field in the middle of nowhere came to me. In that way, I think the setting was what first started to shape itself in my mind. I opened a new document on my computer and began to explore this space, letting the words flow out without worrying about a storyline. As I began to put my thoughts into words, the idea for the two characters came into play, along with the magenta motif I thought of when imagining the tart juice of blackberries and its deep pinkish-purple color. Not too long after this, I had developed the basic plot and structure for the story.
MH: You show us the intimate feelings of the protagonist while staying as distant from the supporting character as the protagonist feels. Yet, we don’t get the name of either. What made you choose to not name your characters?
AG: Naming the characters would make them more substantial, but I wanted the reader to view them as I did: as two people unwillingly subject to the repetition of the plot and the devastation of the ending. This story is definitely more plot-driven than character-driven, and I wanted to accentuate that fact by preventing the characters from having much of a say in the plot. Not giving them names hindered them from having an identity and agency, and helped the plotline forcibly drive them forward.
MH: Talk about the thought behind addressing the supporting character as you.
AG: I’ll admit that it was a subconscious choice; I just started writing this story in the second person and never changed it afterward. I think that I was drawn to writing this story in second person because I associate surrealism and fantasy with this perspective’s feeling of unreliability and mystique.
MH: In this story, there is a great use of repetition that leads us to a painfully realistic ending. Did you know the ending before you wrote it or did it come to you as you wrote it?
AG: The ending definitely came as I was writing. Most of my inspiration comes in erratic bursts in which I quickly let out the words and then edit later. For this story specifically, I came up with ideas as I let them spill out onto the (online) page, and decided on the way I wanted to end the story while I was in the midst of drafting it. As I mentioned before, I had come up with the motif about magenta and used this to explore a theme of imagination and surrealism. I knew I wanted the ending to connect back to these themes, so I played around with a few scenarios until I found the final ending, which felt the most natural and had a fun detail with the door that I thought tied everything together nicely.
MH: How did you feel when you found out that you won the Emerging Voices Contest?
AG: I was so shocked and grateful! I remember excitedly telling my family about it right after I received the email. I put a lot of heart into my story and at that moment, it was surreal to me that it had won the contest. Thank you again for giving my story a home. I’m so honored to have won this award.