Kismet, Blueprints, & Secret Tattoos: Catching Up with Essayist Aisha Sabatini Sloan

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I can’t remember exactly when I first met Aisha. We both lived in Tucson and I’d see her at yoga class, on her bike, at the grocery store. She ate at the restaurant where I worked. I ate at the restaurant where she worked. After a while, we became friends. I left Tucson, so did Aisha, but I’ve followed and sought out her essays, even from afar. I return to her work, again and again, because I love her fiercely perceptive vision, the way she can take a large subject–identity, say–and break it open, so that we see all its intricate, unseen parts. Needless to say, I was excited about the arrival of her first book.

Your book, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was recently published. What’s it about? What themes and/or concerns unite the work?

For each essay, I would set myself up as though I were allowed to make a collage using last Wednesday’s newspaper, a 1996 issue of Art Forum, and the notes I took while on layover at the Minneapolis/St Paul airport. And the reason for each particular assemblage was not random: there was always some hunch that I was trying to articulate in the gathering. Race, place and art are ongoing themes. So for example, in one essay, the video of Ana Mendieta killing a chicken helps me begin to untangle what it felt like to travel in South Africa. Or, in another essay, I talk about the way that three filmmakers approach the experience of time in their films as I reminisce about living in Paris for a summer with my father. My father, by the way, will not leave the house without a newspaper, three books and a camera, which is a pretty significant theme in the book: learning how to see the world through his gaze. Movement from childhood to adulthood is a subtle theme, and movement around the globe is another.

I’m interested in hearing about the process of publishing your first book. At one point, The Fluency of Light was simply a Word doc on your computer; now, it’s a real, tangible book, with a beautiful yellow cover, published by a distinguished press (University of Iowa). How did that happen? I want details.

Tangentially, do you have any nuggets of wisdom for writers who are thinking about sending their first manuscript out into the wide world?

I feel like my response to this question is annoying, like when I’ve been single and people have told me that I’ll find love when I’m least expecting it. But that’s what happened for me, when I was trying the least, the most happened. At first, I sent work to lots of places to no avail and felt really frustrated. Eventually, I kind of retreated from the effort and started taking part in a few different writing groups. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have continued to grow (or maybe even try) as a writer, and I probably wouldn’t be published.

One friend encouraged me to send a manuscript to a book contest (1913) on the day of their deadline, which is what prompted me to assemble some essays into a word document in the first place. So when another friend just happened to mention me to her editor, I had something prepared to send, and before I knew it, I’d been offered a contract. I also went to a phenomenal two-week summer literary program in Lisbon run by Dzanc Books (also at the recommendation of a friend), which connected me to amazing writers from all over the world, and for some reason I attribute this trip to the luck of getting published with Iowa soon after, even though there is no direct link.

There were also just crazy moments of kismet, like meeting people on airplanes and in bakeries who had secret tattoos and who opened doors for me that I didn’t realize existed. So I think it’s important to be patient, to be more engaged with the writers and the writing than the publishing, and to become an authentic part of a writing community that is nurturing and challenges you and isn’t the result of empty networking, because when you truly care about other people’s work, it’s natural that as a community you bring one another closer to your goals. Letting things happen this way seems to have impacted the quality of my professional interactions within the literary world. The people I’ve encountered thus far have been extraordinary. As for the logistics of sending out a manuscript into the wild world, I think that book contests are a pretty awesome opportunity. I get the sense that you’re less likely to woo an editor by contacting them directly, although I’ve seen people finesse this trick successfully. You can lure them in your direction by publishing in the journals they read. I imagine that each genre is different.

I like how your publishing journey privileges devotion to writing and your writing community over “empty networking,” empty submitting, empty writing. I know from personal experience that the very act of letting go can bring about unexpected outcomes. Of course, to arrive at this place of acceptance and surrender can be, at times, a hard journey.

I’m intrigued by your collage approach towards writing The Fluency of Light: the way you investigate one thing (film, say) in order to get at another (living with your father in Europe). This reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s oft-quoted advice, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,/ Success in circuit lies.” The idea that circling the subject is more effective than focusing exclusively on it. As a poet, I know that if I want to write about sorrow, the best place to start is not the sorrow itself, but something else entirely, like picking up a prescription or feeding my fish BettaMix. When did this collage approach become a part of your writing practice? Have you always employed the technique? Why do you rely on it?

The image of you feeding your fish BettaMix is exactly it, isn’t it? Poetry, or a poet, taught me that too. I was in an “Alternative Forms of Nonfiction” class that Barbara Cully was teaching and we were reading Midnights by Jane Miller, and I suddenly understood that what that particular kind of prose was doing that I craved was combining past with present to demonstrate only one truth, the truth that was true during the moment it was uttered. Which was so much more delicate and dimensional than a lot of the nonfiction narratives I was reading at the time. In Midnights, the present is expressed through fragments of context—who is there, where they are. Doing yoga. Sitting on the beach. And it seems, thinly, like we’re making forward motion through time as the narrator goes through the process of reflection and healing, but what’s also happening is that a few words (“the shiatsu master,” “crisis,” “the unfolded third finger”) repeat, like a conversational pantoum, to gesture toward this underlying garble that is trying to unwind itself. And then at the end, the refrain comes back and it just kills you: “I pray that when her new lover moves down the pathways of my lover’s body, that the unfolded third finger of love, my master, releases our crisis.”

