An interview with Amina Gautier
If you haven’t run across Amina Gautier’s fiction yet, I feel safe in saying that you will. She’s the author of three award-winning short story collections, At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and most recently, The Loss of All Lost Things, and continues to publish new work in a wide variety of literary journals. A native New Yorker, Gautier currently divides her time between Chicago and Miami, teaching in the University of Miami’s MFA program.
As its title suggests, your new collection revolves around characters coping with a spectrum of losses. In one story, we witness characters struggling through the wake of divorce. In another, a couple struggles after their child is abducted. We see characters striving to find direction after being widowed, or a loss of direction in their careers. What drew you so strongly to this topic? How did each kind of loss change your understanding of loss in general?
I’m drawn to the exploration of emotional suffering because I believe that we live in a culture that turns a blind eye to emotional pain, one which subordinates emotional debilitation rather than treating emotional and physical suffering as partners that walk hand in hand. A quick look around will show you that there are so many who are emotionally wounded and don’t know the way out of their suffering, and who, paradoxically, behave in ways that prolong or exacerbate such suffering, while receiving little to no sympathy. If you tell someone you’ve suffered famine, drought, that you’ve been shot or broken a limb or have a terminal illness, you get surrounded with sympathy, but tell someone that you’ve never felt loved, or that you’re insecure or lonely or that you’re still hurting from people who have lied to you, betrayed you, sabotaged you, or just didn’t love you when you wanted to be loved, and they tell you to move on and get over it but they don’t show you how or stick around to help you through. Most people are ill-equipped to deal with and respond to loss and its attendant emotional suffering in ameliorative ways. We are always losing things all of the time and no one seems to know how to deal with it, how to cope with loss. For over a hundred and fifty years, we’ve had a portion of the country still dealing with how to get over losing a war back in the 1860s, and now we have a portion of the country reeling from the results of the current election. We are constantly urged to move on and get over our losses, but I’ve never seen anyone successfully do this with ease. There are no guidelines. There are always plenty of suggestions for things we should all do, but the doing isn’t the problem, the feeling is. Loss is a topic I could explore and never reach its bottom. As long as our world is full of emotionally wounded people this topic will continue to intrigue me.
Do you feel that fiction can help people, then, in dealing with loss, or does fiction serve another role?
I absolutely believe that fiction can help people in dealing with loss and a whole other host of emotions. I’ve banked my entire life on that belief. It’s certainly what I believe I am doing. When I first started to write seriously at Stanford, I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which struck a particular chord with me. The following quote of his is one I’ve taken to heart:
To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write… so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on […] every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death. It does not mean, either, that writers should write moralistically, like preachers. And above all it does not mean that writers should lie. It means only that they should think, always, of what harm they might inadvertently do and not do it. If there is good to be said, the writer should say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.
Gardner’s lofty words articulate my feelings about my responsibility as a writer, which guides my determination to hold onto certain ideals and methods in lieu of marketability or greater distribution. Reading good literary fiction helped shape my emotional and intellectual growth, encouraged me to be empathetic and sympathetic, and challenged me to seek to understand rather than to judge. What Gardner says fiction and fiction writers can do for people i.e. help them “understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened” is what literary fiction did for me long before I ever thought I could become a writer and do it for others in return. Literary fiction serves many roles, but the ones Gardner mentions are among its most important tasks.
As a writer, you seem to value a kind of deep examination of the fragile human psyche. Your stories don’t offer problems that will be solved in twenty pages. Instead, they seem to operate like a series of portals, each offering a glimpse into a fully formed world. The stories don’t move toward resolution as we traditionally think of it, but instead take us from a moment where the character seems to lose his or her balance towards a new moment of tenuous balance. Would you agree with that? What do you see as the relationship between plot and character? How does this affect your approach to story writing?
I definitely value probing the fragile human psyche i.e. trying to understand what makes a person or a character tick at any given time in an attempt to understand the relationship between the way in which the circumstances of our world have an impact upon us and, in turn, the ways in which we impact our world. While I do believe that all of my short stories contain conflict, rising action and resolution, my resolution is fitting to the genre of the short story, by which I mean that it doesn’t resound with an all-encompassing, all-inclusive definitive thwack. Stories and novels have different aims and goals. With short stories, the conflict resolved is by nature fragile and tenuous. In short stories, as in life, we all experience what we believe to be epiphanies — moments we believe to be life-changing, but only time can tell. You read a short story and you believe that a character has become resigned or has learned something about him or herself, yet that epiphany may very well be fleeting and temporary. One of the reasons I love the short story form is because I believe it more closely resembles reality, in which problems are only ever resolved in a temporary manner until some other wrinkle is introduced. Because fiction is based on characters, and characters are based on humans, there will always be room to return, because people are always growing, changing and evolving. So the resolution is based on what a particular character knows or understands at a particular moment, with the understanding that if you were to revisit that character a month or a year later, he or she could have a very different understanding.
