Devanshi Khetarpal: Hello everyone! So I am Devanshi Khetarpal, the editor-in-chief and founder of Inklette Magazine. And this is the second blog in the COVID-19 Blog Series of Inklette Magazine. Joining me today is Michele Filgate. Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of a critically-acclaimed anthology based on her Longreads essay, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About. So let’s get right into it! Hey Michele!
Michele Filgate: Hello! How are you?
DK: Good. And so firstly, Michele, I just wanted to ask you how you are doing today and you know, how these past few months have been for you with this pandemic and how you have been holding up throughout all of this.
MF: Yeah, so, I was actually in Italy when the pandemic started. I was there from early January and I was supposed to be there until April 1st. But we left– my boyfriend was with me– and we left when the country went into complete lockdown and Trump had issued the travel ban. So I think that we flew home on Friday, March 13th. And it was really weird to come from, to go from Italy where the pandemic had been seeming to slowly unfold and then really escalate, to coming back to New York where, obviously, you know, New York city has been like an epicenter of the outbreak as well. So it’s been really weird. Time is doing something different for me now, like folding in on itself, you know? I feel like a lot of the days feel the same and then some days seem really short and some days seem really long. And I think that having the nicer weather out is helping. But the weather is getting a lot nicer. Today, particularly in New York, it’s going to be a high of eighty-four. So I went out for a run. And that definitely helps. But there are so many surreal moments where stuff almost has become normalised. It really feels normal to go out and wear a mask now where I can see other people in masks. But I still can’t get over some of the changes in the city, you know, like just the idea that now we have to keep six feet apart from people and New York is a place where, as you know from having lived here, people don’t really usually do that when they are walking down the small sidewalks. And you can’t smile at strangers, you know. Your face is hidden behind a mask which is kind of weird. Yesterday, I went for a long walk and it was really weird because I walked past the hospital on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. And I saw a refrigerated truck there which obviously is being used for a makeshift morgue. And it was…I have seen photos of those trucks in, you know, news articles. But it’s another thing seeing it in front of you. And it just really hit home like, oh god, you know, like this is real. This is not a bad movie. Like this is actually happening and it was really really hard to see.
So there are moments like that that are really sobering and horrifying. And then there are moments where you see people coming together and it makes me proud to be a New Yorker in those moments. Like, you know, just even the seven o’clock everyday when people are cheering for essential workers and, you know, leaning out their windows or using pots and pans and being creative to make noise. You know, some people play New York, New York in some of the neighbourhoods that I have walked around in. So that, moments like that, it feels like, okay we’re all in this together. You know? And I keep having to remind myself that this isn’t just something that we all individually are going through. It’s something we’re collectively going through. So, yeah.
DK: And, yeah, I mean I thought that it was interesting you said that “time is folding in on itself” because it definitely is. Like, I had to manage this semester in kind of two timezones, you know? And it was challenging and it kind of makes me, kind of lose all notions of time that I had but also, I think as a writer or as, you know, readers, we’re constantly seeing this in novels, like you know going back and forth in time. And you write a lot about, or at least I think, you know, there’s a lot of the past that comes in, and a lot of like, you know, loneliness, memory.
DK: I am thinking of how that maybe has changed for you as a writer or as a reader. You know, those notions.
MF: Yeah. I have been thinking a lot about time and the body. Particularly with one of my favourite books of the year that comes out next week. It’s called Drifts by Kate Zambreno. Have you read anything by her before?
DK: No, but I saw your interview with her on your website.
MF: Yeah, I interviewed her several years ago for The Paris Review Daily but her new book is a book that is about…it’s a novel, right, but it’s semi-autobiographical and it’s about a writer living in Brooklyn– Kate lives in Brooklyn– working on a book called Drifts, which is the name of this book, keeping notebooks and trying to kind of be able to…she’s attempting to replicate what it’s like to move through the world as a writer, and the way a writer thinks and the way a writer makes connections between everything that they can and so she folds in a lot of other artists and not just writers, you know. She does talk a lot about Rilke and his work habits but she also talks about, you know, a bunch of artists too and filmmakers, Agnès Varda being one of them. And so I really love the way she writes it because it is written in these fragmented bursts and it’s mimicking like writing in a notebook, which is what the narrator is doing and there are just so many incredible moments in this. I really feel like it’s a book of our moment because this narrator is feeling incredibly isolated, right? She’s in her home a lot of the time and she’s trying to work on this project. She’s walking around her neighbourhood and taking photos of the same trees everyday, noticing how one of them looks like the famous painting, The Scream. You know she’ll walk around and see her neighbours like that.
