Tag Archives: biracial

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

17 Nov
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Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Requited, Voices de la Luna and elsewhere.  Born to parents of African-American and Sicilian decent, she is the fiction editor of Apogee Journal and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. She is also the co-literary coordinator of the Mixed Remixed Festival, held annually at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Esme-Michelle is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of fellowships from Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University.

For a writing exercise about describing objects in a room based on Watkins’ story “Xochimilco,” click here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses writing from a child’s point of view, ordering a description of place, and finding a setting that can convey the complexity of Los Angeles.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be biracial—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

Originally posted in February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Nina McConigley

14 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, from Five Chapter Books.

The title of Nina McConigley‘s debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapter Books), reflects her cross-cultural, well-traveled history. She was born in Singapore, grew up in Wyoming, and earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from universities in three different states. This constant movement, perhaps, is what gives McConigley’s fiction its observant, thoughtful tone. Her narrators inhabit their worlds almost as curators, observing and explaining themselves to the audience. Appropriately enough, the title of another story, “Curating Your Life,” was a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 edited by Dave Eggers.

McConigley currently lives in Austin, TX, and is at work on a novel. She took time to answer a few questions about her story “White Wedding.”

Michael Noll

Toward the end of “White Wedding,” the narrator, Lucky, thinks, “When people asked me about being bi-racial, I had a pat answer.” She’s clearly aware of the insufficiency of the answer but doesn’t have a better one (at least not that she can articulate). On one hand, she feels increasingly disconnected from white Casper. On the other hand, Lucky doesn’t feel a strong connection to her Indian heritage, either. These are huge, existential questions, and yet the story never becomes ponderous. The narration is always rooted in particulars: the town, the mother’s sari, the bridesmaids in the wedding, the regulars at the coffee shop. How did you manage this balance—portraying a character’s deep-seated, internal uncertainty while keeping the story rooted in concrete detail?

Nina McConigley

Of all the stories in the collection, this was perhaps the most personal one. Many aspects of this story are autobiographical. So, I think in many ways, the story echoes my own uncertainty about questions I have about identity. For me, it’s hard to write about this subject without getting a little sentimental. But, I am a Wyoming girl through and through. Wyoming has a very live-and-let-live attitude. People lose cattle, oil prices drop and we go into a bust, weather is brutal – and people don’t complain. They just get on with it or cowboy up.

I wanted the story to reflect a bit of both attitudes. That Lucky was dealing with hard and big questions, but she also didn’t wallow in it. She got on with her life. Thanks for saying I managed a balance – I think I am always struggling with that. This was the very last story I wrote for the collection, and again, the most personal, so I really was working hard not to make death, not to make talking about identity in a way that was eliciting a lot of sympathy towards Lucky. I wanted to tell her story by her routines, by her actions.

Michael Noll

Many beginning writers can feel overwhelmed by the notion that every object in a story must have symbolic or emotional significance. How do you choose the details and imagery that recurs in a story? Is it luck? Do you place objects into a story and hope they will gather significance like a rock gathers moss? Or do you plant the images intentionally?

Nina McConigley

A bit of both! I wish I could say I was actually a lot deeper than I am and certain images or objects were so planned and planted. But, many things that carry weight in this story do occur in small town Wyoming life. The prairie dog (although I like that Lucky sits and thinks about all the other symbols she could have been) is something I see all the time, and I find their movements so intense and curious.

I knew I wanted saris to come in the story. Saris for Indian women hold such weight, and I wanted them at the wedding, I wanted them in a scene with the mother. They are a costume and they are an important cultural object. I realized when I was talking about saris in the past, they had to come up again in the present. But I always knew I was going to end the story with a prairie dog and the reader not knowing if she’d killed it or not. The rest were probably luck…

Michael Noll

I love the first paragraph of this story. It’s a list of all the ways the narrator encounters whiteness in her life–beginning with her sister “marrying white” and ending with “at the last Census, Wyoming was 93.9% white. We fell into the 1.5% that was Other.” What I find so amazing about this paragraph is how you move from the particular to the sociological. Not all writers would think to consider their character’s situation from such a broad perspective. What made you move in that direction? What did that perspective add to the story?

Nina McConigley

I think in many ways, for me, writing about race and about growing up in Wyoming has been hard for me. Also, I am bi-racial – so I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about identity. In some ways, just being factual, being matter-of-fact, helps me tell the story better.

Again, a lot of this story is autobiographical. I love Wyoming so very fiercely. It is my home in a way that is deep and strong. But, I also grew up seeing almost no reflection of myself beyond my mother and sister. It gets to you a little. But, I don’t want to seem like woe is me when I say that. Wyoming made me who I am. In my writing I want to acknowledge and praise the place, but also be honest about my experience of being different in a pretty profound way.

By listing the facts, I was hoping I could do that fairly.

Michael Noll

You’re a pretty varied writer. You’ve written stories, journalism articles, and a play. I gather from your website that you’re now at work on a novel. How does your experience with that form compare to the others?

Nina McConigley

Oh, I am feeling very adrift with novel writing. I have to admit, with stories, I think for a long time before I write, writing most of the story in my head. So, when I sit down to write, the first draft comes pretty quickly (I may think for months!). That has not been the case with this novel. It’s been so much slower. And I’ve had to plan so much more, and dare I say it – outline.

It also affects my reading. I can’t read a novel now without looking at the structure, the pacing, how information is released. It’s changed everything. I started a novel two years ago that went nowhere, and at that point, I thought I don’t have it in me to write a novel. But, then I had a story in my head that had too much business for a short story. It’s turned into the novel. I am almost done, and it’s been like no writing experience I’ve ever had. I haven’t really shown it to anyone yet, but I am kind of in love with it. It may go nowhere, but I feel really proud of writing a novel.

March 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories.

To find a writing exercise based on “White Wedding,” click here.

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

14 Feb
image

Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review and the inspiration for this writing exercise.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Word Riot, BLACKBERRY: A Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and elsewhere. Her work was recently featured at Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. Her story, “Xochimilco,” tells the story of two Los Angeles children who wake up one morning and discover that every item in their living room has been taken. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the masterful description of the empty room—can be found here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses her approach to “Xochimilco.”

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be mulatto—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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