The interactions between the characters seem especially important in your story. It’s not quite the old “man vs. man” conflict we learned about in school, but character interaction beats at the heart of your work. Over and over, what strikes me in the stories from this collection and from your two previous collections is the necessity and the impossibility of love — particularly at moments when people are under duress. I feel these characters operating on a kind of magnetism that attracts them to one another, but as they draw close, it is as if the poles flip, and they are as fully incapable of understanding one another as they are in need of that kind of understanding and support. Does that reading resonate, or do you have a different take on your characters?
On a very basic level you could say that my exploration of character interaction goes back to asking the old “What does the character want” question and following it up by asking what internal and external obstacles get in the way and prevent the character from achieving his or her heart’s desire. I frequently encounter or observe people who behave in ways that are detrimental to their own self-interest, who profess to desire something and then behave in ways that prevent them from ever obtaining that thing or experience. I am a very straightforward and direct person, a “go-getter,” so I find this both confusing and fascinating. I like to follow a straight path or make a bee line toward my goal (that way I have time for other things!), so I am completely mystified and intrigued by people who wander in circles while professing a desire to move forward, or who cut off their noses to spite their faces. Part of what makes us humans complex is that we want things and are often just as afraid of success as we are of failure. Because we can only live in our own minds, we can never fully read another person or guess how he or she will react, and as long as we base our actions on imperfect and incomplete information, we are guaranteed to encounter moments of miscommunication and misunderstanding, which is, of course, a great tenet of good literature. After all, Gatsby is killed because Myrtle’s husband misunderstands and presumes that it is he and not Daisy who runs over Myrtle; Sula’s misunderstanding of the way Nel will take it when she sleeps with her husband destroys their friendship; Darcy’s misunderstanding of Jane’s feelings for Bingley threatens his own opportunity to have a relationship with Elizabeth; misinformation about what actually happened to Halle haunts Sethe for the rest of her life; miscommunication causes Juliet to wake up from her drug-induced sleep and find Romeo dead; misinformation about Theseus’s return causes Augeus to leap to his death.
You are one of the most prolific writers working today. You’ve published over ninety short stories and this latest book makes your third award-winning collection. What keeps you going back to the desk?
Writing keeps my brain nimble, my thoughts lucid, and my heart open. It prevents my mind from turning inward and staring at itself. I return to the desk again and again to remain sane, to be whole. There is much to say, to question, to observe. The need for stories is never ending. There are still answers to be sought and questions to be asked. I go back to the desk because that is where I find understanding. That is where I learn about the human condition. Creating art through literature is both a witnessing and a documenting act which is even more important in our current revisionist culture in which we disbelieve anything we have not personally experienced, rewrite narratives to make them more palatable and make ourselves look less culpable, or simply look away and ignore wrongdoings which occur around us. No one wants to believe anything negative even when it is impossible to ignore. For many, our first impulse is to deny. Think of all of the social and political movements we refused to see until nearly too late. Then we scramble to make up for lost time. Afterwards, we revise the narrative to disguise our tardiness and failure to act and correct. Writing bears witness and forces us to see. It documents and makes it impossible for us to deny. Writing corroborates culture and imprints history in a more immediate way than a scholarly monograph and when both are read in conjunction with one another, the reader obtains a more accurate view of the times. These reasons are more than enough for a writer to be compelled to continue to contribute.
You once told me that, early on in your writing education, a professor advised you to have ten short stories that you were willing to send out before you submitted one for publication. His thinking was that, once a story was accepted, young writers would be drawn to try to replicate that story again and again. How did this advice shape you as a writer? What other advice do you have for our fellow fiction writers?
