As any conscientious reader (of which I assume there are MILLIONS) of this blog will know, I love me a good interview with a professional creative. As a writer, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing not just other writers, but artists, directors, musicians, and really all creative people, make it in the real world.
So many times we’re told that our passions are just a hobby. And when we’re struggling to get off the ground and make those passions viable sources of income, it can feel like we’re kidding ourselves about our ability to make it work. But there are plenty of people making the dream work every day, and actress and director Asil Moussa is one of them.
It is 7:30 pm in Windsor, Canada, when Asil Moussa calls me for our interview, but she’s only just woken up.
Twenty-four-year-old Moussa, an actress, writer, and director, was at a film shoot until four that morning back in July, and came home in the zombie makeup she’d been shooting in.
“My mom was like wow, you look terrible!” she laughs.
When it comes to her looks, Moussa’s are perhaps the first thing a film audience will notice. A Muslim, Moussa wears the hijab, or headscarf, in public.
Way back in the boonies of this blog I interviewed director Logan Leistikow, and I think what both filmmakers have in common is the determination to make it work. Both were willing to trek out to Los Angeles for career-defining opportunities, and both have fully invested in their own projects as a way of bringing their vision to the big screen. I think it’s a lesson that not only aspiring filmmakers, but creatives of all types, can take to heart as they work their way towards their dreams.
I’m going to be completely honest and say that I rarely read literary magazines. I have a hard time getting invested in short stories – in my experience, they’re either spectacular or…meh.
Shymala Dason’s “Terrorist-ish” definitely falls into the former category. Dason is an Indian-Malaysian American NASA consultant turned writer (we got one! woop!) and editor. “Terrorist-ish,” which was published by the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in 2015, is familiar in the sense that it covers those scary places where people of color are scrutinized, dug up and around and under. But it’s also completely different from anything I’ve ever read before – how many books have you read that have an Indian-Malaysian college dropout and accidental porn star as their main character.
I talked to Dason about how she found her way to writing, and what familiar-but-different stories she’s planning for the future:
1. You come from a heavily scientific background, and even worked for NASA! How did you make the transition into writing?
I’ve written for as long as I can remember, poetry, journal or memoir. The first more or less proper (though dreadfully bad) poem was when I was about eight. I began to play with fictionalizing with adolescent angst stuff in secondary school, and writing remained my sanity mechanism through math grad school and NASA. But always on the side. Then my father died, and I thought about all the dreams he had died without fulfilling. He was a young man during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, and instead of going off to medical school he became an ambulance driver, and an Air Raid Warden, serving his family and community. Whereas all I was serving was my 401K, which isn’t all that noble. So I switched my focus. But I’m still not ‘transitioned’ in the sense that I’m not making my living from writing.
2. How does your scientific experience influence your writing, whether it’s subject matter or style?
There are two elements I think come from science. One is trying for a fuller picture rather than writing from my own particular perspective and idea. The other is in the method of writing, which is rather like putting together bits of code from a library to make a new program, or working in separate layers in PhotoShop and then merging them.
I always have random bits of text floating around – little bits of dialogue, descriptions of place or atmosphere or character, story sketches… And I put these together and shuffle them around until patterns emerge. That final process, though, is more poetry than science.
3. You’re a manuscript editor as well. How did you get into that, and how does it impact your own writing process?
I’ve been fortunate to have the bestselling historical novelist Beverly Swerling as a mentor for some years. Beverly is the literary half of Agent Research & Evaluation, and she also does critiques for selected clients. A few years into our relationship, I was able to make a useful suggestion for one of her books, “Bristol House” (I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!), and some time after that she got a request to critique a science fiction novel. She’s one of many literary people who don’t work with science fiction, but she remembered my science background and that my first couple of short story sales were to Marion Zimmer Bradley, so she referred that client to me. And then he referred another. It’s both exhilarating and frightening to put one’s hands into another person’s work. I’ve received good editorial advice, myself, and bad advice, so I’m very conscious of the responsibility to do it right. I don’t think editing impacts my own writing process. It’s more my writing process impacts the way I edit.
4. Your short story, “Terrorist-ish,” is about an undocumented immigrant with big dreams and a head for songs. What inspired the story?
I was running errands, driving in Columbia, MD one day not to long after 9/11, with the car radio on. First there was the news, which was full of arrests and alarms – wholesale detention of Arab students, and so on – and then when I surfed away from that I hit a Bollywood-Bhangra station which was reporting on the same news, but instead of NPR it was, “Yo, Badmash, be careful out there, yaar! They are simply rounding up people…” It was Hinglish, it was vulnerable, it was incredibly brave despite being afraid, upbeat in a Bhangra-rap sort of way, and the first sentences of “Terrorist-ish” popped into my head. The rhythm of that voice was irresistible. I pulled over in a DSW parking lot and jotted down the opening lines. I had to stretch pretty far back in memory to my high-school days to find people who spoke the way this character speaks to get the rest of the story, but if I’d used a normal voice, the story would just have been depressing.
The [main] character, like me, is Indian diaspora by way of Malaysia, from a community of people who’ve been in Malaysia for several generations. I’m Christian, I wrote the character as specifically Catholic (rather than Anglican/Episcopalian, as I am) so I could be more colorful in the Christian references, and not just joke about Mothers’ Unions but also about confession and penance and so on. All tongue-in-cheek, broad humor to balance the horror of an ordinary guy needing to worry that someone will decide he’s a terrorist.
