In The Fluency of Light, Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essays read like meditations on themes of identity, race, and family. Her writing is sharp—one might say spare—and her descriptions, clear and beautiful. Her essays are a guide that help me navigate my way through my own writing. I study her essays in terms of their structure, I study her craft. Her essays sparked memories of my father, of my mother, and of growing up biracial in Los Angeles, memories that were once buried. Her work is a map to my memory.
I felt grateful and delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Aisha about her writing. I found her to be sensitive, smart, and sincere, and I appreciated that after I asked a question, she would take a long pause and then respond in a way that seemed thoughtful. We met at LACMA on a weekday afternoon; the day was dry and sunny, a typical LA day. We sat in the middle of the courtyard surrounded by people and art.
ZOE RUIZ: Why did you decide to write a book of essays and how did you decide to organize the essays by location?
AISHA SABATINI SLOAN: In college I started interviewing people. I did interviews in Los Angeles, Paris, London, New York, Northfield, Detroit, and eventually South Africa. The project had different manifestations of “doneness” over the years. I wrote a lot to make that project coalesce, including these essays that attempted to capture the cultural/emotional/historical backdrop in each city. But one day, I sat down at my desk, and the interview portion of the project just slumped out of my arms and onto the floor. I took a deep breath, and I weeded out the portraits of my interviewees just to see what was left, and it was the essays about place. I felt like I was seeing the framework of a coherent project for the first time. Maybe ever.
ZR: What do you like about the essay as a form?
ASS: Well, I think in the last couple months I’ve been feeling tired of writing the way I was writing. Even on a recent plane ride, I thought, Short stories! It’s time. I can’t wait! Then that sort of passed. I think maybe some of my discomfort was coming from fear that people wouldn’t like my book. So I thought, Oh I don’t like writing that way anyway. I will try another form now.
I’m working on another essay project and it’s sort of similar. In writing the essays that I’ve been writing, I discovered I do like this approach a lot. In some ways it’s because the essay is a genre but it’s also nothing. What is this when you are writing an essay? It’s almost amorphous. It feels like I’m drawing on all these years of framing and composition, juxtaposing colors and graphics. I feel like the essay is the most obvious form of writing for me given my taste in visual expressions.
There are things you can do with essays that you aren’t necessarily called upon to do in other forms of nonfiction. Reading the book Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss was a transformative experience for me because of both the subject and the form. I remember reading a three sentence paragraph—a description of herself living in Brooklyn with her cousin—and I thought, Oh my god. You can do that. And that’s all? You don’t have to say anything else? It was just a scene. It’s kind of filmic.
ZR: I just started watching film seriously in the last three months. I’d seen films, of course, but they’d been in the background. I feel like now I’m appreciating film as an art form. I’m learning about film and I’m wondering if what I learn will influence the way I write.
ASS: I think film is another thing that makes sense to me and it’s an influence for my writing because my dad loves movies. He would watch the same movie, like, twenty times in one week. I remember seeing this movie Ballast a few years ago and that movie was a painting basically. I just love these scenes where there’s a gesture or a color and sounds and that’s the entire scene.
ZR: I do as well. I haven’t seen Ballast but I felt like there are moments in Bleu or Lost in Translation that do that for me. I was wondering if your photography influences your writing at all. I ask because when you capture moments or setting, it feels almost photographic.
ASS: I feel like something about the lyric essay—reading them and then trying to write them—seems to have a quality of photography and collage. In some ways, I feel the lyric essay is where my impulse to express myself visually is being funneled right now. When I think of creating a verbal image, I think of it as a photograph or a moment of video. When I’m planning to write the moment in my head, I don’t think: Describe the landscape. It’s almost as if, in the outline to the essay, there’s a little video monitor, playing a particular photograph.
ZR: You mentioned your father and watching movies. In the collection, we learn that he is a professional photographer. You write about him a lot. What were the most challenging aspects of writing personal essays about your relationship with you father?
ASS: I find it very easy to write about my father. He is always prepared to view something through an artistic lens, so when I ask him something about himself, about our relationship or his past for the purpose of an essay, he goes straight to it. He plunges. He muses. He riffs. He is open. He doesn’t like to be photographed but doesn’t mind being written about. It feels, in a way, like a dual effort, something we are creating together. Since I was a child, every conversation has ended with him saying, “You should write about that!” He doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all for making him the subject of an essay. Although I feel some sadness for saying, in one piece, that he made bad chicken soup.
