The Making of an American Feminist: An Interview with Sophia Shalmiyev

Nanci McCloskey

I met Sophia Shalmiyev through my friend (and amazing author) Leni Zumas. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time: I was in the midst of separating from my husband with whom I share two small children. Things were ugly. I was a mess. Leni said, “Sophia can help. She’s an incredible resource.”

I took her advice and shortly after I met Sophia over whiskey (for Sophia) and wine (for me) in a bar in Northwest Portland. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but Leni’s wise words were exactly right: Sophia Shalmiyev is incredible. With just a small amount of information, she is able to extrapolate, understand, and empathize. She listened and consoled. She developed a plan for me. Even so, I confess that I was skeptical my new guardian angel might be too good to be true.

An angel with an art degree and an MFA who can sew and paint, drink and garden? Sophia grew up poor, sometimes desperately so, and mostly motherless, yet she has devoted her life to women: artists and victims of domestic violence. How does a person like this come to be? When I learned she was writing a memoir, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I read it in two sittings, staying up way past my bedtime. And then I started it again from the beginning. Slower the second time, luxuriating in the language.

Mother Winter is the fiercely and urgently told story of the making of an American feminist. We had the following conversation below over Google chat, and I hope it gives you a peek into the mind and spirit of this truly extraordinary thinker and writer.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Michael Arceneaux


Michael Arceneaux makes the tightrope walk between vulnerability and hilarity look easy. His debut essay collection I Can’t Date Jesus landed him on the New York Times bestseller list, and his essays, which have published in Essence, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The New York Times, and more, tackle tough topics with wit and panache.

In the latest installment of our Dear Reader writing residency with Ace Hotel New York, Tin House invited Michael to spend a night at Ace and, while there, write a letter to an imagined audience. The contents of his letter have been kept secret, but today, it will be placed in each room of the hotel. To celebrate, we caught up with Michael to talk justice for Zora Neale Hurston, morning routines, and the Real Housewives of literary history.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?

MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: I would love to write back and forth with Zora Neale Hurston. I tend to read mainly nonfiction, which I know is like “whew chile, the ghetto” to a lot of the more refined writers and what not, but I am a fan of hers, especially a lot of her short fiction as I do enjoy a lot of short story collections. I have always appreciated her use of Black dialect ’cause I’m country. Also, I think the way she used it made for a much better understanding of her characters. The obvious character would be Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, but it’s true of much of her fiction.

However, I know that some were critical of that at the time (along with other matters related to her work), so while I know this may make me sound like the Andy Cohen or Nina Parker of The Real Housewives of The Harlem Renaissance: Reunion, but if I could write, “Sis, Richard Wright needs to have a sip and shut up about this book,” I’d be totally into it. I apologize to the ancestors and living elders in advance if I’m already offending y’all. But seriously, I do value her work and I hated that she died poor. It’s honestly been one of my fears in trying to have a career as a writer that I would die poor and only be truly appreciated until long after I was gone.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

As a working writer, particularly one who writes heavily for various outlets across Al Gore’s internet, a lot of my writing assignments are time sensitive so generally I have an idea of what I want to say when I pitch or am pitched to. When it comes to my book writing, I have a general outline, too, because one, you already sold your book on proposal so the template is already there, and two, I’ve just become wired that way after having done largely digital media work for nearly a decade. I apologize to fans of spontaneity and the rush of unforeseen creative inspirations that transforms prose. However, there were instances on I Can’t Date Jesus in which two chapters ended up a lot differently than I anticipated. One chapter in particular about my father wasn’t trashed per se, but had to be changed after I had a talk with my sister. In learning more about my dad’s relationship with my uncle before he died, I didn’t have to put aside my feelings and experiences, but she added so much more context. So I had to sit with it. I mean really sit with it; not to just react to new intel, but table it, process it, and then go back and pour myself out all over again. It made everything for the better.

I have more recently been making much better use of the Notes app. I like to hand write a lot of things, but I’ve come to realize doing it on the phone is better for me because I can jot down some idea, and while traveling—particularly on that awful MTA in NY—I build little by little on it. A lot of my second book ideas came out from toying with the Notes app and handwriting an outline while eating brunch solo and casually talking to a beautiful bartender that isn’t into men, but what the hell, he’s still cute so I’m going to chat anyway.  

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

My main intentions with my work are to make people laugh and to make people think. I try not to think too heavily about anything else because it can become distracting. Like, I’m aware and conscious of the things I say and how I say them, but I try not to overthink because if I do, God, it’s just going to take me so much longer to get anything done. I want everyone to read me so I do the best I can and hope it reaches as many as possible.

I still think of myself as a bit under the radar (to the boos and hisses of select friends and colleagues), so I am always pleasantly surprised when anyone reads my work, but I am actually never surprised at having a diverse readership. One of my very good friends and former editors once told me “You write for Black people.” What he meant was I don’t focus on the white gaze nor do I concern myself with worries that if I sound too uh, colloquial, that I will alienate non-Black readers. I Can’t Date Jesus is a book I wish I had growing up as a working class, southern Black gay boy. I wrote it from that perspective and knew people like me would be the first to gravitate towards it. I’m so proud of that, but there are also a lot of white people in their 70s reading it. I know because they email me all the time. Others—namely in publishing—felt I would be “niche,” but I write about religion, intimacy, doubt, fear, and learning to love myself and enjoy pleasure. Those are universal themes, so while I may be not surprised the book is connecting with a wide readership, I’m glad they are surprising the people in publishing who often fail to give non-white writers the benefit of the doubt.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

Bitch Is The New Black by Helena Andrews. She is probably tired of me saying this, but I adore her as a writer, I love her book, I love her voice, and I think she was, in hindsight, somewhat ahead of her time because she definitely paved the way for a new generation of Black memoirists and deserves her flowers. This is also just another good way to publicly push and get more books out of her. If I can get a bonus, Bulletproof Diva by Lisa Jones.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?

I shoot up at 6:00 a.m. pretending that I’m going to immediately get to writing, but in reality, I’m just going to turn on Morning Joe because my body literally now wakes up to its schedule. How long I watch depends on how quickly someone on the panel says something that annoys me so then I go freshen up. Next up: my morning jig, a thing I do every morning in which I dance to some song in order to have a little joy before someone tries to ruin it. Eventually, I decide to write a little on my phone because I’m not ready to sit at that desk yet. I’ll have some caffeine – ideally something I already have in the fridge or I’ll convince myself that paying $5 for an oak milk latte will really get me going when I know this is just me wasting time and I have private student loans—meaning I shouldn’t be in that coffee shop anyway. Obviously, hours have passed and then I finally settle down to write after Wendy Williams finishes Hot Topics, of course.

I don’t really get to writing until I end up using the Freedom app to block me from the internet so I can spend hours writing. I don’t recommend this, but in my defense, my discipline has waned because I have yet to take that vacation that’s probably seven years overdue now.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

The Literature of No: An Interview with Enrique Vila-Matas

Veronica Scott Esposito

The heavyweight champion of paradox, the pioneer of parasitical writing, the disinterrer of lost authors, the crazy godfather of the Spanish avant-garde, the crypto-torchbearer of high modernism, Enrique Vila-Matas has spent over forty years charting out a literary terrain that is all his own. His work is notorious for intensely feeding off of other texts—most notably, those written by European titans like Beckett, Joyce, and Walser—as well as for drawing liberally from his own strange life. Hovering somewhere between plagiarism and homage, autobiography and multiple personality disorder, his books push the personal essay into a novelistic form, all the while taunting us with coincidences, anecdotes, and facts that seem far too good to be true—or are they actually real?

Vila-Matas’s literature is nourished by its own prodigious paranoia and madness, always beginning from ludicrous premises and red herrings, then relentlessly pushing them further and further until they gloriously break down. His books show how literature can be deadly serious by being resolutely playful; his language delights in speaking truth through creative misprision, evasion, and outright deception.

I discovered Vila-Matas in 2007 through the release of his first two English-language translations, Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady. I’ve been a reader ever since, steadily consuming the regular translations of his works (now  nine in total), as well as working my way through his Spanish-language list. I keep coming back because the books themselves are marvelous, and also because I know that whenever I read his work I will come away with a list of new writers to investigate, new ideas to explore, and new stories that I must try to verify the truth of.

For this interview I corresponded with the author over a leisurely few months. Vila-Matas was always a courteous and prompt respondent, and he treated me with the highest respect and seriousness, but I could never quite escape the feeling that much of what he was telling me was made up. Whether that’s the truth of the matter or just the byproduct of conditioning built upon a decade of reading Vila-Matas is a thing I leave to the reader to decide.

