LUMINA Journal in Conversation with BASS 2018: Part 7
To read The Best American Short Stories annual anthology is to be exposed to an echo-chamber of contemporary American fiction; stories that span a variety of voices, styles and forms. This week, LUMINA Journal is in conversation with the writers of BASS 2018, so our readers can get to know the minds behind this project. Check out yesterday’s interview here.
CAROLYN FERRELL — A History in China
Carolyn Ferrell’s collection Don’t Erase Me: Stories (1997) was awarded the Art Seidenbaum Award of the Los Angeles Times, the John C. Zachiris Award given by Ploughshares, and the Quality Paperback Book Prize for First Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Literary Review, Ploughshares, and other places; her story “Proper Library” was included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ferrell teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York with her husband and children.
LUMINA Journal: “A History of China” is a multigenerational story centered around a family reunion. Were there any histories you imagined for this family that didn’t end up in the final draft?
Carolyn Ferrell: There are always extra histories lurking about. For me, the challenge comes during the revision process, when I ask myself: who should remain in the piece? Which characters are central, which deserve a completely different story? I love revision because it allows me to engulf myself in the lives of my characters—not only on the level of production, but on the level of literature. I never have a problem saving someone’s history for a rainy day.
LJ: You are one of Sarah Lawrence’s own fabulous faculty members. How do you balance your own writing with your students’ writings?
CF: That is the million dollar question! I am very lucky in that I absolutely love my job—I love reading student manuscripts, I love witnessing students take risks in their work and find their voices, their distinctive subject matter and styles. I learn so much from my students. When I tell them that the bottom line of any workshop is the development of one’s critical skills, I am also thinking of my own part in the process—how learning to read a draft makes me a better writer.
Everything is a balancing act. There is a time to read my Sarah Lawrence stuff and prepare for my classes. But I must be strict about my writing time—if I don’t reserve a day, or at least a corner of a day, I don’t get anything done, and when that happens, I get incredibly grumpy. I realize that the wonderful story in my head will remain a dream. A colleague of mine in the theater department once said she had to “touch” her work every day—if she didn’t get to write or revise, she at least had to look her material over. I love that idea because there are times when I simply can’t get to the computer. But I can always look at my work and think about what I must do.
LJ: How did you manage the past and present threads in drafting this story? What was that process like?
CF: This story actually began with the mother’s thread. I’d written her entire story—from Germany to Brooklyn to Long Island—but felt that as a stand-alone, the story wasn’t approaching its potential. The mother’s thread found resonance in the histories surrounding it, particularly in the daughter’s story, which takes place during the present time of the story, when the daughter, now an adult, returns to North Carolina after her father’s death. Of course, setting always plays a huge role. I love the challenge of weaving different story lines together. I love the idea of layering experience. Like everyone else, I want my characters to be memorable; “For a character to be convincing,” Kim Edwards writes, “what’s on the page must somehow evoke knowledge that extends beyond what’s strictly visible.” The stories of North Carolina, New York, and Germany inform everything—from time to characterization to plot to resolution. It’s exciting to see how the disparate elements come together and to realize that the story has a life of its own after I am done with it.
DINA NAYERI — A Big True
Dina Nayeri was born in Tehran and arrived in America at ten years old, after two years as a refugee. She is the author of The Guardian’s acclaimed Long Read, “The Ungrateful Refugee” (soon to be a book by the same name), and the winner of an O. Henry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts literature grant, and fellowships from the Macdowell Colony, Bogliasco Foundation, and others. Her work has been translated into fourteen languages and recently published published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, New Republic, and others. Her second novel, Refuge, was published by Riverhead Books in 2017.
(This interview has been transcribed and edited from audio).
LUMINA Journal: “A Big True” focuses on the relationship between two immigrant men living in a YMCA and the daughter of one of the men. It seems like family and immigration are themes you return to in your writing. How do you see the way you write about those themes changing? What does it mean to you to keep returning to those themes in your work?
Dina Nayeri: My work keeps returning to that. It was the formative experience of my youth that shaped me and who I am, so I do think about it a lot.
I left Iran when I was eight and arrived in the US when I was ten. I spent a year and half as an asylum seeker. This was a big chunk of time, at a really important moment, to spend wondering and hoping to have a home and to be accepted into places. This is a theme that appears a lot in my work. It has made me who I am. After that, I spent a decade of my life trying to find my place within American society. Being an outsider—being someone with a different background, with a different set of experiences—is what shaped me after that. It keeps reappearing in my work because it’s important. It’s one of the biggest themes in the world today, what to do with refugees and immigrants, but simply, [I return to it] because it was my own story.
LJ: Your work seems to be very attuned to place. In “A Big True” the YMCA, Yasmine's apartment, and Washington D.C. are each framed in a way that makes the setting feel like a character. What are the places that inspire you most?
DN: I don’t know actually. It’s funny that you should observe that. The story has a lot in the sense of place. That’s my instinct to ground the reader in some place, but I think that it also comes from the fact that I have been a stranger to many places. Isfahan, of course, because that was my first home, and now, I return to it again and again in my imagination, so I struggle to hold onto details of it. For that reason, the sense of place is important to me.
I kept arriving to new places as a stranger. I moved to Dubai and to Italy and to a refugee hostel outside of Rome, and then I came to America, a place that felt completely strange to me. I had to take in all the details one by one in order to make sense of it. Then I went to college. After, I think I spent almost my entire adult life wandering. I didn’t live in the same city for more than three years, not counting college, which was four years. From the time I was 22 until now, I have spent three years maximum in any given city. Right now, I am entering my fourth year in London, and that will be the longest.
Approaching a place with fresh eyes is what I have always done in my life, so I guess that translates to my writing.
LJ: “A Big True” is also a story that revolves around the internet as a place of networking, of archiving, and a place to waste time. What is the relationship like between your public self and your personal self in the digital space, and how did that manifest here?
DN: Oh gosh, I guess it’s like you said. It’s a place of networking, archiving, and wasting time. You know, I’m a writer. I waste time like everyone else, but it’s nice to have access to this storehouse of the world’s knowledge where I can return again and again to fill my stories with a sense of place, I suppose, with a sense of history. It’s nice to have a library at your fingertip, but the internet comes with a bunch of insecurity for someone like me. I have struggled with my identity all my life and now I can put myself out there in any way that I want. I think a lot of us spend much time trying to figure out who we are on the internet and whether or not that gels with who we are in real life.
My character Rahad deals with that a lot, too. He thinks that if the internet remembers him then he has a legacy, and in many ways, he’s right. It’s interesting to me that he’s had to look at this for the first time in his fifties, and he comes from such a different culture. He struggles with it in ways that someone of my generation doesn’t. I also really enjoyed writing the parts where Rahad is an internet bumbler, obviously faced with a dating-site scammer. He thinks he may have found a real person and I find that funny. I guess putting the internet in front of Iranians of my parent’s generation is fun for me. It is a way to have fun in fiction simply because my mom and dad are hilarious on the internet.
Visit the LUMINA Journal blog tomorrow to learn more about BASS 2018 contributors!
Interviews by LUMINA staff members Joanna Bettelheim and Brynn Bogert.