Beni Xiao

Interviewed by Esther Chen

 

BeniX Beni Xiao is a writer and nanny based in Vancouver, BC, whose work has been featured by Room Magazine, Sad Magazine, The Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, and Can’t Lit. They like to nap and snack. They are very into fruit. Their poetry chapbook, Bad Egg, was published just over a year ago by local publisher Rahila’s Ghost Press. I asked Beni about life post-chapbook, process, tips, and what’s coming up next.

It’s been about a year since Bad Egg came out with Rahila’s Ghost Press; how has the past year been for you? How have things changed (professionally, personally, socially, spiritually)?

The last year has had a lot of ups and downs for me. I’ve been working full time as a nanny; it’s a job that I enjoy and find fulfilling, but it’s been difficult to balance working, writing, and my personal life. I’ve also been in pretty shit health which hasn’t helped things. I would like to focus more on writing and my personal life but most of my life has been working (nannying) for the last year.

From a writer and author’s perspective, what was the publishing process like for Bad Egg?

I’m really thankful that my book was published by Rahila’s Ghost Press. From my end, I found the process smooth and transparent. I’ve heard a lot of publishing nightmares, but Rahila’s Ghost was a dream to work with, especially my editor Selina Boan. The editing process was very collaborative, not at all the push and pull/power struggle it turns into sometimes.

As someone who sometimes get this label/comment about my own work, I want to ask: how do you feel about being labelled a “funny poet”?

I didn’t realize I was funny until I started doing readings and people were laughing. I’m never worried about people finding me funny. I didn’t set out to be funny and they thought I was funny then, so I have to trust that they’ll still like and find me funny now. It works to my advantage though because I think people find my work more relatable or memorable because they think it’s funny. I’m cool with it.

Do you think of poetry/writing as a career? What relation is there between writing and the other kinds of work you do to earn a living?

I would like to think of it as a career. When I was in school and writing I saw myself as a writer, but now that I’ve graduated and am working full time, I definitely consider my day job as a career more than writing. That is not how I want it to be, but it’s how I’ve been thinking about myself at this point in my life. I’m currently on something of a writing hiatus. Perhaps when I can find a better balance between things, and am writing more, I’ll start thinking about myself as a writer again.

The difference for me between writing and nannying is that I get paid to be a nanny. Ha. Ha.

Do you have any tips for emerging writers regarding self-promotion and “getting your name out there” as a poet?

Go to events and talk to people, that will help you so much more than you might think. My experience with the writing community here in Vancouver is that a lot of people and organizations really want to help emerging writers, so if you put yourself there and it should (hopefully) come together. That’s what I did anyway.

What’s your writing process like?

I have a thought that I think is amusing, or that I want to think more about later. To not forget it, I write in the notes app on my phone. Usually, these evolve into poems when I do have the time to revisit them.

Describe your ideal writing environment.

I’m a billionaire who doesn’t have a day job because I don’t need one. I wake up at noon, have some tea and a blueberry danish. After breakfast, I sit down at a cute fancy desk in my living room and do some writing with a cat curled up on my lap. It’s sunny and it’s spring.

If you don’t mind sharing, what are you working on now? What do you think is next for you, writing-wise?

I would like to have my first full length book out by the end of 2021, but again, I’ve not been doing as much writing as I’d like to lately, so we’ll see how that goes. I have a feeling that whenever my first book comes out it may be very Greek myth heavy.

Esther Chen writes and draws in Vancouver, BC. More of her work can be found on her website estherchen.tumblr.com.

Sheryda Warrener

Interviewed by Olivia Scarlet Hoffman

Sheryda Warrener is poet and professor currently teaching at UBC’s Creative Writing BFA program in Vancouver. She is the author of two books of poetry, Hard Feelings (Invisible, 2010) and Floating is Everything (Nightwood, 2015). She has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, the Arc Magazine Poem of the Year, the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize and was awarded runner up for Lemon Hound’s inaugural poetry contest. Sheryda received her BFA in Creative Wrting at University of Victoria in 2001, and her MFA from University of British Columbia in 2008.

I’ve had the personal pleasure of being Sheryda’s student throughout my years as a UBC student. Sheryda’s workshops depict the dedication she gives to poetry; it is both a serious responsibility to create poems, but also, something that must be done with a loose hand. Her workshop styles focuses on the play that can be done once there is a foundational understanding of form. Exploration is intrinsic to the type of poetry Sheryda both writes and teaches.

Sheryda Warrener

 What is your background, and how do you feel it shows up in your writing?

I’m from a small town in southern Ontario. I have a big extended family, I received lots of love as a kid. I think this has left a meaningful impression not just on my character, but also my art. I have written lots of poems about my family, travel, visual art. The speaker of my poems doesn’t stray too far from my personal experiences.

What do you think led you to be a writer?

There are lots of things in my childhood that likely inspired me, but I think it was the fact that my family was encouraging and supportive that allowed me to really pursue poetry in a serious way.

Are there certain image sets and themes that reoccur throughout your writing? Or do these develop as time goes on?

Objects, collections of oddities. The speaker of my poems always seems to be at a market, putting things in baskets. Visual art, portraits. A speaker moving around her environment alone.

I know you are a big fan of the revision process, can you walk through what you feel is important to be present in a poem to know that it is finished? Or, do you think a poem can ever be fully finished?

I take the poem as far as I can, which means it’s alive but uses no unnecessary language. After that, it’s up to the reader to activate the poem; the poem becomes alive in a new way I can’t know or anticipate. So, I think the answer to this question is yes and no.

How has teaching influenced your writing, if it has?

Teaching gets me thinking about poems on two levels, as someone who can just wonder at poems for her own personal pleasure, and as someone who is required to articulate answers to questions like: What’s up with diction? Or, Why did that poet turn the line there? Learning how to articulate in meaningful ways how poems work while sharing my huge passion for poetry takes a particular form of attention, and it’s this attentiveness that makes my own work stronger.

Why do you write? Is it something you have ever tried to go without doing? How do you think being a writer enriches your life, or conversely, do you think writing inhibits you in anyway?

It’s not that I have to keep writing to feel fulfilled, it’s that my life without poem-making would be unbearable. Poem-making makes the world come alive for me. There are lots of times I haven’t written; those breaks here and there are good for my poems, they offer a chance to gain perspective on the work. Or, I just get excited about something else for a while, like swimming in a lake every day, or binge-watching Fargo or Top Chef. Getting too far away from poems is never good, but a little respite keeps the language and ideas fresh.

How do you use form to influence your writing? Do you find yourself choosing a form first and then writing to fit that certain mode? Or do you find the poem you are writing demands a certain form?

The content demands the form, but it takes my making many versions to know for sure exactly what’s best. And that takes researching all the possible ways a poem might move. I get really excited by the formal possibilities of poems, I think there’s no end to what a poem can be and do.

Do you have any projects you are currently working on? Either actively or something stowed away in your brain for the future?

Yes! I’m working on a book of poems about how it feels to be a woman who is, as they say, “in her prime.”

How do you try to approach truth in your writing? Do you find it something concrete or as more illusive?

I try to create an intimacy between speaker and listener, and while it’s not necessarily truth I’m after, there is an authenticity to that voice I hope to achieve. Creating vulnerability in a piece of work is, I think, the greatest struggle any writer faces.

How do you feed yourself, as a writer? (As in, what kind of art do you consume and how do you incorporate it into your writing? How do you find inspiration?)

I incorporate visual art and whatever I’m reading into my writing all the time. I start the day out with a book, a cup of tea. At some point without really noticing, I’ve put the book down and started taking notes. Sometimes I include direct quotes, sometimes I’m just borrowing a rhythm or a structure. Sometimes an image has prompted a memory, and I freewrite into that space. At the art gallery, I’ll sit and write in front of a painting or photograph or weaving or sculpture. And while it doesn’t directly influence my writing, I love television!

What is your writing process? Does your writing come to you all at once, or do you plan it out carefully?

My process has changed over the years, and I imagine it will continue to change as different priorities take precedence in my life. I’m not a planner, I never know what I might write about at any given time, but I do have a morning ritual on those days I know I’ll have some time to myself to spend making poems. Reading is a big part of my process, reading drives the work.

What advice do you have for young writers, either those just starting to delve into their voice or ones who are beginning the publishing process?

Hold yourself to as high a standard as your favourite writers or artists. Find your people! That is, the writers & thinkers your own work might be in conversation with, those voices who make it possible for you to write in the first place.

Olivia Scarlet Hoffman is currently pursuing her BFA in Creative Writing at University of British Columbia. She is primarily a poet and a non-fiction writer. Her work has been published in Barzakh’s spring issue and Poetry for Breakfast’s online site.

Jen Sookfong Lee

JSFL

Photo Credit: Sherri Koop Photography.

Interviewed by Alyssa Hirose

 Jen Sookfong Lee’s stories propel readers through space and time with emotional, troubled, and courageous characters. Lee is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults, including The End of East, Shelter, The Better Mother, The Conjoined, and Chinese New Year: A Celebration for Everyone. She was born and raised in East Vancouver, talks on CBC radio, and has a killer twitter profile.

I was interested in interviewing Jen Sookfong Lee firstly because she is a fabulous Asian-Canadian female writer, secondly because I’ll never forget the day I finished devouring The Conjoined and could do nothing but stare vacantly out my bus window contemplating morality, and thirdly because her funny and feminist tweets are a welcome presence in the dumpster fire that is Twitter politics.

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I started writing with the intent to be a writer as a career when I was 10 years old, but I don’t think I knew what I was getting into then! At 16, when I was in my last two years of high school, a poem of mine got published in a student journal, and it was at that time that I thought, “This writer thing could actually work out.” Ever since then, I have never had an alternate plan. I have no real skills other than writing! So this is it. I will be a writer until I die.

