Tuesday, September 8, 2020

“Essays Help Me Draw A Deeper Breath:” Aimee Nezhukumatathil in conversation with Kathryn Gougelet on World of Wonders

I was drawn to Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s forthcoming book of essays World of Wonders first from its stunning cover, which is bursting with illustrations of creatures who seem prepared to disclose to readers all sorts of secrets from their various worlds. Indeed, as the summer of 2020 continued its chaotic and violent trajectory, wonder felt like a feeling that I wanted more of, and that maybe other readers wanted more of, too. And who better to teach us about this feeling than Aimee Nezhukumatathil? Her work even before this collection is brimming with curiosity and delight for the natural world, as well as an astute sense for how social inequalities influence both access to the outdoors and a longer tradition of environmental writing. World of Wonders charts a path for readers across a broad range of possibilities for what wonder can be—a political force, a deep curiosity; joy, solastalgia, astonishment. Readers: for a wonder teacher, we couldn’t be in better hands. As I began to read the collection, it became clear early on that Aimee has honed the essay as a vehicle for deftly moving across time, across affect, across place, and across wonder’s many valences. I interviewed Aimee over email this month about a variety of topical and craft questions that arose as I read the book. I hope that her responses give you a sense for the wisdom and joy that you’ll find in the pages of this collection, and that, by the end, you’ll find yourself needing the book as much as I did. If so, buy it from Milkweed Books. —Kathryn Gougelet

Kathryn Gougelet: As I was reading your book, I learned that the “World of Wonder” concept started with a regular column on The Toast; as I write now I’m looking at the Toast column for the “Superb Bird of Paradise” and a gif of said bird is hopping around on my screen egging me on as I write questions for you, which feels like an entirely appropriate place from which to start this interview. Could you tell us about where the idea for The Toast column came from, and how it evolved into a book-length project? What was your process like for taking each of those columns and turning them into essays that felt ready for the book?

Aimee Nehukumatathil: The wonderful Roxane Gay had put out a call for column ideas for the now defunct The Toast/The Butter. I was dealing with a particularly toxic and racist work environment at my previous job and I found that I didn’t feel like writing poems at the moment—the only subjects that interested me and brought me joy was thinking first of my childhood spent mostly outdoors. Roxane said yes to my pitch and Nicole Chung became my editor and we soon grew a solid and loyal following there, many of whom followed me to Instagram and twitter. My husband Dustin (also a writer) had been begging me to write essays since we were still dating and had been telling me that my childhood needed to be in included too. But I balked at his suggestion for many years. After all, I barely ever saw any books with Asian Americans enjoying the outdoors. You’d think there weren’t any Asian American nature writers at all while browsing the “nature” section of a bookstore, or reading various syllabi used in colleges around the country. I certainly was never taught that any Asian Americans wrote about nature so I guess I internalized that— which I hate to even admit here— but it’s the truth and a kind of violence that has been done, really. But all of that is secondary to the most important thing: I just thought of what I loved about this planet, what I was obsessing about at the moment, and so shaping them into essays became a very natural and fun project. 

KG: The Toast column is especially great to read because it features all of these links to YouTube videos, gifs, and pictures of the plants and animals that you write about. I personally found myself going down a lot of YouTube rabbit holes in pursuit of the creatures you write about (spent a half hour watching videos about axolotl feeding, for example). What was it like to lose the internet-feel of the columns (fueled in part by a wonder that seems very specific to the internet) and move towards the book edition with stunning illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura? 

AN: I’d written 3 books of poetry at that point that did really well and was wrapping up my 4th so all of the videos and gifs for that column were just a fun bonus for me. If anything, it served as a good reminder to bring in that same delight and surprise to the way I described these wondrous animals and plants in words, never a hindrance. I finished most of the essays before I ever searched for an illustrator and went through hundreds of portfolios. It was important for me to have an Asian American illustrator who didn’t make the plants and animals too cutesy, and who also conveyed that sense of wonder I was going for—when I saw Fumi’s work I just knew it was the one. 

