Sunday, December 18, 2016

12/18, “Race is always there in my writing”: An Interview with Steffan Triplett by Jill Talbot

In April of 2015, the editor of BOAAT Press and BOAAT journal, Sean Shearer, asked if I would be interested in becoming the Essays Editor for the journal. Initially a publication devoted to poetry and photography, BOAAT was expanding to include stories and essays, and I was intrigued. 

The first essays I curated for BOAAT appeared in the September/October 2015 issue. Throughout my time as Essays Editor (I stepped down this past November to focus on my own writing), I was proud to publish a Special Feature in the March/April 2016 issue, "Gaps in Essays,"which includes eight essays—all less than three-hundred words—that in one way or another embrace ideas including erasure, emptiness, juxtaposition, or opacity in the essay. Contributors to the feature include Rachel Charlene Lewis, Sarah Minor, and Michael Torres.

Other contributors to BOAAT over the past year have included such essayists as Marcia Aldrich, Lawrence Lenhart, Therese Marie Mailhot, Jamila Osman, Meghan McClure, and Steffan Triplett.

Steffan Triplett’s essay, "Butterfly People," appears in the September/October 2016 issue, and when I read it, I was struck by the way his essay weaves Langston Hughes’s poem, “In Time of Silver Rain,” memories from his elementary school days, and the tragedy of the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri.

I included“Butterfly People” in my Intermediate Creative Nonfiction course this semester. To enhance our discussion, I reached out to Steffan and asked him to answer four questions, something I often do with willing writers to provide a behind-the-scenes view of process, though in particular with Steffan, to introduce a writer, like them, studying in a creative writing program (Triplett is currently an MFA student at University of Pittsburgh). I believe that allowing students this engagement with writers demystifies the distance between writer and reader and also emphasizes how much of what goes into an essay never appears on the page.

Were you in Joplin when the tornado hit? If not, when was the first time you returned and what was that experience like?

ST: Yes, I was home when the tornado hit. I had been home for about a week, between semesters in college. My parents and I were home when the sirens sounded and we took cover in our bathroom. It was a bizarre start to the summer—a summer which, after the tornado, felt winding and dreary. My home was undamaged yet a large portion of our town had been destroyed. Everything felt broken. Several people I knew lost their homes, including my aunt whose family stayed with us afterward, and one of my best friends died in the storm. I’m working on pieces and writing about all of this in different ways— though it has taken some distance. The summer was extremely sad and taxing. I remember having a lot of headaches (and I even had a mild ulcer by the end of it). It really put my life in a new, complicated perspective. The form this essay took felt very right given all the emotions and feelings I held that summer.

Another strange part of being home that summer was that so much of the storm and its aftermath was covered on the national news cycle—and it was weird seeing the town I grew up in portrayed in this very specific way, one which I didn’t always agree with. The ideas of “hope” and God and religion abounded that summer and in the narrative of the town on television, and I grappled with wanting to believe those narratives and also rejecting them. I think I did both at the same time.

There is so much to write about from that summer. I centered “Butterfly People” on this mural and the idea of the butterfly people, and it was a great way for me to write about the tornado with some distance. I’m in a poetry workshop instructed by Yona Harvey this semester and I’m learning that a more hybrid space is the appropriate way for me to write about the tornado, as opposed to more traditional chronological narrative.

There's a video of you reading on YouTube (Speakeasy) and the person introducing you mentions you're interested in personal, socially-relevant essaying. What are some of the social issues you address in your work?

ST: I want my writing, while personal, to speak to some universal truths—as most memoirists and writers do. I often write about growing up as black and biracial, and also write about coming out and navigating queerness. Writing about race and blackness feels extremely important in the contemporary climate, and I try to do so for many different audiences, depending on the nature of the piece.

Joplin and Missouri are often the backdrops to some of these stories, so I also try to write about place that isn’t quite a “city,” but is somewhere between rural and suburban. It feels important to me that all types of places be represented in writing—not all of us are from big cities, not all of us are from the rural South or New York City, etc. As I got older I realized that “being from a small town” was a type of identity I carried. Further, I grapple a lot with representing a place in a way that is sincere and generous, even though I have grown up with my own experiences and biases both for and against it. For instance, when writing this essay and writing about the tornado and its role in Joplin, I felt torn between supporting and praising my hometown amidst tragedy, but also feeling disconnected in a place that often wouldn’t accept me.

I think we get to know others, and others who are different than us, through their stories. If my essays can get people at least talking about a topic that is socially important, then I think my writing is doing the right thing.

Of particular note, in “Butterfly People,” I let Langston Hughes do a lot of symbolic, subtle work. Not only was he representative of my blackness and racial background, but, to those more knowledgeable of his life, he represents a queer identity as well, and a rejection of the Midwest and conservatism. The scene from fourth grade felt so integral to the piece, not just in terms of plot, but also because Langston added a subtle queerness to the essay that I wanted to go unnamed.

JT: I heard an African-American writer a few years ago express how challenging it is for her to be an essayist because, as she explained—as a black person, she was raised to "represent." I've often told other black students this anecdote, and they've immediately nodded, saying, "Absolutely." Do you experience any of this conflict as a bi-racial essayist?

