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.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Introducing Talkaday: A Podcast About What Happens in a Day

Something’s always happening. (I had this thought as two morning doves—or mourning doves,  as they’e properly called, truly always thought they were about greeting the new day rather than grieving it—crashed into each other, probably mating, in the mesquite tree above me.) The curious thing is how much freedom we have in the retelling of it, which we often choose to ignore. We can kind of spin the day—to an extent—any way we like! Right now I’m choosing to belabor the beauty of a morning shower on the walk with my dog, these fine golden beads twinkling in the early light by the thousands, as if passing through some magic curtain to my own private Narnia…and yet at the time I felt a slight tinge of apprehension, as if, ah shit, gonna get wet! So maybe it’s both-and, never either-or, and we get to tip the scales of Lady Justice. Point being that I want to introduce this new podcast to you, where we explore—no, better word, excavate, explicate, ah, explode! just such issues. Introducing: “Talkaday,” the new Essay Daily podcast around the What Happened project, in which I simply call up writers to talk about their day and how, whether oral or written, the words change things.

My first guest is John Bodine, an old student of mine, and the episode, “Detective on the Hunt for Meaning,” gets right to the heart of things. He wrote his What Happened piece almost a year ago positively waxing rhapsodic on the mushrooms sautéing in the pan, among other mere culinary delights exalted on an otherwise ordinary day. (I salivated a little while reading, especially when he plopped in the ground turkey.) And yet in the retelling of his most recent day on the phone to me, fell right back into the old habit we all do of giving the play-by-play as if montage, as if caricature, as if goes without saying. I did this, that, the other thing—why do we default to this “ordinary is ordinary” mode? How does writing put us into a space—a spaciousness—of appreciation, heightened attention on the lookout for something to matter? Do most things not matter, and only writing makes them so? I wonder; we wondered. (For the record, John thought I was accusing him of hypocrisy, writing one way and saying another, and yet I believe that tension between meaninglessness and meaning-making to be at the heart of this project, perhaps this whole scribbly practice.) 

So if you’ve ever wondered just what happens when you write about what happens, what magic there is in a day to be found with your (in my case) pen, this podcast may be for you. Each episode, no more than 24 minutes (as any day’s cutoff can seem arbitrary, if utterly predictable), dives into nothing less than what it means to live our lives, starting with the cooking and cleaning, walking the dog, sunlight (just now poking through those aforementioned rainclouds) and rain, etc., etc., the domestic, the ordinary, the daily. Because I suspect there’s some real wisdom to be had here, that if we can transform even the most banal into the miraculous with a few turns of phrase and the juiced-up feeling of storytelling, perhaps that alchemical power exists in us always. Perhaps we can, little by little, word by tiny word, learn to rewrite our lives on the fly, and open ourselves to being struck by each day as if never before (because truly never before, and never again). As I say this a bird—swallow maybe—cuts through the cloudy sky, wingtip arched over the distant mountain line, and is gone.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Hello there, June 21st

Dear Essay Daily Readers:

On June 21, 2018, we published an experiment in noticing, What Happened on June 21st, 2018, in which we invited anyone interested to write about what happened on that day. You sent in about 250 reports, and we published them all in June and July 2018. (They're linked below for your pleasure.)

It came about in part as a response to Nicholson Baker's essay, "What Happened on April 29, 1994"? It's a simple thing, in which he simply recorded what happened (however he defined that) on one day in 1994. (You can find its full text at the end of this post if you'd like to read it.) He composed it on assignment from French magazine Nouvel Observateur, which also invited 239 other writers to write down "what happened" on that day.

We found the reports you submitted on What Happened on Your June 21sts to be beautiful, democratic, moving, and revelatory. For one writer, this was the first thing she'd written since her husband had died. All four members of one family all wrote about what happened on that day. Another writer wrote about what happened on June 21st for the previous 22 years. The youngest participant (that we know of) was ten. The oldest were in their eighties.

Some things showed up in many accounts: a World Cup match, Melania Trump's jacket reading "I Don't Care, Do U?", and the continuing horror of family separations along the US-Mexico border, just to name a few commonalities. We did a corpus analysis of the most-commonly-occurring 24 nouns that shows us just a bit of what we share when we share a day.

And after repeating this assignment in other contexts, we decided to publish a digital anthology of What Happened, and this is an announcement of its release, on the anniversary of last year's big noticing event.

It's designed to make the project easily teachable and repeatable by anyone who'd like to do so. In order to do that, we had to use only a fraction of the essays we published. So we chose 25 of the approximately 250 that showed off a range of how to pay attention to What Happens on a Day.

It also comes with three brief introductions to the project by Ander Monson, Will Slattery, and Dorian Rolston, and some suggestions for how to teach or reproduce this with your family, friends, classroom, or with whoever.

So here they are, presented as a 97-page pdf for you.

You may download the anthology for free here.

If you find it useful or beautiful or entertaining, we would welcome a suggested donation to Essay Daily (well, to New Michigan Press, our sponsoring organization):

(If you're old school, you could also just send us a check, c/o New Michigan Press, University of Arizona English, PO Box 210067, Tucson AZ 85721-0067.)

Or not, as you like.

