Holding a Flower Out in Front of You: A Conversation with M. Evalina Galang

By Dmitra Gideon

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M. Evelina Galang is the author of Lolas' House, a work of nonfiction documenting the stories of sixteen Filipina women who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII.  Her other works include the short story collection Her Wild American Self, and novels One Tribe and Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery. She is also a co-editor of the anthology Screaming Monkeys: critiques of Asian American Images. She is the recipient of the 2004 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Prize for the Novel, the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award, the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights, and a 2002 Senior Research Fellowship from Fulbright. Galang directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami and is core faculty and board member of Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation.

 

Galang spoke with The Fourth River during her participation in Chatham University's fall 2018 event, Dialogues: Writing from the Global South.

 

The Fourth River: In Lolas' House, the landscape plays an integral role as a keeper of the Lolas' stories. This is particularly striking when you take the Lolas to their abduction sites. I'm thinking especially of Lola Cristita Alcober. When you take her to Tacloban, you note that she is “not the same Lola Cristita as in Manila.” Then, as she tells her story, and as you move through the spaces her story inhabited, her body and her words begin to become a part of the landscape.  Why was it important for you to revisit the sites of the Lolas' abductions? 

 

M. Evelina Galang: I was given the opportunity through my Fulbright grant to take some of the women back to their abduction sites. The women who are participating in Lolas' House in Manila are from all over the Philippines, so when they had the opportunity to go back home, they wanted to go home just to go home. But they were also bound and determined to give their testimony. I don't know if they always knew exactly what to expect once they got there; they just knew they were going home.

 

For me, the importance was to inhabit that landscape as a witness. It was important for me to go and stand in the space where their homes once stood as a way to say, “Yes. This happened. Yes, I have the evidence firsthand.” That's what the whole book is about. And, for me, firsthand means to stand in the spaces where their houses once stood, or to stand in the civic center where they were all held, and  to be able to look out at the landscape to see what they might have seen. It was such an interesting thing to walk with Lola Cristita down the path that they would have taken on their way from San Jose to her home. The house wasn't standing. There was a thing that looked like a house, but it was burned, and she said, “My house used to be there.” That was a way of gathering evidence.

 

TFR: In that scene, you write, “The story was in the trees, in the grasses, integrated in the sands on the beaches, but never spoken out loud.” How do you think violence and trauma, particularly during wartime, alters our relationship with nature, or alters nature itself?

 

MEG: I go back to Lola Carmencita, who was in Bulacan. She was held in that mansion surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I feel like the land bears witness to what happens in trauma, but also not in trauma – in the way we go back and forth on the street. There is a way that the land bears witness. For the Lolas, being back in that space automatically triggered all kinds of reliving. It's not triggering memories; it's reliving. It's like a re-enactment, especially in those spaces.

 

Space is really important. I remember when I was doing some of my research early on; I talked to a psychologist who had done some work with the women. Different Lolas responded differently post-war. Lola Narcisa was one of the ones who did really well, and her story was pretty horrific. The psychologist said that there are certain things you can do to heal, one of which is to take the person out of that space. When Lola Narcisa meets her husband over by her house, she's not herself yet, and her sister's not herself yet. He takes care of them because his own sister had the same experience. He nurtures them back to health. When he falls in love with her, he does many kind things for her. He takes her away from Abra and brings her to Manila, and they begin their life anew. So there's that, but at the same time, she wanted to go back. So, I think it was really important to visit those places when we could. It was interesting to see how different women responded once we were there. They weren't all the same.

 

TFR: When you said that the land bears witness when we walk back and forth on the street, I thought, “Yeah, every time you step on the ground, it changes a little.”

 

MEG: It does change a little. In pre-Colonial, pre-Spanish times, there was a strong feeling throughout [the Philippines] that the earth is inhabited by spirits, and even now you don't enter a space without asking permission from the spirits of the land. You are respectful because the ancestors are there; they are the earth. You don't take it for granted.

 

TFR: The way violence is held in the Lolas' bodies and, later, in your body, seems central to the reader's understanding of the long-term effects of trauma, the consequences of silence, and the power and burden of witnessing. It seems like the Lolas' stories have to enter your body so that they can move through your hand and onto the page. How much do you think writing or telling these stories helps to relieve that physical burden?

 

MEG: It's absolutely everything. They offer these stories, and the words and the stories enter you when you hear them, and you hold them there. I worked with several students throughout the time of this project, several young women, and I always told them, “You have to take care of yourself. You have to be cognizant and take care of yourself at every juncture.”

 

While I was working, a friend of mine in Miami said, “When you are listening to these stories and transcribing, you should imagine that you are holding out a flower in front of you, and that the stories pass through the filter of the petals so that you don't take them on.” You're not actually experiencing what they're experiencing; they're filtered. And you in your body understand that they are filtered. They are painful, and you can feel that pain, but it is not your pain. There's always that understanding that this is not you. That was a really helpful thing, and it's also why the book is structured the way it is structured – with constant moments for reflection, or taking a break, or maybe meditation – a little distance away from the stories, a breath. You need to be able to have those filters. Otherwise, it can be a negative thing. I can sit down for an entire weekend and write fiction and never get up. I will forget to eat, forget to shower, and just be in that world continuously with all kinds of energy. But, when I was writing this book, I would write for an hour and then feel fatigued. My eyelids would get heavy and I would have to stop. And that's why it took so long for the book to happen, because I had to take these breaks, I had to listen to my body.