It’s that kind of movement and repetition that a threaded essay allows too: the thinking that is being done inside the white space between subjects reveals itself, sometimes awkwardly, in sparks along the way, and then, if we’re lucky, something emerges that feels like a coincidence. The artists and writers that Barbara taught that semester all deviated from a straight telling, and in that sort of tangential stroll (literally: WG Sebald takes a walk) you’d discover the key to the thing at the heart of the interrogation by accident, and it’s the surprise that makes the epiphany so powerful. It’s an aesthetic as well as thematic epiphany. Before that, the essays I wrote were making an attempt to “define” or teach something, to pin it down, to draw the reader toward a maybe logical but not very emotional conclusion. Whereas the process of writing lyric essays always feels like a risk, there is this terrible uncertainty throughout: what if I don’t discover the thing that links these things together? And then, you happen upon it, it trips you.

Earlier you wrote that trying to see the world through your “father’s gaze” is a crucial aspect of your book. What’s noteworthy about your father’s gaze, his outlook? Why is his way of seeing important to you as a writer?

He is a photojournalist. While I was growing up, he was photographing riots, or chasing the pope in Latin America, or choosing a jelly bean from a bowl held by Ronald Reagan. Everything he says is, in some ways, a reiteration of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy of the decisive moment. We spent one night in Paris like private eyes, convinced that we were following Cartier-Bresson’s trail after he appeared at a gallery opening. He loves strangers. My friends would meet him at a barbeque and then afterward they would tell me, “For some reason, I just told your father my entire life story.” In so many ways, he is just a human being, but periodically he can spring completely awake. He marvels at coincidence, is obsessed with history and what’s going on in the world, but he also has an amazing sense of humor.

When it comes to artistry, I don’t feel separate from him. He doesn’t influence me, he is me, which I say with humility. I think in some ways the part of me that longs to be a visual artist is expressed by him, and the part of him that longs to be a writer is expressed by me. Which is his fault for leaving me in the car with a bunch of copies of Granta and the Paris Review while he went to pick up his prints and negatives. There is an issue of The Sun magazine in my bathroom right now that somebody opened to a page of quotes. One of the quotes, by Thich Nhat Hanh, reads, “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.” When I read these quotes to my dad, this was his favorite. Of course, it was mine too.

I received your book in the mail yesterday. I had intended to spend my evening working, but I read your book straight through instead. I love it for many reasons, but maybe the biggest reason is that reading your essays made me want to write. My favorite writers tend to be the ones who inspire me to put down their book, flip to a blank page, and begin something new. I haven’t written personal, long-form, lyric essays before, but your writing has persuaded me to give it a go.

Anyway (I hope you’re blushing), here’s my question: The Fluency of Light is obsessed with place: Detroit, Los Angeles, Tucson, Paris… the list goes on. These days, when you think about where you’re from, what place springs to mind first? Of all the places you’ve lived and loved, where is Home?

Blushing for certain. This question of home just so happens to be the question of my life at the moment. I was just talking to another California native yesterday about Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, and we were wandering around the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, contemplating California, discussing the idea of rootedness. I haven’t read it, but I like the tense of that title, where I was from, as if that can fluctuate. My family always seemed on the brink of moving from Los Angeles to either Detroit or Paris while I was growing up, so my relationship to home has always been triangulated between a place that represents the past, a place that represents a transitional present, and a place that represents a (potentially) impossible dream for the future. Maybe that’s why the question of home has always felt elusive. I feel very at home at the airport.

One of the pleasures of reading your book is encountering smart and evocative essay titles: “Fawlanionese” [originally featured in the Summer 2010 edition of MQR] is maybe my favorite and “Birth of the Cool” a close runner-up, but they’re all fabulous. Tell me a little bit about how you find and choose your titles, including the title of the book itself. What’s a good title—for you? How do you know when you’ve found the right one?

Well, when I’m not borrowing from Miles Davis or making up words, I’m coming up with some pretty inane titles. When Iowa asked me to rename my book, which I had originally titled Resolution in Bearing: Essays on Race, Place and Art, one of my suggestions was Whiten the Walls, Call the Boy. Which is from an Ethiopian dictionary that I quote in one of the essays. Needless to say, this would have been ridiculous from a marketing perspective. Then again, they wanted to call the book Fade to White, which nearly gave me a heart attack. It’s such an interesting intersection between art and politics, titling. And subtitles, my goodness. I think a good title is one that winks at the heart of the essay without giving it away. Lately, I’ve been pretty reliably finding the title in the essay after it’s done. I know I’ve found it when I stop feeling the urge to tinker with it.