5. Why did you choose the title “Terrorist-ish”?
It’s a spectacular title, isn’t it? I can say that without being immodest because I had several truly horrible ideas for the title – “Boy-type Illegal with Dark-Dark Skin” was one, so you can see titles are not my strong point – and Anelise Chen, who accepted the story for publication in “The Margins” (and was a spectacular editor), suggested this title, which was perfect since the story is about the post-9/11 paranoia where, suddenly, all Brown people, particular young Brown men, were suspected of being terrorists.
6. You have two upcoming novels, one on the Malaysian global diaspora and one about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War II. What are the inspirations for these novels, and what issues will they touch on?
It all comes somehow from the Malaysian community. Probably half of the people I grew up with are now scattered around the world. So that’s the inspiration for the global diaspora story, as well as my short story collection. What drives the expats, what it’s like being strangers in a strange land and having no ground under your feet at all except the ground you create, and even then – as the present times are making clear – we are only welcome on sufferance that may change at any moment. And then there’s the strain in family bonds, the chasms between people who once ate out of the same dish and now, values shifting with time and movement and location, we look at each other, stay-at-homes at expats and vice versa, or from one generation to another, and everything is simultaneously as familiar as one’s own face, and yet totally strange.
As for the WWII novel, I wanted to tell the story of Malayans in WWII Malaya. Not British, not Japanese, but the local people. It’s their story. My father’s story, the story of that entire generation. One out of 25 Malayans died of the war. That’s a lot of dead. And for the rest, from 101 recipes for tapioca and water spinach so they didn’t starve, to a resistance as heroic as anything in France and against an Occupying force that decorated the streets with decapitated heads to maintain ‘discipline’, it seemed a story worth celebrating. I want to tell the survivors’ tale before time washes it away.
6. What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
I’ve never thought, “This is what I want to achieve.” It’s always, “These are the stories I have to tell, how do I tell them?”
I suppose all my writing is about disagreement and reconciliation, or hardship and reconciliation, even if it is reconciliation as the wartime generation had to do it, reconciling themselves to irreversible loss. I would like my work to contribute somewhat to reconciliation – between peoples, between generations, between expats and stay-at-homes.
Connected with that is the impulse that is making me write the WWII book. True reconciliation means nobody gets written out of the story. So, telling forgotten or overlooked stories is important to me.
You can find out more about Shymala Dason at her website, and read “Terrorist-ish” here.
For artists whose media are inherently visual, Instagram offers an excellent opportunity to capitalize on an engaged user base to market themselves and their work. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re using your Instagram to its greatest capacity.
If you simply post photo after photo of your art, your audience may get bored – and it’s not a very good use of Instagram, either. The platform is a great place to promote sales and giveaways, announce new products or projects, and, perhaps even better, show off your art at work!
Social media is a great way to connect with people and take charge of your own media presence, but it needs to be part of a wider strategy. Make sure to include a link in your bio to your website where you can collect email addresses, make sales, and demonstrate your knowledge and skill. If you primarily sell on Etsy or a similar platform, include a link to your profile there.
These are just a few pearls of wisdom Nevue was kind enough to allow me to share on his platform. Read the whole post here, and be sure to leave me a comment and tell me what you think!
I have a complex relationship with science fiction. On the one hand, few genres are as exciting or have as much potential; on the other hand, the tendency for novels to devolve into “let me explain my theories on particle physics in excruciating detail” is, in my experience, high. So when Haris Durrani told me about his debut novel, “Technologies of the Self,” I was intrigued. When I read the blurb, I was relieved.
Durrani’s novel is really an exploration of law and the state via the medium of time-travel and other futuristic weirdness. It’s already won an award – the Driftless Novella Prize – and (interview spoilers!) may just be the first in a series. Durrani gave me the scoop on how this all came about.
You’re an engineer. How did you get into writing?
I cannot remember a time when I was not a writer. My interest in science and robotics arrived hand-in-hand with stories I read about them, and I was immediately drawn to producing those kinds of stories myself. I fell in love with writing after my cousin gave me “I, Robot” and “Ender’s Game” in fifth grade, and the rest is history.
I’m now in law school, a path I probably would not have foreseen as a young reader and LEGO tinkerer. But in retrospect it is a natural progression, since my interest in technology and its stories has always revolved around social and political issues, to which law is fundamental. I like to think my obsession with Isaac Asimov’s “Laws of Robotics” had a lot to do with it too.
Is there an intersection between engineering (or technology) and writing? How is that reflected in “Technologies of the Self”?
Writing is itself a technology…I often think of a provocative passage from “Phaedrus,” in which Socrates tells Plato of the myth of the Egyptian god of writing, Theuth…There are interesting stories about Islamic scholars’ reticence to write down the Qur’an and of scholars who did wudu’u [Islamic ritual ablution] before writing down Hadith, because they viewed the written word as an inferior form of communication. All of this goes to say, the written word is a technology, a result of or catalyst for change. I tend to be a Luddite about these things, but I reluctantly succumb to the necessity of putting words to paper.
Law is also technological. This is at the heart of “Technologies.” The title is a reference to a line from Wael Hallaq’s “The Impossible State,” in which…[he] compares Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self” – the social and legal mechanisms that regulate the inner self as a means of maintaining order in the modern state, from schools to hospitals to prisons – to Al-Ghazali’s “techniques” – the practice of Islam, from dhikr to prayer to other socio-legal obligations. The story in “Technologies” is an attempt to grapple with the tension between these two kinds of technologies: the external regulation of the self by the state and the internal regulation by practices of faith.
Also, engineering, writing, and law all require creative processes. They operate from and produce innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.
