Monday, July 29, 2019

Kati Standefer on How To Write “Craziness”

Outside the window of my room at the Carey Institute for Global Good, the snow stretched out into a field of white, the Catskills unfolding in the distance whenever the weather cleared enough to see them. This was December, and I was a Logan Nonfiction Fellow, working on my first book: a memoir about what it meant to live with an implanted cardiac defibrillator and a genetic heart condition in the American healthcare system. The story was deeply traumatic, and I was now in my seventh year of trying to write it, with a publication deadline just a few months away.

Most days I found myself twitching with chronic back and hip pain—sensations that radiated outward when I tried to write, and which led me to sip tiny bits of whiskey all day long in hopes of remaining at my desk. The back: once a botched spinal tap. The hip: The place I’d had a sheath, the metal tunnel that held open my femoral artery while the cardiac surgeon went upriver in an attempt to remove hardware from my heart. Yoga helped the pain, but only briefly. I napped more than seemed reasonable, felt bleary and nauseated. Something internally had begun to wobble.

Sometimes I gave up and read, often in the bathtub, and it was on this kind of day that I inhaled Terese Marie Mailhot’s new book Heart Berries: the kind of book it was dangerous to read straight through, for by the time I stepped out of the tub, I could feel my very brain tipping.

In Heart Berries, Mailhot inhabits states we rarely see written well: the moments someone desires to kill themself, or the force of their fist on another’s face. Mailhot wrote not just about being abused, but being the abuser; she wrote the moments she could not be trusted with herself. And she did it in such a way that it felt understandable and horrible and beautiful at once, such that I threw the book across the room and lay there, wet from the bath, marveling at it.

My own story included such erraticness. I hadn’t understood until that moment just how much my difficulty writing had to do with the pain of building myself as a character on the page. I was a person who screamed at billing agents, spat insults at doctors, and nearly jumped off a bridge in Red Wing, Minnesota, because I couldn’t bear the constant threat of death or how fighting the medical system had stripped meaning from my life. To write these scenes, I would have to face the part of myself I was used to dismissing as “crazy,” which Mailhot called “part monster.” And, as a matter of craft, I would have to tell those stories as sharply as she had.

In the end it took six more months—and a significant amount more trauma therapy and bodywork—but I wrote the impossible scenes. And on the other side of it, I designed a class based off the work of Mailhot and other amazing writers, like Kiese Laymon, Marya Hornbacher, Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Sara Hubbs, and Esme Weijun Wang, who’ve bravely and beautifully captured their own wobbliness, escalation, violence and shutdown.

Here’s what I learned about writing “crazy”:

Employ language in a way that brings us into the body’s experience. Sharp syntax is the holy grail of writing altered states. Whether we are swinging into mania, dampening into depression, or escalating into a screech, the inside of the body feels different when we are “crazy,” and a good writer helps readers feel the same kind of crazy they do. Inside their syntax, we skid and richochet, we blur and gnaw. Pay attention to the effect of short rapid-fire sentences, the potential of long punctuation-less sentences, the collapse of close-together comma splices, in order to understand the power you have to speed up or slow down your readers’ brain. Consider building an image that contains one part horror and one part beauty, jamming together the abnormal and the normal. Share with us logically what is not at all logical.

Build readers’ trust. If we are only rolling around in our narrator’s brain at high speeds, a reader might become confused or overwhelmed and quit. One of the challenges of writing “craziness” is to become a narrator the reader wants to trust. Some writers do this by moving deftly between their moments of unhinging, and a more grounded narrative voice that employs pop culture criticism or research. Others establish a narrative distance from the time period they are writing about, so that the older, wiser self is our guide to the younger self who did unspeakable things or struggled in a particular way. And still other writers command a particular confidence, using a direct address to the reader, perhaps demonstrating self-awareness in the midst of the storm, so that we end up trusting the voice even if it is unreliable in certain ways.

Use other characters as mirrors. Even when the personal voice is erratic or untrustworthy, seeing the reactions of other characters (who are often not altered in the same way) can help readers understand where to place their attention or what to believe. How did our loved ones look at us? What did the ambulance driver comment on? What actions are occurring around the narrator, not subject to the same mental whims?

Own the full story. It’s easy to want to protect yourself when you’re writing stories about experiences society labels “crazy”—especially if you hurt other people in the process. But the surprising truth is: The weirdest details are the way. We are all secretly hungry to hear how things have happened for others. And we trust a writer less if they seem to be airbrushed versions of themselves. Building the self as a complex character might be difficult (it might, erm, even require some therapy) but it pays off, offering nuanced stories about these conditions and experiences that we very much need in the world.

Your own level of healing is relevant. I wasn’t kidding about therapy. All of us tell particular stories about our lives to survive. Many of these stories are half-truths, and healing includes the difficult process of seeing what we missed—how we played a role in making things worse, the way something enriched us that we couldn’t admit. Not everyone faces their life through therapy—sometimes trying to write the essay and getting called out on your blind spots in workshop is how people stumble toward self-awareness. But therapy is efficient because it amounts to an exercise in telling and revising your story, with a facilitator who gently prods you along.

That said, when “craziness” intersects trauma, the work we can do cognitively is limited. Storytelling occurs in our neocortex—the newest, most human part of our brain—while trauma is stored in our brainstem, our oldest and most reptilian part. This is pre-language: signals about survival dictated through fight, flight, or freeze, the body making decisions faster than we can see or think about them. Symptoms like overwhelm, procrastination, pain, or numbing behaviors signal we need to attend to our bodies first, to process what we’ve lived through trauma-specific therapies like Somatic Experiencing or alternative modalities like acupuncture, reiki, or bodywork. As a writer and a writing teacher, I’m past pooh-poohing therapeutic work as a part of the writing process. Anything that cages our power is a craft issue.


Katherine E. Standefer’s work appeared in The Best American Essays 2016. Her first book, Lightning Flowers, will be out in September 2020 from Little, Brown Spark and was shortlisted for the 2018 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Prize from Columbia School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. She teaches for Ashland University's Low Residency MFA.

Her class “Part Monsters: Writing ‘Craziness’” will run August 10-11 at Seattle's Hugo House.
Her class “Writing the Trauma Essay” will run September 7-8 at Catapult in New York, NY.
And she’s teaching “Crafting the Illness Narrative” online through Creative Nonfiction beginning September 9. Come join her!

Monday, July 22, 2019

Mysteries Provoke Me: a Conversation with Lia Purpura

Lia Purpura is one of my favorite essayists and people, so the occasion of the release of her fourth book of essays, All the Fierce Tethers, this last spring was an opportunity for anticipation. It's a heck of a book, building on the strengths of her earlier work. It's an important book, and I'm happy to present our conversation about the book to our readers here at Essay Daily.


Ander Monson: To talk about your new book, All the Fierce Tethers, out this Spring from Sarabande Books, I’d like to start by picking up on something you said a few years back when you visited my graduate craft seminar on the structure of collections. You said that when you end an essay, you try to leave at least one question unanswered that the next essay can pick up, so as to create a sense of linkage. I carry that thought with me on some level all the time, and it came back strongly when looking at the beautiful image on the cover: “Purkinje Cell of the human cerebellum.” 