 

You can even see it in the way I was interviewing. The second time around I was trying to keep my distance. After the last one, I had a fever and I was throwing up. It was like I was expelling and expelling, and I think the writing was the final expulsion. Writing the story, writing trauma, releasing the narrative, vocally or on the page – in a poem, in a song, in a dance – becomes a way of healing.

 

TFR: Vocalizing trauma is a release, but it also requires you to re-live it, and once you've told your story, there can still be shame I think. I'm wondering if any of the Lolas ever wanted to take it back or felt regretful that they'd spoken.

 

MEG: I can't speak for them, but I know them pretty well. Each of them thought carefully before they came forward. And once they committed to coming forward they were going to fight to the end, and they did. All the women except for Lola Narcisa have now passed away, and their children and their grandchildren have now taken up the fight for justice. I would say, knowing them and having spent so much time with them, that they are not regretful. In fact, they are defiant. I remember Rechie Madura, their coordinator, said the Lolas went from being victims (that's how I met them, as victims) to survivors. Through the years of working on this campaign for justice, they went from being survivors to heroines – these superheroes, these models for feminism. They're  in the crowd, holding up placards, and they are not backing down. To this day, they are not backing down. They are somewhere in the other world, and they are not backing down.

 

At some point they actually became people who were saying to volunteers, who were also survivors, “This is not your fault. What happened to you is not your fault. You should not be ashamed. You should be strong. You deserve justice.” I witnessed them saying these things to young survivors, and they believe it with all their heart. It's just how it is. So, knowing what I know, I can't speak for them, but I can safely, almost positively, say that there's not a single one who regrets it. What they regret is that they weren't alive to see justice.

 

TFR: I mentioned that your physical experience as a witness is part of the book, and one question I've heard from others is why you chose to put yourself and your experiences in the book.

 

MEG: I didn't want to put myself in at all. But you couldn't have sixteen trauma stories in a row. That just re-traumatizes everybody. Also, it diminishes the singularity of the experience for each woman, because each woman's experience was different. So, the structure of the book was another thing that kept me from getting the book out faster. A friend of mine, a writer, said, “You need to be in this book more, because you are the witness, you are the narrator who is actually there in our stead.”

 

As these things are happening to the Lolas, and as they are giving their testimonies, and as I am sitting in the room reacting, the question becomes: “How is somebody going to imbibe these stories one after the other?”  So you have this person, this guide, this narrator, who will stop action and say, “Okay time to take a breath.” And I was trying to figure out how to do that. During that Fulbright year in the Philippines, I had learned from the last time that I had to take care of myself. So I would go to church, I would go to meditation centers, and I would see my family. Those were the moments when I re-calibrated, so that I could enter the stories again. When I remembered that, I realized, “That's the way you structure the book.”

 

I was hesitant at first, but I was told, “You need to do it more, you need to do it more, because people need the breath, and they need to know the context of the stories and how they were given.” That's why I did it that way.

 

TFR: Judy Grahn was telling us that she uses lines as anchors when writing about something difficult, and in this case you are the anchor. And you're also the vessel through which the reader can enter the stories.

 

MEG: Right.

 

TFR: In your role of vessel, you discuss the difficulty of translating the Lolas' stories, especially because they tend to slip into local dialects when they describe their most painful and horrific experiences. Language becomes almost another character in the story. You talk about having to use a lot of non-verbal language to comprehend the full weight of what they're saying, and about the need to couch their words in context, because straight translation does not convey enough. Do you think the language barrier allowed you to experience each other on a more visceral level? What might have changed, for instance, had the Lolas been native English speakers?

 

MEG: It would have been done sooner (laughs). I could have told the story simply for the Filipino people, in the Philippines. If I had been a fluent Tag-a-Log speaker writing in Tag-a-Log, or if had written completely in English (because English is the mode of education in the Philippines, so everyone speaks English there), that would have been one thing. In hindsight, I think the purpose of the book is to speak to non-Filipinos as well as Filipinos. My discoveries, as a Filipina American, of language and translating, and translating culture (because it's not just translating words; it's really translating culture) were an important aspect of the book. People outside of the Filipino community could understand and discover the stories in a very heartfelt way, a very visceral way. I think it has created a situation where you don't have to be of Filipino descent – you don't even have to be a woman – to get it. Because the act of the narrator in Lolas' House is to discover, and to make some of those cultural faux pas, or to miss a translation.

 

It's not in the book, but there was this moment when I was using a translator, a Filipino speaker. I asked a question of a Lola, he translated it, the Lola answered it, and I understood what everyone was saying. When he translated it back to me, I said, “That's not what she said. Ask the question again. Ask it this way.” I changed the question around, he asked the question of the Lola, the Lola answered the question, and he turned around and looked at me and was like, “Oh.” So I got it in a way that he didn't get it. That was when I realized I didn't need a translator. It's like subtitles for a movie. I'm watching and hearing in a different language, and I'm reading these subtitles, thinking, “That's not what they said.”

TFR: Another use of the body in both One Tribe and Lolas' House is in dramatic reenactments of history. In Lolas' House, you and the Lolas perform their histories in very visceral, violent role plays. In One Tribe, Isabel teaches Filipino history through creative dramatics. In these scenes, the lines between present and memory – or history – disappear. The characters' bodies become other bodies, or even sometimes the ocean or sky. Why do you choose to tell these stories this way?

 

MEG: Because it seemed right (laughs). The backstory for One Tribe is that I was a drama teacher at one point. I worked with children. I loved it. When we did these creative dramas, they owned the story. Children are so fresh; their imaginations have no limits. They become the story – they are the bird. They take liberties that we, as adults who have shoulds and should-nots in our heads, won't allow [ourselves] to do. I liked that whole practice. And then the question was: what if that practice were married to teaching Filipino American history? And it's Filipino American history month right now, by the way, so it's very appropriate that you asked me that question.

