A Conversation with Sergio Troncoso

I wrote my first short story only a few months ago. It concerns the truth of someone I know. It was told to my mother in confidence, but she decided to spill it to me anyway as most innocent mothers do. I wasn’t shocked by the truth when I first heard it, but it has stayed with me and assumed its own shape and form in my mind over the past few years. It is strange to say this, but I can almost feel it constantly shifting and being punctured in my mind and body in ways that have perhaps made that truth mine now. When I decided it was time to write it down and give it some form, I realized I couldn’t do it through poetry. It had to be done through prose; I had to write a short story. It needed a different body. But I felt odd being nearly paralyzed by the idea of writing something down as a poem. I had never written a short story. Where should I begin? How? How do I get my mind to think in sentences without line breaks? How much should I meditate on language and isolate words? How do I write with a poet’s mind? I never thought there was something I couldn’t say through poetry, but this instance felt different as though the real challenge was not the story itself, but the way to tell it. And so I finished writing the short story and wrote one after the next, and soon enough, I realized I had embarked on a novel. I haven’t written any poetry since and decided sometime in April that I wanted to attend a fiction workshop in the summer.

I came across the Yale Writers’ Workshop and spent a week with other writers on the beautiful Yale campus trying to find ways to write and revise our stories. There, I was struck by something that Sergio Troncoso, one of the faculty members, said at the faculty reading. He pointed out that it’s the challenges related to craft that he wants to explore in his writing now, as opposed to challenging themes or subjects alone. I thought he had spoken to what I’d recently experienced: the truth of the story didn’t challenge me as much as the idea of writing in a short story form did. So I decided to get in touch with Sergio and talk to him more about this idea.

We decided to meet one afternoon at a French-style cafe on the Upper West Side. I like going to a different neighborhood than mine, or meeting people in theirs. Each neighborhood carries a different personhood and conversations in different areas, too, perhaps are imbued with the identity of that place. I composed myself before meeting Sergio. I always feel like I am entering a different world, a different dimension when I exit the subway and it takes a while for me to reorient myself. Sergio was waiting for a couple of minutes. We decided to sit inside because we thought it would be too noisy outside. We ordered coffee and our conversation, of course, began with talking about New York. If I could have it my way, every conversation of mine would begin with the city.

Sergio thought I look acclimated to New York. “For better or for worse,” he added. And he went on to tell me how he misses Texas, where he was born and raised in the city of El Paso. He misses connecting with people the most. “They can be rude and rough in New York,” he said. But he went on to add that the diversity of the city is unmatched, that one can meet fascinating people from various backgrounds doing all kinds of creative, interesting stuff. And then we got down to it. Sergio asked me to shoot my questions and I told him, then, that I was interested in talking to him about the idea of being challenged by some aspect of craft. He immediately said that he knew how to tell a good story, but that he wants to feel constantly challenged as a writer. He wants to do something difficult or something he wants to learn more about. I liked that approach. Sergio was stepping into the territory I like asking writers the most about: What do you not know about writing yet? What continues to scare or challenge you about writing?

And Sergio’s new novel, Nobody’s Pilgrims, is what he had in mind as his “adventure novel.” It’s his attempt at something new, something he hasn’t done before. He wanted to write something suspenseful, but also something about immigration, poverty and the working class. His other books, such as A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son (Lee and Low, 2019) and From This Wicked Patch of Dust (University of Arizona Press, 2011) deal with similar themes, albeit in different ways. Nobody’s Pilgrims, however, is interestingly described as “a cross between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and No Country for Old Men.” Sergio wanted to write about people who don’t belong, and his novel follows three runaway teenagers— Turi, Molly and Arnulfo— racing across the country in a stolen truck. “One of the things writers are supposed to do,” he said, “is entertain readers.” He laughed and added, as if suddenly conscious of what he had said, “I know it sounds ‘sucky,’ but it is true.”

But one of Troncoso’s main challenges related to craft in Nobody’s Pilgrims was to write short, fast-paced chapters and a novel in which all the protagonists are teenagers. The book, unlike his other works, was not what he calls “pre-arranged.” His other novels were laid out and he mostly stuck to the maps he had drawn. He said, “I wouldn’t call it an outline. It was more like a map of a lot of paragraphs… and I sort of followed it with a few adjustments.” But with Nobody’s Pilgrims, he only knew where to start and where to go, but he wanted to allow a chance of discovery.

I went on to ask him at that point, whether he ever conceptualized his book a YA novel even though it is adult fiction. His publisher, Lee and Low, after all, mostly publishes children’s books although they have started to make forays into the adult fiction and nonfiction markets. Troncoso stated that the presence of three teenage protagonists doesn’t necessarily make it a young adult fiction. I agreed with Sergio and he asked for my opinion as a reader. I told him how I was reminded of reading Salman Rushdie’s books, Luka and the Fire of Life and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I read those titles only a few years ago as an undergraduate, and my experience of reading them was not from the perspective of children’s literature or YA fiction. The same, I believe, is the case for Elena Ferrante’s books, I told Sergio. Her latest fiction, The Lying Life of Adults, is told from the perspective of a teenager and although the narrator of her Neapolitan novel, Lenù narrates her childhood and adolescence in retrospect maintaining a touch of her childhood and adolescent voice, they are not books for children or teenagers alone.

But what also interested me about Sergio’s new novel was his attempt to explore the psychology of teenage characters in the present and insert his own self into them. In his new novel, he goes through just a few weeks in their life as opposed to a long stretch of time. One of his characters, Arnulfo, is like a version of himself, he said. And Molly is the kind of character Sergio knew while he was teaching in Independence, Missouri. Most Mollys, he said, were from white, working-class families who are “poor, blonde and blue-eyed,” but who perhaps saw Sergio as an elite, Ivy-league educated man— he graduated from Harvard before receiving two degrees in international relations and philosophy from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar. And Turi, on the other hand, is as an orphan who doesn’t have a family to fall back on and is trying to escape the border from a bad family. “The more you educate yourself and spend time away from your family or origin, the more you can’t explain to them where you are and what you’re doing. And I have felt that acutely.” The reason Sergio started to write was because he felt he couldn’t talk to anybody, not about the works of Plato and Aristotle, or about what he had managed to do with his life.

But Sergio maintains that growing up in poverty never really leaves one and there’s always an imposter’s voice inside him that speaks at times. “I’ve always felt a sense of fear. Maybe I haven’t done enough, maybe I don’t understand enough. Maybe Yale and Harvard made a mistake.” And it is these apprehensions that he tries to write into his characters. Sergio started learning the craft on the fly. He learnt it on his own, he says, and he admits that it’s a lonelier path to take, but the payoff, he thinks, is that it has made his voice all the more unique.

But Sergio is always working on something new. He was working on research for another historical novel set in Juárez about a young, seventeen-year old woman who led a protest during the Mexican revolution, but has largely disappeared from history. Based on his research, he has reason to believe that she was probably killed but the more he dug into her life, he realized he would have to create her end to make her life meaningful. He wrote a little bit about her in his linked short story collection, but he said the fervor is gone now, he said. “The Yale Writers’ Workshop and a few other things,” he said, “interrupted it.” He did a lot of research, but he’s just not so sure of continuing with it. Sergio often advises his students to write something that really excites them, even if they don’t know everything about it. “If you’re not excited, you should put it aside and do something else,” Sergio declared, ” and that’s the other thing about craft. You should enjoy it.” Sergio is very serious about writing but he emphasizes on having fun with it, not a purposeless kind of fun, not a fun that isn’t ambitious. But the kind of fun that makes you feel more engaged with the task at hand. Craft is time-consuming and any lack of energy, Sergio believes, is reason enough to drop it and switch to something else.

He said to me, “You are your best experience. You dig deep into yourselves, you see many different selves and many different versions of people in you. I always see myself as an experiment, a vehicle.” And Sergio is always experimenting with versions of himself. But as he were talking, I was interested in his idea of discovery— it is something I think of as a translator. You’re not just translating words from one language to another, you’re also aiming to translate their discovery and suprises and how you replicate your discoveries as a reader, that delicious suspenseful feeling before the discovery, is crucial to your task.

But Sergio cared about it being a conversation, and asked me a few questions about my own writing project and obsession with Ferrante. I told him how the novel I am working on is an auto-fiction and before I could pick his brain about inserting oneself into one’s story, Sergio immediately acknowledged that creating a fiction of yourself and putting yourself in a story is also about “putting yourself through a lot.” When he was writing Nobody’s Pilgrims, it was a departure from From This Wicked Patch of Dust, which was about a loving, poor family who could get to the United States primarily because of the love that existed among them in the midst of their poverty. But Nobody’s Pilgrims is different and focuses more on the idea of violence haunting innocence. It was born out of focusing on the reversal of some ideals, out of Troncoso’s own inability to speak to everyone. I was certain many writers can connect to that— so many of us write when we fail to speak. It sounds ironic, but it’s true.

