By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor
Awst is glad to feature author, Nalini Edwin, and we'd like our readers to know a little more about her. We sat down to get her thoughts on reading and writing, commercial language, arts education, and promoting more diverse literary voices.
As usual, we'll start off by asking the essential question; what are you reading?
Right now, I'm midway through Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, but in parallel I'm reading some books that dear friends have put out recently. I have to shill them right now, because they’re stunning: Montana Ray's Guns and Butter, Liz Clark Wessel's Isn't That You Waving at You?, and Morgan Parker's Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. I also just finished Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays, and reread Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks. And I just ordered Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue, because I went to graduate school with her and everything she writes is so fucking good. I’m delighted to see her being acclaimed.
Can you tell us a bit about those?
Absolutely! I discovered Ferrante through an essay in n+1 that examined her novels in the context of Italian feminism, especially a fascinating idea called entrustment, in which women build what the essay called “a tissue of preferential relationships” across generations. And that’s just one of the dozens of ideas and critical frameworks that Ferrante’s works bring up. I haven’t read novels that have inspired and enriched my thinking this way in a long time, maybe ever. As for my friends’ books, they’re great examples of the smart/vital Venn diagram in contemporary poetry, and it’s no coincidence that most of the people working in that space are women. I can’t say anything about Wayne Koestenbaum that someone else hasn’t said more effusively and clearly, and on the subject of Weird Fucks, I just love Lynne Tillman. I’m always here for a Kerouac takedown.
Interesting. Are you reading towards a particular goal or a project of your own?
I think everything I read goes toward projects I'm working on. That seems like a cop-out, but I really do feed everything into the ol’ wood chipper. (My dreams are really weird.) Although, to extend this a little: when people ask me this question, I also tell them what I’m watching and listening to, because I work with various kinds of media, and I consume video and audio just as avidly as I do books.
Great, we'd love to hear about them! Awst Press really appreciates authors who are trying to expand, mix, and hybridize media.
I love that about Awst. I mean, I'm always on the cheer squad for that point of view. So yes! I'm listening to a lot of psychedelic music right now. I have a playlist on Spotify called "Dirge Barge" that is like, a bunch of Love albums and a comp album called "Forge Your Own Chains," which I think is hilarious but is so good, and really excellent music for working.
And in terms of movies, TV, or video?
Tv-wise, I'm watching Hannibal, Halt and Catch Fire, and a lot of period-set British crime. On the movie front, a lot of grim ‘70s movies about surveillance, although I’m on the hunt for a subtitled copy of Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella. So that's my plate.
Oh, I like Hannibal! Are you enjoying it?
YES. As people often note, it's so visually horrifying! But also so beautiful and painterly. I really feel like it's a fatted liver of a show. There’s just so much lavished on the eye and ear. We don’t deserve it. Have you noticed how they'll often come back from an ad break with some sort of gratuitously pretty, abstracted shot, like milk spreading through coffee, and spend 10 seconds on it, when it's simply a cup of coffee carried through the scene by an extra? That excess. It’s gavage for your visual cortex.
Yeah, it's one of those shows you could enjoy on mute. So what are you working on right now?
I'm working on a couple of projects right now. Two are things I've been working on for quite a while, two to three years. The first is a collection of ... I guess they're prose poems because they don't pour into any other container neatly. In them, I'm trying to process what it was like to work in a few different bloated industries as a low-level employee during the years of 2006-2009.
And the second?
In the other, I'm trying to play with legibility. There are a few people in digital art/media art who have been working with this idea for some time — i.e., is it literature or even language if you can't read it?
Of course, that could mean a number of different things. I'm choosing to focus on the "can't read" part and think about legibility in terms of register, and how that can be politicized. It's my favorite thing to work on right now.
That sounds like a fascinating project! Do you have a title in mind?
It’s not really at the point where a title could do anything for it, which is fine.
Can you tell us a little more about it?
Sure, although it’ll sound cagey. I don’t mean to be, it’s just that it’s not fully formed yet. But, that being said, the series of pieces that this is coming together as — the sort of mass of it — involves a lot of interaction design that upends the idea that someone can necessarily interact with a piece of content (text/image/video) housed online in the usual or default ways. Which is to say: the ways that cater to the rich, the white, the male, the straight, the cis, the non-disabled, the English-speaking.
How did it come about, and was there a specific inspiration?
I started on it when I was working as a visual designer, and brought the question of ADA compliance to a project I was working on. I kept thinking about how we retool things retroactively to be legible for those users — websites, texts, products, etc — and while doing that, also considered other ways in which the accessible Internet is an internet of accommodations, many of them afterthoughts or grudgingly made. And I thought, What if I start making work that insists on flipping this? And of course the question then is, Flip it for whom? And who are you to do this flipping? With all of the responsibilities and implications that carries.
Where might this lead in the future?
I am interested in doing that for registers of language as well and have been — related and parallel to this part of the project — making some work that does that. But I'm not at the point with either where I feel that they could work together, either braided conceptually or as a suite. Right now I just want to amass these pieces, and then look at them critically.
When you say "registers", I think of your work Junk Movements. I loved that piece and the sly use and subversion of commercial language; could you tell us a little about it, or about the dialogue between literary and commercial language more generally?