I think it’s common for emerging artists, even when published, to feel like they still aren’t a “real writer.” Do you remember when you first felt like a “real” writer, or the first time you claimed that title?

I’m quite sure I never called myself a writer in public until I had sold my first novel manuscript and I could conceivably whip out that contract as evidence if I ever needed to. I think when you’re at the beginning of your career, especially if you’re a woman of colour, your confidence is shaky. Who was I to be declaring I was a writer? I was no David Foster Wallace!

How have you noticed the writing field changing from when you first started writing to today?

A few years ago, the big publishers started to change their publishing philosophies, and were much more interested in acquiring books that they thought were safe bets, and that would make money easily. Which meant that the more experimental books, often written by authors from marginalized communities, were pushed aside. Those manuscripts then went to the independent presses, which led to an interesting expansion of titles for small to medium publishers. What I think this has done is levelled the playing field a bit more, meaning that the literary prizes are not just going to the books by the big presses, that the bestsellers can and are coming from independents. The power, if we can call it that, in Canadian publishing is more horizontal, which allows for a greater diversity of voices and styles. I think this is a hugely positive change.

Can you explain the process you went through in having your first book published?

The End of East took seven years to publish! I know, so depressing. When I had finished the fifth draft, I sent queries to five agents, two got back to me, and I went with Carolyn Swayze, who is still my agent to this day. Back then, everything took a lot longer because we had to send hard copies of the manuscript to publishers, and we didn’t do simultaneous submissions as often in 2005. It took about a year for it to be rejected about five times, and then Knopf Canada offered on it as part of its New Face of Fiction program.

In The Conjoined, there are several moments that are very dark, intimate, or uncomfortable. Is it difficult to share those scenes with people who are close to you, or is it easy for you to remove yourself personally and just share work professionally?

The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that you can hide behind the “I just made it up” curtain for everything you ever write. I highly recommend this! Actually, The Conjoined didn’t bother me so much because it was my third novel and also everyone understood I was writing a literary crime novel, so the darkness was a matter of course. It was my first book, The End of East, which is quite obviously based on my family and their stories, that worried me more than anything. However, my family, who I think loves me, understood that this novel was the most important accomplishment of my life, so if they had any criticisms about how I wrote sex or violence or abuse, they kept it to themselves.

Do you have any advice on how to deal with rejection?

I only really read rejections once or twice. I will read them, transcribe any feedback that is useful into my notebook, and then immediately delete it. You take what is helpful, and forget about the rest, and move on. Do not dwell.

When you get feedback for a piece of writing, how do you decide what feedback to use and what to ignore? In other words, how do you make sure that your work remains yours even after being workshopped, critiqued and edited?

My philosophy is that feedback is often spot on about pinpointing what isn’t working, but not always right about how to fix it. So, if someone points something out to you that they don’t like, it is always worth your time to look at it and give it some thought. The solution you come up with to deal with that problem may not be what anyone suggested, and that’s fine and great. You need to find your own solutions! Having said that, some feedback isn’t helpful and I think if it makes you cringe or feel bad, then ignore it. There is nothing wrong with this. One thing I do to keep my own voice apparent is I insert a header into my Word doc that states the themes I want to be present in every scene. So, for The Conjoined, it read, “Missing and murdered women from the Downtown Eastside, cycle of working poverty, intergenerational trauma.” This helps keep everything on track.

What has surprised you most about being a writer?

That community would so important to me. Writers are often people who are quite happy being alone, but the sense of community is more important that you might think. We need to talk about our projects with others who care, and we need to have those supports when we go forth and promote our work. But also, we just need other humans, to interact, to be part of the world.

Are there any specific obstacles that female-presenting, Asian Canadian writers can expect to face that male-presenting or white writers do not?

Well, we are always confused for one another, meaning about 33% of the time someone thinks I’m Evelyn Lau or Madeleine Thien. I think there can be a real push for Asian women to write trauma stories, or stories of systemic oppression, or immigration stories, and that’s just wrong. Why shouldn’t we write graphic novels or romance or spec fiction if we want to? I call it The Joy Luck Club Syndrome. Which is to say publishers can often pressure us to rewrite that novel over and over again. No shade at Amy Tan! She is a pioneer and a human delight! Also, she wears BDSM outfits and sings in a punk band, so I’m into her always.

If you feel stuck on a story or article, are there activities or methods you use to inspire you or push you forward in your work?

Freewriting helps for sure. Give yourself 10 minutes to just write out the junk in your head and by the end of it, you will have come up with an idea for your story that you will likely be able to use.

What encourages you to keep writing when you feel discouraged?

The love of books. Honestly, that’s it.

How do you prepare for readings or panel discussions? Do you get nervous for them? How do you deal with those nerves?

I write speaking notes usually, which helps quell the nerves. I am rarely nervous anymore, but I find preparing a lot helps with those nerves. Also understanding that book audiences are very forgiving. They want to like you!

If you could go back in time to before you became a writer, what advice or words of wisdom would you have for yourself?

Write what you want. Don’t listen to all those gatekeepers who told you to write something different. Protect your voice.

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

Meeting my readers. What a wonderful experience that is! It is never bad and never grows old.

How do you choose when to engage with problematic and potentially exhausting topics in the writing community, and when not to engage for your own wellbeing?

This is something I am still learning, as controversy comes and goes and changes over time. Some issues are not mine to take on, only mine to listen to and support. Others feel very personal to me, like UBC Accountable. It’s a balance of what I have energy for and what demands to be addressed. I have found that there are times I need to step away for extended periods just so I don’t exhaust myself so much that I can’t write. I guess my only advice is this: protect your energy so you can write. Your writing is your legacy.

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?

Mostly Youtube makeup tutorials. I am legitimately writing an essay on them, but really they are AMSR therapy to me. Without them, I would never sleep.

What are you working on right now?

I have a few projects on the go. A kids’ book of non-fiction, about immigration and refugees. A poetry collection that will be published in 2020 by Wolsak & Wynn. A collection of essays that are part pop culture, part memoir.

Who inspires you?

Zadie Smith, Celeste Ng, Ariana Grande, Gus Van Sant, Kylie Jenner. I am totally not joking.

What advice do you have for emerging writers (particularly local, Asian-Canadian ladies!)?

Give yourself time to write in obscurity. It can be so tempting to jump into a literary scene right away, to make connections before you’ve had a chance to solidify what you want to be writing. You need the time to write, try new styles and genres, and to do so in an environment that is safe and yours alone.

 

Tanya Boteju

photoInterviewed by Artemis Saatchi

Educator, writer, and debut-author Tanya Boteju was born and raised in Victoria, BC. She moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia, and then never left. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in English at UBC, then her Bachelor of Education immediately after. She has been teaching English and Creative Writing at the high school level for almost 17 years now. She completed a Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership from Columbia and a diploma in Creative Writing from SFU in that time as well. KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS is her first novel. The book is slated for release in May of 2019, by Simon Pulse. She is currently working on a second YA novel, as well as on a short story for a YA collection called ALL OUT NOW slated for release fall 2020.

Could you describe your relationship or history with writing? Have you always known you wanted to be an author? What role has writing played in your life?

I’ve always enjoyed English as a subject, but wasn’t much of a writer or reader when I was younger. And my high school didn’t offer a creative writing class, so I really just dabbled in writing and journaling until much later in life. I can’t remember when exactly I knew I wanted to write a book, but it was some time in my mid-20s. My experiences with drag, being queer, and teaching young people made me feel like there was a fun novel in there somewhere that might make queer kids feel better about themselves. It took me until I was 37 to start writing it though!

Has your teaching career influenced your writing, in terms of style, voice, or content?

Absolutely. I did things a bit backwards—I taught creative writing for 10 years before actually writing much of my own. Having to teach it forced me to learn more about it and practice it alongside my students. And as I started writing KINGS, I found the practice of writing easier because I had encouraged my students to fully participate in and trust the writing process—especially freewriting—so I took my own advice and just kept writing, even if the first draft was “shitty” (shout-out to Anne Lamott). Additionally, there’s no way I could have written this novel without spending so much of my time with teenagers. One, my work with young, queer kids has inspired my desire to write something meaningful and hopeful for them. Two, I think/hope my teenage characters feel more believable because I spend so much time with them. And all of this is a two-way street, of course. My writing informs my teaching as much as my teaching informs my writing!

Do you have a favourite genre when it comes to what you like to read? Could you tell us about some of your favourite authors? KINGS is classified as YA—what genres would you say your writing resides in?

I love literary fiction. And discovering female writers when I took a Women in Literature course at UBC my second year changed my reading life. It was the first time studying English where everyone we were reading wasn’t white, old, male, and (usually) dead. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, and more opened up a whole new world for me. And I continue to gravitate towards writers of color and queer authors now too—Toni Morrison continues to be a favorite, plus Sarah Waters, Ann Marie MacDonald, David Chariandy, and people like Amber Dawn who are changing the way we write and read about queerness.

Before starting to write YA, I never really read YA. But I knew that if I wanted to write it, I’d need to read a bunch to get a sense of what’s out there and how it might differ somewhat to adult fiction. I read a lot of YA over the past three years, especially YA that included queer stories, and really fell in love with it. There are so many wonderful stories being told now that include diverse characters and experiences. I continue to keep a YA novel on the go almost all year long now, for when I need a slightly faster read and also to keep myself “in the know. To escape I’ll read angsty YA with girl-girl romance, even if it’s not that well written. Some of my favorite YA so far has been The Miseducation of Emily Post, The Hate U Give, and The Marrow Thieves. Miseducation really influenced KINGS—it was the kind of novel I wanted to write in terms of realistic, well-developed characters and storyline. I prefer to read and write realistic fiction.

Is there any kind of writing that you tend to stay away from? Both in regards to your personal consumption and in what you teach?