It’s an image of a human brain cell that appears at first to be a network of roots, or perhaps a tree, or even some kind of tributary system. The interconnectedness is the first thing you notice, as well as its indeterminate quality: what the heck is it, most people probably think. (Not me: you know I’m into diagrams, and I have books of these cell diagrams, if not perhaps any quite as striking or resonant as this one.) But—

Lia Purpura: In the spirit of real conversation—the one we’d be having if we were sitting together over coffee—I’m going to interrupt with an aside. The sense of interconnectedness you mention is central to my work. But it’s not often a restful notion. A kind of popular version of “we’re all one” so often imposes that woozy/cozy/chummy kinship model and that coziness, to me, has always had an effect similar to the “I don’t see color” stance—which is a statement spoken from a position of privilege, seeking to assuage the speaker’s discomfort or revealing a lack of perception of cultural systemics. To work with “interconnectedness” brings up issues of responsibility, sacrifice, accountability, loss, hierarchy, awe, joy, tenderness.... In these essays, I’m aware of being a mere “dot” on a police helicopter’s screen, or being seen by a woodchuck or a tree, and thus leveled—in other words, what roles other than “centralized human” in the web of interconnectedness are available to us, what do these positions feel like, how do I enter those bodies, how do they remake me…. these are some of the questions I’m working on in the book.

AM: I think the metaphor you used then was that an essay throws a bunch of balls in the air, and it tries to catch at least some of them, but you wanted to leave at least one uncaught ball at the end of every essay. In retrospect I wonder if the ball thing is just my gloss of what you’re talking about with interconnectedness—or maybe tethering?—and how you think of a collection.

LP: A collection works as a kind of system of angles and approaches and the essays themselves suggest subjects and further investigations: so often I find that by the end of an essay, the subject(s) have grown wildly dimensional. Or—to stick with the circulatory system model which might be way better and way less suggestive of a linear path—the questions and ideas constellate, they get dimensional. So in “Photographing Children in Trees”, a child is experiencing what it is to be made a symbol for the pleasure of others; in “My Eagles”, I assert the same problem by way of eagles and ways they’ve been stripped of identity, agency, standing, and selfhood for the sake conventional definitions of “country” and “ideals” and thus are no longer beings. Sometimes I see the tethers between essays in hindsight, though they’ve been linking up on their own all along. Sometimes I’m aware of “thematic” forces earlier on but more often, I’m not thinking in theme—it’s that certain rages take over, or mysteries provoke me, stir curiosity, won’t let me go.

AM: I hear you about the rages/mysteries. I just began, for instance, an essay about an image of a pair of doll hands on what looks like soft grass (maybe moss or a mat, I’m not sure) called Doll Hands on Soft Grass:

I’ve been spending a lot of time buying doll parts on eBay, but what I really love about this particular image is the presentation. It’s the grass in the background, or whatever it is, that does it. Like they’re cradled. And it’s not a clean mat or carpet: there are bits of all sorts of stuff in there. I’m not sure what about the image (or the genre of these images: do the people who sell these know how creepy they are? Given the preponderance of creepiness apparently embraced in these images, they must lead into it. But that not knowing is fantastic, and extremely compelling for me, and I’m heartened to know that I’m not the only weirdo who feels taken over by them. Would you talk a little bit more about how mystery informs your artistic practice (or these essays?). I think it’s very undersung as a tool in nonfiction.

LP: Those dolls…wow. They just crack open so much. Objects trailing moments and scenes like those come to me wordlessly. In a tangle. A totally fertile tangle which might, at once, include a sense of something very wrong, something vulnerable, or amusing, or frightening, or it might be a wild juxtaposition that hits (hypodermic needle amid peonies in bloom) or a curiosity that won’t let up—all of these portals, or itches, or drives usually don’t arrive with viable language. They arrive and suggest questions and shocks, disbeliefs, they urge further interrogation, require digging into so often, forces that we’re not yet aware of, systemically. One question “Scream, or Neverminding” asks is: what does it mean to understand yourself to be part of a destructive system and yet opt out of forms of action that might create conditions for change? And what role does art have in this conundrum? I’m asking the question of myself, of course, not holding the reader in some glaring moral light. 

AM: So to come back to that question of tethering and interconnectedness, does that also extend to the ways in which your books move into one another, or into the culture? If so, what was/were the question/questions that Rough Likeness left unanswered that you carried forward into All the Fierce Tethers?

LP: All the Fierce Tethers definitely takes up the charge of Rough Likeness’s inquiries into heightened perception, the consequences of looking very hard and cracking into the questions—moral-aesthetic-humane questions—that intense looking kicks up. Here, though, I’m aware of moving out into community more directly—my community, my city, Baltimore and its near-apartheid conditions, my own efforts to move beyond certain assumed and assented to boundaries, spoken and unspoken. I want to get at the stories that map the land, the stories that like palimpsests lay over the streets I walk daily, the beings both human and non that I meet while moving through, the ways I experience relationships with others, am centered or not. How do we assent to or revoke the assigned hierarchies (land/animals/trees v. humans) or respond to (or choose not to, because some of us have that choice) the ways we live in racially and economically and ideologically divided spaces?

AM: I think I’ve shared with you before that one of my primary experiences of reading your work is that of bewilderment, a pleased kind of transporting in which I really have no idea where we’re going at first but am along for the ride, and of course the more unexpected the chain of images and moments are, the better. 

I wonder now, thinking about this, if connectivity in an essay is a kind of ethos you’ve arrived at? Is it an ethos for living too? The perfume writer and essayist Luca Turin (have you read him?) tells me in one of his essays that “unfamiliar angles are a sort of joy,” which reminds me of an “undersung moment” in “On Coming Back as a Buzzard.” I wonder if that kind of back road travel between undersung moments or images or angles that don’t seem obviously to be connected be more than an aesthetic move but a political argument?

LP: Attention to back road travel and undersung moments (undersung people and creatures, too) yes, I believe constitutes an ethos. Yes. Absolutely. The cover of All the Fierce Tethers is drawing of a Purkinje cell of the human cerebellum (by the extraordinary Santiago Ramon y Cajal—“father of modern neuroscience”)—which also resembles a tree, or the branchings of alveoli, or tributaries seen from a height…in other words, we are so closely allied with others that even our forms align, the purposes of our forms align and it actually takes very little imagination to see kinship—though as a species at large, we certainly have forfeited direct access to imagining kinship in favor of so many ways of mediating direct experience or filtering it or blocking it out entirely. I do have hope—in the awe that kinship thinking offers. The NYT recently ran an article, “Our Planet is Just as Alive as We Are” (Ferris Jabr, 4/21/19) citing the ways the Gaia hypothesis is being revisited now—as opposed to being ridiculed as it has been—(just quick: biologist Lynn Margulis proposed in the early 70s, we—living and nonliving elements—“are parts and partners of a vast being who in her entirety has the power to maintain our planet as a fit and comfortable habitat for life”). This is large scale thinking of course. I traffic in micros that support and confirm the larger scale concepts. In working on the undeniable connectedness, ways of imagining into others’ lives and habits, trying to feel and scent and see accurately enough that I can find some fluency to bring back from diving expeditions (I’m thinking here of Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and the charge she set herself to find language for states of being that were going unnamed and therefore actively destroying the viability of her lived experience). “Interconnectedness” can be mishandled and can signal a kind of lazy simple chumminess as I mentioned earlier. Or, on the other hand, committing to it can open opportunities for substantial change of heart and behavior. 

