I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A powerfully intimate story collection that embraces darkness and light in equal measure.
In one of the first stories I read by Dantiel Moniz, a woman grappling with a failing marriage wonders, “If this near-universal disdain a daughter can feel for a mother might be necessary for the appreciation that comes later, if this is what it takes to love.” I was struck by the honesty of that line, the story’s willingness to face the ugly things we often think or feel about those we most love. It felt true and taboo in the way that the greatest fiction often does.
In Moniz’s debut collection, Milk Blood Heat (Grove Press), two young girls—one white, one black—make a blood pact to become sworn sisters, a connection that persists even after one befalls a terrible tragedy; an ageing man whose cancer-stricken wife refuses chemotherapy treatments struggles with his own fragility at the local watering hole; a woman starts to see spectral body parts everywhere after losing a pregnancy. This collection is about many things—girlhood, transgression and morality, Florida, death, transformation, the souls of animals—but I would argue it is most of all about the messy work of love. Hate, scorn, violence, and shame exist side by side with tenderness, generosity, and sacrifice.
In lush, evocative prose, Moniz chronicles her characters as they navigate a world governed by racial and economic injustice, their thwarted attempts to connect, their love transmuted into cruelty, all their strangled, bottled-up longing. It’s hard to convey the depth and range of human experience contained in these powerfully intimate short stories, but I hope our conversation below will convince you to pick up this truly special collection.
Rachel Heng I wanted to start by asking about the collection’s title. I couldn’t help noticing that aside from the title story, milk and blood recur frequently in other stories. How did you decide on this title, and what does it mean to you?
Dantiel Moniz I originally wanted to call the collection “Sticks and Stones,” you know, like the whole childhood thing, “sticks and stones will break your bones.” And then I thought, No, it’s going to be the title of one of the stories. I considered “An Almanac of Bones,” but a friend was like, “Milk Blood Heat” encompasses every other story in the book. She was right. These are really elemental words, but they’re also the elements that make up human life. Milk that nourishes you, blood that runs through your body, and anything living has heat or needs heat to live. Those words become a totem throughout the rest of the book.
RH In the story “An Almanac of Bones,” when the absent mother gives her daughter a glass of milk, and when her daughter, not understanding this act of care, asks her why, the mother says, “Isn’t that what mothers are supposed to do? Give their children milk?” It felt really powerful. I wondered if those elemental moments were already in the other stories, or if it was something you pulled through during the revision.
DM The oldest story in the collection is “Outside the Raft.” I wrote that when I was in undergrad, in 2012. Then I got into my MFA program and I wrote maybe four more stories. I didn’t realize it was a collection at first. I was like, You’re so boring; you’re writing the same thing over and over. But then I thought maybe that’s what collections do. It’s not the same thing. I was being hard on myself. But I do think of them as linked stories. And I started noticing what was there and what was similar. So, the last half of the stories that I wrote, I was way more conscious about where those elemental moments were echoing.
RH I think maybe it’s something we all do; we circle the same themes and images.
DM Definitely. The circling was very important to me. I like cyclical stories. I know some people—my editor, my agent—would be like, Just so you know, you’re repeating the same line again. And I’d be like, Yeah, I like that repetition. Especially the way that it’s been popular to teach writing in the last decade or so, these very tight, tidy, minimalist stories. That’s great. That’s fine. Some of it is beautiful, but that’s not everybody’s intention or vision.
RH It’s very capitalist as well—this idea of efficiency, the idea that this writing needs to “do” something, be “productive.”
DM One hundred percent. Nobody ever asked me about it, but I definitely am also writing about these larger systems in the collection—about capitalism and what it does to how we live as humans.
RH I absolutely see that. Also, the give and take of relationships, how that dynamic is out of love, but also has a transactional quality to it. Frankie, a character in “The Hearts of Our Enemies,” says, “Why, following creeds of country, God or capitalism, did no one ever bother to look beyond the words?” That feels so relevant to the collection. These stories are dealing with moral questions, questions that all great fiction asks. What makes you a good person? What is transgression? What is sin?