The writer in question was Peter Rock, who had been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford while I was an undergraduate there, but whom I didn’t meet until a year after graduation when he was teaching creative writing at Penn, where I was a first-year PhD student in English literature. During my second semester, he very kindly allowed me to sit in on his creative writing course. In addition to auditing his course, he and I met weekly for lunch, and at each meeting, I’d turn in a new short story I’d written and we’d discuss my submission from the previous week. Towards the end of the semester, when I turned in “Palabras” (which appears in Now We Will Be Happy), he said, “You could probably publish this.” Just when I got excited, he said, “But not until you’ve written ten more that are just as good.” While it never occurred to me to write one story and wait on tenterhooks until I heard back before writing the next one, his advice was still invaluable because it corroborated my natural tendency to focus more on craft than publication. And that’s really what his advice to have ten publishable pieces before submitting the first one was about — not becoming a slave to the publication game. Writing multiple publishable stories prior to entering the submission (game) process is a way of making sure that you foreground craft and that you have a chance to explore and develop your range as a writer. In conjunction with his advice, Pete would quote Flaubert “It is in order to shine sooner that authors refuse to re-write. Despicable! Begin again.” This quotation is dear to me; it serves as a constant reminder that the writer’s arrogance, impatience, and desire for fame can encourage one to write in a careless and hasty manner just so one can get the work out there. The desire for publication can be at odds with the desire to write well, which can make one want to rush through the writing process just at the time when one actually needs to sit with the work, pull it apart and look at it anew. Focusing on writing multiple stories that are publishable, polished pieces brings it back home that the writing is what’s important. Because I focus on my writing first I don’t sweat rejections. I know that it is inevitable that my work will get published because my work is good and it speaks for itself.
The publishing world seems to finally be paying attention to diversity — specifically, to the need for more diverse voices and experiences. Your work has added greatly to the current conversation. How do we help other writers of color have their voices are heard? What steps should be taken to ensure a fuller representation in American letters?
I think of myself as writing in my little corner and minding my business, but if I have contributed in any way, then I am glad to play my small part — because that’s what it’s really about — we writers — especially we writers who are marginalized because of race, gender, or sexual identity realizing that we do indeed play a part and that we can choose to play larger roles by sticking our fingers into more pies. When we feel that people who look like us are being ignored or are not being reviewed etc. then that’s when we need to make sure we are reviewing 2-3 books a year that we think might otherwise go neglected, or we should get on judging and awards committees to make sure certain books are not being deliberately ignored and pushed to the wayside. We need to make sure we are represented at all levels, from that of the writer, to the contest judge, to member of the editorial board, to the writing conference panelist or subcommittee member, to book reviewer, book reviews editor etc. We have to be in all of the rooms where the decisions are being made to make sure all voices are being heard.
Moreover, we also have to be clear that publishing diverse fiction is about more than publishing “diverse voices” in terms of authorship. What I want is not just more diverse authors, but also more diverse authors who are also telling more diverse stories. My own experience has shown me that even when an editor attempts to “diversify” a journal, he or she may still exhibit a bias towards the types of stories he or she thinks diverse authors should tell. For example, I have worked with a well-known editor of a well-known literary journal who touts himself as someone who has always been interested in diversity and who has always published diverse authors, yet when you look at that journal’s roster of “diverse” authors, you will see only one type of story from authors of color. It’s a problem that such an editor cannot see his bias and therefore cannot see that his choices are problematic. After extending me an invitation to submit, he promptly rejected my first five submissions, which were stories about black characters building and developing relationships with one another and which went on to comprise my first collection At-Risk. These stories about quotidian experiences which normalized characters of color were rejected in favor of stories featuring more racy content and scenarios where characters of color were ‘Othered’ and their behaviors could potentially be read as pathological.
Lastly, in order to ensure a fuller representation in American letters, writers need to be respected as the heart and center of the literary industry, rather than a byproduct of it. There seems to be a tendency on the part of some editors to forget that authors are the reason English departments, publishing houses, and journals exist and to treat writers as supplicants rather than partners. Last summer at a writers’ conference, an editor approached me and asked what I was working on, after which she immediately proceeded to offer unsolicited feedback on how I should change or “fix” my project. To me, this was the height of arrogance. That someone who had not read a single word had the temerity to comment on and ‘rewrite’ pages she had never seen suggests to me that her comments were not geared to make the unread/unseen manuscript stronger but to make it fit a marketable formula. How can you have diverse stories and narratives from diverse authors when editors are silencing the stories we wish to write before we even commit them to paper? Editors serve the useful purpose of helping to make a manuscript more clear, but that should not be at the expense of putting words in the writer’s mouth. I value and respect editors for what they do, but at the end of the day, I am the writer and the artist and I will have the final say on what work I wish to present to the world and the manner in which I wish to present it. Writers are the heartbeat, the pulse, the blood, the bone, and the sinew of literature, and as such we deserve to be treated with respect and not condescension.