Mandy-Suzanne Wong

“It’s my hope that Sumiko and Ayuka embody the tremendous strength that women who are different—whose perspectives refuse to dance to the canned music of the status quo—must cultivate within themselves, often alone and against all odds, in order to keep their ideals alive.”

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Awabi (Digging Press, 2019)

How did you first come up with the idea to write Awabi?  How did you first learn about the ama and become inspired to write about them?

For me the project began not with the ama but with their prey: sea-snails of various kinds. Google images of living awabi (abalone), and you’ll find that they’re both beautiful and adorable. I also love the Japanese legend of the sazae snail (Turbo cornutus), which in reality can live for several decades and in the legend transforms upon its hundredth birthday into a sazae-oni: a snail-demon, part snail, part vengeful mermaid. The ama are among the sazae’s primary predators. In fact, in my earliest ama story, which does not appear in Awabi, the narrator is a sazae.

In your acknowledgements, you write, “Every day I am inspired by the courage and tenacity of Sumiko, Sanae, and Shizuka Nakagawa” (55).  Are these ama you have met and interviewed?  What was it like to speak with them?

I have not yet met the Nakagawas, lacking the money to travel to Japan; but their tireless efforts to preserve the ama’s traditions and attitudes, in part by educating the rest of the world about them, are discussed online and in documentary films. Shizuka, in particular, describes how difficult it was for her as a young woman to watch everyone of her generation leave her village for the cities even as she made the decision to persevere as an ama, so strongly does she believe in their way of life and their devotion to conservation.

Was it difficult to write about such a specific group of Japanese women?  How did you handle authenticity and agency while writing these stories?  What were the difficulties you encountered while writing these stories, and what inspired you to persevere?  What advice would give a writer trying to write a story that feels (and is) authentic?

“Authenticity” in fiction is a huge, complicated, and crucial question; one about which I have agonized again and again. It’s one of those great questions that spawns so many other questions and even calls the entire practice of fiction writing into question. What is “authenticity”? Is there such a thing among humans, objectively speaking? Especially when we live in layers and layers of socially constructed simulacra? The question of what “authenticity” entails may not even be an objective question but a subjective one: something every writer has to decide for themselves, which may change with every project. Fiction writers are in the business of making stuff up. Aren’t we? In which case “authenticity” isn’t our affair. Or is it? Do we also somehow reach for truths? These are questions I think each writer has to ask herself.

Your chapbook is set up as a duet of short stories that speak to each other, reinforcing the same ideas and themes while also filling in spaces left blank by each story. (For example, “Sumiko’s Daughters” explores the relationship between an ama and her daughter and granddaughter, while “Ayuka Breathes” explores the competing relationship between an ama, her husband, and the ocean.)  Could you discuss how these two stories interact with each other?  Why did you choose to have only two short stories?

It was exactly as you say: I wanted to explore how different kinds of love might feel to an ama and generate unique conflicts in her life. Mother-love for Sumiko. Lover-love for Ayuka. Though I didn’t exactly plan it this way, as it turned out, the ocean—or some personal, ill-defined but keenly felt idea thereof—seemed to cause upwellings of both love-kinds, even though I think of them as distinct and specific. Two stories? That was a practical decision. I wanted very much to submit to Digging Press, and any more than two stories would have exceeded their word limit.

One theme of these stories seems to be the idea that love both sustains and feeds off the loved one.  You write, “Ama followed the awabi as they followed their human mothers into the ocean, devoured the sea-snails as they fed on their mothers’ milk.  Predator-daughter-mother of the deep, where all was slippery, shadowy, roving, waving, Sumiko understood the flowing blending of visible and invisible life” (13).  I was wondering if you would elaborate on this theme?

I’d love to! In fact, I’m planning to do just that in my novel-length expansion of Ayuka’s story, which I’m working on now. Stay tuned!

Something I noticed is that the reader rarely gets to be underwater with the ama. The reader most often sees the ama breaching the water after a dive, or on land.  In a book where so much of the characters’ lives revolves around the ocean, why keep the ocean so mysterious and separated from the reader?  Is this to keep the reader from romanticizing the ama?

Great question. Especially for Ayuka, the ocean is her private realm, which is why she doesn’t want Hiroki to strap a camera on her. Especially since “Ayuka Breathes” tries to explore several characters’ points of view, I wanted us to share Hiroki’s mystification and frustration with Ayuka’s secretiveness.

Your stories deal with issues like climate change and femininity, yet never come off as preachy.  You focus the stories on the characters so that the reader is left remembering Sumiko and Ayuka along with the acidification of the oceans.  Was this difficult for you to do?  What advice would you give a writer to help them focus on their characters’ humanity and avoid sounding didactic?

Thank you! That’s a terrific compliment for me because this is exactly what I was hoping to achieve: as one of my favorite artists —Kathryn Eddy, who’s also an animal activist—says art cannot be didactic or else it isn’t art, it’s propaganda. For me, I think, the key was to make each individual character as unique and specific as possible with lives chock-full of dreams, activities, and details and with personalities that couldn’t possibly be generalized. I tried to fill myself with every character, to glut the story and my perspectives on the story with the characters’ specific conflicts and emotions, making it obvious to myself that a paragraph full of climate-change factoids that anyone could find on any search engine just wouldn’t fit in.

Something else I noticed about these stories is how you weave fiction with historical and scientific facts.  Specifically, in “Ayuka Breathes,” you mix lyrical prose with science through the character of the physiologist Riku Hayashi.  I especially enjoyed the part where you write, “In his small room and awestruck tones, Riku told her that on a daily basis she was diving far deeper and longer than all the other ama, their ancestors, and every funado in every record he could find” (44).  How much of Riku’s findings have been proven today?  What was the process of research for creating Riku’s character and his findings? Like Riku, were you struck by what you learned?

We’ll hear more about Riku’s research in Ayuka’s novel. 🙂

In your preface, you explain the Japanese characters (kanji) in the words “awabi” and “ocean,” and later, you give the meanings behind the names Namako and Hana.  In the acknowledgments, you thank Michelle Rosquillo for helping you with the kanji.  How did learning kanji affect your perception of the stories you were writing and the people you were writing about?  When you were naming the other characters, like Ayuka and Hiroki, did you name them with specific meanings in mind?  Why did you choose to explain Namako and Hana but not any of the other names?

I love that within their pictorial bodies, kanji imply the relationships between real beings: the kanji for both “awabi” (below) and “ama” (see book’s Preface) both contain the grid-like shape that’s part of the kanji for “ocean,” and this is a relationship I could see even without being able to read Japanese properly. It means the ocean is right at the heart of Japanese people’s perceptions (whether or not they’re conscious of it) of both a human animal and a nonhuman one—which suggests in turn that the ocean itself could be imagined as partly human, partly nonhuman. So the fluidity of these categories is much more evident in Japan’s kanji for them than in our words for them. Coming to realize this influenced my thinking a great deal.

I chose to explain “Namako” and “Hana” because Sumiko, the protagonist, had a hand in or at least influenced the selection of those names; and the names in turn influenced her feelings about her daughter. Ayuka, Hiroki, and Tomoki didn’t get to choose their names for themselves, so they don’t really play a part in the characters’ experiences, which is why I didn’t explain them. “Ayuka” in particular, however, is a very strange name with an amphibious and ambiguous meaning which I will explore in her novel.

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Awabi kanji

Throughout Awabi, I noticed themes of feminism weaved in. Your book is about powerful Japanese diver-women who defy the usual cultural expectations of women (having pale skin and being thin); Awabi also brings to light objectification and violence when western visitors were appalled by the women’s “thick, brown, naked bodies” and also when Sumiko is dancing and being violated by men. Awabi also shows the oppression of women: “Highborn women had to be sweet and agree with the men in everything. And they were often afraid…” It was also “unheard of for feminine concerns to override husbands.” There were basically two “feminine subcultures” a young woman could choose from and belong to, and one was vanishing. Finally, we see that Ayuka seems to trust the ocean more than her husband. This book gives light to women’s voices, how powerful and wise the voices of women can be. Could you discuss how it is a call to action, to listen to the stories, wisdom, and concerns of women?

Thank you for the amazing way you’ve pulled together all these instances of Awabi’s feminism! These stories are most definitely a call to bear witness to the unique concerns of women, especially when they ring dissonantly against what society-at-large thinks women’s concerns ought to be. For Sumiko, having a stable domestic lifestyle with a steady income just isn’t what matters most. For Ayuka, appeasing the men around her—her husband and the doctor whom everyone believes possesses the power to save the village—just isn’t what matters. Both my ama are unusual in that it’s nonhuman ecosystems that matter most to them. It’s my hope that Sumiko and Ayuka embody the tremendous strength that women who are different—whose perspectives refuse to dance to the canned music of the status quo—must cultivate within themselves, often alone and against all odds, in order to keep their ideals alive.

Much of Awabi reads almost like a poem to me. It is very lyrical. It is beautiful and each statement seems to have many underlying meanings. I absolutely love your use of metaphor and concrete images. Do you also write poems? Are there poetic techniques you use in your prose?

Again, thank you so much for this tremendous compliment. I haven’t written poetry in a long time, but I read a lot of poetry, and poetry has a great deal of influence on how I craft my prose styles. Where prose writing these days takes many of its cues from everyday, popular speech, the best poets make a point of using language in ways that are deliberately weird, deliberately unexpected. As Clarice Lispector says, poetry “sensitizes language.” I have a lot of fun trying to do that with my prose, trying to make my word choice, syntax, and imagery extra-sensitive to the content as well as deliberately surprising.

Another huge theme in your book is environmentalism. Over the course of generations with these Ama, we see the Ocean growing warmer, more polluted, more acidic, and over-fished. At the end, we see Ayuka throwing “herself overboard as if into a lover’s arms, maskless and weeping.” Is this symbolic of a last attempt to save everything? If so, in your mind, is this final attempt successful? Do you think there is hope?

Wow, that’s a great interpretation—one which I hadn’t actually thought of but which suits everything in the story perfectly. Thank you! As for whether or not there is hope for the oceans: sometimes I like to think so because it seems to me that humans should be unable to reach the oceans’ deepest depths and therefore unable to ruin them. But I’ve been reading that some ocean scientists fear that there will soon be no more “wild” oceans, that humans will have soon contaminated everything after all, that even which oceanic animal species remain alive will depend solely on what humans want to eat. That prospect scares me to no end.

When writing about the fictional village of Kaiyono, did you have an actual, real-life village in mind?

Kaiyono is a sort of composite of the several ama villages I’ve researched in the Mie and Shima Prefectures of Japan. “Kaiyo” is a Japanese word for “ocean.”

In your book, we see the rise of commercialism and pollution. Do you think there is a good way to combat commercialism or a sustainable way to develop regions commercially?

I don’t have any answers; but commercial capitalism is unsustainable. I read in Immaterialism by the American philosopher Graham Harman that structures like commercialism and capitalist extractivism, foundations of “Anthropocene civilization,” have become so entangled in so many human lives, providing jobs and so on, that there is no easy way to undo them.

In your book, you speak a lot about mothers and daughters and how the ocean is also the mother of the Ama. Does this connect to the idea of “mother earth”?

I do love the idea of the daughter-mother as the earth/ocean-mother; it suggests a caring relationship between humans and the Earth which, as humans are all too eager to forget, goes both ways. At the same time—and this is a tension in my thinking that I have yet to resolve—like several feminist eco-critics today (e.g. Isabelle Stengers), I do have reservations about the whole concept of a “mother earth” aka Gaia. The Earth is not a human; it’s a unique being and system of beings that is absolutely nothing like a human or indeed like any kind of earthling mother. Thinking about loving the Earth as akin to loving a human mother or goddess risks affirming anthropocentrism all over again: it risks putting just another humanoid figure at the center of our priorities.

The marriage relationship between Ayuka and Hiroki is obviously strained. I see  parallels between this relationship and the relationship of humans and earth. Did you have this or something else in mind when writing about Ayuka and Hiroki’s marriage?

Thank you for bringing this up! I’m really so grateful for your multi-leveled engagement with my work! I definitely agree that it is vitally important for humans to think about what we’d call “ecological” relationships as having the same level of complexity, intimacy, and priority as interpersonal relationships such as parent-child and partner-to-partner relationships. That said, I think it’s a matter not of fostering a relationship with “The Earth” as some kind of huge goddess-like abstraction but of particular persons caring for particular earthlings in close proximity—as the ama care for awabi babies, for example, or as Hiroki struggles to learn to care for his wife as a not-just-human being.