 

In that novel, the question is really: who is Filipino? Are you Filipino enough? Are you part of our tribe? I think the answer to that is: everyone who is of Filipino descent has their own way of being Filipino, whatever that is, and that is always Filipino enough. But sometimes the community has certain expectations of how you're supposed to be. Not just the Filipino community, obviously, but that's what I focused on in the book. [The main character] Isabel is really trying to figure out who her tribe is, and how to be in a tribe. The way she does it, and the way the Lolas express themselves in the dramas we do with them, releases the story and honors the experience.

 

It's a horrible thing that happened to [the Lolas], but it also happened to them. When they re-enact these stories, they are owning those stories, telling them from their perspective, which is a highly different version from the story the Japanese government tells. So I think it's a way of owning your story and telling it, just like those little kids.

 

There's that moment with Lola Prescila, when she becomes the Japanese soldier. It was so weird for me to see that transformation. I had no idea! There was a kind of release, and it was also a way to empathize. A way for her to actually be in the role of the soldier. For me to be in her role, and to imagine what that might have been like. When your body is on the ground and there is somebody on top of you like that, there's no imagining; it's happening. Even if it's play-acting, it's happening.

 

TFR: It's so powerful. And I love that you said, “owning your story,” because I have issues with the word “survivor.” I want it to become something like “author” or “owner.” It's your story now, and you can do whatever you want with it. You can turn it into a different story, you can tell it exactly as you remember it...

 

MEG: You can get revenge. The best thing about fiction is that you can write the same thing that happened to you, and then you can have a different outcome.

 

TFR: You can go in and rescue yourself!

 

MEG: Yeah.

 

TFR: So, you brought up empathy and taking on the role of the Japanese soldier, and I can't remember which Lola said, “We need these stories so the Japanese can heal...”

 

MEG: Lola Cristita.

 

TFR: ...Right. And I'm wondering if you ever considered looking at the other side?

 

MEG: Certain men in my life have suggested that. It's interesting. They're men I respect. But, you know, we've been hearing from men for a long time. They have occupied a lot of space on the page. And in the government. And in the world. And if they want to tell their story, they can tell their story, but my focus is on the women. There is another side to the story, I'm sure. But do I empathize with them? No.

 

I know a while back there was a soldier who came forward and apologized personally, and I'm sure he's not the only one. One would hope that, as we age, we kind of see who we were and who we are and who we can be, and we understand our humanity a little better. So I would hope that others could rise up to that. But as far as where my energies go as a writer and as an activist, I would say that I'm with women, I'm here to tell their stories. There are only so many hours in the day, and I want to spend them telling their stories, and the stories of other Filipina Americans, other women, other Americans. I have whole slew of nieces who are coming up, and I want them to be powerful young women. Their stories matter. Those are the ones I want to spend time with.

 

TFR: In One Tribe, Isabel wonders “why so many people related fixing a problem to dwelling on the past.” Those of us who write about collective trauma, racism, sexism, etc... often come up against this issue. Many people have difficulty understanding that past injustices and silences build upon each other to construct the current state of affairs, that the present cannot be understood without understanding the past, that in fact the past is alive and present for people who have been violated and dehumanized. You speak to this also in Screaming Monkeys, stating that we cannot move forward if we “ignore the need to scream.” Past silences must be redressed by speaking the truth not once, but repeatedly. Why do you think some people have difficulty understanding this, and how can we as writers help them to do so?

 

MEG: I think that has to do with people who come from a place of privilege, of not ever needing to empathize or see another perspective. It's not their fault – lucky them –  but they've never had the opportunity to experience the things that happen to people who don't have money, that happen to women, that happen to people of color. Did I just describe the white male? I might have (laughs). It's not their fault, but they have this way of acting in the world, and it's the only way they know. There's this lack of empathy, and this lack of understanding that the past creates the future, the present operates because of the past, and to change the things in the future, you have to understand the past.

 

This seems to most of us to be a natural way of thinking, but it's not. When your life experience has been one where you can just walk into a room where other people are standing in line, and right away it's, “Yes sir. What can I do for you sir?” (I've witnessed that); when you have not been the only woman at the table in a meeting, expressing what you think the next thing should be, or what the next choice should be, and it gets completely ignored until a man says the same exact thing; when you have not been in the place of the person who's being erased or unheard, it's hard to imagine that anyone would have a hard time in life. It's hard to imagine the things we are going through (see, this is me being empathetic).

 

So, how to address that, how to bring them over? I say, write really good fiction. Write really good poems. Make really good films. I say, give the microphone to a woman. Give the microphone to a person of color. Give the microphone to the Lolas. Let people start to tell their own stories, really good stories, or give them spaces in which to tell those stories, and then you catch them when they're not thinking. You catch them in their most human moments. You catch them in the act of watching a story unfold and getting interested in the characters and the choices the characters are making. You fool them into caring about characters and wanting the right things to happen for the right reasons.

 

Sometimes we have misconceptions and misinterpretations and, when we're caught in the spotlight, we would be the last people in the world to admit that we were wrong. But, when we are listening to a story, or watching a movie, it takes the onus off of us as observers. We might walk away from a movie, or a conversation, or whatever, and something someone said stays with us. We think about it, and then  come back and say, “Yeah, you know, back in the day when I was in high school and I pinned you down like that, that was bad.”