“I feel like a turtle. My home is on my back, it’s wherever I am,” he said. Sergio is accustomed now to working by himself, to the loneliness of a writer’s life that only occasionally crosses paths with others. But he is a firm believer in the freedom that loneliness affords, the one to follow one’s mind and delve deeper into oneself that emerges within its sad but liberating confines. One of Troncoso’s early stories, he recounted, was about a twenty-year old man, Victor, who goes out with a Mexican woman he met in El Paso who is a decade older to him. That relationship made his character wonder about whether he’s Mexican or American. The very first scenes describe them in a moment of passion and Troncoso’s father, upon reading the story, said, “Sergio, what are you doing? Are you writing pornography?” We laughed and Sergio talked briefly about not censoring oneself, or not writing because of the fear of people around us. There’s often a pull to write the “right characters,” he said, but Sergio tries to resist linear or perfectly moral characters, not the “right” kind of immigrants or women for instance.

“A deep freedom of consciousness,” Sergio says, “is what writing is about.” “Damn even yourself,” he says and advises writers not to fall for their own proclivities, judgements and tendencies. He wants to ask the toughest questions of himself, as much as he asks them of others around them and that’s why he loves writing. He said, “Let me be blunt. I don’t even think I know myself.” It’s a huge admission to come from a writer, and it is difficult to do what Sergio wants writers to do: to turn the lens onto our own selves as we do towards others. In many ways, my first short story felt like a test of my ethics, I told him. I wrote that story because I was uncomfortable harboring the truth. It wasn’t a lens turned towards that person’s secret, but a lens turned towards my own self. Should I tell the story that belongs to someone else and how? How do I capture the ways in which their truth is as difficult for me to harbor as it is for them? How do I write a secret and still keep it?

But I asked Sergio about teaching writing which is, in my eyes, a difficult terrain that forces one to test one’s ethics and morality. And, of course, since I know him through the Yale Writers’ Workshop Sergio laughed and asked me to talk to his students. He calls himself a “tough” teacher. He pushes them a lot, he gives them exercises each day. He has his students doing exercises three weeks before the start of the workshop. “I believe if you work hard, you should enjoy yourself.” He wants to help his students realize their vision instead of forcing his own on them. His workshop, he says, operates like a group effort in service of writing before anything else.

And I wondered if he had other advice for writers. “You should be reading three books a week as a writer,” he said. “That’s normal pace for a writer, and frankly, you should be reading a lot more than that.” I think of the beautiful Urdu word, riyaaz. For writers, one of the most important forms of riyaaz is reading, and to make it less solitary, one should perhaps espouse Sergio’s definition of teaching: an effort to create a community. He tries to run the kind of workshop he wish he could have been part of. At Yale, he mentions how he meets students over breakfast and dinner and talks shop. His workshop outside the workshop too, and while it exists for the sake of creating beautiful work and working on each individual’s weak spots, he is also equally motivated to helping his students get a contract, get published in the best literary journals and prepare a serious piece of work to be shared with the world, .

When I asked him if there’s anything else he’s working on, or what’s going on in general in his reading and writing life, he revealed to me that he works a lot with his dreams and frequently dreams about his characters. At the moment, he’s thinking of a short story based on this one character who appeared in his dream, but he also wants to work on some essays. An editor, he told me, has requested a sequel to Nobody’s Pilgrims and around the time we met, he was reading Gogol’s Dead Souls and Chekhov’s short stories as a way of “replenishing” himself while “getting lost.” He loves writing by some Russian and German writers, and feels very connected to them and the time they lived in. He thinks of American literature as something “flimsy.” He thinks of George Saunders, for instance, as a great writer, but very few American writers, he believes, can stand the test of time. He mentioned Elena Ferrante as a truly great writer (which obviously brought a smile to my face) and he struck a nerve when he mentioned how he had to leave everything he learnt about academic writing behind as a creative writer. The mechanics of the two are rather different and it requires one to switch one’s brain, he mentioned.

Finally, towards the end of our conversation, he said “writers don’t talk about money, but they should.” Despite growing up poor, Troncoso told me he is adept at managing money. And writers, according to him, should learn how to manage money in ways that helps them build a life in which they can write and explore freely. “Writing a story needs a great deal of meandering until one gets it right,” he said, and money is an entity through which one can afford that luxury so the writing doesn’t suffer. In the last recorded sentence of our conversation, Troncoso said, “You don’t have to be lonely.” It is a reassuring thing to hear from another writer, particularly when, as Michele Filgate writers, writers are the loneliest artists of all. As we got up to leave, I told Sergio I could walk down a few blocks with him to the 79th Street subway station. People, I saw suddenly with Sergio’s words still on my mind, were everywhere. There were people coming out or walking into the subway, going into the stores that lined the streets. Nobody was truly alone, nobody had to be.

SERGIO TRONCOSO is the author of eight books: Nobody’s Pilgrims, A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s SonThe Last Tortilla and Other StoriesCrossing Borders: Personal EssaysThe Nature of Truth and From This Wicked Patch of Dust; and as editor, Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families in between Worlds and Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence.

Troncoso teaches fiction and nonfiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut. A past president of the Texas Institute of Letters, he has also served as a judge for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the New Letters Literary Awards in the Essay category. His recent work has appeared in the Texas HighwaysHouston ChronicleCNN OpinionNew LettersYale ReviewMichigan Quarterly Review, and Texas Monthly Magazine.

Website: https://www.sergiotroncoso.com/

In Conversation with Auður Jónsdóttir

by Devanshi Khetarpal

There was nothing unusual about the day we met. But I’d left my apartment early to reach Auður’s hotel on time. We were meeting in the lobby and I was hoping for it to be quiet. I stopped at a cafe to grab a cup of coffee on my way and to flip through the pages of her book, Quake. I wanted to be reacquainted with my first contact with the book. It attracted me as soon as I stepped into my favorite bookstore, Three Lives and Co., a few weeks ago. A story about a woman losing her memory sounded interesting. And Auður was an Icelandic writer I knew of, but hadn’t read before. I bought the book without giving it too much thought. But little did I know that the book would be more than that. Like any great book, it starts to show you its true self outside its confines, margins, structures and plots. I felt, as I turned the pages more and more feverishly, that the ground beneath me was shaking. I was thinking about Saga, her name and her being. Who is she or isn’t she? Reading Quake is like gaining pleasure, in slow currents,  from feeling estranged in a way. In Meg Matich’s translation, many words were left in the original Icelandic, and I felt as though I was sleeping with a stranger. I felt that kind of pleasure: page after page filled with thrill and risk, pain and doubt, worry and secrecy. I felt good and bad, exposed and enconscened within the safety and structure of the narrative. 

 And I was all the more fascinated after I attended the book launch at McNally Jackson Seaport a week ago. It was a small audience who knew what they were there for. Everyone listened carefully, attentively, and thoughtfully. Like Meg Matich said during the event, it felt like we were in a living room. And I was in my own head, remembering my time at Siglufjordur when I was eighteen, how Icelandic literature changed me and made me think about translation and literature in translation in ways I never imagined. I asked Auður to sign my copy of Quake, and wondered if I could meet her for an interview. I was excited when she agreed. It’s been a few years since I’ve interviewed a writer in-person, let alone one as important and unique as Auður. 

So here is the history and the setting: a hotel lobby in Manhattan, two women on a couch talking. It is 10am and we begin talking. I hope you join us.

You mentioned during the talk that you started writing when your dog died, and I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about the dog and how you started writing after that. 

Yeah, I had a dog and I, I really loved my dog. And I was a child when he died. And I just remember it was so soothing to write. It was like, you know, taking some strange medicine or something because I felt much better when I was writing.


And I just remember this as a discovery. Yeah, that it was such a strong tool to have in life, right? Just a pen, it’s just magical, just a tool. So, yeah, these feelings were not so difficult after the writing as before the writing. So this was like discovering some kind of little magic. 

Quake (Dottir Press, 2022)


And I think when you are writing, you are giving life to some kind of purpose. Or meaning. So it actually gives you some kind of control in life, because you are finding the stories in all the chaos. You know what I mean? It’s so hard to understand but when you are writing, you can understand it with your glasses and your pen. 

And it’s striking because your book, in a sense, is about this woman losing control. And that’s what sort of struck me about…like, even when you said that in Iceland, you don’t have control over the landscape. Nature has control over you, and I am not a “nature person” but when I went to Iceland, I felt, for the first time, that there is some greater force that has control…

…that has control, yes, that we are also nature. We tend to forget. So the book is also a bit about that: the nature in our feelings, in ourselves. This piece of music— when the book was published, a composer contacted me and he asked if he could write a piece of music inspired by the book. 


And he did so, and it’s called ‘Quake’ and this piece of music started to travel all around the world, and he got a really big prize for this piece. And always when they play it, they have certain sentences from the book with it. And I am talking about this because he is working so much with nature in our soul, or in our being. So that’s the reason he decided to quote this book in his work, and he’s actually making the music for the film, ‘Quake.’ The film is being released now, so he’s also making the music there. And I am also really into these things that we don’t have any control over nature, or… We are just born into this absurd reality. 

[Auður laughs lightly] 

Yeah, but there is a key sentence in the book where it says something like, “I don’t want to control others and I don’t want others to control me.” So…

…yeah, I remember that sentence. And I also think a lot about the sentence that goes something like, “We are part of our own fictions.” Because it was so fascinating to me, the point in the story,  when she goes through her social media, her Facebook to see who she is… 

…who she is.