At one point, when it’s during Halloween and there’s cobwebs that are up as decorations and she connects that to a famous philosopher. So she’s always jumping from one thing to another. And I just, I really really love how she does that. But she’s also…this is a novel for our moment because it’s about isolation in many ways and the ways that writers can feel that solitude a lot but there’s also a lot about being in communion with other artists, with other minds and that’s something that we can do in this moment, right? Like we’re not socially distanced from the art that we need right now. And many people, I’ve noticed, are, you know, actually like reading a lot, and watching a lot of movies and in a way that they couldn’t during the first month of this because we were all like, what is happening, you know, constantly checking the news and I feel like now that it’s been normalised a little bit, everyone I know is kind of trying to turn to something that can feed them, nourish them during this time. I actually saw, I forget who wrote it, but I just saw a few weeks ago an article about how watching foreign films is the perfect thing to do during this moment because you can’t be looking at your phone and at social media and the news because you have to read the captions, the subtitles, and so I was like, yeah that’s actually kind of brilliant. I’ve been watching a few French films which I really love. So yeah, I think that the moment we’re in, while it’s incredibly depressing in a lot of ways, it’s also, it can be intellectually stimulating for those of us who are lucky enough to not have to be out working on the frontlines of this right now.
DK: Yeah. Yeah, and I think what you said kind of brought me back to… I was reading one of your essays, which I think, I really love, you wrote for Lit Hub, which is ‘Writers, The Loneliest Artists of All.’ And you know, you have this one line there which really kind of stuck with me: “We are ourselves before we are actually ourselves.” And I have been thinking about that a lot because it’s kind of like, like I am still able to write at home even though I was so used to going out for walks and you know, sitting in cafes and writing at public places, and listening to conversations. But I am still able to imagine people in a sense or imagine characters, imagine language or what happens. And it’s interesting, you know, like, how there’s this kind of…how I think that we kind of knew this as writers about the practice of writing but we are being reintroduced to it in a radically different way. Or we kind of knew all these things about literature. But they’re just coming to light in such drastic, dramatic ways. And there was a really interesting webinar with Olivia Laing where she kind of said the same thing. Like, you know, she’s going back to all the artists that she had been thinking of and kind of, you know, seeing like, “oh there was rage here” that she didn’t see or maybe there was… like, she said we have to use it to save ourselves from this crisis of imagination. And yeah, I mean, I was just wondering how your writing practices have changed at home. Like, do you write at a different place now or do you have a different method of writing or conceiving a writing project?
MF: Yeah. Well, first, before I answer that, I just want to say that I am glad you brought up Olivia Laing because she’s another writer for this moment that we’re in. Her book, in particular, The Lonely City, which looks at different artists through the lens of loneliness is another great book for everyone who’s feeling isolated right now. But yeah, in terms of my writing, I am mostly writing in my journal right now. I am really trying, there’s some essays that I want to be writing and I have been taking some notes. And I’ve been really trying to kind of, when I go on walks, observe as much as I can because I feel like I am going to want to remember the moment that we’re in right now and be able to process it months from now when I can see things clearly that I couldn’t necessarily see right now. So I am really thinking a lot, trying to pay attention as I am walking, what’s around me. And I’m trying to think of what else. I mean, for the first, like, six weeks that I got back from Italy, I couldn’t write at all. It was just total mayhem and just like me in survival mode and I couldn’t even read at first which is not like me at all. Books are always things that kind of keep me grounded. Then finally what I did was I tried reading a favorite book of mine from when I was a kid because I thought, okay, what I really need right now is some kind of comfort, right? So I re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn which I hadn’t read since I was twelve or something, I don’t even remember. I still remembered so many of the scenes so vividly even though I hadn’t read this book in several decades. And it was so…it was like seeing an old friend again in a way that some characters just live inside of us. So that really brought me back to like reading in my normal way and thinking in my normal way.
