Harry Dodge, Artist

Harry DodgeHarry Dodge is an American sculptor, performer, video artist, and author, whose work crosses genres and mediums, and flows through a variety of philosophical questions while addressing intermediacy, relation, materiality, and the unnamable.

In the early nineties, Dodge was one of the founders of the San Francisco community-based performance space, The Bearded Lady, which served as a touchstone for a pioneering queer DIY literary and arts scene.

His solo and collaborative work has been exhibited at many venues both nationally and internationally, including at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, a solo show entitled Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2013, and Hammer Museum’s 2014 Biennial, Made in L.A.

Dodge’s work is in a variety of collections, including The Museum of Modern Art (NY), and The Hammer Museum (LA). In 2015 he was featured at Wallspace, NY with his solo exhibit, The Cybernetic Fold. Recent group exhibitions include: The Promise of Total Automation at Kunsthalle Wien Austria; a three-person show at London’s The Approach Gallery, Triples: Harry Dodge, Evan Holloway and Peter Shelton; and Routine Pleasures, a show organized by Michael Ned Holte at the MAK Center in Los Angeles.

Dodge co-wrote, directed, edited, and starred in (with Silas Howard) a narrative feature film, By Hook or By Crook, which premiered at Sundance in 2002 and received five Best Feature awards. From 2004 to 2008, Dodge collaborated with video artist Stanya Kahn, and has since made a series of his own videos, including The Time-Eaters, Love Streams, and Mysterious Fires.

Dodge holds an MFA from Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College and is on the faculty of the School of Art at California Institute of the Arts, Program in Art. Harry Dodge is also the partner of the author and academic Maggie Nelson, whose interview is the featured Lunch Special in this issue.

His latest show, The Inner Reality of Ultra-Intelligent Life, is on view through January 8, 2017 at The Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Ca.

Harry Dodge graciously constructed this interview with me via email in October 2016.

Carrie Kellerby: Your art practice has involved a variety of film and video work over the course of your career—including the feature film By Hook or by Crook, and a number of videos including The Time-Eaters, Love Streams, and this year’s Mysterious Fires. One of the recurring characteristics of this work includes the layering of multiple edits. Can you describe your creative process while filming a project, and specifically address your attraction to layering and repetitions?

Harry Dodge: I’m interested in all parts of a work being read, either analytically or viscerally. Layers and repetition can certainly be read as related to my interest in constructedness, or even superposition, simultaneity, non-location, plurality, the multiform elsewhere. I mean I’m a deep materialist and really into thinking through these ideas of everything being kind of interlocked, you know intergalactically entangled.

Everyday Carry, 2015

Everyday Carry, 2015

When I’m scripting, I am happiest making language objects that are complicated and specific. I want the performers to say the words exactly as I’ve written them. I use a lot of non-actors and these folks would never be able to remember everything, so we film with a live (human) prompter, feeding a performer phrase after phrase. I edit out the interstitial material and part of the fun is pressuring my edits with the goal of generating a final performance so smooth and funny that (even though there are hundreds of edits in every minute of video), the performer comes off as preternaturally voluble. I’m a really active director. I’m constantly interrupting, sculpting the performance, so there’s a lot of that stuff that needs to be cut out. That’s part of the liberty I take while directing, right, because I also know that the “joins” (as some editors refer to them) produce meaning. In my last video though, Mysterious Fires, I decided while editing to include some of the informal moments: directing the actor, giggling with one another. In allowing viewers to witness this material, I was able to discuss new subjects like how art arises from sociality, how form arises from flow that is already happening, not from some distinct exalted, estranged art-zone. I thought of it (the inclusion of this material) as a way of re-valuing love, community, affect.

CK: The titles of your work are also very intriguing. Can you discuss the concept of title as it emerges in your work? How do titles work towards or push against terms of categorical definition? Does the title in any way limit the possibilities of what the work can do?

HD: I do the titles last. I always know what the strange, affective truth of my interest was while making a piece. When I title, I’m trying to reify that, while knowingly providing specific registers and references through language. They’re packed little poems—sometimes they even contain fragmented quotations or short jokes. So, yes, there’s a lot to each title. The title might limit, but there is no problem with that at all. In fact I’m trying, with the title, to de-limit a reading, direct a viewer.

CK: Much of your art responds to philosophical theories, yet it doesn’t feel overly intellectual or static; in fact there is a distinct emotional texture to your work. Would you discuss the emotional qualities of your work in general and how theoretic speculation interacts with those qualities?

HD: During my childhood and for the first decade of my career, which included live performance, creative writing, and filmmaking, I was absolutely concerned with addressing emotion. Back then I thought emotionality was the only way to reach people and hold them long enough to communicate. Also relevant: I’ve always had a love for, a devotion to, and a knack for making narrative-based work that generates humor and pathos at once. I think of Richard Pryor here as a sort of magnificent example of that, a big influence. And also these Bette Midler VHS tapes (of her Broadway shows) I hoarded as a kid, which for some reason intermingled in my mind with her stellar, crushing performance as Janis Joplin in that movie, The Rose. There’s this moment, when playing Janis Joplin, she is singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” really slowly and weakly, and then she just collapses. These strange moments shape us forever. Ha ha.

Some people say an artist works on only one question in a career. I absolutely believe I’ve been lucky enough to have two.

In this Hole / Honey Bucket (Consent not to be a Single Being Series), 2015

Right after I was done with By Hook or By Crook, I lost interest in pressing on the possibilities of narrativity/emotionality as my main tool for effecting communication, change, relation. Like a lightning bolt, I suddenly wanted to employ an attention to structure almost exclusively, and sought to have form or flow be the effervescent stew from which experimental vapors arise. I got into theory, science, philosophy, and history, and started experimenting with more poetic forms.

Worth noting: I think that I worked so hard and so long in narrative, and have such a deep love of humor entwined with pathos, that even when I pay no attention to it, it’s still one of the oft-used tools in my box. I still use character, I guess, to deliver inquisitions on structure. My video Love Streams is an example of that, where a performer delivers monologues about how these extension arms are built. (It’s an extended, off-kilter metaphor about quantum entanglement.)

The fact is, even though a lot of the early work was narrative, I’ve been interested in poetics since I was young. I have always liked things that were kind of hanging together but also falling apart at the same time, or being formed in situ. I could feel the reverberations between two words, say, in a poem, much more than in a story and I like the weird echo, all of that energy happening in the space between things. Narrative is so bossy and overwhelming. It’s like the worst kind of narcotic—especially if you want to communicate about structure. That said, I think it’s generative for me to use media and forms that I am suspicious of. I sort of stay irascible. If a thing gets too coherent, “Oh I got to figure out how to knock this back down.” There’s like a fracas that is always on.

I read everyday, before and after studio work. This pleasure is one thread of what I call the erotics of my practice. I also heed physicalized desires (I guess you could call these libidinal urges) during moments of making, or choosing materials. But I don’t understand those zones (libidinal) as distinct from theoretical interests (intellectual)! My point is that I experience these impulses/pleasures as absolutely mutually imbricated, mutually generating. In this way, (bodily saturation with erotic pleasures via extended bouts of thinking) I mean that quite often structures I’ve been researching will, in some way or another show up in the work.

Night Goat, 2013

Night Goat, 2013

CK: Your work also seems to spring from language, particularly when I look at your drawings, paintings, and sculpture. It’s tempting to describe your art as visual writing. Would you describe your relationship with language and how it develops as a process for artistic production?

HD: I have to admit I experience language as a sensory faculty, like little raccoon hands on an acorn—a weird mental haptic. And conversation as one of our options for being together physically, like aural frottage. In my case, as I said, thinking, reading language: they’re full body pleasures, not totally distinct from the feeling of hot sand or a poke in the eye.

I read a lot of theory, a lot of nonfiction. One book leads to another. When I go into the studio, or into a generative mode, I don’t try to make diagrams of what I’ve been reading, and I don’t worry (specifically) about “legibility.” I assume that my cells have been saturated in the information I’ve been thinking about, and I let those “cellular intelligences” go to work. Often the larger organism (one’s whole body) is way ahead of the language-based computations conventionally understood as located in the brain. I like to listen to my whole body talking (as if you could ever do otherwise!)

CK: Your text, The River of the Mother of God: Notes on Indeterminacy, V2. (A work in progress), strikes me as a performative of the whole notion of human indeterminacy, as if it were a philosophical proposition about the aggregation of “possibles” within human experience and the transitional nature of the ephemeral “Thing-in-itself.” One of the many interesting explorations of this piece has to do with relationship—juxtaposition and place. Could you describe how this project began and how you see this kind of work developing for you in the future?

HD: A few things:

  • Maggie [Nelson] was finishing her book, The Argonauts, and I kept reading and advising her to add more theoretical information about indeterminacy, to make it sort of encyclopedic on the subject of flow, continuousness. I had these lists of situations, philosophers, years of research. She would say, “That is your book, not my book.” Or something like that. “You should write that one.”
  • At the same time I had just read the [Hito] Steyerl article, “On Free-Fall,” and felt oddly compelled to connect it to this [Gertrude] Stein essay about how she loves verbs.
  • I had had a show at just that point, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, which I had really worked hard on, but which had been at a museum in Connecticut. Very little personal conversation was generated from that show (#isolated&dejected), and I wanted to do a kind of (social) experiment in which I tried, explicitly and generously, to outline my specific thoughts and interests. I wondered if, in this way, I might be able to connect more certainly, begin conversations: Is language (in its way) a social fabric? A magic carpet that can bridge us (however imperfectly) for long moments?
  • I needed a matrix that could house this series of observations, collected research. Implicit in a discussion of place, or orientation, is relation. In a discourse on poetics of relation, by definition you have difference, encounter, verbs, and so the notion of action (change) becomes a fulcrum. Using orientation as a kind of theme, River of the Mother of God could fold and flower from that point, or maybe that condition. Rather than being borne solely by words introduced as symbols, the ideas could slide against the form (as the form) and make meaning in that way as well.

CK: In this textual collage, language is the medium for artistic exploration, but it is also the subject of the exploration, suggesting a parallel with the way our bodies deliver the perception of experience as embodied beings. What do you see at the possibilities and/or limitations in which working with, or transforming, language affects the way humans experience one another?

HD: I mean, let’s face it, there a lot of ways of using language, so what are we talking about? Poetics, road signs? And while language is amazing, it’s not everything. Remembering that it’s not a zero-sum game is half the battle. (One of the things discourse can do—ecstatically—is augment, knit, even secrete, human sociality.)

That said, I acknowledge that language teaches us, by its apparent specificity, to expect mastery, crave mastery. I mean that’s cultural too: injunctions, coercive at best, which seek to manage, compress, excise specificity from our otherwise infinite or fractal-tastic experiences.

Supernumerary Phantom Limbs and The Comedy of Reciprocal Interference, 2013

Supernumerary Phantom Limbs and The Comedy of Reciprocal Interference, 2013

The pressure, the sinking feeling that the “real” should be quantifiable, navigable, and describable in language is a place where we flounder. I might be looking at some art and bringing my attention to bear on the piece and that bodily experience is in some real sense, proliferative, chaotic, maybe even infinite. There’s something about the pressure of the rational, these gridded, clacking protuberances exploded off of the Enlightenment, the worst parts of Humanism, and the history of that, that needs to be re-thought. We have this devaluation, this amputation of all kinds of bodily experiences, or what I call non-language knowings. It’s forcing a sort of stultifying binary, which is “This is rational or irrational” rather than, “I know this thing by this other set of parameters—one of myriad ways of knowing.” It’d be cool if we didn’t have to go straight to the word “irrational,” which has a specific connotation.

Relevant here: poetics as a way of addressing this unknowable. And maybe this is obvious, but check out Adorno’s theory of “Non-Identity” as outlined in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. She defines it as what’s left over after you make a concept, “the preponderance of the object.” Here’s a passage from Bennett:

Non-Identity is the name Adorno gives to that which is not subject to knowledge…it is a presence that acts upon us: we knowers are haunted he says, by a painful, nagging feeling that something’s being forgotten or left out. This discomfiting sense of the inadequacy of representation remains no matter how refined or analytically precise one’s concepts become. ‘Negative Dialectics’ is the method Adorno designs to teach us how to accentuate this discomforting experience and how to give it a meaning. When practiced correctly, negative dialectics will render the static buzz of nonidentity into a powerful reminder that “objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder” and thus that life will always exceed our knowledge and control. A sort of ethical project par excellence, as Adorno sees it, is to keep remembering this and learn how to accept it. Only then can we stop raging against a world that refuses to offer us the ‘reconcilement’ that we, according to Adorno, crave.

So poetics (language-based or otherwise) feverishly practiced, is a way we can attempt the impossible work of addressing that which is unknowable—encountering affect. And worth noting: this isn’t a vague or general infinity. We’re talking about the proliferative filigree of specificity, Planck space even, difference par excellence. What Edouard Glissant calls “Relation” or “totality.”

CK: In addition to paintings, writings, and video work, you also have a body of sculptural work. Can you describe what inspires you to work in one medium rather than another?

HD: Each of these modes of approach allows a different tonal mode of communicating. Also each of the media institutes a different sensory and bodily grid in terms of the workday. I’m sitting, standing, typing, video-editing, texting friends to help make video, sawing, shopping, sanding, drilling, dragging charcoal around, etc. (I like to mix it up.) Also worth noting is my belief that each of the media talks back to non-art things in our world—instance by instance. E.g., if I make a video, it’s talking back to Youtube, or Facebook, or iPhone cameras. If I make a sculpture it’s talking back to bodies in space, object acquisitiveness, food, nature, the machinic.

The word drip or droop: they both have a kind of register, so to pull up an instance of the unexpected (for example) using a word, is a different challenge than to rustle an uncanny construction into a sculpture. Drawing is wry and reverberative in distinct ways. I’m interested in all of that.

Most of my video work is structured around the power of language rather than images. Which, as you may know, is considered a video sin. It’s like I ride a figurative horse into abstraction—I mean my interests are quite structural in a weird way.

…language teaches us, by its apparent specificity, to expect mastery, crave mastery.

I often think of things in terms of shapes, forms, and flows, so it’s odd that I employ so much character—emotion, as you call it, or even comedy, but for me those things, if I complicate them just enough they start to break down as signifiers, hopefully. They atomize a little.

CK: In the movie By Hook or by Crook, the character you play, Valentine, finally finds his birth mother with the help of his newly found friend, Shy. After reading Maggie Nelson’s book, The Argonauts, I discovered that this is a fragment from your own life. She describes your discovery of your own birth family in a way that feels like a continuation of the movie, as if the book was one piece in the many time-space continuums of Harry Dodge.

HD: That’s funny, I love that idea. That this character lives in different authors’ minds at discoherent times, coming and going in various voices and dimensions.

While this is true almost whole-cloth as an observation, it’s important to remind here that any piece of art, whether nonfiction or otherwise, is a construction. I mean—I think you’re all over that when you say the word “fragment” here, but to me it’s absolutely interesting. I’m not sure absolute “nonfiction representation” is even possible, right? But that’s not a lament on my part. Honestly, it’s a miracle that anything like language is even possible. I tend to view it positivistically. But sure, a couple of otherwise canny readers have asked me, “What’s it like for someone so uncomfortable with language to have a writer for a partner?” E.g., there is this structuring device in The Argonauts, which limns a conversation Maggie and I had when we first met about whether language is able to do the work of describing fluidity, or anything really. We take sides in the first part of the book, but the binary unravels. This thing is perhaps calcified in the book for the sake of navigability—and it works. It’s social—which is one of the boons of language—but not exactly factual.

Having said all of that, I want to add that the the notion of privacy (and it’s true that I’m exceptionally private) strikes me as functioning in a register or sphere that is actually fairly distinct from the machine of presenting one’s creative endeavors as social and communicative mediating objects. You see what I mean? One thing is crafted to cause or augment sociality (conversation piece)—another thing is simply the wrestling of control over moments of imminent exposure. Control-consent seems to be the hyphenated fulcrum under that particular teeter-totter. In other words, I’m much less distressed when I’m the one making decisions about how I’m represented. It’s not called exposure at that point. It’s called art.

CK: How do you view the making of art in terms of cultural dialogue? What kinds of responsibilities do you think artists have, if any, outside of the art world?

Mental Field All Sides, 2012

Mental Field All Sides, 2012

HD: Art, the word, the practice, protects and cultivates not only the imaginary—which alongside the agency of matter = potency—but all manner of things that defy instrumentalization by capitalism. Art (the word and practice) points at (and enjoins) all the stuff that can’t be quantified in any other way: the unnamable, the unknowable, affective inner experience, etc. The teeming open system that Glissant calls “totality” from which he subtracts “unity.” He says—and I agree—that there are things we can never know, and that “consequently we imagine it through a poetics; this imaginary realm provides the full-sense of all these always decisive differentiations.” Here, to me, poetics is a synonym for art and experimentalism in general.

Now, as social-ethical beings, citizens, friends, lovers, neighbors (aside from being artists, whose tools are fevered, demented, and poetic, and whose works should not be judged in terms linked to efficacy, transparency, or coherence) we’ve a great responsibility to be out in, discovering, entangling with, and critiquing our world, worlds.

As an aside, I do read art (not judge it) finally, each time, in terms of its contemporary relevance—invoking resonant forms (from outside of the gallery) and trying to get a sense of the relationship(s) the artist might be having to those rhyming supra-art situations/forms. But I wouldn’t extrapolate this habitual intellectualized art-reading protocol into a sort of cogent, articulated “political” injunction for art, in which a kind of experimentalism or opacity is pressured to causality in knowable ways.

CK: There is an additive dynamic to your work—a this-and-this—as opposed to this-or-that. Do you believe that identity is potentially everything that one accepts it to be?

HD: I think our identities are always on the move. Everything is always on the move. The trick is to allow ourselves to heed alternate forms of epistemological sense-making. (It’s hard to see “clearly” that thing in motion.) So identity—which is a word I almost never use any more!—doesn’t only accrue, it also winnows and alchemizes continuously (being constantly affected by every other thing). As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m very interested in the idea of a plural subject and sort of keep fondling a specific notion of multiplicity and interconnection (Relation) that is fecund, replete, with difference. In other words, homogeneity doesn’t have to be the final result of permeability. Intense articulation is not only possible, but (I suppose) inevitable. E.g., #Callmemyname.

As Glissant says, “In Relation the whole is not the finality of its parts: for multiplicity in totality is totally diversity. […] Diversity, the quantifiable totality of every possible difference, is the motor driving universal energy…” 

CK: And finally, what are you reading now that might be inspiration for future work?

HD: I just started looking into what they’re calling software studies. I’m about 100 pages into The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty by Benjamin Bratton. Also into A Prehistory of the Cloud by Tung-Hui Hu. As I said, I’m a deep materialist. Lately, I’ve been (successfully) trying to alchemize/transform my neo-Luddite/technophobic thinking habits into a more dynamic understanding of materiality through reading intensely on machine consciousness and the philosophy of (the infrastructure of) network technologies and computation. The accidental megastructure. Wow, man. These last few months, it’s like I got a new brain.

Carrie KellerbyCarrie Kellerby has a BFA in Art History, a BA in Creative Writing, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, and the advisor and co-editor of the Arts and Graphics department at Lunch Ticket. She teaches writing at Colorado Mesa University, dabbles in paint and yoga, and spends way too much time gardening.

Tananarive Due, Author

Tananarive DueI was lucky enough to be asked by the Horror Writers’Association to sit down with Tananarive Due for an interview that will be featured in the souvenir book for Stokercon, the HWA conference, where Due will be a guest of honor in the spring of 2017. The HWA is a non-profit organization of horror writers and publishers around the world that is dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it, and to fostering budding horror writers of all ages.

They needed only 1200 words, but I had an hour with Due and we talked about a lot more than could fit into that space. We spoke the week after the Trump groping tape was released, before this presidential election was decided, so we were fired up on a few topics. We spoke again after the election and, aside from one addendum, we agreed to leave the interview frozen in time: we discussed things that are just as, if not more, relevant in this new reality.

I had just finished teaching American Horror Story: Horror and Speculative Fiction for Antioch’s BA program and Due is currently teaching a class on Afrofuturism for UCLA.

Due is a writer, teacher, and activist. She is a former Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Humanities at Spelman College (2012-2014), where she taught screenwriting, creative writing, and journalism. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University and in the BA program at UCLA. The American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient is the author of twelve novels and a civil rights memoir. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. Due’s novella, Ghost Summer, received the 2008 Kindred award and her collection of the same name has been nominated for the NAACP Image Award. She is a leading voice in black speculative fiction and is currently teaching a six-week Live/Evergreen Online course in Revolutionary Art: Writing for Social Justice.

During our discussions, Due and I talked about finding your writing voice, writing for social change, genre and social justice, racism, feminism, Afrofuturism, and how to look at the swirl of political vitriol in a positive light. In other words, it was a very Antioch conversation.

Kate Maruyama: When did you start spinning stories and how did you end up writing horror?

Tananarive Due: At the age of four, I wrote a book called Baby Bobby, and by book I mean I took typing paper and folded it in half and drew pictures on the pages and even drew pages on the back cover. I wrote liner notes; I said, “Baby Bobby is a book about a baby and the author is Tananarive Due.” I spelled “author” wrong…

I knew I loved writing, I knew what an author was, and I was self-identifying from the age of four. Probably because of my exposure to books from my parents, but in terms of when I knew the life-saving power of writingwhich is even separate from horrorwas at age fourteen. It was 1980 in Miami, Florida, where I grew up, and there was a widely publicized police killing and it was my first Black Lives Matter moment, way before Black Lives Matter. It was my first moment where I was like, whoah, we don’t matter. That awakening was so rude.

It was a pretty clear-cut case where a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie, who was a former military police officer, for some reason while he was on his motorcycle, would not pull over for police officers. I wish I could ask him why. But instead he led twelve officers on a merry chase, and the adrenaline building up . . . and he gets to a freeway onramp and he stops. He could have gotten on the freeway, but for whatever reason, he thought, “This has gone far enough,” and he stopped and the cops were apparently pissed off and amped up and they pretty much beat him to death with flashlights, whatever they had. He didn’t die right away, but he did die from the injuries and the police officers kind of panicked and they’re like, “Oh, hell, what do we do now?” So they also beat up his motorcycle to try to stage it as if it had been an accident. Imagine this case today. They would have gotten away with that, actually, except for a reporter named Edna Buchanan, who wrote for the Miami Herald. It all came to light: that they had beaten him to death and tried to make it look like an accident. There was such overwhelming evidence it actually went to trial. It was only a manslaughter trial, but all of the officers were acquitted, because the jury said they didn’t know which officer had dealt the death blow. Meanwhile there are people in prison now who were just sitting in a car in an armed robbery. It sparked this huge riot in Miami, a very devastating, awful riot, and I was sitting in my school cafeteria just full of rage, emotion, and hurt. Hurt, really, because it was like we don’t matter, and the school cafeteria was playing Muzak to try to keep everyone calm, with a black, white, Hispanic school. I don’t remember racial problems at school growing up.

