“The word poet means to make…You don’t have to necessarily make with words, you can make a pie, you can make a sketch. I feel like if you are actually intentional about making things in your life…you’re making a little bit more beauty in the world.” Author Aimee Nezhukumatathil talks to host J.T. Ellison about World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments on NPT’s A Word on Words.
An Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is an award winning poet and her latest publication, World Of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments is a debut work of nonfiction—a collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us. In this episode of A Word on Words, she talks with host J.T. Ellison about the book, the world, and her writing process.
J.T. Ellison: Thank you for coming on!
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, It’s been a wild and wacky week. I’m so glad to see a friendly face, first thing in the morning, and it’s a relief to not see a news anchor. I feel like I’ve been having relationships with them now, you know, so it’s nice to see somebody who is a friendly face, for even just a brief moment.
Ellison: Where are you? Are you down in Mississippi?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah I’m in Mississippi. It’s a gorgeous blue sky day. They lovingly call it the Velvet Ditch of Mississippi. It’s so green and it’s a gorgeous day. Actually today I think I’m going to go and do some tree bathing, and just take a walk in the forest.
Ellison: So fantastic. Can I just say all hail Duran Duran?
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, yeah!
Ellison: I saw the [reference to] the records. I was like, oh, she is my people.
Nezhukumatathil: Where are those bands now? You know, I feel so sad for all the 13 year olds and the 10 year olds. That’s when I think you and I were jamming out to these LPs. And, there’s no bands that you could follow or at least not in the same way. I don’t know. I sound like an old dinosaur now, but, I just remember, like I knew even at 10, when the next Duran Duran album would be coming out, you know.
Ellison: I was going to marry John Taylor, it was happening.
Nezhukumatathil: I was Simon Le Bon. So all of my girlfriends, we each had one, we called, uh, a person from the band and mine was Simon.
Ellison: Nope, I totally get it. I totally get it. So, this book is such a breath of fresh air, especially in the midst of what we’re all going through. I closed it and I sat it in my lap and I sighed very, very deeply and said, this was just lovely. It was a lovely book. And I’m so excited to have you on to talk about it. I’ve been telling everybody how wonderful it is and I’m going to mail it to my mom because she was excited about it. It’s very tender and it’s very sweet and it’s very accomplished, and it is a good reminder that we need to step away from our screens and stop doom scrolling and get ourselves out into the world. Can you tell us a little bit about A WORLD OF WONDERS?
Nezhukumatathil: Well thank you so much. First of all, you know, you never… this is arguably the hardest year in my adult lifetime to bring out a book for the arts or anything, you know, so to even have this book resonate even just a little bit with leaders during a pandemic, during climate crisis, during governmental crisis, to have it make any sort of ripple with all the noise is, is astonishing to me. I like to say the book starts and ends with love. The gist of it is — I was such a big nerd. I’m eight, nine years old, my parents would take me to the library as most writers, you know, we all love the library, but I would plop myself, I couldn’t stand kids books. I just thought…I was so bored. So I would sneak over to the adult, like nature and science writing. And I would just be sitting on the floor really until the librarians flicked the lights on and off, um, reading books on the giant squid, the secret life of ants.
And, you know, hearing myself say it out loud, I’m a nerd basically, and it’s still the stuff that excites me. And yet I also wanted to be Madonna. I also love Duran Duran. And the thing of it is JT, when looking at all those books I never saw anybody that even remotely looked like me. When I got to the end of the book, I barely saw any women science and nature writers.
And then when I got to college, I did, but I certainly never saw any Asian Americans writing about the outdoors. So growing up as a child of the late seventies and eighties, as I did, I’m dating myself again, but, you know, we were just absent from pop culture, just absent. I mean, if you think of like movies that you saw an Asian American in, and it would be stuff like 16 Candles where they would, you know, a character’s name was Long Duck Dong and they would bang a gong whenever they talked. So we were like, if we were in a movie or in a book, it was a punchline.
So after a while, I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. After a while you start thinking maybe we shouldn’t be outside, maybe we should be seen and not heard, or maybe I shouldn’t have crushes. It’s just this weird absence, you know, and you had the stuff that I loved to read, the adventures that I would love to read of just traveling all over the world and finding new creatures and just reflecting on the outdoors. I just didn’t see myself in them. My degrees are in poetry and creative non-fiction, but in 2016, something happened in me where I just, I couldn’t fit what I wanted to say in a poem anymore. I just needed that space to kind of unfurl, to breathe, and to extend my questions a little bit further. I didn’t want to feel the tyranny of a line break anymore. And that’s how this book was born. I just wanted this to be… instead of focusing on things that were stressful or kind of gross to me, this hatred and fear of things that were unknown, I wanted to celebrate what I loved and to celebrate being curious in the world, having a sense of wonder.
Ellison: I love everything about this. Do you have a favorite essay? I was sitting there thinking about which ones were the ones that really spoke to me. Fireflies was very poignant and melancholy and Calendars Poetica, Corpse Flowers, Octopus… Can you choose a favorite from your stories?
Nezhukumatathil: You know? I love that people call them stories, people call them poems.
Ellison: They are little stories. I mean, just because it’s an essay and it’s non-fiction doesn’t mean it’s not a story because you are taking us into a memoir about yourself and how you came to be here. It’s very important.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah. Yeah. And I wanted it to feel like a friend was talking, not a scientist, frankly. You know what I mean? I love the ones that you named. You know one that was probably the most fun to write… I always say the writing is super hard. It’s the revision that is so fun and that’s where the magic and the play is. That’s where I can shake out my hands a little bit and dance across the keys, but it’s the writing that’s so hard. But one that wasn’t hard was talking about the bird of paradise and the Macarena and I married a white guy from Kansas. It was so fun to write because I had to watch the Macarena video, this dance that was kind of a big craze, in the 90s, and the song was banned from my wedding playlist. And yet it was the song that I remember the most. And comparing that to the most incredible bird dances on the planet, frankly, the bird of paradise. Using that as a metaphor for bridging these two very, very different families together. It was the biggest celebration of love and joy for me. So just recreating that day, delving in to see how this bird actually manages…if you don’t know what the bird of paradise’s mating dance looks like, you need to go on YouTube to check it out. It’s just so delightful. I dare you to watch it and not smile. So it was really fun to recreate that joyful day.
Ellison: And you did a wonderful job of it. I’m going to circle back to what you were talking about before that you wrote this as a friend, and I certainly felt like it. I mean, there were some very serious nudges of ways that we need to be better people and look at the world around us. The idea of you going outside, because the whiteness of your school drove you there, that kind of breaks my heart. And I’m wondering, do you feel like that has changed? Is that getting better, especially for young writers and young readers, is there more representation? Is everything more mixed now?
Nezhukumatathil: You know, I think, well, I’m going to speak to it: It’s a practice for me now to be outside. And that’s where I feel like I can get recharged, but it’s also a place of safety for me. And I wanted to emphasize that I’m absolutely aware that that’s not a place of safety for many people. You know, I have many friends who say, Amy, you would never catch me dead in the woods because for them, their ancestors were literally hung in the woods. You know? So I always am careful to mention that there is a certain amount of privilege for me to say that I felt safer outdoors. For me, I can only speak to my own experience. You know, something like the Catalpa tree never asked me that dreaded question of what are you that followed me my whole life, you know?
And it’s funny, being here in the South, in Mississippi, this is the one place you would think… it absolutely surprised me, but it’s the one place where I don’t get asked that question. And I don’t know if it’s because Southern manners, or people just know better, or they have more frank conversations about race here, but I’ve traveled all over the country, all over the world. And this is the one place where people don’t just stop me in a grocery store and say, “Excuse me are you Portuguese, me and my wife have a bet”, or pre-pandemic I was asked if I was quote “Aztecian” as if I was the last Aztec hidden in Memphis, that kind of thing.
Imagine you going about your day, go to the post office, and someone says, “Namaste” It’s just a constant reminder of being othered, that no matter what, no matter I was born here, no matter if I’m walking around with my white looking children, I’m always going to be viewed as other by people. Yesterday, it was a giant award ceremony. The first question I got when we logged in was, “excuse me, tell me how to say your last name?” It wasn’t a hi, how are you? It was just zoning in on the one thing that’s different.
But in Mississippi, I don’t get asked that question. I feel like I’m not answering your question, JT.
Ellison: You are, you certainly are.
Nezhukumatathil: I think it has definitely gotten better, for sure. I mean, even my kids grew up with Dora the Explorer as a cartoon. Dora would have been my hero, to have like a brown girl having adventures outside? So at least they have that. I mean, Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, was the closest thing to a brunette for me to latch onto and we look nothing alike except for the darker hair.
And books… my 13 year old and ten-year-old they, their bookshelves are full of representation. Past Newbury award winners are Filipino American, Latina American. I’m so excited and I’m actually very, very hopeful for the future because in my children’s eyes, it is not a rare thing to see people of different families, different abilities, different sexualities. We’re having these conversations with 10 year olds, it’s just normal for them to have a story where there’s two mommies, you know what I mean? So for that, I’m super hopeful.
Could publishing be better? Absolutely. But, I’m hopeful that people want, and there’s a hunger for, stories of all backgrounds. That there’s more room at the table for stories, featuring characters of all backgrounds. Even with social media, with the ability to get more books in our hands, I think there’s less tolerance for that, too. For example, people will call out — This literary panel is supposed to be representing the South. Why is it all full of white people, why is nobody [of color] here? Why is everybody straight on this panel? I think there are more call-outs and I know that it has a negative connotation, but I like to think of it as more of let’s have these questions and let’s ask ourselves. It’s 2020 not 1955, you know? So if we can’t handle these questions, that’s on all of us. I dunno, I feel like I’m rambling again, but you ask such good, good questions, JT.
Ellison: Well, I’m curious. I mean, I’m seeing huge shifts and it’s a great thing. What are you telling your students? What are you telling your students about how to blaze a path?
Nezhukumatathil: When I do workshops, I tell my students to be brave. And then I also tell them to think of themselves as eight year old versions of themselves, or maybe 12 year old versions of themselves, and to write the thing that would make them feel less lonely. I have a lot of white, straight students, and it’s not like they didn’t have lonely childhoods either. You know what I mean? It’s not like sadness is reserved for the marginalized. No, that’s a human trait. You can see everybody’s shoulders unclench and kind of relax a little bit.
I think it’s rare for us to be given that as a task to not only write for the future, but to write for our past selves to say, Oh, I would’ve loved this story. I would have loved to have heard this. I would’ve loved to come across this in the library when I was 12. Just on that age of figuring out complicated feelings, still very childlike in some ways, and also having the beginnings of adult perceptions of the world. What is it about that age 12 that can make you feel a little bit less lonely?
If you’re not doing that in your art, do that in your life. I think even having that reminder, like, Oh, I’m going to go roller skate now, or I’m going to learn how to juggle or I’m going to finally once and for all learn how to make a pie from scratch. I think that we live in a country [where] writers are concerned about money and having a roof over our heads and things like that. And that is super, super important. So I’m not discounting that, but I also want to have my students remember that none of that matters if you are not also taking care of yourself in your heart, to make yourself happy, because the world will make you unhappy. But you need to also be able to take a little bit of a hand in that as well.
Ellison: It strikes me in order to make the observations that you made about our world, and you’ve just touched on this, that you have to be comfortable spending time alone. You have to be able to be an observer of the world and life. What about our environment shapes us?
Nezhukumatathil: It’s this act of noticing and looking, like really, really looking, you know? There’s a… I hesitate to call it an essay because really I was just kind of dictating what I was hearing from my then six and nine year old children when we were doing some birdwatching here in Oxford.
If you look, there’s this beautiful clearing edged with loblolly pine trees. And if you look, you can see the Cardinals, male Cardinals. But if you really look––and this is what I’m talking about when I say, really look––if you’ve really kind of silenced yourself, unplug, not have earphones in, you know, that kind of thing, not be constantly checking your phone, you’ll start noticing, Oh, there’s other things in the trees and that’s the female Cardinals. And then you start to see the brownish birds emerge. But when you first look and say, okay, good, I see some red Cardinals, but when you’re really, really kind of taking in the horizon, you start seeing other things that might’ve been hidden before.
I think what comes out of that is you notice too, we’re all connected. I think it’s so important to get that slow down, to get that stillness. And I love social media. I love being connected. I love how much it’s helped in many ways during this pandemic. But I also believe that it does our hearts and our heads so much good when you unplug a little bit and you actually, you know, start to see that, Oh, this would not be the greatest place to put up a new bank, because this is a habitat for warblers, you know? Oh, look at these, look at the jaw fish, the male jaw fish. They carry their eggs in their mouth. Let’s not dig up their habitat, their shallow water habitats.
When you start seeing that animals are connected to us, that plants are connected to us, and when you start being able to name them, not just––Oh, there’s some birds there. I saw a fish––you start feeling a tenderness and you start feeling a connectedness.
I’m reminded of what Rachel Carson, when she says something like, (I’m going to butcher this), but the gist of it is when we get to know all the creatures and the plants that share this world with us, the less taste, the less appetite we have for destruction. And I think getting that time to slow down and notice what’s around you and to see we’re in this together… how could you want to put a violence on this patch of forest or dig up this shorebank? You know, when there’s a lot of shorebirds that need that for food, you know, you start not wanting to destroy things.
And I see that with kids. I see that with grownups. It’s something we don’t really have to be taught either. Anybody who spends time with children knows that they already have a sense of wonder. They already know what it’s like to care. Once they get a name for something, for an animal, they start naming a spider, or don’t squish that pillbug, I’ve named him Charlie. Once you start naming that you want to protect it.
But something happens where we lose the names, we lose interest. We lose looking, we lose our ability to look and wonder, and it’s easier to disconnect. It’s easier to say, Oh, that family over there on the other side of the planet, they’re collateral damage, you know, so I really think it’s all connected. It sounds kind of hyperbolic to go from a pill bug to a family on the other side of the planet, but jeez it’s actually not, it’s not.
Ellison: Well, we exist in their world.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah. Absolutely.
Ellison: They don’t exist in ours, we exist in theirs.
Nezhukumatathil: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s such a good point. That’s the point. It’s more of a remembering. I think it’s a Southern phrase: You catch more flies with honey. No one wants to be told you need to fix climate change right now. You need to be a better person. You need to spend more time outdoors. Nobody wants to hear that, but if I can help show you that, or remember what it’s like to catch a firefly or to remember what it’s like to just have hours outside, that, I think, is nothing but a good thing.
Ellison: And you’ve done that and you’ve done it incredibly well. And it’s funny that you say that because my next question is right on that. You make some very intense and salient commentary in your work without being harsh, without being bang on the head. You just make such a beautiful, subtle: Hey, pay attention to this, you’re not paying attention to this. You should. And it doesn’t feel harsh, you know, but like your friend is saying, Hey, don’t forget about this. Right? Which is… it’s just absolutely wonderful. Considering how well received the book has been, obviously that doesn’t just resonate with me. It’s resonating with everyone. I want to know how you stay peaceful and connected when the world feels so awful.
Nezhukumatathil: Good, good question. Right. That’s like, if I could like bottle that, I would be good.
Ellison: Oh yeah. Retiring.
Nezhukumatathil: Oh my goodness. You know, I will say though, and I think I alluded to it earlier, it is a practice, you know? I don’t wake up most days… I can say even within the last month, all I want to do is just stay in bed and put my weighted blanket over me, you know, and just check the news real quick. Because the news has just been so awful. I mean, all of 2020 in particular.
But I would say that it is a practice and it is something that I work at. It does not come naturally to me. And I think it’s important to say that because being forcefully cheerful is also toxic, in some ways, and I definitely don’t want to do that. So whatever I can do to say, yeah, I’m having a hard day today, or I’m feeling sad today. I think that’s real and legit and I don’t want to minimize anybody’s very, very real feelings.
I feel like we have been in some sort of low grade trauma, some of us high grade trauma, for the past, how many, four plus years, and longer than that, honestly. So what I can do are the small things. I always say the small things help open and unlock for bigger things.
For me, it is because I’m a writer––I actually personally can’t do this, but, if you can, if anybody else can, I bow down to you––I can’t write a poem every day. I can’t write, I can’t work on my next book every single day. My schedule just does not allow it. My brain space does not allow it. But what I can do is be intentional about keeping a journal. I do keep almost like a field guide, something called the sky journal where it’s low stakes observations.
I’ve taught myself how to identify clouds. That’s a pandemic project that we can do from looking outside. You don’t need to even be outside. You could teach yourself the names of the shapes of clouds and what a beautiful little project that is to have, you know? Instead of saying, Oh, look at that fluffy thing you can say, Oh, that’s a Cumulus Nimbus. You know? Again, I’m a big nerd. So these things delight me. You can draw––even if you don’t consider yourself a great artist, you can draw what the last little rosebud is that’s hanging out in your garden. The last thing that’s blooming, the sad little misshapen tomato that’s hanging on for dear life. I just saw one this morning in my garden.
It just cracks me up because I lived in Buffalo, New York for 15 years. And to have tomatoes in November would have been such a foreign thing to me. So the fact that I’m even harvesting anything in November is hilarious. I would just make those sketches, make time observations.
And then again, it’s [a] slowing down, unlocking. Maybe that small sketch of a tomato will unlock something about a grandmother and remembering how she never measured anything, but made this amazing tomato dish. Maybe that will spur you to, or twist you to another metaphor of describing the way her apron blew in the wind. You know, it’s a small thing, but before you know it, that half an hour…
Sometimes all I have is a half an hour, but it was focused in on making something, on writing something, the word poet means to make. And so what I tell my students is you don’t have to necessarily make with words, you can make a pie, you can make a sketch. If sounds like I’m lowering the bar for writing, but no, I feel like if you are actually intentional about making things in your life, that helps, honestly, you’re making a little bit more beauty in the world than there was yesterday.
And slowly you’re gathering bits of beauty, you’re gathering bits of observations. They might become an essay. They might become a poem. They might become a book. And honestly, you know, that’s kind of how things are made. Nothing happens overnight.
I think we need to remember that during a pandemic and during dark times, most of all is that it is step by step, step by step. Just because we’re in a pandemic, I don’t know, like there were these things in the beginning of March, maybe you heard it like, Oh, now I’m going to get my novel written. No, if anything, we have to be more taking care of ourselves. Or at least not me, not me.
When I’m dealing with like four zooms, um, and my kids are virtual learning, I’ve got a dog, my 83 year old mother is living here. I want to be present for them too. You know? So I don’t know. It’s hard for me. You could say it’s hard for me to be prescriptive, but what I would say as I would to a friend is low stakes journaling, I feel is very intentional. And that’s something. All it takes is a 50 cent notebook and a pen. You do not need to have a $4,000 harp, for example, you know, that kind of thing. These are just such small materials in the way of making art. It just helps you so much if you can go outside and really, really look.
Ellison: I love it. The sky journal is something that really landed with me when I read about that, because I told you I just moved and from my new office window, I actually have a view of the sky, which is a whole new thing. I’ve been watching the hawks on the thermals and I’m going to start writing that stuff down because what you just described is the magic of art, how one observation leads to something so much bigger. That was absolutely beautiful. And I was transfixed.