But yeah, right now, I would say the biggest thing I am doing for my practice is writing by hand in my notebook. I started doing a thing that my former professor, Hannah Tinti, taught me which has been so helpful. And it actually, it comes from Lynda Barry who is a fantastic graphic novelist, and it’s called ‘the five-minute journal.’ And what you do is you divide a page into four quadrants and in the first quadrant, you put seven things that you did that day. So it can be anything from like, eating a bagel to taking a shower to whatever, you know, very basic things. And the second quadrant and that’s…this one is the most important one to me, is seven things that you noticed so it’s really about practising the art of observation. And for me, what has really hit home for me is how when you’re in the same space everyday, day after day, especially in quarantine, when you are walking around your neighbourhood, your eyes glaze over things that you’re just used to seeing all the time. You just, like, it’s the same as if you’re reading something that you just wrote, right? Your eyes will skip over certain sentences maybe. So this is to me, the second quadrant where you write the seven things down that you noticed, is all about training yourself to really see the world through a pair of curious eyes that might be looking at things that you see all the time in a new way. And also just noticing the gradual changes of things too, you know, like trees change in our neighbourhood. You know, there might be a different piece of garbage on the sidewalk in front of somebody’s house, you know, there might be something that someone put out on their stoop. So practising that kind of, like, deep observation is key. And then, in the third quadrant– and this is easier to do when we’re not quarantined– but you can, you know, at least here in New York you can still hear people talk when you’re walking past them, but it’s to eavesdrop and write down one piece of dialogue that you overhear. I used to really love to do that on the subway, in particular, because… and in cafes because you just are always surprised at what people might say and they don’t realize people are listening. And in the fourth quadrant, you doodle something and I suck at drawing but the whole idea of that is just that doodling is all creativity. And so you can really have fun with it and, you know, I bought, like, glitter crayons, like, you know, and coloured pencils and stickers and stuff. So you can really just make this journal your own and the thing that Hannah Tinti said about it when she taught this to my class is that it serves as a memory palace for you so that when you’re stuck with your writing, you can go back and flip it open to any day. And these things that you wrote down that didn’t take a long time to do can open up all kinds of associations and memories for you for things to write about. So, I love that.
DK: And kind of speaking on that note I think that, you know, your essay What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, was kind of a generative project and a writing prompt for so many other writers that, you know, initially made that anthology. And it’s kind of interesting and fascinating to me not just because it was, you know, just one of those things that I, you know, you never think about writing or telling anyone, but it was also interesting because I think we’re living in a culture where we’re so…we’re so used to like taking ownership of our ideas and kind of not having them open to others for adaptation, for experimentation. So I think that it was really interesting that there was an entire anthology that was shaped around this one, you know, idea, this essay, this one piece of writing. But at the same time, it was so different for every writer. And I think that, I kind of must have briefly said it, but it was, you know, it was just so…it was so fascinating to see that everyone had a different story to tell. Like,I remember being at the event at McNally Jackson and it was like, you know, the whole panel just had…you know, some had this perfect relationship and some had…which is you know, again, very hard to write about but it was interesting. And so did you ever feel, um, did you ever think or reflect on this culture that asks you to take ownership of your ideas or were you… I mean, obviously you must’ve been very happy with everyone taking to it in different ways but yeah, what do you think about this, in general?