I started writing an essay, I had a knot in my stomach and I was full of rage. I wrote what started out as an essay poem, “I want to live in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word, and no one remembers what nigger used to mean.”

I had a knot in my stomach and I was full of rage. I wrote what started out as an essay poem, “I want to live in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word, and no one remembers what nigger used to mean.”

That was how it started. And it went on and on and on about this sort of Utopian society I wished I lived in, and that knot in my stomach went away and I could breathe, and I showed it to my mother and she said, “You’re so lucky that you have your writing. The people who are out rioting in the streets, they don’t have that.”

That was when I got it: that writing was going to be something more than just the fun I had sketching stories in class instead of paying attention. It was something more important than that: It was going to be something that would potentially save me, heal me. Actually, heal others, because I performed it as part of an NAACP competition for teenagers like an academic Olympics ACT-SFO. I recited this poem and I won prizes. It was my first time I thought that maybe I could heal myself in my writing and maybe I could heal others.

As to the horror part, my mother loved horror movies. [She] had this whole civil rights history behind her but she wore a lot of scars from it. [She was] a civil rights activist who was very angry about her experience, because she’d been arrested many times and wore dark glasses after a tear gas attack when she was in college. An officer threw it right in her face and said, “I want you,” because she was leading a protest march. She spent forty-nine days in jail with her sister and a few other students from Florida A&M University because they wouldn’t leave during a sit-in. They just ordered some food. They refused to leave jail and pay a fine because they weren’t going to pay for the Jim Crow justice system. And it became a big thing. They got a lot of attention and Jackie Robinson sent them diaries.

I think one of her ways of dealing was horror, honestly. When we look at how popular horror is with blacks in particularI can’t speak for Latinos, but it’s also very popular, and when the numbers come in, those groups always score high. I think it’s a way to give some form to actual chaotic fear, so that it can be overcome or at least exorcised. Because you’re feeling the fear on maybe a more constant basis, or in a way that you can’t even acknowledge, you spend your days in fear, so watching a really scary movie gathers it all up and puts it in a harmless form and you can deal with it. Toward the very end of her life, she couldn’t watch as much horror, but then it was getting mean.

KM: When do you feel like you really started writing like you?

TD: I was intrigued and moved and my characters tended to be black, but honestly, the older I got, the whiter I got. The more I was introduced to canon, the more I lost my face as a writer, so I really was struggling with some identity questions. I wanted to write horror, but I didn’t know any black writers that wrote horror, and I didn’t know if it was okay to write horror, because there are more important things to write about. But when I tried to write about inner city youth, I couldn’t find my voice in that and I wasn’t from a rural tradition like the writings from Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. I grew up in the suburbs, in air-conditioning, going to integrated schools. As a young woman, between seventeen and twenty-two, I was really struggling to find my voice. My question was: If I write black horror will I be respected, because I wanted to be respected, right? As a writer. I grew up where my family name had weight and I wanted to live up to that expectation.

I’d been writing a lot of short stories, I’d started a couple novels that were stopped and started. One I got two hundred pages in, handwritten, about a gay white playwright, male. By the way, who’s diagnosed with leukemia and wants to see his brother, from whom he was estranged. They want to rekindle their friendship. Now, admirable premise, but I knew nothing about my subject matter.

And why I was trying to write everyone but me, I don’t know. I don’t even have a brother. That’s how little connection I had. It was influenced by canon and I was trying to find a story and I wasn’t worried whether or not I was in the story. I had never lived in New York, I had never been a playwright, I had never had leukemia. It was a breakthrough novel in a sense because I found paragraphs at a time that sounded like professional level writing. And I found those lessons in bouncing between dialogue and position and creating themes. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my voice. I was so invisible in my work.

[In interviewing Anne Rice for the Miami Herald, Due had asked her about the criticism she’d been getting for vampire novels. Rice pointed out that her vampire novels were being taught in universities and allowed her to talk about life and death and mortality and love. Due recounted that this, and reading Gloria Naylor and Stephen King had given her the conviction to write horror.]

After the Anne Rice interview, I started writing The Between, which was basically about me, except I made myself a black male instead; I was still not quite writing me. This was in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which was just devastating in Miami. So the premise was affected by the hurricane and was basically about a guy who was supposed to die when he was a kid but he didn’t, so he was in a series of alternate realities where death was trying to catch up with him.

My father would talk about his stories from his side of his family. Freed slaves who farmed their own land and were attacked by jealous neighbors but stood up and fought back, and my mother was always telling the stories of the activists she knew. Black and white.

And he’s just figuring that out in the course of this novel, and he’s the only one who can see it. Seeing a city devastated is a really interesting experience as a writer. Worlds that were crumbled and reassembled showed up in that book and it was like me, set free. It was a suburban family, two professionals, he’s a social worker, she’s a judge. These were the people my parents knew, the people I grew up around, upwardly mobile suburban black people. Not even people who happen to be black, because they were very politically black. But other than that, it’s a horror novel and I just sort of closed my eyes and hoped I’d find an interested party. I wrote it for a screenwriting contesteven though I didn’t consciously want to be a screenwriter. I lost the contest, the first agent I sent it to rejected it, so I gave up on it very quickly and stuck it in a drawer for nine months.

I was halfway through writing my second novel, My Soul To Keep, and I was under some mental strain and I realized I’m not living up to my promises to myself as a writer, I’m not submitting. I have a novel that I’m not submitting, what the hell? So I started submitting and I sold it like three weeks after that. Terry McMillan had published Waiting To Exhale and publishers were like, “Oh, black people read.” Seriously, that was the conversation. So they were buying a lot of stuff. Back in the nineties, there were a lot of movies getting made: black crime drama, black romance. Black commercial art really took off at the time I started trying to sell my book. I was so lucky for the timing and really blessed to find that audience both among horror readers and black readers. You know my current editor for Ghost Summer, Paula Guran, is someone whom I met back in the day when I first started publishing. She wrote a review of The Between where she was like, remember the name, so it’s been a nice full circle experience, because publishing is such that you’re marketed in a very narrow way.

I was never really marketed in the beginning as a horror writer. The horror community found me, luckily, and I got nominated for a couple of Bram Stoker awards early on for The Between and My Soul to Keep, but beyond that, the marketing team was really mostly concentrating on black readers because there were enough black readers that they didn’t need to specifically extend that to horror.

KM: Do you think that maybe you brought more readers to horror because you were being marketed to a black readership instead of a specifically horror readership?

TD: I do not know. That is a good question. There was a time when, as a black writer, there were just enough black horror writers who were touring around together and running into each other, that we thought that there was this black horror renaissance. But, I don’t know the impact of bringing more readers in general into horror. Maybe so. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve always loved horror and we were willing to buy Stephen King, we loved him.

KM: You grew up in this house that was steeped in social justice. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you think your writing is informed by that? The stories that you write?

TD: They gave me an example of world-building in this world. My mother was not as active, once the three of us were born, as she had been earlier. She wasn’t getting arrested, for example. I never remember her getting arrested; her last arrest was 1968. But whether it was the PTA or making speeches in front of the school board, she was always out organizing and trying to make a better world, and my father always was, in his way. He’s an attorney. He’s still living and he worked for an agency in Miami called the Community Relations Board, so it’s all about building relationships, and he was always out at meetings and as a result we were always out at meetings. I was a youth council president for the NAACP and I got in the habit of going to meetings.

Just as importantly, they were storytellers. My father would talk about his stories from his side of his family. Freed slaves who farmed their own land and were attacked by jealous neighbors, but stood up and fought back, and my mother was always telling the stories of the activists she knew. Black and white.

The civil rights movement was never about black vs. white to me. Because our godparents were white and the stories about the whites and the impact of the movement on them were just devastating. She knew one young man who committed suicide, he was so disillusioned that the U.S. wasn’t what he thought it was when he came south. This was a white friend of hers. It was about people who hated racism working together to create civil rights, black and white, Jewish and Christian. That is what it looked like to me.

KM: That’s what’s missing now. There’s this silence now from white people on very obvious infringements on human rights. Silence from white people about police shootings. It’s so strange to me. When I was growing up it was, “This is wrong for humanity, let’s fight it together.”

TD: Right. I came to the conclusion after working on the book with my mom [Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights], that the white students tended to be a little more radical. Most people weren’t putting themselves at risk.  Even my mom’s stepfather was disapproving of her activism.

The fact that Trump has even happened, shows us that we’re in that time. Not just because of him personally, but because of what his rise represents. What we’re facing in our schools, with our police departments, throughout our system. Our voting system, there’s just a lot being exposed.

Because what parent wants their kid to risk getting kicked out of school and going to jail, after all you sacrificed you can barely hold onto your job now? So these black parents were not. It was a radical act on the part of these young people to become involved and I think for whites to become involved there was just this one more ounce of radicalism. That it would take more to push. Maybe they were just a little more… visionary?… than their family members and friends.

KM: Or the risks were lower. Because they were more likely to get a slap on the wrist, you know? Not get thrown in jail.

TD: The risks were lower, but the incentives had to be higher, I think, because nobody likes to give up comfort. It’s really difficult. Now there are people of all backgrounds who are very, very comfortable. That’s how mass incarceration snuck up on us. Because even the Civil Rights movement was sleeping on it for a very long time. Civil rights organizations. I think that in part that was because my generation, Generation X, if you were lucky enough to have a middle-class income, there were scholarships available, there were job opportunities available. Even with all of the history and the storytelling in my home, I walked away with this false sense of progress because my parents had seen white only or colored only signs. I had never seen white only or colored only signs. So there was this curtain between them and me and my generation. A lot of us—too many of us—felt like we had gotten over racism. Without understanding how many had been left behind and how entrenched these attitudes were systemically. And it was going to emerge in different ways. So yeah, you’re going to get your integrated schools, but you’re also going to get teachers who expect less of you. Or schools that are more likely to throw you in jail. So there’s a big tradeoff.

I think people are starting to wake up a bit more.

KM: I know I came out to Hollywood thinking feminism was: “mission accomplished!” My mom had fought on the front lines as a woman reporter in the 1950s. So now I can do anything! And that just wasn’t true. And now it feels like we’re going backwards. There’s a lot of stuff this week. It’s a hard week to be a woman. [We held this portion of the interview the week of Trump’s groping tape.

TD: To what you were addressing: Is feminism done? I remember not long ago that there was this conversation of what impact gender was going to have on the election and we were all like, “We’re not sure.” Well, guess what? Gender’s a huge part of the election. For much the same reason that race became so much of a conversation after Obama. Because when it’s in people’s faces, they can’t help being jerks.

KM: Also the events of this past week have stirred up all of these conversations about… all of us, every woman I’ve talked to, we’ve all been mauled or molested or cornered or…

TD: Oh, yeah.

KM: I think there are a lot of guys who seemed kind of awake, who are now actually hearing this from their relatives and loved ones. And they’re like, “Wait, crap, this is a real thing.”

TD: Ultimately it will be a good thing that all this was exposed. Although too many people will be too quick to pretend all of this never happened. But it’s a good thing and good will come of it, ultimately. I really think so. Just as I’m really in some ways grateful that the anti-Obama backlash has been so obvious. [TD ADDENDUM]: Post-election, the backlash went so far, however, that many gains will be threatened and lost. It’s terrifying.

KM: How do you decide which project to work on next? Does one jump out at you or are you always working on more than one thing at once?

TD: This is the most difficult part of my current lifestyle. Between teaching, not just one place but two places, and then trying to introduce Hollywood into my life in a marked and consistent way, and short stories and what-not, my novel, which used to be a priority, is less and less a priority. And it’s taking forever to write this book… It doesn’t feel like I’m deciding, so much as certain projects jump up and prioritize themselves if I’m not careful. And the novel just never has that because it’s also the first time that I’ve written a novel without a deadline. Deadlines are enormously helpful to me. I was a journalist, I was trained on deadlines, so deadlines always have the priority. And the novel not having a deadline? Not so much.

KM: I always tell my agent I’m going to deliver something months ahead of time and that gives me the deadline. He doesn’t pay any attention or care, but my word binds me.

I would love to know your thoughts on Afrofuturism. Was it a movement before it was named, and how do you define it in terms of your work? Have your thoughts changed as you’ve learned more about it?

TD: I think it was a movement before it was named, but it was named at a point when it was becoming more obviously a movement. There were a lot of us who were writing Afrofuturism who did not self-identify that way.

Even if Trump won, or maybe even especially if Trump won, it would be such a ripe time for artists to raise their voices for change.

Because we didn’t know that was what we were doing. But to put it together, I’m teaching a class on it and the definition is so difficult, but what I would say is that it is a combination of literature, music, and visual arts that depict an African future, usually with ties to the past. I also like to include horror and fantasy in Afrofuturism (even though they’re not specifically futuristic), or alternate visions of African-influenced lives. Whether it’s black characters or an aesthetic for black horror, which I think will emerge more in film in years to come.

[Earlier, we had discussed her developing Ghost Summer for television.]

Let’s say my show gets on and it’s a black horror show. That could be really important to helping others find their shows. And one thing that comes up a lot in the black horror aesthetic and also the black science fiction aesthetic is this idea that you must look back to history to move forward. And I think that that resonates so deeply throughout the genres, because I think that history has been so hard, and has been so focused on that skin color, that whether you’re Colombian or Kenyan or black American, everyone’s dealing with that. And it’s a kind of commonality—that history of horror related to something you had no control over. Your skin color. Or your background. And we’re all kind of gnawing on that bone in different ways. So that comes up a lot, but it comes up in different ways. So Octavia had her way of dealing with it, and Toni Morrison had her way of dealing with it, I have my way of dealing with it. Nnedi Okorafor has her way of dealing with it and it’s not always black/white-centered either. A lot of that poverty is universal, too, so there are class issues that emerge and gender issues that emerge. So yeah, Afrofuturism is a growing movement and it’s one to be reckoned with. I think it’s about to have an effect on the face of film and television in a way that it has not before, because there have been so few projects. They have been few and independent, but that’s going to change. It may not be me, but in the next five years, you can be sure of that.

KM: In the introduction of Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown’s anthology, Octavia’s Brood, there was a concept of Afrofuturism that I hadn’t heard of before, which insisted that the stories written create a positive future. That was part of the mission of the stories. I didn’t know if you had any thoughts on that.

TD: That’s a good point, too. Absolutely. Some of it is Utopian, some of it is dystopian, and some of it is a combination.

KM: I thought that was an interesting and lovely edict. I don’t know if it’s something that as a writer, I could comply with.

TD: I think that’s it’s so much in the air you breathe as an artist that you don’t have to give it to yourself as a prompt to say, “When you’re working on something.” It’s a voice that comes very naturally to a lot of artists because no matter where you are, if you’re struggling poor or a CEO, you all have these shared stories of discrimination that stay with you on some level.  It’s just naturally what we’re gravitating to now.

KM: What advice would you have for any budding young writers out there?

TD: First of all, don’t be afraid to write horror. A lot of people are. Those professors are telling you. Don’t do it for them.

Read excellent fiction of all types, do not limit your fiction to horror. I would say that the majority of my reading is not speculative fiction. I’m always looking for great literature and I have to find that where it is. History novels. Historical novels, you know.

The third thing is find your circle of (beta) readers who will make you a professional-level writer. It’s great to take writing courses, it’s great to get MFAs, but in so many ways one of benefits of getting an MFA is the circle of readers that you met and you need to keep in touch with. You paid for that. And to lose that is tragic. You might get your teaching job, but will you finish your novel? That’s what your circle of readers is for.

KM: How do you keep in touch with your circle of readers?

TD: Well, I’m married to mine. (laughs) I don’t have beta readers like I used to. Beta readers take you to the next levels. For a time I considered hiring one of my former editors privately, because I’ve never written a book without her either.  I don’t advise hiring them, I advise keeping in touch via Facebook or having groups or having two or three people you send the manuscript to.

KM: I have a circle and we stop, so it ends up being not all labor for them.

TD: And take supplementary classes. You have to know what it’s going to take for you to keep your integrity to yourself as a writer who’s growing and producing.

It’s not clear how this election turned out. Even if Trump won, or maybe even especially if Trump won, it would be such a ripe time for artists to raise their voices for change. We’re still in that time. The fact that Trump has even happened, shows us that we’re in that time.  Not just because of him personally, but because of what his rise represents. What we’re facing in our schools, with our police departments, throughout our system. Our voting system, there’s just a lot being exposed.

KM: My friend Gloria Villegas says that she hopes that what’s happened is that the rock has been lifted on racism, and what we’re seeing are all of those little bugs scuttling out, all those nasty little racist bugs who are down there, but the light is also there. I hope so. It’s just the ugliness is so ugly, it’s very hard to…

TD: He’s doing us a favor ultimately, but it’s a hard time in this culture.

And like that, our hour was up. This was one of those conversations that flips your lid as a writer, and the sort of conversation I hope you all seek out. My advice to budding writers would be: Seek out conversations like these. Talk to people more advanced in your field, ask questions. Exchange ideas. As Due said, this is a time ripe for artists to raise their voices for change.

Kate MaruyamaKate Maruyama’s novel Harrowgate was published by 47North. Her short work appears in Arcadia, Stoneboat, Whistling Shade, and on Salon, The Rumpus, and Duende, among other journals. She has stories in the anthologies Phantasma: Stories and Winter Horror Days. She teaches in the BA and MFA Programs at Antioch University Los Angeles, and for Inspiration2Publication and Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She writes, teaches, cooks, and eats in Los Angeles, where she lives with her family.

Michael Jaime-Becerra, Author

Michael Jaime-BecerraIn one of Michael Jaime-Becerra’s stories, “Lopez Trucking Incorporated,” the sixteen-year-old narrator climbs into the cab of the commercial rig belonging to his grandfather, a man who’s been estranged from his family—and perhaps himself—for years. “The rig smells like old smoke and leather,” the narrator observes. There’s a statue of the Virgin Mary sitting on the dashboard, along with a yellow clay ashtray in the shape of Texas, something his sister made for their Grandpa back in the third grade. “It’s been cracked and glued back together a few times,” he says, and the passenger seat is big and soft, like “a catcher’s mitt,” but the rumble from the rig’s engines are enough to make everything shake: the Virgin, the ashtray, even the fillings in the boy’s teeth.

One gets the feeling that all of Jaime-Becerra’s characters have been cracked and put back together a few times. Family holds them, too, even if it sometimes stalls the launch of their own lives. Setting serves the same purpose, and for Jaime-Becerra’s collection of linked short stories, Every Night is Ladies’ Night (Rayo, 2004), as well as his novel, This Time Tomorrow (Thomas Dunne, 2010), that setting is El Monte, California, a four-by-seven-mile tract of low-lying land east of Los Angeles, bordered by the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers. Once a way-station for nomadic Native American tribes, Spanish missionaries, and soldiers, El Monte is now a predominantly Mexican-American community of small businesses and industrial outlets, bordered by two of LA’s busiest freeways (the 605 and the 10). It is also a continuing beacon for immigrant families seeking to realize their dreams; or, as the chamber of commerce says in its online history, El Monte offers a home for those who want to put down roots while seeking “new opportunities and ideas.”

That can be said not only of Jaime-Becerra’s characters but perhaps of the author himself, who met me at Diana’s restaurant and tortilleria on Durfee Avenue, one of El Monte’s main drags (and the main thoroughfare in many of his stories). Over generous burritos, we talked about all of his works to date—including, most recently, nonfiction for LAtitudes: An Angelenos’ Atlas, and a story in the final issue of Black Clock—as well as his experience as a student, practitioner, and now an associate professor of creative writing (over a decade at UC Riverside). We talked about trying to find that ever-elusive balance between family and artistic fulfillment, and then he took me on a personal tour of the old neighborhood and the familiar places that still catch him, like a big, well-oiled glove, even as they rattle and crack with age and break open to the new.

Sherrye Henry Jr.: You’ve said that when you were young, you wanted to be a cowboy first—and only later, a writer. What changed your mind?

Michael Jaime-Becerra: The first real success I remember having was in fourth grade. I was writing an Indiana Jones knock-off, called Panama Jack. It was terrible, but I had a lot of fun doing it. And then in seventh grade I wrote a book about a skateboard contest in outer space. I was into skateboarding and had a taste for science fiction, and I tried to merge the two. You would get medals in school—and I was really competitive, and wanted one of those medals—but nothing happened that year. Only my English teacher found it imaginative and inventive. I found this out much later (in fact, she came to a reading of Ladies’ Night, and told me she did this without her principal’s permission), but she had forwarded the book to the county fair at the time. I didn’t know about it until I got this letter at the house that the book had placed third, and that was a really transformative moment for me: The book that I had made was in this glass case, with other books from other cities that I hadn’t even heard of, and there was big ribbon around it. And that moment really galvanized me: that moment of publication, of writing something for a public audience. I was writing about what interested me; I drew from the things I was passionate about at that age; I was living in this imaginative world. So it was a convergence of all these things.

The book that I had made was in this glass case, with other books from other cities that I hadn’t even heard of, and there was big ribbon around it. And that moment really galvanized me: that moment of publication, of writing something for a public audience.

I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I knew that I wanted to write.

That moment—I go back to it a lot, for being recognized for a talent that I had, outside of my own environment, by an audience that had nothing to do with me. The county fair is everybody, and it was real validation. That’s a word that’s really important to this discussion. It’s personal validation, but more than that, it’s cultural validation, like we all have a place in the world. As time has gone by, that’s become more my conscious purpose as a writer.

SH: So it’s both aspects of validation, the internal satisfaction of your writing and also its acknowledgment and acceptance by the outside world.

MJB: Yes. My parents lived along the San Gabriel River. Every year the rains would cause the river to overflow, and someone would invariably decide to go inner tubing, and without fail, every year, the county search and rescue would have to fish the person out, and we’d hear the sirens along the bike path and the helicopters overhead. One year my dad had a ladder pressed against the fence, and I saw Stan Chambers, a local newscaster, doing a live remote. That was another really important moment for me, the world coming to where I lived. This idea of this is where I’m from but it has a place in the larger world.

SH: You started in college [UCR] with poetry. Why and when did you switch to fiction?

MJB: I was a terrible fiction writer. I believe I got a B- in my first creative writing class. But I didn’t have a healthy literary diet. I was reading Frank Miller and The Dark Knight comics; and Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero, and I was doing my best to imitate them. And then, I was really struggling. I was the first in my family to go to college. I was the first person I knew to go to college. And things were really chaotic at home. I was working a graveyard shift and then showing up for an 8:30 class in my work clothes. I was having terrible time of it, and I was afraid to ask my advisor for help. I felt like something of an astronaut, launched into orbit. So I thought I’d take the most advanced class I could find, and if I did well, then I deserved to be there. Otherwise I’d keep working at UPS.