—Veronica Scott Esposito

Veronica Scott Esposito: Let’s start with where it all started for me: your 2000 novel, Bartleby & Co., a breakthrough in terms of your fame and prestige, and a very difficult-to-classify work. This novel is couched as a series of footnotes to an “invisible” text, and the common theme is that of writers who inexplicably quit writing. (The title is a reference to Melville’s famous Bartleby: “I prefer not to.”) The book combines a number of elements common to your work: copious anecdotes from literary figures famous and obscure; quotations; paranoia; conspiracy; autobiography; and of course many, many works of literature (many real, but perhaps also many fake?) that you weave into the fabric of your text. It’s a book that makes literature out of the inability to write literature. Have you ever been tempted to disappear from writing, as do many of your protagonists and literary heroes?

Enrique Vila-Matas: I wrote Bartleby & Co. because I was strongly attracted to the drive toward negation and wanted to abandon literature. This was paradoxical because by thoroughly occupying myself with those who had quit writing I was able to succeed in continuing to write. In these denials of culture and literature there is a strong passion for what is denied. Bartleby & Co. goes with Montano’s Malady and Doctor Pasavento to form a trilogy in which negation and disappearance from literature are central, and where I develop my idea of how the avant-garde’s fate to disappear from literature makes it possible that, after the end of literature (the end of the Gutenberg era, as I call it in Dublinesque), I could continue writing. To put it differently: I think that I find myself among those who recently discovered that the only way in which literature isn’t dead is to write being conscious of the fact that it has already died.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Fatimah Asghar


If you like good poetry and/or smart entertainment in general, chances are you’ve encountered the work of Fatimah Asghar. Her debut book of poems, If They Come For Us (One World 2018), published this summer to well-deserved raves. Her beloved web series, Brown Girls, was nominated for an Emmy and recently acquired by HBO. She’s a member of the Dark Noise Collective and the creator of a spoken word poetry group in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And as of this month, she’s our latest letter-writer-in-residence.

As part of our Dear Reader series with Ace Hotel New York, we at Tin House invited Fatimah to spend a night at Ace and, while there, pen a letter to an imagined audience. What she wrote has been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Fatimah to talk Toni Morrison, why she makes art, and the power of a good walk.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be?  And why?

FATIMAH ASGHAR: Probably Toni Morrison. Her writing has just opened up so much possibility for me, and the world at large. I would love to talk to her. Though I don’t know what else I would say other than “I love you” over and over again.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

I only map out my screenwriting, but usually even then half of the map goes out the window once I get to page. There’s only so much you can plan for until you start writing, I think that the language and the characters definitely take you someplace different from your head once they are active and living on the page. But that’s beautiful, because it’s a process of a discovery. I don’t map out poems. I don’t know anyone who does that. Sometimes I have an idea of where a poem might end or where I am building to, but never a map.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

I think about my audience a lot! I make my art to feel a little less lonely in the world, so audience is huge. Even then, I’m always surprised by who is drawn to my art.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

Heavy by Kiese Laymon and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari. Midnight’s Furies is a book about Partition, so much of my book wrestles with Partition. I think his book is written in a way that is really accessible and nuanced and a great account of history. I just finished reading Heavy and feel like it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It made me feel so many feelings I didn’t know were even possible. Everyone should read it.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

I like to meditate and stretch beforehand. If I get stuck, I like to walk or exercise. A good walk does so much for my brain when I’m stuck. It’s just helpful to move when you’re at a desk for so long.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Jamel Brinkley


Jamel Brinkley’s extraordinary debut story collection, A Lucky Man (Graywolf), came out this summer to rave reviews. The New Yorker called it “a trenchant exploration of race and class, vividly conveying the tension between social codes of masculinity and the vulnerable, volatile self.” The Root called it “revelatory.” And now we can all call it a National Book Award Finalist.

Jamel is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University but recently made a trip to New York, where he became our latest Dear Reader author. Over the course of a night at Ace Hotel New York, Jamel penned a letter to an imagined audience—a letter that’s been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Jamel to talk James Baldwin, questioning assumptions, and the perfect pen.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be?  And why?

JAMEL BRINKLEY: The first person who comes to mind is James Baldwin. His combination of brilliance, insight, warmth, humor, and rhetorical mastery would be incredible to engage with, especially during these trying times.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

I’m definitely the kind of writer who discovers my path as I go, even at the risk of taking the wrong path, having to retrace my steps, and then trying an alternate direction. An unexpected path isn’t necessarily a wrong path, however. Part of what makes writing fun for me is encountering something unexpected, unintended, and wonderful.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

I think about my audience to the extent that I want to remember that writing stories is an act meant to be shared, not something just for my own private pleasure. I try to keep in mind, especially during revision, that what I’m doing at every turn is attempting to communicate. When I do imagine the particular readers that might make up my audience, I think of people like me or my family and friends. It seems important for a black writer to think of his or her readership as black or of color. Too often, discussions of readers, or notions of “the reader,” seem to assume that one’s audience is white.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

One book I’ll mention is Oreo by Fran Ross.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

I have to write at home. I can’t work in libraries, cafes, or other public spaces. I compose first drafts on my laptop, but I revise using a printed copy and a pen. My pen of choice is a Pilot Precise V5 (Extra Fine) Rolling Ball pen. Using anything else to revise feels strange.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

Buried Secrets: An Interview with Jeff Jackson

Cari Luna

In Jeff Jackson’s immersive new novel, Destroy All Monsters, musicians and audiences are terrorized by an epidemic of murder at music clubs. Here the intense emotional connection we find through music when we’re young meets our very real national nightmare of mass shootings. In his excellent debut novel, Mira Corpora, Jackson gave his readers a dreamy punk-rock dystopia through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator. In this new work, he goes deeper and even darker, looking at the way violence can spread like a virus through a community, and asking what meaning music can possibly hold in an era when everything is performance.

Jackson and I recently talked about Destroy All Monsters, music, and the problem of an increasingly surreal reality.

Cari Luna: Destroy All Monsters explores the place of music in our lives, the meaning we assign to it and the identity we draw from it. What role does music—both listening to it, and making it—play in your life, and how does it influence your fiction?

Jeff Jackson: I’ve always been obsessed with music and was lucky to grow up within range of WFMU, the legendary free form radio station that played everything from hardcore punk to Yiddish crooners to Japanese free jazz. That alone was an ear-widening education. A shared love of music has been the foundation of numerous friendships and sometimes served as a sort of emotional shorthand. There are concerts I count among the greatest experiences of my life. For a while, I worked as a freelance critic to support my music habit and co-founded a successful jazz blog that got written up in The New York Times and Wired. Music remains a constant in my life and I’m still eagerly seeking out new bands and sounds, though I have slowed down a bit.

When I’m writing fiction, sometimes I think in terms of music. I wanted my first novel, Mira Corpora, to have the rush of a great rock song – say, something by Sleater-Kinney. I like art that happens faster than you can process it, that delivers a visceral and emotional kick that’s hard to capture with words. For Destroy All Monsters, I imagined the opening of Side B (Kill City) as a sort of speed metal overture, something with a relentless rhythm and enveloping noise.

I also think about the musicality of my writing—the sound of the sentences, the tempo created moving between sections, the overall rhythm of the plot. And music has served as subject material for both my novels. In some ways, DAM was my naïve attempt to put my thoughts about music into one book so I could move past it.

As far as making music, that’s something I unexpectedly fell into after I finished DAM. I suspect it will be like my playwriting, a parallel creative stream whose influence on my fiction percolates at the subconscious level. The fact that I can write words which my bandmates and I transform into actual songs feels surreal—like a form of sorcery.

CL: I’ve wondered how your playwriting and fiction writing interact. You say that the playwriting influences the fiction on a subconscious level, and I imagine that your fiction likewise influences your playwriting. Do you find there’s significant overlap in themes and obsessions between your novels and plays? Do they come at the same universe from different angles? Or is it more a matter of different tools to solve different problems?

JJ: There’s definitely thematic overlap with the plays: The Last Party was inspired by Don DeLillo’s rock and roll novel Great Jones StreetDream of the Red Chamber explored dream states and was performed for a sleeping audience, and Vine of the Dead focused on the power of ritual and possibility of contacting the dead. But those pieces feel like they take place in difference universes than my fiction. Their spaces could only exist in the theater—they’re partly created through video installations and intense lighting, sound, and set design, as well as the presence of the actors.