I teach poetry and short stories because I value them and think they’re important, but I don’t consume a lot of either on my own. I also don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I consume non-fiction-type stories via podcasts and TED Talks instead of through books. Over the years, I’ve also moved away from the ‘“traditional literary canon” in my teaching because…who decided on that canon anyway? We still teach Shakespeare, and we should, because how’d he do all that? But I try to insert as much writing by POC, female, queer writers as possible these days. So I guess I tend to veer away from old, white, dead men and towards more contemporary, within the last 100 years, writing. And feminism! I lean towards complex, diverse female characters, and immigrant and indigenous experiences.

Is there something specific that you’re reading right now or just finished reading?

I’m reading Roller Girls: Totally True Tales from the Track, as research for the YA book I’m writing, which will take place in the roller derby world. By my bedside right now are: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Boy Erased by Garrard Conley, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I just finished I’m Afraid of Men, a short but heartbreaking and courageous memoir by Vivek Shraya.

 

Can you describe the events and emotions that led up to you writing your upcoming debut novel, KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS? Can you describe your path—was this something you’ve wanted to write for a long time, did the idea come to you all at once, did you get it down on paper quickly, or did writing it span a longer amount of time?

KINGS began as a tiny germ of an idea resulting from my time as a drag king. Since then, I always thought there was a story in there somewhere involving the drag world, since it’s so colourful and fascinating. I’m not sure what finally clicked for me to make me start writing the book—maybe it was the feeling of ‘“what next?” after completing my masters. But I wrote the first words of the book while in France on my own in the summer of 2015. I had a general idea of who my protagonist was—17, female, naïve, queer—and I knew she’d somehow find herself in the drag world. That’s about all I knew. To find out more about her, I began monologuing. It was by far one of the most useful things I did as part of my writing process—getting to know her better helped me write in her voice throughout the novel. She ended up telling me what to write in a sense. I still use that monologuing strategy to get to know my primary characters better as I write.

I only wrote a bit of her monologue that summer. Once school starts, I find it very difficult to write consistently. The next time I sat down to write KINGS in earnest was May-July of 2016. I began taking myself on week-long writing retreats each summer to have focused writing time. I enrolled in the Writers Studio at SFU for the 2016-2017 school year to keep myself on track, and it really helped. I was able to hammer out a manuscript over that year and complete it by the summer of 2017.

Mainly, for KINGS, I wrote out the entire story as it came to me. I’d write a section, and then the next time I sat down to write I’d read over what I’d written and clean up any obvious problems, and then keep writing. I didn’t have an outline for KINGS, but found this problematic later on in the process when I wasn’t sure where I was going for the last third of the book. Now, I try to have a loose outline and a sense of the protagonist’s character arc before writing. I think and have heard from other writers that this helps with efficiency, which I can believe since I wrote about 30,000 words extra for KINGS that I may not have written had I had an outline first!

Can you also offer a rough outline of what happened once the book was written—how you started sending the story out, what you focused on in your query letters, interactions that took place through the story—positive or negative? Are there any specifics you learned through this process that you could share, or any advice you could offer other debut writers?

I had just finished the Writers Studio, which was helpful, as we learned how to write query letters and my mentor, Eileen Cook, guided me through the process. She suggested a few agents to query, and I used online sites like Publishers Marketplace and Bookends to find other agents who specialize in diverse lit and YA.

I sent out about 10 to 15 letters, making sure to emphasize my POC, queer character and the drag element, which, from my research into other YA and even adult novels, I knew to be a unique part of the story.

I received back two requests for the manuscript quite quickly and then a couple more over the next few months. This, from what I’ve heard, is not typical and I am very lucky. I also received two or three rejections and some didn’t reply at all.

Jim McCarthy was the first agent to respond, and ended up becoming my agent. I love him. I signed on with him in August 2017, about a month after completing the book.

He has a great reputation in the publishing world and is with a well-established agency in NYC. He started shopping my book around, and we got a couple of offers. The quickest to read the book and show love for it was Jen Ung at Simon Pulse, however. Her written response to my book won me over—it was heartfelt and glowing. She seemed to really get what I was hoping to do with the book in terms of making a difference for young queer POCs.

Some advice: write from your unique experience; diverse voices are finally in. But don’t write diverse voices just to write diverse voices—write from a true place or the voice will feel superficial. Be ready for rejection, look for agents that are looking for what you’re writing, and find a writing community to help you navigate both the writing process as well as the querying process. Don’t write for fame or fortune—keep writing because you love it. Also, stay open-minded to others’ feedback, but also true to your story and characters. No one knows them better than you do.

What was a highest and lowest point for you, as you underwent your writing and subsequent query process?   

So many high points. I loved the writing process, I lucked out with amazing beta-readers and feedback, I loved my story and characters, and I had probably the most positive querying/publishing process a writer could ask for. Obviously, having someone actually want to publish my book was mind-blowing—I still can’t quite believe it—and since then, every new little thing with the editing and publishing process has felt like a celebration. I’m just riding the wave!

I don’t really have any “lows.” I guess the hardest thing has been balancing writing with teaching full time. I’m tired at the end of the day and feel guilty when I don’t write. I did get a taste of rejection recently when I wrote 13,000 words of what I thought would be my next book and my editor didn’t love it. But it led to me writing my current project, so the rejection turned into another high. I think partly I’m lucky because I love teaching too, so I have this fulfilling career and now I have this other fulfilling career and I feel like everything is just an opportunity to grow.

Could you provide a description of your upcoming novel, KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS, touching on genre, subject matter, and why you think it’s relevant for today?

KINGS is really a love letter to the drag community as well as to young, queer, brown kids. I wanted to write a hopeful story for queer kids that wasn’t a coming out story. Nima [the novel’s protagonist] isn’t so much struggling with her sexuality as she is with her insecurities, though she is new to the world of dating. I hope the relevancy is obvious. We need more diverse lit. Kids need to see themselves in the lit and media that surrounds them. Kids need happy endings. And I hope people get an inside look at drag too—it’s a magical community and deserves more recognition beyond RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I’ve taken a look at your Goodreads page, and so many people have had a positive reaction—to say the least—to the fact that your Nima is biracial and queer. You really seem to be representing groups of people that have rarely felt seen in the media. What are your thoughts on what has been available as far as minority representation in literature and media? Did you feel a certain responsibility to tell this story? Are there any stories out there that you think did a good job making other people feel seen and heard?

When I first started writing KINGS, Nima was white. I had to stop myself about a third of the way through the first draft and give myself a kick. I had to consciously and very deliberately re-image Nima in my mind to make her brown. This just reiterated to me how insidious and ubiquitous whiteness is in our world/media. I’m brown, I’m feminist, I’m hyper-aware of race and do anti-racist work…but my go-to characterization was a young white girl? So yes, I do feel a responsibility to represent POCs and queer characters and characters that go beyond traditional gender constructs. Thankfully, more YA authors are seeing this need to and writing voices we haven’t always heard. Fat kids, POC kids, immigrant kids, Muslim kids, queer kids, trans kids, indigenous kids, asexual kids, “ugly” kids, “loser” kids, intersex kids…I think YA is doing this better than most genres in general. But two books I read recently that are not YA but tell stories we’re definitely not seeing enough of are Little Fish by Casey Plett and Johnny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. Trans and Two-Spirit lives told without apology or the need to ‘clean things up.’ Amazing.

Why do you think that there are more minority stories being told today—both in books and in movies? For example, two of the biggest movie phenomena of 2018 centred on East Asian characters and culture, and neither of them relied on the other-ing tropes, or stereotypes, that films tend to employ when discussing people of colour. Do you feel good about the direction in which the media seems to be leaning, in terms of representation?

I do feel good about it overall. Obviously, there’s so much work to be still done as the percentages of these kinds of movies/roles are still abysmally low. But the good news is that when movies like this do come out, they do well financially, so that whole “well, these kinds of stories don’t sell” line can be put to rest. I think the ‘why’ of it has to do with plain, hard work—POCs fighting tooth and nail to have their stories heard and some resolute allies supporting them. And social media has definitely played a positive role in all of this too—even as it has its massive downsides, it’s made these voices more accessible.

How important is it to you that stories centred on minority characters be told by people of the same minority?

You’ve opened a can of worms here! I do believe it’s important for marginalized groups to be able to tell their own stories. I think it’s possible for dominant groups to tell marginalized groups’ stories if they do some serious work/research. And I don’t think it’s always possible for all characters to be written by authors with the same identities. If that were the case, I’d only be writing about brown, queer characters forever. But, the ideal in my view is for people to tell their own stories. Which is why I think it’s important for those in privileged groups to bolster and create space for marginalized artists to tell their own stories. If you’ve got some power and prestige behind you already, find a way to bring marginalized voices up beside you.

Do you feel as though today’s climate is a good environment to release your book into? Is there another time or place that you wish you could share your story?

I feel this is the perfect time to release this book. Diverse YA lit is exploding, RuPaul has made drag mainstream, and people are looking for queer stories that go beyond the tragic coming out trope. I feel very lucky to have written this book when I did.

If you could give the version of Tanya Boteju that existed before KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS entered your life one piece of advice what would it be?

You can write while teaching, Ms. B. Quit making excuses and figure it out, woman!

How do you feel about the period of marketing that is coming your way, prior to the book’s publication? Is it something that excites you? This might be a silly question, since this is exactly one of those marketing-style things.

It’s not silly at all. I’m really excited about it. I’m not sure what to expect—all of this is so new—but I love the idea of sharing my book with others and being able to talk to people about their responses and hear their stories as well. And my agent and editor have been amazing, so I feel good about where they’re taking me as a writer. My blue-sky desire is that I get to hold lots of book launches in lots of great cities and each one opens with a local drag king or queen act. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but the prospect is thrilling.