You may download and use the anthology however you'd like for educational or recreational purposes, though of course the work inside it belongs to its respective authors, who hold the copyrights on their contributions. If you'd like to reprint anything from it in a book or something, please contact us for permission.

And here's a link to the What Happened podcast, a series of conversations hosted by Dorian Rolston with writers and non-writers about What Happened on June 21st, but also what's happening now, and how we pay attention to things.

And below you'll find the full flowering of What Happened on June 21st, 2018:

What Happened on June 21st, according to:

June 22: Cila Warncke • Christopher Schaberg • Mel Hinshaw • Rosemary Smith • Naomi Washer • Christopher Doda

June 23: Rachel Stilley • Debby Thompson • Andrew Bomback • David Woll • Sarah Viren • Sonya Huber • Nancy Geyer • Cicily Bennion • Linda Wiratan • John Proctor

June 24: Maddie Norris • Amy Butcher • Michele Sharpe • Jim Connolly • Jim Ross • Terese Svoboda • Merle Brown • Randon Billings Noble • Abby Hagler • Nathaniel Rosenthalis

June 25: Allie Leach • Erik Anderson • Sara Marchant • Pamela Krueger • Christopher Citro • Maura Featherything • Amanda Yanowski • Emi Rose Noguchi • Melissa Matthewson • Amanda JS Kaufmann

June 26: Emily Sinclair • Linda Sage • Sylvia Chan • Renée E. D’Aoust • Beth Weeks • Virginia Marshall • Liza Porter • Connie Clark • Lisa Roylance • Nicole Walker

June 27: Bethany Maile • Jordan Wiklund • Tom McAllister • Sarah Ruhlen • S.L. Wisenberg • Doug Hesse • A. E. Weisgerber • Nora Almeida • Jamison Crabtree • Whittier Strong

June 28: Jody Kennedy • Whitney Vale • Pau Derecia • Katie Jean Shinkle • Alina Stefanescu • Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell • Devon Confrey • Catherine Reid Day • Anonymous • Peta Murray

June 29: Anna Kate Blair • Dinty W. Moore • Jared Buchholz • Bronson Lemer • Alizabeth Worley • Leslie Stainton • Amy Roper • Charish Badzinski • Jane Piirto • Zoë Bossiere

June 30: Marcia Aldrich • Mandy Len Catron • Jasmina Kuenzli • Ryan Van Meter • Lynne Grist • Nora-Lyn Veevers • Chelsea Biondolillo • Melissa Faliveno • Natalie Lima • Boyer Rickel 

July 2: Sophfronia Scott • Lisa Levine • Samantha Bell • Jacqueline Doyle • Lynn Z. Bloom  Steven Church  Kristine Mahler  Stacey Engels  Matt Jones  Genia Blum

July 3: Jillian Ivey  Colin Rafferty  Eshani Surya  Morgan Reidl  Ashley Hutson  Laurie Easter  Lisa O'Neill  Ronnie Lovler  Maria Sledmere  Sarah Einstein

July 4: Ida Bettis Fogle  Rhys Fraser  Judy Xie  Melissa Mesku  Ryan Kim  Helen Betya Rubinstein  Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter  Susan Briante  Samantha Jean Coxall   Patrick Collier

July 5: Ander Monson • Jennifer Gravley • Jeannie Roberts • Mark Neely • Jill Christman • Alison Deming • Ella Neely • Henry Neely • Sandra J Lindow • Emma Thomason 

July 6: Andrew Maynard • Krista Dalby • Katy Sperry • Dustin Parsons • Marie O'Rourke • Elizabeth Evans • Sandra Lambert • Albert Goldbarth • Lorri McDole • Joni Tevis

July 7: Hala Gabir • Samuel Rafael Barber • Jason Thayer • Cecilia Pinto • Elona Sherwood • Simon Flory • Lynn K. Kilpatrick • Michelle Midori Repke • Caleb Klitzke • Cynthia Brandon-Slocum 

July 8: Joe Slocum • Denry Willson • Carolyn Ogburn • Patrick Madden • Alec Carvlin • John Che • Dinah Lenney • McKenzie Long • Danielle Cadena Deulen 

July 9: Emilio Carrero • Shamae Budd • Daniel Juckes • ShenLin Fang • John Bodine • Timothy Berg • Jennie B. Ziegler • Dorian Rolston • Kathryn Gougelet • Susan Olding

July 10: Kelly Caldwell • Dave Mondy • Lawrence Lenhart • Elizabeth Boquet • Amber Carpenter • Kat Moore • Donald Carr • Sonja Livingston •  Cindy Bradley • Elizabeth K. Brown

July 11: Brian Michael Barbeito • Alison Stine • Katherine E. Standefer • Abby Dockter and Thomas Dai • Karen Schaffner • James Butler-Gruett • Rebecca Graves • Jennifer McGuiggan • Cassie Keller Cole • Margot Singer

July 12: John Bennion • Lee Reilly • Gabriel Dozal • Danielle Geller • Rachel Haywood • Karen R. M. Koch • Jill Kolongowski • Jessi Peterson • Silas Hansen • Lucy Nash

July 13: Kayla Haas • Yelizaveta P. Renfro • Amanda Holmes • Mattison Merritt • Amber Taliancich • Elizabeth Miller • Sarah Haak • Kathryn Clarke • Tain Gregory 

July 14: Verity Sayles • Margaret Foley • David L. Garcia • Joshua Unikel • Denise Wilkinson • P. A. Wright • Tracey L. Kelley • Natalie Wardlaw 

July 15: Erin Rhees • Will Slattery • Ellen Sprague • Shell Stewart Cato • Laura Swan • Cassandra Kircher • Amy Probst • Ashley P. Taylor 

July 16: Stayci Taylor • Laura Schuff • Chris McGuire • Joshua Dewain Foster • Craig Reinbold • Carlos Davy Hauser • Heidi MacDonald.