…yeah, and it makes you realize the surreal, artificial, and kind of scary aspect of how we’re archiving and documenting or creating our lives and lies…

…and creating some kind of image of our being. Yeah, so it is strange we are always going outside to seek information about who we are. And, for example, now there is another book about the “like” culture [Auður chuckles], about seeking approval from others. But also, I read this in a German science magazine. It was an article by some -ologist and he was writing about this, and it’s just science that we are our own fiction because we remember things as it suits our personality. So, in a way, suddenly she just can’t do it the way she has done it anymore. Her body collapses in a seizure, an epilepsy seizure. And then, suddenly, all the memories that suit her personality vanish and new ones come up. Just like when you have an earthquake and the earth starts to break but you have a new landscape at the same time. 

[We pause. I look down, my gaze towards the ground. I sort my thoughts]

And I think… um, I was also wondering how you managed that balancing act in a sense, because you were writing about things losing control and this woman trying to figure herself out again. And I think, in writing, we have immense control as writers [I laugh nervously]over what we write…

…Yes, yes, we have some kind of power…

…we have some kind of power! We can manipulate words…and um, so how did the process of writing this go about?

It was a bit difficult. I’ve written several books but it was maybe more difficult and, in a way, dark to write this book. It’s also a story about violence and trauma, how you become your childhood trauma later in life. So I had to dig deep, and I remember listening to a lot of Philip Glass while I was writing it, because it was like classical meditation music but it was like… I just always write. First, I start writing from all kinds of ideas then, you know, in the end, I am writing ten hours a day or something just to finish for a deadline. But I just knew when I started that I wanted to tell a story about a person waking up from an epilepsy seizure. Like, she’s born again and in a way, starts again from this seizure. Also, because I had epilepsy seizures as a teenager, so I always remembered this strange feeling. I didn’t even remember my name when I woke up, so it was like being recently born. 

[Music plays outside]

And it’s interesting you use that word, “born,” because it’s also a book about motherhood and, you know… 

[Two men enter the hotel lobby. They are loud and exchange a brief word with the receptionist before going to the elevator]

…yeah, and the fears we have in life. Maybe we always have this fear but it becomes so strong and you have no control. You have to somehow just agree with this, that everything can happen every day and you know, that’s just life. It’s different when you have a child and you have no control sometimes. 

Hmm…I think what also fascinated me at the talk was how you mentioned that you didn’t grow up around conversations about literature and culture all the time, as people like me would assume. Because your grandfather won the Nobel Prize and I think, from what I understand given my conversations and experience in Iceland, is that he sort of revived Icelandic literature on the global stage again for so many. So do you think of yourself as an “Icelandic writer”?

Of course, I work with this strange language that only 350,000 people talk. And that’s my tool in life. But as a person, no, I don’t think so much about myself as an Icelandic writer because I’ve lived in four countries. I lived in Spain– Barcelona, Copenhagen in Denmark, Berlin in Germany and then in England when I was small, a kid. 


So I always, you know— I am always the same wherever I am. And I have also been an immigrant in other countries, so that changes a lot. But it’s, like I said, the Icelandic is very Icelandic. 

[I smile]

Of course, I’m working with Icelandic society, I am telling stories about people living there. Once, actually, I wrote a book that happened somewhere in Europe, in some big city and all the main characters were, you know, immigrants. It was like an allegory, so I also like to play with that. But you can’t escape it, to be an Icelandic writer…


…like you can’t escape being a woman writer, even though you just want to be a writer. 

And, um, I wondered if you work with translators. Like, did you work with Meg Matich on this translation, or did you work on the film adaptation?

It’s different when you’re making a film or a play of the book, and that has been done with some of my books. And in a way, you’re making a new piece of art. So, the person doing it— you know, if it’s some director in theater or filmmaker— has to have, you know, their own glasses and be able to create because you have another kind of narrative in a film, and another kind of narrative in the theater. But that is not what you do in translation. I work as a translator also, and then you’re giving this piece the true outcome in your own language, you know? And in that way, like a writer, because you have to be creative in your language to be capable of bringing the right feeling. But you’re not rewriting, like into a film or play. But yes, I met Meg several times and she was a creative translator and coworking with my publisher. And it’s the first time I published a book in the United States so it was a different procedure from it being published in Germany or Denmark, but my work has also been published in Arabic so I have no control over the text, or anything. 

[We laugh in spasmodic bursts]

But it’s always an interesting procedure. Like, in Germany, my translator is my friend who has translated other books but he’s also a writer, and then we can have a very interesting debate when we’re meeting over the scripts. Sometimes, in translations, you have things that are not working. People just don’t know what you’re talking about or their sense of humor is just not going to grab something. There is a difference between nations regarding many things. 

Meg Matich (Photo by Patrik Ontkovic)

Yeah, I think that’s what surprised me about Meg’s translation of your book because, for someone who doesn’t know Icelandic, she retained a lot of words from the original. You know, even words for “yes” were retained in Icelandic and it got me thinking because I am not used to seeing that on paper. You know, I am used to seeing, maybe “yes” in French, or “yes” in Spanish and Italian… 

[The phone rings. The receptionist answers. His greeting is rehearsed, lively but restrained]

…but not in Icelandic…

…yeah, not in Icelandic. 

I remember this from books, like reading something in Jamaican English and suddenly there’s a Jamaican phrase and I like that a lot. You can feel it. 

[It sounds like the receptionist has answered someone’s question. He says “All right. See you soon” and puts down the phone]

And I think it’s a pleasure to know that you’re reading a book in translation through the way in which language is preserved. 

Yes, it’s like a ticket to a new country when you read in translation. 

[Two men walk into the hotel and head confidently towards the elevator]

You know, it’s your first time being published in America, like you said. Have you heard from readers so far?

Yes, very positive and nice things. So I am really glad. And, yeah, I had some good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and so on, and European Literature Network. So I am just really happy to hear from people, and it’s always nice when you’re telling a story and you have the feeling that people living in another environment are mirroring this or they can find themselves in the story somehow. 

And is this your first time in New York, or…

I’ve been here once before, four years ago, when there was a book published of short stories by Icelandic writers. And then we were reading in the Scandinavia House and I was there. 

Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

Hmm, do you like this city?

I love it!

What do you like about it?

I love most just to stroll around and see people from all over the world. That’s like— I love to live in other countries and meet people from the whole planet [more guests pass by, talking. It seems like a busy day]and see all kinds of people. So this is like heaven. 

[We laugh. This is the best review New York has received]

And I also wondered if there’s something maybe in the Icelandic language or with writing that, you know, you’re still trying to explore, or you don’t know enough about or that you’re trying to answer, or that escapes you in some way. 

You can really use a language to explore. And we’re living in a world where all our ideas and ideologies and techniques are constantly changing our vocabulary and at the same time, our way of thinking. And words are the tools that change our thinking. So when I am constantly working with the language, I have to create new words in Icelandic from foreign words, or find new words, or find something that grabs [more conversation in the background. I can’t make out what they’re saying though I could, if I tried]this part of the new reality at the moment. So when I teach creative writing, I often say that we can use the pen as a tool to understand, to write to understand and to, you know, create this complicated reality in our way. 

[We pause for a few seconds. Someone shouts “thank you”] 

And we lack a lot of words in Icelandic. Like, English is spoken by so many people and maybe you use one word here, but in Icelandic, you have to use four words to describe. Like, when Saga wakes up from an epilepsy attack, she doesn’t remember how to phrase some things. 

[Another group of people leave the hotel, yelling “thank you.” “See you soon,” the receptionist replies]

And I remember this since I had epilepsy attacks, you know, seizures. So she always has to find within this lack of words, in this condition. So it’s also a bit like sometimes how an Icelandic writer has to work, because you want to use this word, but you don’t have a name for it in Icelandic, so you have to create a new word or say that thing in translation. 

Has your experience in translation helped you with that?

Yes, especially with languages related to Icelandic– Danish and German. And I sometimes find words and then try to rewrite them the Icelandic way. 

I wanted to ask if there are any writers that influence you or that are writing currently, or that you grew up reading?

In Iceland or abroad, or both?

Both, yeah. 

There are many writers. I was really fond of writers from South America, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende, and so on. I was always into, you know, big, fat novels, like Günter Grass. And also the Russian writers like Bulgakov and Gogol. A bit absurd, those writers. I just read everything I could find when I was a kid. Also, some writers from Japan like Haruki Murakami and Yoko Tawada. I really like her. But in terms of recent books, I was really fond of The Vegetarian. 

Oh, yes! Yeah! 

I don’t know if I mentioned it, but it’s a book that inspired me in recent years. I’ve mentioned The Vegetarian and a book by Yoko Tawada about a female polar bear writing herself, her story as a refugee in Berlin [Memoirs of a Polar Bear]. I don’t know the name in English but I read that one in Icelandic from German, but I would like to mention these. 

And Zadie Smith. I’ve always been really fond of Zadie Smith, and also the book Americanah…

Yeah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…

…yeah, by the Nigerian writer. I remember I was really inspired by that. 

…yeah, Zadie Smith teaches at NYU, where I study. 

Oh, that must be great!

Yeah, so she’s frequently in the writers’ house or around campus. 

Yeah, that’s so funny because my friend lives in Manhattan. She’s lived here for ten years. And we’ve written a book together and a short film, and so on. And we had this book club and she was here, and I was in Iceland. And we decided to read a book by Zadie Smith. So I went to a bookstore in Iceland and bought the book and then, I sent her a message and said, “I have Zadie Smith now” and she said, “yes, me as well.” And I said, “Did you already buy the book?” And she said, “No, I am in Central Park and she’s just sitting beside me.”

