“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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ART AND ART HISTORY
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
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

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.

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.

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

INTERVIEW

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

Aathma Nirmala Dious

Zoe Jane Patterson and Vamika Sinha are seniors in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. Last year, they founded the online literary journal Postscript; this year, they are each writing creative capstones, Patterson in fiction and Sinha in poetry. They shared some insights into their creative practices in advance of their appearances at the 2019 NYUAD Hekayah Festival.

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

Zoe Jane Patterson: For me, poetry begins with discomfort. You’re about to board a 14-hour flight; babies will cry, your skin will dry out until you look like a sphynx cat, and as soon as you sit on the toilet there will be turbulence. There is nothing beautiful about this situation. But if you write it down you get to control it: you get to sculpt it, make fun of it, and use it to think about other, bigger things.  No matter what the discomfort is for me, whether it’s physical or social or internal, if I turn it into a poem then I gain some power over it.

My poems almost always have a narrative thread that runs through them, probably because I tend to see the world through stories. That narrative, or at least an ending, gets formed in the first draft. My first drafts usually over-explain themselves. It takes me a while to let go of stanzas that are slowing things down because of my anxiety that I won’t be understood. Once the poem has been sculpted, I consider each word, shaking it down and swapping it for synonyms. I read the whole thing out loud. It’s also essential for me to show new poetry to a handful of trusted readers. I never feel like a poem is done, but eventually I can let myself leave it alone.

Vamika Sinha: I don’t generally plan my poems, unless I have a bunch of complex ideas I’m dealing with that need a little bit of structuring beforehand. I usually have one central idea or image that pops in my mind, and I’ll put that down and build the poem around it. Not all my poems are short or compact, but I guess most are. I like the challenge that concision poses, the idea of creating as much meaning and beauty within constraint. But to be honest, I don’t think too consciously about length. The poem is as long as I feel it needs to be, as long as I’ve conveyed what I set out to. A lot of it is intuitive.

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

ZJP: Poetry can come from lots of places for me. Sometimes I have a fleeting idea and scrawl it down. It can be an image, a contradiction, something absurd, a situation, or a joke etc. Then I go back to it and see if it’s supposed to turn into a poem or short story or be part of a larger piece of fiction. Poems also often come out of my rants and annoyances. I start ranting to someone I love about something that makes me angry or uncomfortable, and those thoughts are later recorded in my journal as the terrible first draft of a poem. Sometimes the same thing happens when I’m ranting to myself in my journal. I get inspired by discomfort, and I often feel the need to write when I encounter injustice. I always want to write when I encounter really great writing or artistry of any kind.

VS: I don’t know if I’m ever “ready” to write a poem. I think I love it enough that it feels natural to always kind of be thinking about writing, in the back of my mind. I’m always coming up with images or scraps of stanzas and putting them down in my phone, wherever I am. And then later, it’ll usually become something fuller, a larger developed poem when I push myself to sit down and write. I get a lot of inspiration from music. I’m actually a trained musician and music was there for me before writing or literature cropped up in my life, that was my main discipline and artistic outlet. I love mixing music with literary form, like jazz poetry for example, and referencing musicians that I think are monumental. My capstone, for example, is named after a song by Solange Knowles. Otherwise, I’m very inspired by movies, theories and books I read, personal emotional experiences, women’s histories, and cities. Also food. And love, of course.

DG: Speaking of food … Vamika, in your Postscript essay “Hungry City,” you write about eating ramen and the ways in which your experience of New York was “shaped by Asian hand.” How did food become central to your writing and your understanding? 

VS: I first started thinking about food and writing during my first year writing seminar in freshman year. I took “Street Food” with Deepak Unnikrishnan. I remember not even wanting to take this class, thinking “What’s the point of taking a class called ‘Street Food’ and in a city like Abu Dhabi?” But a lot of people talked well about the professor, so I registered. It was one of the most pivotal decisions I’ve taken at NYUAD. Professor Unnikrishnan became a very important mentor to me over the years, and I learnt so much, not only about writing, but about observing the world and the city in that class. Food is a conduit for larger conversations about our world. Over time, I’ve expanded on my experiences with food in various cities as ways of meditating on urban life, socio-political experiences, cosmopolitanism, and more.

AD: Have you had any fun or memorable food encounters in Abu Dhabi that you’d like to share?