AM: Thinking about connectivity as an ethos makes me think about collaboration and the way in which (y)our essays are not just expressions of the self but filters in which a lot of other material gets caught. In your work we have the sense of a roving eye: it’s not surprising that sight is the sense we’re attuned to more often than anything else in your work: you pick up eagles, dots, and childhood. The Crate & Barrel new store manager makes an appearance, your grandmother’s wooden spoons, a woman in a bikini with a snake as a necklace, “How Deep is Your Love,” etc. 

LP: “Roving” is a great term. I love it. It’s that I can’t help but throw the net wide, my north star belief being that story (no “the”—just “story”) wants to get told from undersung angles—story has to be told that way for the sake of not only justice but accuracy—consider the silenced or quiet, the unseen, hidden-from-view … a world without buzzards and maggots is not a viable world. It won’t actually function in a sustained way. Eliminating the “uglies” breaks the system. This goes for forms of time that we are not literate in as well. A world in which serious slow time, tree and moss time is not considered, seen, allowed … well, that sets the conditions for the overriding and destruction of actual habitats… and that's where we are now. Similarly, “collaboration” and “community” cannot be reduced to merely “feel good” terms. A class is an organism. A poem is a conversation. 


Lia Purpura’s new collection of essays, All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books) has arrived!  Her most recent collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Viking/Penguin.) She is the author of three previous collections of poems (King Baby, Stone Sky Lifting, The Brighter the Veil); three previous collections of essays (Rough Likeness, On Looking, Increase), and one collection of translations (Poems of Grzegorz Musial: Berliner Tagebuch & Taste of Ash).
Ander Monson is the founder of Essay Daily. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

A Conversation with Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton

When I first heard about Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, I fell in love. I couldn’t hear enough about the anthology. I scoured the internet for scraps of information. Contributors, essays, organization: I wanted to know it all. As an essayist, one particularly interested in form, one that distrusts the canonizing actions some anthologies enact, I didn’t realize how greedy I was for this anthology until I knew it existed. This book collects forms, shows how forms can communicate content, can communicate emotion and intention, but the collection is more than the sum of its parts. In gathering contemporary Native nonfiction, this book elucidates the roots of the form-conscious essay and brings together the exciting current work of Native writers. In a sweeping decolonizing gesture, this anthology challenges the nonfiction canon as it’s been taught and creates a porous new space in its place. Ander Monson and I were more than excited for the opportunity to talk with Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton about the creation of this important anthology, which will be available July 9th, 2019.  —Maddie Norris


Ander Monson: One of the concerns of this book is focusing on form rather than material. You go out of your way to talk about it both in the proposal and in the introduction to the anthology, and I'm wondering if you would talk a little bit more about why, as an orientation to the anthology, that was the approach that you took.

Elissa Washuta: The idea came about when Regan Huff from University of Washington Press asked me if I had any ideas for books that the press might be interested in considering and, as one's mind does in situations like that, mine came up with this anthology. I said, “oh, I want to make an anthology!” I had been teaching Native literatures at the time, and teaching Native nonfiction specifically, and finding it so hard to teach. I thought I was coming to understand so much about nonfiction and coming to understand it as a Native writer, and yet when I started to approach the class, I felt like I didn't understand it at all, based on the materials available. The anthologies that were already out there took such an ethnography-type orientation to the material that my burgeoning interest in form was not reflected at all. The need was clearly there. We needed a new Native nonfiction anthology; the time was right. And so I thought, “What about innovation as a focus, formal innovation, particularly?”

Theresa Warburton: I'm coming from it so similarly, but I'm not a creative writer. I'm a literary scholar, and so Elissa and I—just in the course of our friendship–talked about how, in the field, there's not as much discussion between literary scholars and creative writers. So, one of the things that we were interested in doing as collaborators was doing that work between a creative writer and literary scholar. And because we were both nervous about asserting ourselves in those spaces, part of the discussion was Elissa asking, “Do you think you could support some of the things we're talking about through your knowledge of the literary field?” But also, just in teaching, I had the same experience teaching nonfiction. I've been doing work about Native memoir, in particular, and the secondary material available for that as a field is extremely limited and most of it focuses on the 19th century. I teach some of the time at Western Washington University, where Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola are, and so it was clear to me that form was part of the bigger discussion about creative nonfiction in general but there's not a sort of corollary discussion of form and contemporary nonfiction in Native literary studies. There’s an ethical component to it, which is to say: we really need to push people to see Native writers as practicing craft. And as we talked about the collection, that became the thing that we wanted to assert. Not that the content isn't important, but actually Native writers are talking about a whole variety of things in the world. The things that they’re writing about are politics, bodies, economics, all kinds of things that get pushed away when people just say, “what are Native writers saying about Native people?”

AM: Red Dead Redemption 2, for instance.

TW: One of Elissa’s favorite topics!

EW: We were talking about it before you joined us.

TW: Exactly, like “what might Native authors be telling us about video games?” I see it all the time: students come in to a Native lit class wanting mythology: Origin stories, the tale of two wolves, or whatever. And then they read an essay by Elissa that’s about Trump being elected, and they're like, “what is this?” So part of it was creating both primary texts and a secondary text that could be used as an analytic framework for students to guide them through. And not just students, but we're hoping that it goes beyond the classroom, and that people are interested in the book beyond academia.

Maddie Norris: You all talked a little bit about how this anthology breaks new ground, but I'm wondering, too, how it's in conversation with anthologies that you admire, that are doing work that you're interested in.

TW: That's a good question because I feel like a lot of our discussion was about anthologies that we didn’t like.

EW: Yeah, I know!

TW: So many of the anthologies that are Native nonfiction are done by one author, most are focused on autobiography, and most of its contributions are from authors who primarily write fiction and poetry, people like Leslie Silko or Simon Ortiz, nonfiction writing by them. The way we read those anthologies was that they're meant to be supplemental to the fiction, to say, “Oh, this will help us sort of analyze the fiction better.” But I'm not sure we talked as much about anthologies that we really appreciated. We were looking a lot at online journals and these other venues that were publishing these Native essays. We felt like, “why isn't this being anthologized?”  Elissa, maybe you can speak more to it, but we liked Next American Essays and those kind of anthologies that were centering nonfiction as a literary craft. But, that anthology has only one essay by a Native author.

EW: Yeah, I don't think we were so much. I mean certainly there's anthologies that I have liked and I have used. Of course, John D’Agata’s Next American Essay is one that was foundational to me when I was learning about the lyric essay in grad school, so I think that was the anthology we talked about most. John really talked about his methodology in the beginning, and we were talking about what we were going to be doing differently in regards to form and Native writers. But we did talk a lot about the publications where we had seen a lot of these essays; Yellow Medicine Review is one that's been publishing great work for a long time, and when I was at The Rumpus, I published some of these essays that eventually ended up in the anthology. We were talking about the idea of what was already out there, and I know we had a lot of conversations—this is kind of getting off topic, but—on Twitter, or in casual conversations, I would hear people say “where are the Native writers? What's out there? I need to teach something. I want to put somebody on my syllabus who's not x person.” People had an interest, and people wanted more. It was already out there, but every November, there was a new set of lists on the literary websites saying “10 Native writers you need to read right now,” and two of them are dead. There seems to be this real need that we thought we could fill with an anthology of these essays that were amazing and stunning and important and already published a lot of the time, and Native writers who are already doing this work and perhaps hadn't published it yet, and this interest in innovative nonfiction, form-focused nonfiction, and work by Native writers.