[We both laugh]

Is it different for you working with friends who are translators, or when you collaborate?

Yes, there’s an understanding. Mostly I’ve worked with Christa who has translated two books into German, and then my Danish publisher, he’s a brilliant and an experienced editor. And when you have this trust and you know that the person really is experienced, then it can be a really creative and good procedure. And you always learn something new working with a new person, you know. You always gain some new information and insight. 

There’s one more theme, also, in this book about the body as an attacker. How the body attacks. As like, you know, some crazy person you meet in the dark, following you in the street and trying to rape you, or something like that. Our body is capable of attacking us, so I’m playing with this a bit. 

I think that that theme really…I think when I picked up your book, I thought it was about memory. And I didn’t anticipate the body, really, to play such a huge role. And it was also, of course, a woman’s body which is always different because women’s bodies always occupy and play such complex places or roles in history and society. And I came to the book after going through a period of illness and, sort of, wondering about the body. When you mentioned at the event, that phrase about a body attacking itself, it really resonated with me. 

Ah, was it something serious?

Yeah, I am recovering from anorexia. So I think I was sort, of like— and my body’s changing and my body image– I am gaining weight, there were medical complications earlier. 

And then, there is such a strong connection between the mind and the body. So that is a bit like epilepsy. You can actually write the same story with anorexia. 

Yeah, yeah. 

And it is also like that, that our trauma or the things we experience, they are in our veins and in our body and muscles and reflexes. And sometimes we even become ill because we have some kind of trauma. So I think it’s really interesting to explore this. 

Mhm, and I was wondering, because you got published with Dottir Press, which is a feminist publishing house. Did that feel good to be published by them? I mean, I imagine it did…

…Yes, it does feel good. We have really strong feminist voices in Iceland and a really strong and colorful debate in many perspectives. And it has been so for many years. So I think that we have a very good feminist discourses, so yeah, that’s really something I am just happy with. 

…yeah, I really loved that too. Because you were writing about a woman, you were also writing about motherhood— and there has actually been a renewed conversation around motherhood because we had the movies The Lost Daughter and Parallel Mothers this past year and a lot more contemporary writing about motherhood recently. 

Yeah, and also, I’ve written a lot about motherhood, but also in a new book published in Iceland several months ago. That is a lot about the body’s shame, or how women carry this body-shame feeling. And that is about a woman and her, her relationship with her body through life and she has some personal relationships, but it’s also like Quake, like conversations with her body because there is…there is always so…everybody is so opinionated about the female body. 

Oh, yes! It’s really tiring… [we chuckle]

…it’s really tiring. But so, yeah, I am playing and exploring the female body. 

Right, I hope more of your books are translated and available for us here. I really loved this one. But I wondered if you have any advice for young, emerging writers?

That is to write and write. And also, to believe. 


I think people are often afraid or stuck because they start to write and then it’s not perfect right away. And then, they just stop. So I always tell people not to stop, but to continue and to write a lot of chaos. And then, you have to somehow find your way out of the chaos. But you can always come back so very often in the rewriting. But if you’re too perfect in the beginning and never get into the chaos and the crazy ideas, you have to be able to flow. And if you flow, and if you’re not thinking too much or writing, then we get all that juicy stuff. So it’s really necessary not to think too much. 

[I laugh nervously as if I’ve been exposed]

That’s really good advice, yes. Gosh, that’s going to be helpful for me. But thank you so much for this. 

Thank you so much. This was really nice.

Auður Jónsdóttir is one of the most accomplished authors writing in Icelandic today. Her novels have aroused interest in Iceland, as well as abroad, for their rare blend of incisive candor and humor. She won the Icelandic Literary Prize for The People in the Basement and the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize for Secretaries to the Spirits. Both of these novels were nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Auður’s latest novel, Quake (Stóri skjálfti), became her most successful publication to date and gathered a huge following among Icelandic readers of all ages, strengthening her position as an important writer of her generation.

(Photo by Saga Sigurðardóttir)

The COVID-19 Series: Interview with Michele Filgate


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.

Refrigerated trucks lined up on Randalls Island, New York.

Refrigerated trucks lined up on Randalls Island, New York. Source: The Washington Post.

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.

MF: Yeah.

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?


Kate Zambreno, author of Drifts (Credit: Heather Sten). Source: Poets & Writers

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.


The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch.

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?


The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (Picador, 2016)

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.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Harper Perennial, 2018)

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.

What My Mother And I Don't Talk About

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate (Simon & Schuster, 2019). Source: NPR

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…

MF: Yeah.

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.


An empty subway train in New York City, March 17, 2020. Source: Reuters

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?


When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams (Picador, 2013)

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.

MF: Absolutely.

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?


L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend) dir. Saverio Costanzo. Source: IMDb

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?’

MF: Right.

DK: Because writing is keeping us all afloat at this point.

MF: Exactly. Absolutely. Well, good luck with your writing.

DK: Thank you.

MF: Thanks.


Photo Credit: Sylvie Rosokoff

Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of a critically acclaimed anthology based on her Longreads essayWhat My Mother and I Don’t Talk Aboutpublished 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 LongreadsThe Washington PostThe Los Angeles TimesThe Boston GlobeRefinery29SliceThe Paris Review DailyTin HouseGulf CoastThe RumpusSalonInterview MagazineBuzzfeedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewPoets & WritersCNN.comTime Out New YorkPeopleThe Daily BeastO, The Oprah MagazineMen’s JournalVultureVol. 1 Brooklyn, The Star TribuneThe Quarterly ConversationThe Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at NYU, The Sackett Street Writers’ WorkshopCatapult, 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

The COVID-19 Series: The Apocalypse & Apocalyptic Literature


ANGELA FABUNAN: Hello, we are the Inklette editors and we just want to talk about dystopian literature related to the COVID pandemic that is happening around the world. So, I am Angela Fabunan, I’m the poetry editor, one of the poetry editors for Inklette and we’d like to just talk a little bit about it today. So, I live in Manila, we are in lockdown at this moment. We’ve been in a lockdown for about three weeks, two to three weeks now. So no one’s allowed out, no one’s allowed to go anywhere, except for to stay at home. Yeah, so let’s go to Sav.

SAVANNAH SUMMERLIN: Hi! I am Savannah Summerlin. I am a blog editor for Inklette. I hold up in Lake St. Louis, Missouri. I don’t think the Missouri governor has put a stay-in-place for the whole state*, but I think there’s one for like, Kansas City and St. Louis which are like the two major cities. I am just staying at home because that’s the safest thing to do for me and everybody around me. Before COVID hit, I was doing the Disney College program at Walt Disney world. I was a photographer, having a great time and then Disney, obviously, they closed the park so they sent us all home. So now I’m here at home, waiting for things to calm down so I can go back to Disney or move to New York or just, you know, leave my home again basically.

AF: Okay, let’s go to Laurelann!

LAURELANN PARKER: So I’m Laurelann Parker, I’m one of the prose editors for Inklette Magazine. I live in a little, tiny town here in New Hampshire. I’m full time an academic advisor for a local university that has a global campus online as well. And we’re currently working full-time remotely, kind of three weeks already and looking at another four at least so far. And yeah, otherwise, I have a small business that I run online as an e-commerce business so that’s kind of been impacted a little bit, that’s why I have slowed down on shipping things and stuff like that. But we’re only having essential businesses open. We don’t have anything necessarily locked down per se, but it’s encouraged to stay home as much as possible and only go out when needed.

AF: How about you, Joanna?

JOANNA ACEVEDO: Hi! I’m Joanna Acevedo. I’m a prose editor at Inklette and I just started this week, so I am really excited to be here. Before the pandemic started, I was a graduate student and an adjunct professor at New York University. Now, I’m teaching my class online and I’m also taking my current classes online as well. I’m in Brooklyn, I’m in New York City, so it’s the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. So everything is pretty locked down, but my area in Bushwick is weirdly normal. There’s still people on the streets, people are wearing masks, people are walking around, not in groups but you do see people out on the streets smoking cigarettes and people are still playing music on the streets. So it doesn’t feel that weird but everyone’s wearing masks so there’s like a little dystopian air to the whole thing. The traffic has slowed down. So it’s a little bit strange to walk around. I’ve been taking long solitary walks just to see what’s going on.


AF: Yeah, so I brought up the topic of dystopian lit, and post-apocalyptic literature and apocalyptic literature because, for me, in Manila, it seems so weird to go out in the streets and there’s no one there, like absolutely zero. And then everyone is in masks like you were saying, so I just thought it reminds me a little bit of like some stuff I read before, like especially when I read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Like, different things in that novel are just… like, everyone is online now, right? So everyone is in this cloud and then I feel like there’s a lot of paranoia in my country and I think in a lot of countries too, like, maybe you can relate, of how people are fearful of what’s gonna happen, people are dying, people are not really as well. So what can we pick up from the arts, what can we pick up from literature about this? Is there anything that we can look to?

SS: Well, for me, I thought a little bit about how with us dealing with this pandemic in all the YA dystopian fiction that I read when I was younger, because in those YA fictions, we start out with our protagonist who is going against the government. Everyone else is going with the grain and listening to what the government is saying but that protagonist is going against the government, what they wanna do is actually going to push the society forward and break them out of this horrible little world they’ve been living in. Whereas with us, the people who aren’t listening to what is being said, like we’re being told to stay inside and shelter in place. And it’s those people who are still continuing to go out and enjoy themselves who are actually making the situation worse. So I was kind of thinking about how we have those two parallels going next to each other.