Are you planning any other novels right now, do you have any ideas that you’re jotting down for a next project?

My next YA novel is tentatively titled Bruised. It takes place in the roller derby world, which is another subculture I find fascinating. I’ve never done roller derby myself, so I’ll need to do my homework, but that sounds like fun research to me! I’ve heard the sophomore project is very hard, and I can see why. KINGS was a book that was just kind of inside me, waiting to be written. My next book will feel less natural than that, I think. But I’m still excited about it.

Artemis Saatchi is an undergraduate student in the Art History and Creative Writing programs at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in fiction and creative non-fiction. She is currently finishing a YA manuscript, and applying to graduate programs.

 

Katherena Vermette 

vermette

Interviewed by Napatsi Folger

Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory, the heart of the Métis nation, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her first book, North End Love Songs (The Muses Company) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2013a. Her novel, The Break (House of Anansi), was a bestseller in Canada and won multiple awards, including, the 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. 

Ms. Vermette is also the author of the children’s picture book series, The Seven Teachings Stories, and recently published the first book, Pemmican Wars, in the young adult book series, A Girl Called Echo. Ms. Vermette’s second book of poetry, river woman, was published in the fall of 2018. Her National Film Board documentary, this river, won the 2017 Canadian Screen Award for Best Short.

Vermette lives with her family in a cranky old house within skipping distance of the temperamental Red River.

 

You’ve written poetry, fiction and other genres, do you have a favourite genre?

I always say that poetry is my favourite because it feels most like home. But the others all have their merits too, except for fiction.There is nothing comfortable about fiction. 

 

I’m intrigued by your statement “there’s nothing comfortable about fiction.” could you elaborate on this? I know it is not your main genre but your piece of fiction The Break was so strong and successful. What about fiction makes you uncomfortable? Is it just writing fiction or does reading fiction also feel uncomfortable for you?

 

Reading fiction is so comfortable. I love fiction. I love reading a story by a writer I trust and just knowing I will be led to beautiful places. I meant writing fiction. It doesn’t feel as natural to me as poetry. It feels hard and layered. There are so many things to keep track of – you have to remember where you put characters, you have to follow some sort of plot, or not, which arguably is even harder. I just meant it feels like work. Poetry is home; fiction is work. I love my work, but it’s work.

I recently read your poem “When Louis Riel Went Crazy” and thought it was fantastic. It seemed like a non-fiction poem, but people don’t tend to link non-fiction and poetry together.Would you consider the combination of poetry and non-fiction as a sub-genre that your work could fall into?

I have always thought of poetry as non-fiction. It might be because at my local library, poetry has always been in the nonfiction area—is that not normal? For me, poetry is far closer to my life story or a life story than anything else. I don’t know what it’s like for other writers. I do know poetry always feels more personal. It feels closer and immediately intimate somehow.

 

As for poetry not being non-fiction, now that I think about it, it does seem like the right fit, I guess we tend to discuss them as such separate things, and I think people sometimes associate non-fiction less with creativity and more with a sense of textbookishness.

 

I have never written CNF and have no ambitions to, but from what I hear, it sounds an awful lot like poetry – you look at something, you try to see and portray it in a different way, and take truth and make it fancy. That sort of thing. 

What kinds of literary works inspire you? For example, I am a non-fiction and fiction writer but I find the most inspiration from poetry and music, are you similar or do you get inspired by good work in your specific genres mostly?

I get inspired by young people’s stories. I love watching new writers find their voice. I’m never limited to genre. You’re right- it comes from all sorts of places.

 

If you could work with an author (in any capacity) of your choice living or dead, who would you choose?

I am currently doing a deep dive into Métis history so these days, I’m thinking a lot about my ancestors. I would love to sit down and chat with Louis Riel, talk poetry and politics. That’s the dream to me.

 

What inspired you to become a writer? Has your inspiration for writing changed since you began?

For many years, through childhood and young adulthood, I was really just writing to stay alive. It was a way I could process and think about things, mostly bad things but that’s just how my life looked at the time. But it’s always been a way of making sense of the world, either through fiction or poetry, it was a filter and a lens. It hasn’t changed much in that way. It’s still a very cathartic experience for me, at least at first. But when you write for others, in school or for publication, you add other steps to the process- many, many more editing steps, for one. I do like editing. It lets you write away and around the initial idea. You can polish it and make it better. Usually better. Sometimes not so much.

You cover very intense themes in some of your work.Has your writing been embraced by your community? Have you ever struggled with backlash from those community members close to you (encountered people thinking you are writing about them or exposing the darker aspects of life in your community)?

I’m not sure what you mean by community, really, but I’m going to assume you mean this place now called Winnipeg and the Métis folk I tend to write about. So no, I haven’t gotten any backlash from them. I’m sure there are critics but I’ve never heard anything like that. It’s also worth noting that the only people who think my community would be mad at me for “exposing darker aspects” are not from my community. My community knows where these “darker (I would say negative myself) aspects” really come from- these are systemic and colonial abuses that were imposed upon us. An oppressed community doesn’t have the privilege of having any aspect of its lives free from that oppression.

 

I find your response to that interesting and I asked because, and I’m not sure if this rings true for Metis people as well, but, Inuit were very much integrated into Christianity. I’ve found that these factions of modern evangelical Christian Inuit often dislike the exposure of our imperfect lives to the larger outside world. What I’d like to know is do you come across barriers or negativity in the world of CanLit because of your heritage or subject matter? If so do you have advice for other Indigenous writers who encounter similar treatment?

 

Yes, I get that. And I have no doubt there are critics who hate what I am writing, but I have been lucky to be insulated from that. I say lucky because though there is always criticism, and I have taken a lot of creative writing classes so I think I have a thick skin about some of it, but I have no skin about criticism from my own community. For them, I am just raw and vulnerable. I try my best to be respectful in all things, speak truthfully, speak from my own individual experience and never on behalf of anyone, so if I was ever accused of the opposite I think that would break my heart.

 

I do understand the Christianity thing. I do understand that idea that we should keep ourselves to ourselves, but I suspect that comes from fear, and fear should always be challenged. Fear is a completely reasonable, valid response, but I also think Indigenous nations have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Ever. Always. I also think ignoring and avoiding truth, and hard, negative things, serves no one, least of all the persons most affected by them. I also understand and try to convey that the issues affecting my community affect all communities of every walk of life, everywhere, but are exacerbated by the long term, intergenerational effects of attempted genocide and perpetual colonial abuses. There is a reason things are the way they are, and it is by design. Nothing else. 

 

In this era of Canadian “reconciliation” talk, what do you think non-indigenous writers can do to support reconciliation and their Indigenous counterparts?

Support Indigenous writers, stories, books, voices. Make space. We all have stories to contribute to this idea called reconciliation. We just need to support and give space to each other, I think.


Who would you consider your target audience?

I write first for my community, and also myself, in some respects. I don’t know that I have a target audience. That sounds like something marketing people deal with. I’m the worst at stuff like that.

 

What do you most want readers to get out of reading your work?

I would like Indigenous persons to feel seen and respected. I would like non-Indigenous persons to see and have respect for Indigenous subjects. 

If you had an assignment where you had to write a piece of fan
fiction what work would you choose to cover?

I wish fan fiction was a thing when I was a teenager. I would have loved it. It would have been all about bands, like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Road trip stories, bands on tour, probably. That sounds like something I would do. Or I’d make everybody vampires. It was the 90s after all.

Will you please write a choose your own adventure poem?

I love this idea! But it’s yours, so you know what that means. I look forward to reading it one day.

Napatsi Folger is a freelance short fiction and non-fiction writer from Iqaluit, Nunavut. She is currently in her first year of study in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. Napatsi studied history and English at the University of
Toronto, and worked in policy for the Government of Nunavut for 12 years. She has written both fiction and non-fiction for publications such as Word Hoard, Puritan Magazine, The Walrus, Matrix Magazine, The Town Crier and published her first Young Adult novel, Joy of Apex, in 2012 with Inhabit Media.

Anna Holmwood

Interviewed by Yilin Wang

Anna+HolmwoodAnna Holmwood translates from Chinese and Swedish into English. In 2010, she was awarded one of the first British Centre for Literary Translation mentorship awards and has translated novels and short stories for publication and samples for agents and rights sellers. She co-founded the Emerging Translators’ Network to support early career translators in 2011 and served on the UK Translators Association committee in 2012. Anna was the editor-in-chief for Books from Taiwan from 2014 to 2015, and has previously worked as a literary agent, representing some of China’s top writing talent. She is now the Foreign Rights Manager at DKW Literary Agency.

Most recently, Anna Holmwood translated A Hero Born, the first volume of Jin Yong’s martial arts novel series Legend of Condor Heroes, from Chinese into English. The series has a huge readership among Chinese readers across the world, so this is a milestone translation. As a writer, a fellow translator, and a fan of martial arts fiction, I reached out to Anna to interview her about how career and her translation process.

Can you describe the behind-the-scenes process for how you obtained the English language rights for A Hero Born and found its English publisher?

I met with a UK agent, Peter Buckman, to talk about working on Chinese books together. We decided that martial arts fiction, and Jin Yong, in particular, had great potential. I negotiated the right to represent Condor Heroes with Jin Yong’s representatives, and then we set about producing the pitch and a long sample. This was crucial; the UK editors would only have the sample to go on initially to make their decision. Several editors were interested, but Christopher MacLehose at MacLehose Press was determined to be the one to publish Jin Yong in English. Christopher MacLehose is an extremely well-respected editor who is known for having a great eye, so the thought of working with him was extremely exciting. This first stage took about a year in total, and after that, I was commissioned to work on the translation for the publisher.

The process you described sounds both challenging and rewarding. What advice do you have for emerging translators trying to navigate this for the first time?

