by Julia Brown
My first memory of Amina Gautier involves seeing her across a cafeteria lunch table in Taos, New Mexico.
It was 2013, in the inaugural summer of the Kimbilio workshop for African-American writers. At lunch that day, I listened as Gautier theorized aloud about the fundamental differences between native New Yorkers and city transplants. I qualified as the latter. A New York City resident for over two decades before moving to Houston for grad school, I listened in, feeling a little implicated, a little guilty even, as I was swayed by her confidence: native New Yorkers have something in their bones the transplants don’t, she said.
This was my first encounter with the observational acuity and keen attention to setting that I would later recognize in the stories populating her award-winning collections. At-Risk (2011), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, centers on the lives of black Brooklyn adolescents navigating their desires while growing up in worlds fraught with pitfalls, both internal and external. The characters in Prairie Schooner Book Prize winning Now We Will Be Happy (2014) explore the boundaries of Afro-Puerto Rican identity. Beneath Gautier’s sensitive authorial lens, ordinary lives are shown in their full measure—courageous. Flawed. Utterly human.
Gautier’s extensive publication history includes such journals as Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review, Agni, Crazyhorse, Iowa Review, Glimmer Train, Callaloo, and Antioch Review, among many others. Her book reviews, nonfiction, critical writing, and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, African American Review, Daedalus, and Belles Lettres—she’s been awarded multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and residencies/fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.
Currently, Gautier is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Miami, and her third short story collection, The Loss of All Lost Things (2016) won the Elixir Press Award. I asked her about her latest publication, her love of and commitment to the short story, and the work that inspires her.
Julia Brown: The worlds of the protagonists of The Loss of All Lost Things are, as the title suggests, upended by loss. This book stakes out different territory from the previous collections even in its first sentences (a story called “Lost and Found”):
Falling into step with the boy, Thisman draws close and whispers in a voice only for him. Says, “I wish I had a little boy just like you. I wish you were my own,” and the boy believes it, every single word.
This almost fairy tale-like bit of dialogue gently guides the reader into a horrific situation—the protagonist is a young boy abducted by a stranger, someone identified only as Thisman. This story fearlessly mines tense, frightening moments, and, to my view, colors the reading of the rest of the collection: a reader learns very quickly to not expect simple redemption tales, or ambiguity-free happy endings.
Amina Gautier: I’ve had some eighty-five stories published, but only three of them have had happy endings. Two of those stories are in this new collection, so you can see that my definition of happy ending is not all that happy—no ambiguity-free happy endings here. The concept of happiness is too complex and complicated to be ambiguity-free and as a fiction writer I have a responsibility to depict that complexity along with any other emotional complexities my characters may feel—that is if I want them to be represent flesh and blood human beings. Life isn’t easy, so why should stories be easy?
JB: The title of the collection—The Loss of All Lost Things—and general tone of the stories made me think of the most affecting lines of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art:”
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
The characters in The Loss have lost or are losing every manner of thing: spouses, lovers, children. What’s most important to them. Their lives, their senses of self. Loss becomes a kind of vortex that the reader watches the characters bear. The attempts to deny or stave off loss of course make things worse—many of these characters seem caught in a suspended state, unable to come to terms with their losses. What spurred your thinking about loss as you were writing this collection?
AG: Thank you. It’s nice to have one’s work compared to such a poet’s. I did not intentionally set out to write about loss, but I believe it’s a topic that emerged naturally once I wrote more stories from an adult perspective. The stories in the first collection At-Risk are all from the point of view of children and adolescents, thus the relationships and interactions between youths and adults are viewed through the lens of the younger narrators. Because of this the stories are more about wanting, having, taking, and procuring.