AF: I think it’s also quite interesting how in these dystopian universes, there’s always, like what you said, everyone is always following a sort of leader or a kind of a government. And then their world is turned upside down by one revolutionary minded person, right? Or one upstart, you know? So I just thought that it’s interesting because like The Giver, for example,  or in Fahrenheit 451, you have these heroes who do go against whatever is imposed by the government. Usually these are tyrannical governments, or usually these are in that universe of the post-apocalyptic. Anyway, world-building: kind of funny that these people are world-building, that these authors are world-building and yet, the world that we see now is so weird, right? Like, so different. I mean, how is that for you guys? The the world is so different now. Like Joanna was saying, it seems weird to see people in masks, right? What else is different, I guess, in your part of the world?

JA: I’ve been seeing the litter has changed. This is so bizarre. Instead of seeing empty bottles or cigarette butts, I see people leaving abandoned gloves and masks on the ground. And that’s, first of all, gross, but, second of all, even something as banal as litter has changed. It’s just such a small detail that I wouldn’t have thought of when I think of the things that are changing.

SS: Joanna, do you take pictures at all?

JA: I do, yeah!

SS: Because that would be a super-interesting photography series of seeing all these discarded masks and gloves all over New York city.

JA: Yeah, I have been trying to take pictures of nice things. Um, but I do take pictures, so… I’ve been trying to take pictures of flowers, trees blooming. But I can take pictures of that as well.

SS: You don’t have to. That just immediately what came to my mind. Don’t do that! Take pictures of beautiful things. Find beauty.


AF: It’s quite funny how, for example, in The Handmaid’s Tale and in [the works by] Jonathan Lethem, like everyone is in their minds, right? And now that we’re stuck inside our homes and we’re sheltering in place, we can’t really get out of our minds. How do you guys feel about that?

LP: I find myself being online a lot more, almost to kind of distract myself from things because I don’t want to spend a lot of mental energy on what’s going on, especially because there’s nothing that I can do other than staying at home and going about my life and doing what I need to do. And I think, in turn,  I’ve been trying to kind of trying to balance that out because I don’t want to spend all my time on electronic devices because I already work full-time on a computer. I find myself trying to pursue new ways to spend time outside and coming from a pagan background as well, I think that’s a little bit easier but also kind of refreshing to be able to take the time to shift focus that way. And I think a lot of people are taking a shift toward nature and slowing down and trying to notice new things or do things differently maybe. So I guess that’s the only thing that’s changed for me, really, here. But I don’t know, I think I’m more mentally taxed at the end of the day than I would normally be, in a weird way.

AF: I mean, everyone’s worried and afraid about what’s going to happen. I think what’s important to realise is that some of these scenarios are really coming alive, especially the internet like what you were saying. Because I was thinking of 1984, and right now how everyone is worried about spies, or about someone spying on their information and we live in that world now where, for example, you have malware, and you have all these spy tools that you never really know who’s watching you. That’s very much a mark of dystopian literature, right? That we don’t actually know who’s snooping. And now everyone is online, so it’s really difficult to get offline. But at the same time, when you’re online, you don’t know what’s happening, or you don’t know who has access to things. That’s just interesting, how it feeds on people’s perspectives or views.


JA: Yeah, I got a notification that my screen time has gone up like two hours on my phone since this happened, which is like a lot.

LP: Yeah, I think I’ve seen something similar.

AF: Like, everyday? Like, two hours more than usual everyday? That’s already like ten hours more of screen time per week.

JA: I spend now almost five hours on my phone everyday. Of the, what, 14 waking hours? So almost half.

AF: I mean, work from home is hard. It’s like an eight hour day that you used to spend in the office, now you’re spending the eight hours online, right? So, it’s difficult.

JA: Yeah.

LP: It’s also become a way to connect with other people. Like, slipping on your phone to chat or have video chats like this. I think for a couple of hours last night, I was online with some friends just hanging out and chatting. Like, it was weirdly the most introverted kind of video chat I have had since this has started. Because we were all just hanging out online, not really talking much and playing some sort of game in front of us which was kind of sad, but also just really nice to have that pseudo sort of hangout because it’s what we’d do in person together.

SS: Oh yeah, like with your close friends you’d be like, “Hey, come over,” and then you’d all just be sitting on your phone for hours. And you’d look up, and you’d go, “Oh, I guess you should probably go home.” There was no quality time because like when you get really close to people, you barely have to talk. If you’re close to someone, you’re probably talking anyways. When they come over, it’s not like you have much new to say. So it’s like, do what you’re going to do at home but with me so I have company.

JA: One of my best friends and I, what we do is we get together and drink wine and we sit in the same room and we go on dating apps.

AF: We do the same, but now on Zoom! Like, me and my friends are zooming and holding like liquor or beer in our hands and it’s weird and it’s bizarre but no one is allowed to go outside. It’s stricter in the Philippines than it is, from what I know, in the US. But it’s just kind of bizarre to look at our Zoom pictures and see that we’re all holding liquor. And then, you know, stuff like that. It’s just weird. I think it’s funny in this bizarre way.

LP: Like, last night, me and my friend were the first two that got on together last night. He showed me his drink, like “hey I got wine here,” and we just did one of these [cheers] at the screen.

AF: You cheered? Haha, alright. Okay, so what other takeaways can we take from our photography, literature? What other things, do you think, or scenarios remind us of this?

JA: I’ve been thinking a lot about the YA book, Life as We Knew It. Does anyone remember this book?

LP: I don’t know if I read that one but it sounds familiar.

SS: I think I’ve read it.

JA: Where the asteroid hits the moon.

SS: YES! Oh, sorry.


JA: Okay, so it’s this book where an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it closer into  orbit with the earth and so it totally screws up the tides, and there are all these tsunamis and then there are all these droughts. It’s about this suburban family. First, things are kind of okay and they have a bunch of canned food and the family is alright and they’re doing fine and school ends. And it’s summer and the two kids are fine. And then, things start to get weird. There’s a drought, and then there’s flooding, and then there’s a snowstorm, and then the kids get sick and then the mom gets sick, and then the teenage daughter. It just gets worse and worse and worse. And I keep thinking of how things are okay right now but we don’t know how things are going to change in the future. We’re doing fine right now. And I’m personally, like, I’m fine. I have a job and I’m FaceTiming my friends and I’m doing fine and I’m getting work done and I’m pretty happy. But we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, we don’t know what the next day is going to bring. And that’s what is getting to me. That question of: what’s next month going to look like? What’s next year going to look like?

SS: We don’t have an end date.

JA: Yeah, and so Life As We Knew It is really getting to me.

AF: Especially because now we don’t know. Like, there are countries where they don’t know where to bury their dead too. Like, just so many people dying, so many people are sick that the schools are turning into hospitals and all these things. So, it’s changing and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. And that’s really difficult. But I think that if it is an indication, there are positive few changes. I know that because there’s less traffic, the earth is healing. Have you heard of this? That more of the ozone layer is healing because of less pollution in the air because more people are staying at home and stuff like that.

SS: Animals are starting to return to places they used to be in as well. I saw dolphins come back to the canals of Venice but then I saw that was fake. But I like to think that it’s true because I like dolphins and I love to imagine a situation where I can be in Venice and see dolphins in canals but I know that by the time I can get to Venice once this is over, they’re gone. Because life has returned to normal. But just all over, they are coming down from where they were because we’re not there so like what’s going on and they are kind of reclaiming all these spaces we took from them long ago. So it’s nice that they have it even for this little while and that something kind of good is coming. Not good but, you know, there’s a positive in all of this negative that can be found.

AF: Right, right. I mean, it feels like there has to be something good that comes out of this. It just can’t be all this bad. Is there anything that we can do as readers? What is the role of literature at this time? Or the arts and humanities? What is its role? How will it help other people?

JA: I thought about this a lot as a writing teacher. Because when this first started happening, I was like, oh my god, I am not a doctor or nurse. I’m totally useless. My skills involve teaching narrative structure to teenagers. Like, I can’t help anyone with anything. I sit around and think about sentence structure all day. Like, what have I been doing with my entire life? And then I had, you know, like a crisis of faith. And then I sat down and I thought, you know, this is what I can do. This is what I’ve got and I might as well just keep doing it. And I sat down with my students and we made a list of ways to write during the end of the world. And there were things like: get out of your environment, move to another room in your apartment, or think about a memory that makes you happy, or do a character study instead of trying to write a piece, or write in a genre that you don’t normally write in. So just things that could get you out of your rut.

LP: I think, similarly, free-writing could probably be really helpful. Just to kind of letting things flow, or sometimes even journalling, I think, can be really helpful when we’re stressed out. Things to kind of loosen things up a little bit. And allow you to more easily write otherwise, because if you have decluttered [your mind], it might allow you to come to the page easier.

JA: So I think that when you have no other skills like I do, that art is kind of the only thing you can do, you have a responsibility to keep doing it.

LP: I think art is also increasingly important when it comes as a form of a de-stressor for a lot of people, whether it’s writing or being able to  read and have that kind of escapism from what’s going on, or, in general, creating can be therapeutic for a lot of people. Like a lot more people lately have been saying, “Oh, I decided to do this painting,” or something. Or, like, “I am getting to more craft things.” I think that’s really cool. And I love to see more people get into that and I think it’s interesting how the arts seem a lot more appreciative these days.

AF: Actually, that’s true because I think a lot of people are turning to art because they need it, because some people feel like if it’s dark times, the first thing that they’ll turn to is art to help lift them up from it. So it’s true what you guys are saying. But also, I think that art, at least for the Philippines and for the people on the Philippines, in this country I think art helps as a witness, to bear witness to things that are happening here and to bear witness to their daily lives and how it’s changing. And I think that’s helpful. Because we do need to keep a living record of these things that are happening in our various countries and in our daily lives. What about you, Sav? What do you think?

SS: I definitely think that whether or not people realise that they are turning to art more and more, like they are picking up and going to Netflix and watching their favorite comedy over and over again, or they are re-reading their favorite book. Like you said, they are picking up a random craft: they are painting, or they are knitting. But I’m kind of torn between knowing that I should be using this time to create because my job was taken from me, I am at home. This would be the perfect time to think of something or produce something that I am proud of. But I also feel like because we live in a capitalist society, at least in the United States, productivity is kind of ingrained in me. I’m like, “Oh, I have time off where I am not working. I have to be productive.” Well, that’s not true. I very much struggle with writing when I am not inspired. I’m very much a person, like, I’ll be getting into bed and then a poem idea pops in my head and I guess I’m not going to bed. But that’s like where I do the majority of my writing. I feel very stuck when someone is like, “Oh you have to sit down and you have to write this,” which makes me go back to older ideas I had and then I kind of get started. So I am kind of fighting the battle between wanting to write and create and feeling like I have to write and create because I don’t want this to end in, you know, however many weeks or months, and people going, “Oh what did you do during quarantine?” and then if I say, “Nothing,” they’re like, “Oh you didn’t write anything or read anything?” And I’m  like, “what’s wrong with me saying yes?” Is yes or no the correct answer? There is no correct answer, I am supposed to do what’s best for me. And just because I am not creating art doesn’t mean I am not consuming it. Like, you look at my Netflix or my Hulu, I’m definitely consuming art. But I do think I want to start creating it, but not for anyone else. Just for me to start making sense of everything that’s going on. I definitely agree that we should be using art as like markers for what’s happening to keep record but I don’t think that’s going to be my vibe. Only because I am in suburban Missouri so when it’s a nice day, it doesn’t look like anything has changed. Like, people are outside. They are playing with their kids in their yard. So it’s a disconnect. I see all these things happening on the news, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like my reality because if I go to the grocery store, there are still cars in the street, there is really not a lot different yet. I am hoping it doesn’t become too different.

AF: I think what is interesting too is that we become more in tune with ourselves, like when we’re in solitude. So if you haven’t really seen as many people as you are used to seeing or if you’re just alone in your room all the time self-quarantining, and for people who live like all over the world would do that. Or who are at risk and have to self-quarantine. I think it’s important to take this time to really just think and it can be about the arts. It can be about anything. Just really think and get in touch with yourself for whatever purpose. I think we’ve been given this time to really just sit down with ourselves and just really face ourselves, and figure out what is it that we really want and what is it that we really need. And like the earth has been given this time to heal, we’ve also been given this time to heal. But I believe in new age, so maybe that’s just BS for people.

LP: I really liked what you said when you brought up the idea of getting back to creating for yourself because you are absolutely right to say that productivity and creating and having something tangible to show for your time is really prevalent in this day and age. I am part of like a really large community of small business owners who are in businesses of handmade items and I got frustrated at one point with somebody because they were super focused on the business side of things and being frustrated that sales weren’t going well. So okay, well, remember too why you’re doing this. You’re creating first for you, because this is something you enjoy doing and not for the sale. And I think the same thing can be said for writing that you come to the page first to write for you, the story that you want to read, to hear, to be able to sometimes share with others. And I think being able to first remember writing for yourself might be especially important in these times too.

AF: Absolutely!

JA: One of the questions that I ask my students is: would you rather write all the time and no one ever reads it but you get paid a check every month that covers all your living expenses, or would you rather write all the time and you’re really famous but you have to work a day job and you don’t make any money off your writing? And so that question gets to the point of: are you writing for yourself and you just have to write for yourself and that’s the only reason you have to write, or are you writing for other people to read it and to connect with other people? And I think that that answer is different for different people. And I think it’s a good question, it’s a good thing at your core to be writing for yourself for yourself and not to be writing for other people and for money. It’s a good thing.

LP: I think it makes the writing more authentic too.

AF: I mean, you are your first reader, right? You are the writer but you are also the first reader of what you are writing. So I think it’s really important.

SS: I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with wanting to write something you want other people to read as long as you kind of come first, and they are the secondary thing. When I write sometimes, I like to think of it as, “Oh, I very much want to write a book that a girl like me,  you know, five years or ten years from now is going to read, and it’s going to make her fall in love with reading, fall in love with writing or discover something about herself/himself.” I kind of frame my writing in the good that it can do, which I problematise all the time. I know that has a lot of issues wrapped around it, because I also should, again, be able to just write for myself. That’s a whole other thing.

AF: Yeah, I guess when I was talking about poetry of witness, too, that’s both writing for yourself and for others. Like what you were saying, like writing for ourselves in a way where this is our experience, this is how we see the world, this is how I see the world in particular, this is my experience in particular. And then if others can relate to that it’s like the secondary thing, it’s not like writing for others necessarily. And it’s not changing your views about what you think other people will say or what other people should do. But you know that your experience can help somehow other people. So I think I agree with the consensus that you have to write for yourself first but the secondary thing when you affect others with your writing, or when you affect the community or circumstances with your writing, I think that’s really the best thing.

SS: That’s the goal. Me first, world second.

AF: Although the world is kind of insisting on itself these days.

SS: He’s in need of some help right now. So maybe we’ll be [going along] at the same time, do it all at the same time.

AF: So I guess, just to wrap up, like what’s our takeaway in general from what’s happening in the world due to COVID-19, due to art, due to literature? What’s our takeaway? Or what’s your takeaway?

JA: My mom said something interesting to me the other day which was that previously, like during 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, we saw communities of people coming together to help each other and band together and now, in this pandemic that can’t happen because we really have to stay isolated. And that’s what is so different that we can’t come together and we have to stay apart. And that’s what’s so difficult is that we all feel so separate. I think, finding new ways to come together and communicate and share things with each other… and for me, that’s been like sharing writing with my friends, because I have a lot of writer-friends, I have a lot of musician-friends, I have a lot of artist-friends, and for me sharing work with my friends has been a way that I have been keeping myself together. It’s just been like, “Look, what I am doing! Look, what you are doing! This is so great!” And this is how we’ve been staying connected.

LP: I was just going to say that I really liked your mention of sharing “Hey, look what I did” kind of thing, because I think the other day, I was kind of recounting what all I’d accomplished that day and it seemed like small things. But I got through a whole work-day from home, I managed a safe grocery run, I made dinner and cleaned up after dinner and then I got some rest with a nice glass of wine and did some crafting. And overall that felt like a very accomplished day even though it was a lot of really small things. But I think going back to basics in that way and the little things that make you happy can be really nice too and even if we can’t really come together as a community, looking inward and seeing where you can change in your own routine, or shift things for the better for yourself, and maybe do things for the community on a singular level can also be good. Like all the people who are coming around and making masks for other people who really need it. I love that, I love seeing that. Me and a lot of other crafters are turning to that.

AF: Sav, you were going to say something?

SS: Oh, I was going to ask Joanna, because she’s in New York, because you were talking about us not being able to come together as much during the pandemic but, like I saw in Italy, they would come out at a specific time and clap for healthcare workers, and then in New York they’re doing it too. I don’t know, you said you were in Brooklyn. But have you seen that or witnessed that at all, people coming out on the streets and clapping at a certain time?

JA: My neighbourhood is majority Mexican and not that English-speaking.

SS: Okay.

JA: So I haven’t really seen that. Because I think that people are not watching English-speaking news.

SS: Yes.

JA: But that is just my guess. Because I did look, I did put my head out at 7 when that was happening and I didn’t hear anything.

SS: Okay. I was just curious. Because I think that’s kind of really one of the only ways that we can come together right now. I hope that when people are doing that, if they are able to, they are donating to organisations that are on the frontlines. I’d love that participatory culture to be accompanied by actual monetary help because at this point, we do need it. People do need masks, they need ventilators. We do need that safety equipment for our doctors. And as heartwarming as it is to see people clapping and supporting them, they need masks more than they need us to applaud them in the streets.

AF: Even from the safety of my house, I haven’t left the house in like a long time, so ever since we’ve been locked down, officially locked down. But a friend of mine who is a doctor and a poet, Ralph Fonte, he’s heading this group that is called Verses in Quarantine so we’re a group of young writers in Manila and we’re just writing arenga everyday, like everyday we do arenga. So we each get one line and so many different topics have come up, so many different arengas and poems have arisen. We’re on like number 30 or 32 arenga already. So we’ve created 32 poems from different lines from each person. I think that’s great. And then, I have another friend who is getting donations so he’s basically partnered with an organisation. So he would ask for donations to go to this organisation and then that organisation would help farmers but that site wouldn’t release his book till there has been a donation made to that organisation. So I think in little ways we can kind of help as writers in those kinds of ways, we can help a little bit with people that are suffering from COVID or people that are not sure what to do in this situation.

