Our blog editors, Maria Prudente and Joanna Cleary, were interested in interviewing writers about their obsessions and repulsions and how they influence writing. Scroll down to read their interviews with two writers we love, Linda Ashok and Jamel Brinkley.
Maria Prudente: I find that writers need to return to their obsessions in their work. Do you write about your obsessions and, is it challenging to find new ways to write about them?
Linda Ashok: I am not sure about what is implied by obsession. Are you referring to recurring motifs? The thing about my writing is that I never have to think too hard and I mostly go with the flow; writing is quite organic for me as I extract elements from my unsettling dreams. In this process, there are elements that appear quite frequently but they neither demand anything nor dictate.
MP: Are you ever driven to write about what repulses you? How do you fight the urge to not write around it but through it?
LA: Like anybody else, I am repulsed by any kind of violence but I do write about it because it is therapeutic for me. It helps me to see the underlining of what we perceive as violence. It also builds familiarizes the readers to recognize violences they experience in their personal or public spaces.
Joanna Cleary: As a Communications and Branding professional as well as a writer, how do you think the increasing role of virtual reality and communication in our lives has affected your creativity and creative work?
LA: Well, virtual reality has built and broken our lives in many ways. In my case, I leveraged virtual reality to expand my creative pursuit; I lived places before I literally travelled to those places. Imagining I am in a certain place, imagining the lives of people local to those places, helped me manifest my desire to live those places in real life through positive affirmations. I experienced their poetry, their struggle, their joys through virtual reality. So yes, it contributed a lot to my writing while also exposing me to a lot of toxicity that affected my mental health in several ways. That I am currently dealing with social anxiety is because of being overwhelmed by the duality of people as seen on social media vs real life. And of course when your life is affected, it does reflect in your work too.
JC: Can you speak to what inspired the title of your 2012 book of poetry, whorelight?
LA: My book came out in 2017. I imagined a different name for it and that was whorefrost. But over the four years of its preparation, I found a mention of ‘whorefrost’ somewhere on the net and that really upset me. I wanted to have a unique name to my book. So I continued brainstorming until one day I coined ‘whorelight’ to define how light streams into our darkness, sleeps with it, and leaves everything illuminated. I feel it is akin to those sex-workers who somehow fill in a lot of void in the lives of their customers; and therefore ‘whorelight’ talks about many such moments and experiences that prostituted to fill the many spaces in my life forever inquisitive about meanings.
MP: I was so moved by your poem, ‘We Two Women Can Father A Child.’ Can you elaborate on how that particular piece came to be?
LA: A certain phase of my childhood happened in the company of my biological mother and my step mother. My mother was too courageous to share her family space with my step mother and she did it to help my dad manage his finances better. In the wake of the world being more accomodating of non-binary relationship, that childhood experience of mine acted as a prop wherein I imagined my mothers discussing how they alone can father me without my dad being around. It is also a depiction of my queer sensibilities imagining two women fathering a child with more considerate human values.
JC: When I read “chew my tongue like a cannibal/ eating a red, fleshy berry” from your poem, ‘Tongue-Tied,’ I was struck by the theatricality of language. Do you ever perform your work live?
LA: I do. But to myself. These poems are not for a listening audience as the kind of patience they have wouldn’t be enough to simulate the interior theatricality of the poem or poems as such. And even if I am given a very patient and perceptive audience, I would still refrain from performing it as these are very intimate pieces.
Maria Prudente: Writers seem to write a lot about their obsessions. Maybe that obsession is a place or a type of person. A writer I know constantly writes about going back inside her mother’s womb. Do you write about any of your obsessions?
Jamel Brinkley: I would say I do, but I’m usually not aware of that fact until after after I’ve written and I can retrospectively look at my work to truly see what I have done. For example, only in hindsight did I see that in my book I was writing about, and obsessed with, families, brotherhood and male friendship, masculinity, and love of various kinds.
MP: Are you driven to write about what repulses you? How do you face that challenge head on?
JB: I think I’m driven to write about what fascinates me, about what I have questions about, and perhaps that sometimes means writing about what repulses me. I think the challenge is making sure that what I’m writing about is interesting to me, so if feeling repulsed is the only response I have to a character or action, then I probably won’t write about it. Complicated or even contradictory emotion is key in driving and sustaining my interest in any story.
Joanna Cleary: According to your website’s description of your collection, A Lucky Man, the work “reflects the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class—where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.” Can you speak to what luck means to you? Is it an obsession or a repulsion, or both?
JB: I wouldn’t say that luck is a repulsion; maybe it’s something like an obsession. On the one hand, luck, or the idea of being lucky, is one that I mean to take seriously in the book. I hope that every story contains at least one moment of genuine joy or pleasure or grace for my characters, the kind of moment that makes one feel lucky to be alive. On the other hand, or at the same time, I do mean my invocation of luck to be seen with some irony. For the protagonist of my title story, for instance, luck comes to mean something painful. His life hasn’t turned out the way he expected. And the idea of being fortunate, of being blessed by fate, means that his sense of deserving good things in his life is a lie. What I’m talking about now isn’t unrelated to the myth of meritocracy, which, for some reason, so many people in this country believe in wholeheartedly.
JC: According to your website, you have many literary events and workshops coming up. Can you speak to how you find that participating in these events influence your work as a writer?
JB: It’s a real pleasure to meet with readers of my work and with those who are interested in reading my work, and it’s fun to meet with people who are devoted to the writing life. That said, there is a difference between being an author (a public figure) and a writer (a private figure), and participating in all these events has pulled me away from writing. I’ve felt less like an artist than a promoter of my own work. In response to that feeling, I’m learning to be a little less precious about the conditions I require. For example I’m learning how to write in the sterile environments of hotel rooms and, at times, even on airplanes, instead of always needing my apartment, my desk, my coffee mug.
JC: Can you tell us about your current writing fellowship at Stanford?
JB: The Stegner Fellowship is a two-year gift of time and money for which I am very grateful. I benefit from the amazing writing and insights of my peers, the other fiction fellows, when we meet for workshop every week. And we all benefit from working with the Stanford creative writing faculty, with incredible people like Elizabeth Tallent and Chang-rae Lee.
Author of whorelight, LINDA ASHOK is the 2017 Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Chichester, UK. She is the publisher of RLFPA Editions, Founder/President of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts that funds the annual RL Poetry Award (since 2013), and the founding editor of the Best Indian Poetry series. For features, press coverage, published works and more, visit lindaashok.com
JAMEL BRINKLEY is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has received fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Stanford University. A Lucky Man is his first book. He lives in California.