A Map at the Back of the Room: In Conversation with Aisha Sabatini Sloan
Aisha Sabatini Sloan wrote the book I wished I could have read back when I was an undergraduate film student at Rhode Island College, buried neck-high in a dense thicket of film theory. The essays in her debut, The Fluency of Light, reveal a series of confluences between the personal and the cultural, shifting between the two the way our thoughts draw invisible connections between ourselves and a work of art. It’s no surprise that Sloan has a mosaic background of cultural studies, studio art, and creative writing. Her debut is a collection that is both deeply intimate and intellectual—a combination that reminds us that behind all theory there is passion.
Aisha was kind enough to answer some questions about the writing and response to her new book.
Candace: Your essays structure the personal around a variety of cultural artifacts—film, literature, moments in history, etc. In forming these intricately woven pieces, did you more often work your way out from the personal or work your way in from the cultural?
Aisha: I think the reason it has taken me twenty-five drafts to respond to this question is because the personal and the cultural aren’t separate from each other when I get an idea for an essay. They co-rise. What is that Buddhist term? “Interdependant co-arising.” I only want to write about my foot, let’s say (although that is not likely to happen) because of this Sebastiao Salgado photograph I saw one time. So an essay idea identifies itself as such, first and foremost, because it is already two things so interlocked with each other that I have to spend the entirety of the essay understanding why. Like when you find yourself staring for the longest time at this weird, flying object, and realize that it’s two flies fucking midair.
CO: You have a background in cultural studies as well as an MFA in creative writing. In your creative writing, do you find it challenging to veer away from the “academic voice” that guides theory and criticism?
AS: I always seem to be leaning out of the discipline or genre that I am working with at any particular moment. My academic writing wants to be a personal essay or a Rauschenberg combine. My still photography wants to be a video. When I told them that I was applying for a Ph.D. in literature, my English professors suggested that I should go for an MFA in Printmaking. My Printmaking professor told me I should become a yoga instructor. So it only makes sense that when I write a personal essay I am suddenly writing theory, a form of expression that has always eluded me.
CO: Many of these essays focus on your relationship with your father—with whom you share a passion for creativity. Did you seek his input while you wrote these pieces?
AS: Yes. But in some ways, his input is so engrained, it’s like I’m calling him to say that I finally noticed this thing that his influence taught me to be able to recognize. My childhood was the Lester Sloan High Intensity Interval Training in Culture and Aesthetics.
CO: Your book is segmented by location, although I wouldn’t categorize it as a travel memoir. Can you talk about the role “place” played in the compilation of these essays?
AS: A big one. The project started out when I was writing “place” pieces to help give context for these interviews that I had done in Los Angeles, Minnesota, Paris, London— the same places that are represented in the book. And what happened was that the interview part of the project, after many years of effort, finally fell away. And the place essays were like a map at the back of the room that I now felt compelled to study closer.
CO: How did your journey lead you to University of Iowa Press? How was your experience working with them?
AS: Two friends in my writing group were in conversation with Iowa about their work. One of them connected me with the acquisitions editor, Joseph Parsons, who has since moved to another press. He is perhaps one of the most kind and insightful human beings I’ve ever encountered. The press as a whole has been great. The book itself, as an object, as a packaged entity, has completely exceeded my expectations.
CO: Can you discuss some of the expectations you had around publishing your first book, and how the reality compared to those?
AS: I had a lot of fears of being pressured or manipulated into editing or marketing in ways that would feel wrong to me based on horror stories I’d heard from other people. But this couldn’t have been further from my experience. I was especially nervous about the way that my racial background was going to be dealt with in the marketing process. And there were moments of anxiety for me—when it came to changing the title, picking a cover, etc. But the press was so considerate, they listened and responded thoughtfully to every single concern that I brought up, and given that commerce is in an imperfect world, I think they did a perfect job. It also helps a lot if you don’t expect to make any money. I remember hearing the pros of publishing with a small or university press a long time ago when I went to a publishing panel given by Kate Gale of Red Hen Press at a writer’s conference in Alaska. One important issue that she brought up was the likelihood of your book staying in print—the chances may be higher with a press that couldn’t pay you an advance in the first place.
CO: Do you have another project in the works now?
AS: I am working on a new collection of essays. The essays are requiring me to interview people again, which is part of what attracted me to nonfiction in the first place, so that has been pretty energizing.
CO: Can you name a few debut writers or debut books that have been particularly inspiring to you?
AS: Arianne Zwartjes’ first book of nonfiction, Detailing Trauma. Beth Alvarado’s nonfiction debut, Anthropologies. Julie Lauterbach-Colby and Lisa O’Neill have published some gorgeous lyric essays on Diagram. Nishta Mehra has a book of nonfiction coming out soon. For poets, Niki Herd, Nandi Comer, TC Tolbert, Traci Brimhall, although I think Late Night Library already knows about her. For fiction, Brian Sousa, Cara Blue Adams, Mika Taylor.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan earned an MA in Cultural Studies and Studio Art from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. Her essays have been named notable for the Best American Non-Required Reading and Best American Essays anthologies of 2011, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and published in Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, Michigan Quarterly Review, Terrain, Callaloo, and The Southern Review. Her first book of essays, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was chosen as a finalist for the 1913 First Book Contest in 2011, and ultimately published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. She taught writing at the University of Arizona for six years, and was recently certified as a yoga instructor.