VS: Nothing too exciting. I’ve had a few fun encounters while running the “AD Secrets” column for The Gazelle. A friend and I discovered a ludicrously tiny Game of Thrones-themed sandwich shop in a very random part of the city, and it turned out to be one of the greatest sandwich experiences both of us had ever had in our lives (the place is called “Game of Toast”). In general, I love recording the misspelled menu items in Abu Dhabi cafeterias, stuff like “sea snak” instead of “sea snake” or “saghetti salomon” instead of “salmon spaghetti.” It’s almost as if the typos are a requirement if you want to thrive as a diner here. I also love random quirky things like finding a drink called “Happiness” or existentially confused items like “Small Fish Big.”

Zoe Jane Patterson

AD: Zoe, you grew up in Al Ain. How different is it from Abu Dhabi? Do you find that you treat the two locations differently if you write about them?

ZJP: Al Ain radically shifted my ways of seeing myself and the world. I experienced formative teenage years and milestones there, but more importantly, it shook me out of my North-American suburban mentality. The city is this small dot of an oasis that exists in a vast desert, but somehow, it’s also large in all the worlds it contains and connects to. Al Ain is a city that feels like a small town, so it nurtured me in softer ways than a bigger city might have, and it’s the first home that I fiercely loved. My capstone project, which will hopefully someday become my first novel, is set in Al Ain because of how much I learned there and how much I believe in its magic.

Abu Dhabi is home though; I love walking through the streets here, taking notes of quirky shop names or conversations with strangers. Abu Dhabi has an anonymity and mobility that Al Ain never did: In Al Ain I would never walk through the city center, there was nowhere like the corniche for social mixing. It’s harder to write poetry about Al Ain, because life happens behind closed doors there. Prose has the breadth to yank them open but my poetry struggles. I wouldn’t want to live in Al Ain again; it was a wonderful cocoon and introduction to the world but my younger self belonged there much more than I do. I feel better able to criticize Abu Dhabi, and to sit with its discomforts, which has made for more and better poetry.

AD: For the Hekayah application, you had submitted a poem about Abu Dhabi that, I dare say as someone who grew up there, was quite spot on.  Could you talk more about it?

ZJP: Thank you! “Invisible Abu Dhabi” was the first poem I ever wrote about this city, and it came out of a long walk with a friend after dinner, from one end of the corniche to the other. As we walked, the sun started to set, and I thought about all the ways that the city changes when darkness falls. It’s almost as though Abu Dhabi transforms into an entirely different place. I was thinking about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and was reading a collection of short stories by Murakami called The Elephant Vanishes at the time. As we walked I imagined alternate realities, and at the same time I was uncomfortable with my own position in the city at night. Suddenly home had become slightly sinister, and I wanted to re-enact that shift in a poem.

AD: Vamika, do you find that it is different to write poetry in or about Abu Dhabi than in or about other places places you know like Botswana or New York?

VS: Well yeah, it’s different to write about any city because every city is different from the other. My capstone, which bridges cosmopolitanism with women of color, deals with a lot of how women move differently in every city. Abu Dhabi is different because it’s situated in an Islamic country, with this very transient and patchwork demographic. It’s starkly different from New York, obviously, or Botswana or anywhere else really. The way you interact with others, I’ve theorized, as in any city, depends on what history has produced in that city. UAE history has produced a certain type of population with mixed ethnicities, certain class dynamics, religious realities and laws and rules that affect the way I move in Abu Dhabi. The city’s history overlaps with my individual history too, so as an Indian woman who has grown up in Africa, speaks a certain set of languages, is a certain age etc, or in other words, what my body is as a collection of histories, interacts with the city as a body of histories, and it’s what happens in those interactions that I try to make poetry from, whatever city I’m in. Each city differs because the histories and the way those histories overlap with mine are always different and evolving too.

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

ZJP: I have two books of poetry that I bring with me wherever I go, one is by Emily Dickinson, the other is by E.E. Cummings. I don’t think my writing is anything like either of theirs, but if I ever need to get inspired I leaf through one of those books. I also turn to poets such as Claudia Rankine, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Ted Hughes. Poetry isn’t always inspired by poetry though—a poem I’m working on right now was inspired by Ways of Seeing, which is a collection of short essays by John Berger about looking at artworks. I’m often inspired by artworks and films. Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro remains one of my biggest influences.

VS: I’d say I’m pretty influenced by Safia Elhillo, Fatimah Asghar, Ada Limon, Gloria Anzaldua, Claudia Rankine, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. But also other kinds of writers, including fiction and theory. My favorite writer for example is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah is one of the most important books to me as both a writer and woman. Open City by Teju Cole is another major book. I also think a lot about James Baldwin, Edward Said, Langston Hughes, bell hooks and again, musicians and lyrics/rap. I’m heavily inspired by artists like Mac Miller, Solange, FKA twigs, Frank Ocean, Mitski etc. I feel like I’m always having conversations with what these people have wrote in my head and those conversations and thought processes eventually come out in the poems, as ways of thinking and re-thinking, and making and remaking, the world.

AD: Zoe, you write short stories as well. What draws you to that form?

ZJP: I started writing short stories for creative writing workshops. Before that I was always interested in writing a novel, and never really read short stories or saw them as a true form. Once I started trying to write them though I realized how difficult they are to master. You have to create an entire believable world with interesting characters in a short amount of time and you need to drag the reader along with a plot that’s interesting. All of the elements of a novel are in there, but none of the breadth. Writing and reading short stories always makes me feel a little breathless. I write them now as a way of testing ideas for new worlds, and of practicing plot and getting into new characters’ heads. Sometimes I get an idea for a scene and I just write it out to see what happens, and then I realize the scene is unfolding into a plot. The excitement of that almost spontaneous unfolding makes me want to keep writing new stories. 

Vamika Sinha

AD: Let’s talk about Postcript How did that come about?

VS: We started Postscript mostly by chance in our dorms while we were studying abroad at NYU Paris. It came out of us not taking any literature classes while we were there and sorely missing it.

ZJP: A group of us were sitting in a café, sipping overpriced coffee and lamenting the lack of literature classes being offered by NYU Paris. We were coming to the slow realization that we would have to teach ourselves that semester. Then, someone had the idea to write a poem on our napkins and recite it for the others. These poems were terrible. We decided to keep going by writing a terrible poem every day and posting it in a group chat. It was our own shy way of expressing ourselves and our fears to each other without saying anything out loud. We let the work be bad and ugly, but after a while, we started to write real poetry with urgency. We wanted to share it with more than just each other; we wanted a reason to write and a place where our thoughts mattered. We decided to create that space for ourselves.

VS: We started to write a lot of poems together for fun about our experiences and dilemmas and questions and all the newness we were grappling with while living in France. We decided we want to share this work and our ideas and conversations on a platform, and so our little slapdash creation was spontaneously born. We wrote about the process last year in The Gazelle.

AD: Now that it’s launched, what do you see as the mission of Postcript?

ZJP: Postscript started off as a place for artists and writers whose work might be treated like a footnote, or an addition or amendment to the larger more important stories. We wanted to put those voices in a space together, and to create a network rather than a hierarchy between them. Postscript champions critical work: work that probes, pulls apart and investigates. The result has been submissions from all over the world, from a queer non-binary farmer making collages in Germany, to post-colonial poetry from Trinidad. The network has expanded and grown much more than we expected, and we hope to continue growing it to give space to these important conversations.

VS: We talk about our mission in the Gazelle article, and we’ve also written a mission statement. We’d ideally love to create a print issue by the time we graduate, have some more chapbooks, expand our contributor pool, up our readers etc etc. Basically, keep it going on an upward trajectory where it becomes more and more established.

AD: Tell us about what you’ve done with chapbooks so far.

ZJP: We’ve always wanted to be able to share physical copies of our work. Digital space is convenient, but it also comes with its own sets of challenges. A chapbook is our first attempt at using more traditional methods to disseminate work, and we’re so grateful for our contributors who agreed to be part of this first experiment. The chapbook is called Landing. It starts with the prose-poem “Origins” by Jamie Uy, then “Whole Foods” by Vamika Sinha, “I Want to Wear a Qípáo too” by Samantha Neugebauer, “China Doll” by Tzy Jiun Tan, “Frida” by Zoe Patterson, “Unfeeling Fortunato” by Amal Al Shamsi and “Incessant” by Elyazyeh Al Falacy. It ends with the final line of Elyazyeh’s poem “i’m not sure how i got here but i landed like an anchor.” (All of these poems are available on Postscript’s website.) There are also artistic contributions by Sandra Paris, Caitlyn Peck, and Tessa O’Halloran. We think of the chapbook as a microcosm for what we’re trying to do with Postscript as a whole.

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

ZJP: I think tolerance is important, but I don’t think it’s the word I’d use to describe what poetry does. Tolerance is about the ability to withstand difference, which is a necessary first step towards true harmony in a young and diverse country like the UAE. But poetry doesn’t just withstand difference: it can probe it, dive into it, push its boundaries and acknowledge its discomforts. Poetry can wrestle with difference rather than simply accepting or enduring it.

VS: As I said earlier, poetry, like any good art, is a way of rethinking and remaking the world around us. That includes social issues, politics, interpersonal relationships. So how do poetry and tolerance intersect? Apart from obvious stuff, like fostering empathy, allowing the reader to inhabit another’s mind and all that, poetry offers us new perspectives, just different angles of looking at the same thing, from meditating on an apple slice to getting catcalled in a foreign city. Of course, prose can do that too. Statistics and research can present the same information. But what’s special about poetry is that it remakes meaning and beauty out of whatever topic it deals with, through the sheer craft of working with language in an innovative and dynamic way. Other writing presents the problem or question, may even provide solutions, but poetry allows us to walk into it, to experience

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?

VS: I haven’t performed poetry on stage since doing Rooftop Rhythms in freshman year! So I suppose I’m ready to reconfront the idea of going up on stage and sharing my work again now that I’m older and have written more, and with a larger audience.

ZJP: There is always so much to learn from having conversations with other artists. I am particularly invested in the arts scene in the UAE, which is still young and growing. The conversations we have now and the projects we produce can shape the future of the arts in this country. We are creating traditions, and that’s powerful. I’m most excited to share the stage with a group of artists I admire. I’m especially excited to see Professor Tishani Doshi perform, she’s one of my mentors and someone who I hope I can write like someday.

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

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

OP-ED

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Yasmeen Tajiddin

November 2019

Nobody says she was born a chemist, but somehow, if you’re an artist or a singer, people assume you were born with that talent. 

Going into my Playwriting class, I thought it was a class where I would be comfortable. I took Intro to Creative Writing last semester and wrote a couple of scripts for an acting class. How hard could it be?

The answer? Really, really hard. Every week we talked about another aspect of playwriting that I had not considered the week before. What are the characters’ relationship to the setting? What is the visual language of your play? What is each character’s personal ideology and how do they clash? And my personal nightmare: what does your character sound like?

Apparently, everyone can’t speak like me, so I had to think more actively about how people speak. Every YouTube hair tutorial became a lesson in the use of “like.” Every idiom I unconsciously use on a daily basis became an important choice in my writing. Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak. All these moving pieces had to boil down to seven to ten pages every week, each script better (I hoped) than the last.

            Vocal Ensemble, on the other hand, was something I knew I would be terrible at. My only experience with reading music was playing cello in the 5th grade, and I have to concentrate embarrassingly hard to hit all the notes in “Happy Birthday.” There was a lot of room for improvement.

Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak.

On one of the first days of class, the professor stressed that we needed to do vocal warm-ups every day. Similar to my experience in Playwriting, I found there were so many more elements that go into choral performance than just hitting the notes. While it isn’t the common understanding, people who can sing well study. Rather than a thing you’re simply good or bad at, a singing voice can be developed by regularly “exercising” it. Sure, someone can be born with a good singing voice, but if she doesn’t know how to shape her mouth for certain vowel sounds, or how to control her breath for higher or longer notes, or where to place a note for the best resonance, she won’t be nearly as good as she can be. I, like most people, did not know all these elements went into singing, let alone what they meant. The reality is, every piece of music is dissected and analyzed before it is fit to be performed in front of an audience. 

We don’t often think of artists as scientific or meticulous in terms of their processes. But when an audience hears a polished choral performance or a scene from a play, they are actually hearing the hours of work that went into each performance. The recent Open Studios event helps demonstrate that fact: for our thirty-minute Open Studios singing performance, for example, we spent an hour and a half each week of the semester learning and refining the same four songs. By the time we performed, I felt like I was taking a test I’d studied for extensively. It felt like a relief to put our final product in front of an audience and hear positive reactions; simultaneously, performing reminded me of sections that I still needed to work on.

Photo Credit: NYUAD Arts & Humanities

 

Like STEM, writing and singing demand extensive research, studying, and practice. A very small portion of artistic skills are innate. So while I did think I was a good writer who could improve, I now know how and what to improve on. And while I’m not the best singer, I know that I can get better and sing something harder than “Happy Birthday.”

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

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