So I took this class with the poet Maurya Simon, and I decided to write something that entertained me. That was a huge distinction, because up until then I’d been writing to entertain people, this imaginary perceived audience, by emulating [other writers]. So I wrote this poem about the frustrations of getting my father a beer in the middle of a football game. It was really short—maybe ten lines, called “Los Angeles 34, Denver 17,” something like that. The workshop responded really well. I think they saw a sense of honesty, of honest emotion, and personal investment in the work, and that was the turning point for me. I thought, I’ll just keep doing this. I started to look for more experiences to write about, and to read more poetry, and began a series of poems from memories of my adolescence that eventually became my first book of poetry, The Estrellitas Off Peck Road (Temporary Vandalism, 1997). That was a lot of fun.

SH: When did you make the transition to fiction?

MJB: At UCR, we have a cross-genre requirement. (We still do, and I’m glad we do.) So I decided to try fiction again, and took a class with Susan Straight. That was a happy accident, because here I was, a person interested in writing about where he was from, stories that are rooted in memory, and [she’s] a writer who is one of the best at doing exactly that. I wrote my first stories in her workshop. I started to realize that my poems were scenes with line breaks, and if I stacked enough of these scenes together, I had a story. They were rudimentary, they were teetering, but they were stories.

SH: And that became another turning point for you?

MJB: The last poem I wrote was called “The Water Machine,” about a boy and his mother’s abusive boyfriend. It was this big sprawling poem [that] was really a story, and I felt I needed more space. I wanted a bigger canvas.

SH: What did you bring to fiction from poetry?

MJB: An attention to line; an attention to the rhythm and the shape of the paragraph; a lot of that attention to micro detail that a poet has to have, and even if I didn’t have the skills back then, the understanding that such things existed came from my work in poetry.

A lot of the poets I love are very visible on the page; you are reading a distillation of their vision… Whereas I want my reader to see the characters, and my role as a writer is to be more of a conduit between the two.

SH: Do you still get called to write poetry, even on the side?

MJB: I do and they end up being scenes.

As time has gone by, I want my own presence as a writer to be less visible. A lot of the poets I love are very visible on the page; you are reading a distillation of their vision, and you go into their poetry with that understanding. Whereas I want my reader to see the characters, and my role as a writer is to be more of a conduit between the two. There are writers, like Annie Proulx, who are in the foreground. When you open her book, you’re on her turf, with her language. Michael Chabon, too. But [John] Cheever—even though he’s hilarious, he’s in the background a lot. My role model for the last couple of years has been William Trevor, who allows the characters to be who they want to be and adapts the perspective of the narrator to meet that.

SH: You’ve now written a collection of linked short stories and a novel: How do you decide what form a story will take—or does it tell you?

MJB: The leap from poetry to short stories was based on space, and [so was] the leap to the novel. The last story I wrote for Ladies’ Night was close to seventy pages [“Media Vuelta”]. One of my readers said, you know, I think Michael is just going to keep going. And I realized that I could. Then going through grad school and writing a lot more and reading a lot more, having a healthier literary diet, created a sense of possibility for me. Up until that point, the idea of writing a novel felt like buying a three-story house and filling it with furniture from my studio apartment. It’s too much space; but by then I felt I was ready to move in.

The story [for This Time Tomorrow] came out of a conversation with my barber at the time, who said, “Once you’ve been with someone for a year, you know whether you want to marry them.” That really struck me. At the time, I was dating a woman (now my wife), and she came from a really traditional Mexican household, which meant that you don’t leave until you are married. I came from a version of that household too—so I thought how interesting it would be to write about this: this lack of space.

SH: This part of the world, El Monte, appears in all of your stories. How do you make setting become a character, invested with a body and beating heart?

MJB: You have to find the meaning of the setting to the characters. One of the most valuable comments made to me in workshop—I’ll never forget it—was about a description of a McDonald’s play yard, and [whether] it was important to the story, or just important to me.

That made me think, and realize the process of stepping into the background. I rewrote the description from the point of view of the character who’s sitting in the drive-through window, who’s just had a miscarriage and is seeing the play yard through her experience. There’s another moment, in Ladies’ Night, when Lencho, who has burned hands, is grappling with something—fumbling as if looking for a socket wrench. I use his frame of reference, which is the auto mechanic, to attach itself to the setting which becomes character.

SH: And why is this particular setting, El Monte, so important to you?

MJB: I wanted to take my world to the larger world. During the early 90s, [California] Proposition 187 sparked a lot of anti-immigrant debate and rhetoric, and it was very much part of the cultural conversation at the time. I remember thinking—I’m the son of an immigrant on my father’s side, and I’m second generation on my mother’s side, and a lot of the people I knew growing up were immigrants, and they were productive, hardworking, honest people. My father got up every morning at four a.m. to work as a meat cutter in Altadena. The people who were being railed against were not the people I knew or the experience growing up that I’d had.

At the same time, James Elroy—the iconic crime writer—wrote My Dark Places about his mother’s murder in El Monte, and (understandably) he describes the city really negatively. But that was not my experience, and so I wanted to write the social and cultural context that I came out of. That was another turning point, a moment of convergences that led to Ladies’ Night. That remains a focus: I want to bring this place and its people, their personal goals and struggles and dreams and desires, into other people’s lives.

SH: Two of the stories in Ladies’ Night are from a woman’s point of view, as are two sections in your novel. What are the challenges in writing “the other”? What must any writer do when expressing an experience or consciousness distinct from their own?

MJB: Emotional truth is the goal for me. That applies when I’m writing any character, but most of all when I’m writing one who’s not like me, in terms of race, gender, etc. There was a woman in grad school who was working on a novel from the male perspective, and the men in workshop would say—Oh, no guy would ever do that! He’s too aggressive! So she’d dial it back, and then in the next workshop, she’d hear that the character was too passive.

Emotional truth is the goal for me.

That caused a lot of frustration on her part, because she was going back and forth trying to hit this imagined target and not really satisfying anyone. [I realized] that the character has to be true to him- or herself, and has to be consistent to his or her views. Whatever people want to make of that is up to them. That takes a sense of confidence on the writer’s part. Flannery O’Connor is a role model for this; her characters are often ugly, and she just leaves it up to us to decide what to make of them.

At the same time, a lot of what I was writing about with the character of Joyce [in This Time Tomorrow] came out of my own experiences and emotions: wanting to escape a responsibility to tradition, wanting to escape a sense of loneliness, wanting to invest in another person but not being sure. All of these are very human things, not gender things. And that’s the part of her that I tried to concentrate on, and hoped other people would connect with and see the truth in. All my work in poetry informed this too. The poet Ai writes persona poems, in which she embodies people like Jimmy Hoffa, Elvis, and James Dean. I was fascinated by her ability to adapt these personalities and convince me of their experiences, and I thought, surely I can write from the perspective of other characters. Ultimately, it’s in honoring “the other” that writers create characters who feel tangible, real. Otherwise it can feel exploitative; writers who put the perceived audience first rather than the characters can end up exploiting both.

SH: Growing up, did you feel an “otherness” with aspects of American culture?

MJB: Absolutely. I remember, when I was about eight or ten, my father wanting a nice golf sweater. He didn’t play golf, but he wanted a sweater, so we went to a nice store in Arcadia, and as we were walking around I noticed the salesperson following us. That was the first moment I became conscious of my otherness.

Even more than race—because the El Monte I grew up in was pretty homogenous—was this idea of class, something I became acutely conscious of. I had some friends who wore the same clothes all year, but I got new sneakers once or twice a year. I had jeans, but they were Levi’s. I had a skateboard. I had a bicycle. I had a Commodore 64 computer. I had mixed feelings about these badges. Then, between the eighth grade and high school, I went from public school, where I was among the upper economic tiers, to a private school, where I was among the lower. So my experience of the social order got completely reversed, and the older I get, the more I realize how profoundly that year affected me. That’s why Ana [in This Time Tomorrow] is thirteen, as are some of my other characters. That’s a really profound age, the age when your identity starts to harden, if it hasn’t already, along with your sense of what’s possible in the world.

SH: Will you—or your characters—ever venture from El Monte?

MJB: Many of my characters want to escape. There’s a theory that we all tell the same story over and over again, and that’s the one I tell: Joyce wants to escape responsibility to her father; Gilbert wants to escape the confines of his loneliness; Ana wants to escape the perceived threat of Joyce to her father. One of the books that I want to write, down the line, is set in a mining town in Chihuahua, where my father and his family are from. It’s about a boy who takes up the accordion and eventually ends up playing in a conjunto during the fifties, and taking a road trip west.

SH: So you do have stories in the pipeline? You’re not one of these writers who finishes a book and stares at the blank page and says, “Oh no, what next?”

MJB: I have the next ten years of my life mapped out, creatively speaking. I’m working on another linked collection, inspired by the Nick Adams stories of In Our Time, by Hemingway, about innocence to loss of innocence to the need for recovery. The central character is a guy named Memo, short for Guillermo, and the arc as I imagine it is Memo learning to make bad decisions from his father, and then making bad decisions as a young man, and then Memo seeking redemption at the end.

SH: So now in addition to escape, we get to see the aftermath.

MJB: I’ve also started this novel about a boy named Omar, who wants to run away from home to join a skateboard contest in Long Beach, with hopes of joining the tour and that will lead to endorsements, etc. It starts in El Monte. My hope is that it will end up a couple hundred pages down the river, in Long Beach.

SH: As a former MFA student and now a teacher, you’re aware of the controversy surrounding the degree, from Junot Diaz’ assertion that the programs are still “too white” to the recent article in the Atlantic, which casts doubt on their value to would-be writers at all. What advice would you give to any student considering an MFA degree, its possible risks and rewards?

…writers who put the perceived audience first rather than the characters can end up exploiting both.

MJB: The greatest risk is going to the first place that lets you in. The same way that writers jump at the first agent who suggests an interest in them, thinking that’s the only chance they have. I actually teach a course at UCR for our most promising undergraduates. It’s all about researching graduate programs to understand their philosophy, the work of the faculty who teach there, and then talking to the current students, to get a sense of what the program is like so they can make an informed decision [rather than] applying blindly to the “best” school and then assuming that it will fit them, be productive for their work. That’s not always the case.

Know where you are applying to is the first thing, and then do your best work to apply there. Sometimes people apply too early, or think of the MFA as a place where they will read a lot and hone their skills. That’s implicitly going to happen, but if you don’t have something to take with you going into that program, it’s not going to be a productive experience. If you’re writing short stories, have at least three, four, five of those stories under your belt in some form, before you apply. If you’re writing a novel, have at least 100 pages and be committed. I was in school with people who started a new novel every quarter, it seemed. They’d go through workshop and think—well, the workshop didn’t like that, and then they’d cast it aside. That’s not the way the degree is best served. The degree to me is best served as a finishing point or capstone for the craft of writing. So you have to have some facility with the craft and also some investment in it, something more than, “This is what I think I’ll do.”

SH: What about another criticism of MFA programs, that they all produce writers who all sound alike?

MJB: That argument presumes that all MFA programs are the same, or that all MFA instruction comes with the same rigor and understanding. They’re not. There are good MFA programs, venues for writers to unfurl themselves, and there are places for writers to mold themselves into a niche or image. I’m hoping we have the former. What is it that you want to do? Who is it that you want to be? And how can I use what I know and the skills that I have to help you become that, your fullest form and expression as a writer?

Even when I find myself disagreeing with a student, over what they’ve done on the page, I make my argument on the basis of the art. I can see what you tell me you want to do, and if you modify this or change the POV, cut this scene or expand here, then that’s more the story I think you want to tell.

If one is in a workshop with ten people, and you come out with three people understanding what you’re trying to achieve, that’s still a positive experience. Don’t let others make your story into what they want to see. Those are the people that we have to cast aside. Those who really understand what you’re trying to do and honor your creativity with their commentary: those are the people you listen to.

SH: Let’s talk for a moment about love. For me, as a reader, that’s what drew me into your characters and their stories: love and all its complexities. It’s what they fight for and what gives them hope. Without straying into the morality of fiction (another controversial topic), do you feel a writer has a responsibility to create worlds in which there is still the hope for love, even if—like the spark of wires in the last story of Ladies’ Night—it’s all so tenuous and uncertain?

MJB: I have a hard time with a lot of the fascination with dystopian worlds right now, because I feel that comes from a place of privilege. Things are so good in your existence that you can afford to tear it all down and play around with what’s left? Whereas a lot of the people I grew up withand am still surrounded byare working toward a starting place: of putting together a world.

I also feel that it’s easier to write the sad story than the happy one. I feel some readers go into a story expecting that this will be serious and dark, because if it’s not, then there’s not a whole lot of dramatic value to it. It’s harder to tell a story where the character wins—and wins plausibly, to the reader’s satisfaction. It’s easier to see the dark and sad stuff, it’s harder to pull off the spark. It’s harder for me. The original ending of Ladies’ Night found a character taking a dark, sad turn, and I changed it after a conversation with my editor, who asked me what note I wanted readers leaving my world with. So it’s not that you have to end on a happy or light note. My responsibility is to the truth. To create the social, cultural, and financial context of the world that my characters come from, and the truth of it is that sometimes we have good days, sometimes we win. That’s part of our reality too. We need to see it. To have that spark of hope, to keep going. Even in dark stories, that spark can take the form of connection or transcendence.

SH: Is there a topic we haven’t covered—anything you’d like to add to the current conversation on creative writing?

MJB: I’m always happy when I can put a book down and I can remember the person in the book—the character and the story. We live in a culture in which attention is the most prized commodity. It used to be television we [writers] were fighting with. Now it’s all sorts of screens, all the paths to wander on your television and your laptop and your phone. When something stays with me, and makes me excited about the craft and its ability to survive all those competing things, then that’s the beauty of the art. Great literature still has the power to do that. It has a way of moving people. As a writer, you have to give something that will hit the reader hard, and stay with them. It’s the truth that hits the hardest.

Sherrye HenrySherrye Henry Jr. has wanted to be a writer all her life, and thankfully it only took her fifty years to quit everything else and give it a shot. A reformed lawyer, a runner turned yogi, and a mom forever, she is grateful to be engaged in the terrifying pursuit of trying to wrap words around the human experience, and has found great courage in the MFA community at Antioch LA, particularly in her role as Nitpicker (Proof Edit Manager) for Lunch Ticket. You can find her in a Rocky Mt. cabin with one bearded husband and two shaggy dogs.

Todd Mitchell on Graphic Narratives: The Frontier of Visual Storytelling

Todd MitchellTodd Mitchell is the author of several award-winning novels, stories, and graphic texts, including the young adult novels Backwards (Candlewick Press, Colorado Author’s League Award winner), The Secret to Lying (Candlewick Press, Colorado Book Award winner), and the middle grade novels Species (forthcoming from Delacorte Press) and The Traitor King (Scholastic Press, Colorado Book Award Finalist). He’s also a writer for the graphic novel, A Flight of Angels (Vertigo, YALSA Top 10 Pick for Teens), and the graphic series, Broken Saviors (made possible by grants from the NEA and Colorado Creative Industries). In addition to his books, he’s published short stories, essays, and poems in national and international journals. He has over fifteen years of experience teaching creative writing at college and graduate levels, and serving as Director of the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program at Colorado State University. When he’s not traveling, he lives in Fort Collins, CO with his wife, dog, and two wily daughters. You can visit him at www.ToddMitchellBooks.com

Katy Avila interviewed Todd Mitchell via phone call in August 2016.

Katy Avila: I took a course in my undergraduate English program where we studied the development of pulp fiction and comic books through the 1950s. Last term, I was assigned Fun Home (2006), a graphic memoir. Do you have anything to say about this transition of graphic narratives from pulp fiction into the more “literary” world?

Todd Mitchell: I think everyone would see that turning point differently. It probably has a lot to do with personal bias, but in terms of mainstream culture the big turning point was Maus (1980-1991), because Maus won the Pulitzer, got some critical praise. It cued the larger public on how comics can be used to tell stories; they weren’t just for kids. More recently, you mentioned Fun Home, which won several best book awards. That was a mainstream crossover.

Since then, I feel like we’re in this golden age of comics, where a lot is happening with independent comics as well as the traditional comics. If you look at Hollywood, most of their movie development for big blockbusters are coming out of comics, even some indie films are coming out of comics too. YA literature. Hybrid texts. There’s room for writers to explore how images can be used to tell a story in ways that haven’t been done before, that isn’t just sequential narrative. All of these different forms of graphic texts are now becoming a big part of our general culture and not just a subculture.

If you think about a frontier, there is this undiscovered country that we can go into, and it is the country of graphic texts, and it’s just opening up now.

KA: You mentioned technology—do you mean graphic narratives are gaining popularity because of the internet?

TM: Yeah. It’s a new territory to discover new stories. Technology has enabled graphic mediums to spread, and they’ve increased publishing costs. There’s a lot of authors who are realizing, “Oh wait, there are whole new stories we can tell with art.” We can use art and stories in ways that haven’t been done before, and that’s what really excites me. If you think about a frontier, there is this undiscovered country that we can go into, and it is the country of graphic texts, and it’s just opening up now. I’m seeing a lot of books now where they use art and image along with narrative as a way to tell stories using an online format. The internet is very graphic—it’s a graphic medium. People want pictures with their texts so readers are getting more accustomed to graphic texts.

KA: It’s like memes. Those have blown up in social media in the last several years. Pictures and words are easy to connect to. They try to catch some familiar feeling like, “That time when you…” along with an expression, working in juxtaposition of what’s said in the text and the image, and it plays with your image of familiarity because you’ve probably heard the phrase or seen the picture before. I feel like comics do the same thing by playing on what you know and what you don’t know.

TM: That’s a really good connection. Readers are inundated with graphic texts all the time without realizing it. Memes are a great example. The problem right now though is that a lot of readers are pretty lazy at reading graphic texts. If we look at a picture of a chair, to be good readers of graphic texts we have to think about why the chair is depicted the way it is. Why is it empty? A lot of readers aren’t asking all the questions that they need, because we’re used to receiving information from images.

The challenge for writers, for creators, is to try and elevate the ways that readers read these graphic texts. It demands that readers get more critical and thoughtful about how they read. If you don’t know how to read a graphic text, you only get about one-tenth of what is actually on the page. Schools need to do a better job at developing graphic literacy.

KA: What was the first comic or graphic narrative that caught your attention—were you a kid or an adult?

TM: I actually came pretty late to comics and graphic narratives. I didn’t read any as a kid. I had a roommate in college who was big into X-Men and others, so I started reading some of his. But really the first one that that blew my mind is a very surreal comic called Stray Toasters (1988). I’ve never even met anybody who has read this, I don’t know how I got it, but it has these very painterly panels and text, and it’s put together in a way that utterly baffles me and I read it multiple times just trying to understand it. Like what is this? What does it mean?

But if your question is what is the one that made me think about graphic narratives as a writer, that one was probably Maus.

KA: You said Stray Toasters perplexed you, not knowing what it meant and how it was put together. What caught your attention with Maus?

TM: For Maus, I put off reading it for years. The idea of a comic about the Holocaust kind of appalled me. When I finally did read it, I was utterly surprised that I was affected more by this book than any other book I had read about the Holocaust. I wanted to know why there was this particular power to graphic narratives that I had overlooked. In the case of Maus, it comes from the fact that it is a comic so we know it’s going to be a story about the Holocaust, but we think it’s going to be more light-hearted, more cartoonish. The characters aren’t depicted as people, they’re depicted as mice, and at several significant points in the text we are reminded that these are people, and that this is a memoir. The book gets through all the barriers we put up, goes in through the back door and surprises us with feeling. That’s when I realized there are ways graphic texts can tell stories you can’t with ordinary texts.

KA: Do you think there are certain stories that led themselves better to graphic narratives, or is it more about the storyteller’s vision?

TM: Absolutely. There are certain stories that need to be told graphically. There are certain stories that are better told with just text. When a story starts knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, you need to create me,” one of the first questions I ask myself is: “What form does this need to take?”

With one project I’m working on, there’s a story about an alien invasion and it has to do with the scope of the story. There’s a lot of spectacle and the scope is bigger than any one character, so that story demanded to be visual early on. If I were to write that as a book I would get too stuck in one character’s consciousness, and the larger story wouldn’t come out. Represented visually, the reader can participate in viewing the spectacle to see it and experience it as a spectacle, which is the character’s’ experience.

In the graphic essay, “The Two Questions” (2008), Lynda Barry represents the stream of consciousness through these large, very busy panels that you have to navigate on your own, and she teaches you how to read images as symbols, and then recurring images. The essay itself is about how you take what is in yourself and represent it externally, so there’s a match-up of form and content. It activates different parts of our brain. 

When a story starts knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, you need to create me,” one of the first questions I ask myself is: “What form does this need to take?”

KA: Is that something that makes the graphic narrative “work?”

TM: There needs to be a reason for the image, sometimes that’s a matter of having a contrast between image and text. Like Maus, that’s what really gives the book power. Sometimes it’s a matter of having images do something that words can’t. That different way that our brains navigate images. A graphic text is good when it haunts me, when my brain keeps going over the ways that the image and text interact. You’re constantly looking at the two, thinking about how they merge, and you’re getting a third thing that is ineffable.

KA: And that third thing is a process of your own creation. I like that participatory element that comes along with graphic texts. When I read Fun Home, I felt like I was writing a part of it while reading. I had to slow down to do that. I couldn’t do that at first.

TM: That’s what I mean about being a good, active reader. A lot of first time readers of graphic texts don’t realize that the story actually lives in the gutter, the story is in the spaces between the panels, which we animate ourselves. The reader is invited to participate in the creation of the narrative.

KA: As an author of graphic narratives, what is your process in creating one?

TM: This depends on what graphic text you’re doing. If you’re talking traditional comics, they are super fast-paced and there’s a lot of “compression” of information in both image and panel, so you have to give it a sense of how that pace works on the pages first. How many panels you’re going to have on each page, you don’t want to crowd them in a series, each issue is exactly twenty-two pages, so how do you get a story arc, or two-and-a-half story arcs across in twenty-two pages with maximum nine panels per page…

KA: That’s like a math problem.

TM: You have to break every narrative down into essential parts and pace those parts out. That took me a long time to learn, but it’s helped my writing. It has tightened my sense of story structure.

And stories are changing shapes. You can see it through TV: character arcs spread out over four seasons. That changes our notion of story structure. It’s not a three-act story anymore, it’s a 100-act story, and comics arrived there first, by having this visual medium telling complex character arcs over many, many issues. I think that’s paved the way for some of the great TV we’re seeing now.

KA: More complexity can be revealed. I saw on your website a how-to for writing a comic book. Do you do a drafting process, like a storyboard? Are the images and panels the first idea and then you nail down what words you want, or is it simultaneous?

TM: I script first, because when you make changes, what’s easiest to change is in the script, but when I write out a script I have to ask myself, “how do you get this into images?” so I write image descriptions. Artists always like to work with as few panels as possible because they can have bigger, more painterly panels. It’s a question of which moments you can combine, how you can make it more concise.