SS: I’ve kind of been thinking also about the art and the movies and the albums that were going to be released in this period but have been pulled. Like, Mulan was supposed to be in theaters and they didn’t release A Quiet Place II which was supposed to come out. Lady Gaga’s album was supposed to come out but she pushed that. I’ve just kind of been thinking about the dynamics of…

AF: Like, what’s relevant now or?

SS: No, not even what’s relevant. Like, I know they are not releasing it now because, of course, they want it to make a big splash and they want people to be able to go out to theaters and see it, and they want it to have a box office debut but if they had released it or sent it straight to home? Like, with Disney, Onwards has already come out but they sent Onwards to Disney+ a couple of days ago so now anyone who has Disney+ can just watch it. So if they had sent it straight to a streaming platform, like even if Lady Gaga had just released her album… I was reading about why she didn’t want to release it and well, a lot of [her] fans are going to be really disappointed right now and that music definitely, probably could’ve helped a lot of people. So I was kind of interested in thinking about the monetary reasons why she didn’t. Because if it’s finished and had a release date when it was going to come out, why push it? Like other artists have been letting their music be released during this time, knowing it might not trend as well as they want it to because people have other things to think about. But also knowing that for their fans, it’s exactly what they need right now: listen to that good album, escape for like 45 minutes to an hour, or seeing a good movie and escaping for that hour and a half or two hours. So I’ve been thinking about the parallels between a lot of things that we had that we were looking forward to– concerts and all of those things– have been cancelled because that can’t happen. But movies coming out can happen, it’s just a matter of all the people who “own” the movie let them not do as well or not make the money that they intended just because it’ll make a lot of people feel good. So I’ve just been thinking about that.

AF: So I guess that’s pretty much it for today. But let’s just invite everyone to submit to Inklette Magazine from April 1 to April 30. So submissions are open for everyone. Let’s go around and say what we’re looking for in the genres we’re editors for. So for me, I’m a poetry editor. I’m really looking for poems that can be experimental to formal, doesn’t matter, just poems that catch my attention, of me and the other poetry editors. And really feel as though we connect or relate to the experiences on the page. How about you, Laurelann?

LP: I’m a prose editor. I primarily do fiction. I mean, I review nonfiction as well. But usually, I work to help develop the fiction pieces. I don’t know if I am looking for anything in particular. I’m always just down for a good story, you know? Like a truly well told story. A good plot, I guess, maybe. I haven’t, you know, read something that felt kind of unique in a little while. So, I guess if you feel like your story is something different, we’re happy to get to read it.

JA: I’m prose editor too. And I’m always looking for interesting language. I like using old words in new ways. I’m looking for story as well, but that’s less important. I think that if you can surprise me with your language and your form, I will be more interested in whatever you have to tell me.

LP: Also, a good, compelling character, I think. Characters are getting less focus. Sometimes in a particular story, if we have nice, complex characters, that can really make even a basic plot more interesting.

AF: Same with us. Like in poetry, the persona needs to be really strong.

SS: I’m just a blog editor. So I look forward to reading all of the strong characters and the new and old language that y’all pick out once it’s up and ready to rock and roll.

AF: Yay! Okay, well, I guess that’s it for us. I’ll get to see you guys while we’re working on this issue. And take care, stay safe. Be well.

LP: You too!

JA: Nice to meet you!

SS: Nice meeting everybody!

AF: Bye!

LP: Bye!

SS: Bye!

* This blog was recorded before April 3, 2020, as of which the Governor of Missouri, Gov. Michael L. Parson, issued a Stay at Home order that was to be in effect from April 6, 2020, and has currently been extended until May 3, 2020. For COVID-19 related updates in the state of Missouri, please keep checking Missouri State’s official website regularly by clicking here

To learn more about the Inklette staff members and read their bios, please visit our Masthead page by clicking here

Interview with Ryan Black

Naomi Day: Your poems invoke many numbers: dates, measurements of time and space, etc. Does this represent anything personal for you? Is this intentional? 

Ryan Black: I don’t know if it represents anything personal other than my want of documenting the histories of these spaces. And by histories I mean the constructed histories, both personal and public. And there’s so much I’ll get wrong, so I can at least get the numbers right. Mostly.


Death of a Nativist by Ryan Black (Poetry Society of America, 2016). Click here to learn more and purchase a copy.

ND: You track time in fascinating ways in your poems. You do it with different speakers, points of view, different times, etc. Does this reflect how you experience time yourself or is it the way you process in writing? Do your poems come out in this fashion or is the timed structure set up later, during the editing process?

RB: You’re right. Time is, perhaps, the recurring preoccupation of the book. It loops. It overlaps. It runs ahead and trails behind. It’s an experience of time as a kind of simultaneity, a past that “is not even past,” as Faulkner says, or something like that. I think of many of the poems as reckonings with history and place. If Queens is a model of where our nation is heading demographically, which has been long been argued, then an honest interrogation of its past feels paramount to me. Honesty has never been our national inheritance.

Joanna Cleary: Your poems drastically differ in form, from couplets in “Skip to My Lou” to less traditional aesthetic styles in “Why Bother” and “Not Once.” Do you have a poetic style that most resonates with you? How do you go about determining the way in which a poem should be written?

RB: The book’s longer poems are mostly written in tercets. I feel most comfortable in that form. I think tercets allow for the weaving of time I mentioned earlier. Or at least it feels that way to me. They look back as they move forward. They’re discursive, open to digressions. And they braid time like a fabric. A textile.

The couplets in “Skip To My Lou”were the form I found for a sequence of ballads spaced throughout the book. Each poem in the sequence takes for its title a different traditional American song. I was interested in how the folk tradition, with its narratives of misogyny, racial strife, class struggle, and sudden, inexplicable violence, might be adapted to contextualize hyperbolic and fetishized representations of Queens within an America steeped in sensationalism. The material for these poems is stories of petty crime (the hustler in “Skip To My Lou”), or murder (the racial violence of “Stagger Lee,” the misogyny of “Ommie Wise” and “In the Pines,”) or failed responses to natural disaster (the disrepair of post-Hurricane Sandy in “Home By the Sea”). If we pay attention to consistencies in the representation of urban spaces, we might recognize these as rhetorical spaces, that is: spaces made by rather than creating modes of representation.

Forgive me. I didn’t answer your question about the couplets. I’m not sure why couplets other than that tercets weren’t quite right.

JC: Regardless of the extent to which your poems are autobiographical, you write about extremely vivid characters, such as Bobby in “Not Once.” Who are your muses?

RB: Bobby is a muse, for sure. The people I would see everyday as a kid living in South Queens. The places in New York City I’ve known intimately. And trains. Elevated trains. The J train is the elevated muse of “Not Once.” It’s my favorite train in the city.

ND: You mentioned constructed histories and interrogations of the past, and many of your poems explore those themes by looking at what’s already happened. Do you ever write forward, with an eye to envisioning what the future might look like based on these past experiences, or do you find the honest exploration of bygone events more impactful?

RB: I would love to write poems that envision potential futures. I would love to write speculative poems like Cathy Park Hong or Eve Ewing. I’m just not there yet. I’m still mining the past for truthful ways to talk about the now. The closest I’ve come to writing “what the future might look like” is the final poem in the book, “A Gun to the Heart of the City,” which imagines an alternative past, one in which a planned protest—a protest that never actually occurred—of the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens did in fact happen. A stall-in that disrupted opening day, forcing the city to confront its continued racist practices.


The Tenant of Fire by Ryan Black (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). Click here to learn more and purchase a copy.

ND: Your poems often have an unidentified “we”. Is this intended to pull the reader into actively occupying the space you’ve set up, or do you have a specific “we” in mind — or is it something else entirely?

RB: I think I often have a specific “we” in mind, or a “you,” at least. Many of the poems come out of an epistolary tradition. The intimacy and logic of letter writing seemed right for the kind of work I wanted to do in the book. I worry about writing out of a “we”, of speaking for someone else. I certainly don’t want to adopt an Olympian tone, but sometimes “we” just felt necessary.

157777871438027382.pngRYAN BLACK is the author of The Tenant of Fire (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Death of a Nativist, selected by Linda Gregerson for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. He has published previously in AGNI, Blackbird, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly, and elsewhere, and has received fellowships and scholarships from the Adirondack Center for Writing, The Millay Colony for the Arts, PLAYA, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Queens Council on the Arts, and the T. S. Eliot House. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York.


What We Love(d) and Want(ed) More of as Young Writers

The young writers’ community is an ever-growing one and while great resources, networks and programs for young writers do exist, they are not always accessible to everyone. As a magazine run primarily by young writers, we decided to ask Inklette’s staff members what they love(d) and want(ed) more of as young writers and for young writers. 

What We Love(d) As Young Writers

For me, my experience at Iowa was the best experience I had as a young writer. I felt that the schedule of our workshop was conducive to exploring the city and culture of Iowa City. We had some writing jam sessions in the morning and workshops or seminars that would end in the afternoon, leaving us a great deal of time to write, eat and explore or attend readings in Iowa City bookstores and the University of Iowa campus. But apart from that, the readings were very different from the ones I have encountered in other workshops. There were more translated works, more works by writers and writing published by small, independent publishers.