AM: Why do you think that it’s the online publications that are the ones that are publishing more of the Native writers, or at least the essays that you are thinking about? Do you consider the work of your anthology-making a gathering of these works published online in what many folks think of as a more transitory or less permanent space, and trying to sort of consolidate that into a book? Or is it that Native writers are just publishing more interesting works online?

EW: Well, some of it is from print journals; we have quite a few pieces that were originally in print journals.

TW: And some brand new pieces that had never been published. We have a couple of those that were written for the collection.

EW: But thinking about online spaces, I think that for a lot of us—I, of course, don't want to speak for all Native writers, but I know a lot of us have, at times, been burned in the editing process or, at least have at some point been frustrated by the editing process, asked for markers of indigeneity or supposed markers of indigeneity by non-Native editors. Many of us like to be able to look around and see who's been published in a place before committing our work to it. And that's so much easier with online journals. There’s less of a time and monetary investment than looking into a print journal and seeing who's been published and seeing how their work is presented. So I think that may be part of why the online journal spaces are featuring more Native writers right now, but I'm not sure. I think that probably there are a lot of pieces appearing in print journals as well. And I just haven't kept up as much, maybe.

TW: I feel like part of it, too, is about the processes of gate keeping. As someone who isn’t a creative writer but works with contemporary writers, I hear a lot about who's in control of editing processes in certain places and who you need to know to sort of get into those spaces, and this collection is really a testament to the community that Elissa, in particular, is part of. The authors that we asked for pieces trust us as editors, and Elissa, especially. They know her work; they know her. Some of the people in the collection are people that Elissa worked with at IAIA, so they already trust her, not as an arbiter of Native anything, but as a writer who will do justice to the work, and I think a lot of the people that agreed to put their work in did that because they really were excited about being in a collection of other Native nonfiction writers for the first time, instead of having to be the Native writer in a collection. But it’s also because they trusted that the way that we would frame it would be something that spoke to what they were trying to do. There was that element of trust, and to connect back to Maddie's question about anthologies, I’ve learned from a lot of feminist anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back or Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism that these spaces are really about community and showing that this isn't individual authors doing something. This is whole communities of people who are having these conversations. In Chip Livingston's essay, for instance, he mentions Elissa's work, and there are a number of cases in the anthology where one of the pieces references another author in the anthology. That might be one of the reasons that not just online, but more quick publication spaces have been a place that some of these Native authors have been publishing more, because there's that level of trust. At least for me, in academic publishing, I have no idea who reads my pieces. With the collection, University of Washington Press was really great about saying who would be the right kind of reader, because there are some people that would read this collection and really disagree with it. And so we could have that trust and then authors could have that trust. So it's really a community based project.

AM: That's fascinating. Online is more reactive, collaborative, social, rhizomatic, I suppose, and it's easier to see where things connect, so that makes a lot of sense. In thinking of the book, a lot of things you're talking about regarding collaboration are fascinating.

TW: I think of this book as a reflection of all of the things that have been happening instead of this rupture point of something “new”. We had a conversation about not wanting to put new in the title or anything like that because this is actually not new. Native nonfiction is foundational to the history of Native literature. Some of the earliest Native texts are nonfiction. So it was important for us to say, this not this brand new thing that just started happening in the past 10 years.

MN: In the introduction, you talk about how there is so much exciting work, and you've been talking about it in this conversation as well, so I'm wondering how you narrowed down the essays that you wanted to include.

EW: How did we do it? You know, there were a bunch of essays that we already knew–

TW: We were like, “This essay! This essay!” I just remember sitting at my kitchen table, and Elissa and I being like, “what about this one? Or this one? Or–?”

EW: Off the top of our heads, we had a list of a bunch of essays. And then with some writers—like Billy-Ray Belcourt, for example—we didn't have anything in mind from those writers, but we knew we wanted something from them. Billy-Ray is an example of somebody we reached out to and asked whether he had any work that we could think about for inclusion. We had in mind essays and writers already who were doing the kinds of work that we knew would be a fit. We talked about opening it up to submissions, but we didn't talk about that for very long because we knew we wouldn't be able to take really anything because of what we already knew was out there.

TW: From the beginning, we had so much. And actually, a couple of them, like Ernestine’s piece and Stephen’s piece were talks that had been given, and Billy-Ray is known mostly as a poet, but his piece in the collection is a very interesting genre-bending piece of nonfiction. And so a lot of it was: okay, instead of just saying, “who is doing nonfiction,” saying, “who are the people who are transforming nonfiction,” and “who are the people thinking about form in this creative way?” And that meant taking some of these orations that had been given, which again is a really foundational part of Native literature, in a way that isn't like “oh Native literature is an oral culture,” but in a way that was showing oration in literary way. We really just sat down, and a lot of this we did through Google docs and texting. A lot of it was like fifteen texts back and forth, like “oh yeah this person” or Elissa had seen Kim TallBear read part of her piece at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference and she texted me immediately and was like, “Oh my God, we have to ask Kim about these ‘Critical Poly 100s.’” So a lot of it was organic. We were just talking the other day that the whole process has seemed a little suspiciously easy because it was so exciting, and we worked so well together and the pieces we just sent out. I think we only had two people say no.

EW: One person said no because the essay we wanted is going to be in a book, and he doesn't want it in an anthology first, which totally makes sense.

MN: It might be hard to pick a favorite essay, but if you have one or one that feels crucial to the anthology, could you talk about why?

TW: I really love Bojan’s piece about being in Singapore. It's a travel essay essentially, and I love that piece because people think of Native people as not moving around the world at all. Because there’s this connection to territory and place, it becomes static. There are numerous times in the essay, “Fear to Forget & Fear to Forgive: Or an Attempt at Writing a Travel Essay,” where he hasn't written in it for months and then he's like, “Oh, I'm getting back to it now.” It's very dynamic; he's moving, the piece is moving. You get a real sense of the temporal dynamics of it, that it's taking months. And I love Elissa’s essay, but I love everything Elissa does.

EW: Aw!

TW: Elissa and I are twins. Can you tell?

EW: We buy the same clothes.

TW: When we met, we were both wearing all black. And I brought her up to do a talk at Western and she met me in my office, and we both had these glasses on, and we were like, “we look the same.”

EW: After a while, we realized we were unintentionally buying the same clothes and then intentionally started buying the same clothes.

TW: Just yesterday, we texted about buying the same clothes! Okay, Elissa, what is your favorite essay? We haven't even talked about this.

EW: I don't know. It's really hard. Michael Wasson's is probably my favorite. I solicited that when I was an editor at The Rumpus, and I had no idea whether he would have nonfiction, but he either had that or wrote it. I've taught that essay several times. I've read it over and over and over and over, editing it twice now. And, of course, both times, it's been perfect. It just feels like it has this endless mystery at its heart. It's an essay that I don't feel that I can fully understand and yet I also feel like… or maybe I feel like I can't fully access it, but I can still appreciate the meaning of it and I can still understand it in ways that are gently challenging.