Graphic storytelling gets so compressed, I almost see it as a medium closer to poetry because it’s how you can say the most with the least, and that pressure to both get minimal wordsbecause you don’t want the words to cover up the art, and you want the image to tell as much of the story as possiblebut also minimal images. That’s where I think the story possibilities come out, because as you’re compressing it’s not just about simplification it’s about a discovery of what is essential to the story, to the characters, and helps you see the story in a new way.

KA: More specifically than images, what affordances, or elements do graphic texts have that traditional texts don’t? I know a little about how writers use the white space between panels, which is similarly poetic in the spacing, and what get’s left out. Are there other specific elements of craft used?

TM: You want as much of the story as possible to be told through the dialogue, so that forces you into a “showing” mode. How do you show this externally—that’s the story focus. But yeah, other aspects of the form: gutters, the layout, the panel structure, the page turns, the pace, and color. You write a book in black and white; you get to use color with graphic text. Color changes mood, color is just used representatively, artistically, sometimes they contrast or are used expressively. There are all different ways to apply it, to shock the reader to look at an image in a different way.

There’s also hyperbolic elements. Manga often has a realistic style but gets very comical in moments. Like in a realistic comic a character will get angry and suddenly their features become overly cartoonish. There are different ways of telling a story better. And one thing that really struck me when I first read Manga was how the writer/artist breaks down the fourth wall even in the midst of a very serious story. Suddenly the writer or artist will have this offstage dialogue directly with the reader, and you don’t see that kind of editorial interruption in western comics or literature. 

A lot of first time readers of graphic texts don’t realize that the story actually lives in the gutter, the story is in the spaces between the panels, which we animate ourselves

KA: I really enjoy when literature breaks down that fourth wall. It jars you. There’s almost an element of graphic narratives that encourages you to read on even though you don’t know what’s happening. The synthesis is slower, so you’re turning pages, confused…

TM: I find it exciting when there’s something new going on.

KA: What about collaborating with an artist?

TM: That’s a part of what attracts me to graphic texts. Writing can be very lonely. I also enjoy getting to have an interaction with an artist through a story; it’s really fun and can add a bit of synergy to the story. Finding the right artist is the hardest part. Somebody who is invested in the story too, who is not just an art monkey. They’re going to be a co-creator in the vision. The story changes as I see how the artist visualizes it. They’ve got to have the right style and the right vision, they’ve to be somebody you can have a good working relationship with.

And graphic narratives aren’t as bound by language barriers. When I was looking for an artist for Broken Saviors, over 120 artists sent me portfolios. I looked at them all and most of them were really good. There were artists from Brazil, Argentina, Malaysia, India, China, Poland. There were certain areas actually where it seemed like hot spots for graphic art, but each had different styles and approach.

KA: Have you always considered yourself a visual thinker?

TM: I’m a visual thinker with very little visual ability. Visual thinker trapped in a writer’s body. I did art well before I did writing because I’m dyslexic and I struggled a lot with writing. I think what we struggle with is what attracts us too and interests us. So I worked more at writing because it didn’t come naturally to me. I definitely have always been a visual thinker, even when I’m working on a novel without any graphic elements I’ll storyboard it with thumbnail sketches. That can be very clarifying, and if you’re working with image you can’t show everything.

KA: In the same way, if someone is reading a non-graphic novel, they aren’t necessarily thinking “what’s being left out?”

TM: Which is exactly why one of the best ways to become a better reader of graphic texts is to take a practitioner’s approach—to try and create one. Telling a story graphically, whether it’s in sequential images or single images, or with a hybrid text, once you start engaging in that process I think it opens your eyes to all the choices that go into storytelling.

KA: Do you have any advice for writers who are interested in graphic narratives for the first time?

TM: The biggest thing is to explore. Stories can be told in new ways, and they might discover an entirely new story once they start making graphic stories. Don’t worry about it being good, do your own little thumbnail sketches and ask, “Okay, what does this experience say?” rather than “how would I write a short story about it?” Ask how would you fit it into a short comic, and see what comes up, because it takes the story in a different direction.

I love to keep graphic travel journals because graphic narratives are good places to train your mind to pay attention to what’s going on around you. I like to draw characters, places, it’s a way of sorting through your experience, and what images are important to the story, the story of your life, an experience…

KA: That seems like a great practice even for people who don’t want to try a graphic narrative. As a writer, sometimes it’s hard to know which details to pick or include.

TM: Because if you’re like, “I’m going to include everything,” when you go to draw it you very quickly realize it’s not an option. You must choose!

It gets you out of your own head. It puts you in a position of being more of an observer yourself. Phillip Lopate’s “Turning Oneself into a Character” talks about how the essential thing for creative nonfiction is to get some objective distance on yourself. The reader doesn’t know you, you might think you know you, but you don’t always know you, either. So the work of creative nonfiction is to stand outside yourself and create some of your character. That’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer because we know what we mean when we use a word. We know what we’re thinking when we write that line, and we lose sight that the reader doesn’t. With a graphic text, you’re bumped outside yourself and you’re able to get this new view.

KA: Writers are always looking for something to make them think about their stories differently, to jar them out of their perspective. It seems like an interesting practice to start playing with and creating images.

TM: I come reluctantly to the graphic narrative table because so much work goes into making a graphic text. It is so much more labor intensive. I’ve got this theory. It’s something that I didn’t know until I started trying to create graphic texts, but it’s the narrative mediums that take the longest to create which are often the quickest to read. There is this inverse relationship. Thirty seconds of film might take several people a week or a month to create, and yet an audience will view it in thirty seconds, and think, “Ah, I got it.” Or as a writer, I could spend ten minutes writing something that’s going to take a reader five minutes to read.

So much work goes into graphic texts—people create a plan and an idea of how long it takes to get every panel right, and they’re fairly quick things to read but they take a long time to unpack. We’re getting more information than we realize at once. A painter could spend two years on a painting that somebody could walk past in a museum, spend less than a minute looking at. But the beauty of these mediums that are quick to take in is that in a year or two, that image or painting might come back to us for reasons we don’t know. Maybe that goes back to your question about what makes a graphic narrative work—when that compression of information stays with you so you are left thinking about it long afterwards. So yeah, that’s my inverse relationship theory.

KA: That a perfect way of stating what works. When it strikes a chord with us, kind of gives this real response that we don’t understand completely, it comes back.

TM: It’s the images that come back, the stories that come back.

Katy AvilaKaty Avila lives in Los Angeles, CA where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University. Her obsession with Victorian pseudoscience, literature and culture, and interest in medical humanities have inspired her to look closely at the relationship between body and story, and how narratives attempt to embody (or disembody) modern experiences.

Fred Moten, Poet

Fred Moten

Fred Moten is a professor at the University of California, Riverside. His work comprises several books of poetry, including Arkansas (Pressed Wafer, 2000), I ran from it and was still in it (Cusp Books), Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works, 2008), B Jenkins (Duke University Press, 2010), The Little Edges (Wesleyan University Press, 2014) and The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions, 2014). His critical works include In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Autonomedia, 2013), which was co-authored by Stefano Harney. In 2009, Moten was regarded as one of ten “New American Poets” by the Poetry Society of America. His current projects include two upcoming critical texts, which will further explore his study of black art and social life.

I interviewed Fred Moten via Skype in August 2016. Fred was kind enough to spend nearly an hour with me navigating a discussion on poetry, passion, and the current and ever-looming state of our nation.

Doni Shepard: In a 2014 interview from the National Book Awards, in which you were a finalist for your collection The Feel Trio, your work was referenced as “riveting, lyrical, jumping, beat-poppin’, black devotion.” Your work continues to engage in conversation about experiencing and understanding black progress, pain, and the dedication to justice. In a time of such discourse in America, what are your thoughts on the way the mainstream media is engaging in conversations about police brutality and violence to black bodies in 2016?

Fred Moten: I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I probably don’t think about it very much because I don’t watch mainstream media often. It’s no different now than it ever has been. The root of the problem of police brutality is police. There is a relationship between the police, the necessity of their presence, and black people living in America. How is it that the presence of black people is used to justify the very idea of the police and the particular ways of engagement that police have with people? Now if the mainstream media ever even asked why can’t we mourn the social life that we murderously regulate and the lives of those we send to regulate it equally then that might be cool—or at least a place to start.

DS: Where do you think the most honest conversations are happening?

FM: The most honest conversations I’ve ever heard on the relationship of black people and policing are the conversations that black people have. There’s a lot of interesting stuff people are saying about policing and a lot of rhetoric around police brutality coming from folks who are concerned and folks who are activists and organizers. Some of that talk is more interesting than others. But none of it, the most advanced of it, is never anything other than what I heard around the dinner table.

Black folks have always understood something fundamental about police, how the police operate, and how policing works. I don’t know that there’s anything all that deep or new to be said about it. The thing that was important and legitimate to say thirty years ago, fifty years ago when the Panthers were most active, those things are still true now. The only real question is: How do we work towards the abolition of policing? Really this is just another moment in the long history of the question of abolition. People have been saying this forever, you know? It’s still true. 

To be interested in poetry is to be interested in the music and the content that emerges as a function of social life in all of its complexity and richness and pain and beauty.

DS: How does the current state of black America change the voice of black poets? How do you define the relationship between politics and poetry?

FM: The current state of black America is the old state of black America. If there’s such a thing as a black poet and if there is such a thing as a particular role that a black poet has that is somehow different than anyone else’s role, I don’t think that role has changed since the time of Phillis Wheatley or George Moses Horton or Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s the same. The thing is, there are people who are interested in poetry, and I definitely believe that there is such a thing as poetry, and I believe it is possible and necessary for people to be interested in it. To be interested in poetry is to be interested in the music and the content that emerges as a function of social life in all of its complexity and richness and pain and beauty. So, we make music out of our lives, out of the way we live in order to hopefully make that living better. That’s my sense of what it is. There’s a bunch of possible ways to do that.

Do I think the conditions are special now? That there’s some specific role of the black poet? No. Conditions that exist right now, they existed ten years ago and they existed twenty years ago. The police didn’t just start shooting black folks. To run around acting like this is something new is embarrassing, as far as I’m concerned. By the same token, quite frankly, if a person decided that in the face of the latest murder of a black person by the police, or by the chairman of Goldman Sachs, or by the top lieutenant of some set of the Grape Street Crips, or whoever, if they felt that the way that they needed to respond was to write a poem about how beautiful this tree is that they are looking at right now, I still feel that this is a completely legitimate response. Ultimately, what do you do with the language that comes to you and who do you do it with? That’s the question.

But do we need 8,000 more poems that are describing some horrific thing that just happened to another black person? For me, no. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have those poems. I’m saying that doesn’t strike me as the only possible response. If that were the only possible response then it didn’t just become the only possible response now. It’s been that way. Black people have been getting killed in messed up ways for as long as there have been black people. That’s not to be cavalier, it’s just to say that a lot of times, people start running around talking about some special task that the poet has. It’s another form of self-aggrandizement.

The flip side is always some form of self-flagellation where you have to feel bad about not doing it this way, or even more often, where you can make a whole bunch of other people feel bad because they aren’t doing it this way. This or that thing that this individual does in response to the contingencies of social life is almost always negligent. It doesn’t matter how self-righteous or pontificatory you think you have a right to be when it comes to that. It’s nastiness and recrimination and name-calling going on in the so-called poetry world that for me is silly and disgusting. I’m uninterested in it completely. Involuntary exile from the poetry world for myself, to be honest, and I’m feeling pretty good about that.

DS: How has the current cultural climate affected the work you are producing now? What effect is this having on your curriculum as a professor?

FM: The issues that I have been concerned about as a teacher and as a writer, they were there before I was born and they are still here. I don’t feel like my primary concerns on a thematic level have changed. The only thing that I’m trying to do better is to organize better the form of my classes and the form that the writing takes. That primary task is really about collaboration and working with other people and trying to foster the most people in the most generative and loving forms of collaboration. But the themes haven’t changed. The content doesn’t change. The form changes and I’m trying hard to figure out a way to do better when it comes to those things.

I don’t want to do anything by myself. That’s horrible. I have these things that I feel obligated to do over the next year or so but I just really would like to finish them as quickly as possible. If I could just abandon them, I would, but I made some obligations and commitments to try and finish these things. So that’s what I’m going to do. But I’m never going to start anything where it’s by myself. At least that’s the way I feel about it right now. Even the stuff that was supposedly by myself was never really by myself. I don’t even want to pretend like that anymore.

DS: I think as poets and writers that we’re constantly—as much as it’s a solitary act—we want that connection and to collaborate and to kind of get that energy from the people around us and the world around us. That is a very relatable feeling.

FM: Everybody wants to be with other people. Nobody wants to be by themselves. Sometimes there’s a commonplace misconception of what it is to be a poet. Or at least I used to think that there was a set of commonplace misconceptions about what it is to be a poet that required people to isolate themselves even if they didn’t want to. Now I’m thinking maybe these aren’t misconceptions about what it is to be a poet. Maybe that’s what a poet really is—a person who isolates in the interest of a certain conception. The misconception isn’t about what a poet is but about what poetry is. Any poets who have isolated themselves is not what poetry is in the first place. At this stage in the game it’s the whole identity of the poet that’s the problem, but at the same time, it’s very difficult to extricate oneself from that way of thinking. It’s like a straitjacket. In a way, you’re trying to extricate yourself from it, but it’s just as delusionally heroic to fully embody it. It’s not some big thing where someone has to struggle against the identity of the poet. You just have to forget about it. So I’m trying to not struggle with it and turn that into some poetic theme. I just want to do something else and that’s all.

DS: Are there other poets or musicians you tend to gravitate to for a sense of connection? Are there any emerging artists you have been inspired or influenced by?

FM: There are certain writers whose work I have been invested in for a long time and I’ll never not be invested in them. Part of it is because those writers are the ones who are bigger than just themselves. They are these conduits, passageways through which someone discovers something bigger, and they are always the same. Amari Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Shakespeare, Samuel Delany, John Donne.

On the most basic level, my work has been primarily structured by love of blackness and love of black people, both of which are often conceived of by what you called the mainstream media as “unlovable.”

There is also a whole bunch of new stuff that I love but I keep coming back to the ones I’m always interested in. It turns out that there’s always so much more to them than I ever thought.

Some of the folks maybe my own age or younger who I have been really enjoying reading the last few years are Renee Gladman, Mercedes Eng, Douglas Kearney, Kimberly Alidio. There’s a lot of great stuff so I’m trying my best to keep my eyes open and my ears open and pay attention.

DS: Who is your intended audience—or do you have an intended audience in mind when you write?

FM: No, not really, to tell you the truth. The audience is anybody who wants to read it. What I’m writing is definitely not for everybody. I don’t believe that it should be. I don’t think that there’s anything in what I’m writing that’s so absolutely necessary that anybody has to read it. There’s plenty of other stuff out there. I don’t have some sense of a mission I’m on that requires the world to be reading my work. On the one hand, I feel like I’m writing for anybody who wants to read it, but on the other hand, it makes perfect sense to me if no one ever wanted to read that at all. I would still probably be writing in some way. In this respect, it’s just not an individual thing. I don’t know that anybody is so absolutely indispensable.

DS: During your visit to Antioch [University Los Angeles, June 2016], you spoke about “loving the unlovable.” Can you expand on this? How do you integrate this concept into your work?

FM: It’s an imprecise way of saying things because, of course, the paradox is if the unlovable can be loved then it ain’t unlovable. But what I was talking about was specifically with regard to this song by Snoop Dogg called “Ups and Downs.” There’s this one moment in the song when he is speaking directly to men on death row and expresses love for them. “All my dogs up against the life sentence.” For me, it was a totally important and beautiful moment in the song because he is expressing love for folks that are often conceived of as the very embodiment of the unlovable. That capacity to express love for those who are generally perceived of to be unlovable is important.

The question is how can we sustain that? It’s interesting in the song just because I don’t know that the song is able to sustain it for much more than a second. The next lines of the song are really problematic, but for that one moment, something has opened up.

DS: How have you worked that into what you are currently producing?

FM: On the most basic level, my work has been primarily structured by love of blackness and love of black people, both of which are often conceived of by what you called the mainstream media as “unlovable.” I don’t know that I’ve tried to make some big set of theoretical or thematic claims about why black people should be loved. I’ve written from the assumptions that they are lovable.

DS: At the Antioch residency, you read a poem about your son experiencing bullying. How would you describe the influence of parenting in relation to the work you produce?

FM: My kids are constantly saying all of these really amazing things. If I have a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper, it’s great for me because I can write it down. So parenting on that level produces a great opportunity for plagiarism. [laughs] But also, it’s a deep and profound experience of being both more and less than yourself. It is also an experience of feeling this extraordinary vulnerability or precariousness and of actually embracing that rather than trying to resist. It’s basically like any other thing that’s really worth anything. It’s really fun and it’s really hard at the same time and it’s something that you immerse yourself in. You’re never out of it; you’re always in it. It’s this fundamental aspect of life that turns out to be like life itself.

DS: Your work in regards to form and structure appears to be deeply calculated. It moves. It transforms. While some of your work follows a traditional format, other pieces are fragmented, not capitalized, and splashed with voided space—always in motion, always appropriate and intentional. How would you describe the way you employ form to demonstrate resistance or activism in your work?

FM: I don’t know that it’s meant to demonstrate activism. Maybe nowadays I would say that it’s an attempt to demonstrate demonstration itself. To demonstrate that term “monstration.” That term is interesting. It’s all bound up with showing— even the miraculous. It’s also bound up with the notion of the monstrous, the strange, the radically disruptive. That’s also a fundamental aspect of life. To live is to be disrupted. To be challenged. To be faced with the surprising. The revelatory. We figure out a way to deal with that. How we ought to be able to deal with it is to embrace it, to love it. But often it turns out that how people devise ways of dealing with change or difference is to try to fight it or kill it. To suppress it or to regulate it. What I’m interested in is the writing being a field for the embracing of differences, rather than their suppression.

The best way to work across boundaries is to refuse to believe in them.

The primary precursor for that is the aesthetic feel, which for me is most prevalent within black music. That has always been the model for me, in terms of how to leave my own work open to what you might call the demonstrative or the miraculous or the monstrous even. Black music is beautiful to me. As Hortense Spillers says, it claims monstrosity rather than trying to reject it.

DS: In an interview with NPR, Douglas Kearney referred to you as “the perfect storm,” speaking to your ability to create vivid work through a combination of intellect and lyricism. Do you feel that using this multi-faceted approach assists your work in transcending barriers as a poet? What is the advice you would give to writers who would like to work across genres as you have between your poetry and critical work?

FM: The best way to work across boundaries is to refuse to believe in them. I know this is what Doug does in his work but to me this has always been a hallmark of art, and of black art more particularly. I don’t think that art accepts these artificial distinctions between theory and practice or between the discursive and the lyrical, between critique and celebration. That’s my opinion. It’s not a new opinion. It’s not a unique opinion. It’s a commonplace formulation, but it doesn’t feel any less true to me.

One of my favorite poets is John Donne; another is Amari Baraka. I don’t see that there is any simple acceptance of the distinction between critique and celebration or critique and lyricism in their work. By the same token, they are philosophers, whose work is equally as disruptive and dismissive of those artificial boundaries. The problem is these generic boundaries in the first place. It’s not that I don’t believe in genre. It’s not that I don’t believe in the differentiating force that emerges in writing. It’s just that it’s possible—as my friend and mentor Denise da Silva would say—to have difference without separability in writing. This is what all of the really good work out there is doing. It’s demonstrating, constantly. It’s difference without separability.

DS: You have been quoted as saying “poetry is a modality of organization.” What types of strategies do you employ in word choice throughout your poetic material? How do you suggest poets implement this intricacy to motivate change in their readers?

FM: I never think of it as trying to motivate change in a reader. I just assume readers change. They don’t need me to motivate them to do it. They don’t need motivation to do it. Stuff changes. Things change. People change. To the extent that there’s an intention behind what I’m doing, it is to be in praise of the stuff that I love and to try to do so in a way that people will enjoy. I don’t feel like I have some special set of things that I need to tell people. The stuff that I know is stuff that everybody already knows. Maybe it’s cool to be reminded every once in a while, but I don’t even know that I have some particularly special, indispensable way of reminding people.

It’s just fun and something that I need to do. I’ve got a temperament and I was brought up in a certain of way and it led to me being embedded in this kind of activity. It’s great. I feel lucky. I’ve got a job that allows me to do it. I get paid for it well. I feel very lucky that everything lined up for me this way, but the luck of it is almost fundamentally detached from any sense of me deserving it.

It’s also detached from any sense of me being able to somehow account for it or compensate for it or pay something back for it. I always get freaked out when I hear about these athletes talking about giving something back to the community. That always struck me as a form self-aggrandizement. Because first of all, anything that you would ever put forward as a recompense pales in comparison to what the community gave you. You can’t pay the community back for what the community has given you. The community don’t want you to pay them back; that has been my general experience of it. All those things are just the ways in which so-called individual achievement becomes this platform from which people constantly play out this oscillation between exaltation and shame. I’m not interested in that. It seems contradictory: You’ve got a lot to say but it’s only special if it’s relatable to what other folks have to say; it’s a saying that only comes into its own within the context of a choir.

That’s the way I feel, so when it comes to techniques and word choices and stuff like that, I don’t consider that. I once heard the great musician Cecil Taylor, they were asking him about what his composition method was. He was like, “Well, I play one note and then I try to find another note that will sound good next to it,” you know? I have one word and I try to find another word that will sound good next to it. Sometimes it will look good next to it. The only key thing is to not limit yourself in terms of what that next word might be. Try to have as big of a set of resources as possible for what that next word will be. Just don’t limit yourself. Try to make something that will make the people move.

Donielle ShepardDoni Shepard is a poet, mother, and lifetime learner currently residing in Phoenix. She spends her days managing content for a popular startup, mommying an extraordinary three-year-old, and serving as Lunch Ticket’s Poetry Editor. Upon nightfall you can generally find her in an insomniac haze binge-watching Shameless with a fluffy orange feline named Doobie. Her work has been featured by Dirty Chai, and can be found in the love anthology Spectrum 3: LoveLoveLove. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, concentrating in poetry.

 

Susan Southard, Author

Susan SouthardDuring the June 2016 residency of Antioch’s MFA program, Susan Southard taught a workshop on research-based writing, having written Nagasaki, a heavily researched and beautiful work of nonfiction about life after nuclear war. She explained that while John Hersey had written about the bombing of Hiroshima, no one had written about Nagasaki. Her workshop turned into a conversation about the process of writing Nagasaki, which took twelve years to complete and tells a story that has never been told, and how writing it was an act of social justice. Everyone left with the indelible impression that Southard had given a great gift to all of us with this project.