 

Art is such an integral part of how we become, how we change, and how we understand who we are. It's not the STEM whatever; it's art. It's when we can see people as people, and that happens in a good story. So my answer to that question would be to write. The trick is, you have to get them into theaters, you have to get the book in the hand, and that doesn't always happen. But, you know, the tide is changing. The votes matter. In the U.S., the population is changing. That's why there's so much fear. That's why there's so much resistance. That's why the white men are acting out these days, right? They're afraid. And with good reason, because they're not going to be in power much longer. And good.

 

Yeah, actually when you were saying, “This is how you make them understand,” I thought, “Well, or we don't care that you don't understand and now we're in control.”

 

Yeah, there is that. There's a lot of that in the way I operate on a day to day basis. Not everyone cares, and you can see it in our court system and on television every day.  Like, Christine Ford is our superstar. She's standing in for all of us. She's standing up and doing a very elegant and dignified thing in telling her story. She's not telling it because she wants to get anything back. That is abundantly clear. She's doing it so that we make the right choices, because the past matters. If this man can act in such a way back then, and then respond to it the way he is now, now you have the information to make a choice. You don't need an FBI investigation to figure that out, right? So we're seeing it every day. I think we're seeing that they don't care.

 

What I'm trying to say is that – and maybe it's because I'm getting older, I'm in a good place, and I now have earned privilege of my own – I don't give a flying f––  sometimes. You can get me or you can not get me. You can understand me or you can not understand me. But here are the people I'm working with; here are the people who are getting my attention. They know what's going on. Those small interactions that I have with young women, and especially young women of color, that's the thing that matters. When I see them out in the world, doing their thing, that's what matters.


Dmitra Gideon lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she is actively involved in sex workers' rights and environmental justice advocacy. She is an MFA candidate in Chatham University's Creative Writing Program and a 2019-2020 Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellow. She also has a dog.

 

AWP '19 Observations: Fabulist Fiction for a Hot Planet

Eco-Fabulism: 5 Years Later—A Guarded Update

by Damian Dressick

 

Five years ago, at the AWP conference in Seattle, Washington, five panelists sat down together for a session entitled Fabulist Fiction for a Hot Planet. This year’s AWP, again in the Pacific Northwest, brought together those same (for the most part) panelists to take stock of the landscape of Eco-fabulist literature at the present cultural moment.

The panel was moderated by Erin Stalcup, a faculty member in the Writing & Publishing MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and author of the eco-fabulist novel Every Living Species as well as the editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain.

Stalcup began with a brief discussion of the initial panel—its attempts to formulate a definition for eco-fabulism as well as one of its essential questions: to what degree can art to help fight ecological catastrophe. Stalcup also stressed the urgency of the ecological situation, describing the increasing number of extinct and soon-to-be-extinct species as well as the approaching reality of an ice free artic.

The first panelist was E. Lily Yu, winner of the 2017 Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award and a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. In her presentation Yu put two ecologically-engaged novels written 30 years apart in conversation. Both Australian novelist George Turner’s 1998 Drowning Towers and Kim Stanley Robinson’s more recent (2017) 2040 describe worlds in which rising sea levels have brought about large-scale changes in the social structure and humans are forced to live in high-rises in flooded cities. Yu discussed common thematic choices in the two novels written decades apart.

Matt Bell, Director of Creative Writing at Arizona State University and author of novels Scrapper(2016) and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods(2013) and the story collection A Tree A Person or A Wall (2016) discussed his class Climate Fiction, Eco-Fabulism, and the New Weird at Arizona State. Students in the class read seven books, all from the genre of climate fiction. Bell talked about his own preparatory reading in science, environmental philosophy and history, as well as his desire create a course friendly to students often more inclined toward the production of genre fiction than literary fiction. Bell also talked about his success engaging his students with a project that asked them to craft artifacts from various imagined futures and put them on display in a “marketplace.”

Megan Cass, associate professor of English University of Louisiana-Lafayette and author of Range of Motion, took over for Christian Moody. She discussed how eco-fabulist stories can serve as calls to accountability for their readership.

Assistant professor at the University of Maine at Machias and author of Lungs Full of Noise, Tessa Mellas spoke about the last five years being particularly dark in terms of environmental impact due to ecological policies currently being pursued. Mellas suggested that the difficulty in understanding our ecological role starts when we “put nature on one side and human beings on the other.”

The panel’s overall conclusion seemed to suggest that while the road may be long and dark in terms of art making a meaningful difference in the planet’s outlook—and even though folks may see themselves as sometimes preaching to the choir—what writers can do and what writers must do is write about the things that matter to them.

  


Damian Dressick is an American author from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was nominated in 2009 for the Pushcart Prize for short fiction. He is the winner of the Spire Press 2009 Prose Chapbook Contest for his collection Fables of the Deconstruction. In 2007 he won the Harriette Arnow Award for short fiction

AWP '19 Observations: “Surfing the Green Wave: Engaging Environmental & Social Issues for Young Readers”

by Tanya Ward Goodman

Panelists: Shanetia Clark, Todd Mitchell, Eliot Schrefer, Sherri L. Smith, Cecil Castellucci

 

I went to the AWP 2019 Panel, Surfing the Green Wave: Engaging Environmental & Social Issues for Young Readers because I thought learning “how literature might engage a generation that is inheriting global problems on an unprecedented scale” might help me navigate this difficult and continuing conversation with my own teenaged children. I came away with new tools to deepen my writing as well as constructive ways to address my worries about the state of our world.