TW: I was just thinking too about Joan Kane’s essay. In that essay, she uses asterisks throughout to help space the essay, and it was really funny editing this with a copy editor from the press. Because some of the things that were happening in the essays, they were like, “should these asterisks be centered?” and Elissa and I were like, “no.” I have a soft spot for some of those essays, like Joan’s, that challenged the editing process. Like in Bojan’s work, he uses a lot of Diné language, and they asked to italicize Diné words because that’s the policy with foreign languages and we have to say, “no, they're not foreign words.”

MN: Thinking about how the anthology challenges things, you quoted Muscogee writer Joy Harjo and Spokane writer Gloria Bird, hoping “to ‘turn the process of colonization around,’ so that Native literatures ‘will be viewed and read as a process of decolonization.’” I'm wondering if you can talk more about how this does that work.

EW: One of the things that I've been thinking about–and, Theresa, I've been wanting to talk to you more about this, apart from my random text messages–but–

TW: Elissa and I text a lot. We joke that this collection was done all through text.

EW: It’s a joke, but it's true. Most of it was done via text message. I have been thinking about–this is going to be a roundabout answer, but we'll get there. I've been thinking a lot lately about wanting a new term for the lyric essay, because that term is just not working. It seems like it can be understood at face value in a way that it can't. Lyric essay is not the same as lyrical essay. I've been thinking about this a lot, as I'm teaching lyric essay and talking more about it, and I've been wanting a new term. As I was thinking and tweeting about all this, I got back to our introduction, looking at the proofs, and I realized we already came up with this new term that's exactly what I wanted in exquisite vessel. Because it's something that's able to encompass not just gap-based composite essays, or however we describe the lyric essay, it's able to encompass what I'm seeing more and more of in work that is thought of as the lyric essay: seamless work, work that doesn't have the gaps, that is very form conscious, but work that is conscious of its seamlessness. That’s something that’s happening in the essays in this collection. We have essays that are form conscious but do not have gaps, that are coiling. I've been wanting a new term that is not accidentally misleading, and I realized exquisite vessel is the term I wanted, and this is terminology that is not just for Native nonfiction. This is for everybody. To me, that feels like a decolonizing gesture, that we could come up with this term that is based on our approach to basketry and to aesthetically exciting objects and vessels, and we can apply it to Native nonfiction, but it's a term that can be used by all writers. What do you think, Theresa?

TW: Yeah, sometimes I feel like Elissa and I set each other up for these things, but I swear we did not talk about this beforehand, but I was going to say the exact same thing. I'm assigned to teach American literature classes, and when I do that, I always say, “how might the study of American literature look different if we considered Native literature foundational to the field in the way that Native land is foundational to the United States?” The US is built on Native land, and what happens when you reframe it that way instead of Native literature is this niche interest within that? We’re trying to work against that niche. We're saying that what Native writers are doing with form is actually transformative for the field itself, for how we understand the essay as a form. In Native studies, one of the basic premises of decolonization is this great essay by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang called, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” In that essay, they talk about how decolonization has material realities, that part of what decolonization has to be is the return of Native land to Native people, which will lead to these actual material changes  not just in Native communities but everywhere. Part of what that requires is, as a non-Native person, developing a different way of relating to Native people and Native land than the way that's been given to me through settlement. Part of working on this essay collection has been Elissa and I trying to figure out, as a Native and non-Native writer, how we are building a relationship, a personal relationship and a professional relationship that is trying to get out of those ways that we've been taught to relate to each other. One of the things that we talked a lot about, in the introduction especially, was: we're writing in one voice, we're writing as the editors, but there are times, for instance, when Elissa wants to talk about Native writers as a “we,” and I'm not part of that “we.” So how do we, Elissa and I, navigate that relationship? To me, that's very much where the decolonization part of this comes from. To say, this is relevant to everybody, because everybody is part of that process, and non-Native people need to learn different ways of relating to Native literature, for instance, and then that on a bigger scale. We're hoping that this does that by insisting that Native writers are foundational to the field of nonfiction, not, “the lyric essay happened, and then Native writers started doing the lyric essay, and now they're really good at it.” Not at all. Those genealogies of the things in this essay go all the way back to Zitkála-Šá, people that are part of a different genealogy than the typical genealogy of the essay that is popular.

EW: My first personal essay was a lyric essay, and I had never heard that term before. I had not read lyric essays. It was written for an anthropology class, which was kind of wild. I was the only Native person in the room. At University of Maryland, Anthropology the only department where I found a class on Native peoples. Our final project could be a creative project, and a lot of people presented horribly offensive ones. I wrote a personal essay, shared it with the professor, and refused to share it with the class because it was intensely personal. That ended up being part of my first book, and it was a lyric essay. It was about my identity, my confusion about my identity, my family history, violence, all these things. I don't know where I got the idea to break it into fragments because I didn’t encounter those fragmented essay models until later.

TW: I have that happen now. I had a student last semester, a Kanaka student, and she wrote this beautiful final project about Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is this American military National Park, but it's also a place that her family has a strong connection to, and she wrote this beautiful essay and said, “this is my final paper,” and I said, “this is an essay.” I sent her Elissa’s “Apocalypse Logic,” and I said, “Do you see the connections?” She ended up publishing it. I said, “this is a nonfiction piece; send it to this person,” and she published it as an essay. This goes back to your question about decolonization; these are storytelling practices that are familiar and again come from a different genealogy. The student couldn't write without talking about her personal connection to place, but that also meant she had to talk about her father, her grandmother, and her mother. Then to also bring in this military history about Hawaii, there was no other way for her to tell that story. To circle back to what Elissa was saying about the term exquisite vessel and needing a new term for lyric essay, there's so much about like, “this is when the lyric essay became popular, and this is what it looks like, and this,” but we're trying to say, “how might we refer to these storytelling practices that predate that and maybe parallel it or intersect with it in ways?”

EW: In talking about the lyric essay, there's so much talk about sourcing and material and not as much talk about time, and for me, what's appealing when I look back at the work that I do and why lyric movement works is that there's a sense of simultaneity. In different Native cosmologies, there's different conceptions of time and overlapping timelines and simultaneity, or circularity or all sorts of different ways of understanding time. I was raised to function within competing ways of living inside time: things taking the time they take, clock be damned, is often in conflict with scheduled American culture. I’m constantly trying to make a moment stretch, always getting out the door late, and I think that’s how the joke of being on Indian Time is an unfortunate truth for me. The bent and mixed timelines I work with in the essay are completely different from the linear time I attempted to represent in conventional fiction, when I was still writing it. In the essay, every second can be as densely packed as they feel like they are, or could be, in life. I think that the lyric essay, or whatever we call it, is a way of getting that onto the page. Just right now, what we're doing, talking into the computer, is not the only thing that's going on. My past is happening because I'm talking about it.

TW: And I will say, just talking about the term exquisite vessel, when we first started this book, Elissa said, “this book has been living in me and what it is called is exquisite vessel.” The book isn’t called that anymore; that's the title of the introduction, and we got to a place where we agreed with the editors that as far as selling the book, that made sense. But it was a term that we had to fight for in the introduction that one of the reviewers didn't like it at first. In the introduction, there's a part where we make really clear what we mean by the term exquisite. The reason we wanted the term was the sense of craft; something really exquisite is delicate and created with intention. But there was some worry about that term, which made us have to really identify and be able to argue for what it was about the term that made us invested.