Nagasaki is the story of five hibakusha, survivors of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. Each of the hibakusha was a teenager at the time of the bombing, each lost family and close friends, and each has a different story of recovery and survival. It’s a braided narrative that begins with a description of the political situation and state of the war, continues with a vivid and detailed account of the bombing, and gradually follows the lives of the hibakusha for decades afterwards.

Southard is an intentional writer. She chooses every word carefully. She is committed, beyond the average expectation, to being true to the stories she tells. She understands the power of storytelling and uses an astounding amount of research to ensure that she does the story justice. Writing Nagasaki involved multiple trips to Japan, a Japanese translator, and years of research assistance. The resulting work allows us as readers and citizens to understand so much more about the consequences of nuclear war than we did before.

During the time I was exchanging emails with Susan for this interview, she was invited to speak at the United Nations, and won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the only international peace prize awarded in the U.S. This well-deserved recognition was not only for her writing, but also for her contribution to history, society, and citizenship.

The rest of Southard’s life reflects the same intensity of commitment. She has taught writing in prisons to youth and to women. She is the founder and Artistic Director of the Essential Theatre, a playback theatre company. She describes playback theatre as “an interactive, improvisational performance in which members of the audience tell stories from their lives and then watch the performing ensemble of actors and musicians bring the story to artistic life.”

Southard brings real people’s stories of survival to life, in all of their complicated, beautiful, messy wonder.

Emma Margraf: You founded a professional theater and social change company that focuses on Playback Theatre, an effective tool in mixing art and social justice; you are a graduate of the Antioch MFA program, which has a social justice emphasis; and you wrote Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, which gives readers a profound understanding of the impact of nuclear bombs on humanity. Why is social justice important to you?

Susan Southard: Most of my life, I have been drawn to the stories of individuals who have felt invisible, whose realities and suffering have been minimized or denied. Being a part of making visible what has been hidden is important to me, and I think it permeates both my theatre and writing work. It’s also very important to me as a person and as a U.S. citizen that I—and my country—am accountable, as much as possible, for the impact of my actions on others. This is not a strong suit for the United States.

EM: Do you consider yourself an author or an artist first? How do the two interact?

It’s also very important to me as a person and as a U.S. citizen that I—and my country—am accountable, as much as possible, for the impact of my actions on others. This is not a strong suit for the United States.

SS: What an intriguing question! At the moment, I’m not sure. In the past, I would have definitely considered myself a theatre artist first—it’s something I’ve done for nearly thirty years. Two years ago, in order to finish my book, I stopped acting and directing in my company, so now I feel less of a theatre artist than before. And since being a published author is still fairly new to me, that label still feels a bit foreign.

The thread that binds Playback Theatre and narrative journalism is storytelling. Though the process and end results are completely different, both art forms require listening to and witnessing a person’s experience and then sculpting an artistic work to honor the story. In the case of Playback Theatre, someone in the audience tells a true story from her life, and the ensemble of actors and musicians bring the story to artistic life through movement, music, metaphor, and scenes. It’s improvised and immediate, in front of person who told the story and the audience.

Writing Nagasaki, on the other hand, took twelve years, and except for my trips to Nagasaki to interview survivors, physicians, and atomic bomb specialists, most of the work took place in my office, not in a rehearsal hall or performance space. Sometimes I worked with my researcher or with the team of translators I hired to help me with the interviews, essays, articles, and letters needed to complete my research. Mostly, though, I worked alone, which was so different from the collaborative ensemble process of Playback Theatre.

EM: Nagasaki is powerfully and thoroughly researched, which the reader experiences right from the start of the book. What drove you to that level of research? Why was it important to you?

Two things kept me going: First, I had really come to love the survivors whose stories I was telling, and second, I felt it was so important to bring their stories, still hidden from view in our country, into visibility.

SS: When I started the project in 2003, I had no idea how much research would be required. As I interviewed the survivors, conducted some initial research, and began trying to formulate a narrative, it was clear that the story was far bigger than I had thought, and that in order to tell the personal and community stories of post-nuclear survival with accuracy and breadth, I had to research, understand, and interpret for my readers many topics I previously knew nothing about—for example, the effects of high-dose radiation exposure on the human body, U.S. censorship and denial of these effects, the U.S. occupation of Japan, the job and marriage discrimination hibakusha experienced because of their potential long-term health risks, and on and on. Finding and analyzing sources and conducting this level of research was something I’d never done, so I hired an amazing researcher, Robin LaVoie, who worked full-time with me on the project for many years. The book would not exist in its present form without her.

EM: This project spanned twelve years, as you’ve noted. How did your vision shift over time?

SS: It’s very interesting to look back now, with a bit of perspective. My initial vision—to tell the survivors’ stories—was passionate and committed, but also simple and naïve; as I said before, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The first big shift in my vision came about a year in, when I realized the scope of the story I was telling and worked to adapt my thinking and planning to hold this new view. The second major shift came after I submitted the first four chapters (about half the manuscript) to my editor. I didn’t realize how tentative my authorial voice was; I was afraid to get things wrong, so I never took full grasp of the narrative. In my editor’s feedback to me, he challenged me to take hold of the narrative with authority. It took me a long time to understand how to do this, but his mandate, and my efforts to fulfill it, transformed not only my vision for the book but the actual words on every page.

EM: The narrator’s voice is consistent throughout the telling the stories of five very different people. How did you decide whether to keep yourself out of the story?

SS: At first, I was in the story. Not a lot, but whenever survivors were recounting specific memories, I included my asking the questions to them, and I described what the survivors looked like, their facial expressions and gestures, and their surroundings, etc. I wanted the reader to feel like they were in the same room with the survivors, experiencing them as I had. But my editor, and also Viking’s senior nonfiction editor, strongly advised me to take myself out. It took a while to fully accept their suggestion, but ultimately I completely agreed—especially after I began strengthening my authorial voice.

EM: I found myself needing to take breaks from reading Nagasaki, as it so thoroughly threw me into the hard world of the hibakusha. How did their stories affect you personally?

SS: It was a huge honor to hold their stories and strive to bring them to life in my book. At the same time, it was often extremely hard. The horrors of the bomb and the extreme suffering at so many different levels, of those who died and those survived, were overwhelming. Sometimes it was overwhelming and, like you, I had to take breaks too. Two things kept me going: First, I had really come to love the survivors whose stories I was telling; and second, I felt it was so important to bring their stories, still hidden from view in our country, into visibility.

EM: Propaganda plays a big role in this story, as does perspective. You’ve said that you get angry responses from American readers who believe Nagasaki is too slanted towards the Japanese. Were you aware when you started this of how strongly some feel about this?

I believe it’s critical that we look at history through the clearest lens possible, and that if we choose to take and defend wartime military actions that cause great harm to civilians, we must also be willing to look at the impact of those actions…

SS: Not at the beginning, but it didn’t take long. Long threads of hate-filled comments fill some veterans’ online chatrooms, which gave me a clear idea of the vitriol many people still feel and openly express about the Japanese people during World War II. I have received passionate, angry emails and letters asking me if I had been to Pearl Harbor, or saying that the writer, or his father, was saved by the atomic bombings because he didn’t have to participate in the planned land invasion of Japan. One thing I often say at readings and book talks is that Nagasaki in no way defends the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor, atrocities in China, or mistreatment, torture, and killing of Allied POWs.

At the same time, I believe it’s critical that we look at history through the clearest lens possible, and that if we choose to take and defend wartime military actions that cause great harm to civilians, we must also be willing to look at the impact of those actions, regardless of our perceptions or feelings about how the war ended.

It’s important to say, too, that I have received far more positive communications from readers than negative, from people who lived through World War II and those who are just coming of age now and learning about the atomic bombings.

EM: Do you think there are lessons from Nagasaki relevant to today’s politics?

SS: Yes, I think there are many connections to today’s politics. First, there are so many ways that our politicians (and we, everyday citizens) justify our actions—like the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—that cause great harm to others, and our justifications somehow gives us permission turn away from seeing the consequences of our actions. Second (and connected to the first), which stories we tell, and how we tell them, matters not only to history but also to our integrity as individuals and as a nation. Is there room for all of the stories, even those that we don’t want to hear? Third, Nagasaki holds the profound and difficult lesson of the humanitarian impact of nuclear war and the twisted perspective that nuclear weapons are instruments of peace.

EM: Much of Nagasaki reads like textbook coverage of the event with an added element of riveting narrative. Were you interested in developing this educational aspect when you started the project? How would you like to see Nagasaki taught in schools?

SS: I didn’t write Nagasaki from an educational perspective, but I do hope that it will be taught in both high schools and colleges, as John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) is. While [the city of] Hiroshima takes the focus of nearly all atomic bomb discussions in schools, Nagasaki is barely an afterthought in most people’s minds. But the atomic bombing of Nagasaki was a separate act of warfare, under different circumstances, using a different kind of bomb on a city with a different history and culture than Hiroshima. I hope my book helps make Nagasaki and its hibakusha an integral part of how we remember, analyze, and understand the 1945 atomic bombings of Japan.

EM: It seems clear that you have a strong commitment to authenticity, particularly when it comes to telling stories of the invisible. Why is true detail so important? Is a commitment to authenticity especially important when telling the stories of the invisible?

SS: True details are absolutely critical in telling anyone’s story, perhaps most especially those of people who have been invisible. Because if we as writers are going to give them a voice, it has to be their voice, their experience. Otherwise, we are—even if unintentionally—appropriating their stories for our own use and again yielding power that silences their individual voices, experiences, and truths.

EM: What advice do you have to other authors interested in research based writing?

[Taniguchi Sumiteru] and many other Nagasaki survivors have spent much of their lives trying to ensure that Nagasaki remains the last atomic-bombed city in history.

SS: Here are some things I learned that might be helpful: If you know how to find excellent sources, great; if not, get help from a skilled researcher. Work hard to understand your own bias and the biases of authors whose work you are using in your research. This will inform you invaluably. For me, at least, it was a long and arduous, but also amazing and life-changing process. Finally, choose a story or topic that nourishes you on many levels, and if it really matters to you, don’t give up!

EM: What role do you think artistic freedom plays in research-based historical nonfiction?

SS: This was a question I grappled with during the research and writing of Nagasaki. Where is the line between fact and artistic freedom? “Artistic freedom” may be more restrained for nonfiction writers, and I certainly gave highest priority to factual truth that I could back up by my research. But nonfiction writers have a lot of freedom, too—and responsibility, I think—to bring the facts alive with language, structure, characters, and scenes: to engage the reader from one page to the next.

EM: You have taught writing in prisons to both women and young people. Could you tell me more about that?

SS: Yes, I briefly taught personal narrative writing for juveniles (boys) in a state prison. There, I mostly introduced writing prompts and freewriting exercises to give the boys a sense of inner freedom, and to explore new and different ways to mine and express their memories. Also, I directed a three-year creative writing program for women at a federal prison outside Phoenix. In this program we also used writing prompts to explore memory and personal narrative. But we took the artistic process much further by creating longer, polished pieces. At the end of each workshop series, the women read their deep, moving, and often funny work for an audience of enthusiastic and receptive peers. This program was labor-intensive, as I provided editing to each piece every week so the writers could revise and strengthen their writing, but it was the most fulfilling and transformative teaching project I’ve ever done. The women were hungry to learn, ready to take feedback, and thrilled as they saw their writing transform into beautiful work. The program ended due to funding issues; I wish it were still going!

EM: What do you think are the connections between writing and advocacy? What can writers learn from that kind of work? 

SS: I don’t think of myself as an advocate of or for something/someone…more, I’m a witness? A sculptor of stories? As I think more about your question, I’d say that my activism is more subversive than public. That is, typically I don’t speak out about issues that are important to me; I tell the stories that I hope will impact others to think more deeply, expansively, and empathetically. This is what I love to do. And, as a result of the opportunity to be published here and in other countries, I’m grateful that people in the United States and different parts of the world are now reading the survivors’ personal experiences and understanding more fully the enduring impact of nuclear war.

EM: You just spoke at the United Nations, an incredible honor. Can you tell me a little bit about what brought you there and how it went?

SS: Because of my book, I was invited to represent the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of 440 partner organizations in ninety-eight countries, to speak at the United Nations International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. It was a high-level meeting of representatives from many U.N. nation-states designed to promote and move forward the U.N.’s goal to eliminate nuclear weapons throughout the world.

One of the fascinating parts of the day was listening to forty-four delegates speak about their country’s position on nuclear weapons, and to understand the nuances of their language. Depending on how they worded their statements, they subtly indicated their acceptance of the status quo or their commitment to negotiate and sign a nuclear weapons ban treaty. The delegate from Russia spoke defensively about its nuclear security needs, and when the representative from North Korea spoke, the whole room went silent. The man spoke defiantly of his country’s need to develop and expand its nuclear weapons program in the face of constant nuclear threats by the United States since the early 1950s. The United States didn’t even come, which was expected, but—for me, at least—disheartening.

I was one of the last speakers of the day, and I had ten minutes compared to the four minutes each delegate had—not sure how that happened! I spoke about how important it is to achieve the proposed nuclear ban treaty, and why. I spoke about the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings, bringing to life some of the visceral terrors of those days and the weeks, months, and years that followed. I was able to weave in the story of Taniguchi Sumiteru, one of the five survivors whose story I tell in my book, briefly telling what happened to him, and speaking to his anger when he hears nuclear-armed nations argue that nuclear weapons exist as a deterrent to war. He and many other Nagasaki survivors have spent much of their lives trying to ensure that Nagasaki remains the last atomic-bombed city in history.

I was extremely nervous but fortunately well-practiced, so I was able to speak with energy and confidence, and it was very moving to me to speak about the Nagasaki hibakusha and the need for total nuclear disarmament to this audience. Afterward, a Japanese man who works in the U.N. Office of Disarmament Affairs told me that this was the first time Nagasaki had ever been included in such an address; the Japanese atomic bomb narrative always focuses on Hiroshima. How glad I am about this—and I’m extremely grateful to have had this opportunity—is more than I can say.

Emma Margarf

Emma Margraf is a freelance writer, devoted home cook, and former foster parent working toward her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Ana Maria Spagna, Author

Ana Maria SpagnaAna Maria Spagna is the author of five books of nonfiction including Reclaimers and the memoir/history, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize. Her work appears regularly in journals and magazines such as Orion, Brevity, High Country News. Her sixth book will be a middle-grade novel The Luckiest Scar on Earth, coming in February 2017. She is on the faculty of Antioch Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing Program, and lives in Stehekin, Washington with her wife, Laurie.

Haley Isleib interviewed Ana Maria Spagna by phone in the summer of 2016.

Haley Isleib: When you began to write, what did you aspire to write about and why? What’s your origin story?

Ana Maria Spagna: When I was a little kid I wanted to write. My teacher let me write a novel when I was in second grade sitting in a beanbag chair; that’s probably the highlight of my career so far. But when I got to high school and college, I lost the spark some. I went to college and I was an English major. Anybody who’s been an English major knows you mostly read books and analyze them. I didn’t do any creative writing. So I had lost that spark and was a little lost after college and went to work for the Park Service.

As soon as I was in these beautiful places, working Canyonlands, and then I moved here to North Cascades, all I wanted to do was write. I wanted to write and write and write. But when I sat down to do it, all I could write was, “It’s really pretty.” [laughs] I didn’t know what to do with what I wanted to say. I realized I had to go back to school.

I went back and studied fiction writing. That was the absolute best thing for me because I learned about an actual narrative arc and having the story go somewhere. Then I went back to the woods and I could hang all these things I wanted to say on actual story. I went immediately—or pretty soon—back to nonfiction. Nonfiction with this narrative structure that I had learned in school. I worked in the summers and wrote very seriously every winter. Since about 1996 that’s been what I do, write.

HI: In winter?

AMS: In winter until I quit my trails job in 2004. That’s when I started thinking, this is what I do, I’m a writer.

HI: Has your career followed an expected course? When you were studying fiction did you know you wanted to write nonfiction?

AMS: I think I did. I had written an undergraduate thesis about creative nonfiction, so I knew the term, knew it was out there, and admired it. So I probably did know I wanted to do that. The unexpected part was realizing that I needed that fiction training and I need fiction in my writing life. I need a little variety in my writing life. I don’t write poetry but I read poetry so that’s part of the spark too.

HI: I sense that poetic voice in your writing. You have a new book coming out, but I want to talk about another book of yours, 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It).  

AMS: Right. [laughs]

HI: Its tone is so different. My first year at NILA [Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA] I thought, Oh poetic prose, she’s very serious, which of course isn’t the only true thing. There is humor in your other works too. Can you tell me a little bit about how that project came to be?

AMS: That’s the anomaly in my writing career because someone came to me. I had written a very tongue-in-cheek piece. Orion has a column every month that’s just a list, called “Enumeration.” I had made a list of ten skills you’ll need for the post-oil world. It was very playful, whimsical. Ten skills from sleeping to navigating by the stars. After that came out, a book publisher, Story Publishing, wrote to me and asked if I would do a hundred skills. I said, “No, no, you don’t get it. I’m not a dooms-dayer, that was just playful.” They said, “No, we do get it, we want it to be exactly like that, playful.”

Coming up with a hundred skills was super easy. I thoroughly enjoyed that whimsical tone and living in that world. I was worried about the illustrations because the writer never works with an illustrator—the wrong type of illustration could undercut that tone, could make it seem like I was trying to be serious. The publisher found this illustrator whose work matched the way I saw the book perfectly.

HI: Did you work at all with the illustrator [Brian Cronin] or meet him?

AMS: Not one tiny bit. In fact the publisher was quite adamant about not having any direct contact with the illustrator. For example, the original illustrations—as much as I liked them—were all male figures. I can’t abide that, on principle. So they wrote to him and asked him to put more female and they sent me the pictures. I said, “Now the girls are doing all the girly things. Can you please have the girls do some welding or something?” All of that happened with the publisher mediating, which was interesting to me. It worked, but I would someday like to meet the guy.

HI: Tell me about Stehekin, the remote spot where you live in Washington state, which is a town you have to hike to, no road in, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness. You have internet but no grocery store. How does this experience impact your creative process and the content of what you write? How long have you lived in Stehekin?

AMS: I’ve lived there off and on since 1990. Full time since ’98. Eighteen years now.

HI: So right after grad school?

AMS: Before grad school, we lived here in the summer. We were working seasonally and they give you housing for the summer. In the winter, we’d have to go and find work someplace else. When I was pushing thirty that was getting old; that was also part of why I went to graduate school. I remember Laurie asking me, “Do you have a better winter job lined up?” [laughs] “Go to graduate school.”

As soon as I finished graduate school, Northern Arizona University, where I went, offered me a job at the university. Very, very hard to turn down, but Laurie was committed to working here in Stehekin and I was still very enamored of my life on trail crew. I made the difficult decision to say no to that job. We bought land, built a house, and made this our home.

People make progress and try to make right and then lose ground. Sometimes what you define as right changes over time…

There are no roads in or out, so it’s like an island. But it’s not an island; it’s a landlocked valley. A community of about eighty people live here year-round. In summer, a lot more people come to their summer homes, so there might be up to 400 people in summer. There’s a bakery that’s open in summer and there are restaurants that are open in summer, two of them, but other than that there’s nothing. There’s no grocery store, movie theater, nothing—just each other. [laughs]

The bakery, they sell my books, and I get credit. I eat a lot at the bakery. It works out.

HI: You mentioned the seasonal rhythm to your writing early on. How does Stehekin figure into your writing practice?

AMS: Part of my writing practice is going on long walks, or going running or going skiing in the winter and thinking things through. It is a quiet place for me to be productive. I think there aren’t as many distractions as there are in other places, although in summer it’s so wildly busy and everybody else is on vacation. They presume, of course, I’m on vacation because I don’t go to an office to work. There are certainly things that pull against me but I’m pretty disciplined about getting up, getting into the writing, spending the necessary hours in the chair every day. I don’t know how this works in the so-called real world, but I can still unplug my modem and have no internet so…

HI: Ahhh. That’s wonderful.

AMS: So even if I wanted to be distracted, it would take so long for the modem to boot up it’s not worth it. [laughs] I force this on myself.

HI: I’m going to switch gears a bit. I’ve heard people say we’re living through a new civil rights era. Your second book, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, is a work of nonfiction about your father and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Do you see any parallels between then and now?

AMS: Absolutely. It was actually the late fifties when he was involved, very early in the civil rights movement in northern Florida. At the time that I was researching that book—I was doing most of my research between 2004-2006—the gay rights movement started to gain real national momentum, seemed to be gaining steam. Couples had lined up in San Francisco to get marriage licenses, which seemed outrageous to me at the time, I mean outrageous. [laughs] I could definitely see the parallels of that sense of momentum and also the sense of danger too, that people were putting themselves out there. That part is woven into the book.

When I wrote the book it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Tallahassee bus boycott. This year is the sixtieth. If anything, in terms of race, things are even more fraught, if not more dangerous. At least people are talking about the danger in different ways, in ways I wouldn’t have expected it to re-erupt. As scary as that is—maybe people find it disheartening—I find it heartening, taking things that have been held under the surface and letting them erupt. Having the conversations we have to have. I don’t think I would feel that way if I hadn’t done the research I did for that book, and immersed myself in that earlier civil rights movement.

HI: I’m hearing maybe that research gives you hope.

AMS: Yeah, it absolutely does. It gives me hope and it gives me perspective. It makes me realize the necessity of the courage to speak out, and gives me a lot of admiration for the people in the Black Lives Matter movement, and all over the country for speaking out, however you do it. It only leads to good even if there’s a rough road in between. I wouldn’t think that if I hadn’t done that research.

HI: The word I heard you say a couple of times was “surprise,” about both the mid-oughts and recently. I wonder if that surprise is related to hope in some way. Because in retrospect, it always seems like, “Of course, because it only makes sense,” but at the time…

AMS: When I first thought about the fifties and sixties civil rights movement, the way I learned it in school, it just seemed inevitable that that was going to happen. When I did the research, I realized how very un-inevitable it was in their time. And still, in my dumb passive American way, I still thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that that erupted in the past.” To see it erupting again, very much in our present time—yeah, it gives me hope for the kind of history that can evolve in our own time.

HI: I think we have a way of seeing history as progressing, going from A to B to an end goal, but life isn’t really like that at all. In a way it’s a surprise that things can suddenly erupt, but things can also suddenly retreat or go back.

AMS: Yeah, most assuredly. The whole history of all the progress that happened post-Civil War in terms of race—what happened to it? For so long the reactionaries won with Jim Crow, with pushing it back, taking voting rights away. And see how easily that’s happening again in our own time.

HI: In Reclaimers, which is more recent, you tell three stories braided together—I think this weirdly dovetails with what we were just talking about—because these are stories about people reclaiming things that had been lost. At some point in the past, things got worse, and then after decades of effort, people reclaimed. Two pieces of land return to their tribes, and a river was undammed.