“Stories shape the way we think and act,” explained moderator, Shanetia Clark. She asked us to look at how literature changes to address new problems and wondered what might lie beyond apocalyptic fiction. She’d gathered four writers, Cecil Castelucci, Todd Mitchell, Eliot Shrefer, and Sherri L. Smith, to muse on the central question of “what now?”

By defining books as “conversation beginners,” Mitchell encourages his readers to think beyond the text. “What does this book ask you to do next?” he wondered. All four writers agreed and talked about the value of showing the effort of moving toward Utopia.

Writing from a “post crisis point,” Castelucci explained, makes the story about hope and offers a chance to re-build. She’s especially interested in showing what she calls “agency in the face of crisis.”

Smith, whose novel was inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans, offered her take. “In times of crisis,” she said, “it’s often the communities who help, rather than the establishment.” She asked us to look at the ways calamity can be a uniting force.

Schrefer broadened the idea of community to include the natural world. After researching the Bonobos ape, he was inspired to write a quartet of books. “I want the reader to think, I’m linked with this creature,” he said. In pursuit of emotional connection, he edits much of his research out of the final draft, relying instead on character and story to convey truth in an entertaining way. “I write sad books,” he said. “I need to steer this car as much as I can in the other direction.”

Castelucci finds that the world of comics gives her a broader path to tackle uncomfortable topics. “People who are resistant to climate change,” she said, “Are a lot more open when you have Wonder Woman doing something.” She believes deeply in the relationship of science and science fiction. “It’s a circular system of inspiration,” she said. “Part of our job is to inspire new inventions and encourage the pushing of boundaries.”

Smith agreed. Her recent work on the Avatar comic book series, has blended fantasy with reality and helped her understand the importance of re-orienting ourselves to nature. “Spreading our empathy to every living thing means we care as much for the planet as we care for ourselves.”

In order to avoid being preachy, Mitchell often puts what he really wants to say in the mouth of the villain. “Let the humanity rise to the surface.”

Putting character and emotion at the center of these big stories establishes a comfort zone for readers that can ease recognition of larger truths. Zombies can stand in for real-world threats. Using issues of class, social status and economic imbalance as plot points help readers connect to their own experiences and envision real life solutions. “Write to see what you don’t know,” reminded Mitchell. In this way, reading becomes a kind of practice for turning anxiety to action.

 

Panelist Books Discussed:

Todd Mitchell, The Last Panther

Eliot Schrefer, The Ape Quartet: Endangered, Threatened, Rescued, Orphaned

Sherri L. Smith, Orleans

Cecil Castellucci, Shade, The Changing Girl

 

Panelist Recommended Books:

Feed by M.T. Anderson

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Dry by Neil Schusterman.

 


Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown.”  Her essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesOrange County Register, OC Family, Luxe, Alligator JuniperPerceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary MamaThe Huffington Post, Brain, Child and as a blogger for TheNextFamily.com

Intersections and White Space: An Interview with Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo was born in Rockville, Maryland in 1990 to Sudanese parents. Her writing explores the nuances between belonging and exile, and the conflict between identity and home. She has appeared in many literary publications, including Poetry, Callaloo, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day Series. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She was the co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, won the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and has received fellowships and residencies from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and SPACE on Ryder Farm, among others. Currently, her collection, The January Children, won a 2018 Arab American Book Award, receiving the George Ellenbogen Poetry Award.  Her future work, partnered with Fatimah Asghar, Halal If You Hear Me, is an anthology of written by underrepresented Muslim voices: women, queer, trans, and non-conforming writers, due out in April 2019.

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Existing in the Liminal: An Interview with Adriana E. Ramirez

I had the pleasure of conversing with Adriana E. Ramirez, who visited Chatham for our event, “Dialogues: Writing in Divided Times.” Ramirez is a world-renowned performance poet, and her nonfiction novella Dead Boys won the 2015 PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize. Ramirez currently resides in Pittsburgh and teaches at Carlow University. She is co-founder of the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective and ran Steel City Slam for ten years. Our conversation focused on her upcoming book, The Violence, due in 2018, but we also discussed a wide variety of topics including the current state of journalism, the poetry scene in Pittsburgh, and themes of recurrence in Battlestar Galactica.  

The Fourth River: I just want to give you an opportunity, first, to talk about your upcoming book, The Violence.

Adriana E. Ramirez: I am neck deep in it right now. It’s about a civil war called The Violence in Colombia from 1948-56. This guy running for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, he was essentially a populist, the working people loved him. He’s assassinated, and a weeks worth of rioting ensues, kicking off a civil war. This was not the first war between liberals and conservatives in Colombia. But this one obviously went much longer than three years.

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On Research and Relationships: An Interview with Kathryn Miles

Kathryn Miles is a longform journalist, memoirist, and environmental writing professor. Her most recent book is Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, published in 2014. She is the author of Adventures with Ari: A Puppy, a Leash & Our Year Outdoors, and All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship. Her nonfiction has been selected for Best American Essays, and has appeared in a wide range of publications such as Alimentum, Ecotone, Outside, The Boston Globe, Psychology Today, and The New York Times. In addition to being a mentor in Chatham University’s low-residency MFA program, she teaches in the low-residency Masters program at Green Mountain College in Vermont.

Kathryn Miles joined Chatham’s Summer Community of Writers in July 2015 as the featured creative nonfiction writer.

The Fourth River: You got your start as a reporter in high school, correct? Since then you’ve written many things and your style has no doubt changed a lot. What traits of that rookie reporter have you retained? Or is everything about your work different?

