I have been meaning to read Ancient, Ancient so appreciated this discussion between Sofia Samatar and Kiini Ibura Salaam – I especially like her answer to the question ‘who influenced her? and the push to draw on comparisons.
I recently finished Ancient, Ancient, Kiini Ibura Salaam’s award-winning short story collection. She was kind enough to take the time for a chat with me. Influence, writing teachers, and self-promotion–enjoy! (Kiini’s comments are in bold.)
The first thing I’m interested in asking about after reading Ancient, Ancient is music. Your work strikes me as having a real musicality about it–stories like “Desire” and “Of Wings, Nectar, & Ancestors” read like voices singing to each other. Can you say something about the relationship between your written words and sound?
I don’t feel like I “got” a piece I’m writing if I can’t get the rhythm of it. I’m not sure if the rhythm is always musical, but each story has it’s own rise and fall, rhythm and tone of sentence. Sometimes the rhythm is what gets me into the story, like “Desire”—I heard the rhythm of the story, well actually the rhythm of “Faru, Faru running through the bush” first, then I built the story from there. But in many cases, it takes multiple drafts to get to the rhythm. Sometimes it feels like I’m digging and digging trying to get down to the heart/bones of the thing. Any word will do, but only the right words will sing–will make the story slip like silk so that you’re not aware that words are carrying you though, you’re just aware of the rhythm and flow of the story and the tales it tells. It’s a very intuitive process because each story differs in the rhythm and tone it calls out for.
I do love music and I love lyrics. I post random song lyrics on Facebook a lot because I’m listening to music as I work and loving the feel of the words as they’re nestled inside the music. Something about that interplay is intriguing to me. You know what I think, I think I enjoy conveying more than the logic of the sentence. I enjoy conveying the feeling of the moment through word choice, of course, but also through the play of words, how they fit together and run on or stop short. When I haven’t achieved that, reading through my work is like hitting snag after snag. When I have, I just roll through the story feeling that, yes, I’ve conveyed this moment well.
I’m also wondering about influences–what you read, what you like, which writers you feel are good at “conveying the moment.” Such a boring typical-interview-question but I really do want to know. 🙂
I avoid this question like the plague. Partly because my memory is so bad and I don’t want to leave anyone out. It’s so embarrassing to draw a blank when asked a completely reasonable question, but I have the memory of a child–a thing is only on my mind as long as I’ve recently engaged with it, other than that, details, facts, even the value of things fade from memory. This includes books. I read mostly whatever I can get my hands on and whatever my book club is reading. I also collect books that I want to read or should read but usually don’t read because my free time is my novel writing time and my train commute time (when I would be reading) is my editing time.
I think I draw more influence from who writers are, their identities, how they make their way through the world, how they embody their unique voice–than looking at someone’s craft. You could pick 10 master writers and they would all do craft differently–yet they each have something to teach, no matter how close or how far their writing style is from yours. I actually think I absorb everything I read and if there is value there, I absorb it knowing that it will help inform my choices as a writer. I could rattle off a list of names of writers and/or books that stand out to me because of their voice and the depth and plushness of the writing, but are they influences? I don’t know.
Take Octavia Butler for example. Amazing, peerless writer who is not afraid to carry you into the darkness of the human condition. I am inspired by the depth of her intelligence and her unwavering eye in dissecting humanity, her ability to do social commentary, and the fierce hold she maintains once she has a reader in her clutches. I want to do all that with my writing, but I don’t think it makes any sense for me to emulate her to get there. Her writing, her craft is hers. I believe my journey–and the journey of all artists–is to learn how be you–to improve your expression of yourself, to burnish and strengthen your own unique voice. We’re all different facets of expression and I think good writing just inspires me to do better, pushes me to find a way to be a better version of myself–so I can one day be on par with amazing artists, rather than lust after the possibility of being like them.
That’s such a great answer! And okay, can we talk more about this? Because I’m really curious about the question of influence. I’m the kind of person who can rattle off names (Michael Ondaatje, Marguerite Duras, Assia Djebar, etc etc forever), and let me tell you, those people are INFLUENCES. I mean influences to the point where I feel I’ve absorbed the rhythms of their writing–like those rhythms are now part of my DNA. But this doesn’t feel like emulation, although I also emulate those writers. It’s not like I sit down and think “Now I am going to write like X.” I agree with you that their craft is theirs. It still gets into me, though, through rereading–through adoration, really. Does that make sense to you? Or is your experience completely different?
This conversation is really pushing me to figure out my discomfort with this question. I think the truth is we don’t really know what all that influences us. I mean we’d like to say that the things we like influence us, but in could also be the things we sort of like, not the things we adore. Case in point, last year I (I think it was last year), I read Wildwood by Colin Meloy. It was a fun rambunctious read (I talk about it briefly here as part of my January “pleasures.”) Fast forward to this year when I’ve been challenged to write a story for the upcoming Long Hidden anthology for Crossed Genres. I was influence by the film Faubourg Treme to do something around the civil rights movement–of which there are many. The common history suggests there was slavery, Jim Crow, then Civil Rights, when actually there were multiple civil rights struggles—it’s been a long cyclical journey. In that film, it talks about black people integrating horse and buggies, then the streetcars in New Orleans, and it talks about the organizing and social disobedience around Plessy v. Ferguson. So I do some research, identify a time period and historical figure I want to write about and then a writer friend shares a term “calenture,” it’s a fever/delirious state that sailors suffered from where they imagined the sea was the earth and they plunged to their deaths (at least that’s how my friend defined it). Then that gave birth to the character I used and this alternate plane she created that was a suspended stretch of rolling land. She’s a swamp witch who, when she goes down to earth, has these swashbuckling adventures–I decided to make it swashbuckling because if the maritime roots of the word calenture. It’s possible that I drew from Wildwood in imagining new adventures around every corner of the swamps because that is what happens in Wildwood. But did I? I don’t know. But if you asked me to list my influences, I would list the things that I thought were uber-amazing and masterful, but it’s highly unlikely that those are the only things that influenced me. It’s like plucking out the bits of genetic code that we like and ignoring the others. The influences are vast, random, and spontaneous–I can still see and site random scenes from Tamora Pierce books that I read because I found them on the bookshelf at my job. Is she an influence? I actually wrote a story based on Marguerite Duras’ Malady of Death. I loved the destabilizing, urgent, but also disconnected nature of the narrative. I took it as a template to tell a story that was urgent but I was emotionally unprepared to get any closer to. There are iconic writers that move me–and I could tell you who they are–but is that the same as those that influence me and can I honestly say that I can pluck out the threads of who has influenced me and who hasn’t? I don’t believe I can…….Continue on Sofia Samatar