EW: Another part of what I love about how we defined the term and how we talked about the word exquisite was that idea of the exquisite pain and exquisite ache. When David Shields talks about literary collage, he talks about calamity, and I think that that's the feeling of intensity and necessity and urgency of creating. The press board and the editors worried that the term exquisite vessel was going to call to mind The Well Wrought Urn.

AM:  Is that a bad reference?

TW: I don't know if they felt like that was bad. They were like, “that is what people are going to think,” or they were worried that people were going to think that the book was about baskets. That's why there's not a basket on the cover. We originally wanted a photo of Ed Carriere’s basket that we talk about in the introduction, but they thought people were going to think that the book was about baskets. And the new cover that the press designed is something we love. The art director did a really good job invoking the basket, but without it being only a material thing. We did have a lot of discussions about like what that term would bring up for people, The Well Wrought Urn was one of them, and just material objects in general. I don't remember if they thought that was a bad reference or just not what we're going.

EW: I think it was the latter. I’m still going to use the term.

AM: We've been looking at some of these essays, tracking them down in various places online, and a number of them have images. Are the images showing up in the anthology? did some of them get stripped? Did none of them make it?

EW: The ones in The Rumpus probably all had images in the online publications, but none of the essays came in with images. That's just something that The Rumpus does. There’s always a header image and then they invite writers to include more images to break up the page. Some of those have images for that reason, but there are no images in the book.

TW: I think that goes back to this question about online publication. I had an article come out with Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, and they published it in the journal, and then when they republished it online, they asked me for images because they said that breaks up the page a little bit for readers. I'm not that deeply a technological person, but it's important to the format, I think. None of those images that were included in those essays were built into the structure of the essay. A lot of that I think was added for the online format. Byron's essay had specific symbols in it that we had fought to keep. We didn’t have to fight hard, but we had to say, “no, another symbol isn't okay,” and we had to import it as an image file, even if it's not what we think of as an image.

AM: It's a thing that we've started to think about in my class. It's a conversation we've been having about, “is this the author’s image? Is it part of the essay?” Often not, but sometimes yes. That's useful to think about.

TW: We were really careful about editing. We did a lot of back and forth with authors saying, “Is this what you want it to look like?” So, even if there weren't images, we did a lot of work on the visual appearance of the text on the page. That was a lot of the editing with the copy editor. We did have to do a lot about spacing. Those aren't images necessarily, but there was a lot of discussion about the visual elements, about how we wanted it to look. We started this project three years ago, so part of what's going on Elissa and I are thinking back.

EW: Our lives have changed completely in the last three years.

TW: We were both living in Washington, and now Elissa is in Ohio, and I'm in Rhode Island.

AM: People don't think a lot about the duration of these projects and how the project changes over the course of that. In some cases, anthologies come out of a decade of conversations or perhaps even longer.

EW: And there are so many writers publishing exciting work now. That’s partly why we want a second one, but I hadn't read, for example, Danielle Geller’s work when we were choosing essays. I think I had met Danielle, but I didn't know her work at all. There are just so many other Native writers who that’s the case for, too.

AM: One of the cool things about the anthology is it comes at a really good time. This is maybe in part due to the to the rising influence of the IAIA low-rez. All of a sudden, I'm much more aware of a lot of Native writers all in conversation with each other, a lot of them online. Creative nonfiction is a pretty recent genre in the academy, especially, so it seems like it's still under negotiation in a way that fiction and poetry are not, so this feels like a very fortuitous time to have this anthology do this gathering work and this space-making work, and I feel very excited about it. It's one that I know that Maddie has been really excited about from the get-go.

TW: There have been a couple of articles that have come out about this time, calling it a “new Renaissance,” which I sort of dislike because I don’t really like the term “Native Renaissance” in the first place for Native Renaissance. I do think with the popularity of books like Terese Mailhot’s and Tommy Orange’s, combined with public attention to Standing Rock, I think there’s a higher familiarity with or awareness. It’s not as much as we'd like, but I feel like it's a good time to articulate that there's a connection between literature and political movement, and this is, for us, a political project. We're not like, “oh no it's just literature.” It really is connected to these things, and it is a really exciting time. I hope that it is signaling a more devout interest in the field.

MN: Terese has this quotation that I really love: “the writers before me seemed to do the work of looking at being indigenous, so we could look through it.” I wanted to hear you all talk about how this collection looks through it and what it sees.

EW: So many conference panels seem to be focused on just Native identity, and we were tired of talking about it, and yet it still seemed to be something we needed to talk about. There was a lot of resistance to this expectation that we just keep talking about identity, and yet it's such a core conflict for so many of us, an inner conflict, that it seems like a natural subject for the essay, but we wanted to be able to do it on our own terms, rather than having to write into the non-Native expectation that we would be talking about identity again, especially because a lot of other Native writers have already done this work. I was looking through old books today by Leslie Marmon Silko, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Paula Gunn Allen and seeing that some of the things that we're still writing about have been written about so thoroughly so many years ago, and it feels like this is a moment where finally we're able to get some recognition from the publishing industry for work that doesn't ask those same questions about where you live, whether you live on the reservation or not, where you grew up, your appearance, do you speak the language, are you in ceremony, these same fights on the page; we don't have to do that anymore. We can talk about Twitter like Tommy Pico does; we can write about Red Dead Redemption 2; we can write about travel; we can write about whatever we want.

AM: Bush.

EW: We can write about Bush. Sometimes there are editors who only reach out to me when it's Native American Heritage Month, or it's Columbus Day. But the Bush essay came about because the editor who solicited it had been listening to me talk and talk and talk about Bush one day, and he said, “Bush is coming to town. I want an essay,” so I feel like there's a lot more opportunities for us to branch out now into writing about what we actually are concerned about, rather than the same old stuff that has already been done and that we may already have answers to. Instead, we can essay into the questions that we’re actually curious about.

TW: There's a quote in the introduction that we explicitly took disagreeing with Krupat; it says something like, Native nonfiction is grounded in a fascination with authenticity. And it’s true that there is this obsession with authenticity in evaluating Native writing, and we are not interested in that question at all. Thinking about teaching this collection or teaching Native lit in general, there are real misunderstandings about indigeneity, where it really only gets conflated with race or ethnicity but that’s not what indigeneity is. So many scholars, like Kim TallBear who is in the collection, have pointed this out endlessly. It’s really thinking about a relationship to place and to each other, so kinship and thinking about relationship to land. To me, that’s what the looking at versus looking through is about. I always tell my students that we're not looking at Native writers. We're looking for what they say about the world and how we can learn about the world from what they say. Sometimes the way that Native literatures are taught and read is that the only place they're allowed to look is at each other or at themselves. And we wanted to say, “no, they're open to the world and looking at the world and engaging in this.” Red Dead Redemption might look very different to me than it looks to Elissa. Or like, non-Native people can’t seem to understand all the things bound up in casinos, which might look very different to non-Native people than to Native people.

EW: When we went, you had a good time though!

TW: We had the best time. Elissa and I went to the opening of the Cowlitz casino together, and it was so hilarious. I did get chided though because someone was like, “I haven't seen you before, so you must not be a person that comes to council meetings.” I was like, “No, I'm not a deadbeat; I just–” It was funny. I do think we'll have a big chunk of Native readers. I really hope that this is a collection, though, that non-Native people read and see and say, “Oh, this is a different way of relating and I have a responsibility to listen to the ways of relating that are being laid out here.”

EW: As a member of a gaming tribe, I feel like I have this language around Indian Casino humor that doesn’t often totally translate to non-Natives. Gaming is a significant economic activity for us, but of course we joke—joking and teasing are just standard modes of discourse for us. I love to joke about the Indian Casino: the buffet, the musical acts that come through, what we’re going to do with your money. I knew you could appreciate the layers of seriousness and absurdity, and could love and respect all of it. To me, that’s what this collaboration and this book are all about: approaching Native writers’ work with a willingness to engage on the terms the writer sets, and doing so with the care and patience to see us as who we are and what we love.


Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Potlatch Fund. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.

Theresa Warburton lives in Lummi, Nooksack, and Coast Salish territories in Bellingham, WA. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Washington University, where she is also Affiliate Faculty in Canadian-American and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Ander Monson is the editor of Essay Daily.

Maddie Norris is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in creative nonfiction and was previously the Thomas Wolfe Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work can be found in Essay Daily, Opossum, and Intima. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about her dead dad, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and the impossibilities of wound healing. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Frank Strong: George Orwell, Teju Cole, and My Students’ Stories

I’m sitting at my desk in the morning a week or two before the winter break, preparing for the school day, when one of our recent graduates comes into my classroom. He’s carrying an open laptop and walking towards me with an urgency that’s out of place in the near-empty school building.

“Can you help me edit something?” he asks.

He wants help with two letters, one he’s written and one by his mom, both of which ask the government for lenience for her entering the country illegally nearly two decades ago. She’s meeting with her lawyers later in the day and he wants the letters to be prepared, to be polished. I help him fix the structure of some sentences, move around some punctuation, and try not to notice the letters’ content.

Instead, we talk college football. He’s attending the University of Texas now, and we run through the Longhorns’ recent wins and losses. He made it to every game this season.

Then homeroom is starting, and my current students are filing in, and he’s saying goodbye. I wish him and his mom good luck.

The letters are still open in a tab on my computer. I reread them later, when I have time to be devastated. They wreck me.

His mom’s letter describes the situation that led her to come to this country: her parents had migrated to the US when she was a child, leaving her with relatives; she couldn’t go to school because she worked in fields from a young age. A relative abused her and the town they lived in was beset by violence. She crossed the border at seventeen.

His letter lists his class rank and academic accomplishments and ties those successes to his mom’s influence. “She never let me put my homework back into my backpack until it was done right,” he writes.

Both letters talk about what would happen if she were deported: she would have to choose between bringing her younger sons with her and leaving them here without her. If she chooses the latter, my former student might have to drop out of college to provide for them.

Both letters also express remorse. “My mom made a mistake,” my former student says; “I’m so sorry,” writes his mother. More than anything, that makes me seethe. What does she have to be sorry for?


Or it’s one of the days before school starts in August. I’m hanging posters and arranging bookshelves in my classroom. Students are in the gym, registering for classes. A student I taught the year before, now a junior, makes his way into my classroom to say hi. I can tell he wants to say more, though, so I ask him about his summer. “I got arrested,” he says. I look at him—he’s not the kind of kid to get in trouble. “By Border Patrol,” he explains.

He was on vacation with his mom and brothers at a beach near the border. They were pulled over for having a broken taillight, and then asked to wait outside of their car until Border Patrol arrived. They were taken to a detention center from which he feared he would be immediately deported. Finally, they were released, but his mom is now fighting a deportation order and he is hoping it won’t affect his application for DACA. I have no idea what to say to him as he sits, red-eyed, in my classroom, telling me this. Later, in writing he shares with me, he’ll describe waiting for Border Patrol on the side of the road, the ride to the detention center with his terrified mom, the brick walls of his holding cell.

The stories accumulate. A girl writes a journal entry about the things she saw in the country she left when she was eight: they include bodies hanging from lampposts.

Another applies to colleges with a personal statement outlining the extra responsibilities she took on after her father was deported.

Another relates her own journey across the desert, made when she was seven.

You can never predict who they’ll come from: the bubbly senior girl who organizes homeroom breakfasts, the point guard on the basketball team, the girl with the nose ring who seems not to give a fuck about anything.

The stories accumulate and I don’t know what to do with them.


I keep a few essays printed out in a manila folder in the middle drawer of my writing desk for when I forget how, what, or why to write. One of these “desk-drawer essays” is George Orwell’s “Why I Write.”

In that essay, Orwell describes a particularly unpoetic chapter in his 1938 memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, in which he resorted to sheer reportage in defense of Trotskyites who were falsely accused of collaborating with Franco. Orwell worried that the chapter ruined the book—it was too dry, too factual. Nonetheless, he had to include it. “I happened to know,” Orwell explains, “what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had never been angry about that I should never have written the book.”

I take from that essay two things. The first is that when you have special knowledge about a political situation, you have a special responsibility to share that knowledge. The second is that it’s okay to write when you’re angry. In fact, that’s the best time to write. Valeria Luiselli brings these two concepts together in her book Tell Me How it Ends when she writes that “it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity.”

I work at a school in Texas where the student population is about 95% Latino; many of my students are undocumented, and even more have at least one undocumented parent. I hear what they say, both in class discussions and outside of class. And I’m a writing teacher, so I see what they write about their lives—in assignments, journals, and personal statements, but also in things they’re sending out and want me to look over.

So, because of my job, I happen to know things. I happen to know, for example, exactly what my immigrant students write about what their lives are like now, in the Trump era. I know the different ways they react when they hear the president’s name, or when they hear about efforts to make undocumented students ineligible for in-state tuition, or about politicians who threaten to call ICE on immigrant protesters. I know that their fears didn’t start with Trump, but I also know how they reacted to his election: this man who promised to send a deportation force to round up their parents, who vowed to end the DACA program on which many of their futures depend, and who said that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”

And worse, I happen to know that other people don’t know these things. My wife and I were dining not long ago with an older white couple; conversation turned to my work, and my wife was telling some of the stories I’ve told her. About halfway through our conversation, it dawned on both of us that our dinner partners were Trump supporters. The husband listened to the stories, then waved them off: “Well, I hope it’s like Trump says, and they’re just going after the bad hombres.”

I had just told him it’s not like Trump says. It was like an online exchange I had with another Trump supporter, a conservative writer, who acknowledged that separating families like my students’ could be hard, but, she said, “The same sort of felonies that would land me in prison are going to land some illegal immigrants back in their home countries.”

I happen to know that’s not the real story. I know, for example, that nearly half of the immigrants arrested in the February 2017 ICE raid that terrorized Austin had no criminal records at all. I happen to know, too, that many of my students have had parents deported solely for immigration-related offenses, or for “crimes” that would never land a (white) citizen in prison.

When I have these exchanges, I wonder about the efficacy of writing. Is there any point? I think of James Baldwin, who observed that his countrymen “have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” Maybe these Trump supporters don’t want to know what their votes mean.

But I also think of what Baldwin said next: “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.” And I think of Orwell. I feel responsible, so I write.


But not often, or not as often as I could.