MF: Well, I think it’s just really interesting that everyone did have a really different story in that anthology but yet they’re people with completely different backgrounds and relationships with their moms. There were also some common threads that could be found throughout some of these pieces as well so I found that fascinating too. But I think it’s a universal thing that our relationship to our mother, even if we never knew her or if she’s no longer here, especially like from people who I’ve talked to who’ve lost their mothers, you know, whose mothers passed away, they’re still in an involving relationship even though the person is no longer here. There’s still that relationship there, right? And our relationships change over time and the stories that we tell change, they might change over time depending on where we are in our life. Something we focus on now might be different ten years from now, so if I went and asked all those writers a decade from now to write about what they don’t talk about with their moms, again, it could be a very, very different thing and that’s fascinating to me. So I am really glad about all the differences that emerged in that book too though, I think that it’s, it’s a testament to all the different kinds of stories that can be told about one of the most significant relationships in a lot of people’s lives. And so, yeah, I was really, really pleased with all the different stories that came in for that book and to me, it was very important from the get-go to have them be, you know, a variety, to have a wide spectrum because… especially my editor felt this way too. We didn’t want it to be just like, “here are a bunch of abuse essays,” or, you know, depressing pieces. We wanted to have different emotions that came up while people read and we wanted different experiences so that’s why in that book there were some people who are extremely close to their mom and some people who are, you know, not so close. And so, I, I…yeah.
DK: Yeah, and I mean it’s interesting because…I was just thinking like how I am back at home with my mother and you know, some people are away from their mothers and some aren’t close to them. And that’s such a…that’s a different and difficult thing for everyone because, you know, your relationships are tinged by loss in a very different way now. You know, with this pandemic where everyone is vulnerable and everyone can make everyone vulnerable in a different way and at the same time, it’s interesting being unexpectedly in these closed spaces with, you know, your parents or anyone really, or even no one. And so I wondered if, you know, this is just out of curiosity, if you’ve been in touch with the writers or the writers’ whose relationships to their mothers have changed, or relationships with others has changed in this time or what my mother and I don’t talk about has changed for any of them.
MF: I don’t know actually about the writers who are in the book right now who…I think a lot of them are probably not with their moms but yeah, I’ve heard more from friends who are, you know, quarantined with their significant others and the challenges with that. I think that no matter who you are quarantined with, the fact is that it’s hard to spend a long amount of time with anyone no matter how much you love them, so. But I am sure that people who are staying with their family right now, that brings up its own challenges. Yeah, I’d be curious how is it for you being back with your mom right now. I mean, is it good?
DK: I mean, I think that… I’m living with my parents and my grandparents, so it’s kind of…it’s difficult because, it’s kind of, I have to keep them patient and not have them be agitated. Like ,my grandparents really want to go out, they really want to meet their friends and…
DK: …they lead lonely lives and they don’t have work. But I think that, I think everything’s fine with my parents so far, so right now I’ve just kind of been in my own space being like, ‘I have to write this essay or get this thing out, or I have to read.’ So I think it’s kind of, I have enough to occupy me at the moment but I don’t know how it’s going to be when, you know, things ease and I just have more time and, but…
MF: Right. It is interesting because you can kind of, you know, lose yourself in your work it sounds like. Which is great that you can carve out the space for that.
DK: Yeah, and it’s definitely a privilege. But I think it’s also changed like a lot of things that… I do notice my mom and I are not talking about this breakup I had which I am over with but I know she wants to talk about it or something, you know, so it’s interesting and I was thinking about that. Like there…and I can only think of all these funny things that we don’t talk about at the moment, you know. Like, who made better banana bread or something. But it’s definitely been interesting to think about how, I mean, even just being with our bodies in different ways is so…I mean I think that I was, I mean, speaking of New York, it’s kind of this place where you interact with so many bodies or your body becomes so porous in a certain sense like, I was thinking of the feeling of being on the subway and you don’t really have a choice and you need a certain abandon moving in New York. And it’s difficult now to be in a space where I think that a lot of my, in my writing too, it’s like the sensory part that has been limited to a certain extent where, you know, there is not enough touch or not the full spectrum of it, or there’s not enough sight and sound or the full spectrum of it. So I have to rely on my memory of my senses and I wondered how you are dealing with this sensory limitation.