Kathryn Miles: The Peoria Journal Star, a really wonderful daily, took a chance and hired me as a cub reporter when I was 16. It was sort of a dream-come-true for me: my godparents, who were really like surrogate grandparents, met and fell in love while working there. So, in a lot of ways, it felt like a family legacy for me to follow in their footsteps, and, like them, I really grooved on the dynamism of an active newsroom. I took an incredibly circuitous route back to journalism – I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and took a Ph.D. in English – but the roots have always remained. What I really learned from those early days was the importance of old fashioned reportage: sitting and listening, and letting your subjects be the voice of their own stories. I also learned about the crucial importance of accuracy and writing on deadline: two considerations all creative writers need to internalize, and ones I’m constantly reminded of in my work today. What’s changed, I think, is my newfound appreciation for narrative and storytelling: literary journalism was an unknown concept to me then, and it really defines my writing today. I’m much more aware of voice and the arc of a story than I ever was then.

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Wonderful Strangeness: An Interview with Karen E. Bender

Karen Bender, the Chatham MFA Program 2015 Melanie Brown Lecturer, is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent collection, Refund (Counterpoint Press, 2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story prize. Her other works include two novels, Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms and she was the co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion. Her short fiction, widely published in literary magazines, has also appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories. A Los Angeles native and past resident of New York City and Iowa City, she currently lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with her husband, writer Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.

The Fourth River: How did you start writing and who were your early influences?

Karen Bender: I started writing because I was hit on the head with a rock when I was six. I was at a birthday party for a little boy and all the kids were trying to put him through a “spanking machine”, which was when all the kids lined up to make a tunnel through which the birthday child was supposed to crawl. He didn’t want to go through the spanking machine, so he was running away and he picked up a rock and threw it. The rock soared over everyone and hit me. I fell backward and some adult picked me up and put me on the birthday cake table, and all these kids were surrounding the table and staring at me and I was bleeding. And what I remember is that they had to move the birthday cake so it didn’t get bloody—that is the detail I remember. So I started writing my first stories after that incident, when I had this big bandage on my head. I believe that was my first insight I had as a writer, because I was trying to impose narrative on chaos. And that’s actually what I think stories, or work, does, because the world is so chaotic, and there are all these rocks thrown at us all the time, in various ways. Writing is a way to try and control the chaos. As a child, I wrote many novel beginnings but never finished. I didn’t know how to finish them.

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Carolina Minded: An Interview with Wiley Cash

When bestselling author Wiley Cash passed through Pittsburgh on the promotional tour for his award-winning novel A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, he sat down with THE FOURTH RIVER to talk plot tricks and book deals. Cash also gave creative writing students at Chatham University a craft lecture before a public reading of his work, including excerpts from A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, recently released THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY and a currently untitled novel-in-process. I talked with him about how to figure out the right book title, being star struck by Jeannette Winterson, and why he can’t wait to get back to North Carolina.

FR: It’s obvious that place plays a huge role in your books. A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road To Mercy are both set in North Carolina, and the new book you’re working on is historical fiction about North Carolina. You seem to really love the state. What was it like growing up there?

Wiley Cash: I absolutely love North Carolina. I did my undergraduate at UNC Asheville, my Masters at UNC Greensboro, and actually left to get my PhD at University of Louisiana-Lafayette. I spent five years in Louisiana. I’ve been teaching in West Virginia, but we’ll move back to N.C. this year. My wife took a job in Wilmington. I can’t wait. I grew up going to a Southern Baptist church in Gastonia. It was very conservative. There was pressure, imagined or whatever, to feel and talk about holy, biblical things. That anxiety transfers to A Land More Kind Than Home’s protagonist Jess, that guilt that young people have about “How do I know when I’m saved?” “Do I believe things correctly?” The rise and fall of Southern Evangelicals had a real impact on me.

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Interview: Marjorie Agosín

It was an unseasonably warm fall day in Pittsburgh when I talked with Chilean writer and activist, Marjorie Agosín, Chatham University’s All-Campus Author and the woman behind nearly forty books, including anthologies, poetry, memoir and nonfiction, and a novel, I Lived on Butterfly Hill, which was released in March 2014. In the living room of the Howe-Childs Gate House, I sheepishly removed several Apple devices of various sizes, one for recording, another for keeping the time, and she asked me about my family. We’d met before. Agosín graciously remembered the time last year I almost drove her and her husband the wrong way down a one-way street. We had a lot of catching up to do. For the next half hour, Agosín and I navigated our conversation through shared territory—of home, memory, and separation in poetry, the value of travel, the smell and feel of the Pacific Ocean when she returns to the country of her childhood. “The problem with Chile,” she told me with a sigh, “is that it’s far no matter where you are.” And so we talked too about this longing, about the clarity of what is left behind. Although I don’t speak Spanish, her native language, the conversation was easy, and I learned that even in our silences, nothing is lost.

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Off-Kilter Vacations: An Interview with Stewart O’Nan

Local Pittsburgh writer, Stewart O’Nan, blends fact with fiction in his 2015 novel, West of Sunset, published by Viking Press. In an excerpt featured in The Fourth River 0.3: Celebrating 10 Years of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series, O’Nan takes readers back to a time in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life that is not often discussed: the later years when Fitzgerald was an alcoholic struggling to find work while Zelda is away in an asylum.

Before this novel, O’Nan’s short story collection, In the Walled City, was awarded the 1993 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Several of the short stories from that collection appeared in The Nebraska Review, Northwest Review, among others. During 1993, he published his second book, Snow Angels, which was later adapted into a film in 2007 by the same name.

Along with these successes, O’Nan collaborated with Stephen King on an e-book, A Face in the Crowd, before finally publishing West of Sunset.