ZR: What were the most difficult aspects of writing so personally about race?
ASS: There have been a few times when I’ve pushed too hard to come to a conclusion after an exploration of a certain race-related event or topic. It was a great relief to me when, in a workshop with Alison Hawthorne Deming, I was told that it was okay to end things ambiguously when talking about race. In too many instances, I was told that I over-indulged when it came to ambiguity so it was nice to be given permission to use it. I think that, since then, I’ve discovered that there are certain kinds of ambiguity, certain ways to juxtapose in order to create a productive kind of puzzlement.
ZR: In all your essays, you intertwine two or more different subjects. In “The Birth of Cool” you write about personal stories and Thelonious Monk. In “Fawlanionese” you write about the house and Faraday and candles. I’m wondering about your writing process.
ASS: For me I do have a process now where I gravitate toward one to twenty topics.
ZR: In one essay?
ASS: There was one essay where I was trying to bring in way too many strands. But what’s funny now is I’ve been writing a piece by taking just two strands from that essay I wrote years ago. So when I’m writing, like with this essay, I’m gravitating towards David Hockney and I’m gravitating towards Rodney King, and I don’t know how they’re going to come together. I’m just sort of being really honest with myself. I’m really reading, reading, reading, and taking lots of notes and sitting with the material. Then I’m putting all the notes together and noticing when I want to force something. Then I just let the material sit with itself for a while. And then there comes a moment where I understand enough to start to intertwine. It feels really exciting to sit down and write and find connections as I go. And it feels really alive that way. And this is embarrassing, but—
ZR: Try me.
ASS: Lately I know I’m finished with an essay because I start crying. And it feels like the essay reaches this point of—it might be a real subtle moment, it might not even be at the end—it’s just that for this moment in time these two themes want to be together and then they just float away. It’s not that they come to a point, it’s just that they’re here and they’re connected and then they sort of go away.
ZR: It seems that you know the end has arrived when there’s an emotional shift. Also I think you’re acknowledging something beyond you, too. I’ve been having this experience where when I’m writing I feel like I’m tapping into some metaphysical or unknown element, a kind of energy.
ASS: I just got into an argument with my neighbor about this and he said, Oh. You’re one of those.
ZR: I feel like I say the word “energy” and people write me off as new agey. But I do think a lot about energy and intuition. I think these are important aspects of the human experience and a kind of emotional intelligence that we learn to disregard. They’re an important part of my writing process and also just my life process.
ASS: It’s interesting you say that because it reminds me of the question I get about being in LA. I was just talking to my friend who has an intuitive quality, and we were talking about how I keep offering excuses as to why I live with my mom in LA. The truth is I just followed my gut here, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I feel like I’m supposed to have a plan, but I also feel like I’ve moved into a place where I really appreciate and accept my intuition and my gut. It doesn’t always tell me what it’s up to, but I know more and more what feels right. I know that I’m supposed to be here right now.
But I just have this feeling that’s insufficient explanation.
ZR: Well, I think a lot of people answer the question in ways that are defined by the external. If you say, I just followed my intuition here, people are going to be like—
ASS: You can go now.
ZR: Exactly. I have one last question. Did you learn anything about yourself from finishing this book?
ASS: It was much more validating than I expected to have a publisher send me a contract. I experienced six months of calm bliss. My life was literally quieter. I think that before that, not taking myself seriously had a weird impact on my writing. It warped it a little, like someone whose voice gets quieter as they speak. We say weird things when we feel like we’re talking over a bunch of invisible hecklers. Maya Angelou said something in O magazine a long time ago, which I will paraphrase: Just be the shit. Not in an arrogant way. Decide that you have what it takes.
Zoë Ruiz is the Saturday Editor for The Rumpus and staff member of FOUND. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Two Serious Ladies, and Fine Print. Currently she’s working on her interview project “Learn People Better” and curates READINGS, a Los Angeles based reading series. She lives in Los Angeles and when she is not writing, she teaches yoga.