In an interview with eyelands, you talk about your story “Coconut Octopus.” You say, “the coconut octopus’ ingenuity was just too wonderful for me to ignore. This diminutive species really does make body armor out of discards – even out of garbage that humans cast into the ocean. It’s this kind of flexibility that will give nonhuman animals the best chance of surviving what we’re doing to the Earth.” I was wondering if there is some connection between the adaptability of these ocean creatures and the adaptability of women in Awabi. In a way, we have all been affected by some sort of trash, even the Ama women (commercialism, strained relationships with men, etc). They seem to be flexible, but are still dwindling in numbers. Could you say more about this?

Great point. It seems to me that the most flexible among my ama is Ayuka, and this is because she is partly nonhuman (or, better, more nonhuman than most humans!). Scientists are finding that some nonhuman species can actually thrive in the seemingly impossible situations we humans are creating. According to the research I’ve done so far, it’s the invertebrates who stand the best chance: a good example is the coconut octopus who uses garbage to its advantage; also certain jellyfish species thrive in polluted, deoxygenated waters where boned fishes can’t survive. Humans, on the other hand, are unlikely to survive what we are doing to our own home planet. Nearly all of the recent epidemics which have killed so many people have begun with humans encroaching on wild habitats and there contracting diseases; and nearly every such disease is exacerbated and spread by factory farming. We like to think that we are the smartest therefore the most adaptable species, but how smart is it to deliberately destroy one’s own habitat? What other animal does that? I can’t think of one.

In Awabi, the Ama see the ocean change so much just in the course of a lifetime. Do you think that by the time you are the age of the Ama, the ocean will have changed as much?

Wow. That’s a huge question. And I have to start with the caveat that I don’t write fiction in order to prophesy, really just to imagine the world from odd or marginalized angles. One thing I’m learning from my research on ocean animals is that it’s impossible to generalize about Earth’s oceans. A single corner of an ocean, say, around the Shima peninsula, contains a wealth of ecosystems; and a different corner, say, the reefs around Bermuda, contains a wealth of totally different ecosystems. Each ecosystem has been subject to different anthropogenic stresses at different times and to different degrees. In Bermuda, my native country, the reefs and the parrotfishes who are their caretakers are protected by rigid laws; so our surrounding waters haven’t seen the amount of devastation that, for example, the Caribbean waters have. Nor have we experienced anything like the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, with its devastating ecological consequences. In addition to that disaster, given that many of the national and international regulations that once tried to protect nonhuman ecosystems are being overturned by governments around the world; given that global warming is accelerating unchecked; and given the extent to which Japan engages in overfishing, whaling even in international waters, and polluting its local waters with heavy industry—it seems likely to me that the ocean in the ama’s vulnerable locales could well be unrecognizable in a few decades’ time.

Is there a question that I didn’t ask you that you would like to answer?

These questions are really amazing. They go way beyond what I dare to hope for from any reader. Some of your questions affirm ideas that the stories didn’t really make explicit; others go beyond the stories to make valuable new connections. Thank you again so much!

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Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s chapbook Awabi (Digging) was the winner of the Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Her novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal) was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award, American Book Fest’s Best Book Award, the Permafrost Book Prize, and the Eyelands Book Award as well as a PEN Open Book Award nominee. Her nonfiction work includes the award-winning Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth), Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, forthcoming), and Animals Across Discipline, Time & Space (McMaster). Her work appears in Black Warrior Review, Entropy, The Spectacle, her monthly column at Manqué, and elsewhere.

Jen Fawkes

Mannequin and Wife is a literal map of my obsessions. Old things, the ties that bind us, genre-blending, classic Hollywood, femme fatales, Shakespeare, cannibalism, loneliness, coping strategies, nostalgia, the unknowable-ness of other people (not to mention ourselves), the deep ironies of human existence, and our all-powerful, all-consuming need for control.”

Mannequin and Wife: Stories (LSU Press, 2020)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I was raised by a struggling single mother who dreamed of being a writer. She was a voracious reader, and she allowed me to pick books from her shelves, which is how I ended up reading books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and A Spy in the House of Love before I was ten. My mom implanted an abiding love of literature in me, as well as the notion of “being a writer,” but I lack much in the way of self-esteem or -confidence, and as a very young woman never imagined that anyone could possibly want to read anything I’d written. When I turned thirty, however, I decided to give myself over to writing fiction entirely, and I did so (with mixed results). I got an MFA and then a PhD, and sixteen years after I decided I would be a writer, dammit, I have two books coming out. Which is very nice, but not at all what I imagined.

Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Yes! Here’s how the book’s first story, “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other,” opens:

“We’re worried about Misty. The youngest stenographer in the pool, she’s been with the firm less than three months. Like the rest of us, she graduated from Ms. Purdy’s Academy, the finest stenography school in the tri- state area, and like Penny, the most senior of us, and Phyllis and Mabel, identical twins who work in tandem, Misty took top honors in her class. It isn’t her typing or her shorthand that has us biting our manicured nails and tugging nervously on the collars of our cashmere sweaters. It’s her flagrant flouting of convention.

Each of us took an instant liking to Misty, from Holly, who can be an utter grump, to Janine, who’s recently switched to decaf, to Penny, who can take months to warm up to a new girl. Having come from Ms. Purdy’s, Misty fit into our tight- knit sweater-set- and- sensible- shoe collective nicely. The fact that her bangs were a bit short and her lipstick the wrong shade of pink didn’t bother us in the least—such imperfections made Misty more appealing. After gently correcting her mistakes, we felt a motherly sense of accomplishment, as though we’d had a hand in her development.

At eight a.m., we stenographers hit the ground running. We don’t stop until the other side of six p.m. There’s no nesting for us; unlike secretaries, we lack the luxury of a desk. Ours is a transient, hardscrabble existence, one that finds us perched on a chair in Personnel in the morning and, after an egg salad or turkey or ham on rye from the sandwich cart, wolfed in the elevator, trotting through the halls after a roaming, dictating vice president in the afternoon. With nothing but a notebook, two pencils, and a thermos full of strong black coffee (or decaf, in the case of Janine), we go where the wind blows us.”

Why did you choose this excerpt?

I chose this excerpt for the same reason that I placed this story at the beginning of the book: I believe the “we” POV invites the reader in, ushers them directly into the narrative, makes them feel as though they’re part of the action. I also believe that “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other” teaches the reader what’s to come: unconventional, darkly comic stories that will ask them to participate in meaning-making; stories that are concerned with what it is to be a woman, as well as a member of the human race.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Mannequin and Wife is a literal map of my obsessions. Old things, the ties that bind us, genre-blending, classic Hollywood, femme fatales, Shakespeare, cannibalism, loneliness, coping strategies, nostalgia, the unknowable-ness of other people (not to mention ourselves), the deep ironies of human existence, and our all-powerful, all-consuming need for control.

I think every writer (of literary fiction at least) is driven almost exclusively by her desires. The trick is to learn how to shape and channel the product, how to formulate something that others can both grapple with and appreciate.

What’s the oldest story in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

The story that opens Mannequin and Wife, “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other,” is the oldest story in the book. It’s the first story I wrote that (I feel) really works as a piece of short fiction. I wrote it while pursuing my MFA in 2009, and it took me so many tries to get it right. I tried situating the POV in several individual characters, but when the idea of using the collective first – “we” (the POV of the stenographers in the office) occurred to me, everything else fell into place, and I wrote the whole story (which is essentially the same version that’s in my book) in one sitting. Which has never happened since. Unfortunately!

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

The title story, “Mannequin and Wife,” is the most recently-written piece in the book, and the opening story is the oldest, in terms of chronology. These stories were written over an eleven-year period, so there’s a good bit of distance between them. But I didn’t intentionally order the stories this way – oldest first, newest last. I just tried out various orders (there are twenty-two stories in the book, so this was quite a lengthy process!), and the final order is the one that seemed, to me, to work best.

In terms of the book’s title: I think Mannequin and Wife is not only intriguing but also aptly represents the book’s focus on the difficulty of navigating our most fundamental relationships.

What are you working on now?

I’m editing my next book, Tales the Devil Told Me, winner of the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, which is due out in May of 2021, and attempting to overhaul a novel, a work of speculative feminist historical fiction, set partly in Nashville in 1863 and partly in Ancient Greece.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Definitely dance! My first aspiration was to be a Solid Gold dancer, and then a Fly Girl. I grew up dancing (ballet mainly, but also jazz and modern), and I really wanted to pursue it, but my body type is all wrong for ballet (I’m something of an Amazon), so it wasn’t in the cards.

As someone who must engage in intense daily cardiovascular exercise in order to survive, I still imagine that being a professional dancer – expressing my artistic impulses through my own body – would have been an ideal life for me. Of course, I’m also aware that in my imaginings, I am completely romanticizing the life of a dancer.

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Jen Fawkes is the author of Mannequin and Wife: Stories (LSU Press). Her story collection Tales the Devil Told Me won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and is forthcoming in May 2021. Jen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, Best Small Fictions 2020, and elsewhere, and has garnered prizes from Washington Square Review, The Pinch, Salamander, and others. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and several imaginary friends.

https://www.jenfawkes.com/

Khristian Mecom

“The world is always chaos, but what you make of that chaos and how you allow it to shape you is for you to decide.”

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Things That Cannot Be Tamed (Honeysuckle Press, 2020)

Rebecca Courtney and Hannah Hicks: Things That Cannot Be Tamed discusses the sky, the sea, and the wilderness, in turn. This grounds your book in the physical world, in landscape. Did you begin writing by using those landscapes to shape each chapter, or did that happen as the story took form?

The seed for the chapbook was twofold: I was interested in women pilots who operated in a male-dominated field and the question of why so many people believed in the idea that place (or landscape) shaped them or determined who they were. So, there was definitely an intent to make the landscape a character in the chapbook and in the stories of these women’s lives. Ultimately, I think the idea I landed on (pun slightly intended) was that landscape can shape you, if you allow it to.

Things That Cannot Be Tamed explores the theme of finding home. How were you influenced by your home when writing this story?

Having been born in one place and raised in another, there was a personal element involved for sure. I think like Ida, I was wondering how much of where I’m from influenced me versus how much of where I spent most of my life influenced me. And if I was disconnected from that original place, does that matter? Is it still in me somehow? I’m not sure I answered any of those questions for myself, though.

Having grown up and lived in the contiguous, and mostly Southern, states, how much did you research climate and culture while writing your book?

I did a fair amount of research on Alaskan Inuit culture and myths, as well as pilot related inquiries.

You weave the story backwards in a beautiful narrative of three strong women overcoming the trials of life. What was your inspiration for writing the story this way? Did you always plan to start with Ida, or did you decide this while revising?

The first story I wrote for the book was “We All Come From Somewhere,” which was meant to be a stand-alone short story, and when I finished writing it, I didn’t really have an intention to write more. However, it was one of those strange writing moments when I created Ida’s grandmother that it felt like she was this fully-created character who was waiting for me to tell her story. Eventually, I committed to writing more, and I wrote “Sedna” and then “Things That Cannot Be Tamed.” In putting the chapbook together, I thought it would be interesting to tell the story backwards, in a way, introducing characters and then getting to their full story in the next part.

The middle chapter mentions “the promise of impending change.” The book starts by talking about how enduring the women are. Do they endure because they hope in change, or because they have no other option?

Both. That’s the thing about hope: often, you don’t have any other choice.

In the first paragraph you ask the question, “Did a harsh climate make one harsher?” Does this connect to the idea of nature versus nurture, the physical environment versus the people who care for us?

That is a good interpretation. I perhaps meant it more literally: maybe tough environments naturally make you tougher, or maybe we all just adapt to our climates, and that forms our character in some way. But through the writing of the whole chapbook, I came to realize that family and our own nature is just as important as the nature outside of us.

Ruth seems different from the other two women. Her birth was preceded by “a series of tragedies” that “was the catalyst for Ruth becoming Ruth.” Her life is different, but she still has the same love for Alaska. Why did you create Ruth like this, especially since she is in the middle of the generational line—was it partly to strengthen the bond between Ida and Arna?

Ruth’s creation stemmed from the fact that I named her Ruth because I liked that name and then needed a reason why Arna, who had already been established as spiritual women, would give her daughter a biblical name like that. (Yes, sometimes writing is about solving problems you create for yourself.)

