By Liz Blood
When I called up Donald Quist on Skype, we chatted for a few minutes about what was going on in our lives and the world surrounding us—his world in Bangkok, Thailand, and mine in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There had recently been a bombing there, he was at the beginning of a semester teaching English to college seniors. I was up early sipping coffee, ruing but binging on the Trump news as every day, and eager to talk about a dear subject: the craft and philosophy and background particular to an essayist’s work.
LB: When I interviewed you last November, you said you were working on an essay collection called "Harbors." Happily, Awst is publishing it this month. You told me then that in the writing you hoped “to explore some of the forces and constructs that shape American identities.” How did it turn out?
DQ: When we did the interview, Awst was considering it … But I don’t think you knew that then.
I think I did alright. I set out to explore what I wanted to explore and really I feel better having written it. So I think it did part of what it was supposed to do. I examined some things that went into my life and some forces in America that are not so great. I don’t think I knocked it out of the park but I’m proud of what I wrote, what I’ve made, what I’m putting out with Awst.
LB: Did it open up new questions for you to explore?
DQ: I resolved a lot of what I wanted to. But of course a book about oneself prompts a whole bunch of new questions. Now I have these new issues that are left over from writing this book. But they’re not really things I’m prepared to go into on paper. So now there’s like—the book has created new issues for me. A lot of personal stuff. But I do feel better. During the writing process it got really dark—having to go into parts of your life that you’d rather not remember and trying to look at yourself honestly and then to see that you’re kind of a jerk—that wasn’t fun. So it was stressful for me; it was stressful for my wife, friends, and family. I got kind of dark and distant for a little while, just having to consolidate who I am now compared to who I was then and see how much I’ve changed. That was hard work to do. Now a lot of that hard work is done I feel good, but it opened up wounds and, for a little while, P [my spouse] and I had a difficult time. When I’m writing I tend to jump back into that mindset [I’m writing about]. There was one point where she had to live with a 16 year old me.
LB: Did you know about the anger in yourself, or did you discover it in your writing?
DQ: I’m one of the angriest people most people will encounter. Or at least I was. In the US I was always angry. So one of the reasons Harbors came about was this: I was living in Thailand and there are things that frustrate me here, but I wasn’t getting as angry as I was in the States. I was trying to figure out why I wasn’t as angry as I have always been. So in writing the book, I was doubly angry.
LB: Are you angry when you come back?
DQ: Yeah. I was home for 8 weeks this summer doing readings and residencies. Every time I go back my blood pressure goes up. So when I was in the States this summer my blood pressure rose and I gained fifteen pounds. When I came back to Thailand I lost five pounds in two weeks. So there are physical reactions when I’m in the States. I’m always angry and I never feel safe.
And I’m angry because there’s so much good and potential and [the U.S.] doesn’t live up to it. In a country with so many opportunities and exorbitant wealth it makes no sense that so many people suffer. It drives me crazy. But when I’m in Thailand I’m not that angry. Thailand isn’t pretending to be a bastion of anything. Thailand doesn’t carry the same mantle that the USA tends to want to carry. It’s easier to forgive and look over certain things. But in America, it’s intolerable.
LB: In “The Animals We Invent,” you mention forgiving without forgetting. Is writing a way to do that?
DQ: I think so. Harbors had to be written for me to move on as an adult. I had to learn how to forgive not only people, but myself for certain things that I’d done. Because I was just carrying it around. Like, if you forgive, you’re not carrying it around as much. You don’t forget it, because if you forget the things that shaped you, it could happen again. You might not be as aware if you forget things. You have to remember to stay aware. But you have to forgive to live. If not, these things—you imbue them with power. If someone hurts you and you never forgive them, they continue to hurt you every day that you don’t forgive them. Forgiveness is yours, and it’s how you can empower yourself. It’s not easy. The last essay deals with my father, but by writing that and forgiving the missteps we had, I feel a lot better and more comfortable around him. I feel better around my parents because of some of the essays. But I’ll tell you, it’s a lot easier to forgive on the other side of the planet.
LB: In some of the essays early on in the book, I noticed a theme of shame. Like with Ray, the boy from your school. You wrote, “his mother had a proper job.” But then a few lines later, he doesn’t have anyone to come get him from school. Was there some double shame there? What’s the function of shame in Harbors?
DQ: When I set out to talk about these [American social] undercurrents—one of the big ones in America is shame, like shaming people for their station in life. Ray, this kid in my neighborhood, was made fun of because no one could see his mother working. She worked from the afternoon to the evening, so she got shamed for not working hard, and then shamed at the school for not being able to pick up her kids, because of the constructs of capitalism. Ray had to deal with this crap. So I like to talk about shame in the book because it’s a constant thing. People are shaming people for just trying to survive in America. For example—and this isn’t in the book—a young black man might get shamed in his community for working a part-time job at something that’s considered degrading, like as a janitor or in fast food. He gets shamed for that. He can then go become a drug dealer and make more money, and be shamed there, too, but less so. That’s weird. That doesn’t make sense. This idea of shame has created a lot of issues. It’s an underlying cause of a lot of social problems in the U.S., the idea that you should feel bad for where you are and what you’re doing when all you’re trying to do is your best. If you’re getting shamed for that, then why do your best? In another essay, people shamed my grandmother all of the time because of perception. Because she didn’t go to church, she must’ve been a bad woman.
I also think its easier to shame people than to forgive them. You see yourself in that person and so you shame them. It’s a lot easier to shame them than forgive them for the things you see yourself doing.
LB: Tell me about your relationship to empathy. It’s another thing I noticed a lot of, running throughout the book. With Ray, your grandmother, your wife, the owner of the toy store.
DQ: To me, the only reason I write is to empathize. If I’m not trying to empathize I need to put the pencil down and back away. There’s no other point for me than to try to empathize. Everything I could ever hope to make or do will disappear. Everything I know will die and vanish. Miles Davis. Shakespeare. I can’t be worried about making anything that lasts forever. I can focus on what I see now, and so that means that all I have that’s tangible is the now. The people that are here sharing this human experience currently. Whatever I write—the only hope I can have for it to do is to try to make the lives of people here a little less hard. Or a little better. To ease any small amount of suffering that I can with the small gift or ability I’ve got. It’s got to be the focus.
LB: You’ve got an essay about writing, the writer on writing, “Tanglewood,” where you’re staring down the class of middle school students asking you questions. You’re defining what it means to you to be a writer, as fluid of a thing as that is—but that’s a classic kind of piece in creative nonfiction. Do you have any favorites of those?
DQ: I never considered myself a nonfiction writer until this book. I kind-of feel like a phony, like I’m treading on other people’s turf. But one book that always stuck with me was Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” [In it,] she’s being viewed by someone at a park. She and Robert look like artists and someone thinks that they are and they were like “OK, well, we are.” So they were perceived as that and then were like “yeah, we are!” That book definitely stuck with me. Do you really know when you are a writer? How do you know? Someone else tells you. So in that classroom, I never felt comfortable until those kids. Those kids made me feel it. In “Just Kids” that person in the park made Patti and Robert feel it. You kind of fake it till you make it.
LB: So perception is key in making it?
DQ: Perception is a funny thing because it is defining, but you can’t allow yourself to be defined by it. It can give you strength or legitimize something about you that you want it to, or it can take you down. Throughout the book—in fact one of my goals with it—“Tanglewood" is the only essay where I wanted me to be the focal point. Every other essay is me looking at someone else. My perception. By looking at someone else or some place else, that defines me. So, I guess, perception—it definitely does shape you. But the book is also about casting off perceptions. I think those contradictions can co-exist together. The fact that perception gives and takes away can go exist. The book version of me, over the arch of the book, becomes more self-aware, more knowledgeable, and less angry through his perceptions of others.
LB: Which is a key part of empathy—perceiving others—you just can’t go too far with it.
DQ: Yes, because you start pushing those perceptions on people. There are people who believe in fundamental truths and I don’t see how anyone could possibly believe that. Like Plato who said we’re all seeing reflections on the cave wall. Nah. Everyone has their own reality. Accepting the fact that your perception is limited is key to empathy.
LB: In “Figures,” and in many essays but especially that one, I noticed that it seems at every turn you are having to confront your own race, having to deal with race wherever you go—be it middle school, college, Thailand, or Maryland.
DQ: Yeah. The book ends on a positive note. But now, less than a year later, here [in Thailand] I’m judged less for my skin color but am seen immediately as American. I’m being profiled again. I’m like, “I just got done with this.” So I don’t know what to do.
LB: Any idea what’s next?
DQ: Hmm. I’m in a full blown existential crisis right now. You called me right in the middle of it. I got back from America and there’s the military government, bombings and such, and I think, do I stay here? Last week Thailand proposed that foreigners should have a sim card that allows them to track us more easily. They’ve asked for our bank account information. They also asked for a list of places that we frequent. It’s the idea of being unwelcome, and being blamed for society’s ill. I came from that. I don’t need to live in that again. So I’m wondering, if I stay here, do I keep teaching? I love it. But this city is so big. I’m living three hours from my wife during the week. The city takes three hours to cross. So how sustainable is that? Do I go back to America? That gives me a panic attack thinking about it. So I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next. The only thing I know for certain is I’m working on a short story collection. I’m hoping to have it done by the spring. At least I’m writing stories.
Harbors is available 9/22/16
Suspended between continents and cultures, Donald Quist charts the forceful undercurrents of an American identity. Through these essays Quist explores feelings of oppression and alienation as he wrestles with a single act of violence in a Washington, D.C. suburb, racial tensions in a rural South Carolina town, and the welcome anonymity of crowded Bangkok streets. These personal narratives are rich with Quist’s experience growing up as a person of color caught between parents, socioeconomic classes, and the countries he calls home.