A Conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil
BY ANASTASIA NIKOLIS
Aimee Nezhukumatathil (neh-ZOO / koo-mah / tah-TILL) is the author of the book of illustrated nature essays, World Of Wonders: In Praise Of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, & Other Astonishments (2020, Milkweed Editions), and four previous poetry collections: Oceanic (Copper Canyon Press, 2018), Lucky Fish (2011), At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), and Miracle Fruit (2003), the last three from Tupelo Press. Her most recent chapbook is Lace & Pyrite, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay. Her writing appears in the Best American Poetry Series, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Tin House. Honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pushcart Prize, a Mississippi Arts Council grant, and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry. She is professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Anastasia Nikolis, Interviewer: How did this project—or even its precursor, the World of Wonder column at The Toast—get started? Why or how did you decide to work with this material in prose rather than in poetry?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Author: The wonderful Roxane Gay had put out a call for column ideas for the now defunct The Toast/The Butter—a wickedly smart and funny feminist website. I was dealing with a particularly toxic and racist work environment at my previous institution, and writing poems was incredibly difficult to do at the time. The only subject that interested me and brought me joy was my stalwart: thinking first of my childhood spent mostly outdoors. And I could always breathe in both genres (my MFA is in both poetry and creative nonfiction), but essays help me draw a deeper breath. Roxane said yes to my pitch, and the ridiculously smart Nicole Chung became my editor, and we soon grew a solid and loyal following there, many of whom followed me to Instagram and Twitter. My husband Dustin (also a writer) had been begging me to write essays since we were still dating and had been telling me that my childhood needed to be included too. I balked at his suggestion for many years. Finally, I gave in.
Nikolis: When thinking about the structure of the book, I was struggling to describe the relationship between each animal or plant description and the anecdote from your life. Is the relationship metaphorical or symbolic? Does the animal or plant become a guide or catalyst or something else? How did you approach the relationship between each description and accompanying personal anecdote?
Nezhukumatathil: Ha—I’m kinda glad you had trouble pinning it down! It’s all of the above and more—there’s no set formula to each of them, only that I deliberately chose plants and animals where I most felt like *I* discovered or unraveled something new about myself and the planet. I adore (and try to live in my writing) the Robert Frost maxim of “no surprise for the reader, no surprise for the writer.” And I don’t usually make it a habit of quoting him, but he also said something like “a poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness,” and I feel like that could very well describe how I start my essays. Especially the lovesickness part. I guess one could easily make the case that I’ve been trying to find or catch that feeling of home for the last 20 years of publishing my work— and more, if you count my actual life of moving from place to place as a kid.
Nikolis: Among the great joys of the book are the illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura. The illustrations are especially interesting because of the increasing prevalence of nature photography rather than old school botanical drawings and given that the original World of Wonder essays (at The Toast) were accompanied by photographs. Why did you choose to use illustrations instead of photographs? What was the process like working with the illustrator?
Nezhukumatathil: Fumi is so abundantly talented, no? I still sigh over her art every time I open the book! When I first saw her portfolio, I knew it was going to be a match—she was the only one who could blend scientifically accurate drawings with about 3 percent whimsy. I just crossed my fingers that she’d agree to tackle this project. We’ve actually never met in real life, and I didn’t tell her how to draw these. She just read my essays and did her own research if she wasn’t familiar with a specific plant or animal and took it from there. Growing up, I didn’t see many nature books (if at all) that featured Asian Americans, so it was my dream to be paired with an Asian-American artist. She is the only one I felt who could capture without words how I swoon and marvel over the animals and plants I write about in this collection. I was adamant that only two Asian Americans could present these essays to the world.
Nikolis: Many of the essays, even when they aren’t explicitly about teaching, like the vampire squid essay, feel as much about teaching as they are about anything else. I think this comes from the tone of the descriptions about the animals and plants, which emphasize such a tender way of guiding someone through the world. In this way, these essays are unique in that they seem to be as much about self-discovery as they are about teaching readers to discover with you. How would you describe the role of teaching in your writing voice? How does that role of teacher manifest differently in poetry and in prose?
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you so very much—that’s a lovely thing to notice! When I first started publishing essays and poems in the late ‘90s, you have to understand that the literary landscape was much different then. Table of contents of the top journals were very…white. I felt like I had to explain so much of my culture, and then also defend why I wanted to write about it in the first place. I found myself writing to this mythical white audience where whiteness (and not knowing much about any other culture) was the default, and I was made to feel so “lucky” to get a foot in the door of publishing. And I learned by example to not question any of it. But I’m not interested in that anymore. It’s taken me a long time and a heck of a lot of work. And modeling writing to an audience where you’d have to explain a culture or words they weren’t familiar with is a supremely harmful way to approach teaching. I just think anything I can do to de-center whiteness in 2020 as the default mode of interrogating poems and essays will make for a lively and vibrant classroom, one where we ALL benefit. But teaching poems or prose—for me, it all starts from teaching with tenderness and a genuine encouragement to write wilder than they had ever tried before. To try and experiment more than ever before. To go back and write for their 15-year-old selves, to their 86-year-old selves—what would they write about to make themselves feel less lonesome at those ages?
Nikolis: You don’t openly talk about your research process in the essays, though you do allude to it often, such as in the whale shark essay when you say you spent almost a year (!!!!) studying whale sharks on your sabbatical. I am curious about what your research practice is like—how much of it is hands-on, how much of it is spent in books or videos or other media, how do you get on the trail of something new? What is the role of research in writing essays versus writing poems, and how does that process change?
Nezhukumatathil: I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, but I feel like I’ve been preparing to write this book my whole life. Since I was a kid with a library card who begged the librarians to let me check out more than whatever limit they had for kids just so I could take home a sampling of books on seashells, the Underground Railroad, bird anatomy, magic tricks, etc. My not-so-dirty little secret is that I read more nature and science books than I ever read literature. And I read lots of literature as an English professor! I’ve read about these plants and animals, or have done interviews with scientists, done field work (journaling, sketches, observations) all long before I ever had a book proposal for this. I mean, that’s just what I do for fun. And that goes for my poems too. I’m aware of how nerdy that is, but anyone who knows me knows it is true. It’s probably no surprise that any animal or plant I specifically first encountered with the sole intent to write about it for this collection didn’t end up in the book (green mamba, flamboyant cuttlefish, etc.). There was just a dullness, a flatness to the prose that I was never satisfied with, and I think I was simply trying to force connections inorganically.
Nikolis: Throughout the book, you speak about your experiences as a person of color in predominantly white schools and how race was and wasn’t present for you outside in the natural world. In recent months, many similar stories have been more publicly shared because of Black Birders Week, the new @BlackAFinSTEM Twitter account, and other social movements from this summer that are working to bring visibility to people of color who are active in studying nature and the outdoors. How would you—or would you at all—describe your experiences or the role of your book in relation to these social movements that emphasize first hand experience and visibility?
Nezhukumatathil: I totally appreciate this question but the experiences of Black Birders Week birders and @BlackAFinSTEM are wholly their own, and while I think some of my experiences outdoors overlap, I’d rather their voices stand alone so we can all support them. ☺ That said, I’m definitely aware that the outdoors has long been, and still is, a place of terror and fear for so many. My question for white people who often get to decide who or what is represented in nature is: what are you doing, or will you do, to make the outdoors more inclusive and welcoming to people who don’t move or look like you? What can you do to make sure your next gathering or table of contents doesn’t look like it was arranged in 1955, but rather 2020? And also, speaking UP about it helps lots too—it’s exhausting to put the onus on brown people to point this out all the time.
Nikolis: I’m curious about your choice of the word “wonder,” especially when thinking of other words that Edmund Burke or Sianne Ngai use when describing the sublime or the awe-inspiring, awe-ful, terror of nature. Both of them also talk about how difficult it is to describe the natural world and its effects on us. Given all of these words, and all of these difficulties, how did you decide on the word “wonder”?
Nezhukumatathil: I went through a heck of a time trying to land on the right title. So many of my friends helped me brainstorm my subtitle which ended up being: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. But wonder was the only word I could use for these essays because, for me, that’s what happens when you are surprised by your own curiosity. And that sense of curiosity often turns into a kind of joy. Also I did a little digging and discovered that one of the roots of the word wonder is the same as the word smile. And couldn’t we all use a little bit of that right now?