But choosing that name was important, as I liked how the story of the Biblical Ruth kind of had a resonance to the Sedna myth: how marriage has this way of determining a woman’s life and fate. I was also interested in telling a story about what happens when your life doesn’t work out the way you want it to, and then what? What do you do then? So that inherently lead to Ruth’s story being different, as her unhappiness is deeper and her relationship with the landscape is different (as it’s not really where she wanted to be). And while Arna is content with being part of the land and Ida finds a way to define herself outside of it, Ruth has a harder time coming to terms with it.

Ruth’s love story with Will is a break from the tragedy of her life, from her husband leaving her to raising their daughter alone. She keeps her boundaries carefully in check and refuses marriage, even at Arna’s disapproval. Do you think she would have married Will if she had not already been hurt by another man?

Yes, probably, but would it have worked out? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think it’s so much her boundaries as it is that she has figured out that marriage and the dream of it, or any other life, don’t matter to her happiness.

I love the final scene when the raven carries Arna “clutched in his talons, flying over the trees, over the river, over the sea.” Does this moment convince Arna to return to the Alaskan spirits?

Yes, but I also see that moment as Arna returning to herself, or deciding to be true to herself again. Grief is an all-encompassing thing that can make you feel as if it’s not just the person who you’re grieving over who is gone. So not only does Arna recommit herself to her beliefs but recommits to herself and pushing on despite all her losses.

I notice Ida’s love of flying and the family story about ravens. This reminds me of your interview with Honeysuckle Press when you said, “magical realism has always been my genre of choice for the fact that you can…add in elements that create a sense of that same strangeness and magic that fairy tales contain.” Do the ravens bring magical realism into your story?

The raven and the other “magical” elements are meant to be left up to the reader to decide how magical they are or not. That’s the great thing about magical realism (and generally, letting weirdness into to your writing), as you can add layers and meaning in interesting and odd ways that you don’t always have to have an explanation for.

You graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. How did that experience influence your writing?

I learned most of what I know about writing from attending my MFA program and being guided by thoughtful yet tough professors. The great thing about MFA programs is that they give you the time and the community you need to develop as a writer. Beyond the nuts and bolts of writing, it has taught me how to take myself seriously as a writer as well.

What was it like when you first held your book in your hands? Is there anything you would do differently in your writing life?

Holding your book in your hand is definitely a strange experience in some ways (also a proud moment) because, at last, something you wrote exists outside of a Word doc and your computer. And second, what I would do differently in my writing life is learn to revise more extensively. I’m terrible at it, really, but trying to get better. I just have little patience for it, and plus, I’m not a writer who rewrites extensively. I once heard a writer state they wrote 7-8 versions of a single short story, and I was shocked, because nope, that’s not my method at all. But it’s important, also, to develop your own habits and way of working that work best for you. So, I will never rewrite something 7-8 times, but I still feel that revision is a constant struggle for me.

The title Things That Cannot Be Tamed seems to imply that the three women cannot be tamed by standards, expectations, or their own dissatisfactions. Each woman finds her place and her peace in the Alaskan wild. Is there wisdom here for readers who want to find peace during chaotic times in their lives?

I am by no means an expert at finding peace or contentedness, so the only wisdom I have is the wisdom of my characters, who always seem to have things a little more figured out than I do. What these three women would impart to readers is that the world is always chaos, but what you make of that chaos and how you allow it to shape you is for you to decide.

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Khristian Mecom is the author of the novella Love & Black Holes (Black Hill Press/1888Center) and the chapbook Things That Cannot Be Tamed (Honeysuckle Press). Born in Oklahoma, she grew up and lives in Florida where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her short fiction has appeared in Slice Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Passages North, and elsewhere. Find her online at https://khristianmecom.wordpress.com/.

Nkateko Masinga

“I identify with the sky, because its vastness represents the kind of freedom and tranquility that I long to experience daily.”

Psalm for Chrysanthemums (Akashic Books, 2020)

Adalae Beam, Braden Dyk, and Hannah Roberts: Is the speaker in Psalm for Chrysanthemums the same person all the way through, or are there multiple speakers? The poems flow into each other, each seeming to build on the one before. Could you discuss this?

The speaker is the same person throughout the chapbook, but each poem is a depiction of her in a different mental state; so, what may appear to be another person at first glance is actually a new manifestation of her multiple dissociations from reality. I wanted to demonstrate that being treated for a mental illness is not a linear path with recovery as a stable end state, but rather a cycle with several relapses and regressions along the way. My intention with the flow of the poems was to gradually leave clues about the speaker’s condition so that her regression would be a segue rather than an abrupt interruption. The poems do not tell the speaker’s story chronologically, but they are ordered in such a way that every event, be it a recollection or real-time incident, is crucial to the revelation of her final condition.

Why did you choose Psalm for Chrysanthemums for the book’s title?

While writing these poems, I was constantly confronted with images alluding to the speaker’s suicidal ideation and insatiable desire for men. She cannot stop herself from pursuing either of these, so her happiest moments are when she is with a new man or when she is newly reincarnated. The titular poem in the chapbook recounts the speaker praying for rain to restore dying flowers, and then trying to reincarnate a failed relationship using a spell. I felt that this poem exposed the speaker’s vulnerability and desperate need for love, so Psalm for Chrysanthemums became the title of the book. I wanted to show that, although the speaker romanticizes death, it is because she wants an escape from pain; that is why she returns each time, to give love another chance. In the preface of the chapbook, Shara McCallum says that the title “prepares us for a song in praise of death,” but what I really wanted to praise was love, not death. We give people flowers as a declaration of our love for them, despite the fact that they will wilt and die. We try to immortalize our lovers in songs. Through the title, I wanted to give credence to the speaker’s desire for immortality and everlasting love.

“Venus Fly Trap” and “Amaechi” both feature a man named Amaechi. Could you discuss the significance of this character and his name?

Amaechi represents the narrator’s attempts at finding love, and as a consequence of her failure to do so, the fragmented memories of all her past relationships. In “Venus Fly Trap,” she consumes the object of her affection; in “Amaechi,” she cautiously chooses him as a partner, and he leaves her even though she is carrying his child. By presenting these contradictory recollections of the truth behind his absence, she is trying to find a version of this love-and-loss story that she can live with. In one version, she is a literal maneater who devoured Amaechi without remorse, but in another version, he left of his own accord. In one version, she is confident that her belly will not “spit him out,” and in another, her protruding belly is evidence of his existence. She is left not only with a child to raise, but religious rebuke from her mother. Amaechi is an Igbo name meaning, “Who knows tomorrow?” I chose it to represent the uncertainty that accompanies romantic love.

In “Catharsis,” you write, “Under our bed, / I find a greying photograph of the woman you loved” and then, later, “the knife the knife-wielder / held against her frame / …was you /… yet I was the one who bled.” Are the speaker and the woman in the photograph the same person? Is the one his ideal of what she is or what she should be like?

The woman in the photograph is the speaker’s nemesis. In the final poem of the chapbook, they “brawl for her body” and the speaker’s soul enters this body and lives again. So, yes, technically they are the same person at the end, in the sense that the speaker steals the woman’s body after relinquishing her own. In “Catharsis”, the speaker realises that her husband is still in love with someone else, and he is keeping a photograph of the other woman under their bed. She recognises the woman as the knife-wielder from her dreams, and she finally realises that the knife she was being stabbed with every night was actually her husband. I think your interpretation that the woman in the photograph is an idealised version of the speaker is fair; her husband was keeping this other woman’s picture under the bed, which is clearly not the best hiding place for a secret lover’s photograph, so perhaps she has been her own nemesis all along. Perhaps it is a younger, saner version of the speaker that is taunting her every night during her marriage.

In “Inpatient,” the state of being held seems to parallel the idea of erosion. The poem suggests a desire to erode, to slowly (or not so slowly) fade; however, just as trees hold loose dirt (with their roots, which grow, “breaking entering tearing” into the ground), so the speaker feels that she is being held by “the bodies of others.” Could you discuss how erosion connects to the narrator’s destructive tendencies?

The narrator is mentally ill and under hospital observation, so the image of being held refers in the literal sense to being admitted involuntarily to the hospital but also to her body being violated by lovers and caregivers throughout her life. The “breaking entering tearing” refers to physical abuse and her loss of body autonomy, which are the causes of her mental dissociation. The desire to erode is an extension of the speaker’s suicidality, and since she is unable to plan an attempt in the hospital, she realises and accepts that the hands and bodies of other people are equally capable of fatally harming her. I used the highveld and lowveld to broadly illustrate mania and depression, and although I did not initially think about the body as a single tree held down to the ground, I really like that interpretation; I am now looking at the poem differently as a result of your analysis.

In “My Lover Pulls Me off the Train Tracks,” the drive back to the house reminds the narrator of her home and the wars there: “We drive home in silence, the dogs barking restlessly at the gate/ as if knowing I almost did not make it back./ The sky has readied itself in a coat of grey./ The wind is howling. My lover is sobbing.” Why does this experience remind her of trying to get away from home?

The narrator and her husband are driving home after an incredibly traumatic event, so her brain immediately latches onto past trauma as a reference point. She recalls arriving in the U.S and how the sound of fireworks on July 4th was reminiscent of gunshots from her country of birth, proving to her that noise would continue to follow her wherever she went. She is thinking the same thing after her first failed suicide attempt. She realises that she has a life with this man; they have pets and a home, but she cannot seem to shake the desire to leave because no matter how beautiful her life is, the world is still too loud and the only way to silence it is by dying. The narrator is not trying to get away from home in the geographical sense of the word, she just wants peace, and she is realising that she will not find it on earth.

In “My Lover Pulls Me Off the Train Tracks, Again,” you write, “My mother taught me to carry an extra ticket/ in case I lose one. I sharpen my knife, my spare.” Train tickets might be a method of escape—of transport to another destination. How does the spare knife connect to escape?

The knife represents the narrator’s backup plan to leave the world. She realises that her husband will not stop attempting to rescue her from the train tracks, so she devises a method that does not involve the train at all. However, giving her husband a warning seems to be a cry for help, and it is obvious that he will try to stop her again. The image of a knife returns after the fallout in “Catharsis”, and this time the narrator is the knife-wielder and not her nemesis, which almost confirms the idea that she is her own enemy. In the same way that the knife tormented her while she slept, it will not offer her the escape or peace she so desperately desires in real life.

Among comparisons you make to elements of nature—rain, veldt, sky, wind, or other elements—which do you identify with most?

I identify with the sky, because its vastness represents the kind of freedom and tranquility that I long to experience daily. The speaker in Psalm for Chrysanthemums is an extension of me in that sense; I too have a desire to move away from the constant noise and busyness of the world.

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Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. Nkateko is the director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, an online interview magazine that archives creative and critical insights with Africa’s leading storytellers. Her latest chapbook, Psalm for Chrysanthemums, is published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books.

Linda Parsons

“All we can do is make ourselves vulnerable and open to receive what words and surprises come to us, then pass them on to the reader in our original voice.”

Parsons

Candescent (Iris Press, 2019)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

Reading as a child launched me into love of language, story, and writing—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Little Women, Little Men, The Bobbsey Twins, and my greatest love, fairytales. I don’t remember being read to until my stepmother came along, when I was 7, but I was a good speller and quick learner, reading on my own. Alice escaped a ho-hum life down the rabbit hole, but I read to escape the drama of life with my mother. My childhood was a mix of insecurity and uprootedness and angels (maternal grandmother, stepmother, father) lifting me above the fray. I knew, even in the midst of it, that I was living my own “fractured fairytale” (Rocky and Bullwinkle TV program in the 1960s), with a loving stepmother and a troubled mother. My parents divorced in the mid-1950s, a rarity then, and my mother and I moved often in east Nashville, my grandmother’s house the only anchor. After my father remarried, I visited him and his new wife on weekends, adding both a saving grace and a stark mirror to my mother’s shadow. My stepmother was nine years younger than my dad and full of joy, playfulness, and music. I left my mother and stepfather to live with them in Knoxville when I was 11, moving toward one mother and away from another, a choice that has ricocheted my entire life. My mother was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but not until her early 70s, decades after I had built a life separate from her. I lugged this torn baggage around for years, until I forced myself to write directly about our experiences together and apart in my second poetry collection, Mother Land (Iris Press, 2008).

