Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Sequoia Nagamatsu

Art is a rich vehicle for critique. We’ve all been forced out of our everyday lives in a way that allows us to both create and consume art from a quasi-outsider perspective—maybe more objective, maybe more thoughtful about who we used to be, what the world used to be, and how we’ve all changed in the past couple of years. What do we miss? What do we never want to go back to? How were we surprised at how much we adapted to a particular aspect of lockdown? Who did we talk to? Who did we want to reach out to?

I recently spoke with author Sequoia Nagamatsu about his debut novel, How High We Go in the Dark, the role of art in an emergency, science fiction faves, and more.You can read the full interview here on The Rumpus.

While there have certainly been moments over the past year that may have temporarily diminished my faith in the human species, I think what gives me a sense of possibility are my students—young, smart people who legitimately care about the planet, are already doing so much for their communities, and are thinking intentionally about how their chosen disciplines might help provide for a better future in even small or unexpected ways.

Find out more about Sequoia Nagamatsu on sequoianagamatsu.com. Sequoia’s book How High We Go in the Dark (January 2022) is available from William Morrow.

Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Ian Ross Singleton

“I think each of us speak multiple languages. Not necessarily whole different tongues like Russian and English, but we speak different glosses. I like to think of those as languages.”

I recently spoke with author Ian Ross Singleton about his own changing identity throughout the writing of Two Big Differences, as well as the many ways language and translation are transmitted and embodied throughout his debut novel.You can read the full interview here on Fiction Writers Review.

 Humor really is the Odessan language. We talked about Isaac Babel, who is arguably the most quintessential Odessan writer (and you can’t make up a name like that, talking about the relationship to the Tower of Babel). So of course I had to have an epigraph from Isaac Babel, and it’s where the title comes from. The idea of “Two Big Differences”—that in itself is a joke. Odessa is so different, there’s two big differences.

Find out more about Ian Ross Singleton on singletonian.com. Ian’s book Two Big Differences (October 2021) is available from MGraphics.

Oh, to live another year with books

It’s always a bit staggering — to find oneself and the world arriving yet again at a December 31st. Here we are, on the precipice of hope, and yet, how easy it is to feel the loss of the year past — how we want to hold so much in ourselves at once.

It has become a tradition of mine to celebrate December 31st with a remembrance and appreciation for some books I encountered during the year, books that brought company, wisdom, linguistic splendor, and perspective — for in times of uncertainty, books are a stalwart, omnipresent friend. Throughout electric days, blue days, and the always-prowling fog, look — a book is here, waiting to sing to you as you hold each other close.

It would be impossible to include them all, but here is a sampling of a few books I would like to highlight: texts that were exquisitely staining and impactful to me in one way or another —  and have inevitably shattered and rearranged my glass body, my glass path … books that after reading, I will never be quite the same.

2021 was a year in which I also became reacquainted with the audiobook — a wonderful format to slow down, marvel at the sound of language on a tongue, and invite voices and oral storytelling into our private ear rooms. The book via the voice vessel becomes a secret companion on so many walks. Another reminder that a life with books is a life of abundance.  A star next to a book title means that I listened to and enjoyed the audiobook version, and you might enjoy it, too! (Hint: Did you know you can borrow audiobooks from your library system through the Libby app?)

So, on this pensive day of old and new, I give a fizzy thanks to those who write books, make books, bind books, share books, give books, read books, and love books! Happy New Year, and Happy Reading.

(in no particular order:)

I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

Pew by Catherine Lacey

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

Another Country by James Baldwin *

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell *

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon *

Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo

The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

Figuring by Maria Popova *

Sleep, Death’s Brother by Jesse Ball

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang

The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Two Big Differences by Ian Ross Singleton

Keen by Erin Stalcup

How I Became a Nun by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer *

Water I Won’t Touch by Kayleb Rae Candrilli

Woolgathering by Patti Smith

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich *

Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Joanna Eleftheriou

An opposition to politicized forgetting is precisely the task of art. We are responsible, as artists, for documenting, witnessing, and remembering even those truths that are not in our political interest to recall…I believe we are called to recover whatever truths we have the knowledge and the desire to hunt down, those are the truths we are required (by some sacred unwritten universal law) to write down and preserve.

I recently talked with author Joanna Eleftheriou about her debut essay collection, This Way Back, how to engage in the dialectic of identity, confront the privilege of choosing an identity, and how writers prioritize discovery. You can read the full interview here on The Common Online.

We deserve to see ourselves in art. We deserve to see ourselves on TV. There is no greater anguish than the sense of not-existing that our absence in (popular) culture incurs.

Find out more about Joanna Eleftheriou on joannaeleftheriou.com. Joanna’s book This Way Back (September 2020) is available from West Virginia University Press.

Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Lara Ehrlich

I’m striving to approach my writing with renewed joy, to recognize that motherhood—in all of its messy, infuriating, exhilarating ups and downs—informs my writing like no other experience.

I recently talked with author Lara Ehrlich about her prize-winning debut story collection, Animal Wife, and the possibility, power, and resilience steeping within. You can read the full interview here on CRAFT.

That defiance against becoming the thing we are told we should become plays through the rest of the stories, in different forms. We’re told we should be mothers, and that we should devote our whole selves to motherhood. To me, the answer is not to refuse motherhood—it’s to choose for ourselves how we define motherhood. We’re told we should act like ladies. The answer is not to act like men, but to choose for ourselves what it means to be a woman. That is the true resistance.

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Find out more about Lara Ehrlich on laraehrlich.com. Lara’s book Animal Wife (September 2020) is available from Red Hen Press.

New Piece “Greening” at Tiny Molecules

I have a new piece up at Tiny Molecules called “Greening,” which is the first in a series of pieces investigating and exploring my lifetime obsession with the Statue of Liberty. A huge thanks to Kelsey Ipsen at Tiny Molecules for believing in it and being wonderful to work with!

Now here she is again, definitive as a door. She wants to turn into metal, or me, and all I can do is green all the time. And so I green to her: When were you something no one expected you to be. Which is to say I greened to myself.

When I was writing and revising this piece, the wanting and the yearning was so present in me. Perhaps this is a result of the loneliness embodied by the pandemic and the tragedies of 2020. Or perhaps it is something else. I remember making a list to myself of “what I wanted” from this piece — a list for the reader as much as for the writer. The list went on: I want this piece to transport the reader to Liberty Island, neck craned looking up. I want immediacy, obsession, and awe to be in every line. I want this piece to be tactile even without the characters touching each other. I want to write with an honor, a reverence for both the statue as statue and the statue as woman. I want the pleasure and the nerves. I want to write a queer ode to a statue who might be the most living and mysterious thing I’ve ever known. I want to write something that inherently has secrets and layers and things unsaid. I want this piece to be about the self unknown, the discovering self, the self that is striving to become something they’ve always longed to be. 

I think about the millions of people over centuries who have seen the Statue of Liberty as a paragon of freedom. Who have found salvation from this woman. And how I too have found life and wonder and hope in her. I recognize that I’m not coming to her as a refugee or an immigrant. I’m coming to her from some other place. I’m looking for a different kind of answer from her. “Greening,” to me, is a search, a fantasy, an alchemy. Or simply put, a love letter.

I hope this piece allows you to green, too, if you need it.

Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Jihyun Yun

In the collection, the mouths of the three main speakers struggle to articulate a kinder world still unfathomable to them, in efforts to forge a path there. Articulation is conjuring. I believe it’s the realest magic our bodies are capable of.

I recently talked with poet Jihyun Yun about her prize-winning debut poetry collection, Some are Always Hungry; the mouth as metaphor; a few favorite Korean fairy tales; and the ways in which language connects food, women, and violence. You can read the full interview here on The Rumpus.

I do find it very troubling in itself that it’s easier to imagine the female body as food, as something hunted, as prey, but I think it’s also speaking to a truth of how language, too, can be a knife, and how it is often brandished.

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Find out more about Jihyun Yun on jihyunyun.com. Jihyun’s book Some are Always Hungry (September 2020) is available from University of Nebraska Press.

ICAN, You Can, We Can Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Two weeks ago, I returned from a truly unparalleled experience in Hiroshima, Japan. It was my second trip to Japan this year (I had embarked on a solo adventure to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Tokyo in January), but this particular time was a trip unlike any I have ever had before and probably ever will.

To my great surprise, I was selected as one of 15 international participants for the inaugural Hiroshima-ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Academy on Nuclear Weapons and Global Security, a 10-day intensive for young professionals ages 25 and under. The Academy ran from July 30 through August 8 and included eight participants from nuclear-weapons states (e.g. USA, Russia, China, France, and England) and seven from non-nuclear-weapons states (e.g. Germany, Japan, South Korea, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Australia). Throughout our 10 days in Hiroshima City, we heard testimonies by atom bomb survivors; learned about global trends on nuclear weapons and global security through exchanges with UN officials, diplomats, and NGO members (including members of ICAN and Peace Boat); and brainstormed concrete plans on how to engage young people in the realization toward a more peaceful world. Most humbling of all, we had the opportunity to participate in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on August 6th and honor the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing.