DM Yes. You got it! That’s actually the question that started everything. I kept coming back to ask myself: Am I a good person? What does that mean? Who’s defining good? What is it weighed against? Is that goodness or badness or is it situational? And in what situation would something that is considered bad be good?
I didn’t want to lead the reader to any kind of specific judgment on any of these characters. The characters within each story have judgments for themselves or for each other, but I try not to do that, so you can just see what the full experience of being a human is. It’s striving, right? And whatever that striving looks like changes. I wish that we made more room for that. It’s like, Oh, you messed up, you’re a bad person, and that’s it. But that’s not the way it works, and not how it would work in a society that was more just. And in a system, in a government that was more just to its citizens.
RH Another line I was incredibly struck by is, “You could be both things, bad and good, and still be loved.”
DM That’s from “Outside the Raft.” Because we are all the things, but there’s only an acceptable side of ourselves that we’re allowed to show to people. I just wish it wasn’t so stigmatized to be like, Hey, sometimes I feel this way, or sometimes, I’ve acted this way. But that doesn’t mean you, yourself, are good or bad. It just means you did a thing that is considered good or considered bad. And you still get to choose, each day, what path you’re going to walk.
RH So much of this collection is clearly grappling with what goodness and badness means specifically for women and girls moving through the world, what transgression means for women and girls, since those bounds feel so much tighter.
DM I’m really interested in girlhood not only because I had a girlhood, but because I think it’s such a formative time, period. I mean, obviously boys grow up too. But it is different being a girl, because you have all these constraints and expectations, and a lot of them are double-sided. They want you to be one way but also be this other thing, but you have to know to toe the line between whatever the expectations are that are contradictory to each other. Girlhood also has this reputation of, Oh, it’s frivolous. It’s this pink, fluffy, light thing. And oftentimes it’s very much not like that. You’re already told very dark, morbid things. Like, “Be careful. You have to be aware of where you are, because someone could grab you and kill you.” That’s something I was told from a very young age. You need to be careful if men are around, because you could die. This could happen to you. And bodies changing, periods—you’re not allowed to talk about those things. You’re always chastised if you talk about the dark stuff. My cousin and I, like the cousins in “Outside the Raft,” were best friends. We were wild. We would be in the woods behind the house, in the trees. There was violence, too, and such tenderness. It’s all wrapped up together.
RH That’s beautiful, and brings me to a question I was deeply moved by in your collection. In “Thicker Than Water,” the narrator thinks of her estranged brother. “I feel blurry and grateful—how much love it takes to hate this much.” And in “Snow,” Billie remembers her mother saying to her, “I love you, but sometimes I don’t like you at all.” In “The Hearts of our Enemies,” Frankie wonders, “if this near-universal disdain a daughter can feel for a mother might be necessary for the appreciation that come slater, if this is what it takes to love.”
I was so struck by your depiction of complicated love, which felt incredibly true to me. Depending on what kind of family you grew up in, or in any relationship really, the way love can get twisted, or gets expressed through anger or hate or resentment. Love is so difficult to write about as a subject. How did you approach it?
DM This might sound like hippie dippie stuff, but I think in 2014 or 2015, I started experimenting with some hallucinogens. I had had an acid trip or two, and after one of those times, I had this thought: you often hear this statement about love being the opposite of hate. But they’re actually really not, because hate, sustained hate, is an energetic force that is actually as strong as love can be, and it takes a lot of energy to maintain that much hate for somebody. I was thinking about this a lot in terms of white supremacy too, and patriarchy. What happened that caused an emotional connection that was so big that it caused this generational hatred of Blackness, and this generational hatred of femininity? That made me realize that they’re not opposites; they’re actually very closely positioned. The opposite of love or hate would be apathy.
I think what you’re saying is right, too. Like, if you grew up in a family that was maybe not well-adjusted, or where it was difficult to express love, a lot of the times love comes out in control or constraint. I love you so much that I don’t want you to get hurt, so I’m going to box you in; I’m going to cut your feet out from under you so you can’t do these things that might get you hurt. Another thing that’s very interesting for me is how love and harm are often conflated. Sometimes we think it’s harm, but it’s love, and other times we think it’s love, but it’s harm. Especially between family members, right? It’s so complicated. There’s love there at the baseline, but what does that mean? And is it always a good love?
