Interview with Donald Quist

By Liz Blood

Liz chatted with Donald last week before she headed to Atlanta for the Letters Festival and before he found out we are nominating him for a Puschart Prize for his essay, The Animals We Invent.

LB: You wrote an essay, published at The Rumpus, about becoming a black expatriate in part to get away from being black in the U.S. I'm curious, what response did that essay receive?

DQ: It was positive. I was a little fearful publishing that essay. I worried that because I no longer reside in the States, some might think I don’t have a right to comment on or criticize aspects of the U.S. I expected hate mail and all manner of trolls saying, "You're not here, you left, you can't comment on this! You threw in the towel.” It's easy to speak out when you're on the other side of the planet. I feel guilty about that sometimes. But, the choice was really about self-preservation.

LB: It's interesting that you question your right to comment or criticize because you've left the country. You invoke James Baldwin several times in your essay, who once said "I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."  Do you feel similarly? 

DQ: I agree with Baldwin's sentiments. As worried as I was about having haters, at no point did I think what I was writing shouldn't be said. I think that's what a citizen should do, right? Start conversations, question, listen, search, demand for better.

LB: You do ask of yourself in the essay, "Am I a citizen?" Do you feel you have more of a voice from abroad?

DQ: Being far away gives me a chance to think more carefully about things, which I think was true for Baldwin, as well. You can get a better sense of the position of people of color in America by viewing the country at a distance. It's like a Seurat painting. When I was a dot among all the other dots it was hard to see things clearly. At this distance I think I better understand the image America projects, the story we're showing the world. 

LB: You write, "Racism in America includes the ability to ignore what should be seen, it thrives on a system in which one group’s perception is considered more factual than another.” This week, those sentiments make me think specifically of the slow-to-act administration at Mizzou, and consequent student protests. Do you keep up with U.S. news in Thailand and, specifically, news that is racially charged?

DQ: Yes, that line in the essay is exemplified daily. Every morning, I wake up to some new injustice glowing in my social media feed. A lot of the news I get is culled from the status updates of outraged friends and family. Even when racism is documented, recorded, witnessed, it seems like it has to be validated by a certain segment of the population for it to be considered true.

LB: Do you have a mission, or purpose, with your writing when it comes to addressing some of these social injustices? 

DQ: I've just got some stories to tell and a voice I want heard. I've got 10 working fingers, a laptop, and access to the Internet. With everything I write I have one purpose and that is to try to evoke empathy for others. I'm writing to tell the reader something I think I've learned about the spaces we share and trying to get them to briefly inhabit another's point of view. Accordingly, this purpose lends itself to examinations of social hierarchies.  I am writing because I think we all could do better — that’s the mission. To be better than the day before and to use this craft to try to help someone care about something or someone they might have overlooked. 

LB: You write in both fiction and nonfiction. Are you more drawn to one genre than the other, or are both equal in their abilities to evoke empathy?

DQ: Equal in their abilities, I hope, if I'm doing it right. My essays are different than my fiction because of approach. In fiction, I approach a story with a sort of formula, that I wasn't aware of until two weeks ago when a friend sent me a clip of an online storytelling course with Alex Blumberg. The formula is "I'm telling a story about X, and it's interesting because of Y and Z." In the case of my story "No Subject,” published earlier this year at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, I tell a story about a woman having a funeral for her dead cat, and it’s interesting because the cat may be an incarnation or a volcano goddess and the story is told in the form of an email. With essays, I have no formula, just the goal of being as compassionate to the subjects in the narrative as possible. 

LB: Tell me about what you're working on, currently.

DQ: I’m working on three big things. One is finishing a short story collection. I'm also working to launch a podcast in December with poet Colin Cheney. In it, we speak to artists living and working in Bangkok about self-expression and creating art in an era military rule and censorship in Thailand. I also have an essay collection called Harbors that features work similar to “The Animals We Invent,” which I wrote for Awst Press earlier this year. With the essay collection, I hope to explore some of the forces and constructs that shape American identities.

LB: Speaking of forces and constructs that shape American identities, you ask in your Rumpus essay, "Is this new freedom I enjoy in Thailand the result of donning a new mask, or do I feel more freedom because I’ve removed the guises I had to wear to survive America?” You're speaking about living in Thailand, away from the white gaze of America. Have you figured out the answer to that question?

DQ: No. I’m not sure I ever will. But, I think it is an important question to ask. I find I'm a lot more open here in Thailand. I worry less about showing my face in places. Here, I'm less afraid, and that raises questions that need to be posed. 