I agree with the pressure of representation often feeling difficult. I’m trying to learn to engage with the pressure rather than consider it a bad thing or folding to it. This summer, I went to a workshop for writers of color, VONA/Voices and it was one of the most liberating and communal spaces I’ve ever been in. I was in a memoir workshop led by Andrew X. Pham, and any type of “pressure” fell away, it was all about our voice, our writing, and our art. It’s a shame that society causes some of these pressures for underrepresented and marginalized writers, but it just means that our work is important.

I have a nice, albeit small, community of black writers and scholars in my graduate program, and I’m really grateful for that. The same goes for queer writers. And my writing program is predominantly female which I consider a blessing. When you realize you’re not alone in the larger scheme of things, some of those pressures go away (and I imagine this is true across all identities). I’ve learned to trust my own sensibilities and experiences to speak for themselves.

While my race is always there in my writing, I don’t always explicitly state it. In workshops I often find people discussing whether or not I always need to lay out the details of my racial identity for my reader in the beginning of a piece for context, which to me feels a bit suffocating—though I understand the concern. I try to go with my gut on whether or not explicit or implicit expression is necessary for the piece (this also depends on who I am thinking of as my audience). I have to assess this on a piece to piece basis.

As a biracial essayist there is some conflict. I don’t ever want to ignore the fact that I have a white parent, and the privilege that it can afford me in terms of visual presentation—I am light, and while I don’t believe I ever pass for white, there are times in which my blackness is less pronounced. Because of colorism, my presentation comes with less prejudice from those that have internal biases and assumptions associated with black people. Though I am still always “othered,” which a lot of my writing works through. And, for example, in an age of police brutality it feels important to acknowledge that I am perhaps, though it is not impossible, less likely to be profiled by the police, though that logic goes out the window anytime I see a cop car. But I am still black, and usually read as such, and that is very much part of my identity. Navigating what of this is important for the reader and for the workings of the piece is something that happens in the majority of the essays I write (but usually off of the page).

I’m glad you asked this question, though, because I think something I’m always thinking about in being a black, biracial writer in particular, is that when I am writing about having both a white and black parent, I do not want to perpetuate the idea that I am caught “in between” two different worlds, at least not in a way that has caused me severe trauma by intent of the people around me. I have no interest in expressing a narrative like this, in which being in a family that is both black and white is/was particularly woeful--that to me falls into the trappings of the tragic mulatto trope of the past. However, I think it is important to explore these issues, and point to moments when I was younger and was learning about race and what it meant. I just sometimes think people expect me to say “I wasn’t accepted by white people, and I wasn’t accepted by black people”— and that doesn’t feel true, or like a productive conversation to me. I don’t think you can flatten race or the multiracial experience to just that, there are larger forces at play. Perhaps this is part of the reason I don’t want to explain this in every piece I write. Luckily there are a lot of writers that navigate being black or biracial in white spaces as well, from Langston Hughes to Carl Phillips, so I have some people to look toward. I clearly have a lot of thoughts about this so perhaps this is all prep for an essay in the future...

JT: Who are some of your favorite essayists?

ST: That’s always a tough question and this is something I’m still learning. James Baldwin made me want to write long term, though I didn’t know who he was until I was in college, he was never part of my early education. The opening letter in The Fire Next Time was what convinced me of the power of nonfiction. I try to consume as much of his writing as possible. His writing is beautiful and feels timeless.

I really like Hilton Als’s essays as well, both his criticisms and more memoiristic essays, particularly when he writes about love. Also at The New Yorker, someone more journalistic in his essays whom I like is Vinston Cunningham. I also have a soft spot for TV & Film so I spend a couple hours a week reading reviews on The AV Club which I believe to be a form of essays as well, and I have a couple favorite writers there if that counts!

There are two young, emerging writers I always tell my peers and students to read. Hannah Hindley has this essay in Harvard Review called “Remembering That Life” that is gorgeous (and I believe she started it when she was an undergraduate). Some of her other essays are more easily accessed online and are also great. I always want students to know that good writing, particularly personal essay, isn’t always limited to those with more years of experience. Additionally, Jamila Osman is a writer, and personal friend I met through VONA, who writes beautiful essays ranging from literary to poetic to cultural criticism, and we are the same age.

Some of my other favorite essayists in no particular order are Jenny Boully, Eula Biss, Jonathan Lethem, Annie Dillard, and JoAnn Beard.

Since I’m relatively young, I hope my students believe me when I say they have potential. My wonderful undergraduate professor Kathleen Finneran gave me positive feedback in her memoir writing workshop before I graduated, and it really made me understand that I did have potential, and it made me stick with writing and pursue it at a higher level. It was enough for me to write some things that made me and my classmates think or feel, and I’m grateful that I am able to keep doing that in the contemporary.


Steffan Triplett is a writer, instructor, and MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis where he was a John B. Ervin Scholar. Steffan is a Nonfiction Editor for Hot Metal Bridge and a recent VONA alum. Some of his work appears or is forthcoming in BOAAT, Blavity, WILDNESS, and pnk prl. Follow him on Twitter @SteffanTriplett.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Her work ​is forthcoming in Brevity, Colorado Review, and Fourth Genre. ​Three of the essays in The Way We Weren't were listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2014, 2015, and 2016. She ​teaches at University of North Texas.

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