In grade school, I loved writing book reports and illustrated them with collages and drawings. My urge to write began in high school, studying T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I was the editor of the features/editorial page of the school newspaper. I read my way through the school library and especially loved the novels of John Steinbeck. As was the norm in the early 1970s, I married (too) young, craving my own home, and had my first daughter just after turning 21. With my second daughter’s birth five years later, feeling an urgency to tell my stories, I tried my hand at short stories, then plays, as whole scenes played out in my head. It was a race to get them down on paper (a typewriter in those days!). Around that time, I was discovering the literature of the southern Appalachian region—Wilma Dykeman Stokely, James Agee, George Scarbrough—and loved listening to cast albums of Broadway musicals, so I was grounded in both the written and the spoken word on stage. I struggled to balance this hunger to write with my “homemaking” duties—mothering, cleaning, cooking, shopping, gardening, chauffeuring, traditional women’s roles of the time. Ultimately, writing poetry answered the need to claim my voice and was easier, at least a shorter form, than attempting stories and plays. Poetry, as Knoxville Poet Laureate Marilyn Kallet says, became me. It became my primary way of understanding my past, fitting those jagged pieces together, shining light into a well from which I emerged questioning and longing for self-determination. Also a way to understand my parents—with me on a tightrope between them—a mother who burned many of my baby pictures and tore me from family photos, a father who traveled during the week with a complicated, somewhat distant love when home—our tumble and bumble of circumstances. Although I’ve returned to playwrighting over the last 13 years, poetry—and Buddhist meditation—have allowed me to finally make peace with all that came before and to reach an enormous gratitude for “the whole ride,” as one of my meditation teachers says.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I love this question! On my desk, I see symbols of transformation and spirit—swan, cardinal, butterfly, a small Buddha, amethyst (my birthstone), buckeyes for luck, my angel collection in a bookcase, and the number 9, symbol in numerology of a cycle completed, which appeared mysteriously on my porch when I started traveling several years ago. I never considered previously why I’d gathered these symbols around me as I create my writing world, so thank you for the nudge to look closer at the objects and their meanings and layers.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

My current poetry collection, Candescent, is a particular journey of conscious healing and transformation. Losses were building up on the threshold of this collection: an elderly dog who was fading fast, my father’s descent into vascular dementia, then the end of my second marriage. Each loss was devastating and, combined, stripped me of the entire structure and foundation of my life. I sought counseling and was told to “honor my grief.” I knew tai chi classes had helped a friend process the grief of her husband’s sudden passing, so I signed up. It takes months for that “muscle memory” to kick in—108 moves, one flowing into the next. It was hard! Tai chi is called “moving meditation” and was exactly what I needed to bring me to the present moment, to focus solely on movement and balance for an hour or so twice a week. I was surprised to learn the practice is as healing emotionally as physically. After over a year of classes, I eased into mindfulness and meditation, which I’d been interested in for years. Meditation, classes, sanghas (group meditation), studying Buddhism—and, of course (mostly) daily practice—became both vehicle and path along the road to understanding how I’d gotten to my present reality and to looking deeply into the self. In writing through the grief of my life’s structures and hopes/dreams disintegrating, I also wrote meditation poems that serve as islands, or steppingstones, along the book’s healing path. I didn’t want Candescent to be solely about grief and so wrote my arc of healing from aloneness and loss to wholeness and strength, dragging my emotions along. Experiences of life’s inevitable losses are universal, and I feel the work speaks to many readers in their own healing process. I didn’t have a title for a good while, then stepped back and noticed numerous poems with fire/burning imagery. I realized how I’d been burned down to ash and was rising phoenix-like to new life, hope, possibility. When I saw the word candescent in my reading, I knew it was the perfect title, meaning glowing from within, my losses tempered and alloyed into new being and spirit.

What’s the oldest piece in your book? Is there one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

The poem that opened the door for Candescent is “Fallen Idols.” I had three wooden structures in my gardens, bought by my then-husband: an arbor, a bench, and a planter. Seemingly overnight, each one listed, popped its nails and joinery, fell apart, crumbled back to earth! It showed me life will always reveal the metaphors and connections I need to examine in my writing. When the poem was accepted quickly by the beautiful online journal One (Jacar Press), I knew I was indeed capable of writing this journey of loss and enlightenment—that I must write it. The poem illustrates how we think life as we know/expect it will always be so, only to realize the people and relationships in our lives are always subject to change and falling away. The cornerstone of Buddhist teachings is impermanence, something I never considered before these deep losses. Now I carry that understanding in my being and spirit, this universal truth that everything changes and dies, that every ending, sorrowful as it is, carries the seed of a beginning.

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story? What’s the back story?

A tough question since all my poems spring from some core experience, memory, or observation. Many have interesting back stories, but I’ll choose “At My Father’s Hospital Bedside.” The last year of my father’s life (he passed in August 2018), he was in the hospital twice for falling and urinary tract infections (which make dementia even worse). I managed his healthcare and financial matters for assisted living and then the nursing home and so stayed with him in the hospital. Of course, hospitalized dementia patients don’t know where they are or why they have IVs, etc., so sometimes he was restrained or I had to be watchful to keep him from ripping out the IVs. It was exhausting and unsettling because nothing I could do or say would calm or comfort him. While he slept during one visit, I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I easily saw how my dad was like one of McCarthy’s “greenbroke roans,” wild and confused, not knowing his own strength—and I the one breaking, or trying to break, that fear and wildness. When I later wrote the poem, I returned to the novel and made notes of McCarthy’s particular language to use in the poem. It wasn’t until much later that I remembered my father’s name, Phillip, means “lover of horses.” So it was all a circle turning back on, completing itself. The physical world blending into creation on the page. The child becoming the parent, the parent reverting to some feral self.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

Another difficult question since I worked hard to focus and shape the manuscript to my journey and to cull any poems that didn’t support that arc and path. The last poem I wrote and decided to include is “The Buddha Gives His Fire Sermon at the Retreat Center in Tazewell, Tennessee.” In the poem, I impose the historical Buddha on the owner/teacher of the retreat center as a buddha who led our meditation and satsang (spiritual discourse) sessions at my retreat. It affirms the book’s theme of fire and burning, and uses the word “candescence,” but in hindsight I see the exclusivity of the poem, using the meditation experience and language that not everyone will understand or be able to enter. Still, it’s a poem of silence, of opening and waiting, of transformation: “I remove my shoes, my blame. / I slip from the body I thought I knew.” I feel it belongs in the book, despite its possible obscurity to readers.

Did you have any rituals while writing these poems? What were you listening to when you wrote these poems?

If I have any rituals (besides procrastination!), they are gardening and my meditation practice. Both provide a quiet focus that frees my mind to make connections that may or may not become poems or appear in my plays. I walk/jog every day with my dog, so that’s also a freeing activity, literally jogging loose ideas and allowing them to rise to the surface of my mind. I work in quiet and live in quiet and can’t imagine writing in a coffeeshop as some writers do. And although I enjoy writing workshops, and feel we’re all lifelong students, I find it difficult to write from prompts in a group setting. If I get some good notes or a framework to expand later, I’m grateful. In writing Candescent, I knew the path I was walking—loss, grief, illumination, resurrection. It was a matter of fleshing out that path, with its turning points and realizations along the way. When I quiet my mind and pause, that’s when connections emerge and ask to be born and shaped.

What was the final poem you wrote or revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

The final poem I wrote isn’t the poem that gave me the feeling of ending. It’s either “No Grief” or “With Me.” The latter is actually a summation of the whole book and appears last. I use images that have come before—the threshold of change, my father’s descent, false idols fallen to paste, smudging the house of ghosts, etc. It’s a fitting ending to the book and is preceded by “No Grief,” also fitting as a counterbalance to the earlier poems of loss and grief. The epigraph for this poem is from Leonard Cohen: “You have to sit in the very bonfire of distress, / and you sit there until you’re burnt away. / And it’s ashes, and it’s gone.” The poem ends with these words: “my body burnt through, unbent,” an anthem to struggle and  resilience.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

Any prompt I use (except in workshops) is the shimmering seed, that connection I mention, the spark that opens the door to the poem’s world and invites the reader in. I’m a professional editor and worked at the University of Tennessee as an editor for almost 30 years, as well as being a freelance editor/copy editor. In revision, I zero in on articles and prepositions and pare down accordingly, editing with an eye to fresh verbs and images. But you still want the music, the flow, the sound, the tension of language and placement, the unexpected enjambment, the surprise or forceful end. An equally important component that’s difficult to put into words, the overall light of the poem, is the illumination it brings, the magick, if you will, that transports and changes the reader, that carries us to a new place of imagining. I tend to be orderly in my life, the result of my unsettled childhood, so I’m learning to be freer in my language, to open up and allow the poem to take me—and the reader—beyond the beyond.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

I had a wonderful experience with Iris Press. Candescent is my second book with Iris, and the publishers, Robert and Beto Cumming, are longtime friends, produce handsome books, and have helped build a strong literary community in the southern Appalachian region and beyond. Beto is the designer and was very patient as I made several rounds of revisions after the manuscript was in the design program. A designer/photographer friend, Deb Hardison, created an incredible cover image, a vase of burning lilies that’s truly candescent. Beto and Deb worked together to design a stunning cover. I’m fortunate to be in the Iris family.

What question do you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?

Not sure how to answer regarding the book. I can answer about myself: Why did I define myself by loss for so long? We all have our defining story(ies), and mine was leaving my mother at 11, choosing another mother, which resulted in a lifetime of resentment, jealousy, struggle, separation. Her diagnosis freed me tremendously, but mother loss goes to our core and shapes our very being. Buddhists speak of “the happy dark,” the place of true growth. Without the dark night of the soul, there can be no growth. This holds equally for my more recent enormous losses expressed in Candescent. The Buddhists also say we must be grateful for everything, the deepest hurt, the worst wound. Again, the happy dark. I’ve written through my defining stories in my five books and, although I allowed them to define me in the past, finally, at last, I point myself toward the light, both within and without. I’m learning compassion, for myself and others. It takes as long as it takes.

What are some of your favorite books or chapbooks—perhaps some that have influenced you?

The poetry collections I love are too numerous to name! I greatly admire the work of Jesse Graves, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Ted Kooser, Charles Wright, Stanley Kunitz, Linda Pastan, Galway Kinnell, William Woolfitt, James Dickey, Connie Wanek, Jane Hirshfield, Ron Houchin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stellasue Lee, Ron Rash, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, on and on. My favorite novels are The Great Gatsby, A Death in the Family, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

What might these books or chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

Many of these writers are connected to the natural world, which informs their work as it does mine. Many have their feet in childhood, writing toward understanding and healing. These poets are grounded in the particular—whether in Western Carolina, the Nebraska prairie, or in a florist’s greenhouse—then move outward to the universal, wrapping us all in the larger human experience. I try to do the same in my work, moving from the small to what touches and moves us all, so that my work is accessible and shines a lens onto the everyday, moving wider and wider. The former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser advises his students to never tackle “big ideas,” such as war or patriotism or prejudice, but to start small, what’s right at your feet or in your own backyard, and let it grow and bloom from there.

What are you working on now?

I have a great start on a new manuscript, about 35 poems, what I initially thought would be an exploration of travel and home. Now in the time of pandemic, travel is on hold indefinitely. Over the past several years, I’ve traveled to France (twice), Cuba, and California, with upcoming plans cancelled. My exploration of travel/home will continue regardless; home, with its many meanings and slippery slopes, has long been a theme in my work. I think the crux of it goes beyond this opposition, however, into the liminal, that in-betweenness, and who/how we are in both settings. I’m intrigued with the French idea of entre chien et loup, the time of day between dog and wolf, the known light becoming the otherworldly dusk or gloaming. Obviously, I’m still drawn to explore the threshold of change, moving past my old boundaries and comforts.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, etc.) what would it be and why?

Many moons ago, I sketched with pastels and charcoal and enjoyed drawing. Now my daughters are wonderful artists—the oldest an amazing potter and the youngest an illustrator—and my two granddaughters (11 and 8) are following well in their mother’s footsteps. My grandfather used to sketch a bit, and a brother is a painter, songwriter, and musician. So it’s in the blood. Gardening is equally an artistic pursuit, and I consider my gardens my palette, my canvas. Gardens are ever changing, and the gardener must evolve with them, shaping but not completely controlling. They’re most beautiful and interesting when some disorder thrives and flows within the imposed order. Plus, my gardens are an endless source of metaphors for my writing.

How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

I’m trying to open up my writing more, both in language and varied form. My love of order lends itself to sonnets and pantoums, but it’s also important to loosen up, which I feel makes the work more accessible to readers. My writing can be dense sometimes, so being more conversational and perhaps less concise is good practice—fighting against my editorial nature and experience!