July 18: bonus June 21st from Matthew Vollmer

July 19: Rachel Ratner's bonus June 21st.

August 6th: Lorri Neilsen Glenn's bonus June 21st.

A corpus analysis of all the What Happened essays featuring the 24 most-often-occurring meaningful words is here.

Dorian Rolston wrote about it a bit here, to give you some context. Ander Monson wrote about it, and the larger project we took on this summer, a bit more here. And then he expanded even more on it here.

Click Baker's original piece below to enlarge and read:

We will repeat this on December 21, 2019. If you'd like to get an email invitation to participate, throw your name and email up in this (nonbinding, obviously) I'm Interested form here, and we'll be in touch closer in with instructions.


Monday, June 17, 2019

Maddie Norris and Hannah Hindley on Nicole Walker, David Carlin, and the After-Normal

We (Hannah and Maddie) have long been interested in collaborative nonfiction, in the truths it builds and tears apart, so we were excited to read David Carlin and Nicole Walker’s new book out just now from Rose Metal Press, The Afternormal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on Changing the Planet, a collaborative book of mini-personal essays considering climate catastrophe through different entry points. It feels only fitting that in responding to this work, we adapt the alphabetical, collaborative form that is so integral to the book’s structure.

—Hannah Hindley and Maddie Norris



The world is falling apart. We know this. The temperature is rising, ice is melting, the sea-level is climbing, species are going extinct. Brown children are dying at the border, black men are being shot, white men are running the country. We know this, and it is overwhelming, the heft of it all, the accumulation of human-made tragedy. How are we supposed to survive? This is the question David and Nicole want to investigate, want to essay into, want to attempt to answer. It’s a question many of us have. With everything that is happening right now, overlapping in a terrifying time, how do we not collapse from the weight of it all? And the answer, I think, is in the question. How are we supposed to survive? There are smaller questions and smaller answers in each mini-essay, but there are bigger questions and bigger answers in the back-and-forth, in the weaving, in the we. If you step on a single nail, the metal will pierce your foot, cut through flesh and muscle. But if you step on a thousand nails, gathered together, packed side by side, one nail head touching the next, metal against metal, huddled beneath the impending foot, the nails will uphold the foot.



A nail is a little object, sharp and small and ordinary. It is the kind of thing Nicole and David might invoke, alongside grass and gutters and phobias and sandwiches. Catastrophe strides across the pages, sure, but it ducks and dances with everyday stuff. We’re only human, after all. Our ink pens ooze. We nurse hateful thoughts toward possums. We sneak bites of bacon. The fact of the matter is, ordinary things are what propel us toward catastrophe. There is an ordinariness to inertia, an ordinariness in knowing a thing and not doing much to actually change it. “They say to live in the present,” writes Nicole. “I am alternately good at taking advice and abhorring it.”Advice, like catastrophe, can be abstract and uncomfortable. This isn’t a book of advice. It dwells in the ordinary, celebrates and illuminates and condemns the silliness and frustration and good intentions and fracturing involved in being alive right now in a world where habits no longer serve us very well. It is the little things that push us toward disaster. Maybe, too, it’s the little things that might redeem us in this burning world.



I’m back in the Carolinas now, back where I grew up, which means I’m away from you. Today, on a walk, under dogwoods spattered with light and past parking lots surrounding apartments, I spotted a Carolina Wren. Looking at the bird, I remembered a friend told me attention is a form of love. The wren is a small bird with reddish-brown wings barred with black, a thin tail feather flitting behind, a light yellow belly glowing beneath. It would fit in two cupped hands. Put your hands out. Can you feel its soft feathers, its huffing body? I’m asking if distance can be overcome with longing. David and Nicole live half a world apart, and yet their words interlock hands, hold each other, build together. At four pm, Nicole writes, “You need to feel it coming coming coming. Only then will you be prepared.” And at nine am, David writes “It is about the varieties of love, and watching a condor or a wedge-tailed eagle, and the blending of objects into new forms.” It is about attention and love, about the love attention gives. If I tell you about the bird I learned to notice in the fourth grade, can you notice it too? If we notice this small state bird together, can we better understand love?