In the first place, there are real risks. Though my students speak freely about their status at school, I can’t confuse that comfort with safety outside of the school walls. Those students and their families are at the mercy of a vicious and sometimes vindictive government apparatus, and they mostly survive by being ignored. I can’t write about them without changing names, disguising details, blending stories.

There’s more to it than that, though. Two years ago, during the debate leading up to the passage of Texas Senate Bill 4, which outlawed sanctuary city policies in the state, several students from my school started a petition opposing the bill. They publicized the petition with videos in which they shared their families’ stories and their fears. They went to protests and talked, person to person, with anyone who would listen. They begged people to spread the petition on social media. They didn’t give up after the bill passed the Senate, or the House—they just changed the wording until, finally, they were pleading with Governor Greg Abbott not to sign the bill. In the end, they gathered more than 37,000 signatures. But they also reaped comments like “I hope your parents get deported like the leeching scum they are” and “you should not be wasting our tax money in school” and “GET DEPORTED NOW”. Whenever I write, I have to think about whether it’s worth it to subject my students to that. Do I want to see their stories smeared with that kind of shit?


Even that’s not all of it. Picture an image you’ve seen hundreds of times: a group of immigrants in the desert somewhere in the American Southwest. They wear castoff American clothes, ill-fitting t-shirts and brightly-colored sweatpants. The men have on dirty jeans, the women haven’t washed their hair in weeks. They look confused, frightened. There’s a child crying at their feet. Next to them, in control and holding flashlights, are Border Patrol agents.

That image isn’t false. It shows up all the time in my students’ writings. And maybe it’s the image I have to show you to spur you to action, or to change your mind. It is good for creating pity. But pity isn’t a humanizing emotion and, anyway, it isn’t anything close to the full story.

“I write very slowly,” wrote Richard Rodriguez, “because I write under the obligation to make myself clear to someone who knows nothing about me.” I write slowly too because, most of the time, I’m writing under the obligation of making others clear to people who know little about them.


Fortunately, there’s an essay that helps with this, too.

I first read Teju Cole’s “Getting Others Right” when it was published in the New York Times, during the summer of 2017, not long after rumors reached me that one of my students had been arrested by ICE—rumors I learned were true when I returned to work in August. This was a few months after the Austin ICE raid, a few months after the “Day Without Immigrants” protest left my school nearly empty on a Thursday, and a few weeks before a group of fifteen Latina teenagers—the same age as my students—ascended the steps of the Texas Capitol in quinceañera gowns as part of a visually stunning protest that went viral and allowed the girls to spread their opposition to SB4 on NPR and MTV.

The first lesson of Cole’s essay is precisely what I was learning in those months: no one is better at telling the stories of a group under threat, or at using those stories to spark change, than members of that group. Cole contrasts two photographers of Native Americans: Horace Poolaw, a member of the Kiowa nation, and white ethnographer and activist Edward S. Curtis. Curtis took some of the most famous twentieth-century photographs of Native Americans, and his pictures are beautiful, poignant, and predictable: Cole notes their traditional garb—a feathered headdress, beads and fur—and the subjects’ “lined faces and stoic expressions.” Cole quotes Curtis, who told us he wanted his photographs to be “an illustration of an Indian character or of some vital phase in his existence.”

Against those photos, Cole poses Poolaw’s, which often featured the photographer’s family: his sister holding a small dog, wearing modern clothes and makeup, posing with an “ironic smile”; his son Jerry, “on leave from Navy duty in his sailor’s uniform and a feathered headdress.” Poolaw’s photographs, according to Cole, demonstrate “disarming warmth,” an “informal mood,” and a “democracy of vision.” They’re culturally specific while simultaneously disrupting easy narratives about what it means to be Native American. “Is the lesson here,” Cole asks, “that the truth of a given community can only be delivered by an insider?”

In my case, I’ve learned it’s often better to be a writing teacher than a writer, especially as a white person entrusted with the stories of people of color. The easiest way to avoid my dilemma is to give my students space to tell their stories and to push them (when they can) to get their words out in the world.

Still, sometimes the job of telling falls to me. Sometimes, I’m the one facing ignorance across a dinner table, or in a Facebook post. I’m the one who has experience getting an Op-Ed published in the paper or submitting testimony on a congressional bill. I’m the one who has clout and influence with other white people, and I’m the one who can speak up without fear of consequence.

This is where Cole’s essay is useful. Cole describes a third photographer, a non-Native woman named Daniella Zalcman, who also photographed Native subjects and wrestled with some of the same questions I struggle with: How could she tell a familiar story without lapsing into stereotype? How could she depict threats to a community without adding to that community’s stigmatization? How could she spur action without invoking pity?

Her specific solution, according to Cole, was “to make double exposures, joining two instants into one by overlaying images of places with portraits of people,” and then pairing those images with text from interviews with her subjects. Cole explains:
Looking at the doubled images, you imagine that the mind of the person pictured is literally occupied by space on which it is overlaid: the decrepit school buildings, the grass where a demolished school once stood. But you also sense that this could be you, that these images are not a report on tribal peculiarities but on the workings of human memory. Uncertain about her right to shape the story, Zalcman lets the subject speak for themselves.
In other words, Zalcman worked first of all with her subjects’ collaboration. And rather than exoticizing the people she photographed, she connected their specific histories to general human experience. And, finally, she cultivated what Cole calls productive hesitancy, an ever-present awareness of the fact that the stories she was telling weren’t hers. This, Cole says, allows Zalcman to produce “quietly forceful reportage from material that could easily have been sensationalized.”

That’s something to aspire to. If Orwell tells me why to write, Cole’s essay tells me how.


How to connect, for example, that shaping history many of my students share with the full variety of forms their lives take in the present. My school held its graduation a few days ago. It’s common at my school for graduates to decorate the tops of their caps so that their family members in the balcony of the gymnasium can pick their mortarboards out of the crowd of hundreds.

If you went to high school in Texas, you’ll remember the tradition of homecoming mums, the fake flowers that boys give to their dates on the day of the big game. What might have started as a sweet and simple gesture has turned into an occasion for baroque exuberance: boys—or their moms or generous friends—spend absurd money and time decorating these colored flowers, with symbols of school pride, with messages and trinkets and charms, even sometimes with flashing lights. My school doesn’t have a football team and so doesn’t have a homecoming game, but graduation caps fill that creative gap for our students. They go to Michaels and Hobby Lobby for plastic flowers and stencils, they go to each other’s houses to borrow hot glue guns and paint and markers. Some of the hats end up being funny. Some are sweet. Some are cool. Some commemorate loved ones who have died; many thank parents or grandparents. There are lots of hashtags and jokes, a handful of baby pictures, a few thank yous to Jesus in whom all things are possible.

In this sea of caps, one evokes precisely the image I’ve hesitated to put in front of you: a desert scene, with a blue line representing the Rio Grande, a cactus, a butterfly. The words I walked because they crossed.

I can show you this image of the border now, when the background isn’t the crushed rock earth of South Texas but the rich cardinal red of my school’s regalia, when the sounds surrounding it aren’t sirens and shouting but plaudits and congratulations, when the context is joy and not shame. Now I can show it to you: Now it’s not a static image in the New York Times but a bright drawing about to be tossed in the air.


Frank Strong's writing has appeared at The Millions,, Pterodáctilo, and the Latin American Literary Review. He earned his PhD in Comparative Literature in 2015 and now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter at @frankstrong.