MF: That’s a great question, yeah. Um, well part of the journalling that I talked about really relies on focusing on sensory details so that helps a lot. But I think by going outside for walks, I still feel like, yes, the world has changed, but I still see it around me. It’s still the world. It’s a different world but it’s still the world. So there are still so many things happening around you, unfolding around you. But I often, when I am writing, I am writing about past experiences anyway typically. So I usually have to rely on the memories of those senses. And sometimes something like a smell can bring that back or listening to a song from that time can bring it back, or looking at a photo or reading emails from…you know. There are certain things that can jolt a memory but yeah, I think right now people do feel kind of confined and trapped and you’re experiencing kind of the same sensory things over and over if you are stuck in a house or apartment, in my case, a tiny one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, you know. I think, yeah, I just think that like the world is still going and we have to remind ourselves of the importance of writing too. I think that I heard a lot of writers saying in the beginning, and I kind of felt this way too, when we were kind of hitting the peak, people, a lot of writers were kind of like, what…why? What does it matter what we do compared to someone who can save someone’s life, you know. A medical professional or somebody who working in a grocery store and letting people, enabling people to still eat right now. It was kind of hard to grapple with the role of the writer in what all of this means. But for me, it’s become abundantly clear what matters over even the past several weeks, which is that stories have always been what have saved me and how I have made sense of the world. And people are turning to stories and art right now to understand what’s happening and they will really need to keep doing that in the years to come after this, trying to understand this moment. So another thing I have been doing to help my writing is listening to a lot of like, creative, ‘self-helpy’ podcasts while I am on these walks. So Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Sugar Calling,’ which is a new podcast where she calls writers who are over sixty and talks to them about the moment we’re in and their creative process. I absolutely love that podcast. She just interviewed Billy Collins, the poet, recently. And she had a great one with Amy Tan. So, and then another favorite podcast of mine is Krista Tippett’s ‘On Being.’ Do you listen to that podcast at all? Have you ever listened to that?
DK: No, I haven’t but I’ve listened to Cheryl Strayed’s.
MF: I love Cheryl. Well, Krista Tippett does, so it’s a spirituality podcast but I don’t consider myself a religious person at all and she, I’m just more interested in, like, the fact that she interviews a bunch of poets and writers on this show as well. And recently they had a book club about Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, because I think that some Buddhist principles are really going to help me through this moment right now. So that’s, yeah, so those podcasts. Dani Shapiro also has a podcast called, I think it’s called ‘The Way We Live Now,’ that she just started where she’s interviewing different people about how their lives have changed since the pandemic began and there’s a great one with the writer Esmé Weijun Wang on mental health and writing through this time period. Yeah, so all of those things have kind of helped me stay grounded and stay inspired and are good reminders of what matters the most.
DK: Yeah, and I think that’s really helpful. And thank you for those podcast recommendations. I have been, like, looking forward to listening to more, especially now that I am not. I think all the places where I listened to music or podcasts are also just like boiled down, like it was the subway or it was at other public places or just walking around and now at least in India, our, like, walking or running is still restricted at this point so it’s kind of, like, you know, it’s like, okay, I have to do this while I am cleaning, I guess, or sorting something. But I think just to end, I was wondering if you would have any book or film or, I mean, you gave us many podcast recommendations so that’s nice, but do you have any music recommendations?
MF: Yeah. I just read When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, which is a fascinating book about…Terry’s mother leaves her journals to her and tells her not to look at them until after she’s gone and so after her mother dies, she looks at all of these journals and every single journal is blank. And so this book is really a meditation on why did my mother leave me all of her blank journals? And what does that mean? And what does a woman’s voice mean? And what does silence mean? And so, it’s this beautiful meditation on her relationship with her mom but also on trying to give her mother a story and to understand why her mother made the choice she did. So I loved it and it’s written in very short chapters so it’s kind of a good book for our moment. Like, it’s easy to read a couple at a time and then put it down if you need to, if you feel distracted. For movies, I just want to make sure I get the name right. Hold on. I think it’s called ‘Cleo from 5 to 7.’ Have you seen this before?
DK: I haven’t, no.
MF: I’m just googling. I just want to make sure I have the name right.
DK: The 1962 film?