Although children, or the idea of children, are prominently featured in the new collection, the majority of the stories in The Loss of All Lost Things are rendered from the perspective of the adult narrators, which places a different sort of narrative pressure on the stories. For although the adult narrators may very well believe that they are actively acquiring and accumulating, once you have a list of things that you own, claim, or have received—no matter how many more items you are attempting to add to your list— you are also actively involved in attempting to preserve and maintain that which you have already acquired. Meaning, you are engaged in the act of trying not to lose anything, and things are slipping away from you faster than you can catch them. It didn’t seem possible to write about adult relationships and interactions without addressing loss. This seemed to me to be a very adult plight—that of trying not to lose any of your hard-earned gains. It seems to me that we live a life of tallying—counting what we have on one hand and what we need/want on the other hand, without considering that we need both of those hands to hold on to what we cherish.
JB: The alchemy in some of these stories is subtle. I’m thinking about one of my favorites in the collection, “What Matters Most.” Viv, under a number of stresses—a daughter whom she loves and is frustrated by, an ex-husband who won’t quite go away—empowers herself with an affair with a much younger dance instructor. There’s a moment when Viv hears her daughter out on her apartment balcony with the dance instructor. She’s forced, for a moment, to stand back and observe them, as if she were behind glass. To my reading, Viv finds a resolution in what she sees. That moment feels like an irrefutable answer to a question Viv couldn’t even get close to articulating.
There’s also new widow Judy, the protagonist of “As I Wander,” who goes into a kind of emotional freefall after her husband’s funeral. I was really drawn in by her attraction to the lover (and possibly the rent boy) of her next-door neighbor. Judy’s desperate need for intimacy in that moment is palpable; she tenderly observes the boy in such a way that throws a sharp light on her loneliness and the unacknowledged gulf left by her husband’s death, something she’s barely begun to admit to herself.
As a reader, it’s fascinating to notice what is explicitly stated in the stories, and what goes without saying, and to reflect on why the author made those choices.
AG: If I love my characters, I have to imbue them with honest reactions i.e. reactions that are honest to them. I have to let them show me what they will do once I set them in motion. In “As I Wander,” Judy could have easily had the affair with her neighbor Hank instead—he was a far more obvious choice. Then I would have had a nice, neat, perfectly wrapped story with a bow on top. But once I put Gene’s filthy fleece on her and sent her to that park, I knew she wouldn’t come back as someone who would choose Hank. If I trust my readers, I shouldn’t have to say “Judy was sad. Judy was lonely. She missed her husband.” Hopefully, every sentence in the story will say that without ever making it explicit.
I believe that subtlety in fiction is based upon a kind of triangle of trust between writer, character, and reader. The writer has to trust the characters to reveal their emotional underpinnings; the writer has to trust the reader to be an active and engaged participant rather than a passive vessel simply waiting to be spoon-fed information; the reader has to trust the writer to mean more than he or she says and to use language deliberately to make meaning.
JB: “Disturbance” is a big departure from your usual strict realism. Although this story is essentially about the efforts to save a schoolteacher in the midst of a breakdown from being fired, the setting is speculative, some distant future-past in a society of separatists consumed by a manic Puritanism. Where did this story come from? Can we expect to see more speculative fiction from you in the future?
AG: The nucleus for “Disturbance” was born in 2002 or 2003 at the Callaloo summer writer’s workshop at Texas A&M University. Percival Everett was the workshop leader. He didn’t give us a prompt; he simply told us “Start writing.” Once we started, he dimmed the lights (the lights were controlled by a slider switch) and forbade us to stop writing. Soon we were all writing in the dark and he let us go on like that for a few more minutes before he stopped us. His point was to prove to us that there was no such thing as writer’s block, to show us that we could write even in the dark. The scene in “Disturbance,” where the teacher (appropriately named Mr. Everett) turns out the lights on his students is what I wrote that day. That’s where the story started, back when it was originally titled “Togetherness.”
The story went through numerous drafts over the years and I finally finished it after Trayvon Martin was killed. I felt that I had to finish it then. At that point, I didn’t think the world could get any crazier. Generally speaking, however, as a writer who is African American, Latina, and a woman, I prefer the form of realism because I believe that concerns of race, class, and sex are frequently erased, forgotten and ignored. Privileged people are blind to their privilege; they are often oblivious to the ways in which their family wealth or their race or their sex positions them for success. The genre of realism is an excellent forum for me to reveal these underpinnings.
I love sci-fi, fantasy, comics and superhero narratives, but I love them because they allow me to escape. Sometimes that’s what I need to do to recharge my batteries. Escaping is great for a time being, but it doesn’t work for me when it makes me feel like I am running, erasing or denying. I don’t always want to displace my world or my culture’s problems onto an alternate universe or in an alternate reality where money, race, or sex is nonexistent. At the end of the day that’s not the reality in which I live. Everyone can’t use the force, or take a serum, read minds, transmogrify or just hop into the Starship Enterprise. Yeah it sucks to be a mutant, but it sucks a little less when you have a mansion and a jet at your disposal. It’s super awful to be an orphaned boy wizard; it’s way less awful to be an orphaned boy wizard with a wealth of guardians, a vault full of gold, and a cloak of invisibility to help you find your way. It really bites when your aunt and uncle get disintegrated by Stormtroopers and there are no more blue milkshakes for breakfast, but it bites a lot less when you can just leave the planet where all of the bad stuff happened behind, climb in a Millennium Falcon and hop on over to another planetary system where you can learn to lift spaceships with just your mind so that you become so powerful you can make sure no one ever takes your blue milkshakes away again.
Realism allows me to explore what happens when characters’ own internal conflicts are impacted by external factors such as homophobia, poverty, racism, sexism, or xenophobia; it unpacks for the reader just how few choices such a character might have when so impacted and why an action that, on the surface, seems contrary to a character’s goals or desires may ultimately reveal itself to be the only moment of agency such a character can grasp.
JB: Let’s talk writers you love.
AG: Love love love Stuart Dybek. Aside from him, I generally love specific short stories or works rather than writers. In no particular order, I love “The Weight of the World” by Yelizaveta Renfro, Montana,1948 by Larry Watson, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Drown by Juno Diaz, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, “Sewanee Summer” by Jaquira Diaz, “The Baby” by Donald Barthelme, “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Known World by Edward P Jones, Middle Passage by Charles Johnson, “Quiet, Please” and “Baskets” by Aimee Bender, Caucasia by Danzy Senna, Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen, Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt, “A Poetics for Bullies” by Stanley Elkin, Erasure by Percival Everett, “Girl” and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, “Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield, Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson, “Isn’t it Right?” by Melissa Sipin-Gabon, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, “The Used-Boy Raisers” and “Goodbye and Good Luck” by Grace Paley, and M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by Van Jordan. As you can see, I am very free with my love.
JB: Tell me about your process, specifically as regards theme. All three of your collections seem so tightly constructed thematically. How soon does theme emerge in the gathering of the stories? Do potential themes influence the writing of the stories? At what point does theme become apparent?
Whereas the characters in your first two collections are unified by culture, ethnicity, and locale, the characters in The Loss of All Lost Things are all over the map in terms of background and setting and circumstance; the situations are so varied I’m wondering if the process of writing this book different for you than the previous two.
AG: I write in a very open-ended manner. I don’t impose a lot of restrictions upon myself in regards to writing a certain number of days per week, or getting up at the same time every day etc. (unless I’m at a writer’s residency, which is a whole different ball of yarn). In general, I don’t need such restrictions. I already want to write all of the time, so I don’t need to find ways to trick myself into doing my favorite thing. Usually, I need to find time, not motivation. For individual stories, I often start by writing longhand and later transcribe what I’ve written onto a word document. And I’ll keep adding to it here and there over the course of a few months or years until the word count hovers near 3,000 words. Then it’s like “Lo and behold! There’s a story here, just waiting for me to write it!” That way I’m never staring at a blank page. When I write that way, I feel like a sculptor who is chiseling away to release or reveal a figure hidden within the clay. When I approach a document upon which I have already laid words, I feel like I am there not so much to create a story, but to discover the story in the words I already have.