The plays have also explored subjects that are important to me which haven’t been part of my fiction: Buster Keaton’s films, Henry Darger’s paintings, Laure’s writings, Terry Fox’s sculptural installations, research into plant sentience. The plays often involve shared obsessions with my collaborators, what we find ourselves drawn to as a group.

Although I’m using different tools for fiction, my theater experiences have shown me how many different ways there are to dramatize a scene and structure a story. That’s something I’ve tried to carry over into the novels.

CL: In Destroy All Monsters, the reader is confronted with a nationwide epidemic of murders: musicians are being killed onstage. One character notes that the victims are all mediocre musicians, and that perhaps the murderous fans are acting in defense of music itself. I found this to be, among other things, a compelling reflection on the artist-audience relationship: the complicity and connection inherent in art, and in particular in music, which is such an immediate form. There are also, of course, unsettling echoes of our own current epidemic of mass shootings. Can you talk about what questions or preoccupations led you to link murder and live music?

JJ: One of my preoccupations was how music has lost the ability to move the cultural needle the way it did in previous decades. Even albums by huge mainstream artists get quickly swallowed in the endless noise of the internet – and it’s much worse for less popular acts. There’s still great music being made, but it doesn’t mean what it used to.

I recently saw Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy) talk and he said that he’s writing new songs but has no plans to record them. He feels streaming has transformed people’s habits so radically that they don’t listen with the same attention and he worries the contract between artist and listener may be broken.

But I think music fans also yearn for music to mean something more. Our digital culture has flattened everything so there’s no cultural spark that helps to ignite the powerful sense of community and identity that can form around certain musicians.

That’s one of the frustrations that powers some of the characters in DAM. How can music become meaningful again? There’s the punk idea of wiping the cultural slate clean, but that doesn’t seem possible again. Then there’s the extreme Khmer Rouge idea of achieving Year Zero through a violent culling. That’s obviously a horrifying proposition, but some characters in the novel feel it might be why the epidemic of violence is erupting in music clubs.

In terms of the current epidemic of mass shootings, my notes for DAM go back over a decade. When images of killings in rock clubs initially flashed through my mind, the idea seemed positively surreal. The U.S. has been a violent country for a long time and the book is engaging that, but the speed with which reality has caught up to certain heightened aspects of my story has been alarming.

Photo Credit: Lydia Bittner-Baird

CL: This book as a physical object is compelling, with a novel on one side, and then you flip the book over and there’s a companion novella on the other side. How did the ingenious A-side/B-side format come about? And which came first in the process of writing the book—the A side or the B side?

JJ: The A Side definitely came first. Originally, I thought that was the entire novel. During the extended period when I was looking for an agent and publisher for it, I began to wonder if there might be more to explore. I kept picturing the book as the A Side of a vinyl single—which led me to start imagining a possible flipside. It felt important that the B Side offered something new and didn’t just retell the main story from a different perspective.

Honestly, it was a bit of a crazy undertaking. Several friends warned me that I was taking a project that was already unusual and making it twice as hard to sell. But I couldn’t shake the idea.

As I was writing Side B (Kill City), I thought it might be a companion novella that could be published separately. It took some time to realize both sides belonged together—that they comprised the total book. As it happened, FSG bought Side A without reading the flip side. I was very lucky they later agreed to publish them both under a single title.

CL: I love the moment where two of your main characters, Xenie and Shaun, are talking about B-sides, and Shaun says, “I’m always trying to write A-sides, but when I’m listening, I prefer the B-sides. They’re the tunes where the bands bury their secrets.”

Would that be a fair reflection of your own A- and B-sides in this book and the way they function together?

JJ: I’m glad that moment stuck out for you. While I generally agree with Xenie and Shaun about the musical nature of A-sides and B-sides, my take on the two sides of the novel is more complicated. For instance, I buried more secrets in the A-side My Dark Ages. And I don’t prefer one side to the other.

For me, the two sides feel integral to each other because they activate repetitions and echoes that might have remained dormant. Taken together, they simultaneously underline, erase, and rewrite each other—while still adding up to a new whole. Maybe it’s something like an immersive drone, suggesting a larger narrative that you can’t quite picture but whose shivering shape you can feel in the base of your spine.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, visual artist, and songwriter. His second novel Destroy All Monsters was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in Fall 2018. It received advanced praise from Don DeLillo, Janet Fitch, Dana Spiotta, Ben Marcus, and Dennis Cooper. His novella Novi Sad was published as a limited edition art book and selected for “Best of 2016” lists in Vice, Lit Reactor, and Entropy. His first novel Mira Corpora, published in 2013, was a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and featured on numerous “Best of the Year” lists, including Slate, Salon, The New Statesman, and Flavorwire. His short fiction has appeared in Guernica, Vice, New York Tyrant, and The Collagist and been performed in New York and Los Angeles by New River Dramatists.

Cari Luna is the author of The Revolution of Every Day, which won the Oregon Book Award for Fiction. A fellow of Yaddo and Ragdale, her writing has appeared in Guernica, Salon, Jacobin, Electric Literature, Catapult, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


About the Cover, Issue 77:
Pablo Gerardo Camacho’s SSDOS

Jakob Vala

Our cover artist, Pablo Gerardo Camacho, thinks his fascination with snakes may have started with his mother’s phobia of them. He believes beauty is something to be feared and honored and he sees snakes as representations of this sentiment. He says, “All beauty should and must be [treated] with respect and love” or it “could kill you.”

Unreliable Narrators, Unreliable Realities: An Interview with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Tara Isabel Zambrano

The stories in Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s debut story collection White Dancing Elephants probe the space created by betrayal, disappointment, and rage in the most intimate of human relationships. Perhaps the most striking quality of this collection is the quiet assurance, the matter-of-fact boldness and authority of Chaya’s voice, which is able to create distinct worlds that spotlight women of color in their many forms and address larger topics of sexual assault and racial discrimination.

In anticipation of her reading at Mother Foucault’s (Portland, OR) on September 29th, where she will be joined by fellow Tin House Workshop alumni, Genevieve Hudson, Chaya and I exchanged a series of emails where we discussed politics, religion, and how the two influence her writing process.

Tara Isabel Zambrano: Was there a particular story that you felt in some way “triggered” the writing of the entire book? And can you comment on the phenomenon of “linked stories” vs. a more disparate “collection” and where you see each type of story collection going, in the future?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I like the idea of a single story ‘sparking’ other stories, and in my next collection, which looks to be a set of linked stories about a couple in an interracial marriage, I would definitely say one story triggered others in a literal sense. Examining one event can trigger a story about another, in a set of connected characters’ lives, and this was what I loved about one of my favorite “linked collections” in recent memory, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, by Jennifer Egan. What is neat, though, about a more disparate collection, where themes rather than characters recur — in my case, themes of violence perpetrated against women and people of color, but also perpetrated by us, against each other — is how writing one story can sort of empower you to write another. Once I wrote ‘Talinda’ it was easier, somehow, to finish the draft of ‘A Shaker Chair,’ a story that had sat in my “drafts file” for years, as if encased in amber.

In this, I’m also inspired by Maile Meloy, who’s written both linked story collections and really disparate but wonderful stories piled together, like in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. I love the idea of stories being linked not in a literal sense, by representing different moments in time in a few characters’ lives, but rather being linked by an emotional resonance. And if there’s one theme that drove me to put my stories together in White Dancing Elephants it’s really the impulse to look deeply into “survivorship”, to resist simplifications or “noble” stories about what that looks like. To respect how stunningly calculating, cruel, rapacious and needy women, queer women, people of color can be toward ourselves and each other when we’re allowed to be honest. Just like white people – we’ve got the full range of human emotions and motivations. Sadly, even in 2018, that needs to be said.

TIZ: Can you speak to the problems or opportunities posed by writing fiction about fraught topics such as sexual assault and racial discrimination? Do you think fiction offers something that other modes of writing, like journalism or memoir, don’t and if so, what?

CB: I appreciate the framing of this question to allow me to give a shout out to some important, I think overlooked memoirs and journalistic pieces about the experiences of harassment.

I think it is really interesting that journalists like Ronan Farrow, a white male, have been valorized so much in the #MeToo movement, while women of color like Tarana Burke, whose role was obscured for so long though she started this movement decades before white allies like Farrow, Alyssa Milano, and others raised their voices in support. Another amazing woman of color who’s written about various forms of violence she experienced and survived is Gabrielle Union.