MF: Yeah, so ‘Cleo from 5 to 7′ is an Agnès Varda film and it’s a woman who is walking around Paris while she’s waiting to get the results of a biopsy back. And so there are, first of all, I love it ’cause it’s a female director and Paris and it’s 1960s and it really has this sort of sense of being a flaneur walking, you know, going around the city and seeing so much of a city from that era. And for…it’s kind of a good thing to watch in isolation because if you’re really confined, it’ll make you feel like you’re walking around Paris with her. So I’d recommend that, haha. I also watched ‘Rear Window’ for the first time which I had never seen– the Alfred Hitchcock movie. And with James Stewart being stuck in an apartment in New York and witnessing a potential murder and so that was really a great movie to watch. And then I watched ‘Outbreak’ which probably wasn’t a smart thing to do because watching a pandemic movie maybe during a pandemic is probably not the best choice. But I am the kind of person who likes watching stuff about what I am going through so that movie was just entertaining in a cheesy 90s way. Those are some…
DK: These are some good recommendations. I was actually reading, or revisiting too, like, [Elena] Ferrante and started this book club. And it’s interesting because I am writing my entire thesis on cities and how women dissolve into cities and everything, so I think that it’s certainly interesting to imagine and watch it even in films and the TV series that are based on her works. Because it’s just such– and it’s Italy and it’s the south of Italy, it’s places I love and it’s interesting to feel…it’s interesting to feel both close and distant to those cities and to that language.
DK: Because I just don’t hear Italian now which is strange because I am used to hearing it sometimes or going to places where I can hear it. So yeah it’s been interesting. I can totally see…I am really interested in ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ for that reason.
MF: Yeah, I think you’d like it. And have you read the Ferrante…I mean, have you watched those TV series based on the Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet?
DK: Yeah, I watched Season 1 and Season 2, I watched a couple of episodes. And so, like, I am gonna go back to it once I get to.
MF: It’s really good. So that was something that I have been watching in quarantine. And so that’s been making me incredibly nostalgic for Italy and it was so hard to leave Italy and not be able to, like it felt, I mean we really did leave at, like, four in the morning without saying goodbye to any of our friends that we had made there and just kind of fleeing the country to get home. And it was just this chaotic, crazy, long trip back where it was very disconcerting because, you know, wearing masks on the plane and kind of travelling at the peak worrying about catching the virus but yeah, so…so I have been watching that show a lot because I am obsessed with Ferrante and with all of Ferrante’s books but especially with the Neapolitan books and I think that the people who have directed the…I am not sure who the director is of the TV show, but whoever did it has really nailed the feelings of those books in so many ways. And he’s really captured– is it a man or a woman who is the director?
DK: It’s a man. And it’s interesting because it’s all in dialect. And yeah, I think, I was actually– I think that only men have so far adapted all of her works for film and TV, and Maggie Gyllenhaal will be the first woman to direct.
MF: Oh! Is she doing something?
DK: She is doing something on The Lost Daughter. And Olivia Colman’s going to be in it. So I am so excited. I…
MF: Oh my gosh!
DK: Yeah, and I, yeah. I think that’s one thing to look forward to.
MF: Oh, you’ve made my day! I had no idea, and I love Maggie Gyllenhaal and I had no idea she was doing this stuff. Wow! That’s very exciting.
DK: Yeah, I hope your day goes well and thank you for this interview.
MF: Of course! And good luck with everything. I hope you are able to get out of your house sometime soon to go for a walk. Is there any end in sight with that? Did they say that you guys will be able to leave anytime soon?
DK: I think they should be lifting restrictions soon and I think there are areas where, you know, one can certainly do that but at limited times obviously. So yeah I think that there is some end in sight to all of this.
MF: Thank goodness.
DK: And yeah, I am just glad that, you know, writers are writing.
MF: Me too.
DK: And they are not this existential crisis , thinking of ‘what are we here to do?’
DK: Because writing is keeping us all afloat at this point.
MF: Exactly. Absolutely. Well, good luck with your writing.
DK: Thank you.
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of a critically acclaimed anthology based on her Longreads essay, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, published by Simon & Schuster. Currently, she is an M.F.A. student at NYU, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Longreads, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Refinery29, Slice, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Salon, Interview Magazine, Buzzfeed, The Barnes & Noble Review, Poets & Writers, CNN.com, Time Out New York, People, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Men’s Journal, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Star Tribune, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at NYU, The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Catapult, and Stanford Continuing Studies and is the founder of the Red Ink series. In 2016, Brooklyn Magazine named her one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture.” She’s a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle.