Welcome back to The Burning Hearth. August is an exciting month here at The Burning Hearth and I’m glad you’ve stopped by. This month, I have the pleasure of presenting my three-part interview with David Naimon. David, as you might already know, is the brilliance behind the podcasts Between the Covers and Crafting with Ursula. He is also a writer and is coauthor of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Tin House Books, 2018).
My introduction to David was listening to his initial Crafting with Ursula podcast featuring Becky Chambers. So taken by his interview style and his thoughtful, compelling questions, I decided that day I wanted to meet and interview him, but it seemed a longshot. And what, exactly, would I interview him about?
Each month, I looked forward to his Crafting with Ursula podcasts. Then, one day, while listening for the second time to his interview with Isaac Yuen, I had a revelation of sorts. I questioned why I wasn’t focusing all that I was doing on speculative writing. It is at my core. It is the genre of my WIP.
I decided, in that moment, I would switch my writing/interviewing focus to speculative fiction. That night, I had a crazy-good vision with Ursula K. Le Guin in it. (She actually spoke to me.) I woke up the next morning reeling from the vision and committed to changing my direction.
After switching my blog to one focused on speculative fiction and deciding to do a year-long deep dive into the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, I thought perhaps David would be willing to be interviewed for my refashioned blog. It took quite a bit of courage to go in for the ask. I was stunned and elated when he agreed.
Graciously, David agreed to a pre-interview Zoom chat. The unassuming person I met on that day, who brought with him an openness to discuss whatever I brought to the table, is the same person who has thoughtfully answered the questions I have posed.
There is David the writer, David the interviewer, and David the coauthor and acquaintance of Ursula K. Le Guin. (Hmm…does this interview give me one degree of separation with UKLG? If so, I’ll take it.) I had far too many questions I wanted to ask him within each of these areas for one interview; and, if I may be so bold as to note something I believe we share, it is that we are people who enjoy deep conversation. Hence, the three-part interview. Today, I’m posting Part I, followed by Part II and Part III throughout the coming week. Enjoy!
David as Writer
There is, in David’s writing, an underlying grace. An unconditional acceptance for his characters and the story he is telling. I find his writing to be fluid, rhythmical, and full of arcs that arabesque in smooth, clean lines. His transitions, seamless.
David’s writing has a gracefulness about it that, as a former dancer, I find very pleasing. There is a maxim in dance, which holds: in order to move quickly, your inner self must be calm. I have yet to read anything of David’s that doesn’t possess an inherent calmness, even when the action is fraught. The author is breathing, and so I, the reader, can breathe, too. Given the personal nature of some of his writing, I see this as a gift, intended or otherwise, from him to his reader.
BH: Sometimes when I bat around the question of what makes a writer a writer, as opposed to someone who is good at writing, I often find myself thinking that one of the qualities a writer possesses is the ability to connect seemingly unrelated events from their life that happen, sometimes years apart, in a meaningful, almost fated, way. In fiction, I think this ability allows the writer to create events that follow a cause-and-effect equation quite organically. I’m sure we’ve all read that book where the machinations of the author are apparent. The action of the narrative feels forced and contrived, and while writers most definitely apply intelligence to their work, when the reader senses that intellect imposing itself upon the story, something of the magic gets lost.
In essays or creative non-fiction, a writer can naturally, and logically, bring together these separate, seemingly unrelated events, finding a kernel of similarity that speaks to something greater when combined with other events; thus, allowing the reader to understand how all these separate events, once placed side-by-side, create a larger understanding of a current moment. It is this placement and ordering of events in your piece “Let’s Feel the Pain Together” published in Catapult in March of 2017, that allows the reader, at the end of the piece, to sit with something they might not have expected; and quite possibly, don’t want to.
Before asking my questions, I feel it necessary to point out to readers who have not read “Let’s Feel the Pain Together” the extraordinary personal nature of this story. You and your wife were injured survivors of a terrorist attack while touring in India.
Having written a memoir focused on my traumatic childhood, which includes my father being shot just before my senior year in college, I intimately understand what it means to put something out there that opens the door to conversation with strangers about those events. It is also my recovery from this trauma that compels me to think about your piece in the way I do.
That being said, it is with the utmost respect for this event in your life that I proceed in asking you these questions.
To eliminate any presumption on my part, I’m going to start with a straightforward question. What compelled you to write this piece?
DN: Thanks for this thoughtful question Constance. I’m intrigued by your distinction between a writer and a person “good at writing,” but even more so how you characterize the former as someone making unlikely connections. I’ve never encountered this framing before but it does make me reflect back on the various ways I’ve tried to engage with the bombing in writing. Really, for several years, writing was the main way I coped with the aftermath of this event, an event that I was at the center of (literally at the epicenter) but never experienced. I was unconscious for an unknown length of time, where everything I now “know” about that gap-void-absence is second-hand. One moment, I was among thousands of celebrants at a Hindu festival, the next, standing back up, mysteriously alone in the rubble looking for my wife. That absence was something I wrote into and also wrote out of for a long time.
The first piece I wrote, in the first months of recovery, a piece called “Third Ear” for Fourth Genre, it really is, formally speaking, simply a travel narrative gone awry. Told chronologically—from our arrival in India three days before the bombing through our flight from it—-without any indication of what happens to us afterwards, it is told without a voice looking back. There was no reflection. There was no voice looking back. It was too soon. Whatever works in that piece is from its immediacy. But really most of my writing started circling this gap in some way, whether fiction inspired by our first vacation after our surgeries or a prose poem for AGNI called “The Four Auricles” that is a meditation on ears and ear anatomy, the site of our physical injuries. But as you noticed “Lets Feel the Pain Together,” unlike the others, makes an unlikely juxtaposition between this event and one long before, as an 18-year old volunteer at a rural hospital in Kenya. I’d always wanted to write about this earlier experience, which, more than any other, really derailed who I thought I was, what I wanted to do, or even whether to trust my dreams for myself at all. But I’d never been able to do it. I don’t know how much of this was the lack of a certain courage or fortitude to do so, versus the lack of the writing chops to pull it off, but either way I couldn’t do it. So perhaps placing it alongside the much older me—now having my outer ear removed, a new ear drum reconstructed from grafted cartilage, waking up alongside my wife, gurney to gurney, who just had the same surgery—where the trauma of that earlier African hospital experience was now, decades later, only the first of many lifelong moments one doesn’t fully recover from, somehow it allowed me to enter and tell that other story.
BH: There are so many questions your response elicits in me, but for the moment, I want to further this discussion on connections. I recently read “Third Ear” and “The Four Auricles” after having read “Let’s Feel the Pain Together.” I read these three pieces in the reverse order of their publication and found it to be a very rewarding reading experience. Most profoundly, in the telling of the two sisters. In “Let’s Feel the Pain Together,” the more recent piece, you write:
“I’m thinking now of two eardrumless girls, not in Kenya but India, sisters, street children, the last people my wife and I remember before the blast wind blew us, two travelers, off our feet, unconscious, to somewhere else, ultimately to here. They too have surely lost their eardrums yet likely they live and will live, unlike us, without them now.”
In “Let’s Feel the Pain Together” you provide the reader with a broader lens in viewing the bombing because, in my opinion, this piece is speaking to a myriad of horrors witnessed and experienced by people and how those horrors shape and change those people. You are further from the events and making a connection to a younger you from the distance of time and age. In this story, the young girl of significance is the one who has the bean stuck in her ear in the Kenyan hospital.
“The girl was laid down on the bench sideways, her mom securing her arms and head, Solomon and I trying to secure her legs. The surgeon hovered over her, but before he could get the tip of the syringe to her ear, the girl summoned a strength powerful enough to kick and thrash despite our combined efforts. The doctor returned with a sedative and injected it into her arm but to no avail. He prepared another cc of sedative and injected her again. And yet again she kept thrashing. A third cc was injected when finally she became quiet, unresponsive. That is, until the cold metal of the irrigating syringe touched her outer ear, its presence awakening her body, if not her consciousness, into rebellion. Finally the doctor abandoned the syringe and worked on her ear with a pair of tweezers, pressing down on her head with his forearms. His gloved fingers blindly fished for the unseen bean as blood gurgled up around them. Her head was lifeless but bleeding. He retrieved the bean but later when I asked, he said matter-of-factly, she’d probably be unable to hear in that ear any longer.”
In “Third Ear,” as soon as I was aware you were writing about the moments leading up to the bombing, I immediately hoped you were going to share the identity of the two sisters from the quoted section above. All the generalities regarding the bombing from “Let’s Feel the Pain Together” become specifics in “Third Ear,” and none was more compelling, more heartbreaking, and more powerful than that of the two sisters. You write:
“After a while we made our way to a smaller puja ceremony at the next ghat and were stopped by a little girl, perhaps six years old, who offered to paint designs on Lucie’s hands. “No thank you,” we said. Undeterred, she opened a box of tiny glass bottles full of colored ointments, proceeded to quickly dip a small metallic instrument in a purple one, and then before we could move on, pressed it upon the back of Lucie’s hand, creating a stylized circle. Lucie looked up, met my eyes, and smiled a helpless but happy smile.
The girl then dipped another instrument in a silver ointment and began to create a radial pattern, like a flower or a sun. But she was soon pushed aside by a taller girl. “She’s my sister,” the older one said as she continued the interrupted pattern on my wife’s hand, a pattern she would never finish.”
In “Let’s Feel the Pain Together” you helped to hold down the girl having the bean removed from her ear. In “Third Ear” the older sister is holding your wife’s hand, drawing upon it when the bomb blast blows you all in separate directions. Both stories, through your brief, but intimate connection with these girls, renders our shared humanity indisputable, and yet, these same moments force the reader to look at how our shared humanity does not create equality in health care and recovery from trauma.
Is it perhaps your experiences in Kenya and India, your witness and participation in this disparity, that derailed who you thought you were?
DN: I love this reading of yours across pieces, particularly that somehow we were all moving in separate directions and yet touching each other, making connections, however briefly. But when I say the experience in Kenya derailed who I thought I was, I was thinking of something else actually. I meant that I was a naïve 18 year-old, with an exaggerated sense of what effect I could have in the world, as if simply having the desire to make a difference would translate in some direct fashion from my imagination to reality. And with some sort of immediacy, resulting in both purpose and satisfaction. I probably thought I was on a hero’s journey of some sort, the center of a story that was, objectively speaking, clearly not my story. Whereas in India, decades later, a situation where I was an actual victim and a patient, I nevertheless knew I wasn’t the center of this story and ultimately tried to tell both narratives, old and new, from a place that suggested other peoples’ stories––the girls you mention, the stories of the Kenyan doctors, and also of the doctor-terrorist who bombed the ceremony.
BH: I believe you succeeded in your effort to tell others’ stories, and in telling their stories the reader learns so much about you.
Being a survivor of trauma, I’m aware that with it comes this moment of being one person the split-second before the event, and forever someone else the split-second after the event. For instance, my life is far more homebound than it used to be. I feel a need to be in predictable, safe environments. I avoid large crowds and lots of noise. How has this event changed you?
DN: There are physical and practical ways it has changed me. We can’t hear each other if we go out to a crowded restaurant, or one with music, we don’t go to concerts the way we used to, fireworks have a different effect. It limits how we are social and where. There is also an actual physical sensation in my ears, a thickness and an ache. But really most of the lingering effects are psychological. I think about it nearly every day. I feel grief, physically, nearly every day. The ache in my ears feels like sadness.
BH: I had to stop and breathe after that last sentence. There is a word I have created for a story I’m working on. That word is vanranhana and it means to sit quietly, to be present with someone who is suffering. After reading your response, I sat for a moment in vanranhana.
Your experience in Kenya, as you described above, sounds to have been quite humbling. I think, if we’re lucky, we all have a similar experience in our young adulthood, perhaps not one as dramatic, but one that nonetheless makes us contemplate what we imagined life would be like up against the reality we experience. When, in all this, did David as writer emerge?
DN: Emerge is a good word. Emerge from hiding. I didn’t start writing until my late 30s. To further connect our conversation to ears, I was bullied a lot, sometimes terrorized, as a kid. It often felt unsafe just getting from my house to school or returning home. And the way I made friends, my survival strategy, was through listening. But this strategy was somewhat of a devil’s bargain. I made friends by decentering myself, by focusing on the other, and it worked. But in a way it felt illegitimate. Being liked for something one offers rather than for who one was. And yet the idea of being center stage, of self-expressing–while attractive, magnetic–also felt somehow like something I wouldn’t survive, that something in me would be irrevocably harmed, humiliated. But identity is very strange. Listening and decentering is very much part of who I am now, not just something I do. It is both a wound (an ache in my ears before the ache in the ears since the bombing) and a quality of who I really am. This is something that I end up exploring with Victoria Chang when we talked for the show. (Between the Covers: Victoria Chang Interview) The ways she considers herself a shapeshifter and why (and her past history as an interviewer and her attraction to this). We were both really surprised by the responses we received from this interview, from this specific moment in this conversation. Responses from many people who recognized something in themselves, sometimes for the first time. Recognizing how they had constructed a self in a similar way. People I didn’t know at all really opened up in an intimate way. That moment of recognition with Victoria and then with people who listened to us was incredible.
To connect this to writing, when I first started writing, showing it to others and getting critiqued, as absurd as it sounds, it truly felt like terror. The way I reacted to this process over the first several years really was extreme and emotionally quite decoupled from what was actually happening in workshops or writers’ groups I was in. It was really only through repetition of that process, a sort of literary exposure therapy, that this lessened step by step. Getting a story published or witnessing how a critique now incorporated into a revision really elevated the draft of a story, one thing after an another, until finally it became ordinary and every day rather than a sense of being on trial as a person. But the more I created, step by step, a widening space of self-expression, I also became less interested in, or would lose patience with, or had less tolerance for certain types of listening, for unidirectional listening as self-sacrifice. Somehow listening now needed to be both a form of connection and a form of self-expression. I’m not sure it makes logical sense to say this, but the listening itself needed to also be expression.
BH: Do you believe if we all felt the pain together, felt the pain and fear, of those, for instance, in the Kenyan hospital, or the desperation and fear of the two sisters in India surely felt after the bombing, we would collectively choose to do things differently? Do you think it is possible for humanity to have enough empathy to change our ways through reading or hearing about others’ experiences, or must we have firsthand experience for true change to happen? I think about this a lot in regards mass shootings, especially those at schools.
DN: In the spirit of David Naimon’s interviewing style, your question is really many impossible-to-answer questions nested within each other. Empathy comes up on the show a lot because it is something I’m endlessly curious about. It is a significant topic of conversation with Natalie Diaz, Solmaz Sharif, Layli Long Soldier, Leslie Jamison and many others. Of course, there is the age-old question of how to achieve empathy. But many of these writers are skeptical that achieving empathy results in anything tangible. And some question the value of elevating empathy as an end goal at all. For instance, in one interview with Solmaz she speaks to this: “Pity is more honest and it leads to “charity,” which fills me with a kind of disgust, but it also fills my plate. Empathy is emotional tourism.” And in her latest poetry collection she says
laying yourself down
in someone else’s chalklines
and snapping a photo.
Whether we agree with this or not I think it is valuable to come to this word, one imbued with so much a priori value, with skepticism. If a book achieves empathy sometimes that feels to the reader like they have “done something.” But maybe that empathy sometimes replaces action. I think of Layli Long Soldier in her collection grappling with a well-meaning letter from a girl who feels really bad about what happened to the Native Americans. She juxtaposes this with her being unable to afford to get a root canal. And then says, “the root of reparation is repair.” So maybe the Pope, when he goes to Canada to apologize for what he himself called “genocide,” a genocide that occurred with the blessing of the church, a church that also stole babies from their own families and put them in boarding schools to “kill the Indian in order to save the man,” maybe he did achieve empathy, which allowed him to apologize. But the church is worth over 4 billion euros. Surely a lot of that is the result of the theft of resources and land across the world, under the blessings of that same church. In that light, it takes a lot of gall to offer words without also redistributing wealth. Wouldn’t the redistribution of wealth get to the root of the crime that the Pope feels so bad about, more than showing empathy?
But to return to your question: “Do you think it is possible for humanity to have enough empathy to change our ways through reading or hearing about others’ experiences, or must we have firsthand experience for true change to happen?” I guess I’m equally skeptical that firsthand experience of pain and trauma is needed for true change. I don’t think trauma and pain lead people to become better people necessarily. Yes, some people do. And others are broken by it. Incapacitated. Others pass on the trauma. Or some combination of all three in the same person depending upon the context. I guess this is my long way of saying that I don’t know what makes someone care about another, about an “other,” about the stranger. Surely that sometimes happens from reading a book, or witnessing something in the world, or having something happen to you. But I’m not sure if it does this in any sort of reliable or predictable way.
To bring this back to the essay you’ve foregrounded, “Let’s Feel the Pain Together,” and your comment that it leaves the reader, suddenly at the end, contemplating unexpected questions they might not want to contemplate at all, that they might even feel upset about contemplating…I’m gratified to hear that. When I look back at my first essay about the bombing now, “Third Ear,” it makes me uncomfortable. Not because it falls so neatly into a certain tourist narrative (which it does) but rather because I am that tourist. My wife and I, two Westerners traipsing through India to “see the sights,” doing so in a way most of the people we encountered would never be able to do in the U.S. We had no notion of the history of the destruction of the Babri Mosque, nor the riots and deaths that occurred in the aftermath of it, nor that we were attending a Hindu ceremony on the anniversary of its destruction. So in the later essay, when I contemplate the subject line of the email sent by the terrorist-doctor claiming responsibility for the bomb, a subject line—“Let’s Feel the Pain Together”—that is also the title of my essay, I decide to take this invitation seriously. To open an unspecified door in the narrative, to imagine what it might be like to be a doctor like him, attending to patients in Pakistan. As I write my ending, I think about the drone warfare conducted without accountability in Pakistan by my country, even though I do not specifically mention this. But I do try to open a door into his unspoken, unnamed experience, not as a way to justify what he has done, but rather to imagine beyond my own subject position in this story, to hold a space for this other narrative.
BH: I have read some of your fiction as well. “Genetic Drift” in Story Quarterly and “The Blind Experiment,” in The Adroit Journal for instance, and enjoy it as much as your non-fiction. Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction? Do you currently have any writing projects in the works?
DN: All of these pieces you’ve mentioned here, whether fiction or nonfiction, are older works of mine. All written at least five years ago, but most much longer than that. They represent a time when my writing in both genres was more traditional formally speaking. I’m less interested now in telling a story from the point of view of a single individual subject. And when I do tell a story in this way, I want something about the form to trouble the authority of that voice. I would say, because of this, that my more recent nonfiction has more in common with my recent fiction than it does with my older nonfiction. I’m increasingly more attracted to works that resist easy genre categorization, whether something like “Acceptance Speech” which could be considered a fictional essay, or “The Grebe” which might be a long narrative poem or simply a short story told in lines. And some of my recent nonfiction—“Heathen” in Orion and “May Your Memory Be A Blessing” in EcoTheo—I could imagine either of them being read as fiction, because some of the material is quite fantastical, if also true. And equally, for that matter, as poems.
I am working on bringing these all together in a collection, the conventional and unconventional, the old and the new, the fictions, nonfictions and poetry, in a way that hopefully confuses the matter even more. But also, which might show how a theme or topic or subject as it appears in a traditional story form might take on a different valence or have a different effect when you discover it within a genre freighted with different expectations.
BH: Your collection sounds fascinating. I’m intrigued by your interest to resist genre in your current writing; however, I would like to put that on hold for now, move on to the section of you as interviewer, and bring back your current work when we are discussing Ursula K. Le Guin.
Click Here to read Part II: David as Interviewer.
Click Here to read Part III: David and Ursula K. Le Guin.