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The Fourth River: What drew you to write about this rarely-talked about part of Fitzgerald’s life in West of Sunset?

Stewart O’Nan: I knew a little about his time in Hollywood, but I felt there was a lot more. He’s an intriguing figure living in a legendary place during an interesting time. The more I looked into it, the more fantastic and romantic it seemed. Who knew that he worked on Gone with the Wind or met with Shirley Temple, who wanted to star in Babylon Revisited?

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Demons I Want to Exorcise: An Interview with Alaina Symanovich

Alaina Symanovich, is a graduate student at Florida State University. She was born and raised in central Pennsylvania and always longed to get away, but never thought that she would have the chance. She studied at Penn State University as an undergraduate student “a whopping five minutes from her house.” She said in my interview with her that she “met so many students who’d traveled across states or seas to become Nittany Lions” and “wanted so desperately to have an adventure of her own, to stop being a “townie” and become a person.” She now finds herself unable to stop writing about the home she wishes she had never left.

Alaina’s essay, “The M Word,” appears in The Fourth River Issue O.2: Queering Nature.

The Fourth River: Do you generally write nonfiction, or do you find yourself switching between genres?

Alaina Symanovich: I stumbled into writing nonfiction out of necessity.  According to my peers in fiction workshop, disguising my own experiences as fiction was a) obvious, and b) stifling.  My peers were right–I wasn’t able to write “true” fiction (or, in any case, fiction that wasn’t 99% memoir) until I got my nonfiction stories out of my system.  I began doubling up on fiction and nonfiction workshops, and writing finally became freeing. I no longer had to pass my real life as fiction or contrive situations where characters were “coincidentally” dealing with the same issues I was.

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So That You Know Your Story Will Be Told: An Interview with Sabata-mpho Mokae

I recently sat down with South African writer Sabata-mpho Mokae, and discussed his influences, oral storytelling and how language affects the way a story is told and absorbed. Mokae’s debut novel in Setswana, Ga Ke Modisa, I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper, (2012) won the M-Net Literary Award for Best Novel in Setswana as well as the M-Net Film Award. He is also the author of the the biography The Story of Sol T. Plaatje (2010) and the poetry collection Escaping Trauma (2012). His youth novella Dikeledi [Tears] was launched in 2014. Sabata-mpho Mokae is a resident at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

The Fourth River: Can you start by talking about your writing process? What does the road between inspiration and a published piece look like?

Sabata-mpho Mokae: Once I have a group of characters sorted out, the book writes itself. I know my characters, I know how they behave, I’ve given each of them a background, I’ve given each of them a routine, a certain behavior, I’ve given them dreams, aspirations. As a writer the book is being dictated to me, I have the story and then I simply become a typist. I have my first draft sorted and then I keep it there and allow it to be there. I take it out of my system, I detox. I take ample time to detox, three months, sometimes four months and then I go back to it, now as an editor. I am now a different person from the one who was telling the story in the first place. The second draft is basically going through the new me as the editor of the first draft.

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Interview: Salvatore Pane

To meet Salvatore Pane in person is to be engaged. Friendly and spirited, he fills the room with a devil-may-care but darn-I-like-people attitude. On a recent winter evening, he and other writers met in a room above a bar in Pittsburgh.

Salvatore comes off as a hipster who would be comfortable being labeled a nerd, and that is no slight. He seems to be welcome in the world of intellectuals and creatives who are often mislabeled. But he is very serious about writing.

His spike-ledge hair compliments a gray sweater pulled over a black button-down, the modern professional/city-dweller look. Pane’s work has appeared in PANK, Annalemma, and Weave, among others.  Pane is a former lecturer at Chatham University and his novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, was published by Braddock Avenue Books on November 6th.

The Fourth River: At the end of “Man of Ego, Man of Hubris, Save us From The Sun,” you wrote a defense of the story. How important is biography in connecting with readers?

Salvatore Pane: That story was published in a great online journal, FRiGG. They run extras at the end of their pieces. I don’t think these extras are absolutely necessary for a story to be good or even for an issue of a journal to be good, but there’s so much potential with online magazines that it seems foolish not to exploit it. Hobart does this cool thing where they put bonus material from their print issue on their website, cool trinkets from amazing writers: a great essay about Metroid by Mike Meginnis, a fun map from Aubrey Hirsch, a video of Brian Oliu reading his work. If their stories weren’t good—and in this case I guarantee that they are—none of that would matter. It always comes back to the work, but if a journal has the capability to do stuff online, they should capitalize on that.

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Embracing the Gap: An Interview with Alix Ohlin

Alix Ohlin is the author of two novels – Inside and The Missing Person – and two collections of short stories – Signs and Wonders and Babylon and Other Stories. More of her work can be found in Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. Although she was born in Montreal, she currently resides in Pennsylvania, teaching at both Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for writers.

The Fourth River: What’s your writing process like? How do you go about telling your stories?

Alix Ohlin: All writing begins and ends in failure, and that embracing failure is the most important step a writer can take. I always have this vision in my head – this idea that “Oh, this book is going to be amazing!” – but the distance between what I wanted to do and what I wanted to accomplish is vast. And I can work on the draft as much as I possibly can but, inevitably, it never gets close to where I wanted it to be. You never finish, you just abandon and move on to the next thing. So, for me, another crucial part of the writing process is reading, because it reminds me of what great writing can be and can do. When I look at my own work, all I can see are the flaws and all the things that didn’t come through. But when I look at someone else’s work and see what they were able to do, I try to write back to that, or write an imitation of that, or write out of love of that.