The protagonist of “Technologies of the Self” is an engineer with the same background as yourself. To what extent would you say the character is a self-insert or a way of exploring your own identity? Yes, the narrator, like me, has a Dominican mother and a Pakistani father and is also a Muslim. But this story is a fictionalization of the experiences of myself and my friends and family. I’m wary of calling it a memoir or a self-insert as much as I am of calling it fiction. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story is about the nature of reality, as much as it may be an attempt to capture it. Junot Díaz once said in an interview that his recurring narrator, Yunior, is not the same person that he is but is “drawn from the same cloth” (I’m paraphrasing), and I feel similarly about my relationship with the narrator of “Technologies.”
Still, it is true that “Technologies” is a way of exploring my identities as well as the lives of my family and friends. In part, I wrote the book because I had never encountered their experiences on any screen, page, or stage. On the other hand, everything I write is an exploration of my identity, regardless of whether I’m conscious of the fact, because I am the writer; who I am inherently shapes the narratives and assumptions that underlie my characters and stories.
You write a lot about science fiction. How do you think the genre can best encapsulate issues of identity for PoC?
I’ve never set out to write so much about the genre but, somehow, that’s what’s transpired…Although science fiction, as much as mainstream literature, has problems with representation, the genre as a whole has mostly fallen outside the mainstream, rejected or neglected by the literary elite. Growing up amidst Western-centric curricula and as one of the few Muslims and students of color in class, this quality attracted me. The average science fiction novel often felt more attuned to social and political issues than the average literary novel. The genre gave birth to authors with radical ideas about race, colonialism, politics, and technology, like Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut.
I think there is sometimes a concern from PoC readers and writers that science fiction is escapist, that it deviates from “real problems in the world” and retreats into “allegory.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The genre has the remarkable ability to reveal what is most true – and perhaps most horrifying – about our society and to force readers to confront these truths, no matter how brutal, unnerving, or uncomfortable.
What’s your take on the rising trend of novels around Muslim identity? Is that something that comes naturally because the 9/11 generation is now at adulthood, or is there something else going on?
Your observation about the 9/11 generation is probably true. I think there is also an increasing thirst within the literary community for these narratives. I’m not always sure that this is a good thing. While there are several great novels about the Muslim identity, most of the successful ones hardly ever relate the experiences of practicing Muslims. There are either “secular Muslims” (Muslim in name and perhaps in belief, but not practicing Al-Ghazali’s “techniques”) that appeal to the liberal idea of what a “moderate Muslim” ought to be, or irrational, militant fundamentalists, which also appeal to the liberal notion of what “religious” ought to be. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of those kinds of characters, because they do exist in the world, but…I am hard pressed to think of more than a few widely-known, popular novels that truly dive into the experiences of a practicing Muslim. This is the group that suffers the brunt of Islamophobia today.
Rather than critique from the sidelines, producing my own work is the best response. I also co-founded The Muslim Protagonist, an annual literary symposium at Columbia University that seeks to give a platform, mic, and audience for Muslim and allied writers. The symposium is now entering its sixth year.
What’s next for you?
I just came out with a novelette, “Champollion’s Foot,” in Mithila Review. It’s about a crew of failed rebels, from a colonized planet of Dominican Muslims, who discover alien detritus in deep space – with jinn. I have a short piece on space law and global economic inequality forthcoming from the exciting new journal Poet’s Country. And I’m Guest Editor for the upcoming Special Space Opera Issue of The Fantasist, an important new journal for long-form fantasy, broadly defined.
And, “Technologies” is only one chapter in a much longer saga…
You can purchase “Technologies of the Self” from Amazon.
A while back I connected with musician PlusAziz, a musician of Kuwaiti origin based in New Orleans. I listened to some of his band, KUWAISIANA’s music – and let me tell you before we get any further that I am not a music buff by any means. But even I can tell when a song is cool.
The interesting thing about KUWAISIANA is that it is envisioned as a mashup of jazz and blues music and Khaleeji (Arab Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, etc.) dialect singing. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I lived in the Gulf region for a decent chunk of time as a kid, and when I was there in the early 2000s, Khaleeji music was pretty much all there was to listen to on the radio. You didn’t get a lot of Egyptian or Lebanese songs until maybe 2004 or 2005.
As a result, Khaleeji music has a special place in my heart. The thing, though, is that it has a very specific, traditional beat to it. There’s an underlying drum rhythm that lends itself to traditional Khaleeji dance that exists in pretty much all my favorite Khaleeji songs, and it’s really not something you can recreate in blues music.
Naturally, therefore, I was interested in getting PlusAziz’s input on his band and why he does what he does.
What’s behind the name “KUWAISiANA”? (Is it Kuwait-Louisiana?)
Yes! It is Kuwait-meets-Louisiana.
KUWAISIANA, as a name or title, comes from the recognition of cultural parallels between Louisiana and my hometown of Kuwait. When it comes to music, both of their musical traditions evolved out of exchanges with foreign cultures coming together and forming something cohesive. The collective nature of a New Orleanian “2nd line” is, from an anthropological point-of-view, similar to the Kuwaiti “samri” or a Bahraini “jalsa.”
Both are also crippled by high obesity rates, poor infrastructure. These linkages are very subtle at the moment because the band is not even a year old, but this is the cultural trajectory I would like KUWAISIANA to work within.
New Orleans emerged as the turnkey solution for me when I was considering a next step after New York, where I recorded a debut EP as a solo artist titled SoHo Sprit (2014). I wanted to move to a “music city” in the American South because it’s a region I romanticized since I was a teenager. Oddly enough, the band was supposed to be a simple rock trio with me singing in Arabic. But the makeup of the band took a life of its own and I was suddenly dealing with seven other musicians who augment the sound and bring in different varieties of world music grooves. Luckily, I’m still rocking out in Arabic but the sound palette has undergone a poignant evolution.
What made you decide to start an indie rock band?
The short answer to that is music videos. Growing up in Kuwait, I would wake up around 3-4am to watch and record music videos on VCR. 16 tapes later, I was sold on the dream of forming a rock band. In particular, Smashing Pumpkins’ music videos were very compelling (visually and lyrically). After that, I would fall in love with a few other bands like Sigur Ros, The Mars Volta, Gorillaz, and Deftones.
My musical intention in moving to New Orleans is to address the problem that Khaleeji music has virtually no presence in “world music” (a catchall genre which captures all non-Western music). The most prominent musical heritages in world music hail from North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, and India. Basically everywhere across the Middle East minus the Arabian Peninsula. These regions have set a standard that independent Khaleeji musical artists have yet to meet in my opinion.
I initially wanted to do a stripped-down alternative rock trio where I sang in my Kuwaiti dialect. In typical New Orleans fashion, I kept the door open for other musicians to join and now I have commitments from eight people, all of whom bring their own influences. My goal now is to try and sustain KUWAISIANA’s big band sound and tour around the US in summer 2017.
How exactly do you combine the style of indie rock with Arabic music? Who do you look to when you’re composing and writing?
There’s a ton of great bands coming out of Amman and Beirut who are combining indie rock and Arabic music in the best of ways; I’m not sure how / if I fit into that family. I would love to leverage maqam [a set of traditional melodic patterns commonly used in Arabic music] in my singing scales or Khaleeji pearl diving music ensembles, but that’s more long-term for me.
I’m less interested in Arabic music and much more interested in the Arabic language. When I work, for example, I may be watching Arabic content on YouTube. From Khaleeji TV shows and indie comedy shows to lectures and poetry recitations. This is what feeds me themes to think and sing about.
In terms of the tone of my music, I feel akin to other Kuwaiti creative acts, which have a cold sarcasm and dark humor about Khaleeji identity. You can find good examples if you look into the Youtube comedy series like Shino Ya3ni or the art exhibits of GCC Collective.
I use to have more control over my music when I worked alone, but now there are numerous influences at play in the band. My drummer plays a huge role in shaping grooves and we work as a team to identify what the song is asking for. It may be a Brazilian samba, afro-beat or any number of other ethnic influence. I hope that the band will evolve into a more democratic KUWAISIANA where I am not the only one driving decisions and shaping our songs.
Check out KUWAISIANA’s song “Murra,” sung in Arabic, and the English “Say Yea.”
When it comes to writing, Canadian author Sajidah K Ali’s story is one of perseverance in achieving your dream.
Sajidah was born in South India and is Muslim, and is currently living in Toronto. For a while, her Creative Writing degree sat in the background as she pursued motherhood and a career in teaching, but she returned to her first love (don’t we all?) a few years ago. Now she’s getting ready to release her debut novel, “Saints and Misfits,” a young adult story. I talked to Sajidah about the book and her experience as a writer.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue being a professional writer?
I majored in Creative Writing in the early 90’s. Yes, that long ago. While I had every intention of become an author, I instead embarked on other journeys – that of becoming a mother, a teacher, and so on. It was only about ten years ago that I decided to put my all into something I’d wanted to do from the beginning: write stories.
Tell me about “Saints and Misfits.” What is the book about? What was the inspiration behind it?
It’s a story about a Muslim fifteen year-old who finds her voice and, essentially, meets herself, in the midst of something painful. I like to call it a Muslim girl power story. But it’s not told in a dark way; the book is peopled with characters that provide the main character, Janna Yusuf, an opportunity to see the absurdities, hopefulness, and humor of life in the different communities she moves in.
I can’t say there was one inspiration behind it; it was more like I wanted to explore several threads (some that are not frequently explored, like that of how religious messages of “patience and forbearance” may be internalized wrongly, especially by Muslim women) and in weaving them, I found this story.
What was the process of getting published like for you? Did you struggle to find a publisher, or was it a fairly smooth process?
My experience of getting published will seem short ‘n sweet but I have to tell you that it took me five years to write “Saints and Misfits.” After I had finished writing the story, I spent ONE WHOLE YEAR on just rewriting the first chapter! Once I was satisfied with the manuscript (after five years, remember), I looked for a literary agent – which is the only way to approach one of the big publishing houses – and once I found the wonderful John M. Cusick of Folio Literary Management, I worked on the manuscript a bit more with his feedback and then went on to submission. The amazing Zareen Jaffery at Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Salaam Reads, showed immediate interest and we had a deal. This process of finding an agent and selling the book took about three months.
So, long story short: it was a blessedly smooth process after years of being that quintessential writer tapping away at a keyboard, ready to throw in the towel but not doing so only to prove to my 12 year-old self that you have to try your dreams.
What do you have in the works now?
I’ve finished a picture book, working on a second and in the drafting and outlining stages of another YA novel.
What inspires your stories generally? How does your background as a Muslim Canadian influence your work?
Ah-ha moments inspire my stories. Those moments that something becomes clear to you and could only become clear to you because the juxtaposition of all circumstances in your life allow it to be so. They occur throughout our lives and I like to capture that in writing. I think that’s what my short stories & narrative essays (that I write under another name) and “Saints and Misfits” are all about: that moment of clarity.
I’d like to think my background as a Canadian allows me a sense of ease when I’m writing about diversity within diverse communities. Multiculturalism is an important aspect of our Canadian identity and that plays out in our daily lives, which then spills over into my writing: the easy friendships between my diverse characters in Saints & Misfits is an example of this. And, as a Muslim, I’m naturally inclined to explore the diversities within the Muslim community – and not just the diversity of cultures, but diversities in religious understandings.
What’s your advice to young novelists trying to get published?
First, the one everyone says: read, read, read. Artists need a medium to make art and for writers, that medium is comprised of a palette of words and sentences and voice and forms and so on. The more you read, the more you have up there to work with to make your own art, your own stories.
Secondly, find your writing rhythm. Not that it will stay the same throughout your career, but read about how different writers do their job and try different things out. For years, because I was a very successful pantster in university (someone who writes by the seat of their pants, relying on inspiration, fueled by the fear of deadlines approaching), I thought I had failed because that style didn’t work for me later on in life. But then, every time I’d try methodical outlining and plotting, that didn’t work either (fall-asleep boring!). I found out my way was to balance the two: pants & plot, pants & plot, pants & plot…repeat until the book is done.
And lastly, don’t write to trends. Write the stories you want to tell, using the palette you’ve assembled (that will be unique to you because no one else in the entire world is the sum of all things you’ve read & experienced) and your audience will find you.
Actually, another lastly: don’t give up. That’s the common thing that all published writers have – they didn’t stop trying.
I originally came across artist Johnny Perez on Twitter. A quick visit to his site and I was hooked. His work is surreal and colorful (you know how much I love color) and is inspired seemingly by otherwordly creatures – the women are fairies, mermaids, supernatural beings, and yet still intensely human.
Johnny was recently in Mexico collecting references and inspiration for a new project. He gives us the scoop here, as well as his creative process.
How did you first get into art?
I’ve been drawing pictures since I could hold a crayon. But I didn’t think of it as a career until around 6th grade, when we began looking at our futures for a class project. I have always been told I would be an artist, but I wanted to be many things before I chose to use my talents for work. My family was always nurturing, so I never had to fight to become an artist. My sister has great talent and helped me improve as a child, and then my own research took over from there. Plus I don’t sing very well, so that was out.
What inspires your work?
I have no lack of inspiration! My constant sources are mythology, folklore, animation, and comics. I find inspiration in nature, in people around me, and colorful environments like my recent trip to Mexico. I love authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s no secret I love “Harry Potter”! I love directors like Guillermo del Toro and Baz Luhrmann, and old fantasy movies like “Dark Crystal”, “Labrynth”, and “Legend”. My childhood influences I believe are very strong in my work and come out in my color choices, my subject matter, and the fact that I really like to have fun with an image. Probably because I’m a big kid.
Your website mentions that your work features “figurative fantasy and cultural diversity.” What does that mean to you? How do those two things work together in your art?
To me figurative fantasy is a play on the traditional figurative model. In my work I don’t just want to portray the figure as it is in reality, because I believe there is so much unseen mysticism. I want to capture something that speaks more about who they are perhaps if dreams could be realized. For instance I painted one of my favorite singers, Erykah Badu, and instead of a traditional portrait, she is painted as a siren atop a jukebox in a sea of records with speaker-head fish, and a crane carrying a microphone. There is a nod to fantasy, and a bit of surrealism there. I believe in the veil between our world and others and I believe they are always influencing one another.
As far as cultural diversity, I try not to limit myself to what I know, but I want to heavily lean on ambiguity when it comes to cultures. Living in America I still hope for peace because I truly believe we are a melting pot of the world, and I find it so odd when people forget that. I want to express my cultural heritage from Mexico and Native America. I want to express my upbringing with Hip-Hop/African-American culture. I want to express the excitement of learning about cultures from all the continents, because it’s all so fascinating and it should be celebrated.
Beyond that broad sentiment I want to bring what I know to be a serious lack of diverse entertainment and imagery to what I do. I look at what other people are doing and I can’t help but see that I’ve been blindsided by popular media. I use my work to correct that. I’m not just talking about Hollywood, because sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t. But on TV, in movies, and on the internet, fantasy images (and images in general) are often devoid of colorful, unique characters. For a few years I took a break from American movies, because I got tired of the lack of flavor and tired repeating stories. I was missing some imagination. I was inspired by anime movies by Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, and those series that really pushed boundaries on what the medium could do. I try to do the same with my work.
What message are you seeking to impart with your art?
There is more to us than the skin we’re in, and there is more to life than what corporations would have us believe. There is more to the world than what we are taught. I bring myself, a lover of fantasy and traditional media, and introduce these foreign concepts. Many are hot political buttons, like religious freedom, racial equality, and gender ambiguity. I still work on bringing these things together. I aim to expose my viewers to diversity in all its forms, racial, cultural, sexual, religious because I feel so much sheltering being forced. Because we only have two genders in our society when so many more exist. Because we have oppression of races because our society is built on it. Because we have interference of freedom from all sides who seek to have THEIR way because they believe it is right. I’m asking questions and seeking answers every day, [and] so should everyone else in my opinion.
I often paint the fantastic, but it does mean more to me than a fairy tale. In a sense they are what fairy tales used to be, cautionary tales. “Don’t hate, appreciate!” as the saying goes. I was in a bubble as a child, and when I drew, my mother asked me, “where is the color?” referring to the pale skin and blonde hair of my subject. I was immediately offended, but something in me opened that day. And from there I realized the world I lived in. It is clear in recent events that many people want to remain in a bubble, and I hope that if any see my work, perhaps that will burst, in a good way. More importantly I hope to help fill the void along with other artists, that shows people of color are just as beautiful, fantastic and full of magic as any other.
Tell us about your latest project in Mexico.
My project [that] I’ve been referring to as Urban Sketches and Landscapes of Mexico, and sometimes “Viva Mexico!” is about my exploration of the country’s natural beauty as well as urban environment and graffiti art through photo and painting. Many things in my childhood and later my love life led up to this project. First I grew up in a mainly English-speaking household. I always felt I was Latino/Mexican in race, but as I learned more about my roots, I realized how out of touch I was, and what I was missing out on. My elders spoke Spanish, and we ate Tex-Mex daily, but that was certainly not enough. I hated the Spanish music my family listened to, I didn’t particularly like molé, and I was positive everyone south of the border was wearing ponchos and sombreros. I mean, I had so much to learn! That chance [came when] I was about 10, and I went on a trip with my grandmother to Acuña, Coahuila just south of Del Rio, TX. She was conducting bible school classes there with a church group from Haskell, TX. I immediately felt the sting of the privileged life I had led. But I also fell in love with the landscapes, the architecture of buildings, and the small neighborhoods of the residents we visited. There was so much color, and history!
After that trip, I became friends with someone at my school who was from Jamay, Jalisco. From his family I learned what Gorditas were (real ones!), how to play Lotería, how to make Horchata, what chile seasoning goes on Duritos, and so much that my family never did or ate. We also connected over the music and death of Selena. Because of it, I listened to Spanish music, and learned the words. I learned her story, and probably watched the movie of her life a million times, all the while gaining the inspiration to connect with my roots in the same way and someday have my art be as admired. Not long after, in high school, I lost my grandmother to liver failure from diabetes. It was in the back of my mind that we would take another trip someday. I thought I would never go back unless it was on my own, but I was always told it was too dangerous.
My boyfriend of two years now got a great opportunity to perform professionally there, and I of course had to tag along. It was a time of connecting for the first time with his immediate family that still lived there in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. It was also a time of reconnecting for me to see what I couldn’t before, and appreciate what I didn’t understand so many years ago. It was my intention to paint plein-air [meaning outdoors, so that you recreate the source as it is while you paint] but that was nearly impossible with everything we wanted to see. So I took every photo possible. I was able to tour the city with his family, which was a far cry from the poor villages I first encountered. I was able to eat the home-cooked Mexican food, that was so different and yet familiar. It was almost instantly a home away from home that I had been away from for too long. This was my first chance to see Mexico both as an adult and as an artist, to connect the dots, and capture the experience to reference for future work.
When will the project be available to the public?
I’ll be releasing artwork as it becomes available through my website: JohnnyPerezArt.com/vivamexico I will also be posting progress on my blog, so its a good time to message me if you see a piece in progress that you want! Prepurchase is no longer available but links will be provided to buy each work through PayPal, or in person if local.
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani went from working in a Brown University lab to writing a novel in just a few years – a feat I know has the aspiring novel-writers reading this practically salivating over their laptops.
Maccani made a career transition away from academic science to writing full-time in 2015, two years after getting a PhD in Pathobiology from Brown University. Clearly, all those years of research served Maccani well, because she spent six months putting together her debut novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” together before signing with an agent and making revisions. In October 2016, just a year after she started the novel, it was sold to publisher Touchstone Books (Simon and Schuster).
It wasn’t as sudden a development as it seems in just these few paragraphs: Maccani published several short stories prior to taking on her first novel, and she is also a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI). She also belongs to genius organization Mensa, which probably helps!
In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I spoke to Maccani about her experience writing a novel for the first time, the path that led her to “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” and what she recommends for aspiring novelists.
You started out as a scientific researcher. What made you leave that path to pursue writing?
To be honest, I was a writer long before I was a scientist. I wrote my first story in third grade—a spiral-bound, illustrated little story called “If I Were a Kitten for a Day”—and wrote novellas and a few just-for-fun fantasy novels in middle school and high school. I’m a writer for the same reason I was a scientist—I’m fascinated by how the world works. So I continued to write throughout high school, college, and grad school, which resulted in a much better knowledge of and appreciation for the craft of writing. Along the way, I also studied science, because there were questions about the world that I wanted answers to. I’ve always been a curious person.
Writing has always been a necessary part of who I am. For me, writing is like a reflex; it’s how I process my experiences and the world around me. It keeps me sane. So while I eventually realized that academic science was not the right career path for me in the long term, my passion for writing only grew stronger.
Tell me about your forthcoming novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things.” What’s it about, and what inspired you to write it?
“The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” is the story of ten-year-old Manhattan-born Nour, whose family returns to Syria after her father’s untimely death just before civil war breaks out. She and her family flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in a desperate and dangerous search for safety. Their journey intertwines with the historically based fable of a group of mapmakers who made the same journey nine hundred years before in a quest to map the world. It is an adult literary novel structured into two intertwining timelines, in keeping with traditional Arab storytelling techniques. The contemporary timeline is centered on a multifaith Syrian American family similar (though not identical) to my own.
As a Syrian American, it has been difficult for me to watch the war that has raged in Syria for the last five years. I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to keep in touch with my Syrian relatives and that they are, for now, safe. But I know that this is unfortunately not the case for all families. I am always aware of how much others have lost. We say a lot of prayers in my household. At the same time, seeing how Syrian refugees are discussed in the news in my own country convinced me that I had to do something to try and engender more empathy for the people of Syria, for refugees, and for victims of war in general.
I set out to write a novel that would help readers to empathize and identify with Syrian refugees. I wanted to introduce readers to the Syrian people as I know them—beloved family and friends; Christians and Muslims; smart, resilient women who love to laugh; men who recite poetry and are excellent cooks. I wanted to help break the stereotypes around Syrian and Arab people while also helping readers to learn more about the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis.