So much of publishing operates on trust and personal taste, so when you’re first starting out, the biggest challenge is often getting the gatekeepers to trust you. Getting to know other translators is crucial. Firstly, because it can be a lonely job without a network of peers, and because so much vital information is shared in these networks. This was why I founded Emerging Translators Network along with Rosalind Harvey and Jamie Lee Searle. We want to collect that energy in a positive space where we could pass on our knowledge to those trying to get a foot in the door.

Let’s discuss the art of translations itself. In this NPR article, you spoke about the “emotional, instinctual aspect” of connecting to a language and that “it’s far more important for a literary translator to have had relationships … in a language than to be certified as a translator.” Can you speak more about your emotional connection with Mandarin and the emotional journey of translating A Hero Born?

In the beginning, studying Mandarin was an intellectual exercise for me, borne out of a fascination with China’s history and literary culture. But as I started making friends in Chinese, I realized that there were concepts and words I started using with them which I simply wouldn’t think about in English. A good example would be 缘分. I really don’t think or talk about “fate” in English, but somehow I took onboard 缘分 in Chinese because it seemed to connect with how I felt about certain connections I made. This became far more potent to me as I met my husband, got married, and then had our first child. I speak three languages now to my child—English, Mandarin, and Swedish. He can feel my love in all three, and that is a profoundly different kind of linguistic relationship than one borne predominantly of books and the classroom. Many big life events, including marriage and giving birth, happened in the background while I was working on A Hero Born, so this book will always be associated with my own maturation as a person and as a translator.

One of the challenges of translating A Hero Born is working with unique diction, such as martial arts terms like wulin (“the martial forest”) and jianghu (“river and lakes”), the honorifics (shifu) and titles of characters (Seven Freaks of the South), and the martial arts moves that are both descriptive and filled with allusions (Lazy Donkey Roll, Drive the Boat Downstream, Soaring Phoenix Rising Dragon). When translating these, how did you navigate the balance between domestication and foreignization?

The balance between domestication and foreignization is the fundamental tightrope any translator has to walk. Some of the terms in this book have been translated elsewhere and have long entered English through martial arts communities. The concept of shifu, for example, is familiar to anyone who has taken a class in some form of martial arts in the west, whether in its Mandarin form or through the Cantonese term sifu.

Wulin and jianghu have entered parlance through the gaming community, but I did feel that adding some extra information in a prologue, to set the scene, would help to evoke the unique linguistic and cultural meaning behind those words. They are not just their literal translations; these concepts contain a world of meaning. Their translation occurs over the course of the whole book, rather than as one word or phrase.

When it comes to the martial arts moves: I have had feedback from Chinese speakers that people would have preferred me to use pinyin, because any attempt at their translation is futile. But I think that attitude is a real shame. These weird, quirky names are just that in Chinese, and they’re so much of what people love about Jin Yong. I have faith that English readers can and want to experience that part of Jin Yong’s writing rather than have it locked off from them through the use of pinyin. It’s precisely the fact that there is no genre of fiction like it in English that makes translating and reading Jin Yong’s work so exciting.

Since martial arts fiction doesn’t exist as a genre in English, did you look at western narratives such as epic fantasy or heroic sagas for inspiration during your translation process? Or did you consciously go against them?

I did read things like The Three Musketeers, some of Walter Scott’s work, and Lord of the Rings in the early stages of the translation process, just to place myself a bit in the western tradition. I especially looked at them for their fight scenes. The thing that struck me the most, however, was that these western classics often didn’t go into as much detail in a fight—they were more likely to build drama into the moments before and after, and not say as much about the physical combat. This made me aware that the aesthetics of a fight scene is crucial to martial arts fiction, but also makes it uniquely challenging to translate. Many people assume it’s all the specialized diction that is hard to convey, but for me, the pacing and the fight scenes were the things I really had to get right.

The novel also quotes a number of classical Chinese poems. How did your process for translating those differ from translating prose?

I did a lot of research, which included looking up glosses in Chinese as well as, where relevant, previous translations of the poems. Classical poetry in Chinese is so different from modern English in terms of syntax, structure, and imagery. Comparing and contrasting other people’s versions is very instructive for a translator. There is a fantastic book, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which I think should be compulsory for every translator of Chinese literature.

What other resources and tools did you use when translating?

The Internet is my biggest friend. I made extensive use of fan forums where people discuss names, vocabulary, and weapons that are unique to Jin Yong. Even things that are not unique to Jin Yong, such as historical weapons, are discussed in detail there. I used a lot of online dictionaries from all over the Chinese-speaking world. The Taiwanese government has a fantastic online dictionary, for example. Then, I also asked my husband, who is a native Chinese speaker, and friends.

To make a generalization, the Chinese language seems to be more accepting of ambiguity than English. (E.g. Lack of conjugated verbs, tense, prepositions, plural nouns, or articles like “a” and “the”.) How do you navigate these ambiguities when translating from Chinese into English?

Ambiguity functions differently in different languages, yes. As a translator, I ask myself, is the ambiguity here artistic and stylistic in nature, or does the Chinese reader in fact know the tense and number because of context. If context is providing key information, then I think it is appropriate for a translator to build more certainty about that into the English version. Just because Chinese doesn’t conjugate verbs for tense or person doesn’t mean that a reader doesn’t understand or know the tense or person. It’s important that we don’t essentialize too much about a culture based on some grammatical quirks of language—yes, they can and do shape expression, but often you can achieve similar or “equivalent” effects in a new language. 

Anna+HolmwoodYilin Wang’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld and What If? Magazine, while her poetry has appeared in The Best of Abyss & Apex Vol.2, Grain, Contemporary Verse 2, and Cerebration. Yilin is as an assistant editor for Room and the Volunteer Coordinator for Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival. She is currently writing a novel inspired by Chinese martial arts fiction.

Carol Shaben

Interviewed by Peter Takach

Shaben

Photo credit: NT Photo

Carol Shaben is an award-winning nonfiction author and journalist. Her first book, Into the Abyss, is a national bestseller and was selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and an Amazon.com Book of the Month. Her most recent book, The Marriott Cell, co-written with award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, was named one of the Globe & Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2016, and won the Ontario Historical Society Huguenot Award. Of Lebanese Muslim heritage, she is a former CBC writer/broadcaster, and at twenty-two worked as a journalist in Jerusalem.

I am a huge admirer of Carol’s work and was lucky to sit down and chat with her about how she finds and plots a story and the advice she has to offer up-and-coming writers. The interview has been edited for length.

Carol, what are you reading right now?

I’m reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. And I’m also reading Tara Westover’s Educated.

Do you find that your reading seeps into what you are writing? Do you seek out books with an eye to study form or content?

I’m always reading for language. When I read and the language is so perfect and lyrical and elevated, that’s a high bar that inspires me. When I’m writing nonfiction, I tend to read for plot devices, character arcs, for how to make a real story as compelling as fiction can be. But I also want to be true to my own voice, so when I’m writing intensively, I try not to read work that is going to take me away from my own voice.

What books have you found the most helpful in improving your craft?

I’ve gotten a lot from screenwriting books, especially Robert McKee’s Story. When you are trying to animate nonfiction, craft is really important. McKee changed my game by getting me to think at a more conscious level about scene, and to cut any scene that does not “turn” or have a value shift for the character. That to me makes propulsive writing, really thinking about scenes and beats. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat talks about what should happen at various points in the arc of a screenplay, and to me, having that global sense of story, of midline, of turning points, has been helpful in plotting an entire book.

So what does your drafting process look like?

When I’m writing a larger project or a work of nonfiction, I really work with structure. First, I develop an overall arc to get a sense of chapters. Within each chapter, I figure out what the scenes are and within each scene, what the value shift is. If a character is happy at the start of a scene, what shifts for them to keep the tension? Another thing I do in both fiction and nonfiction that sounds cliché is to figure out what my character wants. If the character wants something, they will do something. You have to have the motivational piece nailed down.

There are four storylines in Into the Abyss, and for each of those characters, I knew the conflict (man against nature, man against self), and what each character’s arc was. And also, right out of McKee, you need to identify the gap between where each character is and where they want to be. If you look at a character’s journey as a broken staircase, the interesting stuff in fiction and nonfiction happens where your character is standing on a stair just below a broken or missing section, and knows they want to be higher up, and how do you get them there? That gap is where risk and conflict lie, where the real creative and compelling work can happen. I map those staircases out for each character.

When you read Into the Abyss, you can see how carefully you’ve woven these threads into a gripping story, one of only a few books that have ever moved me to tears.

Well, as long as you’re not crying over the language! I felt like that was a good story well told, but I have regrets about the prose because I had just a year to deliver a manuscript. If I’d had more time, I would have elevated the language. To me, there are two elements to exciting and memorable writing: one is the execution of the form and structure, and the other is language. And that is the luxury of being able to polish and to redraft and in my mind, that’s the difference between me, who I consider to still be a novice and someone whose writing slays me. Time is a really important part of the equation, giving yourself time to really work the language.

I was going to ask how you know when a book is complete. So this was a case of external deadlines?

Yes. Deadlines drove the timelines for both books and both were intensive to write. For The Marriott Cell, we wrote it in ten months and I was working fourteen to sixteen-hour days. I really work well to deadlines, but I also think there’s a feeling when things are falling into place. After all the hellfire and the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, there’s kind of an organic place where you feel intuitively that things are working in the way that serves your story. If you can get to that point, you’re either plain lucky or you’ve done the work. I also think you can polish language forever, but there’s also a time to let a book go and just know you’ve done as well as you could in the time period.

Do you have any tips for a writer muddling through the middle of their project?