LB: I lived in Korea for a year and was astounded at my inability to go anywhere without being stared at. It made me very self-conscious at first, and then it made me angry. Is the experience in Thailand similar for you? Or is that more close to your experience in America?

DQ: What you've described I've experienced in America just as often as in Thailand. In Bangkok, I don't stand out, as there is a large African population and many black travelers. So, I don't raise any attention. But when I leave the city, when I'm traveling through rural provinces, I'm an alien from another planet. Weirdly, the stares I get remind me of driving through segregated parts of the American South. In the States it made me angry, because the stares carry a different connotation: ”You shouldn't be here." In Thailand the stares mean, "How did you get here?”

I'm an English lecturer and sometimes I catch my students staring at me. Many of them have seen black people before but never had a conversation with a black person. I spend a lot of time answering questions about black people and how we are portrayed in American media. 

LB: Can you give an example of one of those conversations?

DQ: “Teacher, can you rap?" "Have you ever been in a gang?" "Do you have a gun?" "Have you been arrested?" Sometimes they ask me about things they've seen on the news, like, “Teacher do you know about Trayvon Martin?” These questions don’t make me angry—at least, not angry with my Thai students. They make me think about the story America is telling the world. Finding a teaching job in Asia can be harder for black men than white men. There are reasons for that. So, the white gaze extends across the globe, but here it's not as oppressive. 

LB: I want to ask you about "silence," which you also mention in your essay after quoting Baldwin. He dropped into silence by moving to France. You say you wanted to "drop into silence." Why? I get the sense from your essay that you experienced silence in the U.S. Are the two silences—that of being a writer abroad and that of being a writer in the States—different?

DQ: There is imposed silence and there is chosen silence. I've chosen the silence I experience here. I don't have to shout to be heard or scream to be left alone. I can have the luxury of silencing the debate about the validity of what I see and witness. In the U.S., I am often silenced. I can't stop shouting because I have to shout. I'm made to shout. When I yell, those doing the silencing yell louder, even in agreement, as if, if they appear more vocal than me then somehow they do not profit from their privilege. Here I can be silent and can listen. I think those in a position of being able to be silent should listen more. This silence I've sought is now my privilege. 

LB: Do you read to inspire your work? And, if so, what? 

DQ: I don't actively seek out certain authors or books for inspiration. There are things I will read that spur me, Baldwin does that a lot, and César Aira, who is my favorite living writer. But, mostly, I'm inspired by the great work I see being put out there by people I know personally, like P.E. Garcia, Kali VanBaale, Sophfronia Scott, Mathieu Cailler, Elizabeth Schmul, Celeste Doaks, Damien Miles-Paulson, Sunisa Nardone, Anu Kumar. I often find myself entering into a conversation with these people when I write. They are muses to me. 

LB: Many of whom are your fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) grads! 

DQ: VCFA gave me something I had never experienced: a sense of community, a sense of belonging to a population that wants you. 

LB: Is that valuable to the writing experience?

DQ: Having a tribe is valuable. Knowing there are people out there that get what I'm trying to do has helped motivate me a lot.

LB: While we’re talking about value, I noticed you mention rage in your essay—recognizing and understanding it. Do you think there is value in rage? 

DQ: Yes, there is value in rage. It can be a catalyst for changing something. Some things need to be disrupted. 

LB: Rage can also be alienating, too, don't you think? I wonder about how to use it effectively. I read a review of Against the Country, a novel published earlier this year, and the reviewer mentioned writing sentences "in rage... trying not so much to sublimate the feeling as to use it, so it might fuel the better expression of the force that engendered it." 

DQ: Yes! This might get sappy here, but the rage I've felt comes from a frustration I have with humanity, and I love humanity. The rage comes from wanting and expecting more from others because I believe they are capable of it. So, that rage is love. I'm full of rage when I write most of my essays. I'm angry and I try to focus that rage into forming something that might better express myself and what I'm feeling.

LB: That makes sense. Rage needs honing.

DQ: This physical distance of being in Thailand helps me better handle the rage I constantly feel. I’m a little behind here. So, when I hear about a girl being assaulted in a classroom in my home state, this distance gives me time to process, to think, and to focus the rage into crafting something helpful.

LB: It’s a powerful motivator, as is love, and with both you've almost got to slow down to make them shine. 

DQ: Yes, exactly. And that’s all I’m trying to do—make what I’m feeling shine for others.

You can find more out about Donald at To read his essay, go here.