I hope that “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” will humanize Syrian refugees for readers. I hope it will help readers to understand, as I do, that were it not for very slight differences of luck and geography and circumstance, any one of us could be in the same situation.
You’ve also published short stories: what was the biggest difference between working on a novel and working on a short story?
When you write short stories, you learn how to make every word do as much work as possible. You have to choose your language to not only relay the plot, but also to convey voice, tone, and theme at the same time. You learn to use structure to reflect your subject matter. You learn to get to the point as quickly as possible.
When I write a novel, I try to think of each chapter as a short story—with the same thematic development and clear throughline that a short story would need to have. Thinking about my writing that way helps me to bring focus and intensity to my work. For me, though, the biggest difference between a short story and a novel is that a novel requires more stamina to complete. Novels also usually require bigger themes—they have to sustain themselves for the length of the work. Not every story is enough to support a novel.
What would you say was the greatest challenge of writing a novel? And how did you approach the project?
With “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” I sort of knew that the novel was bigger than I was, and that intimidated me a little. I started by doing a huge amount of research, using as many primary sources as possible. First and foremost, I did everything I could to educate myself and listen to the accounts of people who had been through the types of experiences I would be writing about. I continued to do this kind of research throughout the writing and revision process.
Aside from the enormous research involved, the greatest challenge I had with “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” was that I had to balance the two intertwining timelines without one overshadowing the other. I had to make sure that they mirrored each other thematically without being too obvious about it, and I also had to make sure that the voices were different enough that you could tell which was the contemporary timeline and which was the historical fable. But those challenges were also what made the novel fun to write.
What advice would you give to someone starting a novel for the first time?
First of all, read a lot! Read as many novels as you can in the genre you want to write, but don’t just read novels and don’t just read that genre.
Don’t put too much pressure on the first novel you write. Write it because you’re passionate about it and because the story is its own reward, not necessarily for publication. You will likely need some time to hone your craft. While you learn, try short stories. Try flash fiction. Try poems. Try different styles and voices and structures. Give yourself permission to play. Writing a novel is different for everyone. You will likely need to create your own system based on what works for you: the right amount of research, outlining, and revising. If you’re like me, you’ll probably only figure this out after you write your first novel. And that’s okay!
As you learn, look for people who understand your vision for your work. Find a trusted critique partner. Ideally, this will be a person who can put their own preconceived notions aside and ask: what are you trying to accomplish with this piece, and how can I help you accomplish it? It is more important to find someone who will be totally honest with you than someone who will sugarcoat a critique. My first critique partner was—and still is—my husband, Matthew, whose keen suggestions never fail to help me improve my work. I am honored and privileged to have the incredible help of my agent, Michelle Brower, and editor, Trish Todd, now, but critique partners help you to give only your best work to your agent and/or editor. Remember, an objective eye will spot issues that are sometimes invisible to the writer.
Beyond honing your craft, write what you yourself are excited to read. Write the most honest thing you can muster. This is especially true for marginalized writers. Don’t be afraid to write the world that you see around you. Write about things and people that matter to you. Write your truth. For a long time, I was hesitant to write about Arab American characters like me, interfaith families like mine, women who had survived and thrived after experiencing trauma and violence, or life in diaspora. I didn’t see a lot of those stories or characters in books; I didn’t see myself reflected much on the page. But I found that when I sat down to write, it was a relief to talk about those things. It was a relief to start writing stories where someone like me could be the hero of her own story. The words came out faster then, and the stories stronger. My writing improved when I put more of myself into my work. I think readers can tell when you are passionate. Passion is infectious.
Still, there were a lot of people who tried to discourage me along the way, and people will try to discourage you, too, especially if you are a writer of color or are otherwise marginalized. Don’t let them. Others have done it before you, and you can do it, too. Your stories are necessary and valid. You will find wonderful people who will appreciate and champion your work. But you have to finish that work first.
So read a lot. Take your time. Find critique partners you trust. Find the joy in your work; it will get you through the hard times and rejections. And when you’re ready, write the book you want to read, because somewhere out there is someone else who needs that book, too.
Meet documentary film-maker Logan Leistikow. The Los Angeles-based director has been making movies in the comedy circuit for years, and his latest documentary, “Walton,” chronicles the experience of stand-up comedian Walton Jordan.
I connected with Logan via Twitter, and he was nice enough to answer some of my questions about “Walton” and his work in comedy.
Tell me about your background. How did you get into directing? What drew you to the field?
As a kid, I always wanted to do something creative when I grew up. It morphed from being a cartoonist to painter to musician, etc. I just wanted to be an artist. Eventually, the magic of movies drew me in. Star Wars and high concept productions like it made me want to be a blockbuster director. I loved the idea of making my cinematic vision come to life.
I actually moved out to Los Angeles with that intention. However, because I was not born into the entertainment industry, I had to find my own pathway in. It just so happens that my first big break was producing Tom Green Live, a comedic celebrity talk show. After that, I very much stayed in the lane of talk/unscripted shows and comedy, if only because that is where my resume took me.
I have to say, though, that I have fallen in love with making documentaries. You can capture and create real emotion, tone, and production value on a shoestring budget and with a small crew. This offers ultimate film-making freedom, as well as the adventure of unpredictability and improvisation.
What was the first thing you ever worked on? What was that experience like for you?
Well, I guess the first thing ever was my high school senior video, which was just a ripoff of jackass.
In college, my friends and I made some video sketches that went viral and got me featured on IFC, which was pretty cool. One of those videos was also a part of a Yahoo! contest where celebrity judge Tom Green said “These guys should have their own sketch comedy show!”