We’re so damn good at moving. You and I know this--the ways that motion, industriousness, tightly booked calendars can push us forward even when the heaviness of loss threatens to sink us. It’s good to keep moving. I flew away from our shared little desert city as I do every summer and didn’t even think to count the pounds of carbon I spent as I arced toward Alaska. These last few days I’ve been squishing through muskegs, which is the word we have for peat bogs up here. Peatlands are carbon sinks, bonsai gardens, soft trampolines of open land where slowness softly saves the world. Bogs are “uncanny places where nothing grows,” writes David, but these are my favorite places to visit because things do grow here. You can find them if you stop hurrying and kneel close: meat-eating plants, and fragrant shrubs with furry leaves that prevent them from losing precious water, and low-growing tiny pink flowers that could kill you dead if you swallowed them. In a muskeg, things aren’t in a rush. Things adapt. Things learn new tricks for getting by in an inhospitable world. Learn from the peatlands, David urges. Let’s try it in this reeling Anthropocene: slowing down, turning toward unconventional answers the way that a carnivorous sundew, sticky and strange, turns toward a gnat.



When someone mentions arsenic, the metalloid element that blocks the creation of ATP in our bodies, that blocks the creation of energy in our bodies, the element that in large doses can kill us, when someone says “arsenic,” I think of peach pits, which isn’t logical because I know peach pits contain cyanide, a different beautifully named chemical that can kill us, that will lay our bodies flat on a slab, but there is, in some ways, a logic to this association, an adjacency, the type of logic that makes sense of the closeness of softness and hardness, makes sense of the ways the sunset skin of a peach is furred with prickly hair, in the ways its juicy flesh, sweet and dripping, surrounds the hard pit of a poison that can clog the gears of our organs, which is to say there’s a logic inherent in understanding that the things that can kill us are linked to the things that will save us.



And this is how it is, isn't it? Lost, looping through associations, looking for logic, we're all locked into this burning ride we've been complicit in building, linked to each other, linked to this world that we love. Is this what Nicole and David knew, writing to each other from across hemispheres? That they were linked, that their linkage, like a chain, held airspace and friction, room for contradiction? That their linkage, chainlike, accumulated into a snaking shape, a line forward, a collective thing that, when strained, held weight? Is collaboration like theirs a way not just to witness from different shores, but to worldbuild? I walk to the coffeehouse down the street from the boat I work on. The ravens in Juneau are fat, their feathers rainbowing across taut bodies built out of trash and dockside scraps. Their voices are like bells; their claws clatter like dinosaur feet on the rain glossed sidewalk. I swing open my secondhand laptop, sign into wifi, open up my latest note from you, sent from a world that is not so far away, really. What I might write next hinges on what you have sent to me. Letters link us, let us look at things differently. The surprise is everything; too easy to predict the ending when you're the only author. Listen: whatever it is that we're mourning, whatever it is that we're confessing, whatever it is that might hope for, build toward, we're not writing alone anymore.

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 The Intima. Her writing explores loss, the body, and the many ways to illuminate the two. She is currently at work on a collection of essays. 
Hannah Hindley is a writer of both truthful and fictional stories. Her work has appeared in journals, newspapers, and anthologies including River Teeth, the Harvard Review, and She is the recipient of the Thomas Wood Award in Journalism, the New Conrads prize in maritime fiction, the Bill Waller Award for Nonfiction, and an honorable mention for the AWP Intro Journals Award. Hannah graduated from Harvard University with degrees in English and American Literature and Language and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; her writing bridges the space between those studies, exploring the poesy of natural systems and our human relationship with a changing planet.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Artist Statement 2.0: Writing in a Time of Extremity

At the start of spring semester 2019, I asked the students in my Graduate Creative Nonfiction Workshop to craft a brief Artist’s Statement as a snapshot of their thematic and stylistic intentions, obsessions, and goals. It’s a good way to tackle the vexing matter of trying to articulate what you’re trying to do as a writer, while knowing the work thrives in uncertainty. And it’s good practice for corresponding with editors and publishers, applying for grants, fellowships, and residencies.
       This group of MFA candidates came from widely diverse backgrounds--from California, Florida, Virginia, Cuba, Nigeria, Zimbabwe. It was multinational, multicultural and multigenre. Some had strong ties to our border region, some were deeply tied to other geographies and histories. Difference among these talents meant not conflict but fuel for truly engaging discussion. All felt the impingement of the political and planetary extremities that are this moment in history. Many of them questioned the value of artistic vocation in such a time, in argument with their own commitments. When three University of Arizona students were arrested for protesting the presence of armed Border Patrol members on campus, fear and activism rose. The border crisis for many of us living in Tucson is not a matter of politics and policy—though both of these forces could certainly be deployed toward more just ends. It is a matter of survival and family cohesion and humanitarian care. I wanted to know how this new wave of social anguish was registering among the students, whose projects moved in such divergent ways through the minefield of our times.
     My last assignment at the end of the semester was to ask them to write an Artist’s Statement 2.0, framed by the idea of "Writing in a Time of Extremity." I suggested they define extremity any way they wished: climate change, border/ immigration crisis, the Arizona3, the moral crisis in leadership of the nation, history of colonization, militarization of American culture. Plenty to choose from. Here is what they had to say about the state of our art. 