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The Heart of What I Want to Tell You About Is Not the Place: A Conversation with Amy Bloom

I want to crawl inside Amy Bloom’s head. I want to plant the bulb of my story into the fertile soil of her brain, let the roots take hold, watch the green shoots erupt and behold my novel blossoming onto the page.

This is what I am thinking as Amy Bloom and I leave the WPTS radio station at the University of Pittsburgh student union. In search of food, we cross Forbes Avenue amongst a swarm of students and spill into the acre of green space that is Schenley Plaza. Amy Bloom wants to check out the Conflict Kitchen.

I am a bit star struck having spent the last two hours interviewing her with Josh, a University of Pittsburgh MFA grad student, for the Hot Metal Bridge literary journal podcast, [in brackets]. Prior to that, I spent a month immersed in her three novels Lucky Us (2014), Away (2007) and Love Invents Us (1997), a short story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out (2010) and numerous published and audio interviews. Even still, I am mindful that I have consumed only a fraction of the Amy Bloom canon which includes a screen play, State of Mind (2007) and the nonfiction offering: Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Cross-dressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (2002).

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The Kindness of Book Signing: An Interview with Fred and Melanie Brown

On October 18th, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series with the visit to Chatham of acclaimed writer Amy Bloom. The Melanie Brown Lecture Series brings an established author to Chatham every year and allows aspiring writers and the Chatham community at large to interact with them in various settings and learn about their work. The Fourth River is honored to feature a folio of work from the last decade of the lecture series in our current digital issue.

The Melanie Brown Lecturer is supported by an endowment from Melanie and Fred R. Brown established in 2008. The Browns are lifelong Pittsburghers who love books and have crisscrossed the country collecting signed copies of works of fiction, most of which are first editions. The Browns generously donated their vast collection of award winning contemporary fiction to Chatham in 2010. The Melanie and Fred R. Brown Special Collection of Literary Fiction is now permanently housed in the Jennie King Mellon Library. They now spend most of their time in Florida but are frequently back in town. I had a chance to interview Melanie and Fred Brown in advance of their traveling to Pittsburgh this month to attend the lecture.

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The Fourth River: Celebrated author Amy Bloom will be coming to Chatham as the tenth Melanie Brown Lecturer. Are you excited about her visit?

Melanie Brown: We are pretty excited about that. We were excited when it came up as an option. Usually we have some input. Together with Marc Nieson and Sheryl St. Germain we make a decision from several names. They’re already starting to throw up names for next year.

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Interview: The Mark of Real Life : An Interview with Allison Joseph

Allison Joseph was born in London, England in 1967. She is the author of What Keeps us Here, which won the 1992 Women Poets Series Prize from Ampersand Press, a publisher of poetry and fiction based at Roger Williams College in Bristol, Rhode Island. The book, dedicated to Allison’s late mother, also won the John C. Zacharias First Book Prize from Emerson College and Ploughshares. She is the recipient of the 2009 Aquarius Press Legacy Award, the Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council, the Associated Writing Programs Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Sewanee Writers’ Conference Fellowship, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. A graduate of Kenyon University, Joseph is currently the editor and poetry editor of the Crab Orchard Review and Director of the Young Writers’ Workshop, as Director of the SIUS MFA Program in Creative Writing, Professor Joseph also maintains a blog about the graduate creative writing program.

At the time of this interview, her most recent books were My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and Trace Particles (Backbone Press, 2014).

BJ: When and why did you begin writing?

AJ: I was one of those kids who couldn’t shut up. That’s what I’d get on my report card. You know, “talks too much in class” so that’s part of it. Always much more interested in language than in numbers, which accounts for my poor math skills to this day(laughing). And as soon as I discovered poetry, I knew that it was going to be a part of my life. Probably around the same age a lot of people discover poetry. Probably early pre-teen kind of age.

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Interview: Monsters, Video Games, and Design | An Interview with Rebecca King

Rebecca King is the Founding Editor and Designer at Origami Zoo Press. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University in 2011. Her fiction has appeared in decomP Magazine, >kill author, Dogzplot, and others.

The Fourth River: You took a publishing course when you were at Chatham, and this is what sparked your interest in launching Origami Zoo Press. Is that right?

Rebecca King: Yeah. I actually told myself, “I’m a writer; I’m not really interested in publishing.” But a bunch of my friends were taking [the class] and I thought, well, I should see the other side of things. And then I ended up falling in love with the process of making books. The first book I made for that class was Phantoms by Chad Simpson. He was a former professor of mine, and I had such a fun time interacting with him, really collaborating.

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Interview: Maps and Legends | An Interview with Hillary Wentworth

Hillary Wentworth earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Caesura, and Red Wheelbarrow, among others. Her flash fiction piece “146.9 Volts” was selected for the 2010 miniStories grand prize by Alexander Chee, Daniel Handler, Heather McElhatton, Kevin Larimer, and Dennis Cass.

The Fourth River: “Blowing Rock,” your nonfiction piece which appeared in issue 7 of The Fourth River, braids several intriguing threads together, and the changing Earth is one of them. What is your overall theory of this planet we occupy? How do you attempt to capture that in your writing?

Hillary Wentworth: I’ve always been fascinated by Earth, space, this small pocket of the universe we inhabit. And it’s a fascinating subject that I naturally veer toward. The best nonfiction, I think, is personal but also informative, so I try to balance those elements. Writing has always been my main passion, though I was interested in forensics for a while. I’m still fascinated by the body; there is a lot that is still beyond the scope of human comprehension. When I incorporate geology, time, and scientific phenomena, it’s my attempt to find the story beyond me.

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