That eventually led to a job at Tom Green Live once I moved out to LA. Getting that gig was surreal. Having heard Tom’s compliment on the Yahoo! show, I applied to work on his talk show. He personally called me on the phone, invited me to lunch, and then showed me his studio and hired me all in the same day. It was a bit overwhelming, but it was just the beginning of my journey.
Tell me about your new documentary, Walton. How did you meet Walton Jordan? Why did you decide to do a documentary about him? And what was the experience like?
Walton is a good friend I have known for years. We met way back in 2007 at a Comedy Garage show. He’s such a sui generis guy with a magnetic personality, he belongs on stage/screen.
I also wanted to present a homeless person who breaks the mold of what people expect. A lot of us make assumptions about the homeless. Although Walton actually indicates he IS homeless by choice, you can’t help but root for him…even if you wouldnever do that to yourself. It humanizes the homeless.
Shooting the documentary with him was so fun and exciting I’m very likely to make more docs about him.
How do you approach a documentary project? Walk me through your process.
Every project comes together differently, but I always search for fascinating people who have a passion.
For the Comedy Garage, I actually attended a show and said to myself “I must make a documentary about this.” It was pure inspiration. I eventually saved up enough money and favors to make it happen. We shot a three camera stand-up show, and interviews leading up to it over a long weekend.
Walton, on the other hand, was shot sporadically over a year in our spare time. I edited as we went and I think that really helped the pacing of the piece and told us what shots we had to get next.I also filmed a minidoc called “Trees” that I filmed by myself in one day with no concept until I hit the editing bay.
My advice would be to find what you are passionate about and cover that in your own way. Figure out what is logistically practical and use your creativity to make it sing. Do you have a client? Do you have backers? Do you work for a network or news organization? Are you independent? Do you know someone who can help? Everything is a factor, so there is no instruction manual. You have to be dynamic.
Your work seems focused on comedians. Is there a reason for that?
There are two main reasons for this: Comedians have a job of holding a mirror up to society and ultimately that is my goal as well. The comedians I know are the most open and honest people around and that makes for really great interviews.
Comedians are also the epitome of freedom of expression and tolerance. Even the squeaky cleanest stand-up comedian you know is exposed to some raunchy humor in their career, whether at open mics or when they open for another comic. They have to tolerate, appreciate, and respectdifferent approaches to humor and different perspectives on endless subjects. The comedy scene in LA is more of a marketplace of ideas than people realize. Its also very diverse.
That being said, I also have productions in development that will not be about comedians.
What’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers looking for inspiration? What would you say to those looking for backing for their work?
When asking for backing, make sure you have your ducks in a row. Be ready for any question, anticipate parts of the pitch that the backer may not like, and pitch for a higher budget while having a plan for a much smaller budget ready. It helps to know your backer personally and appeal to him/her in a personal way. Maybe he/she owns a business that can have product placement in the film. Maybe he/she has a soft spot for animals, so pitch an animal related project. Your creative vision will have to adjust to reality and your planning will have to incorporate what your backer will want.
Again, every production comes together differently, but the bottom line is you need to impress your backer with how knowledgeable and prepared you are.
Also don’t be afraid to just start working even if no one will back you yet. Remember that films like “Clerks” and “Grey Gardens” had no backers and are now classics. “Walton” also had no backers.
As for inspiration: its everywhere. [Ask yourself:] What movie do you want to see that doesn’t exist yet?
You might recognize her better as Prinnay on Tumblr or GDBee, but however you know her, artist Geneva Benton makes an impression. I first started following her on Tumblr, drawn immediately to the bright bold colors that are a hallmark of her work. Her characters are nothing short of inspirational, and so I was really excited when she agreed to be featured on The Quibblerview to talk about her background and art style.
When did you first begin to become interested in art and drawing? What sparked that interest?
I started drawing since childhood but didn’t get serious until the late teens. I just really liked drawing, but then played a game called Chrono Cross, which sparked me wanting to draw and inspired me quite a bit more.
As a self-taught artist, what were the resources you depended on to develop your skills?
I have tried watching streams on how other artists work and tutorials that they make. Also just starting and eye balling what makes someone else’s style so great. Doing the occasional study on anatomy, animals, etc is also quite helpful. Quite a bit is experimenting.
One thing that really attracted me to your work is how amazingly colorful it is. How did you develop that style?
Since I was a teenager, I’ve really admired an artist named Benjamin Zhang. His artwork is especially colorful, with hues and shades used so drastically and artfully. For the most part, my style is inspired by his color use.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Mostly random things. The way paint looks and chips off a wall. A single kiwi. I really have trouble explaining it.
Your art also features a lot of black women. Is that intentional on your part, to broaden the representation of black women in art? Or is it a reflection of you and your community?
Well, it’s what I know. I’m a huge cute stuff and anime fan and also black, so it’s all subconsciously boiled together and out comes the art that I do. I am trying to broaden these horizons but it’s definitely my comfort zone.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a professional artist or freelance as an artist?
Freelancing is technically working professionally. I would say study on what you need to get started and amass enough savings for a couple of months to cover initial freelancing expenses. And do good work! Do good work and a lot of work will come to you. One of the most challenging things is finding work, but refining your craft always increases the odds.
What’s a project you’re working on now that you’re really excited about?
I was on course for Kickstarting an artbook but it’s been put on hold till next year, for time reasons. Otherwise, I’m just making whatever feels cool at the time, until another idea hits me that is less time consuming than a book.
Geneva Benton will be at Anime Weekend Atlanta from September 29 – October 2, 2016, at the Renaissance Waverly Hotel & Cobb Galleria in Atlanta, Georgia.