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Read, read, read—classic and contemporary poetry, novels, short stories, creative nonfiction. And see plays. Plays especially allow us to notice what’s unspoken as much as what’s spoken, that tension, those oppositions. Beginning writers, especially, have a huge hunger to be published, that affirmation being understandable. Read online and print journals to see what’s being published and submit work to student publications—but understand that writing is a craft, a lifelong apprenticeship, and every writer must face a blank page or screen for every new poem or project. We must begin again, have a “beginner’s mind,” with the scaffolding and architecture of what we’ve read and learned as underpinning. Publishing credits will come in time. Find a writing/critique group to share your work and see what works and doesn’t in others’ work. Be kind and diplomatic! Having a writing group (or open mic) not only allows you to test new work, but also provides motivation and encourages discipline. Attend writing workshops and conferences when you can, even online, to experience different teachers and connect yourself to the writing community—locally, regionally, and beyond.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

It’s easy to feel that, whatever level your writing is, you’ll never be in the stratosphere of writing, the Mary Oliver or the Yeats of writing. But it’s all a continuum, a landscape, a constant and shifting song of which your voice is a stream, a tune, a note. Comparing yourself to others is never useful and only holds you back. All we can do is go deeper and deeper within ourselves and our experiences in this beautiful and damaged world. All we can do is make ourselves vulnerable and open to receive what words and surprises come to us, then pass them on to the reader in our original voice. Our stories and styles are unique to us, our own fingerprint—and heartprint—on the page.

Whose work helped you write this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

After my last book, This Shaky Earth (Texas Review Press, 2016), I was uncertain of my direction in poetry. Then my life suddenly changed, and my direction chose me. Looking back on my four previous collections, each is some kind of journey—through family history, struggle, aging, change, grief—into discovery, balance, renewal. The work that helped me write Candescent was the personal, inner work necessary to rebuild my life and release what had naturally passed or no longer served me. Grief and loss were the drivers, and awakening and peace the rewards. This collection is my best, deepest work. I’m grateful for the “whole ride,” though sometimes wrenching and heartbreaking, that brought me to this place in my life and work. Grateful I can honor the grievous path and the journey.

Collaboration inspires me. I’ve been fortunate over the last several years to collaborate on writing and producing plays for Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville and for the last year to coordinate WDVX-FM’s WordStream: The Weekly Writer’s Voice with Stellasue Lee, now suspended during the pandemic. I’ve become more extroverted in my later years, and these public, interactive efforts in service to the community counterbalance the solitude and introversion needed to hole up and write, to just be. It’s as important to support and celebrate other writers in their work and development as to produce your own work.

I don’t write daily, and my plays often take precedence over poetry in being longer-term projects with ongoing revisions, rehearsals, marketing/promotional efforts, among other tasks. When I’m away from poetry too long, however, I feel a homesickness, a hunger to return to the page just for poetry, that juxtaposition of word and experience, that poignancy of memory, the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the amber lights of home. When I return, I feel relief and peace that I’m fulfilling my purpose once again. I’ve written several pandemic poems (I predict volumes forthcoming!) and feel an urge to do so. It seems especially important to document and sift through complex emotions at this strange time—since things have “all changed, changed utterly” in how we live together on Earth.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Have you written pandemic poems, and how have the pandemic and emergence of COVID-19 changed your work?

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Linda Parsons coordinates WordStream, WDVX-FM’s weekly reading series, with Stellasue Lee and is the reviews editor at Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. Her poetry has appeared in The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, Shenandoah, and Ted Kooser’s syndicated column, American Life in Poetry, among many others. Parsons is the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee, and she writes social justice plays for Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. Candescent is her fifth poetry collection (Iris Press, 2019).

Sara Ryan

“The evidence of human activity can be abundant and diverse. It’s terrible and beautiful, but it’s all happening on this earth, suspended in the universe, which is a miracle on its own.”

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Excellent Evidence of Human Activity (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019)

Your writing suggests several personal passions and areas of activism: the environment, living creatures, expressions of love. How do your convictions inform your writing? How much of your writing is motivated by a spirit of activism?

I wouldn’t say that my writing is motivated by activism, necessarily, but a lot of those feelings about the environment and animals stem from empathy! I’m an observant person, and I collect a lot of my griefs and concerns about the world, animals, my relationships as I observe them, and put those concerns into my writing. I do have a lot of worry about the environment and climate change, though, and much of what I write about in regards to those topics comes from the news and what is happening in the world right now. A lot of those current concerns are hard to care about without considering activism and politics and the way that powerful entities are treating our world.

I’m interested in your decision to omit conventional capitalization in some of the essays. Can you elaborate on this? And on why the essay “This Was Never About Pain” breaks this “un-capitalized” pattern?

I’m a poet first, and even though I write a lot of nonfiction and this book is mainly short essays, my poetic aesthetic never really leaves me. I choose not to capitalize words, other than proper nouns, as an aesthetic choice. I think lack of capitalization evokes a play with the formality of “the essay” and visually signals that these essays won’t be traditional or expected. However, in the longer essays, “This Was Never About Pain” and “Maybe We Will Lie About This,” my editors and I came to the consensus that opting for more traditional capitalization made more sense.

“This Was Never About Pain” braids biographical and autobiographical elements, analysis of a historical figure and self-reflection from you, the author. When intertwining your narrative with William Temple Hornaday’s, did you discover more about yourself? Additionally, when did you realize that the two narratives would fit together well?

I wrote this essay in a nonfiction workshop, and we were actually challenged to write about “the first time something happened to us,” “a historical figure” and “an animal” – I didn’t know how I would respond initially, but I did a lot of varied research stemming from my own interests and personal memories. I thought of the first time I was stung by a bee, a memory that feels very bright in my mind. I thought of this character, William Temple Hornaday, who I had researched for a different class, and I thought about buffalo. Initially, these three threads of the “braid” felt very separate, but upon researching more and more, they start to bleed together. That’s the beauty of research: how connections reveal themselves to you. I also think that researching people, like William Temple Hornaday, allows us to look more clearly at ourselves, our personalities, our idiosyncrasies. I am not very similar to Hornaday at all, though I did feel like learning about him made me look at myself in a new light.

Your collection explores extinction as a theme and a reality. You describe extinction as “another kind of pain” in the essay mentioned above. You suggest that extinction is about human selfishness, hence the very pointed title Excellent Evidence of Human Activity. Can you elaborate more on your desire to explore extinction? How do you think the theme reality fits into the wider canon of literature?

Extinction can mean so many things! The natural world carries extinction with it, almost constantly, but there are also small extinctions that happen in our daily lives, in contemporary, modern contexts. I wanted to explore how extinction can exist on multiple planes and take multiple meanings – the entirety of life on Earth could go extinct, or your love for a boy can go extinct, an animal, a bird, a family relationship; all of these things have their own life expectancies. Some live on, some end earlier, some die natural deaths, and some die because of selfishness. I wanted to illustrate the multitudinous ways that endings happen.

Extinction is sometimes about human selfishness (the buffalo, the bees), but extinction has also been happening for thousands if not millions of years, before humans walked this earth. It’s easy to blame humans for their silly human-ness, but I think it’s harder to realize that everything will die, and sometimes there’s nothing we can do about it.

The narrating voices of this collection are quite acrobatic, shifting and turning in surprising ways. Occasionally, the narrator refers to an elusive “you,” perhaps an ex-lover. Can you explain your creative process when writing about past love? What makes love integral to your book, which is about nature and the state of the environment?

I have loved places and landscapes and animals, but I also have loved people and men and family. I wanted to show how love can be varied and important in many forms. I wanted the “you” to be a bit ambiguous, because it’s hard to name who we love and why; it could be a person or animal or place, or even myself.

Toward the end of your book you write that “nail-biting is a form of self-cannibalism… I don’t feel like I’m eating myself, because that’s too strange to think about.” This suggests the destructive nature of humanity, which you examine throughout the book. While most of the other pieces are about humanity negatively impacting the environment and living creatures, this passage deals more with self-destruction. Why did you choose to write about both self-destruction and destruction of the world?

I think that this goes back to human selfishness—I wanted to show that, even with the world churning away and living and dying and being hurt, we still worry about ourselves and our own personal destruction. I wanted to show these large concerns about the world and the environment, but I also wanted to show some selfishness. Even while caring about the world around me, the animals, the environment, the national parks, the rivers, the canyons, I can’t help but worry about my love life, my family, my bad hangnails, my teeth. It’s hard to compartmentalize life, and so I tried to show that these concerns all bleed together.

The essay “Twenty-One Ways to Leave Your Lover” was a refreshing turn in the collection. Just when I thought I had figured out the narrator, the themes, and the motivation of the book, I felt thwarted by this essay. Additionally, this essay follows a very different structure. The numbered list was an enjoyable surprise. Do the impact of a bad lover and the environmental impact of humanity represent different “evidences of human activity”?

As I said in an earlier answer, I wanted to show how human activity happens on large and small scales. We destroy the earth in many ways, but we also sabotage relationships and have annoying experiences with lovers and kill house plants. This essay began as a list poem, but I pushed myself to consider it as an essay, as a small extinction in the narrative of this book. I also think that this essay is somewhat funny (I read it almost every time I read from this chapbook) and breaks up the darker themes of death and extinction.

How has your educational experience impacted your writing life? Has your exposure to higher education influenced the themes you explore in your work?

I think that my educational experience has mostly dictated when I write and how much I write because I’m often writing towards a deadline or a final project or a workshop due date. However, I think that my interests remain my own, and would still be my own outside of higher education. Perhaps I am more comfortable or prone to turning to the library or outside research because graduate school has encouraged me to do so; however graduate school or higher education definitely doesn’t mean I’m a better researcher or more qualified to research than anyone else.

If anything, being a student has always been there to nudge me forward when I needed a nudge or a reason to write. It took me a long time to be comfortable pursuing and beginning larger nonfiction writing projects on my own, without a class structure, but now I feel confident in saying that, if higher education fell away from my life, I would still be writing poetry and nonfiction voraciously, and even perhaps in a more raw and genuine way.

Writers often bring personal experiences to the writing desk. How have your experiences of gender, ethnicity, faith, or age impacted the voice or topics of your writing?

As a woman, I do feel like I am very in tune with the environment and the animal world. Men often want to control us all: the animals, the environment, the natural world, and the female body. This is something that has definitely made its way into my writing.

Self-reflection seems important in your book. When did you know that your own personal reflections needed to be put on paper? Is there value in revealing to an audience ways you have self-corrected or grown as an individual? Could you discuss, as a nonfiction writer, your commitment to a lifestyle of transparency?

I think, as a poet as well, that I can’t write without being personally invested in the writing. There is a lot of great writing right now about the natural world and the environment and climate change, but I wanted my commentary on these issues to be uniquely my own, and that required my reflections and my personal experiences to be a large part of my thoughts on the natural world. I also think that being genuine is important, especially while making an effort to be transparent. I never want to be a benevolent and faultless narrator; I make mistakes and am selfish and self-destructive, but I also care about animals and the natural world around me. I think that recognizing faults and personal growth goes hand in hand with discussing the natural world and the environment, especially since humans have long made mistakes with how they have treated the world.

“A Mischief of Rats” talks about how disgusting rats are and uses them to describe what humans are like. If I may, what inspired you to write this piece? Is this your perspective on what our species has become?

I mostly was inspired to write this piece by learning that a group of rats is called a “mischief.” It got me wondering—why? Rats are predictable, and driven by simple needs like hunger. However, humans are actually mischievous—they’re vindictive and manipulative and selfish. Who are we to say that rats are horrible creatures when we are just the same, or maybe even worse?

In “Keeping Plants Alive,” you write about your sister and your desire to take care of a flower. Are there connections between your sister and the flower?

I wrote this piece about my inability to keep house plants alive and my desire to keep my sister alive. My younger sister, an addict, has been close to dying many times, and I only want to keep her alive, but like the plants, it isn’t that simple. You can over-water them, fuss over their leaves and soil, and ultimately do more damage than good. This piece was a reflection on wanting to take care of a plant, or my sister, but needing to get a plant that is “hard to kill” because I’m too harsh with how I love things.

In “This is a Time Capsule,” you write about nature, beautiful animals, and some delicious food. I love the ending: “today, the world is suspended in orbit, grinning on an axis tilt, just far enough from the sun, like some kind of magic.” Could you discuss this a bit?

I wrote this piece thinking about how it is so easy to see the ugliness in the world, the death, the extinction, the pain, the disaster, but how important it is to see the good things as well: the apple tart, the family of panthers in Florida, the baby giraffe, the new species of dinosaur discovered. I placed this piece at the beginning of the chapbook to show how this evidence of human activity can be abundant and diverse. It’s terrible and beautiful, but it’s all happening on this earth, suspended in the universe, which is a miracle on its own.

