Featured Fellow: Ava Chin

After writing a column about foraging in The New York Times for several years, Ava Chin wrote Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal. Part introduction to foraging, part memoir, the book describes the role that finding food in unexpected places has played in her life. We spoke with her about foraging, the leap from a column to a book, and her work as a professor of creative nonfiction.


Before writing your book, you wrote columns about foraging for several years. What was it like to take the well-trodden subject matter of your column and turn it into a book-length project?

It was a real pleasure to write the personal story behind the Urban Forager column, which I kept for the New York Times from 2009 to 2013. I kept finding myself wanting to write more personally about the pleasures of foraging and how it impacted my life, and I had reached the point where the short form was beginning to feel too constraining.

 

On one level, your book is a guide to foraging, but it’s also a memoir about the way foraging has sustained you throughout personal struggles. How did you decide to combine the two forms?

The number one question I receive after telling someone about my foraging forays is, “How did you start doing that?” and then quickly followed by, “And why?” The answers are too personal and complex for polite conversation, and that’s when I realized that I had a book on my hands.

In a way, I’ve always been a forager—from the first time I pulled up field garlic from our back courtyard to following my grandfather through the dusty aisles of Chinese supermarkets. That, plus the fact that I was estranged from my father at a young age, and constantly searching for clues of him, sparked a kind of early hunter’s instinct in me. I’m afraid that it’s an intrinsic part of my personality.

 

So how did you start foraging?

As a city kid, I never had access to a garden and I was always rummaging around the back courtyard finding treasures of field garlic (Allium vineale), a.k.a. wild garlic or onion grass. Being able to feed myself back then was empowering, and I discovered that I enjoyed gathering my food directly from the source.

I didn’t start foraging as an adult, though, until I’d reached a moment of crisis—my grandmother who helped raise me was reaching the end of her life, and I was still in the throes of trying to gain tenure at my job—and I needed something to sustain me. I went on a tour with a city naturalist, and at my first bite of lemony wood sorrel I got hooked.

 

Do you think more people are foraging now? If so, does that make it harder to forage sustainably in places like Central Park and Prospect Park?

I think there’s a much greater awareness of foraging now versus even five years ago, and probably yes, more folks are foraging these days. But many of the wild edibles are plants that the parks department is trying to weed out anyway, and they are tenacious growers. That said, it’s always important to forage sustainably because you want your edibles to come back year after year into perpetuity.

 

How do you teach your students how to write creative nonfiction?

My courses combine sections devoted to memoir and narrative nonfiction, and the short answer is that I teach them with verve and gusto! There’s so much vying for students’ attention these days that it’s important to engage them from the start. And while I get young writers out of their seats and writing about what they see in the world, I also have them go over each other’s work the old-fashioned way: on paper, with ink, meeting in person to discuss it. Even in this digital age, I still think writing is very tactile.


Interview by Molly Long

Featured Fellow: Lorin Stein

We spoke with Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, about his new translation of Michel Houellebecq's Submission. On October 22nd, he'll be appearing at an NYIH-sponsored event with Emily Apter, Eric Banks, Tom Bishop, and Adam Shatz to celebrate its release and continue the conversation. For more information about the event, click here.


How did you learn French and start translating literature?

I took French in high school. Then after I became a book editor, there was a French book I wanted to publish and the agent encouraged me to translate it myself.

 

What do you think makes a good translator?

Ideally, an easy command of the "target" language, a flair for the sort of writing you translate, and a serious grasp of the language and culture that produced the original. If the text is easy and short, I think you can sometimes do without the last, but that makes it harder.

 

Submission has been fairly controversial as a satire of Islam. As the translator of a book, do you implicitly endorse its content? What’s your relationship to the ideas of the original author?

I certainly don't endorse its content - I don't even know what it is. None of the characters strikes me as reliable. To whatever degree the hero may be a mouthpiece for Michel Houellebecq, he's also a clown and a fool. In general, I don't think the book is much concerned with Islam.

 

Is translation more like editing or writing (or both, or neither)?

The thing it's most like, in my experience, is college theater. You have to inhabit the narrator and the other characters, you have to come up with a network of line-readings that are specific, dramatic, and consistent, and you can't change the script. For me, translating is playacting.


Interview by Molly Long

Featured Fellow: Clifford Thompson

This summer Clifford Thompson released a new memoir called Twin of Blackness. We spoke with him about the current conversation surrounding race, the state of the essay, and the relationship between his writing and his teaching.


The title of your new memoir is Twin of Blackness, which refers to the complex role your race has played in your life and your sense of self. Why did you choose this title?

The chapters of the memoir are separated by what I call Interludes, brief passages of reflection. The book begins with a Prelude, which inspired the title: "I have come to think of blackness as my twin. The proof is that we came along at the same time: 1963, the year of my birth, also brought the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech. I feel toward blackness the way one might toward a twin. I love it, and in a pinch I defend it; I resent the baggage that comes with it; I have been made to feel afraid of not measuring up to it; I am identified with it whether I want to be or not-and never more than when I assert an identity independent of it."
 


After the death of Eric Garner last year, you wrote for The Los Angeles Review of Books about participating in the protests while also feeling like you were caught between the two sides, neither of which you identified with completely. Where do you see yourself in the current, wider conversation about race?

I should start out by saying that of the two sides you mention, those outraged by yet another senseless death of a black person at the hands of police and those who suspect the victims in these cases must surely be guilty of something, I was-I am-much closer to the first than the second. That said, I reject the notion that my skin color must dictate my responses to events or my views of other people, and it is that rejection, as I wrote in the LARB essay, that has often made me feel that my views are not represented in anything I hear or read. I was raised to believe above all else in the importance of evaluating everyone of every race as an individual, and while the events of the past couple of years have led me to take another look at that belief, I have never abandoned it. At the same time, the things I have read and witnessed lead me to understand a black anger that does not always stop to consider the individual views of those with white skin. Mass incarceration, police brutality against blacks, employment/housing discrimination-these things are real and abhorrent; anger is real and justified-not only justified but correct and necessary; hatred is real and understandable. The trick, I feel, is to embrace anger but reject hatred, and to direct our anger at the right things and the right people. That can be a lonely path, but I feel it is the right path.
 


Your essays often mix elements of memoir and criticism, and it feels like a lot of writers are blurring these categories lately. Do you think these divisions are becoming less relevant? In your view, where are we now when it comes to the form of the essay?

I think there will always be a need for criticism that attempts and purports to be objective and divorced from the writer's personal considerations. But I think that essays combining the personal with the critical/journalistic are also valid and potentially very, very interesting. At Columbia I designed and taught a master class called "Unique by Definition: The Personal in the Critical/Journalistic," and the assigned reading I chose included pieces that date back to the 1970s and earlier. I mention that in order to say that I don't feel the mix of personal and critical is a brand-new form. I think the big departure can be traced to New Journalism, if not even further back. In terms of where we are with the essay, I think what's new, in the main, is that the form is receiving more attention, as an art form to compare with fiction or poetry. That's a good thing.
 


How does your teaching fit into your writing practice?

It's been said that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. I've been writing for many years, and I started teaching pretty recently, and what I've found interesting is the necessity of giving intellectual consideration to areas in which I previously operated mostly by instinct and intuition. An example in plain English: at Gotham Writers I taught two sessions of a course in memoir writing. The irony is that I was hired to do that mainly because I had gotten a publisher to take on my own memoir, but it was only when I began to teach that I thought about the lessons I was giving others in relation to my own writing. Had I practiced what I was preaching? As it turned out, I had for the most part, but I would probably have benefitted from teaching the course before I wrote the memoir... only I wouldn't have been hired to do it.


Interview by Molly Long