KG: I’m wondering if you could talk about your shift towards writing an essay collection after writing several books of poems. Why did the essay as a genre feel like the right fit for the material you’re taking on in this book, even as these essays are informed by a profound poetic sensibility? Where does the essay intersect with your pull towards poetry? What does an essay do for your art that a poem does not – or does that genre distinction not really matter? 

AN: Such lovely and important questions—thank you! Honestly, a good portion of these essays were written around the 2016 election. I’ll always be a poet first I think (but I have a dual MFA in poetry and creative non-fiction) but quite simply, linebreaks were frustrating me. I started to resent the linebreak. It seemed ugly to me. When I was writing about these plants and animals that literally make me swoon, I needed more space— something like an unspooling or unfurling of language that I didn’t want interrupted with a linebreak’s tension.  And I also was interested in a kind of rising action and the small fall that can happen when building full and robust sentences (as opposed to lines) that I don’t ever think about when drafting a poem. For more than twenty years, my poems have criss-crossed the threads of race, gender, and belonging so that wasn’t something that was new to me in the essay except for the fact that I didn’t have to alter my word choice when faced with a line break. I can breathe in both genres, but essays help me draw a deeper breath.  

KG: Could you talk about your approach to “environmental writing” and some of the tropes/traps associated with this genre? What advice do you have for people who want to write about the gravity of environmental destruction while also not completely overwhelming their readers – especially if they are simultaneously writing about the connected issues of racism and environmental injustices in the US today?

AN: I won’t pretend to have the answer or even a prescription because I’m trained to push back absolutist writing advice like, “You should do X if you want to be published/taken seriously/ get that fellowship, etc.” But… as someone who teaches nature writing, I can tell you from past experiences that when I set my students to a writing task, I ask them (in so many words) to start with and from a place of love (for the body of water, the animal, the forest, the flower—whatever it is they are writing about), they write into that and THEN once you have done that, the reader is usually on board and it’s easier to convince your reader to listen to solutions or to open their eyes that not everyone has had the same experiences outside, etc.  

KG: I was especially struck by the essay titled “QUESTIONS WHILE SEARCHING FOR BIRDS WITH MY HALF-WHITE SONS, AGED SIX AND NINE, NATIONAL AUDUBON BIRD COUNT DAY, OXFORD, MS) essay, which cedes the essaying voice entirely to your two children’s questions. These include questions about birds (“why do lady cardinals look so sad and boy cardinals look like they’re going to a party”), race (“Why do some white people not like brown people”), and other things kids ask (“Is there a bathroom nearby?”). If essaying is so much about asking questions, kids are probably the most underrated essayists out there. And it’s striking that such a large portion of this book draws from your own memories of being a kid (and represents the state of wonder in a child-mind so delightfully). How do you see childhood—your own and that of your children—informing the essaying at hand in this collection? And what craft advice do you have for writers working to represent childhood or child-minds on the page?

AN: Every parent I know (and this probably goes doubly for writer parents) thinks their kid says the funniest or most profound things. I know I’m guilty of this too. But even before I ever knew I was going to have two kids, I read and taught lots of Rachel Carson to my environmental lit. students. So many of her teachings are so moving, but what I found especially tender was her work with kids. She never had kids of her own and yet I found myself studying her again when my own kids were toddlers—her work with kids and the outdoors were more important to me than most of those “What to Expect” fear-mongering parenthood books. One of Carson’s essays showcases her wisdom in how to get kids to appreciate the outdoors and grow up to be stewards and protectors of the planet. She goes on to say, “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.” The thing is—I’ve been teaching creative writing to kindergarteners since I was still grad school—I never really have to teach kids how to wonder, how to be in awe. It comes naturally for them. Sometimes I think us grown-ups forget that of the most common words from children is simply, “Look!” But somehow along the way, we get taught that to exclaim in wonder and awe over the outdoors isn’t cool or socially acceptable anymore (not for me: my friends know and love that I routinely exclaim over a cloud or a specific curve of a tulip tree leaf. I can’t imagine staying friends with anyone who didn’t allow me that joy) and they slowly learn to stop. Again, I’d just suggest what I do for any good piece of writing. Start with the five senses. Knock us back to that time you first smelled a dried sand dollar when you were nine. Let us feel the bits of sand tap out of the lunules and into the palm of your hand.