RH Or does it get invalidated if it’s expressed in harmful ways? Because I guess you might know the intention is love, but the actions are harmful. How do you untangle that?
DM Exactly. Can you? And if you can, what’s the decision there? To continue to exist beside it or to leave it? And what happens to that love when that connection is gone?
RH Ugh, the question of my life. Maybe everyone’s life!
DM A lot of people’s lives, I think! It’s hard to talk about. And it goes back to what we’re allowed to talk about with other people.
RH Talking about harm and violence, that moment where Rayna goes to the aquarium at the end and watches the squid eat itself. I think I yelped out loud. And there are other moments of violence, like Zey threatening the boy who hurts her brother, or quiet violence, when Margot eats the food court food so that she cannot eat the food her mother lovingly prepared for her.
DM Yeah! So that my mother, who expresses her love in this way, cannot express her love this way. So that I can reject her in this way that is so tangibly hurtful to her.
RH Where did the squid come from? I love the squid.
DM That was one that I wrote before graduate school. Someone posted a prompt on Facebook: someone’s sick, there’s a bed involved, and there’s an octopus. I was thinking about it, and I saw a random fact: if an octopus is sick, or if one of its limbs is hurt, it will regenerate. But sometimes it needs to let more of the limb go before that happens, so it’ll eat it. And I thought, there’s something here. I worked on that story for a long time, and it wasn’t right the first five or six drafts. But after I got to grad school and workshopped it, and understood the collection, I realized it’s about rebirth. Just to think about where that character has to be in their life, to see the squid eat itself, and think, this is a message for me, and it’s a positive message.
RH What was the process of ordering the collection like?
DM I wanted to start with “Outside the Raft,” but my UK editor said that might be a little too quiet of a story to put first. Then my US editor suggested starting with “Milk Blood Heat.” I was like, Oh, should we start with that story? That story is really intense. What if people read that story and they’re like, I can’t. My agent weighed in. I don’t know if you’ve read Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. We have the same agent, and she was telling me that, when he was putting that collection together, “The Finkelstein 5” was the first story. And that’s a really intense story. Adjei-Brenyah’s justification for that was, If anyone’s going to pick up this book, I want them to know what they’re getting into, and I want them to be committed to doing that still. I thought that made a lot of sense.
I always knew I wanted it to end with “Almanac,” because it ends of this note that, for me, feels full of hope. Find whoever you are and be that person, no matter what it’s perceived as. But other than that, I think there’s a natural order to the stories. One feeds into the other. So, for example, “Feast” is the second story, and you turn the page and you get to “Tongues.”
RH The second-to-last story really stood out to me, where the rich people are eating rare things. The decision to place that as the second to last story felt very deliberate.
DM You’re talking about “Exotics.” No one ever asks me about that story! I think that people’s inclination is to be like, I don’t get why this story is in the book, so I’m just going to flip the page. It’s a very intentionally placed story, and it belongs in the collection. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t take it out.
RHI feel like there’s a musical term for this. I don’t know what it is. Where you have a short sequence before the ending. Everything else is in first- or third-person singular, but “Exotics” is in first-person plural, and felt somewhat surreal.
DM It’s actually a little more literal. It seems surreal, because you’re like, People are eating very strange things. But I’m like, Who is to say that there’s not some club of the uber wealthy people doing all of these things? It’s about what we consume and what consumes you. It’s capitalism; it’s the white supremacist system we live in. It’s all the other stuff we’re talking about in the other stories.
Milk Blood Heat is available for purchase here.
Rachel Heng is the author of the novels The Great Reclamation (forthcoming from Riverhead in 2022) and Suicide Club (Henry Holt, 2018), which has been translated into ten languages worldwide and won the Gladstone Library Writer-In-Residence Award. Rachel’s short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review, and has been recognized by anthologies including Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions and Best New Singaporean Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been listed among Best American Essays’ Notable Essays and published in Al Jazeera, Guernica, BOMB Magazine, The Rumpus, The Telegraph and elsewhere.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee