“Your stories not only matter, they’re necessary”: Mateo Askaripour on Writing

“Your stories not only matter, they’re necessary”: Mateo Askaripour on Writing

INTERVIEW

“Your Stories not Only Matter, They’re Necessary”: Mateo Askaripour on Writing

Nur’aishah Shafiq

February 2021

An alumnus from New York University, Mateo Askaripour is a novelist and essayist. He was a visiting student at NYUAD and served as a resident advisor at the Sama Tower campus. His recently published debut, Black Buck—a part satire, part memoir, part guidebook about navigating racism in the tech startup world of New York—has appeared in the New York Times bestseller list. He spoke with us soon after the publication of Black Buck.

Nur’aishah Shafiq: Black Buck isn’t the first novel that you’ve completed. How does it feel to have your debut novel not be the first book you ever finished?

Mateo Askaripour: I’m thankful for it. If the first manuscript that I’d completed (and agents were reading it) had gone on to be published, it would’ve been detrimental to my growth as a person and as a writer.

Where I was at that point of my life, I was extremely confident, coming from the world of start-ups and sales. I thought, absurdly, that I could just transition quite easily into the world of literature. I said yes! look, look, I’m going to be an author now. And when it didn’t happen, I had to face the reality that who I [was] as an individual wasn’t going to cut it.

So I wrote the second book, but my aim was off at the time. It was to get an agent. And when that didn’t work out, again, I was necessarily humbled. And those two “failures,” those instances of me not achieving my aims forced me to focus on my craft, forced me to ask myself, “Who do I want to be as a writer? Who do I want to serve? And how do I want to write?” It was through those series of failures and dozens of rejections that I reached the point that I said, “I’m going to write the book that I want for the people I want in the way that I want.”

I’m so happy that those two books didn’t go anywhere. Because I can’t imagine a world where they were published and then I tried to write something like Black Buck, which feels truer than the first two books. It would have been far more difficult to do that.

Mateo Askaripour

NS: What was your process while writing Black Buck?

MA: I wrote this book at my parents’ house. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to leave [the United States] until I got an agent, whether that took me five months or five years. I had to be committed to the task now. I spent a lot of time in nature to figure out who I was as a writer and what I was writing about.

In terms of my routine, It involved looking at a folder of some of my biggest inspirations every time before I’d write. I’d stare into their eyes, and I would thank them for their own art, and for the ways that they lived their lives. And tell them that I hope I can do them justice through my own art and through the way that I live as well. I’d watch two to three hours’ worth of music videos and movie trailers, making it so that I can come to the page with a lot of energy and confidence and excitement. Because there’s no coach saying, “Write, write, write.” And then by the time I get to the page, I’m feeling so good and so free, and [in] such a place that is free of judgment that I’m just gonna write. And I’m having fun. And that’s honestly how it works, most of the time. It’s very important for you to embrace who you are as a writer, rather than trying to emulate someone else.

But I believe very simply that a writer writes. A writer writes. So even though I didn’t have a book deal or an agent, I was a writer.

NS: The story takes inspiration from your own experiences within the tech start-up world. Can you speak to the process of writing a fictional story inspired by your own life?

MA: I had to be careful, because I knew that if I just wrote about my own life, it would have been hard for me to gain a necessary distance to reach readers in the way that I wanted to. Because this book is not about me. This book is not about my life but it contains many aspects of my life. It was important for me to put the parts of me that would be most resonant with other people and are definitely most authentic, while writing a story about someone else that other people could see themselves in.

NS: You were a writers in residence at the Rhode Island’s Writers Colony. What role did the colony play in your writing?

MA: I actually revised a large part of my second draft while there. The Rhode Island Writers Colony afforded me a literary family that I didn’t know I needed. And that community made the road to this point so much easier than it could have been. Far less lonelier.

I gave my first reading in Providence, Rhode Island. And a man came up to me afterwards [and] said, “Hey, where can I buy your book?”

I said, “Buy my book? This is my second draft.” He said, “Yeah, can I go buy it, at like Barnes and Noble or an indie around the corner?”

I said, “Sir, I don’t have an agent. I don’t have a book deal. I’m working on my second draft.”

He said, “Well, I have no doubt that this is going to be published.”

This man thinking that my words were worthy of being purchased and read and consumed and shared, it did a number on me. And I [still] hold that today.

NS: In the novel, Darren is also the author of the book. With this second author in mind, can you tell me about your views on authorship?  

MA: I wanted Darren to write the book or the book to be this meta fiction from the perspective of Darren, so that it would really hit home the point that this isn’t just an engaging narrative. But [that] it doubles as a memoir and sales manual. That was very important for me – for this novel to have that duality. So that readers would understand that there are real gems and real lessons in here that can help them, concretely and practically in their own lives, to advocate for themselves and those that they love. And to know that they, just as much as anyone else, have the right to chase success

But in terms of authorship, I own my title as an author. I own my title as the author of Black Buck. I love being an author. But I’m also the type of person who called myself a writer when I began writing. I didn’t wait to call myself a writer like many people do. I understand that impostor syndrome is real. But I believe very simply that a writer writes. A writer writes. So even though I didn’t have a book deal or an agent, I was a writer.

Last night I went to a bookstore with a friend. I went to the cashier and I said, “Hey, my book recently came out, and you have it. Would you like me to autograph some copies?” Because these indie bookstores love when authors come in and autograph.

And this woman looked up at me in disbelief. So then she went upstairs and got the owner. The owner came down and was like, “Oh my God. Thank you for coming. Like, thank you for coming to sign books.” So I signed a bunch of books. They were grateful. But this incredulity of people not really believing that they are interacting with someone who wrote a book is fascinating. And that’s why I think it’s more important than ever, and not from an ego standpoint, but for us at different points of our journeys to say, “Yes, we are writers,” over and over and over again. 

NS: This interaction at the bookstore reminds me of the essay you wrote about expanding the canon of Black literature. In it, you talk about how the work of Black authors lives or dies, and the dynamic between the industry and people who consume books. I don’t want to pit it as a binary between the market and the consumer, but now that you’re a published author yourself, how has your thinking evolved regarding the responsibility of heightening the visibility of black authors, with regards to the dynamic between the industry and the reader?

MA: So I look at myself. I am not someone who has opened the door for others. The door has already been opened by many other writers, Black and brown writers, and other writers of color. The door has been opened. But I, facing those who are looking to come through, am inviting them in. And I do feel that it’s my responsibility to help other Black and Brown writers through the door. Because this industry is rigged. I don’t say that with any cynicism. It’s a business. All creative industries, they can’t thrive if they’re betting on hundreds of people every year.

Publishers every year pick a handful of books to be their lead titles for every season. When I first had my conversation with an editor, she said, “This is going to be a lead title.” So I already knew that they were going to throw publicity behind it. But most writers don’t get that. And they don’t get it because publishers do not deem their books to be ones that could potentially have a lot of earning potential.

Knowing how the industry is built, it is 1,000% my responsibility to help other Black and Brown writers through the door. What I can do and what I’m doing now, is I can give them the information that I have. And tell them very straightforwardly how this industry works, how I navigated it, and how they may be able to as well. So that you can own the narrative and the presentation and the promotion, of how your book is introduced to other people.

More concretely, I am working with friends on their manuscripts. I don’t have all the time in the world. But I do have time for the people that I’ve already committed to [and] read their manuscripts. I can do it for people one at a time. And then hopefully this year I can figure out a way to do it on a mass scale, whatever that means, [even] like a seminar. Imagine if we were having this conversation, but there were 1,000 people in it. That’s what I wanna do.  

I want at the end of my life, to say that I was personally responsible for 1,000 people getting a book deal. And Toni Morrison said it as well, that if you are free, you need to free someone else. If you are empowered, you need to empower someone else. And none of this matters if I can’t help other people win.

Knowing how the industry is built, it is 1,000% my responsibility to help other Black and Brown writers through the door. What I can do and what I’m doing now, is I can give them the information that I have.

NS: What’s the importance of engaging politically in fiction, and the importance of writing specifically as a mode of political action?

MA: It is at the core of absolutely everything I’ve written, and everything I will write. I have ideas that have even more gravity than Black Buck. I have ideas that will be a little bit more fun, [but] they have to always be rooted in the reality of our nation [the United States]. And the reality of our nation cannot be disassociated from politics. So my book is 100% political. I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that every piece of art is political. But I think that if you read a book and you don’t feel as though it has a direct connection to political or social justice issues, then you are still seeing something in the lack of those themes. Namely, privilege. But for me personally, every single thing I write has to have a message. If not, then it’s not worth writing.

NS: What would you like to say to developing writers of color?

MA: Well, first off, your stories not only matter, but they’re necessary. And they are likely far more interesting than what we’ve seen in the last couple of years, than what we’ve seen in the so-called canon. That’s one.

Two, you deserve to be here just as much as anyone else. You deserve to be here just as much as Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Hemingway. In fact, in this day and age, you deserve to be here more than them. Because many of us are tired of them. I’m tired of them. And I wanna read what you have to write. I wanna read what you have to say. I wanna read about your world, [and] the fictional worlds that you create from your exact perspective.

Third, if you feel as though you need to pander to the industry, please do your best to not do that. Please do your best to push that inclination away from yourself and your writing.

It will not serve you. I tried it. It didn’t serve me. I was able to write this book because I finally came to the realization that I need to write something that was true. True to me, true to the people I wanted to serve, and true to the state of the world that we’re in. 

Do not be afraid to write. And if you are afraid to write, push through it. Come to that blank page with as much energy as possible every day. And if it’s hard for you, think about the people that you want to read this book, and how impactful this book will be for them.

Nur’aishah Shafiq is a junior at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is currently working on her first novel.

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Star Wars Memories

Star Wars Memories

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

Star Wars Memories

 

December 2019

On the eve of the release of The Rise of Skywalker, we asked members of the NYUAD community to reflect on what the Star Wars films have meant to them. 

Bhrigu Kumar Bhatra, Class of 2021

Star Wars to me has always been about its world, rather than about the main characters and their stories. Of course, the Hero’s Journey is an important and critical part of the films, as seen in the stories of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Palpatine, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the rest. But it’s the characters who are unsung, like the Bothans who died to deliver the Death Star information in Return of the Jedi and the heroes of Rogue One—those who make the silent sacrifices in the great war—that really pique my interest and really are the heart of Star Wars. The Force may be strong in the Skywalkers, but that is not what makes it remarkable. What is remarkable is its ability to rise anywhere throughout the galaxy, from a slave boy on Tatooine to a slave boy on Canto Bight.

Vishwanath Chandrasekar, NYUAD Class of 2018

Star Wars is not something you can go through life without hearing about. You will always have at least one person around you who sighs exasperatedly when you ask them, “Is that the same as Star Trek?”

I was properly “inducted” into the galaxy far, far away not too long ago, and it has become one of my favorite fantasy worlds. It is a most pleasant rabbit hole of highly imaginative content, that, at its best, treats your imagination with respect and gives you some of the best grey-area characters science fiction has to offer. The worlds within it are extremely rich with possibility, and occasionally, even Lucasfilm turns into an online fan fiction forum that asks, “What if we take this world, and this character, and this storyline, and come up with something absolutely different?” To me, Star Wars is and will be a continuous story, running parallel to our own world, and written by an army of daydreamers. And punctuated every two years by cinematic commandments from the canon.

Chani Gatto, NYUAD Class of 2014

Late in NYUAD’s first semester ever, I found myself halfway around the world missing my first (Canadian) Thanksgiving and my family back home. Yes, I was more than a little homesick. While brooding over images of Canadian autumn pics, an invitation popped into my inbox from Professor Patell, who was the faculty member I had had the pleasure of sharing crucial snippets and vital morsels of Sci-Fi with during my Candidate Weekend. His invitation included some of Professor Patell’s fellow faculty nerds and a few of my nerdish peers. We were all asked to share in the screening of the Star Wars Holiday Special. I arrived wearing my custom Darth Vader T-shirt with my Star Wars pillow tucked under my arm. It was a risk, but I was not disappointed: it turned out that Star Wars fandom ran deep in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Who knew? Professor Patell apparently.

Cosmopolitanism was a keystone of NYUAD’s mission. We students had been lectured about the benefits of cosmopolitan learning in mandatory classes at NYUAD. A theory to be tried, we the first of an inclusive, immersive experiment that included a soupçon of all the world had to offer! And here I was, sharing with my peers and professors the pain and joy of the now-infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, and indeed, experiencing an invaluable manifestation of cosmopolitanism. A hilarious and a rare lesson was learned at the expense of the Holiday Special when a very cosmopolitan room agreed unanimously and internationally that the Star Wars Holiday Special was objectively awful. An easy win for Kwame Anthony Appiah’s rejection of relativism.

The much-maligned Holiday Special did, however, introduce the iconic character Boba Fett into the Star Wars universe.

Photo: Lucasfilm.

Isabella Peralta, NYUAD Class of 2018

A confession: I learned about the existence of Star Wars because of a video game. My brother and I played Lego Star Wars on our (now decrepit) PlayStation 2 during the summer of 2008, a time in which no one could explain to us why people despise Jar Jar Binks. Despite our lack of Star Wars knowledge, we spent hours flying Lego spaceships, collecting characters, and shooting stormtroopers. After finishing the game, we watched the original trilogy multiple times before the summer ended. More than a decade later, I still rave about Star Wars to my brother, who is now one of my best friends. And every time we hear the Mos Eisley Cantina theme, we’re taken back to the summer of 2008. 

Lego Star Wars.

Photo: Lucasfilm.

Carlo Pizzati, Visiting Novelist and Journalist

My fifteen-year-old son, Teo, and I have some things in common. One of them is that we both have tried to move objects with the power of our mind when we were apprentice Jedi during middle school. When I saw the first episode of the Star Wars saga, I was not aware of how deeply the idea of the power of thought and of will was being ingrained in my mind. So I was happily surprised to discover that Teo found his own path to this inspiring epic.

A few years ago, we decided to binge-watch the whole saga. There are different schools of thoughts on how to go about this. Some like to follow Lucas’s ordering of the episodes, starting with The Phantom Menace and ending with Return of the Jedi, thereby building a linear historical arc of the fall and redemption of Darth Vader; others prefer to respect the sequence of movie releases. We went for the latter, beginning with the 1977 Star Wars, only to realize how weak the fourth and fifth films were and how the series picked up again with the sixth, The Revenge of the Sith.

 Teo holds what he thinks is the unpopular view that the first Star Wars movie is actually one of the best B-movies ever made, with due respect and understanding, he says, of the limited scope of special effects in that era. Since I was actually 11 years old in that very era, I cannot share that view, having forever been in awe not only of the jaw-dropping space stunts of that first film, but also of the intensity of father-son conflicted relationship of in the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.

This is why, ever so appropriately, in the end Teo and I decided to settle our differences with an imaginary and protracted laser saber battle, making sound effects with our mouths.

THE scene.

Photo: Lucasfilm.

Matthew Silverstein, Associate Professor of Philosophy

One of my fondest childhood memories is from the day in May 1983 when Return of the Jedi was released. (I was eight years old.) My older brother and I were beyond excited and had been counting the days up to its release. My father actually pulled us out of school early on opening day so that we could see the very first screening. (I told my teacher why I was leaving early, and she did not object.) It was the ultimate “cool dad” moment.

Prof. S. thinks he might have seen the film at the now-demolished Forest Park Theatre, which was pretty new in 1983 and boasted a 70mm screen. 

Photo: Aaron77.

Josh Taylor, Associate Vice Chancellor, Global Programs & Mobility Services, NYU

I’ve been trying to explain to our kids recently about how much the original trilogy was a part of my life—especially in 1980 and 1983 (I was still a bit young when Star Wars itself came out, though I do remember being excited about going to see it at a theater while we were in New Hampshire in the summer of ’77). There really doesn’t seem to be a current analogue to explain how much it took over our worlds (though perhaps the release of new Harry Potter books came close?) But while I literally get a smile on my face thinking about playing with my friends my rather impressive (if I do say so myself) collection of Kenner figures, plus a couple of the giant dolls (Luke and Vader), what I think about most is when Return of the Jedi opened.

While it is one of my least favorite films of the canon, Return of the Jedi opened shortly after my grandmother died, and I remember being really conflicted, as a 12-year-old, about whether it was okay to be excited about it, if it was okay to go get in line really early for tickets, etc. And I remember my parents being wholly supportive, and saying something along the lines of “she wouldn’t have wanted you moping around the house, she would have wanted you to be enjoying yourself.”

Now, that all being said, I’m not sure if she would have given the same advice if she had known about Ewoks, but … 

Han Solo among the Ewoks.

Photo: Lucasfilm.

Jamie Uy, Class of 2021

Star Wars means coming home. Loving the sci-fi franchise is a family affair: my dad’s AT-AT replica stands proudly in the living room, my brother collects artisan lightsabers, and my mom would make us snacks from a Star Wars cookbook when we were little (and to be honest, even now—I had BB-8 pancakes for my eighteenth birthday). Star Wars and its characters were a huge part of my childhood. My dad even joked once that he should have named my brother and me “Luke” and “Leia”!

As I get older, I realize how just how much I owe to my family’s love for immersive fictional universes. For example, I strongly believe that my passion for Literature and Film Studies stemmed out of being a Star Wars fan. Close-reading films (did Han or Greedo shoot first?), analyzing the cultural phenomenon of a text (the feminism behind Princess Leia) and thinking about the political value of fiction (the fascism of The First Order) were things I was already doing, courtesy of media fandom. Star Wars even played a small role in my journey to NYU Abu Dhabi. Before I knew about the university, I visited the United Arab Emirates on a trip, realized that the Abu Dhabi desert was one of the shooting locations for Jakku, and made a budget Rey cosplay. I have photos of me on the sand dunes in Rey’s costume, even before I visited NYUAD for Candidate Weekend (these were the photos my Dad used to announce where I was going to college on Facebook).

Some things cannot be explained by anything but the Force—and I’m grateful that I’ll be back in Singapore with my family to watch The Rise of Skywalker this Christmas.

Abu Dhabi Star Wars Cosplay.

Photo: Jamie Uy.

If you have a Star Wars memory or anecdote that you’d like to share, please send it to us for consideration at nyuad.electrastreet@nyu.edu.
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LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

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12 Italian Novels for the Global Citizen

12 Italian Novels for the Global Citizen

12 Italian Novels
for the Global Citizen

 

Carlo Pizzati

December 2019

[Editor’s Note: Novelist and journalist Carlo Pizzati helped us kick off the 12 Things Project by contributing a list of novels he believed that every global citizen should read. We had suggested that that list-makers might think of their lists as the basis for the syllabus of a course that they’d like to take or teach. (We arrived at the number twelve by taking the number of weeks in an NYUAD term—14—and subtracting two for introductory and concluding sessions and exams.) We weren’t asking for “desert island” lists of what our readers considered to be the 12 greatest novels of all time, merely a set of 12 books that they’d suggest every global citizen would profit from reading.

As the project has evolved, we’ve realized that it would be valuable for contributors to submit lists of novels from particular linguistic or national traditions that they believe should receive global notice. What follows is Pizzati’s response to our request for a list of “twelve Italian novels that everyone should read.”] 

Demetrio Pianelli by Emilio De Marchi

This is the perfect novel to understand the simple and bigoted middle class that is at the core of Italian society to this day, filled with social obligations, moralism, and narrow-mindendness. Demetrio Pianelli is a perfect version of the inept, loser, and blind-folded idiot typical of nineteenth-century literature—but still valid today.

La coscienza di Zeno / Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo

This is a marvelous investigation into a lifetime and one of the first Italian forays into introspective novels. Zeno tells the story of his life through the many last cigarettes he smoked in a futile attempt to quit—in other words, to change who he really is.

Uno, nessuno, centomila / One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

An amazing masterpiece by the 1934 Literature Nobel Prize winner about identity. Vitangelo Moscarda, through a series of questions posed by his wife, learns that everyone around him has a different point of view about him. This realization starts a vertiginous investigation on his own identity that culminates in a sort of nirvana, which can only come by letting go of the illusion of identity.

Il Gattopardo / The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This very well-known novel can be summarized by its most famous quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” A highly political novel, set in an Italy and a Europe that is at the edge of an era.

L’Isola di Arturo / Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante

Arturo is a young man who suffers the weight of a harsh father, Wilhem, in Procida island. It is only when he realizes his love for a woman that he is able to transform himself and re-invent his life. Extremely touching and intense.

La noia / Boredom, or The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia

This is a novel made into movies more than once. It’s the story of the complicated sexual relationship of a young and rich painter looking for the meaning of life with an easygoing girl in Rome.

Il Barone Rampante / The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

This is the story of a rebel who decided to abandon life on the ground and goes to live in the trees. He never comes down from them. A parable of what it means to be different, to be an artist, to go against the grain, and much more. With a poetic surprise ending.

Il giorno della civetta / The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

A most intriguing and deep crime novel about the Mafia at a time, as Sciascia wrote himself, when the existence of the Mafia in Sicily was doubted and even denied by many.

Un uomo / A Man by Oriana Fallaci

The story of Oriana Fallaci’s life with Alekos Panagoulis, victim of torture in Greece’s military dictatorship days. Graphic, touching, engaged, and memorable.

Atlante Occidentale / New Atlantis by Daniele Del Giudice

This is the ground-breaking novel of a writer rightly considered Italo Calvino’s heir. Science and writing, expressed through the relationship of the two main characters, are the main protagonists. The description of light and of flight are typical undercurrents of Del Giudice’s original style. It’s an investigation on the new rationalism and on literature’s capacity to grasp the profound complexity of reality.

Sostiene Pereira / Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

This is a melancholy and profound story set in a complicated period in the history of Portugal. It begins with an apprenticeship and then proceeds into the exploration of Pereira, a protagonist who is at first torn between being politically committed or keeping at a safe distance from political strife. The reader finally sees that Pereira may not be a hero, but rather a man who progressively realizes the necessity for an intellectual resistance to injustice. But this act turns out not to be an act of bravery, but only his civic duty.

Il Nome della Rosa / The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This novel has been adapted into a 1986 film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, more recently,  a Netflix series. A convent, a murder, a mystery, a love story. All the elements for a great book which is actually an investigation on humanity, religion, theology, philosophy and, ultimately, semiology. The final phrase, in Latin, sums it up: “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” (“in the beginning, there was the rose; all we hold is its naked name”).

Carlo Pizzati’s most recent books are two memoirs: Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-Law in India (2018) and Bending Over Backwards: A Journey to the End of the World to Cure a Chronic Backache (2019)

Inspired to contribute a list of novels to the “12 Things Project”? Click here to get to our submission form.
Click here to go to our first list of novels.

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

Julián Carrera 

December 2019

Every shift at the VA-11 Hall-A bar starts with bartender Jill’s nightly line: “Time to mix drinks and change lives.”

The regulars at the bar, which is located close to the slums of Glitch City and endearingly referred to  as “Valhalla,” include a sentient robot AI, a hacker, a wannabe macho, the CEO of a newspaper, a cat-girl, a live-streamer, a disembodied brain, and a delusional art critic.

Jill talking to live-streamer Streaming-Chan.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

 

These personalities, and more, crop up during a normal playthrough of Sukeban Games’s visual novel, VA-11 Hall-A (2016). Subtitled “Cyberpunk Bartender Action,” VA-11 Hall-A is, according to the game’s website, “a booze ’em up about waifus, technology, and post-dystopia life.”

I have written previously about the characteristics of a “visual novel, which relies heavily on the use of choice-making moments, points in the narrative where the flow of the story stops for the player/reader to make a decision and alter how the story plays out. VA-11 Hall-A has the same mechanics, but hides it under drink-making.

So, for example, if a character asks for a drink that is sweet (taste-wise), cold (on the rocks), and big (with double the normal ingredients), the game runs different checks to see if the drink the player makes in the drink-making interface is A) sweet, cold, and big; B) sweet and big, but not cold; C) sweet and cold, but not big; D) sweet, but neither cold nor big; or E) neither sweet nor cold nor big. The drink made will have to fall under one of these 5 categories, and the character’s dialogue will be different depending on which category that is.

Virgilio, the delusional art critic.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

While that explanation clears up the “Bartender Action” part of the subtitle, it doesn’t acknowledge the “Cyberpunk” aspect that makes up most of VA-11 Hall-A’s aesthetic choices. Mechanically, the game is a visual novel; aesthetically, it belongs to the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, particularly as interpreted in Japanese anime, which places VA-11 Hall-A next to films and manga like Akira (manga, 1982–1990; film, 1988) or Ghost in the Shell (manga, 1989–1990; film, 1995) and anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–1996) and Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999). Though the label of “cyberpunk” is wide enough to fit space mercenaries, the supernatural, biblical references, and giant robots, the core of cyberpunk usually lies on a depiction of the dark aspects of life and the struggle of living in high-tech worlds, with a particular interest in city life. This is not to say that the stories they tell are somehow base or unrefined, rather, they are grittier in their depiction of what dystopian life looks like.

Sei, a “Valkyrie,” Glitch City’s military police. Her looks are inspired by Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

Some of the films and anime I have mentioned, though focused on life’s struggles, ultimately dramatize large major societal issues: Akira, for example, depicts Neo-Tokyo’s social and class problems through the rise of the cult of Akira in response to constant police repression, while Neon Genesis Evangelion presents angels, massive alien creatures hellbent on destruction, and giant EVA units, the colossal robot suits used to fight them, highlighting the deteriorating mental state and relationships of its protagonist, Shinji. There is often something inherently abnormal about characters like Akira’s Tetsuo and Kaneda, Cowboy Bebop’s Spike, or Evangelion’s Shinji, Rei, Asuka, or Misato —but that’s what makes them special and interesting to the viewer. They are not “normal” people, but often the fate of a city (or even the world) lies on their shoulders.

Jill’s apartment and news about Glitch City.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

It would be easy to imagine VA-11 Hall-A as following in their footsteps, but it doesn’t. Rather than portraying the events that put a city or the world at large in danger on-screen, VA-11 Hall-A confines all action to the VA-11 Hall-A bar and Jill’s apartment. It’s not that nothing happens in Glitch City; in fact, there’s a lot going on: riots, military repression, the authoritarian power of a megacorporation, illegal bike races. But the game’s interests lie beyond the subjects that typically occupy cyberpunk fictions: it presents a different aesthetic of storytelling, more down to earth, less interested with large-scale problems and more interested in questions of survival and labour.

Jill’s problems are not related to stopping the destruction of the world, or to saving her friends from massive threats. Rather, her role is to help the people who come into the bar by talking to them and making them drinks, which helps her make money to pay her rent, utilities, buy new things, and keep from losing morale or motivation. As a result, VA-11 Hall-A advocates for an approach to games that deemphasises the wide scale of cyberpunk narratives in order to focus on a more localised story that is, like most visual novels, character-driven due to its reliance on conversation and dialogue. This change from the norm of cyberpunk resonates in interesting ways: there are no earth-shattering crises in VA-11 Hall-A, but every character that walks up to Jill at the bar has an interesting story to tell, and the frequency with which they visit the bar with different stories to tell makes them endearing. Their problems are relatable, even when it delves into the weird, like Dorothy’s existential dread at being a sentient robot; the characters feel real, relatable. Though the story is simple, everything adds up to make these characters feel alive, it makes the player/reader want to mix drinks and change their lives.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
This article is part of an on-going series about video games and visual novels. Previous pieces make a case for the relevance of video games to the literary; investigate a video game retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore; analyse dialogue conventions in Oxenfree, describe the nature of the visual novel, and take a closer look at one particular example, Bury Me, My Love, which tells a story about the global migration crisis.
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LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

LITERATURE AND
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The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

Julián Carrera 

December 2019

Horror cinema has given us a wide collection of scares, from the fear of murderers to the fear of the unknown, passing through iconic films like Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween.

Out of the five examples I have listed, four belong to a particular subgenre of horror known as teenage horror, which is focused on telling its stories involving teens in one way or another, with perhaps its most visible representative being the teens of Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th. To this list of teenage horror, one must add a member from another genre: Night School Studio’s 2016 visual novel, Oxenfree.

While Oxenfree takes inspiration from slasher teenage horror, it adds a paranormal twist to the formula while keeping an 80’s aesthetic.

Taken during gameplay on a PC.

Oxenfree is a weird video game to put next to these films. On the one hand, it takes inspiration from these movies, though these movies are solidly considered to be slasher-style horror while Oxenfree fits a more paranormal style of horror. And yet, there are similarities to be found. Oxenfree starts with a group of teenagers staying overnight illegally at Edwards Island, a decommissioned military base turned into a tourist attraction. As the night goes on, the story delves into the paranormal as Alex, the game’s protagonist, and Jonas, her stepbrother, tune into something on a cave with a pocket radio. Had the paranormal been substituted for a slasher, Oxenfree’s Edwards Island would have everything to be another Camp Crystal Lake.

The cast of Oxenfree, from left to right: Jonas, Ren, Alex, Nona, and Clarissa. An odd group of friends with weird social dynamics brought to light by Jonas, the newcomer.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

           But what, exactly, is Oxenfree? I called it a visual novel earlier, but this is not usually how the game is categorised. It is categorised as an adventure game, next to the likes of LucasArts’s Grim Fandango (1998), Amanita Design’s Machinarium (2009), and Sierra’s/The Odd Gentlemen’s King’s Quest franchise (started 1980, latest release in 2016). And yet, the label of “adventure” does not quite fit Oxenfree. Adventure games typically rely on solving puzzles, particularly using items: as players explore the world of the game, they find items that they can use to solve puzzles elsewhere. While Oxenfree has its own puzzles, they do not rely on item-collection. It is worth pointing out that, in recent years, the adventure genre has de-emphasised collecting items in favour of free-form exploration, particularly with the boom of so-called “walking simulators” like The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home (2013), Campo Santo’s Firewatch (2016), or Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), as well as non-item-driven adventure games like Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods (2017). Where Oxenfree diverges from adventure games is in its reliance on dialogue.

An example of the dialogue choice-making mechanic in Oxenfree. Notice the static and the warping, too.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

This is not to say that adventure games do not have dialogue, they do, but it is dialogue of a different kind. Think, for example, of a game like Grim Fandango. It fits the object-oriented model of the adventure genre, but it has an abundance of dialogue. The main character, Manny, will say his thoughts about whatever the player interacts with. It will not be uncommon for the player to have more than 3 dialogue choices with every character Manny speaks with. Sometimes these conversations have some relevance to the puzzles, so, for example, in the beginning of the game, Manny needs a driver. A mechanic offers his help, but needs a signed form from the boss. So the player needs to get the form and the signature. Most of the dialogue, however, could be considered world-building: it does not add much to the game itself, but it helps players understand its world.

Despite having other game mechanics (like puzzle-solving and relatively free movement through the island), the core of Oxenfree lies on picking what to say from choices given to the player/reader, which puts the game, at least on a mechanical level, within the realm of the visual novel, a form that abandons most mechanics in place of dialogue. Instead of using other mechanics to progress through the game and using dialogue to establish the game’s world, visual novels turn the game into dialogue and text. The player/reader clicks through dialogue boxes to read the story without much input, but eventually the flow of the narrative stops, and the game offers different choices for the player/reader to make, and the choice has repercussions on how the story plays out.

 Oxenfree puts a twist on this system: it does not stop for the player/reader. Dialogue choices appear and, given enough time, disappear, making silence the result of not picking. The player/reader, then, has to be engaged with the narrative to know what to say, or if they should say anything at all. The stipulation in the realism of dialogue, however, does not take away from Oxenfree’s state as a visual novel, since the mechanic of the choice-making moment is still there. Silence, though not made visually evident, is also a choice available to the player/reader, and it turns the default state of not picking into a viable option. The time constraints make Oxenfree’s dialogue mechanic more like a conversation. Instead of being faced with dialogue boxes that wait for the player/reader to finish reading, Oxenfree is voice-acted to make it more real. Likewise, instead of pausing the narrative to choose certain dialogue options from time to time, Oxenfree is relentless in how many dialogue choices are given to the player, having the opportunity to interject or respond frequently. The stipulation on the realism of conversation makes Oxenfree feel more like a film, particularly those it takes inspiration from.

An example of the screen glitching.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

I want to return to this point now to bring up a formal feature of Oxenfree: glitching. Whenever the ghosts (Entities? Beings?) of the island show themselves, the screen shows visual glitches to signify that something is wrong, but they are not the glitches one would expect in a 2016 game: rather than showing more modern glitches like those in a visual novel like 2017’s Doki Doki Literature Club (which I briefly talked about in a previous article), which has character sprites breaking and turning into a mess of black squares and bits and pieces of other sprites, backgrounds distorting into computer errors, a simulation of a computer crashing, or sound files corrupting. Instead, Oxenfree relies on outdated glitches like static and warping. The game as a whole is interested in anachronistic depictions of technology, from instant photographs to pocket radios, passing through mentions of atomic bombs. Oxenfree hides most of its backstory on optional events, but it still retains its focus on a more film-inspired form of dialogue mechanic.

This article is part of an ongoing series about video games and visual novels. Previous pieces make a case for the relevance of video games to the literary; investigate a video game retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore; describe the nature of the visual novel, and take a closer look at one particular example, Bury Me, My Love, which tells a story about the global migration crisis. In the next article, we will continue to analyse the limits of the visual novel as a form through an analysis of Sukeban Games’s VA-11 Hall-A.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

INTERVIEW

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Aathma Nirmala Dious

Tishani Doshi is a poet, novelist, and journalist, who is currently teaching in the Literature and Creative Writing Program. She was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2018 for her collection of poems Girls Are Coming out of the Woods. Her recent novel Small Days and Nights was published by Bloomsbury in the UK and will appear from Norton in the US next January. A reviewer in for The Guardian described Small Days and Nights as “ a concise novel of staggering depth.” She spoke with us on the eve of her performance at the 2019 Heykayah Festival at NYUAD.

Aathma Dious: You wear many hats as a writer: journalist, fiction writer and poet. Do the disciplines seem separate for you or do they often bleed into each other?

Tishani Doshi: Writing is writing. I think of myself as a poet first, and so there’s an engagement with language regardless of the form I’m working in. But I suppose there’s a different relationship to time across the disciplines. If I’m working on a novel, I tend to be in this tunnel for months and I find I can’t do any other kind of writing, or anything else really. You’re also dealing with time in the novel, which is this huge unwieldy beast. Poetry is more elastic, a poem is its own universe, and there’s a completeness about it that’s very satisfying. Also, I find I don’t need to live in a tunnel to write poems. Essentially, writing is putting one word after the other, but the tricks are different.

AD: How do you know when you are ready to write a new poem? What kinds of things inspire you?

TD: Poems arrive. Recently I’ve been inspired by news stories. I’m fascinated by the fact that we’re living in this age of information but are still no closer to explaining consciousness, that truth and fake news sit side by side, that change is happening at such a torpedo rate. I often think poetry is the one form I have that allows me to respond to all these things. India has also been a fertile place for me in terms of inspiration, and living away from it as I have been this past year, while I’ve been teaching at NYUAD, has allowed me distance to examine what’s going on there—a lot of which is politically quite dark. Poems are a way of reconciling—so when you hear a minister of education saying Darwin was wrong and we have descended for sages and rishis, you know, obviously, that goes straight into a poem.

AD: How did you begin envisioning the dance for the poem “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods”? What comes first, the dance or the poem?

TD: I’m an accidental dancer in that I never had a formal training in dance. I worked with the Indian choreographer, Chandralekha, for many years, and so during that time I was working with someone who had a strong visual expression and I was part of that vision. After she died, I found I was not ready to give up on dance, as I’d been performing for fifteen years, and over that time I had built a physical vocabulary for myself drawing from yoga, bharatnatyam and kallaripayattu. So with “Girls” it was really about finding in movement what I was doing with words, which is to say, finding a way to reclaim the female body.

AD: Looking back on your writing, is there a favorite piece of work or a memory about writing you would like to share?

TD: I was a junior in college when I took a creative writing class which changed the direction of my life. I have few moments in my life which I count as decisive moments, where I recognized even then that this choice was moving me in a different direction. Meeting Chandralekha was one of them, but deciding to become a poet in college was also one of them. I knew then that all the statistics and economics stuff I was doing was fine, but it was never going to be enough. I’m glad I followed my intuition.  

Tishani Doshi

AD: Do you have any poetic influences and what poets are you reading now?

TD: I’m omnivorous and polyamorous and all kinds of influenced when it comes to poetry. This semester I’ve been revisiting old favorites with my students—Wislawa Szymborska, Ada Limon, Bob Hicok, the Beats, and the Bhakti movement among others—and so this is what I’m reading (because obviously there’s no time to read anything else when you’re teaching).

AD: Tell us a little bit about your composition and revision processes.

TD: So—I like to compare it with Indian miniature painting, even though I’m not a painter. The first step is drawing the rough sketch with charcoal, then firming up with a brush and introducing more details, then followed by a thin coat of white primer, then black, then removing the blemishes and burnishing so that the colored pigments can be applied layer by layer. Then, the painting is placed face down and this fuses the pigments into the surface and gives the painting a luster, and HERE the magical step which is called the “khulai,” literally, the opening up, where the painting comes to life, but no, it’s not over, there’s shading, stippling and more burnishing to do, and finally the borders and margins are given and colored in. And between the first and final stage a thousand things can go wrong, and in a less pretty way, that’s the writing process as well.

AD: The UAE government has celebrated 2019 as the “year of tolerance.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between poetry and tolerance?

TD: That’s an interesting question. I like to think of literature as being an empathy-enabler, we read because it allows us a way in to the imagination. We can experience other lives, other realities, other worlds. But the strange thing about poetry is that while it is, I think, one of the most honorable forms (there are so few perks to poetry that only the really devoted need apply), there is also a bizarre trend of dictators loving to write poetry. If you take a quick historical inventory of dictators, many of them wrote poetry—Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Hitler—so writing poetry doesn’t automatically make you empathetic. Perhaps if they’d had more successful careers as poets they might not have tortured people so.

AD: Is there anything you are hoping to learn from being part of Hekayah this year? Is there anything about the evening that particularly excites you?

TD: I’m just happy to be a part of the festivities. It looks like a great line-up. 

Tishani Doshi performs her dance version of “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods” at a TEDx event in Chennai in March 2018. The poem is read by her with music composed by Luca Nardon.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at NYUAD and the poetry editor for Electra Street.

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