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Sara Ryan is the author of the chapbooks Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned (Porkbelly Press) and Excellent Evidence of Human Activity (The Cupboard Pamphlet). In 2018, she won Grist’s Pro Forma Contest and Cutbank’s Big Sky, Small Prose Contest. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Brevity, Kenyon Review, Pleiades, DIAGRAM, Thrush Poetry Journal, and others. She is currently pursuing her PhD at Texas Tech University.

https://www.sararryan.com/

 

Erica Soon Olsen

“I wanted to explore the American relationship with the natural world in a different way, looking at European myth and folklore and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the landscape of the American West.”

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Girlmine (Bull City Press, 2019)

What inspired you to become a writer? How do you stay inspired?

I’m the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of immigrants. My mother came to California from South Korea in the 1960s, and my father’s mother and his grandparents came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Brooklyn, New York, in the first decades of the twentieth century. Growing up, I was often around relatives who spoke another language or who had a very different background from my 1960s–1970s suburban upbringing. This inspired and continues to inspire my curiosity about other people’s stories—the ones that were told to me and the ones that were never told, the secrets.

What draws you to writing flash fictions?

I don’t usually call my very short stories “flash fiction,” but I do like the implications of the word “flash.” It suggests an explosion, a burst, a flare of some kind.

Do you have a favorite flash author?

Yes, Carl Sandburg. I like his stories in a book called Rootabaga Stories, from 1922, which I think is supposed to be a book of stories for children, but they are surreal, like American Kafka on the prairie. My favorite one of his stories is “The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child.” Is it OK if I quote something? The skyscrapers tell each other, “if we have a child she must be free to run across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea. Yes, it must be a free child.” Their child is a cross-country train. And then there’s a terrible accident, a railroad accident. It’s a tragedy in six pages.

One noticeable aspect of Girlmine is its size. What led you to make such a compact collection?

Bull City Press, the publisher, calls Girlmine a micro-chapbook. It’s part of a series called Inch, which used to be a small-format literary magazine and now features the work of one author in each chapbook, varying between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. So the size of the collection was determined by the requirements of the micro-chapbook format.

In Girlmine, you allude to Daphne, Apollo, and other mythological figures. Could you say more about this?

In my previous story collection, Recapture, there’s a lot of questioning of the natural world, especially places like national parks and scenic landscapes. For example, in a story called “Grand Canyon II,” the premise is that the Grand Canyon is off-limits to visitors because of a disaster. Grand Canyon II is a convincing replacement created through 3D printing. In another story, “Utah WildMall Rangers,” park rangers work in an environment where the canyon country landscape is sort of perpetually Instagram-ready, with scheduled rainbows—but the place starts to malfunction. With these new stories in Girlmine, I wanted to explore the American relationship with the natural world in a different way, looking at European myth and folklore and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the landscape of the American West. So, for example, in Girlmine, the story called “Daphne: The Aspen Version” begins: “In ancient Greece, Daphne flees Apollo and is changed into a laurel tree. In Colorado, in the Uncompahgre National Forest, she becomes an aspen, taking root on the steep north-facing slopes below Lone Cone, looking toward Mount Wilson and El Diente. It happens in August, bow-hunting season.” I liked the combination of myth and a detailed, accurate description of setting. The story takes place near where I used to live in southwestern Colorado, in a part of the forest where I’ve camped and hiked many times.

What would you say the overall message about women is in Girlmine?

Let’s see. The collection overall has no message about women, though the male characters in the stories may believe such messages exist. In the sequencing of the stories, the girls and women may seem initially to be closer to nature or more capable of transformation, but by the end, the lonely male Norwegian house spirit, who has accidentally emigrated and is trapped in America, also transforms himself.

Is there a story in Girlmine that borrows or remixes real events from your life?

The last story, “Assimilation, Sunset Park,” is the most directly inspired by real events. Not the idea of a house spirit! That part is inspired by Norwegian folklore. But the details of emigration from Stavanger, Norway, and the house in Brooklyn are based on emigration stories from my father’s family.

Did the title Girlmine come after you chose that story to be the opening story, or did you choose the title and write a story based on it?

The story and its title came first. When I gathered these stories together, it seemed like a title that would fit the whole collection, with its emphasis on experiences that are in some way enchanted or treasured, for better or for worse.

Are you working on another short story collection? If so, what are some themes you’re exploring?

I’m working on some new short stories. I’m also working on a nonfiction book manuscript about the sense of home and the places where my Korean, Norwegian, and Swedish ancestors lived. By this I mean both their actual houses, some of which are still standing today, as well as their larger communities. In the book, I revisit these places, many of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit in person, and explore my own lifelong search, as a multiracial American, for a place to call home. There’s a connection between the stories in Girlmine that reference Scandinavian culture and this nonfiction project. The general focus of my new writing is the intersection of emigration history with stories of the American West.

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Erica Soon Olsen was born in Hollywood, California. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House Press), a collection of short fiction about the once and future West, and a micro-chapbook, Girlmine (Inch #40, Bull City Press). Her stories and essays have also appeared in Gulf Coast, High Desert Journal, ZYZZYVA, and other literary magazines. She lives in northeastern Utah.

https://www.ericasoonolsen.com/ 

Karen Babine

“Cooking is just one more way to counter the unknowing in the world.”

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All the Wild Hungers:  Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019)

First of all, I read in your interview with Erica Rivera for City Pages that you hoped that the book was universal enough that people could read themselves in it, whether they were familiar with cancer or not. I think All the Wild Hungers does this so amazingly well. As someone who personally saw a complicated dynamic between food and cancer in my grandmother’s life, I haven’t found any other writing to portray this so accurately and earnestly. How did the food metaphors and representation of life through food, both pain and celebration, come to you? You said early on that you began seeing food everywhere. What made you see food everywhere? 

The book really started when my  mom’s doctors started talking in food metaphors—her cabbage sized tumor, the chemotherapy infusions, the drug cocktails. At the same time, my middle sister was pregnant and we were all following Baby Center for how big the baby was each week, and it was always a fruit or a vegetable. Because my mom’s was a uterine tumor, and my sister was pregnant, and both were described in food terms—that’s the friction that really started the book. I’m always looking for where ideas rub against each other to create heat, which is a different thing than tension or conflict. Here were several things that shouldn’t coexist in this way, and yet they were. After my mom recovered from the hysterectomy that removed the tumor and she started chemo, my goal, as someone who likes to cook, was to feed her anything she’d eat—and my stress relief of choice was thrifting, where I started to find all kinds of expensive Le Creuset and Descoware cast iron for really cheap. It started with a skillet, whose name is Agnes, and exploded from there. I’ve recently moved to Chattanooga and getting my cast iron up on the wall was one of my first projects.

How did you decide on the overall organization and form of All the Wild Hungers? How did you make the decision that 64 short essays works best? 

I always knew that the essays would be short—and I kept thinking of them as micro-essays, because I wrote each of them to stand alone—but the overall organization didn’t come till later in the process. There wasn’t a particular order how I wrote them; they usually started with ruminations over what I had cooked the night before. I was doing Morning Pages—three pages of longhand writing before I did anything else in the day—and that’s how the book got written, three pages at a time. There isn’t a significance to 64. That’s just how many there were. In terms of large-scale organization, I wanted to avoid chronological order, and so I tried all kinds of options, including organizing by color, but in the end my editor asked me to try putting it in chronological order, which I did, and of course it solved all the problems I was having with connective tissue.

Throughout the book, there are so many surprising polarities presented via food metaphors. There is the obvious and perplexing comparison of the size of your sister’s baby in terms of fruit and vegetables contrasted with the size of your mom’s tumor. There is also the sharp contrast of emotions when considering the sorrowful, vulnerable moments of your mom’s illness alongside the lighter moments about comfort food and cast iron. Why does food play such a universal and all-encompassing role in our lives? At any moment, food seems to be present and even pivotal in shaping that moment. Why do you think that is?

Food is universal—we all need sustenance to survive. And it’s good to remember that food is never neutral. We place all kinds of values—and politics—over who gets food, who does and does not deserve assistance, food deserts, food culture growing out of specific places. Food is always political, always a link to some other idea, some other person, some other group. But in my own experience, food is how we love each other. I come from rural northern Minnesota. Where two or three are gathered, there’s always something to eat. The county where my hometown is grows all the potatoes for McDonald’s French fries, but I also remember the little old ladies in our church going out and gleaning potatoes in the fall to make lefse, which is kind of a very, very thin potato flatbread, sort of. Those ladies held so much history, so much food history in their hands. This week, I flipped through the 1986 Bethany Lutheran Church cookbook that holds my favorite banana bread recipe—Helen’s Banana Blueberry Bread—and made Dorothy Johnson’s Golden Delight pancakes. I wasn’t a huge fan of them, but honestly, there are few things in the world I trust more than old church cookbooks with recipe titles like “Never Fail.”

Another interesting polarity: When thinking about your love for research and the lack of research available for your mom’s type of cancer, how did you face this opposition and the acceptance of the unknown? 

That part was really hard and I think that’s why I ended up so deep in cooking—it was something I could know, something I could depend on. When I started thinking about the many ways we deal with the unknown, I came to some of the essays on mythology, philosophy, chemistry. There are a thousand ways to know something.

In both this work and Water and What We Know, readers notice the strong sense of place and your deep roots in Minnesota. I was wondering if there is connection between your family’s traditions with food and being dependent on or related to place?

Oh, yes, without a doubt. I didn’t expect this book to be so strongly place-based, but the reality is that you can’t separate a food culture from its place. It’s dependent on how long the growing season is, what food deserts are in place, what the soil can grow, all of that. I was thinking about the food associated now with the pandemic, the various Twitter and Instagram accounts helping people cook what’s in their pantries—but a few weeks ago, as I was stocking up, I told my dad that I just needed to remember that we know how to do this. I needed to stock up like it was the early 1980s in northern Minnesota on one parental salary with the grocery store 15 miles away and a garden with a growing season of three months. I started thinking about what we ate when I was a kid. A lot of meat in the freezer, potatoes in the basement. I don’t have a garden anymore, but I do have a chest freezer (one of the first things I bought after I graduated and started my first job) and I stocked up on frozen veggies. I made my mom’s honey whole wheat bread a few days ago—I’m not a bread baker—and that’s going to take some practice, but all my classes are online now, so I have the time to let the bread rise while I do other things. The smell of it reminds me of my childhood, where my mother made that bread weekly because it was cheaper than buying it.

On the first page on All the Wild Hungers, you introduce yourself as a member of “a small, tightly knit family that likes to think in Proper Nouns, to name things.” Throughout the memoir, you bring this affinity for names to life. You affectionately refer to your niece and nephew as “the niblings,” and, as your vintage cast-iron cookware collection grows, each skillet, Dutch oven, and pot receives its own name: Agnes, Estelle, Phyllis, Poppy. By naming the niblings and the individual pieces of cast-iron cookware, you transform general into specific, abstract into concrete. By naming things, you acknowledge their importance. Does the same go for a book’s title? For you, a person with plenty of practice naming things, how does the title of All the Wild Hungers acknowledge the specific, concrete importance of the stories told within?

To be honest, I’m terrible at naming. I’m really bad at titles—All the Wild Hungers came from a dream, if you can believe it. But you’ll notice that the only people in the book who have names are those who have passed away. If they’re alive, they’re referred to by their initials. That was deliberate. I wanted the reader to start skipping over the initials, or substituting their own associations with those initials, towards that universal quality. The other part was that the only story I felt I could tell was mine. The kids couldn’t consent to being in the book, so I wanted to create some distance for that reason too. But I’ve always been a little weird in naming things. Most important objects in my life get a name.

All the Wild Hungers is subtitled “a season of cooking and cancer.” Though these topics seem unrelated at first, you tie them together by telling stories about the “food metaphors” your mother’s oncologists frequently used, such as “cabbage-sized tumor” or “drug cocktail.” These metaphors seem to trouble and fascinate you. Do remember when you first questioned a doctor’s use of a food metaphor? Could you immediately pinpoint why the metaphor troubled you?

The subtitle is a play on seasons of the year, seasoning food, and we ended up cutting out the third piece, which was cast iron, and you season your cast iron as well. It’s no secret in the book that I’m not fond of my mother’s oncologist and I’m still not. I always felt like he treated her cancer and forgot she was a person. I think I was probably predisposed to dislike anything he said.

About two-thirds of the way through All the Wild Hungers, you write: “This is the place where I fully ignore the ugly food metaphors of cancer and decide that I will create my own damn metaphors.” What new metaphors have you created since you finished writing All the Wild Hungers?

Nothing really since the book was finished, though this year was the first time in four years that I didn’t celebrate the Holy Week of the Kitchen. Social distancing and pandemic fears put the kibosh during that week and my cat died, so I didn’t really feel like cooking. But since moving to the south, I’ve been looking for the different ways food functions here and how I can be a part of it. In January, three friends and I started a cookbook club, where we choose one cookbook, the host makes the main dish, two make the sides, and the fourth makes dessert (obviously there can be more involved…we only had tables big enough for four). The first one was Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table and I hosted. It was so much fun. February was Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson’s Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland at H’s house. March was supposed to be at A’s house, but we canceled because of the pandemic and had a virtual happy hour instead.

Throughout All the Wild Hungers, cooking seems to become a sacred ritual. At one point, you write, “I place my faith in old church cookbook recipes titled ‘Never Fail,’ today of all days, when we hold tight to the vehemence of I love you and that what remains are these: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” If we’re defining religion in the broadest sense of the term, does it seem accurate to interpret cooking as a type of religion? Were you thinking about faith as you were writing All the Wild Hungers?

I think it’s more accurate to say that cooking is just one more way to counter the unknowing in the world. My dad’s a retired pastor and I’m fascinated by theology, even as I would have trouble identifying where my faith stands these days. But in that chapter, I’d just come from my friend’s wife’s funeral and even though I’m not Catholic, I was comforted by the rituals of the funeral.

One of my favorite moments in All the Wild Hungers was when you, a vegetarian, tried to master a recipe for bone broth. As you cooked, you thought, “If my mother eats bones, her bones will become strong.” This thought process seems similar to what Christians consider as they take communion, the idea that the body and blood of Jesus Christ give them the power to overcome their own sinful natures. Even if the religious connection wasn’t intentional on your part, does food, both the cooking and the eating of it, contain a healing component for you?

Oh, definitely—there’s a chapter in there about eucharist, and the idea of consuming the thing you want to become is a very old idea. Like I said, my dad’s a pastor and I grew up in a rural community in which food was a part of everything: coffee hour after church, soup suppers on Wednesday nights during Lent, lunches after funerals. The culture I grew up in believed in food as a way to love each other, a way to be together.

In an interview with Julija Šukys, you said, “Food is never neutral. Food is political. It is the product of history, culture, and place.” You allude to the relationship between social class identity and food when speaking about growing up in a household that is very conscious of waste, stating, “To be a bad cook was to waste food and that waste was unacceptable”. In what other ways do you see American identities connected and intertwined with food?

You can’t separate food from its place. We often think of corned beef and cabbage as quintessentially Irish, but corned beef was the cheapest cut of meat Irish Americans could get. The Irish in Ireland will have rashers of bacon—closer to ham than our bacon—with their cabbage. There’s a part in the book where I found a Swedish rice pudding recipe in an old Nebraska cookbook which resembled my own family’s recipe, except it was baked, not simmered. That probably reflected the fuel available in both places.

In the same interview, you talked about the role of research in your writing and how it is often your favorite part of the process, particularly for your nonfiction work. You said, “Most of the research I did was serendipitous, and it appeared when I needed it.” Do you find that this is often the case when writing nonfiction or was it a nice coincidence? How do you usually go about the research process while writing?

Research is my ignition point and it often comes from a place of serendipity, an article I read or a tweet, or something like that. It’s often the point that makes me want to go read more, figure out something I didn’t know before. The volcano essay from my first book, Water and What We Know, literally started by reading an article about the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption and learning that it was the largest landslide in recorded history, which caused my brain to go really? In all of recorded history, that was the largest? And that sent me on a scavenger hunt of research about volcanoes, which led to a lot of interesting places. I teach writing—and have taught first year writing for a long time—and a lot of my students consider research a dirty word. We only dislike research when it’s not something we choose. But we get lost in the links of Wikipedia all the time. One of my current favorite guilty pleasures of odd research is a blog called The Court Jeweller, which is about the jewels that various royal families are wearing. The history—and the sheer distance from my life and anything I understand—hits me in all the right places right now.

Do the process of cooking and the process of writing overlap? When reading about the way you care for the slow but rewarding process of making specific foods, I always go back to how similar and true this rings for writing. It’s often so slow and tedious but also so nourishing and healing. Do you see other similarities between the two? 

I can see the similarities, for sure. Both of them often exist in their finished states in a way that makes it hard to see all the work that goes into their creation. It’s easy to forget that a piece of writing had a lot of drafts and revision under it, or that the beautiful Instagram dinner is the product of a lot of trial and error. Anything worth doing is worth learning the process of it, getting into the muscle memory of the thing. My mom made this wonderful honey whole wheat bread when I was growing up and I make it occasionally (bread isn’t my favorite baking activity), but I made some last week. The more you do it, the more you realize what the dough is supposed to feel like when you’ve kneaded it enough (I don’t think I knead mine enough), and the same is true for writing: when you know your process well enough, you recognize things about where you are in the writing that you can’t see otherwise.

Here’s a passage I love: “But this is the way we think about illness, about suffering, about crucibles, the goal of which is to come out on the other side with some sort of transcendent knowledge, a revelation, an epiphany, an arc toward recognizing how different we are now from who we were before cancer. But that’s ridiculous. We want that shining epiphany, but we don’t get it. I don’t know why we expect is, but we do.” Do you see this relating to writing at all– that either as writer or reader we expect to have those types of experiences? How do we deal with times, especially as writers, when that is not the case, when we expect the “shining epiphany, but we don’t get it”?

I really wanted to resist a narrative arc in this book, because there wasn’t a moment where we could say hallelujah, she’s cured! and then get on with our lives. I very deliberately don’t write about things that hurt very often, because it often does feel like there’s pressure to figure out what it means, what the experience has to teach us, and how it makes into the person we are, and I really wanted to acknowledge the fact that no, things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen. And we have to figure out our way through the best we can.

In your interview with Julija Šukys, you discussed the micro-essay as a variation of the prose poem: “Each micro-essay is based in an idea, not just an image or a story. Each piece presents an intense moment and idea, and then it’s over, and the reader can take a breath and digest it, and move on, or move away.” This innovative form truly fits the content of All the Wild Hungers, which twists the familiar narrative of cancer and recovery into something new, begging the question—which came first, the form or the content? When you started writing All the Wild Hungers, did you intend to experiment with form, or did you simply focus on the ideas?

I didn’t expect to experiment with form. In their original form, these pieces were much longer—and I only thought I’d get one essay out of it, but that quickly turned out not to be the case. As I was trying to empty my brain onto the page, I worked hard to figure out what I needed to do to make the page relevant to readers. I avoid thinking about how readers can relate, because as I keep going back to the Hmong memoirist Kao Kalia Yang quoting her father, that “the human life is individual, it is not unique”—and even if there’s been cancer in your experience, it’s not the same as my mom’s and that’s not enough to sustain a page. I needed to figure out a way in for a reader who had no experience with cancer—and for me, that always means towards playing with the ideas that underlie an experience. Experience, or story, then, becomes the example, or the illumination, of something else.

The micro-essay seems to be a relatively new form. Since All the Wild Hungers contains 64 of them, you seem like a bit of a pioneer. Have you considered your role in shaping a larger literary movement? Do you expect the micro-essay to become an increasingly popular form?

Nah, it’s not new—Brevity has been publishing flash nonfiction for twenty years.

In that last question, I asked you to look forward to the future of the micro-essay. In this question, I’d like to ask you to look backward. Who did you draw inspiration from when writing All the Wild Hungers?

Flash nonfiction wasn’t a form I’d spent much writing in before this book, so I did a lot of reading, a lot of research into it, from going back into Brevity’s archives, rereading Dinty Moore’s awesome Rose Metal Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, but I also spent a lot of time reading short books, to figure out what made them tick. I read Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine, Julija Šukys’ Siberian Exile. I did a lot of reading into prose poetry, particularly looking at the poetic volta. It was a good reminder that the genres have more to learn from each other than separates us.

At times, your writing questions the idea of the individual as something that can exist apart from its place or its community. You discuss the science of cells from other people existing within our own bodies, and you mention the “generational memory” tied to some of your favorite recipes. However, in your interview in Fourth Genre, you argue that “while we may have common experiences, it’s absolutely impossible for us to relate to the experience of another.” There’s an interesting juxtaposition here. Our identities are strongly tied to things like our biology, memory, history, and community, but we still struggle to identify with each other. In All the Wild Hungers, or your writing in general, how do you deal with this juxtaposition? Do you try to craft an on-page persona that readers can relate to, or do you try to appeal to universal themes, or do you do something else entirely?

One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with my students this semester involves talking about how the writer is the one who controls how much the reader knows and it’s the writer who controls how close the reader gets to the subject. I taught the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, who wrote her first book in 1964 about biking from Ireland to India alone, and she’s got a very distant narrator on the page. We never get very close to what she’s thinking or feeling—and there’s even a scene in Azerbaijan where she is almost raped, but the entire scene is only a paragraph long, and the tone doesn’t change. She could be writing about what she had for breakfast. She had to be terrified, but we don’t see that in her narrator—and then we could talk about why she made that choice, why she probably chose to include that moment in that way, and how she was a solo woman traveling when few women were writing that work. The majority of travel writers were (and still are) men. Her readers would likely be men. She likely didn’t want to give them any excuse to say well, what did you expect, traveling alone? In that interview with Julija, she commented that readers don’t get to know me very well by the end of it—and that’s deliberate. The book isn’t about me. I’m just the one taking all these pieces and trying to make sense of something that is fundamentally inexplicable.

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Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

www.karenbabine.com

Paula Carter

“When we are able to be honest and vulnerable, without hedging, that is when we are able to reflect the deep truths of our world.”

carter images

No Relation (Black Lawrence Press, 2017)

The experiences that you share in No Relation are emotionally complex and deeply personal; what was the process of writing, editing, and eventually publishing such vulnerable material like for you?

I often share with my students a quote from Robert Olen Butler that directs an artist to “go into the white hot center” of themselves without flinching. When we are able to be honest and vulnerable, without hedging, that is when we are able to reflect the deep truths of our world. 

That is not to say it isn’t hard and scary! The week before No Relation was published I had a bit of a panic attack as it became real that I was putting this raw part of myself out there for everyone to see. Still, I am so grateful to all of the writers who have come before me who have been willing to do that. Writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Rachel Cusk. I wanted to contribute to that tradition in my small way. And what I have found is that when I am willing to be vulnerable as a writer, the reader is willing to go there with me. I’ve had many people reach out to say the book made them feel seen and that is a remarkable thing. 

In “Memory” you write: “On Science Friday, Steve Ramirez of MIT explains how we think of memory like a tape recorder. We think we can replay it just as it happened. But it is not like that at all. He calls it a ‘reconstructive process.’ Every time we remember something we must recreate the memory and that can change it. He says that you might insert new knowledge into a memory” (23). No Relation seems to be deeply informed by this explanation of memory, even down to the structural mimicry of the way that memories return, not necessarily in chronological order. How did you decide upon the order of the essays in the book? 

When I first started writing the book, I made a list of moments and memories that were particularly vivid and that kept returning to me. Then I took them one at a time and wrote an essay about each one.  I knew the book wouldn’t exactly be in chronological order; as you mention, like memories, things from the past speak to each other in surprising ways. One memory seems connected to another, even if they were years apart.  And I knew it was in the paring and the way one piece would play off of another that the power of such short moments would be felt. It was in the conversation the pieces were having with one another that I was going to be able to say what I wanted to say. However, the final order is something I played with a lot, moving a piece here or there to see how it might be read differently depending on what had come before it. 

Also, I also knew that I was only one part of this story – that there were other people (James and the boys) who had their own version of what happened and their own way of remembering the events. I wanted to include a thread in the book about memory and the way we remember in order to acknowledge that this is the way I remember it, but it is not the only way of remembering it. 

I found the essays about Octavia especially engaging. How did this connection come about? Was there research involved in the process of writing these essays in which you connect yourself to the historical figure of Octavia?

Research is an important part of my writing process. I notice something that confuses or interests me and then research that thing in order to understand more about my own reaction to it. 

After I left James and the boys, I tried to find other people who had had similar experiences to help me understand and process my own. And what I discovered is that although there wasn’t a lot written about it, so many people had had some version of the experience. Also, I realized that it isn’t a new phenomenon. We like to think that the demise of the nuclear family is a modern fate, but it is not. While doing research, I read Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz. It explores how our modern conception of marriage and family (two people who fall in love and then have 2.5 kids) is really fairly new. I wanted to ensure some of that history ended up in the book. Then, Octavia captured my imagination. We hear so much about Antony and Cleopatra … and then there is Octavia at home caring for all their kids! It made me angry and where there is anger there is often something that needs to be said.