One thing that helped me to write both books was to get off my screen, and use another form, like large index cards. Once, when I was stuck and had written myself into a muddle, Nancy Lee, who’s in my writing collective, suggested I go out and buy myself the biggest bulletin board I could find and start putting scenes on that board and moving them around. Getting away from the limitations of a computer screen can be really creatively liberating, because you see different possibilities. Some people use Scrivener or whatever and can do it all on a screen, but I really like that bigger canvas.

It feels a bit more tactile to have those, like you’re actually making something.

Yes. And you can get those moments when you say, “I’ve cracked the nut!” You’re digging around on this hard shell of a story with no idea and all of a sudden it cracks open for you and something is revealed and how that process happens creatively, I have no clue.

You have a magic touch for finding and telling stories of, in your words, “overlooked or underrated individuals who, through their courage, heroism and conviction, deeply move and inspire us to be our best selves.” What is the importance of telling these stories?

We’re so into this mindset of our public personas, of how many followers we have, and I think we miss that there’s power and potential in people who seem powerless or who we dismiss because they don’t tick off the boxes that we define as making them successful or worthy. Those kinds of individuals can sometimes offer stories not only about human potential but about humility, about compassion, about ignoring the artificial barriers that race or politics or economics or social status create. I feel particularly strongly at this time of rising fascism that the key we all have is to look for those stories that make us see each other in a more humane and compassionate way.

Where do you find these stories?

Talking to people, reading. Just being open. I am currently researching a longform piece on a woman who’s working in the cacao industry lifting Central American farmers out of poverty. She’s from Texas and she’s changing the way the chocolate industry operates. I think the most interesting stories are those where you can find a person who can take you inside a world that you would never otherwise have access to. Those kinds of stories are exciting. I also think that if we pay attention to others and to our environment, as writers and as human beings, we all resonate at the same level. When there is a story, we instinctively know it. We understand what heroism or courage looks like.

The world can seem rather dark these days. How do you keep your positivity and mission in the face of what can feel like insurmountable adversaries?

I look for the people and stories that move me and I try to get out of my comfort zone. Last June, for example, I went to an event called The Shoe Project featuring refugee women who had fled war in their countries. Vancouver writer Caroline Adderson had helped them write their stories of fleeing and coming to Canada. I was so moved that I invited these women to dinner, because they inspired me. And so I had fifteen women from everywhere from Eritrea to Somalia to Mexico in my home, and we broke bread together.

I think being open and reaching out across a boundary or what feels like a barrier, these small acts of humanity, open up whole worlds. And when you take a moment to look at those worlds, to get to know a person who you think is “other,”, you’ll find inspiration in the human condition on an individual level. Sometimes when you watch the news and you think of things on a global level, it’s overwhelming. But a conversation with someone who has struggled or who is different, and seeking to understand, that feeds me and fills me up. It shows me my own privilege and reminds me of our human potential. And that’s worth writing about. Also, I try to limit my consumption of CNN.

We’ve spoken in the past about the differences between fiction and nonfiction. What is the most powerful thing for you about writing creative nonfiction?

I think it’s how flawed and perfect and inspiring and courageous and heroic and terrible we can all be. It’s this range of human action and emotion that’s fascinating to me. We can all choose to walk in the world in a different way. If I can write a story that causes a reader to pause and think differently about another person or their own actions, or how they live their lives, that would be the greatest reward of writing I could hope for.

What are you currently working on, if you don’t mind talking about it?

Various smaller projects. I was hollowed out after doing The Marriott Cell. It was really intense and hard work, and then I got blocked for quite awhile. The block came from feeling like I had to have the next big idea in hand, and that it had to be fully formed so that when it came out of my mouth, other people would say “Wow! That’s amazing!” I think that’s part of the reason why some authors don’t talk about their current projects.

If there’s one thing the last few months of mucking in my own writing has taught me, it’s that we can sometimes defeat ourselves by looking around and seeing how everyone else is doing and taking a count of publications. It can be very destructive for the creative muse. We need to find the joy that got us here, that made us take the leap into believing we could do this crazy thing. Right now, I feel fortunate and excited and happy, and I’m jotting down ideas all the time, whereas when I was pushing before, there was nothing. I’m full of a sense of possibility, which I think is as good as it gets when you’re in a creative realm.

So I’m writing poetry very badly, I’m working on a kid’s book, I’m jotting down ideas for short stories. I’m researching this long form piece on cacao—it’s got its hooks into me. I’m just trusting, and enjoying the privilege of this vocation we call writing. I’m letting myself enjoy it rather than thinking it has to be a certain way, and then something will happen, something exciting.

One final question. What is the best piece of advice, writing or otherwise, that anyone has ever given you?

A writer once told me four words key to writing: put ass in chair. It’s hard work, it’s discipline, it’s just doing it. It’s not magic. The magic comes from putting your ass in your chair everyday. The best thing writers can do for themselves is not let life take them away from that one shining priority. It should be the most important thing on your to do list for the day. Nothing has served me better than that advice.

Peter Takach is a writer and teacher whose works have surfaced in some of the nation’s finest magazines, literary festivals, and recycling bins. Banished from his hometown for crimes against humanities, he can be found at the University of British Columbia toiling away at MFA in Creative Writing or perched on driftwood staring out at great Neptune’s ocean.

 

Keith Maillard

Interviewed by Louise BrechtMaillard

Keith Maillard is an iconic American-Canadian novelist, poet, essayist, and professor. The trek from Wheeling, West Virginia, to his chosen home in West Vancouver, was circuitous, but the author liked what he found when he arrived—and stayed. His first novel was published in 1976; Two Strand River is a noted gender-bending “classic of Canadian magic realism.” Twelve novels and one book of poetry followed. Eleven have won or been nominated for literary prizes that include the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Gerald Lampert Award (poetry), the Polish American Historical Association’s Creative Arts Prize, the Weatherford Award, and ReLit Awards.

Keith is a dedicated educator, a recipient of the Dorothy Somerset Award for excellence in that field, and since 1989, has played an integral role in UBC’s Creative Writing Program. His latest novel was published in September 2018.

Twin Studies, inspired in part by manga artist Ai Yazawa’s Nana series, visits the intense interconnectedness between three sets of twins, their families, friends, at the same time as it revisits the concept of gender fluidity introduced in Two Strand River. Intrigued by its thematic currency, I was eager to interview the book’s author.

Two Strand River was obviously well ahead of its time. How did your early years, at home and as a writer, prepare you to challenge the prescribed theory of gender binary?

As soon as I was aware of anything, I was aware that I was different from other kids. There were no words for any of this stuff back then, and when I felt bad about myself, I thought of myself as “not a real boy,” but when I felt good about myself, I thought of myself as “like a girl.” I kept these thoughts secret, of course, because they were thoughts that one should not be having. Later on, as I entered into adulthood, I thought of myself as “not straight,” but if that defined what I wasn’t, then what was I?

I am one of those people for whom gender identity is, as the psychologists say, “stable across the lifespan.” That is, my sense of my own gender is the same now as it was when I was four, or at any time, but for many years I didn’t know what to call it.  

I read voraciously as a kid and a teenager, read masses of popular fiction, and in none of it could I find anyone who was like me. Representation is crucially important. If you can’t find anyone like you in fiction, then it’s hard to feel that you are even human. When I sat down to write Two Strand River, I didn’t know for sure if there were many, or any, people like me, but if there were, then I was writing for them.

Not until 2009-2010, when Twin Studies is set, was the term “nonbinary” readily available. When I first ran across it, I let it settle in my mind, and then eventually thought, oh my goodness, there it is finally, the bell is ringing—that’s me. I gave that wonderful epiphany to the characters in my book.

Did you have any specific influences?

On Two Strand River? In the afterword to the HarperCollins edition I list most of the influences on that particular book. I piled into it everything I was thinking about when I wrote it, and that made for a dense and somewhat chaotic text, but all of that stuff is, in some sense, just piled on the top. The core story is something that had always been with me. I began writing stories in the eighth grade. Boys who were like girls and girls who were like boys had appeared in my writing early on and kept reappearing, so Alan and Leslie had always been there in my mind—which is probably why their stories came to me so quickly and intensely.  

How did its publication affect your career trajectory…and the books that followed?

Publication led to reviews, to some recognition, to Canada Council Grants, to a reading at Harbourfront. Back in those days you weren’t on a panel with four or five other writers; it was just you, and you read for 45 minutes, had an intermission and then read for another 45 minutes. That was quite a workout. After that reading a young guy came up to me and said, “Hi, my name’s Ed Carson, and I want to publish you.” And he did publish me, at General and then, later, at HarperCollins.

Can you describe the evolution of your writing process generally? Specifically?

A typical way to write a novel is to start at the beginning and write to the end. This will take you at least a year, probably more, and in the process of writing the first draft you will learn what the book is about—what you wanted to say—and that will enable you to write a second draft in which you cut what needs to be cut, add what needs to be added, and get everything in the right place. That second draft is now a complete manuscript that other people can read. That’s the way most of my students write their novels, and that’s how I wrote the first few of mine.

My process has evolved over the years, and this is how I write now. Right from the beginning—when I get the first ideas that will turn into a book—I work with a detailed outline that resembles a screenwriter’s beat sheet. Initially I spend most of my time working on the outline, imagining scenes and making notes for them, and then only gradually do I begin the actual writing. I work on all parts of the book at once, and I need to write or imagine my climactic scenes first because otherwise I won’t know what I’m writing toward. This outline, of course, changes as the book evolves. To keep track of the many drafts I produce, I date them. I love editing and working with structure, so finishing a book is the fun part of writing for me. When I have a fully completed draft, I check all the through-lines to make sure that they’re working properly and then check my scene transitions because a lot happens in the white space between scenes. Eventually I arrive at a draft that is ready for people to read.

You describe the first draft of Two Strand River as a “one off” that you haven’t experienced since. How did it differ from the others? Would you welcome that experience again?