-Devanshi Khetarpal, Editor-in-Chief

I also attended the Iowa Young Writers Workshop, and was captivated by the space and the feeling that there were real people who did what I wanted to do in real life, as opposed to on the side of whatever they did to make real money. I also loved the professors, family members, friends, and occasional random strangers who validated what I was doing with my free time. I find writing as a full-time profession is often looked down upon by others, so having folks around who constantly said “Yes, you are absolutely allowed to spend all your free time creating these wonderful imaginary worlds” did wonders for my passion for creative spaces. Additionally, spaces like PANK magazine that welcomes submissions from folks no matter their age range or backgrounds helped me understand that I didn’t have to have the credentials I saw so many others with — I just had to have my passion for writing!

-Naomi Day, Blog Editor 

I completely agree with Devanshi’s and Naomi’s description of Iowa, so I won’t add much more to that, but I was lucky enough to also participate in the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program in the same summer. In Adroit, I loved the close one-on-one relationship I had with my mentor, the support of all my fellow mentees, and the flexibility of the program. Between traveling and attending other conventions, I was relieved to know the community at Adroit was never more than a text or email away. Throughout the entire month of the program, I thoroughly enjoyed the specially curated reading list and writing prompts my mentor had organized, but I also distinctly remember loving the final project: creating a final portfolio of your work and sharing with another mentee! In reading the collection of another’s work, I felt I had truly understood not only his work, but who he, as a person, stood for. Now, more than anything, I am so so grateful for this little writing community that still keeps in touch.

-Sarah Lao, Social Media Manager 

When I was around 12-13 and had just developed an interest in creative writing, I spent a lot of time reading and posting on Cicada Magazine’s The Slam, an online forum where readers could post their own work. Not only did I have an outlet for my developing prose and poetry, but I was also able to make several long-distance creative friendships. While I never met any of these fellow young writers in person, I still think of them often and am immensely grateful for the love and trust we had when sharing work with each other. 

-Joanna Cleary, Blog Editor

I loved attending writing programs when I was in high school. The summer before my junior year I was accepted into the Missouri Scholars Academy, and while its not strictly writing centered, the classes that I took were. Being around people who were writing and creating because they loved it and not because it was assigned in a classroom was so refreshing and wonderful, and I was so inspired while I was there. I also rediscovered my love of poetry as an added bonus! 

The following summer I attended the Young Women’s Writers Workshop at Smith College and had an incredible time. I made so many friends and discovered so many incredible female writers that I would never have some across in one of my classes in high school, even in the creative writing and advanced placement english classes I had been taking since my freshman year. I very much doubt that I would have gone on to create my own arts centered major in college if I hadn’t had the privilege of surrounding myself with other creative spirits so early on. 

-Savannah Summerlin, Blog Editor

What We Want(ed) More Of As Young Writers

I wish there were more workshops, programs, avenues for literary translations and learning of regional languages and local dialects, and literatures written in those languages and dialects. My education was a product of colonialism and encouraged a more colonial attitude towards regional languages, dialects and even Hindi. I wish we could break apart and disintegrate the hegemony and glorification of the kind of literacy and literature that privileges colonialism and the process of colonizing today.

-Devanshi Khetarpal , Editor-in-Chief 

I wish there had been more community around the genres I was interested in writing: I did a lot of fantasy writing (think farms with talking wolves and cities with magic stones) but never shared them because I didn’t think young people wrote fantasy like that. Having a greater sense of community and space to share and receive feedback would have helped my sense of belonging.

-Naomi Day, Blog Editor 

Having always suffered from a drastic drop in creative productivity once the school year hit, I think I would want something that could hold me more accountable. I’m not exactly sure what that would look like, but certainly, I think a long-term program during the school year would help. In other words, I’m hoping the stress of a series of deadlines would encourage me to break through any writer’s block.

-Sarah Lao, Social Media Manager 

I wish there were more online workshops. It’s expensive and not practical to travel. Most people can’t take large chunks of time off from school or work, and others (like me who is 40 years old) have children who depend on us for care. Even when a retreat or workshop offers daycare options, that only works if one’s child(ren) are not school-age. When I was in high school, I would have loved to have taken a creative writing course or belonged to a creative writing club. Some high schools offer such courses, but mine did not, even years later when I returned to teach at the school. 

-Lisa Stice, Poetry Editor

To learn more about our staff and read their bios, visit our Masthead page by clicking here.

In Conversation: Blog Editors

Following up last week’s blog, our Blog Editors are back with a conversation on questions about who they write for, what they write about, how they write, when and where they write and, lastly, why they write. Read on for more provocative insights.

Maria Prudente: Hi Joanna! I know we are both busy gearing up to begin our fall semester, but it seems there is no time better than now to go back to basics and discuss who, what, when, where and why we write. For whom do you write?

Joanna Cleary: Hmm… that’s a difficult question. I’ve written for teachers, mentors, friends, ex-friends, unrequited love interests, and complete strangers, but I think first and foremost I write for myself. I’m sure you can relate to the fact that students often don’t have a lot of spare time and those interested in writing have to really, truly want to write in order to make time for it. There have been times I’ve stayed up to 3:00 AM writing when I really shouldn’t have, usually because I only have time to write at odd hours of the day (or night) when on school terms, but I’ve never regretted it the next day. Writing is a joy I give to myself; it reminds me that I’m human, that I feel pleasure and pain, happiness and despair, and all of those more complex emotions in between the aforementioned binary opposites. I write to understand who I am, and I hope what I write occasionally helps those who stumble across it do the same for themselves. What about you – for whom do you write? 

MP: A Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, wrote this excellent op-ed for the New York Times where he attempted to answer this great question. He said, “[w]riters, write for their ideal reader, for their loved ones, for themselves or no one. All this is true. But it is also true that today’s literary writers also write for those who read them.” I would agree with all of this. I think we create people to write for and other times we answer directly to people we know will read our work. I find that affects how I write. My writing frees up when I write for a dreamed-up “who” as opposed to an audience of a particular publication but, because our culture demands content quickly it can be tricky and, in Pamuk’s words, perhaps stifle our writerly “desire to be authentic.”

What do you write?

JC: I like how Pamuk acknowledges that all people for whom writers write are valid, as I think the wish to write is too nuanced to be defined in simple terms. I strive to cover a multitude of different topics when I write — from feminism to the body to the landscape around me — in order to continually challenge myself as a writer. In order to do this, I need to write for a variety of people. In terms of tangible projects, however, I want to eventually write a collection of poetry. I find the idea of bringing individual poems together so they can make meaning as a single microcosm fascinating and would love the opportunity to delve extensively into a particular topic or poetic style. And you? 

MP: What I strive for is to write about what it means to be human. My non-fiction and playwriting seem to have this shared obsessive quality in exploring the young female living a creative and precarious life.

The content of what I write significantly affects my approach. If what I require the kind of research I can’t pull from my own experience, I find that writing within an outline is beneficial. How do you write?

JC: I pull up a blank Word document, stare at it for awhile, type a bit, get distracted, type a bit, get distracted, edit what I have, and eventually (hopefully) have a rush of creativity that leads me to produce something of substance. I’ve learned about various ways of combating writer’s block over the years, such as writing stream-of-conscious without stopping, but I also think that writers should recognize when to let their ideas come slowly. Often, I quite literally need to lie down in bed and do nothing but think for a solid fifteen minutes in order to make sense of what I want to write. However, I’m always trying to try new techniques, which is why I’m curious as to the ways in which you write.   

MP: Whether I think an idea is good or not, if it’s pulling me toward the page, then I write it down; anything is writable. Inspiration doesn’t strike as frequently as I’d like, but when it does, if I can, I will drop when I’m doing, sit down and, write. I’m a firm believer in staying in the pocket and not coming up for air until there’s nothing left to put onto paper. For me, writing requires a particular kind of silence that I can only find at my home.  When and where do you write?

JC: I’m actually quite the opposite at times, even though, like I said, sometimes I stay up until 3:00 AM because of a burst of creativity (usually at home, though once in the library on campus during exam season). I find that sometimes it works best for me to leave an idea partially unrealized so I have something tangible to work on when I return. Doing this also motivates me to come back to a project instead of abandoning it for something new, as so much of writing is editing. Reminding myself that I always have material to add to a project helps me remember why I’m passionate about it. Speaking of which, why do you write? 

MP: I think of this Henry Miller quote often: “[d]evelop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” Unless what I’m writing is a memoir piece, I try to use that as my compass. The why of my writing rests in my desire to make connections and arrive at some truth. I write because I need to. Why do you write?

JC: I write because it feels right. I imagine writing, for me, feels like how hitting a home run, or cooking a perfect fillet mignon, or re-organizing a messy room feels for others — it takes a lot (and I mean A LOT) of work, but I couldn’t imagine feeling as fulfilled doing anything else. Like you, I suppose I need to write. I feel as though people can contribute most to the world by making meaning in the ways they are most passionate about, and for us, that’s through the written word. 

That said, hopefully we’ll each have time to do activities besides writing essays and reports in this upcoming term. I wish you all the best as we head into another semester, and I’m excited for the conversations we’ll surely have before 2020 arrives!

To know more about our blog editors, visit our Masthead page here.