As far as writing short story collections go, I don’t really write towards theme. I write about whatever I am feeling or whatever interests me on a particular day and later on I take a step back to assess and put it all together. Before my first book At-Risk was published in 2011, I had been writing and publishing short stories for over a decade. I started writing seriously in 1999 and I spent all of the time between then and the first book trying to write as many different stories as I could in terms of style, content, form, rhythm, length, language and point of view. After publishing my fiftieth story some years back, I took a step back and looked at all of my stories. In doing so, it became clear that they fell into six disparate categories or six different thematically coherent group formations. I didn’t set out to do that. I never wrote an outline or made a chart that said “Now you need stories about marginalized black kids in Brooklyn” or “Now you need another story about middle-class adults suffering loss” or “Time for another story about Puerto Ricans.” I could never write that way.
After I write about a subject, topic, or issue, I usually believe that I am done with it, until I discover that I’m not. A few stories later, my brain pulls me back and I find that I want to look at the same subject from a different angle or perspective. “What Matters Most” appears in the third collection, but it was completed in 2002, long before I ever wrote the first draft of “Push,” which appears in the first collection. “A Cup of My Time” and “Push” were actually both completed some six years ago, within months of each other, even though they ended up in two different collections. I wrote much of the material that ended up in my three collections At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things at the same time. When I write I like to work on multiple pieces at the same time in order to prevent boredom or complacency. I write the stories first; I build the collections later. That way nothing feels forced.
JB: I want to reach back into your previous collections for a second and talk about two short stories that I found astonishing. “Push” (from At-Risk) made me think instantly of Stanley Elkins’s “A Poetics for Bullies,” a story about a bully called, incidentally, Push. “The Luckiest Man in the World” is a very different story from “Push,” but the young male protagonist floats in a similar state, engaged in illicit play with a female cousin. “Lost and Found” from the new collection has a similar flavor. The reader gets immersed so deeply in the experience that the reader feel like she’s fumbling, elegantly, irresistibly, toward some horrible conclusion. Tell me about those particular stories.
AG: Astonishment is a great compliment. Thank you. My story “Push,” was written in homage to the Elkin story. “A Poetics for Bullies” is one of my favorite stories. I first read it in eighth grade. Christine Schutt, who is a pretty snazzy writer in her own right, was my eighth grade English teacher and she assigned it in our class. I loved it right from the beginning, from the moment Push begins his litany of what he hates and then says “I love nobody loved.” Damn that’s good! Serious lyricism in that story. You read that story out loud and it makes your lips vibrate and your mouth hum. Aside from the amazing language and rhythm of that story, what I loved was Push’s emptiness, the way he bullied from hunger, from a need to fill himself up on the weaknesses of others, to covet things like their limps and lisps etc. I wanted to explore how gender would change the nature of the bullying. What might make one girl bully the other? What would she covet and what would the bullying accomplish for the two girls?
I wanted “The Luckiest Man in the World” to sound like music; I wanted the fumbling of the bodies to mimic the music and the language to sound like a song since they are at a house party and there is music playing in the background. “Lost and Found” was deliberately kept that short because I wanted it to have the repetitive sound of a child’s first primer, which I think a reader can only take so much of. Just enough should make the story haunting once the reader realizes the repetition signals just how often the boy has heard these sentences and how often he’s repeated them in his head. It becomes a haunting litany. I also omitted the kidnapper’s name, instead eliding “this man” into Thisman, which is the name the boy comes to know him by, a stranger’s address made familiar.
JB: Your stories often end on what writer and teacher Kevin McIlvoy would call an about-to-be moment, a moment of imminence. So many of the stories’ apparent conflicts don’t seem fully resolved; some are only just brought to their climax before the story ends. I’m thinking particularly about “A Cup of My Time,” about a woman in the uncomfortable last stage of pregnancy with twins, in full knowledge that one likely won’t survive. The story leaves the reader at a cliff drop of a kind of Sophie’s Choice. I’m curious to hear what’s behind this approach.