Alison Hawthorne Deming

Katerina Ivanov 

I am trying to make sense of things. At the border, nothing makes sense. U.S. Border Patrol agents found a 3-year-old migrant alone in a cornfield. Militia holds hundreds of migrants at gunpoint at the border. U.S. Mexico Border: Trump wishes military could be rough with immigrants. Federal government to accelerate Customs and Border Protection redeployment amid migrant surge.
     When I moved to Tucson, my mother was worried. She said it was dangerous for us, there. She said, no haces ruido. She told me to make myself small: a marble, a raisin, make sure I don’t catch the light. But it is impossible, in Tucson, I am reflective. In Tucson, there are children in cages and it’s illegal to leave the crossers water, and all I can hold is an anger so expansive, it feels like it reaches mountain to mountain.
      It bleeds into my writing; it trails from me like oil from a used car. I am angry. I am so fucking angry. Anger can be a tool, but this requires control. Precision. Things that feel far off. Anger warps my writing like hot metal. It feels foreign, like it did not come from me, like it came from some distorted wax self—half-melted, unrecognizable. It reads off pitch, mistuned, a broken radio. Anger fills writing with static. Anger fills writing with fear. Anger does strange things to my writing, to me. My body, made of wax; my body, the warped figurine.
      These days, I find myself craving something beautiful. Ultra-determined tree roots, burying under a house. A nopal with all the spines still attached—deceptively soft, almost fuzzy, almost cotton, A perfect puff of car exhaust. I write these things on a running note on my phone: these are the good things. I say them like a prayer. Root, nopal, exhaust. Writing lately feels a lot like list-making: root, nopal, exhaust. Bilingual baby at the grocery store, babbling Spanglish. Tamales from the Food City parking lot, buttery with manteca.
      I seep my writing in memory like warm milk—the present feels impossible to write. It feels like there are not words for what is happening. (Maybe there are, and I just cannot write them, yet). Writing has to look like care: here is something beautiful, look at the way my mother’s eyes crinkle when she passes the Eucharist in mass, look at the way my father looks at my mother, look at how the pineapple plants take root in the Florida soil, really just sand. I am trying to remind myself of something, lately. Look, just around the corner, at the edge of your eyeline—there might be something good. 

Lucy Kirkman

Cyclone Idai has washed away the Eastern Highlands, the folded ridge of mountains that makes a natural border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The cyclone raged in from the coast, ripping up palm trees and thatched palm rooves, ripping inland to the mountains. These are the mountains where the civil war started in 1970. The freedom fighters (or terrorists, according to white Rhodesians at the time) were trained in the folded hills of Mozambique, often from exile, and walked the steep crags and valleys of these mountains to fight for independence.
      A few years ago a man, a tourist, disappeared in these mountains. He left his wife and children at the base of the mountain, or maybe they weren’t there at all. But he went up Mount Inyangani, the highest peak in the range, and did not return. Every sane Zimbabwean is at least a little fearful of this mountain, “the mountain that swallows people,” so maybe his disappearance was due to his ignorance. Weather can change in a matter of minutes up there, from sunny and clear to cloudy and foggy, which is the difference between lost and found, path and wilderness, descent and drop. This man disappeared without a trace. But no—that is not quite true—rescue teams found his wallet and his wedding ring on a rock high into the climb. There were whispers of nhangas, witches and witch doctors that are said to live on this mountain, who take children and adults and use their bones for medicine. Or, he could have just walked over the mountain, through the range, into Mozambique. There were rumors of financial troubles—this is one way to disappear. It could have been suicide. Or maybe he just lost his way. The mountain is so deeply folded that it would be no trouble at all to disappear within it, step into a crevasse or crack, no trace.
      Whatever happened to the man, he remains unresolved. What I know of the mountains is this: the mountains are beautiful, harsh, menacing, the mountains are a border, the mountains are secret-keepers.
      These ordinary and extraordinary events, cyclones, disappearances, civil war, are all folded into the history of these mountains. What we know of them is more than what we see. And yet, most days, nothing happens, or do I mean to say everything: streams follow the same path down the worn-round rocks, the pink flowers grow near the bracken, the sweet, yellow mjanje fruit fall with a soft thud and are gathered by little hands and sold out of woven baskets near the side of the road. People continue to sift through the earth of landslides trying to find valuables, bodies. Sheets of galvanized steel and plastic are salvaged and carefully placed together to make dwellings. All this happens.
      And there is no logic, or there is too much logic. What we see, experience, and react to is not only the long hand of history reaching into our chest cavities, but also the accumulation of a different kind of logic (emotional, affective, or some other thing) that appears and disintegrates almost instantaneously, making the world terribly and happy unknowable. As I writer this is where I want to be--at the edge of the unresolved and unknowable, the place where associations and encounters are like pebbles washing against each other in the eddy of the stream, against all odds. 