AMS: There is a parallel. There was a surprise in it. When I started Reclaimers, I thought of it as a book coming out of my interest in nature and nature writing, and issues of land and water. I didn’t see it as a book that would be related to Test Ride or to civil rights. But it was absolutely clear once I started finding these stories of people reclaiming land and water that there were exact parallels. People make progress and try to make right and then lose ground.

Sometimes what you define as right changes over time, which is one of the themes I pursue in Reclaimers. In the thirties, building dams was the best thing we could possibly do and people with good intentions built dams. And then a hundred years later people with good intentions are bringing those dams down. A certain openness to changing our idea of what’s right and letting that evolve over time became one of the underpinnings of a book that I thought was just about land policy.

HI: This idea of reclaiming, these braided stories, seem like part of a wider weave. I see “reclaiming” as an underlying mission of our times. This documenting of reclaiming could be almost infinite. Do you see any future projects continuing on this focus?

AMS: You’re absolutely right that it could be infinite. Everybody who heard that I was doing a project on reclaiming would tell me a story of reclamation. And it would be something in a realm I hadn’t even thought of, like reclaiming identity. I realized at some point that this could sprawl. I had to rein it in.

This is a little digression, but I realized that when I finish a book, I have a sense of loss. Now I don’t live in that world everyday and I miss it. I lived there so long and I was so close to it, and it meant so much to me; now it’s this thing that belongs to everyone else out in the world, and I need to distance myself. Maybe it’s getting to where I could revisit it and start writing about those ideas again, but that was just a realization that came to me in the last few days.

And the American West is totally fraught with that end-point thing because it was the Western expansion. This is where we would get to, and this would be paradise. Now we’re just barely a hundred years in, and no, this is where we live, and we’re going to have to make it work for a lot longer than one big glorious burst.

HI: And this is just an aside too. The concept of writing about reclaiming could be its whole own genre almost, not that you would have to do all the work.

AMS: It really could.

HI: In a lot of ways, many memoirs, especially of difficult times, seem related, not exactly the same, but people resurrecting relationships they’d let die…

AMS: Or reclaiming their past.

HI: Right. Did you start a whole genre?

AMS: [laughs] Parsing the language a bit, I think a lot of memoirs are an arc toward redemption, just like a lot of work in nature these days is work toward restoration. And both of those words make me a little bit uncomfortable because they suppose an end point. You have this place that’s ruined, you restore it and it’s good. Or you have this nasty past and you redeem yourself and it’s good. What I like about “reclaiming” is that, no, that’s not how it happens, you reclaim it and then at some point in the future it will need to be reclaimed again. When I’m teaching memoir, I encourage people not to feel like you’re writing a book in which you feel like your life now has an end point. “Yes, did that, all better now.”

HI: You’ve hit on something I think is an underlying obstacle in our Western thinking—at least in my Western experience, there’s an idea that we’re going to get somewhere and that will be good, and we’ll be done. Reality isn’t like that. Even evolution isn’t like that. “Progress” implies that there is a goal that can be reached and then you’re done.

AMS: That taints a lot of my work. A lot of my work has been wedged into the genre of writing about the American West. And the American West is totally fraught with that end-point thing because it was the Western expansion. This is where we would get to, and this would be paradise. Now we’re just barely a hundred years in, and no, this is where we live, and we’re going to have to make it work for a lot longer than one big glorious burst. That’s something that makes writing about the West challenging. What are we? We don’t know what we are yet, us white Westerners. What about these people who were here a long time before we were? They’ve got a story. We’ve got to listen.

HI: Speaking of that, tell me a bit about the two tribes who reclaimed pieces of tribal land in Reclaimers. I’ve heard you talk about the process of getting close to those stories. What made those two stories stand out of all those you heard?

AMS: In 2011, I was on a road trip with my mom when I passed a sign at the entrance to Death Valley National Park that read “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone.” Now I worked for the National Park Service [NPS] for many years and I’ve visited plenty of parks and I’d never seen a sign like it so I was intrigued. Over the next several months I uncovered a remarkable story, basically that the Timbisha Shoshone have lived in Death Valley for 10,000 years but had their land taken by the NPS in 1933. After years of effort by elders and activists like Pauline Esteves, they were able to reclaim 325 acres in the middle of the park at Furnace Creek in 2000 through a congressional act signed by President Bill Clinton. It was an astonishing feat, a tiny tribe versus the U.S. government. That’s what attracted me to the story, but it took me a long time to track down Esteves. When I finally did she explained that the tribe has continued to struggle in the fifteen years since the reclamation. If she didn’t introduce me to the idea that reclaiming is cyclical, that it must happen over and over again, she certainly reinforced it.

The other tribe is the Mountain Maidu in the Northern Sierras. My first attraction to their story was to a program they’d initiated working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to manage USFS lands. I liked the idea that reclamation could happen without changing ownership. But again, the longer I lived with the story, the more my understanding grew and changed. The Maidu ended up with the chance to reclaim title to a sacred valley called Humbug Valley from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and that saga was amazing—the way they brought allies to their cause, the way they remained patient and hopeful in the face of pretty long odds and real tragedies along the way.

So I suppose it was serendipity that drew me to those two sagas–and to the story of the Condit Dam removal as well—but it was the experience of staying with the stories and the people involved, understanding the complexity and nuances over several months (I followed each saga for about three years) that most affected me and my understanding of reclaiming as an ongoing, ever-changing, communal commitment. It’s a basic human endeavor, both an instinct, in some sense, and an obligation, not limited to indigenous people. Or perhaps it is in the sense that one Maidu woman articulated. All of us are indigenous to this planet so, “Find your place and care for it.”

HI: You have a middle-grade novel, The Luckiest Scar on Earth, coming in early 2017, featuring a snowboarder. Where did this come from?

AMS: After graduate school, I was writing a lot of short stories. One rule of my writing life is that if an editor or anybody contacts you and asks if you do X, you say yes. An editor with Milkweed Editions wrote to me—this would have been in 1998, a long time ago—and said do you have any short stories for kids? And I said yes. I did not have any short stories for kids. So I went back to a story I loved, about a snowboarder in her twenties, and I made her younger for the sake of the request. I realized that this is what this story needed all along; this story is not about a twenty-whatever- year-old, it’s about a fourteen year old. And I sold it to Milkweed; they were going to put it in an anthology, which never came out. But I loved this fourteen-year-old so much that it became my little playground, no matter what book I was writing I would go back and I would play around with Charlotte the snowboarder for a while.

So I was writing it for a long, long, long time. And it’s about a snowboarder and her activist father…

I was writing it intensely while I was writing my Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus about my dad. And I didn’t even realize this, that’s how crazy my subconscious was. When I saw I’d written the same exact book, I was so embarrassed that I put it back in the proverbial drawer. Forget that.

But then last winter I thought, what’s wrong with writing the same book twice? I like Charlotte and I think I can do something with her. So I pulled it back out, and worked on it. I was delighted to see how our subconscious works. Not only is it about a daughter and her activist father, but spoiler alert, at some point her father has a heart attack, which my dad did. And the fourteen-year-old is able to save him out on the slopes. If I had other modern grief counseling, this is exactly what they would have had me do—rewrite my story. The book did that work for me, whereas when I was writing it I thought of it as a playground, some place where I can change characters and make them do things.

HI: Do you snowboard and is there a culture that goes with that?

AMS: I do not snowboard. I’m a skier. I do backcountry telemarking. Part of the book is backcountry snowboarding, so that has the parallel. Her world of snowboard culture is familiar to mine from going to small ski areas. Stehekin is a small ski area. But also it got to be another world I could inhabit that isn’t my world. So it was familiar but not familiar. It was great to have a story that is entirely set in winter. I was doing a lot of my writing in winter. I could just inhabit that snowy landscape.

It’s part of the story for young people to understand, things are being changed and that we are propelling that change, whether on private land or public land or through the climate.

One of the joys of the book—there are many joys of the book—but in its final stages I realized that I had never had a kid read the book. So I hired my eleven-year-old niece to be a reader for me. It was such a fantastic experience: to have an eleven-year-old reader. Kids read so intensely. She had such insights into these characters that they could have knocked me off my feet. I definitely made changes to the plot based on her feedback.

HI: Since we’ve been speaking about hope, what kind of future do you see for kids like the hero of your story?

AMS: I have a remarkable amount of faith in people finding their place and loving it. It doesn’t have to be as bizarre a place as Stehekin. But finding your place and planting your feet there and caring enough about it to care what happens, both to the natural world in that place and also in the community. No one’s going to be able to tackle world hunger by themselves, but you can certainly work at a food pantry, you can certainly notice it in your own community.

So that idea of finding a place that you love passionately enough is one thing I have a lot of faith that kids can find. I know there’s a lot about the natural world that is threatened, but there’s a lot that’s still alive. Spending time in the non-human world can give you the brain space and the peace within yourself—now I’m getting all preachy—to look the hard stuff of the world in the eye. The more young people can get out and play outside, be outside, doing whatever, then when they come back to face the world we live in, they’re bolstered. At least that’s been my personal experience and I hope that at least some young people can have that experience.

HI: There are certain obstacles for that. Some kids living in cities never get out, because they can’t afford to.

AMS: Right, and there just aren’t the opportunities. I don’t think everybody has to see the great wilderness either. Just having city parks down the street make all the difference in the world. And that, again, is something that people can make happen in their own small places. That’s something that is actually attainable, to make parks available, to get kids to parks. Give them the chance to play outside. But you’re right. There are institutional obstacles.

HI: I’m from Alaska and when I was growing up, things were quite open. But I remember taking a road trip with my dad across Texas, and it’s also wide-open space. At one point he turned to me and he said, “You realize all of this is privately held land, this is private land.” And I actually looked at him and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean?” It was just so strange. When we were going through some scrubby not very beautiful land with prickly pear and mesquite and rubble, natural rubble, he said, “This area was grasslands, and it was beautiful. It’s been overgrazed, and it’s hard to recover a grassland once you destroy it. But this isn’t how it used to be.”  

AMS: It’s like what we were saying about the end-thing. You can have this static idea of the landscape, and you don’t realize that the landscape has been changed. We have changed it; we are changing it radically all the time. It’s part of the story for young people to understand, things are being changed and that we are propelling that change, whether on private land or public land or through the climate.

I’ve often been perversely grateful that I didn’t grow up in Alaska. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, in Riverside. In the 1970s, it was the smoggiest town in the United States. We didn’t have snow days, we had smog days. We had to stay home from school because it was so smoggy. There are mountains all around but you couldn’t see any of them. I think that gave me this fierce desire to care for the outdoors. Not only get away and be in the outdoors, but also to care for it and be aware of what can happen to it. It’s an amazing reclaiming story that in Riverside now you can see the mountains. Through smog control measures and air quality control laws, California has reversed it from the seventies. Now it’s not perfect, but the fact that I can go there and see the mountains is stunning to me. And a testament to people who worked really hard.

HI: Tell me about your teaching philosophy.

AMS: I believe in the writing itself. I believe that what’s most important in any creative writing class is to figure out what the piece is about. I had a teacher at NAU (Northern Arizona University) named Jane Armstrong Woodman. In workshop, the first thing she would do is ask everybody what’s the piece about? It was the single most useful things I had ever had a writing teacher do, because I was stunned at all the different answers people had of what they thought my story was about. Some of them were what I thought the story was about, but a lot of them were not. Some of them were things where I said, “Wow, if that’s what you think this story is about, I have to change something because it’s not.”

That taught me about finding the core of what happens. I try to help the students figure this out—I don’t think as writers we know what it’s about until we are well into a piece. At least I don’t. I want to help the student figure it out, but I also want students to help each other try to figure it out, and respect that there is an “aboutness” to every piece of writing. The feedback we give has to grow out of that place naturally. Otherwise, we’re imposing our own aesthetic or our own ideas on a piece that may not be what we want it to be. So I thank Jane for teaching me about “aboutness.”

I had several teachers as an undergraduate, and even in high school, who had such a passion for reading literature that way, for getting at the heart of literature and challenging me to think more deeply about what I read. That literature background informs the focus in my teaching of writing and in my own writing—to get at the core of things. And to complicate things.

The other thing that Jane Woodman would say is that we aren’t ever trying to teach in our nonfiction, we’re trying to wonder. You’re trying to figure out, what do I think right now? What do I know right now? Which is the Montaigne thing.

Through smog control measures and air quality control laws, California has reversed it from the seventies. Now it’s not perfect, but the fact that I can go there and see the mountains is stunning to me. And a testament to people who worked really hard.

HI: Was she a teacher of fiction or nonfiction?

AMS: She was a teacher of both. When she first taught me that it was in a fiction workshop. Later I took nonfiction from her and she had the same approach. Whether I’m teaching fiction or nonfiction, I would approach it that same way.

HI: What are the changes you’ve seen over the years in terms of “creative nonfiction” as a distinct field?

AMS: It’s definitely moved in interesting ways. John D’Agata at Iowa is a real provocateur. He’s been provocative in terms of moving nonfiction closer to poetry or to fiction. All of that is super exciting. I love seeing what writers can do with imagery and juxtaposition so that they’re not having to lean quite so heavily on traditional direct reflection to make meaning in nonfiction. I admit that I am immersed in that world of reflection and I love reflection on the page—I live there, I reside there in my own writing. But in student writing and other people’s writing, I love to see how they can find ways to make meaning without depending on that particular kind of direct telling; they can do more with showing.

I’m not particularly interested—because it’s tiresome to me—about the how much can you lie in nonfiction. I think you don’t lie in nonfiction. But there’s a lot of gray area there, there are things you can miss, or things you don’t remember rightly. I think most people who read and write nonfiction know all that. I’m more interested in how you get at the meaning, and all the amazing ways there are to use words to make meaning on the page.

HI: When you say you don’t lie in nonfiction, that means you don’t make events up or…

AMS: You don’t change a fact on purpose. John D’Agata has this famous thing where there’s a number (I won’t get this straight at all but anyway) he changes an actual number. He knows the number is nine but he thinks five sounds better, or something like that. That to me is abhorrent, you can’t do that just because you like it better, you can’t change it. You can work around it, but don’t change facts, don’t fabricate events, don’t fabricate characters. I’m sort of on the fence about compressing time. If you visited your mom three times at the hospital, can you dramatize it as one visit to the hospital? You probably can, I don’t think that’s lying in a crucial way. But if she wasn’t in the hospital and you say that she was, that’s lying.

HI: That’s a good definition. The gray area, though, is vast, because of course memory isn’t a recorder. Not just the facts can be different from somebody else’s when you compare memories, but what you remember is so shaped by the emotion you were having at the time.

AMS: There are all kinds of new neuroscience research proving this, which anybody who spent any time writing memoir already knows. Your own memory can be affected by how you felt at the time. Your memory is going to be different from other people’s who were in the same place. That’s part of the fascination of exploring memory or seeing how another writer explores memory. It’s all that tricky terrain.

HI: What are you working on now? 

AMS: I am working on another collection of essays. Whatever longer book effort I’m working on, I always go back to essays. It’s my little comfort zone. That collection is coming together and I think it will be finished in the fall. Then I’ll start thinking about another long book project. I’ve been asked to write a sequel to the middle-grade novel, so I’ve been fooling around with that too, playing with that on the side while I write the essays. That might the next thing, or there might be another nonfiction project too. One crucial aspect of my creative process is that I have to be working on more than one thing at once. I can’t just work on one project at once, or I start pressuring myself too much.

HI: I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your writing day to do this interview. I appreciate it.

AMS: Thank you.

Haley IsleibHaley Isleib writes and lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a recent Antioch MFA graduate with a focus on writing for young people. Her work has appeared in a variety of places, including Daily Science FictionPlasm, and Fireweed: Poetry of Western Oregon; her screenplays have won awards including Best Feature Screenplay in Other Worlds Austin Film Festival; and she is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship in Poetry. Born & raised in Alaska, she is in self-imposed exile from winter and no longer owns a pair of snow pants.

Donald Strauss, Urban Sustainability Activist

Donald StraussIn July 2016, I had the opportunity to talk with Donald Strauss, writer and founder of the Master’s of Arts in Urban Sustainability program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Don is also an urban cyclist who wrote a dissertation­­–he calls it a memoir manifesto–on how cycling culture has changed Los Angeles. He is an urban sustainability writer of creative nonfiction whose work stems from a deep understanding and critique of traditional nature writing. Don has much to say about the many forms of environmental injustice that affect marginalized communities and is passionate about how to create sustainability movements that make cities sustainable for all people, not just the privileged few.

His willingness to participate in wherever our dialogue took us made him an engaging interviewee: generous with his answers­­ and able to return to the point after passionate digressions. He spoke enthusiastically about what he calls “the problems and possibilities of cities” from the Los Angeles River to the ritualistic 1000-person night bike rides in LA.

Meredith Arena: I want to ask you about the urban sustainability program and your efforts to connect it with the MFA in Creative Writing program here at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Donald Strauss: For the purposes of full disclosure, I want to give [MFA Program Director] Steve Heller the credit. He is the one who came up with the idea of the dual degree. He came into my office and said, “Hey I have an idea!” And I jumped at it. I thought, this makes sense for many reasons. The origins of the program relate directly to what you referred to [before the interview] as the fetishization of sustainability. My background is not only in creative writing, but also in environmental studies. One of the things that I have been most troubled by comes from the American environmental tradition, which starts back with Thoreau and the Transcendentalists and goes through Muir and those people who were referred to as American nature writers, where there was a tremendous amount of racism, overt racism, that emerged. Obviously racism was not the central preoccupation, but it was an unfortunate byproduct of this movement, which was primarily put forward by white males.

…if the city isn’t a habitable pace to live for everybody, then it is probably not sustainable.

Moving forward into the sustainability movement, if you look at the UN’s Brundtland Report that came out in 1983, which was titled “Our Common Future,” it addresses a number of social and environmental equity issues. But [the report] essentially became a document­­, like so many other things, like The Wealth of Nations and Marx’s Capital, cherry-picked by people who saw particular advantages in particular arguments that the document made. It became an argument for what has become known as sustainable development. It has become a document that serves the larger neo-liberal cause. In cities­­where probably by the end of the century more than eighty percent of the world’s population will be livingthere is a giant influx of energy and material, generally extracted from other ecosystems, brought into the urban ecosystem, and then distributed inequitably. Those are the issues I wanted to address. If you are going to call a place sustainable, like a forest ecosystem left to its own devices is self-sustaining, what would be the argument for cities not being [sustainable]? There is this whole idea of bio-mimicry, the idea that human beings can behave in a way that emulates natural undisturbed ecosystems. Cities are probably the best place to get started on that project, because that is where we live. In thinking about what makes a city sustainable, for me it has always beenand this is probably some schooling I got in the American nature writing movement and environmental justice movement, which happened in the nineties­­if the city isn’t a habitable pace to live for everybody, then it is probably not sustainable. We imposed a human rights frame on the idea of sustainability and are making this argument that if everybody’s human rights aren’t being attended to, then it is not really sustainable.

MA: I like that you begin right there with people. I live in Seattle where the “sustainability” movement is very big and it is great to live in a city where I can compost, etc., but there is also a sense of disconnection. We are using this environmental movement to gentrify the city and exclude poor people and creating systems that attract people from high-income brackets. The city is changing on that foundation. It seems like it should be obvious about the word sustainability. Is it sustainable if people cannot afford to live there?

DS: Not obvious to everybody.

MA: When you spoke on the panel at the MFA residency in June, you mentioned an essay by Rebecca Solnit about Thoreau. She wrote, “Conventional environmental writing has often maintained a strict silence on or even an animosity toward the city, despite its importance as a lower-impact place for the majority to live, its intricate relations to the rural, and the direct routes between the two.”

DS: The way I see it, the background of that thinking is from an essay from William Cronon called The Trouble With Wilderness, for which he was deeply reviled by any number of people from the American nature writing tradition, because of this mass misinterpretation that he was devaluing wilderness. What he was really doing was cautioning us to consider the way that we think about wilderness and what the effect of that thinking is on the places where we live. First of all, he problematizes the notion of wilderness by taking you through a timeline starting with the early Christian traditions through the nineteenth century. Wilderness was a horrible place. It was where the devil lived, it was where savages lived. It was really reviled.

In fact, in our Antiochian tradition, when Horace Mann was originally given the job as president of Antioch College, all his friends in Massachusetts said, “Oh my God, you can’t move out there to the West,” which is what they considered Ohio, “’cause that place is a wasteland. There is nothing but dangerous forests and savages out there.” This was even as late as 1852, also the time that writers began to romanticize wilderness. Thoreau was one of those. That may be true in part, but it is more complicated than that, I think he was also terrified by wilderness, which in some way is more human. Being on top of a mountain when there is a lightning storm is a terrifying thing.

People who can afford to take off and leave their jobs and families, or elect not to have jobs or families, can go off and spend unlimited amounts of time in the wilderness. Or they can pay huge amounts of money to climb Mt. Everest. It has become this place that has been given special status in most people’s minds, which unconsciously or maybe automatically argues: We live in these cities, but they’re just trash heaps. It is okay for us to build crappy buildings and redline and do all these things, these misbehaviors that we have traditionally done in the cities, because if you are privileged, you can escape. If you are the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers, you can have a big complex in the Adirondacks and you don’t have to worry about the challenges of living in New York City or wherever. That is the big problem that American nature writing tradition produced and annunciated and one that we have to get away from.

MA: I want to talk about gentrification. The city has been reviled, but we are in a rebirth of cities because white people want to live in them again. I grew up in New York City in the seventies and eighties, when New York was down-and-out, and now my city is a totally different place where everyone wants to live. This is happening in many other cities. In my early twenties, I lived in the Lower East Side, and when I think about sustainability and humans, I think about the community gardens that were maintained by Puerto Rican and Dominicans; I think about old Polish ladies sitting on crates and talking late into the night. Street life. And we watched as these gardens were destroyed, literally destroyed, and then we watched the same thing happen in Brooklyn. I am wondering what kind of projects you see around sustainability, specifically in LA, that do not gentrify or colonize or take space away from people.

We imposed a human rights frame on the idea of sustainability and are making this argument that if everybody’s human rights aren’t being attended to, then it is not really sustainable.

DS: Just a little sidetrack, there is a woman by the name of Elly Blue. She is a blogger in Portland who blogs about bikes and wrote a book called Bikenomics. A lot of people got very excited about it and people were having seminars around Bikenomics. There was a big argument for bike infrastructure in cities and at some point, Elly Blue said to another colleague of mine, who has written about bike culture in LA, that she discovered that she had basically written a handbook for gentrification. That is a really important issue. With colleagues of mine in the Urban Sustainability program, we have been doing a lot of work on displacement. The term gentrification is a polite pejorative for what we (people who see themselves as progressives) in urban places oppose as a phenomenon. But it is the outcome of gentrification that we most object to, which is displacement. Even in a giant place like Los Angeles, what you are doing is pushing people out and farther into the margins. We have a huge population here that can’t afford even to take public transportation, so they ride bikes and the farther you push that population out past the place where they have potential employment or are employed, the worse you make their circumstances, the more impossible you make it for them to even have employment. I think that the big push-pull is in land use.

