Peacock

How to Be in Awe: An Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

By Melissa L. Sevigny

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Coming from a place of love can be contagious.

Introduction

Trees, writes Aimee Nezhukumatathil in her debut book of nonfiction World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, have been known to form alliances and send signals to one another. “And what a magnificent telegraph we might send back,” she says, “especially if other humans have ever made you feel alone on this earth.” With wry, warm-hearted, bizarre, and beautiful descriptions of the natural world, Nezhukumatathil maps all the ways humans can find kinship on the planet Earth.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
Photo by Caroline Beffa Photography.

In essays that dance lightly from New York to Arizona, from India to Greece, World of Wonders explores Nezhukumatathil’s experiences as the daughter of a Filipina mother and Indian father, as a wife, mother, writer, teacher, and—most of all—as one living creature among a myriad of things that swim, fly, crawl, and flower. Here we find the same startling juxtapositions of Nezhukumatathil’s poetry as she dissolves the perceived boundaries between the human and natural world. There are lessons to be learned from the axolotl’s smile, the southern cassowary’s booming call, and the flashing rainbow colors of the comb jelly. In humming, vibrant language, Nezhukumatathil shows us that everything has something to say, and something to teach us—if only we can learn “to forgo our small distractions in order to find the world.

World of Wonders is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize 2020 in Nonfiction and was called “a beguiling and charming tale” by the The New York Times. Nezhukumatathil is also the author of four collections of poems, most recently Oceanic. Her work has received recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pushcart Prizes. She teaches poetry for the Writing Workshops in Greece and is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi.

When I think of a metaphor, vocabulary from the natural world happens organically. I always start with an image or scene first and the delight is seeing where that takes me.

Interview

Melissa Sevigny: This is your first book of prose. Can you remember the moment you knew you needed to write it—and that poetry wasn’t the right shape for these stories?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Not the exact moment, no, and I have been working on these on and off for close to a decade, but sometime after the 2016 election I realized I did not want to follow the tyranny of the line break. I needed to breathe and let my sentences be as expansive and searching as I could make them. I wanted my sentences to unfurl and I couldn’t do that while paying attention to line breaks.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale SHarks, and Other Astonishments, by Aimee NezhukumatathilMelissa Sevigny: What draws you to write about plants and animals, particularly those threatened by humans?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I never sit at my desk and say, “Today I’m going to write about plants and animals,” though I appreciate (and am in awe of) those who can do that. I prefer to start with a scene or image and because I’ve been, shall we say, enthusiastic about the natural world since I was a toddler, the language and diction of natural history and field guides comes naturally to me when I start exploring a scene or image. I feel a great tenderness towards those creatures and plants that may not be around for my sons when they grow up, and—like most writers—I write towards my obsessions. This collection gathers nearly 30 of them together.

Melissa Sevigny: The childhood story about drawing a picture of a peacock and having your teacher tell you to draw “an American animal” broke my heart. So much of this book centers on your experiences with racism. What do you think the role of nature writing should be in confronting racism?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I’m hesitant to give any prescriptions on what nature writing should or should not do but I hope as in all good writing, in all genres, that my readers’ worlds feel a little more expanded than before they read my work. In this case, I hope they fall a little bit in love with a creature or plant they hadn’t previously considered in their lives. I think when anybody reads an experience so far different from their own, they might have a little more tenderness and understanding towards each other.

I think when anybody reads an experience so far different from their own, they might have a little more tenderness and understanding towards each other.

Melissa Sevigny: There’s one chapter comprised of a list of questions your children asked you while birdwatching. It’s so powerful—full of humor while also grappling with questions about race, death, and nature. What are your personal rules for writing about your children? When is a story your story, and when is it theirs?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: This is what works for me and my family, and it changes every year that my kids grow more aware of what their parents do, not at all a rule but more a guideline: I write many things about my children and only very few I ever bring to the public eye. And when I do (my children are 13 and ten now) I talk to them about it and I always ask if they want to read it or not. Most often they don’t. There is so much I keep private for my family and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of what that should be. In The Before Times, they’d sometimes accompany me to readings and they like getting a “heads up” if I’m going to read a poem or essay about them, but so far they’ve never asked me to not share something. If and when they do, I’d absolutely listen to them. I have no interest in betraying their trust or making them feel uncomfortable when there are so many other things to write about.

Melissa Sevigny: You write about the word thigmonasty, where a flower folds up when it’s touched, and then apply this concept to your experience as a woman: “How I wish I could fold inward and shut down and shake off predators with one touch.” What’s your process for discovering these kinds of juxtapositions and resonances? Are you inspired by a scientific concept, and then find the story, or the other way around? How do you decide where and when to use science?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: It comes naturally because I’ve been an avid reader since I could hold a library card and my not-so-dirty secret is that I actually read more science and natural history books than I do literature. So when I think of a metaphor, for example, vocabulary from the natural world happens organically. I always start with an image or scene first and the delight is seeing where that takes me.

Axaolotl illustration by Fumi Mini Nakamura, from World of Wonders
Illustration of the axolotl by Fumi Mini Nakamura, from World of Wonders.

Melissa Sevigny: The book’s illustrations look a lot like old-fashioned scientific drawings, but there’s a sly, quirky humor to them, too. How did you work with Fumi Mini Nakamura, your illustrator? Did you give her just the animal or plant, or the whole essay, or…?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Didn’t she do an incredible job? I can’t take any credit for that. I did select which plants and animals I wanted her to illustrate, and I purposely chose a mix of the more obscure and familiar plants and animals. It was of utmost importance to me—especially after a lifetime of barely seeing any Asian American illustrators in nature books—that the illustrator also be Asian American, and one who could bring my love and delight for these creatures and plants to life with scientifically accurate illustrations. She was my top choice and I’m so grateful to have such a talented artist share my vision. {Download blank coloring sheets of illustrations from the book.)

Melissa Sevigny: A lot of nature writing is apocalyptic these days, and I’ve been in memoir writing classes where students were encouraged to dig into loss, pain, and trauma. But your writing is infused with so much tenderness and love. Do you have advice for new writers on how to write from a place of joy?

Oceanic, Poems by Aimee NezhukumatathilAimee Nezhukumatathil: The simple answer is to start from a place of love and wonder, very similar to when most of us were age six and under. When I teach elementary kids creative writing I never have to teach them how to be in awe. They say “Look! Look!” about 20 times a day. I think if you begin from a place of describing what you love, it can simply be contagious and then the reader might be in a place to be more receptive to any other directions you decide to take them in. But I almost always start with love.

Melissa Sevigny: There’s a point in World of Wonders where you say you were motivated to write because as a child “I never saw anyone who looked like me” in books. I hope that’s changed, or is changing. What writers inspire you now?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Yes—that is what initially compelled me to write, but what kept me going is that I had so many questions I wanted to explore. And yes—in poems and essays, oh definitely I see a rainbow of writers now, and from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances. I’m dazzled by the writing of Robin Wall Kimmerer, Lauret Savoy, Brian Doyle, and pretty much anytime my pal Ross Gay writes about the outdoors, I swoon. But publishers and academics (until fairly recently) had lots to do with this narrow scope of nature-writing offerings from the 1980 and 90s, and I often found that successful nature writers barely mentioned writers of color in interviews or on panels. Curious, no? From my vantage point, most didn’t seem to be (outwardly) concerned that they would be speaking to overwhelmingly white rooms. 

So I think yes, the field of nature writing could definitely still be broadened. I mean, when I ask people in environmental studies programs around the country in 2020 if they can name an Asian American nature writer, there is still some substantial silence. And lots of syllabi from creative writing and environmental studies programs around the country reinforce this, too. I will say that organizations like the North American Association for Environmental Education have been leaders in bringing about significant changes in their membership and featured panelists for some time now, so that is heartening. My question for those in editorial and education and publishing positions is: When you edit a journal or speak to a room of writers or scientists, do you feature nature writers of varied backgrounds? And if not, and you stay silent, my friend, you are absolutely part of the problem. There’s just no other way to gently put it anymore.

In 2020—with leadership that time and time again champions racist and xenophobic language and policies—how can anybody stay silent and not ask for nature groups and organizations to better reflect a more inclusive America?

In 2020—with leadership that time and time again champions racist and xenophobic language and policies—how can anybody stay silent and not ask for nature groups and organizations to better reflect a more inclusive America?

Melissa Sevigny: What’s your next project?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I’m in a peculiar but exciting position in that my agent retired. I have two projects I’m working on: one on the natural history of snakes and brown girl beauty. And the other is a middle-grade project. And more poems. Always more poems.
   

Read “Corpse Flower,” an excerpt from World of Wonders appearing in Terrain.org.

 

 

Melissa SevignyMelissa L. Sevigny is the interviews editor for Terrain.org. She is the author of two nonfiction books about science and the American West: Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016). She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Read essays by Melissa L. Sevigny appearing in Terrain.org: “The Bighorn’s Dilemma,” “On the Trail of Mountain Lions,” and “The Thirsty Tree.”

Header photo by Peter Dargatz, courtesy Pixabay.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.