I wrote Two Strand River very quickly, not knowing from one day to the next what my characters were going to do, and had a finished draft in six weeks. It felt like automatic writing. No, I don’t think I would welcome that experience again. Pounding a typewriter six to eight hours a day seven days a week was physically exhausting, and if I hadn’t been in reasonably good shape and in my early thirties, I couldn’t have done it. I do still experience times when I am flooded with ideas, but now I take notes, go for a walk, and let everything work itself out in my mind before I do much writing.

All but three of your novels are set in the United States. Is it at all significant that both of these novels are (primarily) set in the Vancouver/West Vancouver area?

Yes, it’s significant. I usually write the kind of realism in which location saturates the story. I didn’t pick locations to say something significant about the story; I picked them because that’s where the story happens. People have told me—and told me so many times that I believe them—that in Two Strand I really “got” good old hippy Kits from back in the day. That’s where I was living when I wrote it. When I began writing Twin Studies, I had been living in West Van for over twenty years. On a deeper level I suspect that when I left the States for Canada in 1970, I was leaving one part of myself behind and welcoming another part of myself into a new country, and this is reflected in the locations I chose in my writing.

You’ve been open about the writer’s block that precipitated a two-year interruption in your writing career. Is it the most serious obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

No. The most serious obstacle I’ve had to overcome was the chronic depression—and probably PTSD—that afflicted me in my late teens and early twenties. The simple fact that I was still alive at the end of it was a victory.

When I had writer’s block—after I admitted it and deliberately decided to stop writing—I actually had an interesting and productive life working as a photographer. In order to worry about your “career,” you have to think you have one, and I wasn’t sure that I did as a writer. I’d published four novels, one of them in New York, and I’d had lots of reviews, most of them pretty good. I’d had my picture in Books in Canada and gone on tours throughout the country, but except for Canada Council grants, I’d made hardly any money, and no one—and this was important to me—had seriously engaged with the ideas in my novels about what we would now call “gender.” Some reviewers had noticed, but they’d gone skittering away immediately as though they were terrified of the subject—which I believe they were. Whatever I was saying, nobody seemed to be getting, so why should I bother? And I really enjoyed working with images rather than words.

How did Two Strand River inform Twin Studies?

To be absolutely honest here, it didn’t particularly. It had been well over forty years since I’d written it, and I was aware that it went with Twin Studies to make a kind of set, like bookends, one at the beginning, one at the end, both set in Vancouver, both concerned with gender, but I wasn’t really thinking about Two Strand River much when I was writing Twin Studies.

In addition to gender and sexuality, Twin Studies takes an unflinching look at relationships between twins and (singleton) siblings. friends and lovers, class and money. In the course of its production did you ever experience the feeling of “I can’t write that” that you denote in the earlier work?

No. The you-can’t-write-that syndrome is something that primarily affects beginning writers, and that particular voice in my head went away a long time ago. Now I allow myself to write whatever crosses my mind because I know that if I want to, I can always cut it later.

Has your storied teaching career at UBC. influenced your choice of subject material and/or the characters you’ve chosen to portray?

Of course it has. Interacting with young people keeps me in touch with the times, and I learn as much from my students and they do from me. I couldn’t have imagined a protagonist in her early 30s—like Erica in Twin Studies—if for years I hadn’t been engaged in dialogue with my students.

Where you’ve made mention of the words of wisdom that have (deeply) affected your writing career, what professorial advice do you consider most important for emerging writers today?

Because there are so many different kinds of writers, doing so many different kinds of writing, it’s hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all answer. “Take care of yourself,” I suppose is the most important thing I could say. When you’re in the middle of a project, it’s easy to see yourself as a detached consciousness, but that consciousness arises in a body, so imagine that you’re in for the long haul and take care of that body. Also, remember that writing is a social act, and find people in your life who will read your work and give you thoughtful feedback—people you can trust. Finally, I guess I’d have to say that writing has to be its own reward. That sounds like merely some hoary old motto, so let me amplify it. Sometimes the process of writing is the most intensely alert and engaged you will ever be in your life, and sometimes that process will be all that you have.

Louise Brecht is an avid reader, aspiring author, and third year student at the University of British Columbia, working towards her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature.

C.D. Rose

Interviewed by Olga Holin

image1 is the author of Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else and The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, as well as a trail of short stories. He is at home anywhere there is a dusty library, a good secondhand bookshop and a dark bar.

If I was to say that you are a writer’s writer, how would you react? 

Rather numbly, if that doesn’t sound rude. It’s not something for me to say, or decide, to be honest. To say something like that is the role of the reader, or critic, but not the writer.  

I do always think that these are books for other people who have read too many books, so I would like to think of myself as a “reader’s writer,” perhaps. But again, that really isn’t something for me to say.

Your latest novel came out a few months ago titled: Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else. The main character is the editor from your previous book- The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, who this time around is invited to give a series of lectures, in an unspecified middle-European town, about forgotten books. Why did you decide to write a story focused on this character? Did you feel that he had more to say?

I’m tempted to say that this was a true story, but it wasn’t quite. But yes, your suspicion is reasonable, and not wrong. Quite simply, he wasn’t done. He still isn’t. A third (and final) volume of the Editor’s adventures is currently in progress.

When Umberto Eco passed away last year, I was distraught, but I found a lot of qualities that I admired in his work in your latest novel. There was the philosophical aspect, the hilarious absurdism that lets you laugh out loud. Most of all it was the creation of the world, as it was so vivid and real that I felt I was reading a work of creative nonfiction and not fiction. I remember thinking the same about The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure. What influenced this type of writing and is this something you want to keep exploring in your future work?

Fiction is a strange thing. Made-up stories that keep on pretending, insisting even, that they are real, that they are true – isn’t there something odd about that?  I always liked the ludic aspect of it, but worried that there was something not altogether healthy about it. I always found the best stories, the most convincing ones were the ones which acknowledged their own fabrication, their own borders, the edges of where they may or may not be quite true or real.

For a while, this felt like a game, an elaborate way of playing with the reader or listener’s imagination or sense of belief. In recent times, however, the borders between what is true and what has been imagined or fabricated have become so much more dangerous. And not in a good way, I fear.

An art critic, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, has posited the concept of “parafiction,” which I would see as being opposed to the earlier concept of “metafiction.” While metafiction was fiction which drew attention to its own fictional status, parafiction does quite the opposite, and lays a fictional discourse alongside an ostensibly non-fictional one, mixing the true and the untrue, the imagined and the observed, throwing the ontological borders of each into question.

I think a tacit acknowledgment of where these borders may lie and working an investigation of them into the very fiction itself is one way to proceed and the way my work seems to be heading.

How do you go about investigating the non-fiction element?

I don’t really “investigate” as such – I merely seem to stumble across things that interest me. Perhaps I am looking without really knowing I’m looking.

I love to travel, to listen and to read widely – not just fiction, but anything I happen to chance upon. There’s no method to it. Perhaps there ought to be.

Let’s talk about the main character, who is passionate and yet fairly introverted. He is such a keen observer and yet in constant dialogue with the reader. I think that there is an awareness in him, that he too, like the books he lectures about, will be forgotten. Being put in a position where he is an authority on a topic makes him very uncomfortable. This feeling only grows when the professor who invited him to give the series of lectures is nowhere to be found. The character himself feels out of place, which is understandable given he is in an unfamiliar place, but I got the sense that he always feels out of place, almost awkward. Can you talk about the emotional arc of the character and how it came to exist? How much of yourself do you see in that character?

I always say that he’s me and that he’s not me. Both at the same time. I think many writers have written such characters. It’s a shortcut: I spent years trying to create characters very far from my own experience, with (at best) limited success, then realized drawing on my own experience was perhaps the best way to go after all.

I’m not sure he has much of an emotional arc. He begins the novel by being slightly baffled and slightly excited. At the end of the novel, he feels pretty much the same way.

I’m glad you feel he is in dialogue with the reader. I like a narrator who will lead you into a story, asking you to trust them, offering a guiding hand, a Virgil to a Dante, one who says, as they lead you into the labyrinth, “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” (Michael Ondaatje said that.)

How did his character start? With a voice?

The voice certainly came on early in the process, with the writing of the Biographical Dictionary. I realised that I was creating a different version of myself, one with some good characteristics, others perhaps less so. But he could get away with stuff I couldn’t and do things I haven’t done.

The structure of the novel is interesting, too. You have the main storyline of the editor, which is interwoven with the lectures he gives, which are stories about authors in themselves. So, yes, it is a novel and yet also a collection of short stories. Could you spend some time and explain the motivation behind that?

I always consider myself, if anything, as a writer of short stories. I am a short story writer. That is the form which I love the most, and the one which I wish to practise. I do think this is a book of short stories, linked by a red thread. The initial impulse of this book was to remember the lost books which it describes. I only put in the Editor’s story to link them.

While I am delighted with the reception Who’s Who has received, I would still like more emphasis to be put on those lost books which form its main substance (each one a short story in itself), and less on the Editor’s various mishaps and misadventures. But who am I to say?

Your publication history is always one that fascinates me and also one that fills me with hope. Could you tell us about your personal literary failures and how your first book finally got published?

I have no failures. Only incomplete successes.

I think I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again.

In my twenties, I was too busy having a life to sit still and write. In my thirties, I slowed down a bit, and wrote some short stories. A couple got published. Then I lost my job and had a relationship breakdown and had to leave the country where I was living in a hurry. I wanted to write and had heard about those MAs in Creative Writing they have now. So, I went back to the UK and I did one. I wrote a perfectly-crafted, finely-honed Literary Novel. After that I got a Literary Agent who assured me I would be published, famous and wealthy within a few months.

None of those things happened.

I wrote another perfectly-crafted, finely-honed Literary Novel. It sank without trace before even being published.

Agent dropped me. Had another relationship breakdown. Decided I hated books, writing, literature, Literary Agents. But nonetheless, continued to write.