These are important examples of how journalism and memoir can tell certain aspects of these stories of violence and survival. I’d also recommend The Scalpel and the Silver Bear for a perspective specific to women of color in medicine and the enormous discrimination overcome, at least in part, by the first-ever Native American woman surgeon. It’s a “wow” read personally meaningful to me because 1) I went to the same med school she did and 2) some of the residents she trained, including white men, were by that time, over two decades later, very senior supervisors in the surgery rotation I did and they were really good to me, truly nurturing, and they talked about Lori Alviso Alvord of the Navajo Nation with real respect. They had known her up close and experienced her as a human being with a humanity fully equal to and as immediate as theirs.

And that’s what I believe is essential to fiction. That we have a way to make someone’s subjectivity immediate, transparent, real. It no longer becomes theoretical or a matter for “argument” that someone feels pain. We feel what the other person, the character, feels. I know I don’t consciously “try” for that in my fiction, only that I try to see a given character as clearly as I can, in the hope that others see that character too. I think when this works, the reader comes away with a different feeling about abstract concepts of “discrimination” and the whole thing becomes a lot more visceral and gripping. Like that moment in Celeste Ng’s beautiful novel, Everything I Never Told You, when the two children of an interracial marriage, out with their parents at a grocery store, minding their business, trying to have an ordinary day, are suddenly subjected to the violence of an elderly white woman accosting them with a racial slur. That is what our lives are like. That’s what aggression feels like. If we as writers can make it so readers don’t forget that, so readers actually flinch on behalf of “the Other”, those children – things can change.

TIZ: I was in 7th grade in Ujjain (191 kilometers from Bhopal), India when the Gas tragedy struck. The hospitals in my town were filled with ailing and dying families. You have captured the commotion and horror of that night so well in your story “Neela: Bhopal, 1984.” Can you tell me more about the writing of that story?

CB: I thank you for that perspective since you were “there”, and I feel so grateful that that story somehow avoided the potential voyeurism and exploitation of talking about a remote experience of suffering — and just became a story of a little-known fact. That child laborers and other people living in Bhopal without shelter were among the most severely-affected victims of the gas leak and resulting tragedy.

Homelessness is something that’s always gripped me, as a topic. I had all sorts of conflicts with my parents – cross-cultural, intergenerational, and perhaps the most subtle one that I’m only appreciating now – of class. Dorothy Allison has talked about her family’s ambivalence about her academic success. I think my father’s opposition to my becoming a doctor had a similar lineage – pride but also fear. A complex mix toward which I am so much more sympathetic to now that I’ve become a psychiatrist as well as a parent. But in the frequent storms of my growing up, I found a real refuge in my room. It was my hideout. I didn’t do that much with posters except for the James Dean ones that, for whatever reason, classmates who worried I wasn’t interested enough in boys yet (!) decided to give me. I didn’t have a computer either. But I had shelves where I stashed library books, and I had notebooks and pens, and I was set. I had safety, a home. I was my home.

One time, during an especially terrible argument, I ran out of the house barefoot, escaping all the way down a whole block. But then I came back, and I knew I could come back. I knew I wouldn’t be vulnerable to the elements. And after that, I often imagined what it would be like to be homeless, and became committed to trying to do something to help. In college, I organized an art show of a homeless artist’s work, Millind Paranjape, a brilliant immigrant who’d had the onset of symptoms of schizophrenia after he came to the US. I became part of a network of activists, health care providers, volunteers doing things like running soup kitchens, supporting the New Haven Legal Aid’s housing unit, and, during my medical training, working actively with Health Care for the Homeless.

In Bhopal, as in most Indian manufacturing centers, there is a population of millions of bonded child laborers, age 5-14, who are working without wages to pay off debts incurred by their parents. They work 12-14 hours a day instead of going to school. While more progressive laws have made child bonded labor illegal (dating back to the 1970s), it’s an abhorrent practice that continues in modern India — alongside the shiny, happy Indian Bollywood industry that has given us lovely consumable stars like Priyanka Chopra, who couldn’t be more modern or progressive, right?

But make no mistake about it — the millions of children working under conditions like those described in my story, with the same vulnerability to current environmental and corporate conditions that could make another Bhopal tragedy entirely possible – these children are still being exploited. By recent estimates, there were at least 25 million bonded child laborers, most of whom live and sleep outdoors given that they earn practically no wages and are “working off” a debt.

It was already terrible. Imagine, now, how it will be with even minimal environmental safeguards removed or loosened by the current administrations’ refusal to support global awareness and initiatives, and backing out of the Paris accord.

TIZ: This is a book that beams in Indian culture, Renaissance Portugal, and postcolonial landscapes. You have the most skillful touch in calibrating scene and dialogue, rich prose and sharp humor, complexity within characters.  Can you talk about your approach to craft? Did that approach, or process, change through the course of putting together and revising this story collection?

CB:  The one thing that changed in the course of writing the stories in the collection has been my ability to trust in a process. I definitely went through a phase, about ten years ago, where I lost faith in myself as a writer. I just felt like it was unrealistic to try to do clinical work, be a parent, be a decent partner, be any kind of friend – and write. I also felt kind of intimidated by a weird pressure to not only succeed at all these things but not experience any doubt, sense of setbacks, adversity, pain, etc. Like not only to succeed but also never have growing pains in the process of trying to create something, including creating a life.

That pressure, to not only make things “look” effortless, but actually experience life as “effortless” is what has changed, and made life a whole lot easier. It’s supposed to be hard sometimes. A lot of the time. It’s supposed to take effort. It’s OK on some level to be working all the time as long as there are delineated times when I’m not working but spending time with my loved ones. It’s OK to be working late hours, after the kids go to bed, to make sure I finish my medical notes, and also OK to wake up some mornings at 4 or 5 to write the beginning of a story and then not finish till weeks later or maybe finish it that night. It’s OK not to know how it is all possible. It’s part of the fun of it. Same with not knowing how a story will progress or how you’ll finish it. It’s Ok not to know.  To just find out.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. Her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS will be released on Oct 9 2018, by Dzanc Books and is available for pre-order now. She has received a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Sewanee Writers Conference scholarship and Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 for upcoming readings and events.

Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer in a startup. Her work has been published in Tin House Online, The Cincinnati Review, Slice, Bat City Review, Yemassee, The Minnesota Review and others. She is Assistant Flash Fiction Editor at and reads prose for The Common. Tara moved from India to the United States two decades ago and holds an instrument rating for single engine aircraft. She lives in Texas.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Tayari Jones


Tayari Jones may have rocketed to new heights of fame with her latest novel, An American Marriage, but she’s long been recognized as one of the most important storytellers of our time. In addition to An American Marriage, which is a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club pick, she’s the author of Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. Tayari has been honored with a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, an NEA Fellowship, and many more.

If you’ve read An American Marriage, then you know what Tayari Jones can do within the format of a letter, how much power and poignancy she packs into a single missive. So of course, we invited her to be this month’s letter-writer-in-residence at Ace Hotel New York. As part of our Dear Reader micro-residency, we invited Tayari to spend a night at Ace and, while there, pen a letter to an unknown audience. What she wrote has been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each hotel room. We caught up with Tayari to talk the breathless anticipation of writing, the joy of manual typewriters, and why she wants to correspond with Harper Lee.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be?  And why?

TAYARI JONES: I’d love to correspond with Harper Lee. After reading Go Set a Watchman, I understood why she never published another novel after To Kill A Mockingbird. She must have felt horribly misunderstood to be famous for a book that lionized Atticus Finch. From everything I’ve read, she was haunted by her own father’s descent into racism and hate and tried to sort it out on the page. The editors didn’t like the ugly stuff and instead urged her to publish only the part that represented her wide-eyed childish love of her idealistic father. And then that sentimental view became her identity. I think I would like to have been her pen pal so we could talk about other things, so she could get out from under the weight of her own complicated success.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

I like to feel the same breathless anticipation writing a book as I feel reading it. I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience for myself by mapping out the characters’ trajectories and then following a clearly marked road. Good novels don’t come with google maps or GPS. I write to explore and I am often stunned by my destination.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

When I am writing I don’t think about audience—I need to be intimate with my characters, much in the way that a marriage is between lovers, with no studio audience. However, I do think of audience when I am revising because revision, for me, is all about legibility.

I am not often surprised by who is drawn to my work, but I am frequently saddened by people who confess to have loved my writing despite our surface differences. I’m glad the novels connect across lines of race/gender/sexuality etc., but it breaks my heart that this connection comes as such a surprise.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

The Darkest Child by Dolores Phillips.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

I like to compose on manual typewriters. There is something so satisfying about making such a joyous ruckus as I put the words onto the page. Also, my Smith Corona is not connected to the internet.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

Writing the Disappearing World: A Conversation with Abby Geni

Liz von Klemperer

Abby Geni’s The Wildlands begins when a category five tornado hits the small town of Mercy, Oklahoma. The plot only accelerates from there. The book swept me into the disjointed psychology of a child convinced to perpetrate acts of eco-terrorism, a culture in which ideology is taken to the extreme. Real urgency animates these pages, as Geni tackles head on the devastating effects of climate change and the realities of living in the anthropocene. Her characters are vibrant and emotionally raw as they navigate a world that is disappearing, its future uncertain for both human and animals alike. Geni and I talked via email about the unique capacity of humans to destroy, the amorality of childhood, and, somehow, finding a sliver of hope for the future.


LvK: Your first two books, The Last Animal and The Lightkeepers, involve the classic dichotomy of human versus nature: humans navigating natural environments and the creatures that populate them. What draws you to this theme? What about this concern has sustained you through so many projects?

AG: To a certain extent, I think it’s hardwired. We can’t choose our passions; they choose us. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, and the more I learn, the more I can see that there is to learn. Nature is like a fractal that way—infinitely complex and filled with patterns that recur in microcosms and macrocosms. There’s always more to discover.

I do think that most authors, in one way or another, write about what it is to be human. We all want to understand and explore what we are. Some writers look at humanity through the lens of love or war or socioeconomics or humor or religion. For me, the natural world is the lens that makes the most sense. I tend to see humans as a part of a greater ecosystem, and I’m interested in the ways we are like and unlike the rest of the animal kingdom: our instincts, our sentience, our use of language, our technology, our capacity for memory. In many ways, we are unique, and our uniqueness is causing exponential change for our species and our planet.

LvK: The Trump administration has not been good for the environment. Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has cut funding for climate change research and clean energy programs. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has even removed references to “climate change” from its strategic plan, despite the fact that 2017 was one of the most expensive hurricane years in modern U.S. history. How have these realities influenced your writing, if at all? Has your approach to writing about the environment changed since Trump was elected?

AG: Climate change is always on my mind. Part of what drives me to write about the natural world is the fact that it’s disappearing before our eyes. In my first two books, I found this issue too hard to write about directly. It’s a dark thing to focus on, so I tried to talk about it obliquely by celebrating nature in my work and shining a light on how nature and humanity are inextricably interconnected.

In The Wildlands, though, I’m writing explicitly about what’s happening to the environment. It’s more urgent than ever. The changes are coming faster than scientists predicted, and the government’s lack of response is terrifying. The Wildlands talks in no uncertain terms about the fact that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction on our planet. During the previous mass extinctions on Earth—caused by meteors or volcanoes or natural disasters—up to 90% of all life on earth perished. It’s happening again right now, and this time we’re the cause.

LvK: Tucker is engaged in what he would describe as vigilante justice, and what the outside world would categorize as eco-terrorism. We mostly see Tucker through his kid sister Cora’s POV, and her still evolving sense of right from wrong invites the reader to entertain Tucker’s worldview in which he is justified, for example, in killing the owner of a factory farm. I loved engaging with the amorality of Cora’s child perspective. How did you mine and developed this voice?

AG: I’m delighted to hear that! I love Cora so much. The fact that she’s young enough to be swayed by Tucker’s extremism makes the whole situation more dangerous—she’s not just participating in his violence, she’s also converting to his cause. In writing Cora, I went back to my own vaguely amoral childhood. All kids have a ruthless streak. It takes a while for most of us to develop an ethical framework. And I have a five-year-old son, so as I was writing The Wildlands I was also marveling at the bluntness and curiosity and openness of my young child.

Charismatic, manipulative people like Tucker are difficult for most adults to hold their own against. Kids don’t stand a chance against the force of that kind of personality. In Tucker, I wanted to write a character who is right in his beliefs but wrong in his actions. He has the facts, he’s fighting for animal rights, and he talks about justice and saving the world. How could Cora not fall under his spell? How could she discern what’s right about his cause but wrong about his choices? Honestly, I agree with Tucker sometimes myself. I’m not on board with his methodology or his violence, but his sense of urgency is something I share.

LvK: There are so many scenes in The Wildlands in which your characters come face to face with animals at various places on the domestication spectrum. Darlene encounters rats escaped from Jolly Cosmetics in the supermarket, Cora hears a rattlesnake near the trailer, and Tucker is comes face to face with a polar bear he released from the zoo. Have you had striking experiences with animals, wild or domesticated, that informed the writing of these encounters? Have you ever had an experience with somewhere like The Wildlands, a place that is unclaimed, uninhabited, untouched by humans? What is the closest you’ve gotten?

AG: Oh, that’s a great question. And this is exactly why it’s so wonderful to be a fiction writer. I don’t like to travel, and most of my adventures come from reading and research. I like to write at my own desk in my own home looking out my own window into my own garden. The landscape of my imagination is entirely different from the landscape of my personal life. In my writing, I’m always traveling to wild places, completely off the map, having incredible adventures. In real life, I’m a homebody.

Oddly enough, the closest I’ve gotten to wild beasts and untamed places is in my dreams. I once read that children under the age of six often dream about animals. It’s something most people outgrow as they age. Apparently, I never did. I dream almost every night about walking the savannah among lions, flying with albatrosses, or swimming with giant squid.

LvK: The tornado is devastating to the McCloud family on a personal level, but it also signals a massive change to a particular culture. Your characters are deeply rooted in the area and its history, as Darlene feels a kinship with her ancestors the Sooners, the first white settlers to occupy Oklahoma in 1889. What is your connection to Oklahoma? How did you delve into the landscape?

AG: My husband is an Okie, and he has a wonderful extended family who have welcomed me into their homeland. I love visiting with them, and I’m often struck by how their day-to-day experience is different from mine. I was raised by liberal hippies in a suburban haven, with no tornadoes or dust bowls or rattlesnakes or Republicans anywhere. Whenever I travel down to Oklahoma, I am struck all over again by the parched terrain, the dryness of the air, the cuisine, the slang and drawl, the road signs, the tornado warnings, the oil derricks, the endless parade of pickup trucks, and the deep, complicated history of the place.

Some people say “Write what you know,” but I would much rather write what I learn. The more I learned about Oklahoma, the more I wanted to capture it on the page.

LvK: The epilogue ends the novel on an optimistic note, and the Wildlands become a reality in the form of a nature preserve overseen by Cora. Why was it important for the book to end on this hopeful note, where creatures of varied levels of domestication and human influence can live in harmony?

AG: We need hope. We need to look at the problems of the world with an optimistic, analytical mindset, trying to solve these issues, rather than be crushed by the weight of them. It’s too easy in this day and age to become paralyzed by panic and sorrow. If we’re going to make the changes we need, we have to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

This is where my particular worldview is helpful for me. Again, I tend to think of human beings in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom, and what I see brings me comfort. As a species, we are unique in our capacity to destroy, but also in our ability to innovate and adapt. There’s still time for us to right the ship. I wanted to end The Wildlands on a hopeful note because I have to believe there is still hope. I want my son to grow up in a good world.

Abby Geni is the Chicago-based author of the forthcoming novel The Wildlands (September 2018), The Lightkeepers, winner of the 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction and the Chicago Review of Books Awards for Best Fiction, and The Last Animal, an Indies Introduce Debut Writers Selection and finalist for the Orion Book Award. Geni is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Iowa Fellowship. Her website is

Liz von Klemperer is a writer, and acts as the online fiction editor for the Columbia Journal. Her reviews and interviews have been featured in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Lambda Literary, and Full Stop. Visit her at

Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 6

Tommy Pico

Listen and subscribe on iTunes here.

Learn more about Junk: The Podcast here.

Hootie hoo and a nelly nacho howdy-do to you! It’s a poet’s feast this week as we’ve got Angel Nafis, sam sax, and Max Steele on the show with some extremely comely Junk. And being poets of course they talk about Junky love: Junking toward the future of romantic love, Junk as a reminder of the love for your art practice, and Junk as memory for a beloved pet. To finish us off, I’ve got a Cactus Candy-like teensy piece of my long poem Junk wrapped up and ready for ya! Brought to you, as always, by Tin House Books.

Follow us on Instagram to get a sneaky peek at our poets’ Junk this week @junkpodcast.

Angel Nafis: @AngelNafis
sam sax: @samsax1
Max Steele: @billycheer
Tommy Pico, host @heyteebs
Alexandra DiPalma, producer @LSDiPalma
Kenya Anderson, production assistant @kenya_digg_it

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the Whiting Award-winning author of three books of poetry: Junk, Nature Poem, and IRL, winner of the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize. He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural Fellow, Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, and NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn where he co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, is a contributing editor at Literary Hub, and co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot. Food 4 Thot has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, HuffPost, OUT, and more. 

Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 5

Tommy Pico

Listen and subscribe on iTunes here!

Learn more about Junk: The Podcast here!

Wiggly gummy worm what’s up my Junky whatsits! You got thingamabobs? I got plenty. I…want…more? This episode is a bauble if ever I got one—partly a podcast crossover with the clever young fairies from Las Culturistas Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers aaaand one of the sharpest prose writers in the game, Chelsea Hodson! This week it’s all about how Junk feeds our ambition: as a reminder of where we come from, what we pour ourselves into and what feeds us, and what propels our commitment. Followed up with a pyrotechnic spectacle of gassy verse from my long poem Junk. Brought to you as always by Tin House Books.

Follow us on Instagram for a peek into each interviewee’s extra special Junk @junkpodcast.

Bowen Yang, @bowenyang
Matt Rogers, @MattRogersTho
Chelsea Hodson, @ChelseaHodson
Tommy Pico, host @heyteebs
Alexandra DiPalma, producer @LSDiPalma
Kenya Anderson, production assistant @kenya_digg_it

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the Whiting Award-winning author of three books of poetry: Junk, Nature Poem, and IRL, winner of the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize. He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural Fellow, Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, and NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn where he co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, is a contributing editor at Literary Hub, and co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot. Food 4 Thot has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, HuffPost, OUT, and more. 

Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 4

Tommy Pico

Listen and subscribe on iTunes here.

Learn more about Junk: The Podcast here.

Sudsy soda salutations my Junky sussers! This week we’ve got a show recorded variously at the alpha and omega of it all, the Tin House Summer Workshop! Our all-star line-up this week consists of Danez Smith, Jenna Wortham, and Alexander Chee talking all about the world building inherent in our Junk. Sometimes we use Junk to orient ourselves to the world around us, fill our world with reflections of us, and bring our world with us wherever we go. Followed up with a particularly saucy excerpt from Junk the long poem. Brought to you as always by Tin House Books.

Check out our Instagram to see all these lovely ppls *Junk* each week tee hee @junkpodcast.

Danez Smith, @Danez_Smif
Jenna Wortham, @jennydeluxe
Alexander Chee, @alexanderchee
Tommy Pico, host @heyteebs
Alexandra DiPalma, producer @LSDiPalma
Kenya Anderson, production assistant @kenya_digg_it

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the Whiting Award-winning author of three books of poetry: Junk, Nature Poem, and IRL, winner of the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize. He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural Fellow, Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, and NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn where he co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, is a contributing editor at Literary Hub, and co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot. Food 4 Thot has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, HuffPost, OUT, and more. 

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Michelle Tea


Michelle Tea is so many things: award-winning memoirist and novelist, inimitable documenter of the queercore scene, founder of RADAR Productions and the international Sister Spit performance tours, writer we’d most like to join for a road trip, and much more. Her most recent books include Black Wave (Feminist Press, 2016), a fiction-memoir hybrid; Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards (HarperCollins, 2017); and Against Memoir (Feminist Press, 2018), which Maggie Nelson calls “a bracing, heaven-sent tonic for deeply troubled times.”

We invited Michelle Tea to be this month’s Dear Reader author at Ace Hotel New York. While on tour for Against Memoir, she spent a night at Ace and penned a letter to an unknown audience of hotel guests. The letter was kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room—but first we caught up with Michelle to talk unexpected readers, workhorse crystals, and being alone.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?

MICHELLE TEA: Roberta Rohbeson, the protagonist of Lynda Barry’s novel, Cruddy—which, were the world a fair and just place, would be held in the esteem of, like, Catcher in the Rye. Sixteen years old when the work was published in 2001, I would want to know, first of all, if she was alive or dead (perhaps this correspondence happens with the aid of a psychic medium), and I would want to know if indeed it does “Get Better” for put-upon teens such as herself; does she still have her trusty blade, Lil’ Debbie; is she queer or simply one of those very tough women who get mistaken suchly throughout their lives? Finally, I would beg her to go on a road trip with me.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

Traditionally I have discovered my path along the way, but as I work more and more on learning the secrets of screenwriting, I find that outlining and plotting is working its way into my once-upon-a-time stream-of-consciousness writing.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work? 

 I try not to think of my audience when I write, but I have at points written to impress specific individual authors who I was obsessed with, or have imagined a sort of girl in the world who is essentially a projection of myself, and I write for her. I am surprised on occasion when very young people or very old heterosexual white men have found my work. I’m not surprised that they enjoy it, more that they found their way to it. That is interesting to me!

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

Everything by Ali Liebegott—The Beautifully Worthless, The IHOP Papers, and Cha-Ching! They talk about the deep experience of being an outlier in this world, in Ali’s case via gender and sexuality, income and artistic nature. It is by turns really hilarious and seriously heartbreaking, often both at once, always rendered in a really unique and beautiful fashion.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

 I can’t really write creatively at home, it’s too distracting. I like to be out in the world somewhere; a loud, busy hum is less distracting to me than silence. I will often bring a crystal with me, one that promotes stamina, creativity, inspiration. I like Calcite, Honey, Orange or Green. They are workhorse crystals. Pieterstine to burst through blocks, Amethyst for inspiration. I used to have more superstitions and then I created a writing retreat that was very close quarters and bare bones and it challenged all I thought I needed to be productive, which is great. All I need to be productive is myself, and for people to leave me alone.

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.

Photography by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York.

The Secret Habit of Sorrow: An Interview with Victoria Patterson

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

I first fell for Victoria Patterson’s work when I heard her speak about her debut story collection, Drift, onstage for the Story Prize ceremony in 2009. Patterson’s writing took me someplace I knew well—a listless, shifty Southern California of vacant suburbs and humming sprinklers and apartment complexes where neighbors’ lives play like radio through the walls—but also someplace I didn’t. The emotional landscapes of Patterson’s characters are always surprising, uncanny in the truest sense of the word: I am shown something new about the world through them, at the same time within them I see myself. After publishing three novels, Patterson returns to stories with the collection The Secret Habit of Sorrow and takes this examination further still, particularly as she steps close to the workings of family, and the failings and wants and losses that come with it. It was an honor to speak with Patterson about this work.


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky:  What’s changed for you between now and the writing of your first book, if anything, in what you hope stories can be or do?

Victoria Patterson: I remain true to my conviction that stories validate life as valuable and mysterious. Frank O’Hara wrote, “Attention equals life.” I love stories that give voice to outsiders, to the so-called “defeated,” stories that honor the tragic, while also providing hope and connection. Stories are compact empathy-conveyors. They’re sneaky, engulfing the reader, rather than telling him or her what to feel or think.

EKH: Writers always get asked what the first books they loved were, but I’m curious: What the first pieces of fiction you wrote were like? Were you a writer already as a kid?

VP: In the second grade, I wrote a story about my classmates and our teacher banding together to save the school from an alien invasion. My teacher loved it. She had me read it aloud to the class.

The seeds of one of my first attempted (and discarded) novels, sprouted years later to become the short story “Half-Truth.” A few other novels remain buried, though pieces of them still pop up unexpectedly.

I’ve been writing in journals since the second grade. It took years for me to find my way from documenting my days/life to fiction and story telling. Though I wanted to be an author, I was messed up. I remember identifying with that scene in The Squid and the Whale where the character plagiarizes Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” for the talent show, and his defense is that it felt like he wrote it. That’s how books, poems, and stories were to me. I felt them so strongly; I wanted to be a part of that conversation somehow. But it took a long time for me to find my way to becoming a fully functional person. Through it all, I kept a journal. I developed my voice, and then it took more time to move to the fictional. Journal writing is essential and writing itself has always been intertwined with my survival.

EKH: That scene in The Squid and the Whale! I love it, too! What are the books you most feel that kind of connection to, that you wish had your name on the cover?

VP: There are so many. When I was young, I remember reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and feeling, eerily so, like it was speaking directly to me. I also grew enamored by John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, which I’d discovered in my parents’ sparse library. I was too young to understand, but it struck me nonetheless and somehow cemented that I wanted to perform that kind of magic. Lately it’s more on a sentence level. I’ll underline sentences and think, damn, I wish I’d written that, and it comes from everything, including student work. I often grow obsessed with a writer and read everything by him or her. My last obsessions: Tom Drury and Rachel Cusk.

EKH: What’s your favorite stage of the writing process? Initial drafting? Revision? Are you someone who likes to get a draft down, however rough, and then tinker, or are you meticulous the first time through?

VP: I like knowing I have a novel or a story inside me, and then the whole process of assembling it on the outside, like a consuming, cosmic puzzle. I comb through what I’ve written over and over, usually going back to the beginning, smoothing as I go along, so that it becomes developmentally organic. I read everything aloud multiple times, and I frantically chew gum, so it’s best if I’m alone. Ideally, the only witness is my dog.

EKH: You have the most dexterous touch in calibrating dialogue and scene so that we understand so richly and with such nuance what your characters are feeling without these emotional turns being telegraphed to us. How do you pull this off? How do you know what’s too much, what’s too little?

Thank you! I’d guess that it comes from my copious reading habits and all that journal writing, along with my hypersensitive nature, and also from growing up in a family where for survival, I developed a fine-tuned emotion calibrator. Also editorial help, such as yours–and my writers group.

EKH: Maybe along those same lines, you write phenomenally convincing teenage and child characters, particularly as they confront some of the darkest stuff everyday life has to offer: loss, parents’ divorces, other trauma to their families. I’m thinking especially of AJ in “How to Lose” or Owen in “Half-Truth.” What makes kids such compelling lenses? Why populate your stories with them?

VP: I’m lucky I survived my teenage years, so I often write about teens. Kids are hard to write. They’re sophisticated, guileless truth tellers, and I’m interested in how they navigate the world, and the compromises they make.

I’d like to read more stories about children and parents. It’s such a complex, profound, and fraught relationship. I’m writing what I want to read, what is most meaningful to me, and as the mother of two sons (and as a daughter), it’s what I have to write. Richard Yates said, “The emotions of fiction are autobiographical but the facts never are.” I dedicated this collection to my sons for a reason.

EKH: I’m so interested in what you say about a need for more stories about parents and children—what do you want to see written about in this relationship more than we’re doing presently? What are the questions that circle this relationship that most interest you?

VP: I crave these stories, since these relationships, whether we like it or not, for good and bad and everything in between, are vital, complicated, massively influential. I’ve been working on an essay for some time and realize I’m circling my feelings about both my sons; but particularly, in this essay, my youngest. It’s hard to write about–to define–and to write about it accurately and honestly. The depths of emotion are overwhelming, and it’s always been that way for me as a mother, since their births. But also as a daughter, how I feel about my parents. Literature–more accurately, critical attention–tends to disregard or minimize this deep well.

EKH: If I hadn’t already been a devoted fan, I would’ve become one when you called out Jonathan Franzen for his baffling and infuriating essay about Edith Wharton in the New Yorker a few years back, specifically his essay’s preoccupation with what Wharton looked like. I imagine that an essay like Franzen’s would have a harder time being greenlit today, that at least one editor on staff would have the good sense to object to its misogyny—but I wonder also sometimes how genuinely or how deeply we as a culture have internalized the feminist values we more and more profess. What are your thoughts? What do you make of the feminist moment we’re in?

VP: I’m not sure what to make of it. I hope culture is changing, but I’m skeptical. I feel like we’re in the strangest Twilight Zone-like moment, because of Trump, of course, and it’s like we’re moving in this thick molasses of bullshit.

I’m a vocal feminist. I have plenty of “me too” credentials. My last novel was about rape culture. I am ready to burn the patriarchal house down. And I also want room for conflicting, complex feelings, to make mistakes, to not always be a part of an outrage machine, especially when it seems misdirected, or fear that its wrath might latch onto me if I don’t toe the line, or if I say something stupid.

Life is not simple, nothing is. Rather than projecting something more solidly righteous, moral, and sure-footed, I hope my prose conveys complexity, ambiguity, etc. Literature is messy, otherwise, what?

I also wrote an essay about Dave Eggers’ disingenuous, glowing, one-dimensional portrayal of Abdulrahman Zeitoun in his nonfictional novel Zeitoun. Little complexity or contradictions, a feel good I’m-on-the-right-side depiction, no self-implicating mirror. That, to me, does more of a disservice than, say, prose crackling with misogyny, but also honestly and emotionally grappling with misogyny.

I’ve been thinking about Zadie Smith’s essay on Philip Roth: “At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. ‘Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,’ he once said.”

EKH: You write about southern California in a way that always makes me long to be there, in its beauty and in its particular brand of ennui that I think you capture like no one else. Who are your other favorite California writers, and your favorite books about your state?

VP: Dana Johnson, Michelle Huneven, Jim Gavin, Danzy Senna, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Michael Jaime-Becerra, among many others. Immediately I think of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Recently I read Pacific by Tom Drury, which I loved, and which led me to all his amazing books.

Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program.

Something Remarkable, By Your Own Measure: An Interview with Ashleigh Young

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

The essays of Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? are lithe, sure-footed things, some companionable, wild-eyed new species of familiar that leads us to their considerations with tenderness and nerve. In language that is lush without ever compromising its precision, Young’s essays travel through and outward from her native New Zealand in exploration of feelings of smallness—of solitude, of lostness in place, of the humble triumphs and consolations we pin our hopes on—with a generosity of spirit that makes the world feel cradling even as it dwarves our concerns. It was an honor to speak with her about these essays, and the particular balm of the world’s tallest stack of waffles. 


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: When did you first start writing the essays in this book? Did this project feel like a movement away from the work you do in other genres, or in some way an extension or reimagining of it?

Ashleigh Young: I started writing these essays in a scrappy way around 2008, which feels like a world ago. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to live and what to do with myself, and I think I had too much choice and not enough courage. With this writing, at least I could say that I definitely wanted to write this book, and it was good to feel certain about one thing.

I can never figure out how much my poems have to do with the other writing I try to do. Maybe it’s that in an essay I’m trying to speed my thoughts up and in a poem I’m trying to slow them down. Someone asked me about this at a festival event recently. ‘How do you know when you’re writing a poem and how do you know it should be an essay?’ and I froze and started blathering that the two forms are entirely different in my mind, that my intention for a poem is always entirely different from my intention for an essay. I thought I should sound definitive in the moment, so that people would think I knew what I was doing. And it’s true that with an essay I start with a more defined idea or a question or problem, and a sense of where I want to dig. With a poem I usually, tragically, start with a feeling that I want to unravel. But the truth is I don’t know! All I can say is that the moment I start writing, I do know. I feel the form there, like it’s looking over my shoulder.

EKH: Did anything change for you as a writer over the course of writing the collection? Did your aspirations for the project evolve at all, or your sense of what the essay could do or what you wanted to use it to do?

AY: Ahhh. So many things changed! A lot of time passed and I grew up a bit. After I finished a first draft of this book in 2009, I had to put it aside. My brothers had some objections to what I’d written – and they were right; I’d written my first draft quite recklessly, telling some things that weren’t truly mine to tell – and I didn’t know how to solve those problems; I didn’t know how to recalibrate the essays and still have them be honest. I felt in the end that it was too hard, and that I wouldn’t try to publish the book. I would focus on a book of poems instead, and on writing new essays, which I did. I made a big move from Wellington to London, and that changed my writing I think. I started writing a blog, and something about the temporal, pencil-sketchy feeling of a blog helped me write more freely, with less agonising about whether it was any worthwhile. It was probably as simple as having a new text box to write into. I think lots of writers are like magpies, only instead of shiny things it’s a new text box that gets them all excited. (At my job – I’m an editor at Victoria University Press, in Wellington – we’re often sent these pristine, blank dummy books from our printers, so we can get an idea of the form of the book we’re about to make. They’re perfect for writing notes in. I love it when a new dummy arrives.)

After a while, I felt bold enough to come back to this book and see if there was still any heat in it. Because time had passed, the events I’d been writing about in my first draft felt less raw. I could think about them without demanding of the reader that they share in my anguish and if they didn’t what was wrong with them?! I had some perspective. I also had some new pieces I wanted to include. And then I could see a better shape for the book. I’m so, so glad for that first obstacle.

EKH: Your essays speak with such dignity and affection both for all manner of creative aspiration, however ultimately humble the results. I suppose I’m thinking particularly of the mailman from “Postie,” who spends his lifetime collecting beautiful white rocks as he perambulates his route in the French countryside, then building various grandiose monuments out of his finds—but I’m also thinking of your dad as he guns his plane across the Cook Strait, racing for a new personal best, or the spirit in which the Washhouse Tapes are recorded. What is it that moves you about these efforts? What made you want to write about them? And what kind of work do they make you want to do as writer?

AY: There’s something in my family that really respects strange feats and traditions. For instance every January my brother JP holds a commemorative swim out to a rock to mark the first (and only) fatal shark attack in Wellington (a young trombonist named John Balmer was killed in January 1852). Similarly, JP’s story of walking one hundred kilometres from one city to another at night with a friend became kind of legendary. And my dad and his friends would stage their own Olympic Games in the backyard, when the real Olympics was on. People just get really into things. My dad is also very proud to have won a plane-landing competition a few years ago and to be featured in the local paper. It’s a funny scene – all these men sitting out in deck chairs in a field, roaring their approval as little planes land. It’s a very NZ-spirited thing – this effort to do something remarkable by our own measure. It’s hard to describe this well but it really moves me when I’m watching someone carry out some small tradition that’s meaningful or joyful to them but not significant to anyone else. I want to write about these things because I don’t want them to disappear. Also – the best and funniest stories in my family always seemed to come from the guys, and part of writing this book was saying (desperate as this sounds) that I feel a part of those stories too.

I guess with the short essay about the French postman Ferdinand Cheval, and with the essay about the Washhouse Tapes, although those people really were aiming earnestly for greatness and posterity, they also believed that their ideas were really interesting, and that being quite geographically isolated had nothing to do with it. I don’t want to over-egg this, but, secretly, I try to work in that same spirit. It still takes me a long time to decide that I might have anything worth saying, though.

I also have this sense that maybe people are turning towards smaller stories – maybe to momentarily shield ourselves from the torrent of massive and awful news stories. I followed a story a few weeks ago about a bunch of people making the world’s tallest stack of waffles. A reporter was spending the day with the waffle-makers and was tweeting about the day as the waffle-building progressed, and it was captivating. They just seemed like the loveliest bunch of people, all standing around this big waffle tower. Another one that got me recently was a story about this Scottish woman who came across a bumble bee that had no wings, and she decided to take care of it, feeding it sugar water and stroking it, until one day the bee died. I get completely pulled in by these stories. I was crying everywhere over that bumble bee. It’s funny, how quickly I can feel like I own a random story from the internet, as if it’s mine and nobody else really understands it like I do – but how it takes much longer to feel that there is worth in the stories I already know.

EKH: Again and again, your essays capture so brilliantly the particular kind of companion pop music is to solitude. In “The Te Kuiti Underground,” you imagine Paul McCartney taking your hand as you walk up a lone country hill; Paul and by proxy his music become intimate companions, sharers in loneliness, and at the same time you say you conjure him up to “make an ordinary place, an ordinary moment, more intense, more like a film, something driven towards meaningful conclusion.” You follow this image with the story of the first pieces of writing you sent off for hopeful publication, all the way back in primary school. What do writing and music have to do with each other for you? Are both about ways of approaching solitude? About articulating your own story?

AY: When I was a kid I used to barricade myself into my room and dance to music, or I would run around naked, bopping away. If a song was on, it meant either ‘celebration time’ or … ‘deep sadness time’. (I would’ve been one of those people in the 1800s in France who went into hypnosis when a neurologist banged a gong or waved a tuning fork in front of me, or something.) I took music very personally. A hidden track on an album felt like a secret between me and the artist; how you could be lying there on the floor after the album proper ended, and after a few minutes of silence, staring into space, some new, mysterious thing would begin. It’s sad to me that hidden tracks are pretty much obsolete now.

It took me a long time to stop taking taste so personally. A workmate in a bookshop once said to me gently, when I’d started sputtering because he said he didn’t really like Quentin Blake’s illustrations, ‘You know, if someone doesn’t like the same things you like, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.’ (And then – my head exploded like a chicken in George’s Marvellous Medicine.)

Growing up, I was desperate for my life to feel like it meant something. Obviously it did mean something, or kind of, but I wanted clear signs that this was the case. I wanted tearful-face-filling-a-movie-screen levels of meaning. Listening to music, writing songs, and writing stories were ways of injecting drama into my situation and imagining myself into another, bigger life. I think all of this is probably really basic – I was just hyper-sensitive, and wanted to be comforted.

But now, the escape is more ordinary. It’s relief. Music and writing both give me a feeling of being on the brink of something, at the same time as being suspended in a given moment.

EKH: Some time ago, I was lucky enough to live in New Zealand for a while, and it took only one trip to the local bookstore for me to sheepishly realize how little I knew about the singular rich and wild and inventive landscape of New Zealand’s literature. Even now, I think many American readers will know only Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame—what contemporary New Zealand writers should we be reading? What essayists and poets?

AY: This is bad because I know I’m going to forget some important writer or other and next day I’ll bump into them at the supermarket and they’ll give me the stinkeye. Well, most of our books just aren’t in reach of the US radar. You have to seek them out especially. I am very excited about some new young poets here. Sam Duckor-Jones has an incredible – hilarious, clever, beautiful – first book of poems out, and so does Tayi Tibble; her work is full of light and grit and this amazing swagger. A lot of brilliant essayists are writing online. I love Talia Marshall’s essays, Madelaine Chapman’s brilliant hilarious journalism, and Anna Sanderson’s book of essays Brainpark is an old favourite – her book was one of the books that made me think maybe I could try to write this kind of nonfiction too. A more recent love is this breathtaking memoir by Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka.

I always get the feeling that the world is slightly rearranged after reading work by these writers.

The New Zealand poets I read when I first started reading poetry are still huge presences for me. Jenny Bornholdt feels like a homecoming. Bill Manhire feels like he’s either talking out of my bones or from somewhere in the ceiling – he is also an astonishing live reader of his work; if you ever, somehow, have a chance to hear him, do. And James Brown … how to describe James Brown? His poems just feel like old much-loved pets to me. Here’s a short piece I wrote about him a few years back, when we went for a bike ride.

I also think the poet Geoff Cochrane should be world famous. I’d actually recommend you read this review by Pip Adam of one of Geoff’s books, as a way to begin.

As a matter of urgency, you should all be reading Hera Lindsay Bird. Start with this poem but do buy her book, Hera Lindsay Bird.

One of my favourite writers in New Zealand is Pip Adam. Her novel The New Animals just won our national prize for fiction. Pip is fearless as a writer. Her work is full of weird darkness and joy. I am getting so happy all over again remembering that Pip won that big prize.

EKH: How did you approach the sequencing of this book? What kind of reverberations and echoes did you seek to cultivate as you found the order for the essays? It occurs to me that process might even be a little like structuring a poem—but perhaps that’s the false metaphor of a prose writer!

AY: People will read things in any order that they feel like, but I still like to fuss around with the sequence of things to see what effects I can make. After writing a book you just want to fuss around a bit. You can change your mind so many times and not do any real harm.

There were logical things – for instance I wanted to show a few glimpses of each family member before they appeared more fully in an essay. I wanted them to kind of wander through the background first. And I wanted a timeline of sorts to be easy for the reader to get their head around. I also did not want the most personal pieces to be upfront and to parade themselves. I wanted them to be like hidden tracks.

But mostly, I wanted to create a sense of continual unfolding. Not of a plot, exactly; but of a scene that keeps unearthing a little more of itself.

EKH: I’m in particular admiration of the conclusions you find for your essays—never on-the-nose, never self-explanatory, but trusting of the reader and of the material itself in its meaning. How do you pull this off? How do you know when a piece has found its end?

I’ve never really known for sure that something is finished, and if not for a deadline, I would gorge myself on revisions. I’m like a dog that needs to have the bowl taken away otherwise I won’t stop eating. The best I can do is judge it by a feeling of having spent everything. But I also think a good ending, in the exact moment that you know you’ve definitely reached it in a book, is already turning into another beginning. It’s started to spin another cocoon before your eyes. All my favourite books suggest that another story is about to happen.

Ashleigh Young is the author of the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? as well as a book of poetry, Magnificent Moon. The recipient of a 2017 Windham Campbell Prize in Nonfiction and an Ockham Award, among other honors, Young is an editor at Victoria University Press in Wellington, New Zealand.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is associate editor at Tin House magazine and Tin House Books.