AG: I’m not sure if I see it that way, but that may depend on what the reader defines as the central conflict. In “A Cup of My Time,” the husband Cary tells his wife that she should be the one to choose between the twin fetuses. Despite representing himself as supportive or magnanimous, she reads his act as abdication, as deliberately evasive. The reader doesn’t need to hear his answer since it doesn’t matter what choice he makes so much as it matters that she has asked him to choose. He asks her if there’s anything he can do for her and she responds by asking him to do the one thing he’s unwilling to do. The central conflict isn’t what’s going to happen to the twins. That conflict was occurring before the moment in which the story began; I would say the twin conflict is more inciting incident or backstory, but that the immediate conflict for the characters is the husband’s evasiveness, which the reader sees in the way he hides from their neighbor landlord and then sees again in the way he evades helping his wife make a decision. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers, unless I’m watching reruns of Batman, so whether by word or gesture, I like to bring all of my stories to a definitive close. That might come from growing up watching figure-skating. I like my stories to stick their landings and fling their arms out in an Olympics-worthy flourish.
JB: To what degree do you consider your readers/audience when you write?
AG: Like Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, you can always count on me to pleasure myself first.
JB: I was surprised to once hear a professor, a very successful short story writer, talk disparagingly about short story collections—mostly about how poorly they sell, how little cultural capital they have. In the careers of some authors, short story collections can feel like waystations between novels. You’d think in the age of the successful careers of writers like George Saunders and Alice Munro who choose to traffic exclusively in the short story, people might be content to let short story writers live. I adore short stories and appreciate your commitment to the form. Tell me what hopes you have for the short story in particular. What does this form do for you? Where and how did you learn to love it?
AG: I find it befuddling that some would disparage the short story collection or form; that sounds like a personal problem. Short stories are difficult to write. Perhaps it’s sour grapes. For those who can’t see the value inherent in the short story form, I suggest going old school on them and quoting Run-DMC: “You’re blind. You can’t see. You need to wear some glasses like DMC.” In all seriousness, I’ve never paid much attention to the disparagers. Long before George Saunders and Alice Munro, there was Carver, Chekhov, O’Connor, and Paley—all purveyors of the short story. Even when some of them wrote longer works of fiction, they were still thought of as short story writers.
Here’s what I do know. I know that fiction is the tool I use to make sense of the world. Some people cannot understand their world unless they paint or draw it, sing it, chart or graph it, build it, take it apart, grow and farm it in the soil, quantify or calculate it—in order for me to understand the world, I need to be able to tell stories about it. Fiction is my form and the short story is my partner in this love affair. I love short stories. I delight in them. I adore them. I live them. I love the shape and size and form of short stories. I love their boundaries and the way they call upon me to push against those limits. I love their edges—frayed, worn, neat, tapered, or tucked. I love the way they speak in whisper, murmur, and growl. They never lull and they’re never coy. They demand.
Short stories grab my chin and make me look. I read them the way a toddler watches its first commercial on TV—paralyzed, transfixed, arrested, captivated and unable to look away or so much as blink. Short stories shiver down my spine. Why would any writer who feels or experiences this not wish to replicate it?
JB: Whose short stories are you reading lately? As an assistant professor of English at the University of Miami, do you prioritize short stories in your syllabus, and which short stories are you teaching these days?
AG: I assign various forms of short fiction in my undergrad syllabi—short shorts, short stories, and novellas. In my graduate workshops, we read and workshop novels, stories and everything in between. I tend to assign short stories based on the specific craft lecture or assignment. For stories within stories I like Peter Rock’s “Blooms.” For setting I like William Henry Lewis’s “Shades” or Maura Stanton’s “The Sea Fairies.” For writing about humor I like Blanche McCrary Boyd’s “The Black Hand Girl,” Alice Munro’s “Royal Beatings” or anything by Grace Paley. I like Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk,” Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” or Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” for imagery, Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” for plot, characterization and point of view. For self-effacing narrators, I like James Alan McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music.” For speculative fiction, I like Robert Olen Butler’s “Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of a Parrot,” Percival Everett’s “The Fix,” Katie Chase’s “Man and Wife.” For voice, I like Toni Cade Bambara’s “Gorilla, My Love” or “Raymond’s Run,” James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel.” For POV, I like Alice Adams “Complicities” or Richard Yates “The Best of Everything.” For plot, I like Eileen Pollack’s “The Bris” and Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews.” I could go on and on.