It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.
Dr. Amina Lolita Gautier is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her short story collection At-Risk. Gautier is the second African American writer to win this award in its thirty year history. Gautier is a writer, scholar, and professor. Following in the footsteps of the late nineteenth century African American intellectual (Charles W. Chesnutt, W.E.B. DuBois, Frances E. W. Harper, and Pauline Hopkins) who merged both critical and creative talents, Gautier’s academic interests are two-fold. Her background as a scholar of 19th Century American literature and, more generally, African American literature combines with her training as a fiction writer such that she is both a critic and a creative writer, fully engaged in the analysis and creation of literature.
More than seventy of her short stories have been published, appearing in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review and Southern Review among other places, and her fiction has been extensively reprinted, appearing in several anthologies, including Best African American Fiction 2009, Best African American Fiction 2010, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008, The Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years, The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Forerunners in Fiction, and Voices. Gautier is the recipient of the William Richey Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the Danahy Fiction Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award. She has received fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, Hurston/Wright Writer’s Workshop, and the Ucross Residency.
Visit her web site: http://www.aminagautier.com/
How Amina Gautier Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Amina for saying yes!
Note: This is an April Fool’s Day treat! I’m posting the newest interview today – a week early – and will take off on Easter Sunday. Enjoy!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I came of age during the anti-apartheid movement in the US; I was an adolescent when Stevie Wonder recorded his anti-apartheid song, when the play Sarafina! toured New York, when the Cosby spin-off A Different World was weaving anti-apartheid material into its episodes, and when Nelson Mandela was not yet free. At home, my mother had a copy of Kaffir Boy and when I entered ninth grade, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People was selected as the book in common, the one text all incoming students would have to read and discuss communally. I was surrounded by adult and peer discussions of apartheid, which also led to conversations wherein which it was easy to draw parallels between the restrictions placed upon native (black) South Africans during apartheid and on African Americans during slavery and after the Reconstruction, one of the most obvious being restrictions upon literacy and education. This atmosphere impressed upon me the importance, power and danger of literature. When factions attempt to create oppressed societies, one of the foremost ways they go about doing so is by banning thought-provoking literature. It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
Short Answer: I have always been a writer.
Long Answer: I played with dolls and listened to music. When I was a child, I imbibed many elements of craft without any conscious effort on my part, learning quite a bit about writing stories from playing with my toys and listening to music. Any child who has played with toys—be it Barbie or Transformers—has the makings of a fiction writer. As any kid knows, there’s no game without a premise or story. Playing with dolls went a long way to helping me learn the intricacies of plot. No matter what I had in mind for Barbie and Ken, Midge or Skipper could always interfere. Enter subplot. Enter characterization. Enter forward moving action motivated by a character’s wants or desires.
The first stories I ever recognized as stories were actually songs. There was no way to live in my childhood home and not be exposed to music. When I was younger, I was part of an extended family and I had only to walk from one room to another to hear a different song i.e. a different story. My grandmother played gospel, my cousin favored hip hop, and my uncle preferred rock, but it was in my mother’s room, where she played soul music that I first absorbed stories. The songs I heard: Ashford and Simpson’s “Hi-Rise” The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and “Since I Lost My Baby,” Luther Vandross’s “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me,” The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and “Children of the Night,” Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” and “Jimmy Lee,” Natalie Cole’s “Just Can’t Stay Away,” Blue Magic’s “Sideshow” and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s duet “You Are My Heaven” were complete and linear narratives set to music. They had beginnings, middles, and ends. If you took away the musical accompaniment, you would have short stories.
In the more formal sense, I began with writing poetry, in the way that most elementary school kids in Brooklyn begin with writing poetry. My language arts teacher exposed us to poetry around the fourth grade and made us kids in the gifted class enter a variety of poetry contests. My poems won a bunch of these school-wide, district-wide, borough-wide, city-wide contests. One particular win allowed me to meet the mayor (Koch, at the time) and shake his hand. All of the contest wins came with trophies and savings bonds. All in all, it was a good deal and it wasn’t anything I thought very much about. When I got to Stanford, I majored in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis (the precursor to the minor which the university now offers). The creative writing courses were all taught by Jones Lecturers (former Stegner Fellows who stayed on to teach) and entry into the courses was by lottery only.
As lottery would have it, my number came up for the fiction workshop first, though I continued to write poetry. My fiction instructor shared an office with one of the poetry instructors and one afternoon I brought some of my poetry to Chris Wiman for some feedback. After showing him my poems, he promptly shot me down. And—here’s the thing—I let him. I realized that I had no desire to be a poet if I had to train to do it. This was partly because the rewards of it had come too easily to me as an adolescent and partly because I just wasn’t interested enough. That’s how I knew I was a fiction writer. I’d only been in the workshop for one quarter, but I already knew that if I’d shown my fiction teacher my stories and he told me I would never make it and advised me to quit, I would not have been meek and walked away with my tail between my legs. I would have ignored him, marched to my dorm, written ten brand new stories, and made him choke on his words. After only weeks, I was fully invested. There was no one in the world that could discourage me. In order to be a fiction writer, I was willing to be in it for the long haul, to work as hard as it took, to write as many hours as it required, to dump as many boyfriends as it necessitated and to lose as much sleep as I could afford.
Odd as this may seem, my Latin teachers helped me to become a good writer. I started studying Latin in fifth grade and continued with it all the way through high school to AP Latin my junior year, after which there was nothing left to study until college. The rules of grammar, which I found confusing or irregular in English, made sense to me when I viewed them through the lens of this non-native language. Exposure to Latin will, of course, improve anyone’s vocabulary, but the focus on word formation, etymology, derivatives and nuanced language will serve the fiction writer a good turn. Since no one expects secondary school Latin students to prepare for lives as theologians or priests, much of the material students learn to translate is secular rather than ecclesiastical. Thus, Latin exposed me to rhetoric and poetry. Although I learned first through another language, I was already well-versed in scansion, metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, hyperbole, irony, litotes, caesuras and all of the other rhetorical devices long before I ever got to AP English. My study of Latin made me hyper-aware of language, syntax, diction, and rhetoric earlier than I might have been expected to care about the formal qualities of language. Thank you—ago tibi gratias— Mr. Doddington, Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Mulgrew, Miss Bennett, Barb Watson and David Demaine.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I’m not particularly interested in any fiction writer’s biography. Perhaps I would be if I were reading poetry or autobiography, but when it comes to fiction all I need to know about the writers that I read is that they write damn good stories and don’t cut corners. Just as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan never met a shot they didn’t like, I’ve never met a story I didn’t like. For just a small investment of my time—somewhere between five and thirty minutes depending on the story’s length—I can read a story that will make my heart and mind grow by leaps and bounds. That’s a great return on investment if ever I’ve heard of one. Unfortunately, I’m not as open-minded when it comes to novels. Given the tendency of many contemporary novels to disintegrate three fourths of the way through, I’m hardly willing to invest hours or days of my time into one unless multiple trusted sources can vouch for it. If, by some chance, I am roped in to reading a novel that dies midway through, I make it a point to never read anything else by that author ever again. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
I am, however, inspired by lines and passages in stories. If I’m in a funk, reading the last line of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or the opening paragraph of Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” or the “Be a Martin” scene in Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” will always bring me back to a better frame of mind.
I have always been inspired by the section of John Gardner’s Art of Fiction, in which he says:
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, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on. That is not to say, of course, that the writer who has no personal experience of pain and terror should try to write about pain and terror, or that one should never write lightly, humorously; it is only to say that 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 remember to 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 suggestion that literature can soothe the desperate and that good literature is a matter of life and death rings true with me. Literature has certainly saved my sanity. Therefore, whenever I write, I am always mindful of Gardner’s inspiring advice. It reminds me that my reader has many faces. He or she is not just a person with leisure reclining on a sofa. He or she is also a nursing home patient, the quiet teen who turns to books when shut out of reindeer games and socializing and reads late at night in corners of the house/apartment when parents are asleep, an infirm person who rarely has visitors, the adolescent who closes the bedroom door and buries himself or herself in a book to drown out the noise of adults fighting, the retiree who has been waiting decades to read literature at leisure. Knowing this prevents me from cutting corners and taking shortcuts as a writer, it deters me from writing gimmicky material, veers me away from sentimentality, forces me to write however many drafts the story requires.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
1. Get Out of Your Own Way:
In his rap “Bad” LL Cool J rhymes “You want a hit? Give me an hour plus a pen and a pad!” Bravado aside, his lyrics boil the writing process down to its bare essentials. In terms of accoutrements, all a writer needs in order to write is pen and paper. All of other the niceties are a bonus, like sprinkles on ice cream, nice but not necessary. Real writers can write anywhere, anytime, anyplace. You don’t need a certain time of day, peace and quiet, the right circumstances, the correct placement of the constellations in the sky, green apples or any type of rituals. You don’t even need a muse. These esoteric needs are actually self-imposed obstacles and roadblocks aspiring writers place in their paths. If you spend your time awaiting optimal conditions to begin writing, you are setting yourself up to fail. Writers are not picky. When we need to write, we will write on whatever is handy. I have written on computers, typewriters, and word processors. I have written by hand. I have filled spiral notebooks, Trapper Keepers, legal pads. I have written on index cards, construction paper, receipts and cereal boxes. I have even written on myself. I am a writer. I write.
2. Don’t try to write something ‘new.’ Just try to write something good.
Although fiction is not as old as poetry in terms of genre, it is at least four hundred years old (if not older), if we date it back to 1605 with Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which many cite as the “first novel.” Plenty of stories have been written since then and most, if not all, stories have already been told. Writing a short story as a series of emails is neither new nor innovative, since it is based on the premise of writing a short story as a series of letters, a technique which is at least as old as Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748). Same thing goes for writing the story in the form of a photo album, homework assignment, map, radio broadcast, telegram, or PowerPoint presentation. Ditto for writing the story in second person, first person plural, or the point of view of an animal/inanimate object/ghost. This is not to say that the writer should eschew experimenting with these forms or any others; it is merely to say that the writer who does so in the belief that adopting any of these forms makes the story “new” is a writer who is not well-read enough to discern. There has been a tendency among aspiring writers and workshop students (at least in my own classes) to offer the following commentary as praise when discussing a fellow student’s story: “This is good. I’ve never seen it before. It’s very original” which erroneously conflates quality, originality and lack of exposure, when all it really means is that the person making the comment needs to read more and read better.
3. Remember what Yoda told Luke: “Do or do not. There is no try.”