“Cultivate a large ego; cultivate humility; write your truth; and whatever you do, be tenacious.”
I Once Met You But You Were Dead (Split Lip Press, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal piece (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
What really bothers you is the newness of it all. This should be old news to you, who fancied yourself born into war. You should know the taste of gunpowder as it hits the back of your tongue. Unfamiliar, a challenge to the memories you thought were real. Maybe you made them up after all. Maybe you’re not the war survivor you thought you were.
You were just a kid. Maybe—you were wrong.
Why did you choose this piece (or excerpt)?
Most of the pieces in the chapbook deal with war or violence in some way. Specifically they deal with the aftermath of war and violence, and part of that aftermath is the constant questioning and re-writing of experience by survivors. This excerpt comes from the first piece, “SR-9,” which is about recovering from panic attacks triggered by depictions of war.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
The Lake Has No Saint by Stacey Waite is the first chapbook I remember loving. I read it on a train ride from the airport just after the AWP conference where I’d bought it. I remember that because I remember getting on the train and then getting off—everything in the middle blurs because I was so entranced by the words. I’d never encountered a chapbook before that focused on gender in quite the way that Waite does, breaking it apart and showing us its seams. I also love Ms. Militancy by Meena Kandasamy, for how it focuses on the South Asian immigrant experience, and Small Creatures / Wide Field by Jamie Mortara, for what it does with the form—it’s a sort of choose your own adventure book where it really interacts with the reader.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I think these reveal my two obsessions when it comes to writing—accurately and beautifully depicting the marginalized experience, and doing weird things with form. In I Once Met You But You Were Dead, I gather together pieces that focus on gender and violence in all its various incarnations, but I also try to play with form and structure to figure out new ways to tell stories.
What’s your chapbook about?
The pieces in the chapbook were all written during my Masters program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They reveal a map of my interiority during that time. I was greatly embattled about my identity. About my gender, about my ethnicity, about my religion, about my experience with war, about wanting to be a writer. All of that comes out in these pieces, and it’s interesting because I’m no longer this writer—writing this chapbook was part of my catharsis, and I’m changed by the writing of it. So the book is about identity, but it’s also about gender, and marginality, and war.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece is “Playing Princess,” which is also the longest piece. It was the first piece I ever published—it came out in Harpur Palate in 2008, I think. As a story, it’s extremely flawed, but it has great sentimental value for me. Writing this piece was the first time I sensed the kind of writer I was going to be, and for that I value it greatly.
Which piece in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Good People” is about a friend of mine—the name in it is changed, obviously. But it’s about a time when I failed to be there for my friend when he needed me most, and it’s my way of trying to reconcile with that guilt. It’s a piece that still holds deep pain for me, and I almost didn’t include it in the chapbook. But I think as a reflection of a certain period in my writer life, this piece is essential.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
All of the pieces were actually finished for a long time before I ever thought to put them together. I just thought of them as individual pieces, never as a collection, until I took a short story collection workshop with Jennine Capó Crucet during my PhD program. At first I just sort of threw everything I had into a possible collection to workshop, but after the class was over, I realized that these pieces—the ones that are in the chapbook now—are different from my more recent work. These pieces represent the writer I was then—which is a writer I’m not now. So I put them together, and they started to speak to each other in ways I didn’t expect. The chapbook just sort of grew from there.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I’ve loved working with Amanda at Split Lip Press. She is a good editor, and I was able to have a lot of creative control over the chapbook. For the cover, I turned to an artist friend of mine, Samantha Talbert, who makes these wonderful little greeting cards. It was exactly the aesthetic I wanted. We talked about ideas, and she came up with the design after reading the chapbook. She made a physical version of the cover, and my photographer friend Ramsey Mathews shot it. The title font was made by Jayme Cawthern at Split Lip. So it’s a true collaboration, and I love the end result.
What are you working on now?
My first novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is coming out in June of 2017 from Soho Press. I just turned in my final edits for that. (Link to the novel here: http://sjsindu.com/1kl). And now I’m working on revisions for my second novel, called Blue-Skinned Gods, which is about a young boy who grows up in a cult in India.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Oh wow. That’s a big question. I’ll say what I say to my students: read broadly and deeply; learn to take rejection constructively; cultivate a large ego; cultivate humility; write your truth; and whatever you do, be tenacious.
SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is forthcoming in 2017 from Soho Press. Her hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, was the winner of the Split Lip Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest, and is forthcoming in December 2016. Sindu’s creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, apt, Vinyl Poetry, PRISM International, Fifth Wednesday Journal, rkvry quarterly, and elsewhere.