Hea-Ream Lee

My writing is often rooted in science research. To me, it’s a noble pursuit that’s endlessly fascinating and populated mostly with kind nerds who love it with their entire hearts. It’s also so full of poetry and drama, with startling images and human stories. This is the framework within which I build my essays, drawing connections between the abstract themes I see in tree ring chronologies or computational modeling to my own life.
       In the past few months I have started writing more about identity and race. This has never been my forte, and it still feels uncomfortable, like an outfit I’ve admired on other people but doesn’t feel quite right on my own body. I used to get around this with the logic that not all writers of color need to write about the trauma of being a writer of color. I believe we should have the privilege, like white writers are afforded, to write about whatever we want. And there certainly is a pressure that I feel to represent my pain on the page which I am still grappling with.
       Another reason is that I want to get it right. I want to do justice to the fact of my many privileges as a nonblack person of color, as an able-bodied straight cis woman, as a light skinned Asian person, as someone who grew up middle class. To write about my relatively minor “pain” feels like the very opposite of extremity.  But more and more I am drawn to writing about race and identity despite my misgivings and anxieties. And I think that’s because of extremity. Because of the out and out fascism, white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence against Black people, human rights violations at the border, Islamophobia, transphobia, the list goes on. And to be clear, as a writer, these specific stories aren’t mine to tell. But in reading other writers’ work on these issues, in trying to do what I can to uplift their voices, to show up, I’m inspired to write on my own experiences.
       At the beginning of the semester our graduate nonfiction workshop discussed writing inwards versus writing outwards, and this dichotomy has been on my mind since. The balance always feels precarious. I’m much more comfortable writing outwards than inwards, in dealing with abstractions and nebulous themes than the concrete and real. But perhaps this time, this place, makes it impossible not to deal in some way with the real. And while I continue to write about science, which is just part of my writerly DNA, which continues to inspire me, terrify me, leave me bewildered, and break my heart, I am also trying to write inwards. Towards a truth that I understand, that I’ve experienced. About what it means to live here, in this body and mind, in this time and place. 

Natalie Lima 

As an artist, my hot topic is identity, or rather, the various identities we all inhabit. I’ve always been drawn to stories about identity, since my own has never fit into one single box. I'm Latinx, I grew up working-class, I’m the child of a mother who grew up in foster care and a Cuban refugee father, I'm the first in my family to graduate from high school and then attend college, I live in large body, I’m a woman, I code-switch a ton in my writing. I feel like I occupy a profusion of identities and, because of this, I navigate different worlds on a daily basis. 
     Recently, I’ve been drawn to writing about the body and though it may be a popular subject as of late, I have always been captivated by the stories of folks who live in marginalized bodies. I write about my body because so much (if not all) of our lives are colored by the sack of meat and bones we lug around all day. The body, in all its pain and beauty, presents multiple opportunities to make meaning of life: There is the science behind how all its parts function in unison; there are the aesthetics of what we present to the world, and what the world deems beautiful or not so much; there is disease and deterioration, which we all will eventually succumb to if we’re lucky; there are the social stigmas and policing of bodies—the hierarchy of bodies— and which bodies do and don’t deserve respect; and finally there are the tiny things, the quirks—crooked teeth or curly hair—that give our bodies character, that make us us.
     I am currently working on a collection of dark humor essays about living in my body. Or to summarize the book in a tweet:
Like David Sedaris but fatter, darker & Latinx. A humor memoir in essays. About living & dating in a fat body. My regular degular awkwardness. Dealing w/ my alcoholism. Growing up working-class & mixed-race in Vegas w/ Cuban roots & dysfunction. And taking up space wherever I go.
     Recently, I've taken a more comic turn in my work. There's something about humor, something about the ugliest, most honest parts of life, that greatly stirs me. I am inspired by writers like Samantha Irby, Jenny Lawson, and Lindy West, by what humor tells us about life, and how even the saddest parts of it can be made funny, especially in these grim, politically-fraught times. I also believe that writing about the self, as a person who grew up in the margins, is a truly political act. And my hope is that my stories add to the diversity of stories that we read in memoir today.
       I've been able to enter the more difficult, painful moments of life by using levity in my work. And I wholeheartedly believe that levity doesn’t strip away the substance in our stories, but it reminds us, all of us, that humans are multifaceted. And, plus, without incorporating a bit of humor in my stuff, I’d drink myself to death and take all my secrets to the grave with me. 
Titles in Progress:
  1. Curmudgeon (and other SAT words I learned in high school and bust out at cocktail parties to sound smart)
  2. Fat Lady On The Brink Of Death. Send Flowers
  3. Are You Open To Squashing Or Wrestling? Asking For A Friend…
  4. Pretty Sure God Make Me Fat To Keep Me Off the Pole
  5. To the White Boys On Tinder Who Keep Telling Me They Love Latin Food, Especially Flan
  6. This Will All Be Funny One Day
  7. Thicker Than A Snicker
  8. I Wrote This For The Haters But Also To Pay Off My Student Loans
  9. Cushion For the Pushin’
  10. Fat Girl Cries Herself To Sleep At Night
*** Note: We can only choose from these titles. I’ve tattooed all of them into the shape of a cute braid around my thigh to help me remember.

Matt Morris

I suspect that the phrase time of extremity holds distinct meaning for each of us, our interpretation dependent on how the world touches us, how we exist in the world—specifically, I’d say, our markers of identity: race, gender, class, faith, orientation, nationality, what have you. What is most pressing for any one of us is, I’d guess, not the same as what’s most pressing for the rest of us—though catastrophe, for instance environmental, certainly often touches us all. For me, to write in a time of extremity is, mostly, to write at a moment when the United States is backsliding in its handling of issues around race—when our president (like, of America) has refused to denounce white supremacists after violent rioting in my home state and when our president (like, of this university) has vacillated over whether, and how, to support protesting students of color. For me, to write in a time of extremity is to try through my language to express something of what it means—and what it feels like—to be of any race in America, where a somewhat nightmarish history, a history colored by genocide, enslavement, segregation, and internment, echoes into the now.
        I don’t think I want to say all of that in my prose, directly, but I do think that’s the emotional load I want my stuff to carry—though, as a mixed writer, I also hope (and hope most of all) that my nonfiction can illustrate possibilities for unity, connection. I don’t want to suggest that my family—wherein black and white have come together lovingly—should stand as a symbol of racial reconciliation: my father is not every African American, my mother is not every white American, my sister and I are not every mixed American. But I do think it’s important for folks to see—and I do hope that my writing, if done with care, can aid in pushing folks to see—that even as instances of institutionalized and everyday racism persist, there is and has always been another way. 
     But, markers of identity aside, I also believe that my best writing comes, most always, not only from this cultural moment of extremity but also, no matter the subject I’m thinking through (for I do not always want to write about race, this semester tired so much of writing about race that I wrote, finally, about something other than race), from a place of extremity—that my best, most honest writing always comes from a place of sincere want, whether for deeper understanding of what flummoxes, for knowledge of what remains only sketchily discernible, or for resolution of what’s most likely unresolvable. And so I am always, when I am really writing, trying to push my nonfiction toward this place of extremity and, when I get there, however briefly, trying my very best to stay, to get past any fear of confronting what’s hard, uncomfortable, confusing.
      I’m thinking, right now—and I’m reminded of this now and then—about a passage from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, wherein she cites the Indian-English scholar Homi Bhaba, who has said, “The state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.” And I think that wrestling with what throws me most forcefully into Bhaba’s “state of emergency”—what gets my mind fully grappling with multilayered emotion, what gets my mind to sometimes-tough places, whether I’m writing about my father’s enslaved ancestors or one of my closest, hardest-to-know friends—is also what gets me, hopefully, somewhere new. I’d say, too, that for me it is scary to go to that emotional territory, because I don’t know just what’s inside my head, where the writing will take me, whether I’ll get somewhere that feels hard—but I’d also say, again, that trying to get there is worth the risk provided I do get somewhere new.
     Because getting somewhere new is for me maybe the point of writing anything at all. 

Maddie Norris
Imagine the small foot of a newborn, its pearled toes and soft sole. Run a finger along the foot’s palm, and the toes curl inwards, arching for the heel. This reaction, known as the Babinski reflex, appears in children who are born with fully-formed cortical spinal tracts. The reflex’s purpose is obsolete in humans, but it’s believed to have persisted through evolution, adapted from monkeys who clung to their mothers’ tangled fur with hands and feet. By the age of two, most humans lose the reflex; it morphs into something else. Still, the outgrown impulse resides in our DNA. Just because something isn’t present doesn’t mean it’s absent. This is the truth I want to investigate.
     My essays consider the ways the body keeps loss alive. The underlying personal spine of my work are two traumas I can’t shake: the loss of my father at seventeen and my rape at twenty. These past experiences live within me and shape my present. Some threats have passed; many have not. In addressing the impressions society leaves on a body, on a person, I hope to illuminate the way past hurts have present consequences.
     The death of my father and my rape are connected in me as relationships ending in hurt, but they also manifest in distinct ways. In the case of my dad, I use essays to continue my relationship with him, to learn more about him, to find the edges of his absence. My rape, on the other hand, manifests as PTSD, something that is kept alive in my body without permission.
     My work, in my mind, has its own body, its own anatomy, its own bones and sinews. I hope to explore the particulars of each body part, inspecting the skin, the muscle, fat, and bone. Each essay exists singularly, but it also functions in a larger form, in a true body of work. Together, the essays arch towards an unsayable truth. If I’m asking the question of how the body keeps loss alive, then my answer is in my writing.

Suyi Okungbowa

I was born into the middle, into a people worthy of global power yet whose footprints have been wiped away, marks erased; so that I can’t see a way back if I look, so that I no longer know where I’m from, so I have to create where I’m from.
     I was bred in the middle, in a nation hastily put together by colonialist forces and christened by a British Lord’s mistress; so that I can’t find the pieces of which I’m made, so that I no longer know who I am, so that I have to create who I am.
     I was forged by the middle, by competing forces of education so disparate that I become liminality embodied, a hodgepodge of cultures and identities with unrecognisable qualities, a thing without a name; completely nothing, completely everything.
     Therefore, my art begins in the middle.

     I write mostly speculative literature to make sense of how I navigate the world as a liminal being. My work, in its entirety, examines entities like me: Africans, or other speculative variations of them, caught in the crevices between the traditional and modern requirements of history, identity, community and belonging. It’s impossible to be a young, black Nigerian man and not be caught in this quadrality, to not struggle with marrying the requirements of my past with the demands of my future. My work, through speculative metaphors and other more direct forms of engagement, enables me and others like me fill the gaps in current realities with the knowledge of what has come before.
     The liminal self, by nature, exists at odds with extremity. My self-examination therefore constantly comes under test in the present world: where truth is a pendulum bob, occupying various positions depending on its pivot; where the demands of capitalism and the demands of core humanity are at their highest odds; where the world is obsessed with taking stances and occupying positions, as if humans are location pin drops. As an artist occupying intersections of race, class and privilege, employing nuance in my voice becomes my strongest weapon, but also my biggest struggle, a struggle exacerbated by my existence as an Other and minority within my primary, secondary and even tertiary communities.

     My aim as a writer, then, is to insert readers into the psychology and philosophy of society’s unknowns—minorities and misunderstood entities existing within the margins of normative realities—through the endorsement of the middle as a valid space of existence. To do this, I consider myself patient zero, mining my history, present and future to bridge these divides created by geography, reductive history and intolerance.
     I write, then, to become the middle.

Margo Steines

Extremity has been a/the thematic focus of my work for the duration of my writing life, and perhaps my fundamental curiosity as a writer and a person. My topical interests may appear rangy or random, but their common thread is bodily extremity: the farthest, the utmost of any extreme degree, the terminal point or limit. In writing about physical pain, bodily maladies, industrial labor, violent sexuality, endurance athletics, sex work, combat sport, and agricultural brutalities, my writing is always chasing questions of how much/how far/how bad, and why.
     Looking outward at what is happening in the world, I wonder if we have arrived at a place more extreme than where we have been before, or if the intensity of the present moment and the self interest that is activated by these things not just happening, but happening now to us is what seems to define our current moment in time as a previously unrealized terminal point: a new extreme. Politically, we have a megalomaniacal reality television star of dubious mental capacity running the United States government, too many deeply problematic world leaders to list here (cough, Netanyahu, cough, Kim Jong-un); we are staring down the barrel of what we have decided to euphemistically refer to as “climate change,” you can die of medical bills in the most developed nation in the world while the Sacklers gas up their fleet of private jets, oh, and apparently clitoridectomy is a thing in the Midwest now.
     It is clear to me that there is a point in writing about these issues: what they are, how they came to be, what they mean, what we might do about them, the lived experiences of people as we/they experience them. As a reader, a citizen, a human, I’m grateful that people are doing just that. But as a writer, what is less clear but even more compelling is the value of writing other extremities at such a time. My writing is not political. While I do engage research, cultural critique, and a layperson’s level of science, these curiosities and resonances are support members rather than the structural integrity of my work. I am still, perhaps stubbornly, most interested in the private bodily extremities of single humans—usually myself, sometimes others. I have spent most of my life adventuring in various areas of extremity with my own body, and lately I’ve been spending a lot of time asking intrusive questions of the people around me. I wonder sometimes if this pursuit is the most truly extreme thing that a person can do: to ask and tell whole ugly truths about messy, complicated realities. I hope so. 

Finding My Rightful Void: Writing in the Era of Extremity

Raquel Gutiérrez

“Do we merely live hand to mouth? Do we merely struggle with the "ism" that's sitting on top of our heads?” —Cherríe Moraga, Loving In The War Years

The war years have never left but war doesn’t even get called that anymore. Declaring war is a performative speech act rendered null by the mere act of war itself. War doesn’t have to be invoked for us to know it’s there even in its smallest increment. I’m not hopeful about what my writing does in the era of extremity. The only thing most of us have to arm ourselves against the extremities of war is our precarity. 
     Thinking about writing in the age of extremity often makes me think about love. Loving in the age of extremity is a harder undertaking. Is love under the duress of economic instability still love? How do we find and sustain love as our rights are slowly being chipped away? What is love when children are forced to live in cages? Love might be another commodity that loses value in the marketplace of feelings. And our humanity dulls with each passing day watching both banal and spectacular violences emerge. We remain impotent to change any of it. I wonder where did desire go? What kind of lover and giver of love do I become in the struggle against these new normalizations? I think about love as the actions of my higher self, the version of myself that is only made clear to me through writing—what I aspire to be determines the kind of love I give. I don’t always give the best in love but the failure allows for improved upon efforts. I will keep trying until I get it right. I keep trying to until extremity dictates otherwise.
     What is writing but an attempt to contain the scream from its rightful void. Writing is harnessing that powerlessness into language—if not for us now, then for posterity. Writing becomes an accomplice to the state when armed border patrol agents are allowed inside the Modern Languages building to inspire students to join their ranks. Writing is a double agent. 
     Maybe it’s the shock that keeps us from doing anything right now. Or we have to wait for everyone in our family to be taken away from us to feel entitled to lash out at leader and state. Just because we can endure the worst of it doesn’t mean we should. To write is to caution and to reflect on what we did wrong; the wrongest being doing nothing at all. Writing is just one way to stare at my anger.
     I write not to witness what happens in the vicinity of the border space where I get my mail, vote in my district, walk my dog, see my friends. I write about how any of this has changed me. Am I different from before living alongside these 60 miles near one of the most contested borders, where the U.S. meets Mexico, where people get scanned and surveilled for signs of humanity, where a state decides who stays and who gets disappeared into the phantom vessel of capitalist production. Or have I stayed the same? How have these atrocities compelled me to walk through the underworld of myself? Does the writing force my hand against complacency? Or has the ground beneath my feet shifted so dramatically that it’s hard to find footing in enacting resistance—back when writing meant resistance.