Thanks for the kind words! In Junk Movements, I do think of my re-purposing of the copy as archaeological. I like thinking of the text below the copy as the secret subregister in which all advertising copy is written.
The secret language of products and producers. You know — buy a decoder ring, figure it out. Haha. I kind of feel like "buy a decoder ring and figure it out" is the secret subtext of the capitalist mandate.
How do you respond to the tension between the language or register of consumerism and that of poetry and literature? Do both have value?
To your question about literary and commercial language, I think I feel as if there isn't really a formal meniscus between the two? Or at least, if there seems to be, that's a function of positioning, which = marketing, which = commercial. Isn't that depressing? We might as well make things out of it.
I often admire the literary ambitions and talents of anonymous commercial writers; you sometimes see a lovely phrase on a ketchup packet.
Oh definitely! I mean, my day job is to head a copy team, and while I haven't worked on ketchup, I feel a certain sting of embarrassed nostalgia when I'm in an airport and see things like branded cartons of hand-held sudoku games. IT ME. I used to try to work in literary references and other sly allusions when writing copy, but now I just enjoy noticing it when it emerges.
You've taught in various capacities and worked as a fundraiser for Bronx schools; can you tell us briefly about that?
Access to education, especially arts education for youth, is deeply important to me. My fundraising work for The Highbridge Green School, which is a public middle school in the south Bronx, is volunteer, but the volunteer work I’ve done grows out of my experience teaching.
Is your work with education important to your identity? Does it influence your work?
I really love teaching, and have done it for years, for pay and as a volunteer, but I'm not sure that it enters my own creative work to a discernible extent. It absolutely does integrate with my feelings about community, which is the basic unit of my world.
You've also worked in the past with programs that encourage girls and young women to write, including facilitating mentorship with established women writers. Can you tell us a little about that?
I ran the digital media mentoring program at Girls Write Now, which is a really neat extension of their flagship writing & mentoring program. Organizations like GWN — and Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, DCTV, Urban Word, 826, and others — understand that a crucial part of nurturing young writers and artists is the support and championship a mentor provides.
Can you tell us about your experiences and your thoughts on strategies for encouraging and promoting more diverse literary voices? What are some organizations or individuals who are working in that direction?
There are a number of organizations, like the ones above, doing incredible work to encourage diverse literary and artistic voices. I think it's especially important to do that for children and adolescents, to bolster them on two fronts: the creative process itself, which can be agonizing regardless of any combination of privilege, and — this is where I feel it's crucial — to make them not only feel, but understand, how much a part of the conversation they should get to be.
Which is still a tremendous challenge?
I phrase it that way — should get to be — because we're nowhere near diversity, much less parity, which I feel is the second and more important (and difficult) frontier in social justice. Because it's like, Sure, get all the voices at the table, yes, great … but whose voices are we already primed to listen to?
That's exactly right. But in your own experience, you've been very impressed with the young people you've worked with?
Oh yes. The girls are so special. I love working with teenage girls — teenagers generally, but girls especially. There's a dazzling amount of awareness and energy. It's legit like looking into the sun.
Have they inspired you to create anything new?
A project that I have kind of been twisting around in my brain is a young adult novel about fanfiction, which is to say, fiction. Most kids who start writing these days come to other genres of literature through poetry and fanfiction.
It is a genre that hasn't been taken seriously enough to get much critical attention, but there's weird vital stuff going on there.
Exactly! I would love to see it get the welter of critical attention that other, more loftily positioned forms of metanarrative receive.
Could a novel like that provide a bridge to more 'serious' literature from YA and fan fiction?
I think bridges are important, but I also think it's good to ask what makes something “more serious.” Because I do feel that when work gets called unserious, it's often because it's pitched at a register that is deeply discomfiting to people who feel that register is punching up at them.
Is it possible to make the writers and consumers of marginalized genres into part of a broader literary community without being dismissive or condescending?
Of course! It’s not only possible, it should already be.
How can we prevent people who want to write outside that very specific Serious Literature mode from losing faith in the importance of their own writing?
That’s tricky. I’ve been there myself, and I’m not sure what would have helped me. I spent all of my MFA time in a depressive crouch, although it was not so much my program, to be fair, as the effect MFA programs can have on some people. I was lucky enough that I a) had a tight-knit, supportive community to return to, and b) had some time after graduating to pull out that drawer of feelings and pick each one up and kind of chew on it for a while, until I stopped feeling like it was not worth showing my work to anyone. Maybe that’s the prescription: friends and time.
Well, we're glad you did, and really enjoyed reading your work. Before we go, do you want to offer any parting words, sage advice, shout-outs or, thank-yous?
I’d like to thank you and Wendy, and Mike Young for soliciting me; I’d also like to thank the editors at Gigantic, extramural, Anomalous, and Fringe (RIP) for their kindness. I owe thanks to my best husband and to our friend Sasha Fletcher for always asking to read my work, even when I’m squirrelly about it. Shoutout to Rachel, Gene, and Ella. As for sage advice, never trust anyone who compliments you with the word “actually.”
Check out Nalini's page to read her work or find out more about her.
Paul Adams is an author and MFA student at Texas State University.