You’re a long-time yoga practitioner and you teach yoga in Los Angeles. How has your yoga practice affected your writing practice? Has yoga affected the writing itself?

I love this question and I love you for asking it. There are probably a million ways that yoga impacts my writing practice, one important one being that I get a lot of ideas when I’m practicing yoga. And meditating. It’s much easier to cultivate a relationship with your intuition when you place a value on letting go of that running narrative of habitual thought. When I finally started practicing yoga and meditation more seriously, one of the things that I had to face was that the writing project that I had been spending years on—we’re talking hours and hours of interviews, international travel, research, hundreds of pages of writing, what I’d gone to graduate school for—wasn’t working.

This just hit me one afternoon, and I couldn’t argue with it. And as soon as I let the project go, or put it aside—I have not opened that file since—I knew exactly what project I was supposed to do instead. I wasn’t happy about it, but I also couldn’t deny that the momentum for this new thing was awesome. The manuscript I put together instead—essays I had just pushed off to the side and a few that had yet to be written—ended up being my book. So, yoga plays the role of helping me to be honest with myself about what to put my energy toward—synching up with what wants to be written and what wants to be left alone. Noticing resistance and honoring that there is a reason for it, the same way you have to honor your body when it tells you not to move in a certain way. I save myself a lot of time as a writer now because of this practice of discernment. I know what it feels like to be working against my own best interest and can stop myself sooner. My sentences are less flowery too.

Tell me more about your shift away from “flowery” language. How would you describe your prose style now? How is your style today different than when you first began to write seriously?

When I started out in graduate school, I didn’t have very many tools at my disposal. I just loved to analyze things and to create metaphors. But during my first nonfiction workshop, my professor was so irritated by a bad simile in the first paragraph that he refused to read the rest of the essay. He accused me of acting as though I wrote for the New Yorker. He could smell that it was the only magazine I subscribed to. So I started writing these second person essays that were more like short stories, or short films, and my workshop peers, while curious about what it was that I was trying to do, felt like the writing was evasive. Which was true—after spending a lot of time in college reading post-colonial and post-modern fiction and theory, I was very distrustful of the first person voice and the linear narrative. Around the same time, I was taking a poetry craft class with Jane Miller, who was saying things about form that I’d never heard before. She mentioned casually one day that nonfiction wasn’t actually a genre. That year was like a series of earthquakes. Then, finally, I was introduced to the lyric essay, which was such an extraordinary relief. Rather than spending hours on one sentence, I drew blueprints for threads of research and personal history, letting the structure be the thing that had to be graceful. This drew on my interest in visual art. Picasso, Rauschenberg and Basquiat are, in many ways, my biggest creative influences. I still love to play with language but my poor sentences don’t get so abused now because there are other aspects of the construction of the essay that require equal or greater attention.

What have you learned about yourself through the writing, publishing, and public reception of The Fluency of Light? What aspects of your being (emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, etc.) have become clearer and more obvious to you?

One thing that has been hard about publication is that I can be incredibly sensitive, like a lot of artists. On some days, I can get taken down by the exhalation of an ant. And for awhile, I was living with a lot of anxiety about the potential for negative response to the book, and to me. But a handful of people have given me this particular kind of response that I cannot easily brush off. It isn’t approval, it is gratitude. Which drowns out the negativity, because it nourishes something so much deeper in me than my desire to be liked. I think that because in our culture writing and publication are wrapped up with vanity, it’s hard for some people to admit that writing is their thing, it’s how they want to be in the world, because they will be accused of wanting attention. Writing about yourself amplifies this risk. But we can’t separate from ego, it’s there, it drives us, we have to deal with it in varying degrees always. We shouldn’t mute ourselves to avoid it. I know far too many talented people with very important things to say who are infected by this kind of politeness. I think that it’s important to realize that there are things that aren’t going to be heard if we don’t say them.

So one thing I’m learning is that I can’t hide behind the idea that I’m somehow being humble by being silent or by doubting my abilities. This is the province of a lot of women and people of color, the constant apology for taking up space. I think it’s important to have good intentions as a writer, first of all. But I think that once you’ve established that you are writing from those intentions, you have to devote yourself to cultivating a sense of confidence and endurance. I’ve also realized that writing is part of a more general effort to be a better person. If I stop making an effort to be balanced emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually and whatever, then I’m not really able to write well. My intuition gets foggy. The more discipline I bring to those other aspects of my life, the easier it is to write, and the stronger the writing becomes.

What’s next for the wonderful Aisha Sabatini Sloan—writing-wise and otherwise?

I am working on a new project, which involves police stations and dark, desert skies. I will be mourning the end of this interview. And I remain a voracious reader of those fortunes that come attached to tea bags. If I knew more than that, I’d tell you.


Buy Sloan’s book from the University of Iowa Press and find out more about Sloan at aishasloan.com.

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