There are a couple of land trusts in Los Angeles. There is an organization called T.R.U.S.T. South LA and one of their main goals has been to set up land trusts that are specifically devoted to housing. The point is to take things off the speculative real-estate market because it is one of the only ways of preserving property for peoples who are at an economic disadvantage. If we don’t regulate that, if we don’t address these things and put them into the general plans of cities, then gentrification is an inevitability. And it is just wrong. It’s insane to make a city a place where nobody who is in the work force can afford to live. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a formulation that needs to break at some point.

Look at a place like San Francisco, the ultimate irony: a lot of the people who live there and have driven the housing prices up don’t even work in the city. They take the Google bus up to Mountain View or wherever they are going and the Google bus is usingwithout paying any kind of tax that I know ofthe bus stops. The housing prices have been driven up and there are incremental tax increases and high valuation of property. If you think about it, now the people who live there don’t work there and the people who work there don’t live there. That makes no sense at all. I don’t see any way around regulating that, addressing that problem by virtue of policies. This whole idea of affordable housing is a joke because two people with a combined income of $200,000 can qualify for it. [Often] you can have two people who are making as little as 40k combined. There is an absence of living wages or protections for people who already live in a neighborhood, [coupled with] the unregulated cost of market-rate housing. There is a problem with saying that you can’t build parks, you can’t build bike infrastructure, and other great things because it is going to gentrify the neighborhoods. Essentially that says that wherever you have poor people, that you can’t have nice stuff. They can’t have nice neighborhoods. They can’t have safe streets, which is also insane. I am not an urban planner, so I don’t know the intricacies, but I certainly understand it well enough to know that it is going to be a battleground. It is a battle that has to be waged. There is going to have to be an urban housing policy that protects people from displacement.

MA: Can you think of some writers, ones you work with in the program or other writers you admire, who are moving this cause along?

DS: If I scan that literature, I don’t think there are a lot of people that would fit in the creative nonfiction genre of the MFA program. That really is the intent of the dual degree, to foster those writers. To get writers who are really interested in communicating, not just effectively but beautifully as well, about the problems and the possibilities of cities.

That’s the thing, I don’t want to make it seem like I, or this movement, is only focused on problems. It certainly could be because there are enough problems to go around and not enough people to address them. But it is really important to consider possibilities. There are huge strides being made in addressing housing problems for the chronically homeless, at least in Los Angeles. There is this whole phenomenon of supportive housing that is starting to show some real success in terms of taking people off the street. But not just throwing them into a house without support, it is actually putting people into housing where there are social services, mental health care services, general services, job services. It sounds strange, but that is revolutionary. That is something that has only been going on for a shockingly short period of time.

MA: Your dissertation, Ridazz, Wrenches, & Wonks: A Revolution on Two Wheels Rolls Into Los Angeles, is a really good read, not just a bland presentation of research. You are in the research. You talk about memoir and manifesto as method. You are an observer and a participant. So I see the dual nature of these educational programs begin able to unfold with something like this. Can you talk about how you might guide students to put themselves in their research?

DS: Sure. I do want to jump back and do a shout out to a couple of people who have been huge influences in my writing. Rebecca Solnit is one of those people who is a place-based writer, who gets it, who is doing extremely imaginative things. Her Atlas Trilogy, which began in San Francisco and has extended to New Orleans and New York, is genius. Jenny Price, who has written extensively about the Los Angeles River. Her essay, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA,” is one of my favorite pieces of writing. And her book, which was actually her dissertation, called Flight Maps, also is an amazing example. I encountered her when I was in the MFA program, and then her mentor, William Cronon, who wrote The Trouble With Wilderness. He was her chair at Yale when she was an environmental history doctoral candidate there.

One of the many unique things about the Doctoral program at Antioch New England [that Strauss completed], is that it actively fostered and encouraged writing in the first person regardless of how hard the science was. It’s an interdisciplinary program, so there were people who were writing environmental history dissertations, which mine is close to, but not quite.

Look at a place like San Francisco, the ultimate irony… If you think about it, now the people who live there don’t work there and the people who work there don’t live there. That makes no sense at all.

There were people in conservation biology, environmental education, environmental policy, but all of us were encouraged to move away from the third-person disconnected narrator, passive voice, academic writing tradition. For me, it was a way of humanizing. I took the bait and ran with it as hard as I could. I bumped up against my committee, except for Jenny Price, who was on my committee, because I think they thought that I took it too far. But once they settled on the idea that I was not going to violate this “memoir and manifesto’” idea just for the purposes of doing some traditional method, they got comfortable with it and they let me go. I know other fine writers who have gone through that program. We have our first two students in the dual degree and they’re doing exactly what Steve and I hoped they would do. One of our first courses is called Urban Sustainability, and that’s a course in which we ground students in a lot of earth-systems science. You can’t speak authentically about a lot of these problems unless you really understand the sources of them. For a lot of us, what comes easy is what we can observe on the ground in terms of injustice and inequity, and the harder issues are the ones happening in the atmosphere that are actually having effects on the people on the ground, particularly in communities of color and people who are suffering severe economic challenges. That was my experience. My experience was I was a writer first and then I became this quote-unquote scholar. It was the writing that inspired me to articulate the things that I discovered through the scholarship in ways that weren’t necessarily always the expected ways that scholars were supposed to be working.

That’s the opportunity with the dual degree and we are starting to see that. Our first students are actually going though the program a bit backwards. The original intent is that you would start in Urban Sustainability and complete the program in the MFA program, which I think is a super powerful way to do it because the students will be propelled by all the content that they encounter in the first year and a half of our program and then go into a solid writing process. I mentor all the dual degree students, so I can start that process with the ones who come from the MFA program first and I am really interested in what the students are going to do when they go back for their final semester in their MFA. So we now have two students who have done two semesters of MFA and they will do three semesters with Urban Sustainability and they will have plenty of opportunity to continue to deploy and hone writing skills with us, and then go back and hopefully produce a really powerful final manuscript in MFA. It is going to be exciting to foster their interest in both writing and sustainability and then propel them into the MFA environment where I am sure they will do very powerful work.

MA: You mention LA historian, D.J. Waldie, and his creative use of narrative technique in telling history. What kind of experiments in form do you see happening with sustainability writing? What potential do you see?

DS: Waldie is unique. His book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, is about 120 pages and divided into 300 and some-odd chapters. There are all these beautiful little bites, about this completely mundane and ordinary thing­­the development of the City of Lakewood in the post war era. It’s a housing track with a lot of identical houses in it, but Waldie also looks at the Spanish colonial history of LA and then his own very personal relationship with the Catholic Church. It just takes these elements and braids them together in short pieces that are so lyrical and beautiful and tragic and mundane. It’s hard for me to even describe that book in ways that don’t sound like I have become some kind of religious fanatic. Yes, he is definitely doing interesting things with form. Poets are always doing interesting things with form. Eloise Klein Healy, who is the founder of the AULA MFA program, is very much an LA place-based poet, who writes about the landscape. It is not her primary preoccupation, but she has written very beautifully about it. I certainly attempted that with my dissertation. Jenny Price’s “13 Ways of Seeing Nature” is a revolutionary essay in terms of form and function. It writes very beautifully about the importance of the LA River as a historic and cultural asset that has been forgotten and remembered. I am sure I am missing a hundred people who are doing amazing writing.

MA: Is the Urban Sustainability program also low-residency?

DS: Yes. I am a bit of a low-residency junkie. I was in the second [AULA] MFA cohort in December of 1997, and then the doctoral program in New England is also low-residency. We designed our program to look more like the MFA. We have a six-day and a four-day residency in one semester. The way we distinguish the residencies is that the six-day is like the MFA program [in Creative Writing at Antioch LA, which has a ten-day residency], and then in the four-day residency, we are all living together in the same space for four days and you cook up some very intense working relations in those situations.

I really prefer [bicycle] riding at night. There is something more solitary and intimate, even if you are riding with 3,000 other people, you can have these moments where you are just bathing in this weird urban darkness.

MA: This thing you wrote about your friend telling you to “reindiginate” yourself to a place really resonated with me. You wrote, “… there is ritual that is about place as that which sustains us, that with which we have relationships, that with which we aspire to collaborate and sustain.” I think a lot about creating rituals and how we form relationships to place. Can you talk about how we form that relationship in an intentional way, especially in this shadow of displacement and gentrification? How has that happened for you?

DS: That conversation with Robin Kimmerer occurred on a hike in New England. The whole conversation about being indigenous was, for me, a personal controversy because I felt like I had no indigenous connection to anything, and one of my cohort colleagues got irritated with me when I said that. She said, “Look, we are all indigenous to some place.” It was not a conversation that ended well because nobody convinced anybody that there was a middle ground. Then I had this conversation with Robin, who is somebody whose family has lived in one place for longer than they can even account for. She operates in two knowledge systems, one is the Western-based science tradition and the other is that of the Potawatomi tribe. The temporal scale of how long you have lived in a place is very different from our Western way of looking at things in years. I was decrying this sense of not having an indigenous identity to any place and for her it was just completely natural. She said, “You have to reindiginate yourself,” and I posed this objection, saying, “I can’t stand it when people do that kind of cultural appropriation and everybody pulls out their drums and starts doing something from a culture that they have no connection to and no knowledge of, no guidance or no invitation to do so,” She said, “It doesn’t matter. You have to make your own rituals.” Which was puzzling to me, but it was more comforting that somebody saying, “Sorry, you’re a European invader, so you’re never going to have a sense of being indigenous to a place.” I can’t say that the mission has been accomplished, but I can discuss riding a bike and walking, which I do not do even nearly enough.

I tramped around the Santa Mountains all of my childhood with my friends. We went on these long hikes and when I think about it, there were so many occasions where we could have become food for a mountain lion and I am probably really lucky to be here. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I have this real grounding in what the soil of Los Angeles felt like. As I started studying the environmental history of Los Angeles and started teaching about it, I realized that there was this extraordinary ecosystem of a coastal plain that has now been completely paved over. My appreciation of the Los Angeles River has grown through working with my students around that. With Jenny Price, I came to understand that underneath all this, there is something extraordinary, and to not put your feet on it, even on the pavement that is covering it, is a huge mistake. Of course, everybody knows this is a huge car city, so walking and bike riding and particularly bike riding at night, for reasons I am not 100% certain I can explain, became this kind of land-based ritual for me. I would ride back and forth between this wrenching co-op where I was volunteering and researching, or go on a night ride, and I knew what was going on underneath me in a way that I would never have known if I was in a car. In a car, you don’t particularly care if you are going uphill or downhill. In the car it’s all the same, you can use a little more gas, but on a bike you really have to be conscious and aware. I got to a point that when I was riding, I could do this inventory of street conditions for myself thinking, “Okay, I know up here in about fifty yards, there are a bunch of potholes and so I’ve got to ride more out in the middle of the road. Then I turn this corner, there is going to be a little puff of cooler air, so I knew I was in a different microclimate. Of course the topography is something you are always aware of, whether you are avoiding hills or taking hills. My connection to this place deepened through that process. I don’t know that that qualifies as a ritual practice, because I don’t know enough about ritual practice to say with certainty that that is what that is, but I do know that it was something that was ritualized for me. I did it on a regular basis and when I did it, I made something more of it than just turning the cranks on my bike to make the wheels move forward. It really became an exercise about knowing something about where I lived and I am 100% certain that it has deepened my connection to Los Angeles, to the topography of LA. It also has deepened my connection to a lot of different kinds of people who ride bikes. For me, it was something that I was privileged to do. I would spend a few hours teaching people how to repair bikes every week. Sometimes I was riding on the streets with people who had no choice but to ride bikes. One of our mistakes is that we always think that ritual has to connect you to something up there [points above him] and I think it connects us to something right here [points to his heart]. It’s more immediate and I think that is a lot of what more traditional ritual is intended to do.

I was decrying this sense of not having an indigenous identity to any place and for her it was just completely natural. She said, “You have to reindiginate yourself . . . You have to make your own rituals.”

MA: I was smiling a lot when you were talking. It really reminds me of the kinds of mindfulness that we think of as being developed by nature writers, and I think that is possible anywhere and reminds me of a lot of poetry ideas. I have also spoken with several people who have described riding a bike, especially at night, as the most thrilling, free, joyful experience of their lives.

DS: It really is and it is so shocking to most people who don’t ride. They just think, “Are you crazy?” I wrote in the dissertation that my oldest son introduced me to this and I thought he was insane for riding in these night rides. For me it was a huge conversion of biblical proportions because I went from thinking “this is nuts” to thinking “this is life.” The first and the most counterintuitive thing for me was falling in love with riding at night. One of the reasons for me from a safety perspective was that it is quieter, so you can hear a car coming up, you can feel the air change around you, and you can see [the car] even if you are facing away from it because people’s headlights are on. I love riding in the day too, but I really prefer riding at night. There is something more solitary and intimate, even if you are riding with 3,000 other people, you can have these moments where you are just bathing in this weird urban darkness.

*     *     *

I was moved to share parts of my story with Don. He listened to me talk about the time I participated in the all-night bike race based on the movie The Warriors, my upbringing in New York City, and my studies in Latin America. He told me that I should write about it. “You are the container of a really beautiful, valuable culture. New York culture, bike culture, feminist culture.” He automatically began to curate an anthology about night rides. Finally, I asked him about The Ovarian Psycos. And yes! He has heard about them, knows a few of them, and he was a “huge fan.”

Meredith ArenaMeredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in SHIFT Magazine, a queer literary arts journal.

Doug Unger, Author and Activist

Doug UngerDouglas Unger has published four novels and a collection of stories, including Leaving the Land, which won the Society of Midland Authors Award for best fiction, a citation from the PEN Ernest Hemingway award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Robert F. Kennedy awards. His fourth novel, Voices from Silence, was an “experts recommend selection” of the Washington Post Book World. New fiction and essays have appeared in Boulevard, Southwest Review, The Writers Chronicle, and Carve magazines, as well as in West of 98: Living and Writing in the New American West and the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Fiction. He has just completed Dream City, a novel set in Las Vegas.

Unger moved to Las Vegas in 1991, after teaching eight years at Syracuse University. He is the co-founder of the MFA in Creative Writing International program and PhD with Creative Dissertation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Unger serves on the executive boards of Words Without Borders, Point of Contact, The Americas for Conservation and the Arts, and as an advisory editor for The Americas Series with Texas Tech University Press. His awards include a Guggenheim fellowship for fiction, a Fulbright scholarship in Comparative Literature for Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, a fellowship from the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, a State of Washington Governor’s award, the Nevada Board of Regents Creative Activities Award, and induction into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

I met Douglas Unger following a June 2016 panel at the AULA MFA residency that explored the role of writer-activists in an era when sustainability has become imperative. I was struck by Unger’s response to the moderator’s question, “Are you a writer or an activist first?” Unger said, “I would characterize myself as a ‘literary activist.’ I work with groups that engage writers in environmental activism.”

Unger approaches sustainability from his childhood experiences, which included vacations and holidays spent on his father’s sheep ranch in South Dakota. He watched farms and ranches go under as a result of major social and economic changes that included the rise of agribusiness and urban flight. Later, Unger used his writing to engage the challenge of sustaining communities and cultures during periods of rapid transformation.

Unger’s contribution to the sustainability panel was still fresh in my mind when we met for breakfast at the Marriott the following morning. I recognized Unger from the back, thanks to his neat ponytail. He was checking his flight information on a computer in the hotel lobby. He logged out and I ordered a coffee before we slid into a spacious booth to chat.

Juliann Allison: How did you become a writer? How did you transition from reluctant rancher to writer and activist?

Douglas Unger: I’m not sure if I set out to become a writer. I grew up partly in Colorado, partly outside of New York. I went to Argentina on a student exchange and stayed. The system was very strange, and it allowed you to study without having a place as a student at the university, as an estudiante libre. I went to the University of Chicago and took mainly sciences. I was thinking about getting into neurophysiology, and worked in a neurophysiology lab. I had connections with United Press International (UPI) and when all the war demonstrations were going on and there was political turmoil, I started covering that for UPI as a photojournalist. So I started writing, and gravitated toward it. I’m glad because I discovered in the neurophysiology lab that I am not very good with my hands. I think that if I had become a brain surgeon, I would have done terrible damage.

The old family farm-centered agricultural model embodied a kind of independence, a complete thinking about one’s relationship to town, relationship to city, relationship to state that emphasized certain American values…

JA: Did you consider yourself an activist at this point?

DU: Not really. Although I was certainly sympathetic to the activists. As a journalist, I really tried to be objective.

JA: Your first novel, Leaving the Land, is the story of a turkey farmer’s daughter struggling to hold onto her family’s land while their hometown falls victim to corporate farming. Can you tell me more about this novel, which many consider a classic on the vanishing family farm in the American Midwest? To what extent does it capture your own sense about agriculture, the agrarian lifestyle, and contemporary culture?

DU: There’s a big difference between identifying with a character who is integrated into a particular circumstance and being that character yourself. Leaving the Land is much more based on my father’s second wife, and her growing up on a turkey farm outside of Gillete, Wyoming, and listening to her stories about it, and really identifying with her whole sense of the land where she came from. The rest of it is invented.

My attitude toward that kind of agricultural labor is—I don’t want to romanticize it—it’s hard. The work is hard. The labor’s hard. The demands on you are very, very difficult. In my day, whole families would be out working all day long just to make the place work, to make a profit. I identified with the character, but I’m not a big back-to-nature person. If I prefer any kind of jungle, it’s an urban jungle. If you could spin me around three times and drop me into any city, I’d feel at home. I’ve gone through periods of time when I’ve worked out in nature, but I prefer the companionship of people and cultural activity of the city any day.

JA: What about urban environments?

DU: I think about the integration of green space, and open space, and utilized space in cities a great deal. I’ll use Berlin as an example. I’ve become interested in Berlin recently because my wife lives there. I’ve observed the way the city uses big parks, and the way the residents of the city have community gardens on the outskirts of the city. There’s a whole connection with getting out into the green spaces while you’re enjoying the city. There’s a way the European cities have integrated that better than our cities have. I think about city design, and wish that we could do a better job of it.

Las Vegas is getting better. They had no plan up until about 2000, then they started with a nice plan to make walkways and hiking trails. They’re a little late, but they’re doing a much better job. Out in the new areas, like Summerlin, there’s more of a British feel because it has roundabouts and green spaces. That part of Las Vegas is better planned, more walkable.

JA: You’ve talked about the relationship between the agrarian lifestyle and issues of democracy, individualism, and responsibility. If we are losing these virtues associated with agrarianism, where do you see them being re-enacted?

DU: My philosophy has been formed by this Harold Breimyer book, Individual Freedom and the Economic Organization of Agriculture. It adopts, like Wendell Berry does, a Jeffersonian view of American democracy, and I think it’s essentially correct. The old family-farm centered agricultural model embodied a kind of independence, a complete thinking about one’s relationship to town, relationship to city, relationship to state that emphasized certain American values—frugality and connection with agricultural resources that looks at the farm as complete and sustainable entity that diversifies by rotating crops from legumes to wheat. And you have some type of animal, not because there is an intrinsic value to raising animals but because you get an organic fertilizer. This connection cultivates a sustainable, holistic view of a person’s landscape and how to use it that doesn’t spoil or waste it. That attitude was extremely important. Plus there was an independent attitude toward what power and what freedom we wanted inflicted on us by law, and which powers and freedoms we wanted to have control of ourselves. There’s a whole sense of community involvement as well because of cooperative uses of water and markets, and farm co-ops. That kind of thing, which is a quaint model now, really fostered an attitude toward sustainable life.

What happened in the latter part of the twentieth century is that that model was replaced by an economy-of- scale model, in which you had a hundred-sixty-acre small-scale family dairy replaced by a thousand-acre operation, and then by a two-thousand-acre farm. You are dealing with units that are larger than a family can manage, and so you hire laborers, and adopt a monoculture. You have a whole movement in farming to using a lot of fertilizer to produce tremendous yields, and raising one-grain crops, and selling them. In the 1980s and 1990s, corporations bought up farmland. There are exceptions to it. Organic farms, for instance. Now there’s a movement back to the land—millennials trying to teach themselves how to farm.

In the Third World, monoculture farming is promoted. There’s money in it, whereas there isn’t money for sustainable, small farms. Everyone talks about North American free trade and, Oh God! the factories are leaving. But nobody talks about what it did to Mexico. Suddenly, there were farm credits available for large farms so they adopted these huge, corporate-style farming methods and we see the result of that—onions and fruits coming into Trader Joe’s. What NAFTA did was shake up subsistence farming, which the Mexican Revolution was designed to preserve. And now it’s happening all around the world.

JA: Can you talk about how Latinos view their own, or humanity’s, connection to earth, land, or place today?

You have to know who you are to understand your relationship to the place around you and your community, to have some sense of an integrated self that you understand as you, even though that changes

DU: There’s an interesting thing that emerged in the polling of the Latino voter in the United States and our misconceptions about that growing and important sector of America. Everyone assumed that immigration would be a big issue, and jobs and the economy would be a big issue, and there would be all of these conservative values. But the truth is that the top two concerns for Latinos were the environment and climate change.

As far as we can tell at Americas for Conservation + Arts [a Colorado-based organization dedicated to uniting diverse communities for a sustainable future], neighborhood organizations that are out there everyday, organizing Latino families, find that most Mexican-Americans have some connection to the land or have some relatives who have done agricultural work. They saw first-hand the changes that have gone on and they are concerned. There’s also a tremendous sense of community involvement and community support that, in part, comes just from culture, support for community food, community child support, community concerns for each other. When you put on an event, organize literary events, try to get a crowd out in the Mexican-American community, what you’ll see is that not only will they come, but they will bring food for the community, and be thinking about who will take care of the kids. If I do this in the middle of Las Vegas, I’ll have to think about this as an organizer. It won’t just come up out of the community. That’s a different kind of thing, a different kind of relatedness.

I’m sure there are other communities like that. It kind of reminds me of rural farm communities. Maybe you can attribute it to a closeness to the landscape. Maybe you can attribute it to a different way of looking at community. But that community sense is directly related to their concerns about the environment and climate change.

JA: Your writing and activism are clearly integrated around questions of culture and sustainability. What organizations, in addition to Americas for Conservation + Arts, are you engaged with? How do you think your efforts have impacted Latino communities?

DU: Latinos are a tremendously cohesive, organized unit or sector of the population. They understand that to do anything, they have to speak with one voice. But in the Latino community you have to be careful because there’s a real difference between El Salvadorans, Mexicans, and Guatemalans, and each group is different from the Cubans and from the Puerto Ricans. But there is a sense of a common project of assimilation, a common project of community building.

I’ve done an interesting thing with Words without Borders [a nonprofit that recognizes a strong land ethic among Latin American and Latino communities]. When we put together our Mexico unit [one of three country-organized courses]—I chair that project—I thought we had to do something about the Indigenous communities and languages in Mexico. I selected poetry and stories [translated from] Mazateca and Curicha from the backlist of Words without Borders magazine. Then we started to look at the differences among those subcultures in Mexico and discovered, my gosh, that there are whole neighborhoods of these peoples in odd places. Just outside of Seattle, there’s a Uribe community. There’s a Mazateca community right here in LA, where they’re in the same neighborhood and they’re riding the same buses to work, and their getting together to cook their native foods.

I participated in this project with the Nevada Council of the Arts, looking at Oaxaca and Zapoteca embroidery, and how there’s a whole society that is passing on the embroidery arts from mother to daughter, and then doing these festivals among themselves to show off the results of their work and sustain this beautiful and elaborate embroidery, and the symbols in it, and the way one reads the embroidery. We did a whole museum show together. My graduate students and I translated, put the text together for the catalogue for that exhibit.

Even within an ethnic community, there are dozens, often many more subgroups, and each one has its own concerns, and different traditions. I’m still thinking about that, thinking about what that means, certainly, within sustainability and cultural preservation. It’s important and I’m interested in how we preserve these cultural ideas, and art, the songs of these communities, where we make space for them in the American patchwork, the American idea. And how do we encourage cultural cohesion in a society made up of these different parts? That has to do with sustainability.

How do we preserve the beautiful folkloric songs? How do you preserve Mazateca poetry that is so focused on the role of the mother in society? This is really interesting to me as an artist. It’s fascinating that Mazatecans have this preoccupation with mothers in poetry, and then you find a Mexican comedian in the U.S., in a club, making the audience laugh with twenty different mama jokes, right? Where does that whole thing come from? And isn’t that interesting to think about? You can do anything in Mexican culture, generally, you can insult somebody, call them anything you want, use every curse word in the book, but if you insult his mother, it’s a knife fight. You cannot insult his mother. It’s the one thing they don’t do.

If you teach the availability of these cultures and subcultures, the richness of them, who knows what students will make of it, but at least it’s there.

JA: Can you tell us about your new work?

DU: I’ve just spent a long time working on a book about Las Vegas. It’s very complicated. It’s called Dream City and what I’m trying to do with the book is to go against all the available Las Vegas clichés. There’re no murders, no hookers. There’re no gangsters. There’s one old barber who is nostalgic about the mob days, but there’s no mob. What it’s really about is the corporate world of Las Vegas and how it modeled the city. It’s about all the back-stabbing. It’s fiction, but it’s set in that world.

Right now, I’m putting the first section together in another way. I’ve been cutting it down and reshaping it. I’m trying to sell it. It’s very difficult to sell a novel these days. What I’m trying to do is take a look at people who are drawn into aspirational greed. The main character evaluates himself by how far he climbs up the corporate ladder in terms of money, and gets to the point where he is admitted into the wealthy and elite of Las Vegas who have their own rituals, and their own meetings, and their own places to go, their own rights of passage. And so he’s in this group where he’s always wanted to be and the recession happens and in 2010 he loses it all. In the process of getting there, he strips away every kind of passive human value, like compassion and his personal ethics. His marriage gets in real trouble, and he becomes more cynically disposed. He becomes what he never wanted to be, and loses it.

I’m hoping to make that an interesting story, but what I’ve discovered is that editors and readers in publishing houses want to know: where are the gangsters, where are the hookers, where’s the body? They expect a certain thing out of Las Vegas. This is different than that.

Novels, to me, are puzzles. It’s a question of how to structure the story to give your readers just enough so that they are interested in turning the page, and much of that has to do with the ordering of events, how to order events, how to anticipate events, then how to keep rewarding expectations, and reversing them along the way. It’s a structural problem.

JA: It sounds like fun. It sounds like a lot of work, but it could also be fun, a challenge.

DU: Yeah. I just finished writing an essay on teaching the Mexican drug war. It’s [published in] a couple of places. I enjoyed the process of teaching such a dark subject and watching students react to narco culture.

We all have to be activists. When you hear it, you have to confront it. There’s a nice way to be persuasive. But if you don’t, then you’re responsible.

It wasn’t depressing at all, translating, and comparing it to hip hop and rap, looking at it like a cultural phenomenon. Then looking at narco cinema. Who is the most prolific actor? A guy name Mario Almada, who has played the bad guy in 1000 films. What American actor has been in 1000 movies? You have Mexican narco film directors who are doing over twenty movies a year, right? I had students who went to our local Walmart and found titles, movies funded by drug dealers to make themselves look like heroes.

Then there’s the cult of Santo [Jesús] Malverde, which has more than twelve million devotees, that’s one out of every ten people in Mexico. It’s the saint of the drug lords. Yet it’s got this indigenous underpinning to the feminine goddess of underworld of Toltec and Aztec tradition. So it’s a reincarnation of her. It’s a whole new religion. My students were so fascinated by all of this. I wrote an essay about it.

JA: Do you have any advice for writers seeking to lend their voice to the earth or land? How important is a science background?

DU: It’s an individual attitude that you carry with you whether you are a writer or not. The thing is to decide who you are first. You have to know who you are to understand your relationship to the place around you and your community, to have some sense of an integrated self that you understand as you, even though that changes. Then, be very aware of what is around you. I like Henry James’s idea about what writers should be, and that a writer is someone on whom nothing is missed. Just be aware and observant enough to see what’s around you and cultivate that ability as much as you possibly can.

There’s that, and then about sustainability, I think we should all be activists. You can be an activist just by being a poet in your community, and representing that space in the cultural organization of your family, your community, your city. That’s a good thing, but if you look at the kind of crisis that’s coming, I’m very concerned that we all have to do something. In the United States, we are not nearly aware enough or focused enough on it. And it astonishes me that the corporate rhetoric by companies that want to exploit resources and damn the consequences and profit from it has been given such a privileged and unquestioned place in politics and the media.

It’s not that way around the world. You go to Germany, and everyone is aware. The same in France. You go to Argentina, and it’s a struggle, but not a naked struggle. If someone is going to profit, it’s out there. And the whole sense of climate change is out there. They are talking about it, and people are aware that there is more flooding, and every newscaster is saying it’s because of climate change. We don’t have that happening [in the U.S.]. If someone does say it, then there’s a counterargument being financed by someone who wants to do what they’ve always done, to exploit and despoil without paying for it.

We all have to be activists. When you hear it, you have to confront it. There’s a nice way to be persuasive. But if you don’t, then you’re responsible. I don’t want to be responsible. There are things we all really need to be aware of. [Climate change] is the most important issue of our time.

Juliann AllisonJuliann Allison is a feminist scholar, environmentalist, homeschool advocate, yogini, runner, rock climber, mate, and mother of four, with a passion for the outdoors. She is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy at UC Riverside, and an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles.

 

Sarah Van Arsdale, Author

Sarah Van ArsdaleSarah Van Arsdale’s deft, sympathetic portraits remind us that we are not alone in our struggle to be seen, recognized, and yes, even loved.  She is a writer who is deeply engaged with questions of who we are and what we owe each other. Her clarity and precision immerse the reader in a world where characters struggle, yet ultimately find redemption. With language imbued with the curiosity of a naturalist and the grace and virtuosity of a poet, Van Arsdale’s work brings us close to that which is essential to our humanity—identity, attachment, loss, the ties that bind us together and keep us alive.­

Sarah Van Arsdale’s novels include Grand Isle (SUNY Press, 2012), Blue, winner of the 2002 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, (University of Tennessee Press, 2003), and Toward Amnesia, (Riverhead Books, 1996).  Her latest collection of novellas, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, was published in April 2016 by Queen’s Ferry Press. Nomadic Press will release her next book, The Catamount, in 2017. Both In Case of Emergency, Break Glass and The Catamount are illustrated with Van Arsdale’s watercolors. Her poetry has been published in national literary magazines, most recently The New Guard, Blueline, and Clockhouse. She serves on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction, and teaches in the Antioch University MFA Program and at NYU.

Self PortraitI spoke with Sarah Van Arsdale by phone on August 25, 2016.  Over the course of reading her work and talking with her, I was struck by her artistic versatility and her fierce dedication to authenticity. The following are excerpts from our interview.

Melissa Benton Barker: Not only do you write novels, essays, and short fiction, you also work with visual art, in particular, with watercolor painting. Your most recent book, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, is illustrated with some of your watercolors. Can you talk about the play between narrative and visual forms in your work as an artist? Are there things that you feel are better expressed in one medium versus the other?

Sarah Van Arsdale: My next book is a long narrative poem illustrated with my illustrations. It will be released by Nomadic Press this spring. I didn’t think of myself as a visual artist until about ten years ago. I was raised in a family where everybody did art. We made things, we painted things, so it didn’t seem like a particular skill to me that was separate from life. You did the dishes, you drew a little picture, it’s just part of life. It wasn’t until I was well along that somebody saw one of my little drawings and asked me who had drawn it and if I’d bought it somewhere. That woke me up to the idea that maybe I had something that I could work with. For me, the visual art has always been almost like a relief from the writing. Because the writing I’ve always taken really seriously. I have a master’s in poetry and I’ve worked hard at it, and it’s something that I’m vulnerable about. I’m easily injured if somebody doesn’t like my writing, even though I’ve developed a thick skin over the years. But my visual art is something that I haven’t worked at very hard until recently, so I could be more playful with it. I use it often as a break from writing. When I want to be doing something, but writing isn’t quite what I want to be doing, I feel very fortunate that I have this other creative outlet.

The deepest, most important things get expressed by me—and probably by most people—in poetry. That’s where I go for something that is elusive to me. If I’m not quite sure what’s nagging at me that I need to get down on paper, usually poetry is where I go. With illustration, it tends to be lighter and more whimsical than any of my writing. I often think in illustrations. I was recently interviewed for something and I answered a question by saying my wise counselors had talked me out of a different title for In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, and immediately I got a visual image of my three cats, my wise counselors. That’s often how my visual thinking goes, almost like a running cartoon in the background of my life.

MBB: Your published works are very different from one another in scope. Your first novel, Toward Amnesia, is the story of one woman’s grief, and it’s incredibly internal. It seems to be as much about the central character’s relationship with herself and with the natural world as it is about the loss she experiences in being abandoned by her partner. A later novel, Grand Isle, is a portrait of a large cast of characters, a whole community coping with loss. Can you tell me about what it was like to write a piece that is so intimate and internal versus a piece that casts a wider net?

SVA: When I think of my books in sequential order, it’s apparent that I wrote Toward Amnesia when I still thought of myself as a poet. It started as a long prose poem and then gradually, over about a year, I intentionally made it more into fiction, prose. By the time I wrote Grand Isle, I wanted to see if I could write what I thought of as a real novel, not just a big poem. I thought of Toward Amnesia like a big poem without many line breaks, and by the time I got to Grand Isle I wanted a bigger cast of characters. I wanted to see the characters interact with each other and see if I could do it, if I could just throw the line out and let it keep going, how many characters I could get into my scope, and how complicated I could make their relationships.

I wanted to write about the Inuit themselves, or the pre-Inuit, and I wanted to [go back in time] so that it’s a question of human intelligence, a new dawn of human intelligence.

MBB: So you were deliberately challenging yourself here.

SVA: I was making myself write a real novel.

MBB: The natural world plays an important role in your work. In Toward Amnesia, for example, the protagonist’s relationship with the natural world is essential to her healing. Can you talk about the role that the natural world plays in your own life and how this informs your writing?

SVA: Toward Amnesia has more of the natural world than any of the other books, except for the first novella in the new collection, the one that’s set in the Arctic. When I wrote Toward Amnesia I had just been taking some undergrad wildlife biology classes. I took those classes after working at a nature sanctuary in graduate school to support myself. Before that, my older half-brother was very passionate about the natural world as a teenager and a young adult, and he brought that to me. He was into bird watching and he kept snakes in a cage in the backyard. That planted the seed. The year before I wrote Toward Amnesia, I was interested in wildlife biology and thinking about getting another degree in it, and learning a ton by taking these intense science classes. A lot of that went into Toward Amnesia.

The book that I’m working on now is about the mountain lion of the northeast, the catamount.  My relationship with the catamount dates way back to those early days of studying wildlife biology. So I do see that as a thread that’s continuing in my life.

MBB: It comes full circle since the catamount played an important role in your first novel.

SVA: It’s like it walked out of Toward Amnesia into this new book.

MBB: The first novella in your recently published collection, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, is entitled “The Sound in High Cold Places.” This is a story told from the perspective of a prehistoric Inuit woman. Many of the themes addressed here are universal: human attachment and connection, the quest for survival and the choices we make in order to survive. What sparked your interest in writing about this particular time and place?

SVA: I never would have thought that I wanted to write historical fiction, and only after the book came out did it occur to me that I had written historical fiction. I have a lot of students who work in historical fiction and I would think, “I don’t know anything about this” and realize, “No, wait, I did this!”  I happened to go on a trip to the Arctic. There is an [archeological site] with what are called the Greenland Mummies. The Greenland Mummies were found in 1975 and date to the 1400s. I became interested in the question of what would kill off an entire group of people, especially if they were living earlier. I wanted it to be earlier than the 1400s because I didn’t want the question of the European settlers to come into it, since that’s been written about so much and that’s a really heartbreaking story from the Inuit point of view. I wanted to write about the Inuit themselves, or the pre-Inuit, and I wanted to [go back in time] so that it’s a question of human intelligence, a new dawn of human intelligence. That’s why the characters of Simut and Imiut are a bit further along in intelligence than the other people, and that’s part of their bond. They can think more abstractly than the other characters can.

I started writing it with s/he for the pronoun and realized, Oh great! This is perfect! And then it just fell into place, the best character. I was writing it before I was really familiar with the term nonbinary, before the term was even used…

MBB: How did you approach writing about a time for which there is no written record? Did you need to work differently in order to inhabit a time that has been kept alive through oral tradition and our collective human imagination?

SVA: I had to do a lot more research than I ever have with any other book. Research is important to me and it’s important to me to teach students that you have to do research because you have to be specific. With Grand Isle, I was looking up what flowers would be blooming at that time of year at that location, that kind of thing, so that I could be specific and accurate. But I had no idea until I was working on the Arctic book just how much research I was going to have to do. It was constant. I started that story probably in about 2002. Periodically it just kept bugging me. I kept wanting to work on it. I’d go back and work on it some more and then abandon it again for something else. Every time I went back to it I found that there were more inaccuracies, things that I wasn’t sure of, both about the time and the place, like what kind of skin would they have used to make a kayak versus what kind of skin would they have used to make a parka. It was a lot of work and it was challenging imaginatively. I had to really imagine being in a place where the sun doesn’t come up for a long time and yet you don’t have the word “month,” so you’re not thinking the sun is going to come up in a couple of months, because you don’t think in months.

MBB: It’s amazing how much this piece allows the reader to inhabit a world that’s so different from the contemporary world. The research that you did really makes that possible. The Sound in High Cold Places” is the story of a group of humans struggling together to survive in the midst of a brutal yet awe-inspiring environment. At the center of the story is a portrait of a deep attachment, what we in our contemporary culture would call a romantic relationship, between a cisgender woman and a nonbinary person. Can you talk about the process of writing these characters and this relationship within this particular setting and time?

SVA: It’s kind of mysterious to me. That’s one of the things that I love about writing fiction. There’s that mysterious thing that happens where a character will just come into a story, or something will happen in the plot that you had no idea was going to happen. I’d been working on it off-and-on for years, and I had various romantic or marital things happen for Simut, the protagonist. At one point, she was married to a man who was cruel to her, and at another point, her husband died. I tried one thing after another with her. I knew that the plot needed something. There was a big piece missing, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I thought of the old adage about either somebody goes on a trip or a character comes to town. And I thought, what if a stranger comes to town? Then I started writing the scene when Imiut arrives on the shore in the kayak and I realized as I was writing it, I couldn’t decide if this was going to be a male or a female character, and I was hesitant to use either he or she because I couldn’t see clearly one or the other. I thought, well, if it were a female character, that could be really cool, because then Simut could fall in love with a woman, but if it’s a male, there were other advantages. I started writing it with s/he for the pronoun and realized, Oh great! This is perfect! And then it just fell into place, the best character. I was writing it before I was really familiar with the term nonbinary, before the term was even used, since it took a while after finishing it for it to get published. I wrote that part four or five years ago, and I certainly had known transgendered people, but I wasn’t writing that character to make any kind of political point. It just happened, and then it worked. I could see that it filled in that blank spot that was missing and it happens that the timing with our own cultural evolution is right. If it has been published ten years ago as it is, I think a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten it.

Often writing with any political intention falls flat. I’ve seen many people try to make some political point in fiction and it usually doesn’t work. It has to be that the characters take over.

MBB: The second two novellas in the collection center around Americans abroad, traveling in Spain and France, respectively. What do you think taking the central character(s) out of their habitual environment brings to these stories?

SVA: Any time you take a character out of their habitual environment you add some juice to the story. [When traveling] you see yourself differently than you see yourself in your home country. Setting either of those stories in the protagonist’s home would not have worked.  I feel strongly about setting and how important setting is. You couldn’t set those stories anywhere else. They have to take place where they’re taking place. 

The advantage to reading widely and the advantage to knowing a wide range of people is that you get a greater range of perspectives in your own life.

MBB: The third novella in the collection, “Conversion,” is told from the point of view of a woman who shares many of your biographical details. The protagonist is in the midst of writing a chapter with her partner entitled: “Fiction, Memoir, and the Shifting Border Between.”  I’m interested in the title of that fictional chapter. How do you manage the border between fiction and memoir?

SVA: I put that title in there almost like a wink to the reader. [As if to say] in case you don’t know anything about me, this is really autobiographical fiction. If anybody were to know anything about me, that would be clear. Usually my fiction is really fiction, and there’s very little of it drawn from my life the way that story is. More often it’s a combination of stories that I’ve heard from friends, or friends of friends, the stories that float around us. Lyrics to songs, dreams that I’ve had, all that other stuff that funnels into being fiction. In most of my other fiction, there might be some little story from my own life that might fit into a story or a book, more often stories from friends of mine. In Toward Amnesia, the protagonist remembers being given a telescope when she was a child, and she really wanted something else—like a makeup kit or something. When my mother read Toward Amnesia, she said, “Daddy never gave you a telescope,” and I said, “Yeah, you’re right, he didn’t.” But my lover at the time had a story from her childhood where she wanted a soccer ball and she was given a makeup kit as a kid. That’s the kind of transformation where I’m thinking, I need something where the wrong gift is given to a kid, and I go to my own experience in life, which includes stories of friends of mine. “Conversion” is a story where I really deviated from that and wrote a story almost exactly as it happened.

MBB: Did you find that harder or easier to write, or just totally different?

SVA: It was really different. When I write fiction, I see it happening in a different part of my brain, even if it starts in the seed of something that really did happen to me. I was living on a lake in Vermont when I started writing Grand Isle, so the seed of that was a real experience, and as I imagined it, it inhabited a whole different part of my brain than real life does. When I think of the house in “Conversion,” I see the actual house that I was in, not a made up fictional house. I started writing it while I was experiencing it, in part because otherwise I would have gone crazy. I just started writing and I started seeing all the things that were happening around me as if they were fiction, thinking, “Wow this will be really great for the story, oh this is perfect!” It’s a bit like watching Donald Trump now. It’s a bit like, “Oh perfect! That is the perfect thing for him to say! I can’t wait for the next terrible thing he’s going to say!” And then he says something that you could not script any better for him to be so evil. It’s kind of like that.

MBB: Maybe writing “Conversion” was a way of coping with a stressful situation, having some distance or clarity.

SVA: It made what was happening more distant.

MBB: In your 2014 essay published in Guernica Magazine, “I Was a Lesbian Writer,” you wrote, “Can we imagine opening the New York Times Book Review and noticing that there are only two or three men reviewed?” How do you imagine we would all be impacted by this ideal publishing world, where the white, cisgender male is no longer the standard unit of measurement?

SVA: I think our heads would explode, in the best possible way. I was just looking at something the other day, some literary magazine that just came out. Flipping through it I realized that almost everybody in it was a man or at least had a man’s name.  I’m like—really? Still? The advantage to reading widely and the advantage to knowing a wide range of people is that you get a greater range of perspectives in your own life. Reading internationally, reading across genders and ethnicities, makes all of us bigger. And so we’d get bigger and our heads would explode. It would be great!

When you write the thing that you most need to write, there’s no guarantee it will get published, but if it doesn’t get published at least you’ve written the thing you needed to write and then you’re done with that and you can write something else that you need to write.

MBB: Do you have any particular words of wisdom to share with fledgling and emerging writers out there who identify outside the category of white, cisgender male? Are you at all hopeful that the publishing industry is moving towards greater inclusivity?

SVA: First, I would say to anyone, you have to write the story that you most want to write, that you most need to write. You have to find that burning thing inside of you that demands that you write it regardless of what it is. When you write the thing that you most need to write, there’s no guarantee it will get published, but if it doesn’t get published at least you’ve written the thing you needed to write and then you’re done with that and you can write something else that you need to write. But also, when you write the thing that you want to write the chances are greater that it will get published, no matter how weird it is. I can tell you this story, from “My Famous Friend” [Van Arsdale’s essay, published in Bookslut, January 2016], which is that it took [Alison Bechdel] a long time to write Fun Home. She was writing Dykes to Watch Out For for a long time and she said, “I don’t know, I have this crazy idea to write this book. I want to write the story of my father, but nobody’s going to read this. This is insane, nobody wants to read this cockamamie story!” That’s the greatest example I have because we all know what happened with Fun Home. But also with my little catamount book, I wrote it first and handed it out to friends. I never thought it would get published and I didn’t write it to get published. I was even kind of upset that it was going to get published because I had been so adamant that I wasn’t going to send it out and try to get it published because nobody’s going to publish a narrative poem with illustrations by the author about a catamount. Nobody’s going to publish that, and then voila, it got published. I’m sure that there are countless other stories like that, of people who just wrote what they wanted to write and now it’s something that we all enjoy reading.

I am hopeful about the small press world. My hope about the bigger publishing world, the big presses, comes and goes. Every now and then I see something published by a major house that I think is really fantastic and that gives me hope that somebody in there is able to buck the marketing department and get something really good published. I think that the editors in the publishing houses, by and large, are probably really good readers and really want great writing to be published, but I think that they are under the thumb of the marketing department and the need for the house to make a ton of money. Therefore my hope lies in the small presses and that’s where most of the really good writing is coming from these days.

MBB: Thank you for your advice about writing what needs to be written. That’s really good to hear, because there’s really nothing to lose with that, right?

SVA: Right, exactly, there’s nothing to lose. There’s no point in writing something that you don’t feel that way about. You have to have some level of passion about the piece you are working on. Whatever you’re afraid to write, that’s where you have to go.

Melissa TinkerMelissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising childrensometimes simultaneously!  Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-Station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama.