Interview: Sarah Manguso

August 17th, 2017

Sarah Manguso author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Sarah Manguso about her book 300 Arguments, indulging a writing habit, finishing pieces, and more.

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Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Sarah Manguso: I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the nineties — my first westward traversal of the Mississippi!

MC: 300 Arguments reads like essays constructed in the form of poems with each line a parable, life lesson, or provoking thought. How did you develop this genre-blurring format?

SM: After working relatively fruitlessly on a different book, I found myself turning away from it in order to write very short pieces of prose — very short, but complete in themselves. They provided an antidote to the frustrating, enduring incompleteness of the other book, and they eventually became a different book.

300 Arguments book cover

MC: A review on NPR called 300 Arguments a “poem of quarrels,” where each line seems to fight the line before and after in an existential battle. What reaction did you hope to provoke in your readers? Did you want to start an internal “quarrel?”

SM: My definition of the word argument isn’t limited to quarrel but includes a more varied grab-bag drawn from the word’s archaic meanings: subject, theme, sign, mark, token, proof, hint, plot, declaration, evidence, burden, complaint, accusation, denouncement, betrayal. I wasn’t interested in either starting or avoiding an internal quarrel. I just wanted to finish something. Or 300 somethings.

MC: You once said to “think of [300 Arguments] as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” Why did you want to include only the most memorable lines?

SM: I didn’t start out wanting anything, really — I was just indulging a habit that eventually became a book. That argument you quote above was written relatively late in the project, after it was nearly done.

MC: Various authors have equated deleting lines and phrases to “kill[ing] your darlings.” For 300 Arguments, what was your editing process in order to build such a condensed book?

SM: I’ve seen this line attributed to various folks, but it’s Arthur Quiller-Couch: “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

AQC instructs us to strike out our prideful flourishes, the artifacts of self-love, the passages in which we’re listening to ourselves write—to leave room for the writing itself.

I don’t think 300 Arguments even has darlings, by that definition—the sections are too short. On the other hand, maybe the entire book is just one darling after another.

MC: Which aphorism argument in 300 Arguments is your favorite?

SM: Every time I’m obliged to read from it I find that my tastes have changed, but I’m usually partial to the shortest ones.

MC: 300 Arguments addresses a wide range of key questions of the human condition from love to death and beyond. Is there a central message or evolution of ideas you want to convey?

SM: No, there is no single, central argument.

MC: What’s next for you?

SM: It’s back to work on the other book — for now, at least.

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Sarah Manguso is the author of seven books including Ongoingness, The Guardians, and The Two Kinds of Decay. She lives in California.

Flash Fiction Round 3 Runner-up: “Stilwell Jr. High School, 1919” by E.B. Schnepp

Flash Fiction contest 2017 MG logo
 

During the summer of 2017 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 3 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 3 runner-up: “Stilwell Jr. High School, 1919” by E.B. Schnepp
 

Milo talked about sliding through the air duct, but I only had an eye for the chain link fences, the fountains that kicked on by themselves, caution tape pasted over every entrance to the tunnels. Rita, stopping the elevator to write our names on its sliding lock-down panel,
                                                                                                       did you know time everywhere stops when you pause the elevator? That’s why they have to tear down the school, because nowhere should have that kind of power, because kids come here to study before math exams, because it’s more camera free than the small stairs’ corner landing, because—don’t lie to me—even you are starting to get ideas the grownups don’t want you to know you have.

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E.B. Schnepp is a poet hailing from rural Mid-Michigan who currently finds herself stranded in the flatlands of Ohio. Her work can also be found in Hypertrophic Lit, Maudlin House, and Crab Fat, among others.

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Flash Fiction Round 3 Winner: “This City Will Make Gypsies of Us All” by Dan Mancilla

Flash Fiction contest 2017 MG logo
 

During the summer of 2017 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 3 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 3 winner: “This City Will Make Gypsies of Us All” by Dan Mancilla
 

Stosh Duda carved the gypsy girl’s initials into his desk on Thursday. Friday the school’s doors were padlocked, desks heaped on the lawn. The gypsies vanished.

Could’ve been a con, Halloween mischief, but it was only the first of October. Maybe a gypsy curse, their parting shot at us. Had we treated them so bad? Hadn’t the school opened its doors to them? They weren’t loved but weren’t run off. That’s the best anyone can hope for here.

This city will make gypsies of us all. Uncle, cousin, teacher, neighbor. Sister Mary Magdalene, who’s not a nun and not always a whore, lambed it because of delinquent parking tickets on that rusted-out van where she slept but never turned tricks. Angelo Pulaski did nine months in Gary after he couldn’t square things with Lefty Schurs over some bad luck at the dog track. He came home July 5th, the day after Lefty caught his own bad luck: a seeing-eye .38 slug. Just some jerk across the alley popping off patriotic rounds.

First of the month eviction notices Black Hawk-style. Apartments turned inside-out, fishkill rotting in the sun. Bitsy Mendez in her housecoat shouting, “Look what them sons-a-bitches done!” while corner boys buzzard-circle, swoop in, fly away. Just looking for now, giving Bitsy a chance to haul off her shit before they do. Neighborly courtesy because hard times are just times in Black Hawk. Could be them next.

It could happen, our city’s unofficial motto. The Tomahawks could crawl out of the cellar. Sweep Joliet, knock off Muskegon, make a run at 4th place. LaSalle could add another shift if someone with clout raised hell about that mooncrater foundation developers abandoned years ago, convince them to build something there with good LaSalle steel. The black-haired beauty, the gypsy girl in 3rd period Geometry, could be making eyes at Stosh Duda and not the quarterback behind him.

It could happen, so the corner boys just circle Bitsy Mendez for now estimating values of old bras, broken recliners, picture albums of long dead strangers.

Stosh couldn’t imagine there’d been rent on the school, where time was spent like a LaSalle millworker spent his paycheck Friday nights, the way Stosh’s dad used to piss away beer money, grocery money, rent money setting up rounds for the house, big man at the tavern.

What debts had Stosh incurred, what calamities set in motion when he carved the gypsy girl’s initials into his desk? In Black Hawk it’s easier to see the beginning of things and harder to see their ends. She told him winter would come early, begged him to leave with her, promised herself to him if he did. Promised to read his fortune, stroke his lifeline. But she didn’t reveal this future to him. So now Stosh holds vigil atop those desks reading their brail of carved graffiti, gnawing at their petrified chewing gum, searching for her name, hunting for her taste, yearning for her return, praying: it could happen, it could happen.

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Dan Mancilla, Ph.D. is Professor of General Education at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dan’s the author of the short story collection All the Proud Fathers (Dock Street Press) and the novella The Deathmask of El Gaucho (Passages North/Little Presque Books). His fiction has appeared in Barrelhouse, The Chicago Tribune, Monkeybicycle, The Saturday Evening Post, and River Styx, among other journals. You can read more about Dan and his work at danmancilla.com

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Midwest in Photos: The Fog

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” – Henry James, The Middle Years.

Photo by: Christina Kling-Garrett

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Interview: Barbara Browning

Barbara Browning author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Barbara Browning about her book The Gift, virtual intimacy, collaboration, and more.

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Audrey Meyers: What is your connection to the midwest?

Barbara Browning: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother was born in Pontiac, Michigan, and my father in Elyria, Ohio. My parents separated when I was six, and when I was twelve my mother, sister and I moved to Northern Virginia, but I think my early years in Wisconsin, as well as my mother’s sensibility, were pretty determinant of something in my voice as a writer.
I’ve made reference to that in each of my novels. In The Correspondence Artist, the narrator says very early on, “my own voice has a certain Midwestern flatness about it. Perhaps you’ve already noticed that.” Actually, she says that on the first page of the book. And indeed, I think by the time they get to that line, readers will already have noticed what I’m talking about. The narrator of my second novel, I’m Trying to Reach You, was different from me in some respects (among them, gender), but we had in common having been raised by a single mom from the Midwest. Barbara Andersen, the narrator of The Gift, also references the Midwest quite a bit. My own mother and sister both ended up returning to Wisconsin, and live there now. Barbara A.’s mother and sister live in Ohio.

AM: How has being a professor at NYU impacted your writing?

BB: I had to introduce myself at an academic talk the other day and I began it by saying “I have the OBSCENE pleasure of teaching in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU.” That’s not actually an exaggeration. I’d been teaching performance theory and research methodologies for some time before I began writing fiction, so unlike a lot of fiction writers, who teach as a way to support their writing practice, which comes first, I began with a desire to teach, and then developed an interest in writing fiction as a way to expand what I was able to do in thinking about the theoretical, aesthetic and political questions in the areas of performance that move me. My students are brilliant, curious, brave, weird, and constantly turning me on to new music, dance and writing. My colleagues are also very precious to me. I end up inspired by them and quite a few have made at least cameo appearances in my writing.
Higher education today is a confusing place to be if you have certain political commitments. That is, it can be a very comfortable sphere, in some ways, if you lean leftward, but in many institutions, including my own, that’s undergirded by the crushing debt incurred by many students. So I think it’s important to keep challenging that, and talking about it, and grappling for ways to address that. It’s a part of the narrative of The Gift.

AM: What inspired you to write The Gift?

BB: In the book, my narrator explains that her readings of theorists of gift economies (Marcel Mauss, Lewis Hyde, David Graeber) in the wake of the Occupy movement inspire her to try an experiment – recording little ukulele cover tunes and spamming people with them in order to possibly stimulate a gift economy of purely sentimental value. I actually did that. And it’s kind of supposed to be funny, but it was also kind of serious. The part about valuing sentimental value over monetary or even aesthetic value was, I suppose, the feminist intervention. My own experiment led to a story very similar to Barbara Andersen’s. It was exhilarating, heartbreaking, scary, and poignant.

The Gift Barbara Browning book cover

AM: What is significant about the virtual world in your book? How do you use it to explore the universal human condition?

BB: In all of my novels, the internet plays a big role – through the email correspondence of my narrator in The Correspondence Artist to the YouTube obsessions of my narrator in I’m Trying to Reach You to the swapping of digital sound and video files between my characters in The Gift. In all three cases, I actually made the digital files (and YouTube pages) that were reference in the texts. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the way we read now has changed. Even when one’s reading novels that don’t reference digital culture, we have a tendency to pause to Google something, and especially when there’s a blurry boundary between “reality” and “fiction” as there is in much of my writing, one has a tendency to want to go down certain rabbit holes. Of course, rabbit holes can be dangerous things. What I always try to encourage my students to do is to toggle between analog and digital. Your question asks about “universality,” and I’m not sure that’s exactly what I’m pointing at, although I also think that questions like the blurry boundary between reality and fiction are hardly new! Cervantes was asking the same kinds of things.

AM: It is thought-provoking that you investigate human interaction by sharing your music to no one in particular through emails. How do you express these connections through words and music rather than other sensory experiences that happen in person?

BB: Ironically, sometimes the voice recorded feels more intimate than the voice in a live conversation, say, in a café. I’m just finishing recording the audio novel version of The Gift, and I’m very self-conscious about my recorded speaking voice. The character Sami in the novel sends the narrator long recorded voice messages. Sometimes those feel even more naked or intimate than a physical encounter might. Sometimes we lose sight (or sense) of that in recorded music, because of the layering of sound or the way production can smooth out the edges – what I describe as the sound of the spit on the lips or the hairs in the nose when you listen to certain recorded voices. I think I say, “It’s almost like somebody’s sticking their tongue in your ear.” I find it interesting to acknowledge how intimate that experience can be.

AM: What did you learn about yourself as a writer when creating The Gift?

BB: Well, I think I knew this already, but this novel was the one in which I really had to confront my sense of obligation to the people in my life who end up incorporated into my fiction. That is, I always ask them to read drafts, and tell me what they’re comfortable or uncomfortable with, even if they’re not recognizable as themselves. I don’t hold that up as an ethical standard for anybody else – in fact, I don’t know of anybody who’s as obsessed with that as I am. For better or worse, it’s a compulsion.

AM: What do you hope people take away from your book?

BB: It’s funny, I had a feeling people would focus on the drama of the relationship with Sami, and the question of whether love at a distance is fulfilling, which isn’t a bad question, but isn’t really the most interesting one to me. I was hoping some of the political questions raised by the book might be of interest – and to my amazement, in fact, early readers seem to be responding to those. That is, I’d like for us, in this moment of great political anxiety and, for many of us, despair, to hold on to some hope, and maybe even utopianism.

AM: Why do you infuse music into your book? In other words, how does music relate to the purpose of your book? And how did this impact your writing style?

BB: Most of the ukulele cover tunes I mention in the narrative are archived on my SoundCloud page (https://soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning). There’s also a Vimeo page (the book has the site and the password in it) where the dance videos are archived. As in all my work, sometimes the music and dance inspires the writing, and sometimes it works in the other direction. Some readers seem to access this work, and others just want to imagine it. That doesn’t really bother me, though I’m always happy if someone told me they took a look or a listen…

AM: After creating The Gift, what does it mean to you to be an artist in the modern world?

BB: Well, I think I always thought something pretty close to Lewis Hyde’s proposition in his book, which is also called The Gift: that loving other people’s art is what makes it possible to make your own, and listening, and reading, and watching are as important and generous acts as making.

AM: To you, how is human interaction a gift?

BB: In the book, the narrator describes her relationship with her son as a “collaboration,” and I think I believe that of all deeply significant relationships – familial, erotic, sentimental. The gift is making something beautiful together, by which I don’t mean a symphony or a skit or a macaroni sculpture, but, say, a comical conversation, or a meal, or a few minutes of silent concentration over a cigarette on the balcony.

AM: What’s next for you?

BB: I have a little book in the 33 1/3 series coming out in September, and in January of 2018, my collaborator Sébastien Régnier and I are publishing a co-authored book, Who the Hell is Imre Lodbrog? We’ve been doing a series of performances about that one – one of the most recent ones is about our trip to Two Rivers, Wisconsin! So, you see, the Midwest keeps coming back…

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Barbara Browning teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. She received her PhD in comparative literature from Yale University. She is the author of the novels The Correspondence Artist (winner of a Lambda Literary Award) and I’m Trying to Reach You (short-listed for the Believer Book Award). She also makes dances, poems, and ukulele cover tunes.

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Summer 2017 issue – cover and contributor listing

It has been a banner year for us here at Midwestern Gothic: in addition to releasing our first bi-annual issue this past winter, we published Keith Lesmeister’s collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here in May to great acclaim, and will be publishing Anna Prushinskaya’s exciting essay collection A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother this November. While summer has raged on—and continues, yet, for a few more weeks!—we’ve been working hard on the newest issue of Midwestern Gothic...and we’re delighted to present cover for it, the Summer 2017 issue!

The gorgeous cover art is by Teagan White.

And take a look at this stellar line-up of contributors (which we still can’t get over!):

The Summer 2017 issue will be releasing officially on Monday, August 21—mark your calendars!

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Flash Fiction Round 2 Runner-up: “Unwed” by Vahid Arefi

Flash Fiction contest 2017 MG logo
 

During the summer of 2017 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 2 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 2 Runner-up: “Unwed” by Vahid Arefi
 

I go back to that summer in Greece, how I proposed to you, and how I nearly drowned. You saw my hands, rising up out of the sea, and grabbed them. We were both romantics then, and you called me Odysseus though we both knew how that story would end. But there, in between the islands, on the shining water, we didn’t care or mind the broken bits in our hearts or families. We’d crossed the same seas in our own time. Seen everything that was lost and shed in the wake of our parents’ divorces. You called it radical hope, but we were both finished with our own cynicism. Even the ruins here seem brighter than they should.

It was hard, coming home to Michigan. But, we had a small apartment just out of town. We didn’t mind how the paint peeled in the humid air, or how trash filled the storm drains. It was nice, living close enough to walk to the print shop where I worked, even though we were on the wrong side of the highway, and for a while, the only real trial was the temptation of the comic shop on the corner of Fourth and Main. We lived together for five years even though your parents never approved but always asked when we’d be married. We had our own plans and our own dreams though, and our engagement was easier, a promise without a promise. We couldn’t be divorced if we were never married. In our apartment, we made a home, pushed books up against the wall, and lined the window sill with plants.

But, walking to work the other day, I sold your engagement ring at the pawn shop just past the comics place. We both knew, when you left for California, you weren’t coming back before you put that ring into my hand. For a few weeks, I’d see it there, on the finger of a pair of hands in the window and think of buying it back for you, selling everything I had, and buying a ticket to follow you. You called it radical hope. But, yesterday I walked by the shop again and saw the ring was gone. The hands in the window, reaching for the sky, like they were breaking through the waves of the Aegean with no one to grab them.

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Vahid Arefi is an Iranian-American from Michigan. He received his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, and studied Sustainability and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. His work placed in the Michigan College of Engineering Cooley Writing Contest. Previously, in the first grade, he won the Terzo Premio art prize of the Collegio San Giuseppe. Vahid and his peers host a writer’s workshop from their living rooms in Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Grand Rapids.

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Flash Fiction 2017 Round 2 Winner: “Someday Street” by Chris Milam

Flash Fiction contest 2017 MG logo

During the summer of 2017 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest Series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 2 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 2 winner: “Someday Street” by Chris Milam
 

Andrew dressed the first mannequin in a pair of white parachute pants and Loverboy t-shirt. He placed a frosted and feathered brunette wig on its plastic head. Two of his fingers brushed stray synthetic hairs from her forehead; a spritz of Aqua Net secured the interlopers. Her lips were painted cinnamon, her eyelashes a shade of funeral. He clasped a silver cross necklace on the back of its neck.

The second one was squeezed into a pair of ripped jeans and arctic wolf tank. He outlined a goatee on its chin, filled it in with glue and coffee grinds. Next came a pair of aviator glasses, gold rope, and a red bandana.

He moved the artificial lovers to the bedroom window, arranged them face to face, hands reaching out to each other. Another inch and they would be touching, but an inch might as well be 108 miles north. Fuck Cleveland, he thought. He lit two tealight candles, set them on the sill.

After a nap, he dropped his body into a lawn chair. His mind had a line in the water hoping a citrusy scent or lost conversation or rogue laugh would bite the bait. He took in the charcoal briquette sky, then unscrewed the cap of a wine cooler and swallowed its syrupy nostalgia.

His neighbor, Jerry, dashed around his front yard battling the invisible dark side. His green lightsaber sliced the air with a glowing frenzy. A stormtrooper and a fiberglass woman wearing dozens of bracelets and a tangerine half-shirt stared at him through a gap in the living room curtains.

Across the street, an elderly man in a letterman jacket sipped a Singapore Sling on his screened porch. His shoes shined brighter than the moon. Behind him, in the kitchen window, a blonde replica in a powder blue poodle skirt and black stilettos waved at him with a stiff hand hidden inside a cream leather glove.

Andrew survived on Someday Street, a nickname not shared by his ex-wife, estranged family, and exhausted former friends. He was surrounded by others similar to him, a band of broken time travelers lathered in the notion that what’s lost can be found again if your belief in magic was unbendable and child-like. They all thought perseverance would be the compass that guided them back to the beginning.

After he chewed the starry silence for a minute, he lifted his head up to the flickering bedroom glass, saw how close he was to Michelle. So close.

He slipped a cassette into the boombox. With his brain shifted into reverse, he punched the gas and drove to a place thirty years from here. Andrew decided to stay there for a while because, like the song booming, he was lovin’ every minute of it. The it being that provocative tumble into the wild beauty of 1985.

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Chris Milam lives in the bucolic wasteland that is Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in WhiskeyPaper, The Airgonaut, Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, (b)OINK, Rabble Lit, and elsewhere.

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Midwest in Photos: Shabbona Restaraunt

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” – Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.

Photo by: Tara Reeves

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Interview: Samrat Upadhyay

Samrat Upadhyay authorMidwestern Gothic staffer Kathleen Janeschek talked with author Samrat Upadhyay about his collection Mad Country, intersections of Nepal and America, current event writing, and more.

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Kathleen Janeschek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Samrat Upadhyay: Midwest has been my home away from home for the past twenty five years. When I first landed in the U.S. on a cold January evening in 1984, it was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to attend school at Coe College. After one semester, I transferred to Ohio’s College of Wooster, from where I earned by BA in English. For my MA, I migrated three hours south to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where I earned a degree in Creative Writing. After I spent some time in Nepal and in Hawaii, my first tenure track job brought me back to Ohio, at Baldwin-Wallace College. Now for more than a decade I’ve been a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. Although I can’t call myself a child of the Midwest, I’m certainly a student of the Midwest. And since I got my US citizenship while in Indiana, I’m a naturalized Hoosier.

KJ: Nepal and Midwestern America are undoubtedly very different places to live in. So what has been the most surprising similarity between the two?

SU: You know, my whole body of work is about seeking commonalities among people. When my first book was published, some reviewers seemed surprised that Nepalis were like Americans: they laugh, eat, worry about their children’s schooling, have sex etc. Speaking specifically of the Midwest, I think there is a openness and approachability to both Midwesterners and Nepalis. Midwesterners are friendly and helpful, and Nepalis are also warm and kind people.

KJ: Do you ever find your depictions of Nepal influenced by your experience in the Midwest?

SU: Living in the quietude of the Midwest has certainly sharpened my sense of Nepal. I am a writer who needs a distance – both of time and place – to write with clarity, and living this far away has enabled me to have perspectives that I otherwise wouldn’t have. More specifically, I was a poor student throughout my college career in the Midwest. In Nepal, I’d grown up middle class, and although my parents weren’t well to do, they’d made sure I didn’t feel any lack. So, this experience of not having enough in America was new to me, and I think it taught me important lessons about human experiences that I was then able to transfer to my Nepali characters.

KJ: When portraying Nepal to a primarily Western audience, what cautions do you take?

SU: I try to be as balanced as I can. I have certain views and opinions, but a work of fiction isn’t about my opinions but about the complexity of people’s lives I depict. Balancing doesn’t necessary mean I’m looking for the other side of the coin in each instance: it simply means turning inward to reach for the truth. Often that’s enough for a truthful and multifaceted portrayal. It’s a question of not blocking your own light.

Mad Country book

KJ: In your new collection, Mad Country, there is the story called “America the Great Equalizer,” which is your first story set in America. What made you finally decide to write a story set in America?

SU: “America the Great Equalizer” is my first story fully set in America, although in my previous work my characters have done some traveling to America. When I lecture or do readings in the U.S., my Nepali readers, especially the younger generation, have asked me why I haven’t written about them. My answer has been that Nepal’s hold on me is too strong to break. When Ferguson happened, I began thinking. Race issues in America tend to be couched in the binary of black and white, and the other shades of color are often not a part of the conversation. I envisioned a young Nepali student, with baggage from his own personal life, trying to come to grips with this big racial divide. It seemed like a natural extension of the other stories I was writing during that period. Many of these stories, although set in Nepal, also investigate the various identities that orchestrate our experiences.

KJ: Much of your work – including the previously mentioned story which centers around the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent riots in Ferguson – focuses on recent happenings. What do you consider the advantages and disadvantages of writing about current events?

SU: As I mentioned before, I do need some time and space in order to write about events. With Ferguson, I sensed an urgency, and I hope that urgency is communicated to the reader in my story. When you write about current events, what gets on the page can feel immediate and electrifying. The disadvantages of it are, of course, that you don’t have the wide-angled view, the third eye, that is crucial to a writer.

KJ: Likewise, many of your stories take place at the intersection between the personal and the political. What attracts you to these intersections?

SU: The personal is the political, as societal rules and consensus inform the everyday decisions of our lives. In the U.S. politics often doesn’t seem to matter in our personal lives, but even here you see that it’s the poor and the marginalized, and often the people of color, who are immediately affected by decisions made by those in power. In Nepal, politics feels intensely personal. During the Maoist civil war between 1995 and 2005 for example, even as a Nepali living in the U.S. I felt that it had invaded my personal space. When I spoke on the phone to my parents in Nepal, I’d hear fear in their voices, especially during the time when the Maoists targeted homes of those whose relatives lived in America. In my work, I am interested in how everyday people deal with the consequences of political decisions, how they manage to live, and sometimes live fully and richly, even in the midst of political crises.

KJ: What is the most important element of a sentence for you?

SU: That depends entirely upon what the sentence does. A sentence could purely functional, just to get the information across. Or it could emphasize mood and emotion. But I’m often on the lookout to see if a sentence can impart an image because images linger in the reader’s mind.

KJ: How do you keep your stories expansive and your language sparse?

SU: I like tight and lean – and sometimes mean – prose. The expansiveness has more to do with how you are looking (the vision) than what you are looking with (the medium). If your focus is narrow, then even when you employ expansive language, the focus will remain narrow. I do believe that language can empower us to become far-seeing, even though we might be quite nearsighted in real life.

KJ: What has teaching creative writing taught you about writing?

SU: That I don’t know everything, and that each classroom session is teaching me something.

KJ: What’s next for you?

SU: I am working on a novel. It imagines a radically different Nepal in the aftermath of the real earthquake of 2015.

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Samrat Upadhyay (samratupadhyay.com) is the first Nepali-born fiction writer to be published in the United States. His debut short story collection Arresting God in Kathmandu was the winner of the 2001 Whiting Writers’ Award and his second short story collection, The Royal Ghosts, won the 2007 Asian American Literary Award. His first novel, The Guru of Love, was a New York Times Notable Book while his second novel, Buddha’s Orphans, was longlisted for the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. His 2014 novel, The City Son, was longlisted for the PEN Open Book award. His latest story collection, Mad Country, has been called “brilliant” by Kirkus Reviews and “timely and remarkable” by Publishers Weekly. He is the Martha C. Kraft Professor of Humanities at Indiana University, where he teaches in its MFA program.

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