KG: Your book trained me to feel so many different valences of wonder (i.e. a child getting told that her peacock drawing is insufficiently “American,” sharing details about the corpse flower over a date, realizing that populations of fireflies are declining). Towards the end of the book, you write: “It is this way with wonder: it takes a bit of patience, and it takes putting yourself in the right place at the right time. It requires that we be curious enough to forgo our small distractions in order to find the world.” What did you learn about wonder while assembling this collection? In “Firefly, Redux,” you also point towards the political possibilities that wonder might bring about. What kinds of openings might wonder offer us right now at a time of immense national reckoning with anti-blackness, police brutality, ecological devastation, surging and unevenly spread covid-19 deaths? How might wonder continue to instruct us during this time, and where are you finding that sense of wonder now?

AN: I’ve said a variation of this before but one of the many things—perhaps THE biggest thing I’m so sad and embarrassed about this administration is the way the lack of knowledge and dismissing science has become something of a badge of honor or patriotism, when it is obviously neither. I think if some of our leaders actually read literature or natural history books where they learn about other occupants of this planet, and where differences in culture and language aren’t viewed as something to fear or distrust, we’d just be more tender towards each other. Going back to what I said before, when you get to learn about an animal or plant, when you learn that there are birds out there who read the stars to fly home at night, and how wondrous and lovely that is—maybe it might become harder to want to use a product that clogs up the sky with smog so these birds can’t see the stars? And maybe we could ask how could anyone still make a violence on someone after getting to know, really getting to know someone who doesn’t look like you? We’re in a pandemic. It’s hard—I miss my parents terribly who live in Florida and I haven’t seen them in over 8 months. But gardening is their love language and they instilled that in me too. My husband and I have planted a native pollinator garden and tending that brings me such joy. But I’m not going to mince words. Some days the news is so bleak and my sons look to my face to see how to respond. I’m sad and worried most days but I try to find pockets of wonder outside from our walks and I try to make things with them as much as I can.

KG: The narrator throughout strikes me as someone who finds a state of wonder, curiosity, and astonishment regularly—and with relative ease. Are there particular practices (i.e. chatting with birds, as you do in the book) that you’ve cultivated that consistently turn you towards a state of wonder?

AN: I again go back to Rachel Carson who said, “…I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift,...he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” My immigrant parents worked so hard when I was growing up but they always had time to take me to the library or on walks or spent time with me in their garden. They wanted me to be a doctor so bad but that time they spent modeling wonder might have been the greatest gift they ever gave me and gave me the vocabulary and curiosity for the lists and lists of things I’d like to explore in my writing. I know I’m a better human because of it. I still have the same spirt of that little girl trailing behind them in the garden who fell in love with the smell of tomato leaves and I hope my own sons will have at least a little bit of that, too. 


Aimee Nezhukumatathil Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of World of Wonders, an illustrated essay collection (Milkweed 2020), as well as of four books of poetry, including Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Other awards for her writing include fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Mississippi Arts Council, and MacDowell. Her writing appears in Poetry, the New York Times Magazine, ESPN, and Tin House. She serves as poetry faculty for the Writing Workshops in Greece and is professor of English and Creative Writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.

Kathryn Gougelet is a PhD student in cultural anthropology at University of California-Santa Cruz. In 2018, she received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She writes about environmental health and justice, and is currently working on an essay collection about the lives people build around extractive industries across the United States. Her recent writing has appeared in The Normal School, Terrain.org, and Sage Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @kgougelet.

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