Decided to put a series of tales about failed writers on the internet, with the idea that they, too, would vanish within one year.

Said series of tales was spotted by a fine publisher, who gently coaxed me back into the idea of actually writing a book.  

How do you think it affected your writing?

It made me realize that I should have been writing what I really wanted to write all along. The thing that was mad, that was crazy, the thing that no one else would write. The thing that mainstream publishers and literary agents would baulk at.

With that in mind, what advice would you give young writers? 

(First up, I’d question the word “young” here. My best advice to writers would be: be old. Even if your few years militate against you, find age. Draw on the wisdom, experience, and writings of others.

Seriously, “emerging” is a better word than “young” in this context.)

And write what the fuck you want to write. Don’t let Literary Agents, Mainstream Publishers and the dreary expectations of others limit you.

That is easier said than done. Any advice on how to shut out all the voices?

Sit down. Switch off all your social media. Better still, cancel all your accounts. Read, read deep. Ignore contemporary stuff: most of it will pass. Dig deep.

Forget any ideas you may ever have foolishly entertained about ever making money from any of this.

Then start writing.

One of the things I admired in both your books is this romanticized idea of writing, something that seems increasingly rare in the contemporary world. Work, which favours elements of craft and language over content and story line. Any content writers create these days needs to be digestible and there is little room for reflection. And yet your novel does nothing but reflect. This means you took a great risk. Why was this important to you?

The work of fiction, or creative writing of any kind, is precisely that: to provide space, to create time, where there is none.

There is little more important that writers can do.

How do you carve out that space? I think for me that is the hardest thing.

It’s the writing itself that carves out the space.

Earlier you said your character is not done yet, so where is he going next? When can we expect that book and will it be a novel again?

Following the modest success of Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else, I received a letter from a person who I shall not name here, telling me they had more information pertaining to Maxim Guyavitch (a writer at the heart of that book.) After a number of misadventures and misunderstandings, this resulted in a new, and hopefully definitive, edition of Guyavitch’s stories. The Blind Accordionist: Nine Stories by Maxim Guyavitch, which will include a critical and biographical essay, should be out in the next year or two. Unless Guyavitch’s legendary misfortune should strike again.

Olga Holin is a polyglot, a mix of mostly European ancestry, a writer and poet. She has a First Class BA in Creative Writing from the University of London and was awarded the Michael Donaghy Award for excellence in poetry. She published an illustrated poetry chapbook called “The Tale of Flexibility” in 2015. She is presently studying for her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and working on a collection of short stories and a novel. She is the Executive Editor, Promotions at PRISM international.

Naomi Shihab Nye,

Interviewed by Tania De Rozario

NaomiShihabNye

“It’s nice to find Indian naan in Tokyo!” Photo Credit: Lin Hayakawa

Naomi Shihab Nye, known largely as a poet, has written and edited work across poetry, fiction and academia. Her literary accolades include four Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Arab American Book Award, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. A former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she has taught writing for over 40 years. Her most recent collection, Voices in the Air, was published earlier this year with Greenwillow Books.  

I first learned of Nye through her poem, Kindness. It brought me to tears, and as great poems often do, came to me at a point when I needed it most.

Let’s start with early beginnings in poetry and place. You grew up in San Antonio, Jerusalem and St Louis, Missouri, and much of your work focuses on place – domestic settings, country, State, the spaces between people. Where did poetry first find you, and how?

I was lucky to be “found” early – because my mother read poems to me at bedtime and our father told us Palestinian folktales that were very poetic in nature, full of images and rhythm and invocation and conversation, bedtime was surely the most peaceful and captivating time of the day. Also, we had our parents’ full attention then. I wrote my first poem at age 6 and felt a kind of satisfaction I’d never felt before – a glossy shine to the words when I returned to those simple four lines, a comforting “click” in the brain as if saying “You did something with that thought. You connected it.”  When I shared my first poem at school and had an older girl say to me, “I know what you mean” – I was hooked. So simply. Writing was a power within our grasp, whatever age we were. Writing belonged to anyone. It was portable and cheap. I wrote my first poem on the back of a white laundry bag in a hotel room.

Libraries, children’s anthologies, new and old collections of poems, offered all the stockpiled voices I needed to launch me into my magical new world. By age 7 in public school, Ferguson, Missouri, I had a teacher who believed poetry was at the centre of the universe and encouraged everyone in her classes to read and write it regularly. It was the heart of her curriculum – Mrs. Harriet Barron Lane. She was an elegant, old-world advocate of language and expanded vocabulary. She never suggested anything was above our heads. Lucky me! To have such a teacher at a young, formative age. I was able to thank her much later for all she had given us, when I continued on in my poetry practice, and only recently found two notes she wrote to my mother, in her compelling script. They felt like treasure maps, at this point.

And treasure itself, I’m sure!

You’re so right, compared to many art-forms, poetry is portable, cheap. That has never occurred to me. Singapore’s first and most famous Prime Minister once declared that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”

I feel sorry for anyone who says poetry is a luxury because poets consider it essential, like breath, like thinking. It’s not costly, so why is it a luxury?

In the U.S. I have often noticed that when a politician includes a scrap of poetry in a political speech – suddenly there’s something worth listening to. Poetry is a way of seeing the world, a sphere of connective suggestions, metaphor is a healing grace for all thinkers, it helps us put our mind-bits together, it helps us see what we think, then helps us convey that.

If we are to have empathy, we need poetry. If we are to expand our perceptions or imaginings about one another, poetry can be very helpful.

Yes –  in 2002, you said in an interview with Bill Moyer that “every time you care about something, or somebody that relates to a different place in the world, your empathy grows”, that loving somebody means having to “extend yourself”. Today, I feel these words urgently. Does poetry really have a place in fostering empathy?

Without a doubt. And this is the thing we need most in our world. And because, as American poet and scholar Rita Dove reminded, poetry is “immediate” – it doesn’t take as long to enter the world of a poem as reading a novel for example – so we need it all the time and everywhere and every day. Sometimes, we may only need a stanza. But to feel another perception or viewpoint through a poem is a vast and gracious thing – extending our own humanity toward wider care, which is what empathy is. The great Palestinian anthologist, translator and scholar, Dr. Salma Khadra Jayyusi said, “If we read one another, we might be less likely to kill one another.”

Yes, reading poetry has always enabled me to connect things – it’s a means of mapping, searching, uncovering, discovering. And speaking of mapping, there is a lot of conversation these days about writers’ career trajectories. I am always interested in is how becoming a published author changes one’s practice. Did Tattooed Feet chart your writing life in ways you had not expected?

I have always had a very simple philosophy about “getting one’s work out there”: Each thing gives us something else. If I had not published poems in regional journals during my college years, small-press publisher Dwight Fullingim, who brought out Tattooed Feet and Eye-to-Eye, my first two chapbooks, from his Texas Portfolio Press, would never have heard of me. If he had not published those books, my first full-length publisher (James Anderson, Breitenbush books, Oregon) would never have heard of me. One thing always led to something else. I am grateful to all those people.

This is why I urge writers to publish their work as they go along.  I started sending poems to children’s magazines when I was seven. I have never had an agent.

Wow, seven -years -old! And have you faced any obstacles in your writing journey since then?

I don’t know if I faced any particular obstacles. Somehow I always just slid along from one thing to the next quite happily. Someone recently told me my books may have received unfair criticism from people who find it hard to accept that Palestinians are human beings too. If that’s true, it’s okay with me. I’ll take the criticism.

Right. A lot of your work responds so relevantly and succinctly to what is going on in the world. Do you respond poetically to events as they unfold, or do you have daily routines or processes that help you focus on, and develop, your writing?

Thank you for this comment. I write in a notebook every day and often find myself responding to what is happening in the atmosphere.  As human beings we are all part of a grand (and sometimes frustrating) conversation which hopefully belongs to all of us and writing helps us feel as if we are contributing our own ideas – even if no one else reads what we write. I use my notebooks as the wellspring for other writing – I write first thing every morning, rising at 5 or before; a cup of coffee is my other sacred spring. Going back to the notebooks and finding excerpts we wish to work on is another ongoing practice. I don’t wait for big ideas but try to engage tiny bits of ideas as they flow through. I love taking notes. I even take notes at the movies. It’s the best thing I’ve found to do and has served me at all my ages and for all my books.

Great advice. Also, speaking of books! Your most recent collection, Voices in the Air came out this year. It is strikingly beautiful, and pays tribute to wide range of writers and historical figures. It is also subtitled “Poems for Listeners”. For me, this speaks to poetry’s beginnings as oral traditions. Could you tell us a little bit about how this collection came about?

I am so deeply grateful to you for mentioning this book. We all hear a lot of voices every day – in our surroundings, in our heads, memories. These days in the U.S. we are swarmed by breaking news – every hour it seems – and have a chance to hear many voices we might prefer not to hear, along the way. I often find myself referring to a poem first read long ago, remembering what a beloved writer once said which might prove helpful for this particular moment, and those sources and memories are how this book of mine got started. I love thinking about people like Peter Matthiessen or Grace Paley or William Stafford who were truly inspiring in their daily lives as well as writings. They save my soul! The poet Robert Bly once wrote a beautiful series of poems called Gratitude to Old Teachers. We could add to our own compendiums every day. And the teachers don’t have to have been writers. They might have been kids or neighbours or hairdressers or grandmas.

And on the subject of teachers – any advice for emerging writers?     

Read as much as you can, find voices you love, keep them near you.

Write regularly – even if you only have five or ten minutes a day to write in, take it. Do it, You’ll feel a different gravity in your own voice.

And find a way to share your work.

Tania De Rozario is the author of And The Walls Come Crumbling Down and Tender Delirium (Math Paper Press, 2013/2016). Born in Singapore, she is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.