How did this all come about? It all started back in May when the Academy’s application came across my Twitter feed. I had been following the ICAN organization for several months as I worked on my thesis, so when ICAN shared this opportunity online, I knew that I had to apply—not only to research for my novel, but to become the global citizen I want to be. And there’s really no greater opportunity than to engage in nuclear disarmament and peace education in one of the two cities to ever experience nuclear warfare. For the application, I wrote a 700-word essay which assessed the current situation on nuclear disarmament, the priority agenda for action, as well as my personal involvement and interest in nuclear issues. I’m quite proud of that essay, and still, I never expected to be selected.

The majority of the other participants—my brilliant new friends—were hardcore students in the nuclear policy field. In contrast, I came to the Academy as “the artist” whose goal was to learn as much as she could about the technical elements of nuclear policy and international law, and translate that information into meaningful articles and texts for the masses. As someone who is usually a vocal presence in the classroom, it was at first difficult for me to take a step back and realize that I was not an expert on this topic and THAT’S OKAY! I quickly learned that one of the greatest tasks I could do at the academy was to listen, record, and absorb.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned at the Hiroshima-ICAN Academy was that when it comes to the abolition of nuclear weapons, we need everyone to put the specific skills that they have to good use. I remembered what Sasamori-san told the audience at the University of Vermont Hibakusha Stories event in 2018. She said that we must do whatever we could to ensure that no one suffers as the people did—as she did—on August 6, 1945 and August 9, 1945. Education is the first step: We must tell the stories of how nuclear weapons have affected people since 1945, provide information on the dangerous health effects of nuclear weapons, and explain why we should be extremely concerned that the Doomsday Clock is once again at two minutes before midnight. The humanitarian aspect of nuclear weapons is a key part of bringing awareness to the masses. In many ways, this humanitarian education is synonymous with storytelling.

I’ve already begun that work with my thesis, which attempts to reignite empathy and remembrance for the nuclear tragedies of the past. My hope is that, through my fiction, the curious will be inspired to read the personal accounts of the hibakusha and explore how you too can join in the movement for a peaceful world.

Be on the lookout for more blog posts coming soon, including specific highlights of the Hiroshima-ICAN Academy, a guide to the vocabulary of nuclear weapons, and supplemental books and films for continued education on the nuclear issue!

 

 

New Essay up at Entropy

I am excited and humbled and incredibly nervous to share my newest piece of nonfiction, “The Fly,” which was recently published online as part of Entropy‘s “Health and Wellness” series.

The fly has become a deep symbol in my life for a kind of never-ending state of recovery, and the insect’s incessant nature sparks the question: Is there such a thing as recovery? Can physical and mental recoveries align, and if so, how long does that alignment take?

Historically, this has been an extremely difficult topic for me to discuss, and I have only recently been able to put it into words. I don’t know if I will ever say all that I want to say on this particular topic, or if I will ever say it HOW I want to say it, but this is me now, attempting just that.

I hope that my piece allows someone to realize they’re not alone and gives them inspiration to tell their own stories.

And when it does and asks for shelter, I’ll surely offer up my body as host to that buzzing fly, because now that there’s enough of me to protect the two of us at once, the least I can do is be hospitable.

A huge thanks to Ian Riggins at Entropy for publishing it and being so wonderful to work with!

 

Fiction Writing Prompt: Take a Walk

In lieu of this week’s Sandbox Notes, here is a writing prompt that my thesis advisor, Rita Banerjee, gave to me, and I’d love to pass it forward.

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If you are feeling stuck in your fiction, take a walk and embody your main character(s).

Time: At least 20 minutes.

Where: You can walk anywhere you like! It can be around your neighborhood, a downtown area, a nearby park. Make sure to walk the same route for every character. The environment is your control variable in this experiment.

What: As you walk, take notice of how you transform into your character. Note how you (as your character) walk. Which gestures give you comfort? What do you smell, taste, touch, see, hear as you travel through the world? What stops you or keeps you walking? What pops into your brain? What are you preoccupied with or worried about? Do you talk to yourself? Do you make eye contact with the people around you, or do you stare at the ground?

Once you’ve completed your walks, write a 1-2 page scene, in which all your character does is go for a walk. Try to incorporate as many of the details from your own walk as possible.

***

Pro tip: Last week, I tried this exercise with my novel’s three main characters, and at times, I felt like I was forcing behaviors or thoughts onto them. In those moments, I tried to break out of character and become myself again. It’s funny I had to remember what it was like to be a living, thinking human. I made myself aware of what thoughts naturally come up in a mind. I should write to my grandmother. I said this thing to so-and-so, and are they still thinking about it as I am? Should I have soup or more oatmeal for dinner? Once I was able to identify what I, Cammie, was thinking about, I was then able to categorize “types” of thoughts and decide which of my characters were more likely to have a similar thought.  

Take what you need from this exercise! Let me know how it goes for you, and if you choose to adapt it in any way. Walk on!