Something I’ve heard writing professors recently discuss is the difficulty of writing an ending. “In Town for Other Reasons” seems to be a very natural conclusion to your book. Was this the inevitable ending or was this something that you had to wrestle with? 

Endings are difficult! They’re difficult because they are so important. The final moment can tell a reader how they should reflect back on everything else that has come before. If the final chord is off-key, the song feels unresolved. And I did struggle with the ending. As I mentioned, I moved pieces around a lot as I was deciding what the final order would be. “In Town for Other Reasons” was always towards the end, but not the final piece. I had been ending on pieces that were even a bit darker/heavier. One of my trusted readers suggested I move this one to the end, and it then made so much sense. The chord resolved. 

Do you have any advice for new and aspiring writers of creative nonfiction?

Clearly I’m in the love with the flash form. Even if it isn’t your form, a practice of writing a short piece regularly (it doesn’t have to be every day – for many of us in our busy lives that is too much and then we just won’t do it at all) can train a writer to see the moments in their lives that are asking to be explored. It also is a great way to practice identifying and describing significant details – which details reveal the moment’s meaning?

Some of the best advice I received was to slow down. I felt like I had to hurry up and get my work out there. And with so many online spaces that need content, you can find ways to do that. But, if you are in a hurry, you may never discover the depth and beauty you are capable of. Writing in many ways is about reflection. Give yourself the space to do that.  

Which writers (of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction) inspire you the most? Are there any particular writers whose work you would say influenced No Relation?

Certainly. I had written some flash pieces before, but hadn’t considered writing a whole book in the form until I read Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, which is a memoir told in flash. I was so moved by the book and so taken with the style that I almost immediately felt that I wanted to write something similar. It ended up being a model for No Relation throughout the whole process.

I am inspired by so many writers … how does one choose? Recently, I’ve been inspired by Luis Alberto Urrea whose novel House of Broken Angels is playing with the line between fiction and nonfiction, something I’m always interested in. Megan Stielstra’s essay collection Once I Was Cool I return to when I want to think about variety in structure – also the essays are just really fun. Also, Rachel Cusk. Outline, the first book in her trilogy, I cannot stop talking about! And her memoir Aftermath is a great example of someone not flinching when they reach that white-hot center.  I can feel my blood pressure rising just mentioning these books. When you look at a book just sitting there, it seems so docile. But there is so much power in there.

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Paula Carter is the author of the flash memoir No Relation. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Based in Chicago, she is a part of the live lit community and is a company member with the storytelling group 2nd Story. She holds an M.F.A. from Indiana University, Bloomington and is currently teaching creative nonfiction at Northwestern University. 

https://www.paulaccarter.com/ 

 

Jen Soriano

“In my belly I could feel the formation of a knowing, like a cumulus cloud forms from water vapor….”

mttd

Making the Tongue Dry (The Platform Review Chapbook Series, Arts by the People, 2019, 2nd edition 2020)

order a copy here

Delight Ejiaka: According to your website, you have a background in journalism and communication. How did you go from telling other people’s stories to writing more personal essays?

I believe that all of our stories are connected. Reporting on other people’s stories was a way for me to understand parts of my own story. It was also a way for me to help lift up entire communities who are often marginalized, criminalized or spoken for in mainstream media coverage. I’ve tried to use journalism to help tip the scales toward more just and balanced representations of communities of color.

As far as my journey to writing more personal essays, it’s been a long one! It’s taken me a while to give myself permission to use my own voice. As a woman of color, I get lots of messages from society that my story doesn’t matter, that I shouldn’t take up space for myself, that shining a light on my own experiences is selfish and even narcissistic. I think a lot of women and especially women of color get bombarded with these messages, and sadly sometimes they’re reinforced by our own families, friends and communities. So it’s taken me many years to overcome these internalized messages and to build the confidence I’ve needed to start to share more personal stories.

I’m lucky to be surrounded by a social justice community that has trained me to recognize these messages as lies that uphold systems of racism and sexism. This community has also supported me in spending more time focusing inward. I now see personal essays written by women, trans and nonbinary people of color as feminist exercises and radical acts of love. Sharing our own experiences not only takes courage, it contributes to greater visions of who we can all collectively become.

The opening essay “A Brief History of Her Pain” is very visceral and does not shy away from images of womanhood, menstruation, conception, and childbirth. Why did you choose to write the essay in sections that highlight female pain in different time periods and make it the introduction to your book?

“A Brief History of Her Pain” is an embodied essay and so many of the choices that were made in its writing were made first by my body. The content and the structure of this piece quite literally emerged from my body. My cognitive mind came in later, through revision. After years of laying awake at night wrestling with pain, I began to have thoughts and sensations that told me this pain was not only my own. In my belly I could feel the formation of a knowing, like a cumulus cloud forms from water vapor; the knowing told me that the pain in my body was pain that connected me to many others, and especially to other women who have suffered and continue to suffer disproportionately from unexplained chronic illness.

One night, when my body was twisting and writhing and trembling on its own, I was struck by the realization that in another era, I would have been regarded as possessed. My body told me: you’re a witch! This must have been what many women accused of witchcraft had to feel. So when I began putting words to these experiences, I followed the flow of my body and its sensations and thoughts, and they took me down this path of weaving the present together with different stages of history, to show the endurance of the misdiagnosis of female-bodied and femme-identified pain.

I chose to make this essay the opening of the book because it shows one specific way that history can repeat itself, unless we deliberately intervene in harmful cycles. I hoped it would be an enticing doorway into the chapbook’s unifying theme.

After reading the first essay I wondered why you did not use it for the title of the book. It felt like the emotions that it evoked were so strong and its images were so surprising. What made you decide on Making the Tongue Dry instead?

There was a practical reason for this decision, and also a literary reason. The practical reason is that “A Brief History of Her Pain” was fairly widely read (by my standards!) when it was first published in Waxwing. So if I had titled my chapbook A Brief History of Her Pain, I ran the risk of misleading people into thinking it was just the singular essay repackaged, rather than a collection of essays published as a new chapbook.

The literary reason is that I just like the way Making the Tongue Dry sounds! It has a poetic resonance to me—it’s somewhat mysterious, surprising, and hopefully makes people want to pick up the chapbook to find out more.

Your attention to images, evocative diction, and use of white space seem very lyrical to me. Could you talk a bit about your choice to write nonfiction with a poetic twist?

This gets to another reason that I went beyond journalism to start writing personal essays. I write to get closer to emotional truths that gnaw at me, and that I don’t get to tease out much through everyday conversation. These emotional truths are often complicated, and sometimes ugly, but also often beautiful and deep, and the traditional prose structure of paragraphs and left-margin-justified words on a page can’t always do justice to what needs to be expressed at these deeper levels. I’m no poetry expert but I think that’s why poetry is a literary art that’s so concerned with form. White space, line breaks, prosody and rhythmic syntax all help create an altered experience. Poetic twists can help get to those emotional truths, truths that lie deep but that ironically, when unearthed, help us soar.

The first essay advocates for equality for women and discusses how women were treated like problems whenever they went to hospital, with one doctor calling female patients with fibromyalgia the worst and asking them to go meditate by themselves. The first essay also mentions that women of color are more likely to be undertreated for pain. Later, you introduce new concepts of disconnection, unity, and love. How do these themes connect with inequality and pain? What would you say is the thematic structure of the book?

Erin Jones, the Platform Review editor who chose my chapbook for publication, wrote that my essays urge the reader to sit up and take notice of harmful systems. That is, at core, the purpose of this collection.

Especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we’re in a moment unlike anything we’ve seen for generations, it’s critical for us to take notice of the systems that have helped save lives and livelihoods, and those that are threatening lives and livelihoods alongside the virus itself.

This chapbook asks readers to look at our own roles in perpetuating or breaking old cycles, and our roles in sowing the seeds of change. At a time of crisis, when a new way of organizing the world seems particularly urgent, these essays bear witness to the impacts of harmful systems while evoking our capacity to persist, resist and transform.

Many essays in your book explore identity and self-realization. In “Unbroken Water” you talk about finding your motherland and people. When I saw the zest with which you devoured stories about your grandfather and how he fought in the war, I thought the stories might be curative or a source of temporary relief. Could you discuss this?

I hope readers find some sense of relief in these stories! I always say my work is not necessarily a beach read—but that I hope they can enjoy it nonetheless.

For me, writing is not necessarily a curative process, which implies a linear progression from harm to cure–it’s a necessary process that I need integrated into my life, like breathing or drinking water. I just don’t feel right when I’m not writing or creating in some way. And when, in that process, I can discover something new—like the fact that my grandfather’s story helped me understand why I myself feel such a martial energy toward justice, or that reflecting on my trip to the Philippines helped me solidify the values with which I do my work toward liberation—the writing ritual becomes elevating as well as sustaining.

I really love the recurring image of water in your book. When there is dryness, there are cracks, and cracks divide the land. Disconnection from your ancestors, the breaking of cities, and the exploitation of the Chico River complicate your image of “the Philippines as a whole singular body… [a] place with intact villages and communities.” How did seeing that brokenness affect your writing?

I think I write because of this brokenness. Most of us have heard that saying, if you can’t find the book you want to read, then write it yourself. I didn’t read a book by a Filipina author until I was in my twenties. I graduated from college without ever having read a single Filipinx author. This isn’t because there aren’t Filipinxs out there writing, it’s because of racism and colonialism. The United States colonized the Philippines for almost 50 years, and still has a strong influence over the Philippines’ culture and economy. The United States has also successfully hidden its imperial past, and part of this has included a systematic marginalization of Filipino-American culture and influence within the United States. Because of colonization, including the 300 years of Spanish colonization that preceded American colonization, the cultural and historical record of Filipinos is fragmented. Our identities and our lands have been pillaged and left torn. Through writing I attempt to assemble some of these pieces, to uplift the power that comes from our endurance, and to celebrate that we can love and accept ourselves even if we aren’t entirely whole.

The mom in “Razing Boys” tries to raise her son by shielding him from other little boys and dressing him with care in a toddler bomber jacket. This makes me wonder about the unresolved trauma of colonization and oppression you have seen. In your experience, are different generations impacted differently? Do the younger generations flee or are they protected from the realities of life by their parents?

Each individual person, each distinct family, and yes I believe each generation, reacts to the legacies of history differently. Right now, I believe we are experiencing a generational thaw. I think for many Filipinx-Americans, because of colonial legacies of violence and displacement, our parents and grandparents had to fight, flee and freeze just to survive. A lot of our elders don’t talk much about the past, and I do believe this has been to shield us, but I also think it’s part of their own coping with unresolved trauma.

Now, I see Filipinx-Americans and Filipinx-Canadians of the Gen X and millennial generations talking openly about intergenerational, transgenerational and historical trauma. Many of us are being more forthcoming about oppression within our own communities, about mental health needs, and about the need to transform colonial mentality and enduring structures of colonization, even as migrant settlers on Native land ourselves. This gives me hope.

The novel coronavirus has thrown so much into question, and too many people are suffering and will continue to suffer from the health and economic impacts of this pandemic. Many Filipinx-Americans are disproportionately impacted because so many of us are frontline health workers, and we are also small business owners and Asian people who have had to bear the brunt of rising anti-Asian racism. So many new traumas are emerging from this moment. But I think we’re better equipped than were generations before us—better equipped with the awareness, language, trauma-informed institutions, and expectations that we deserve the means and the systems to heal. And so even in the face of this crisis, I continue to believe that we are entering a new era of healing from what previous generations had to simply survive.

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Jen Soriano is a Filipinx-American writer, performer and social justice movement builder originally from Chicago. She writes lyric essays and performance poetry about the intersections of race, gender, trauma, health, colonization, and power. Melissa Febos has called her work “luminous” and chose her essay “Unbroken Water” as winner of the 2019 Penelope C. Niven Prize. Aisha Sabatini-Sloan chose her essay “War-Fire” as winner of the 2019 Fugue Prose Prize, calling her work “vivid” and “cinematic”.  Jen is a 2019-2020 Hugo House Fellow and Jack Jones Yi Dae Up Fellow, and received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. Connect with Jen on instagram at @jensorianowrites.

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jensoriano.net

Interview with Newfound Prose Prize Finalist Jen Soriano

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