Nezhukumatathil: And it’s doable. I don’t know about you JT, but whenever someone gives me advice, it’s like, write three hours every day otherwise you’re not a true writer. I didn’t feel it when I was single and in grad school, I certainly don’t feel like that now, with two kids and married and teaching full-time. I never want to sound like that, but a sky journal, literally, you just need a spiral notebook and a pen, and it does not need to be a finished piece. It’s literally, note the time, note the day, what do you see at sunset? What do you see at sunrise? If you’re a morning person. And from there something can be unlocked. It makes me so happy when a writer has a window to look out at. It’s the small things, but there’s huge things.
Ellison: It is really important. Oh my gosh. I have like 50,000 more questions. I want to hear a little bit about your process, how you write, how you edit, how do you edit a poem? I’m very curious about that. I’m a failed poet. No, I’m a lapsed poet. I should never say failed. I’m a lapsed poet. How do you approach the page, on a daily basis, or as you can?
Nezhukumatathil: Well, it’s definitely not a daily basis. Expel that myth. I think in my mind, in late college, I just assumed people would wear a beret hat, wear all black, and then just boom. They would wave their fingers around and then a poem would be done, unedited, and it would be perfect. That’s how pop culture painted poets.
I have no qualms in saying that writing is so hard. It’s almost like I joke about it because I would whine, I would do basically everything I can to avoid the page, but yet I’m pulled to it, without trying to be too precious. I keep returning, because I know that it’s such a place of exhilaration for me. The writing of it. I’ll just put it plainly, absolutely, it’s hard. It’s difficult. It’s hard.
But once I get a draft down, no matter how messy it is, that’s when I feel excited. When a notebook, the pages are filled with a lot of cross outs… I do like writing everything by hand. That’s just me. I’m old fashioned.
I tell my students try to not rely on electricity for your art. You know, like there’s a lot of times people are like, I can’t write, I was at a coffee house and all the plugs were full, and I was like, what? You need to be able to write it while you’re waiting to get your oil changed. Right? In a park, you know, there’s no outlets in a park.
I write everything long hand. When I’m editing, I go to my laptop. That’s why I can’t do it in public in some ways, because I have to say everything out loud. It looks like I’m talking to myself when I’m editing.
I want to see how far my jaw drops. I mean, you wanted to know the details, so here you go. I want to see how far my jaw drops when I’m saying my words. I want there to be some snap, crackle, pop on my tongue. I want to be delighted when I’m reading my sentences. If I’m boring myself and my mouth, that’s how I know 99.9% of the time that line is flat or it’s a really weak metaphor or anything like that. When I’m getting excited by the joy. I like the sound rice Krispies make––snap, crackle, pop, on my tongue. That’s how I would describe it. And that’s how I know, Oh, I’ve got that line.
Now I get to play a little bit with the tension when I’m about to break that line. What can I do to make the reader want to keep reading to the next line? And that’s how I approach every one of my line breaks. I start again with delight and curiosity, kind of the same with my, with my essays. I start with an image and I want to feel like I’ve traveled somewhere without ever making my behind leave the chair. When I get to the end of the poem, I want to feel like I’ve been on [a journey], that I have taken the reader on some sort of journey. Ao that I’m changed and the reader’s changed at the end of the poem.
Ellison: Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
Nezhukumatathil: The first poem I ever wrote? Oh, I’m sure it was dreadful, like one of those acrostics, you know, in elementary school. I feel like that’s not even really a poem. It was an assignment. I came to poetry late. I didn’t come to poetry till my junior year in college. I went to great high schools, but we literally never were taught any living writers. I feel so cheated. Now I go in to visit high schools, and I get so jealous. I’m so glad for them that all of these high school students get to meet living writers. And again, just didn’t even know you could be a living poet.
It sounds so ridiculous, but I did not know there were living poets until junior year of college. And by then I was a hapless chemistry major, but I encountered a poet named Naomi Shehab Nye, or her poems anyway. She’s incredible, she’s the children’s Poet Laureate right now, the US children’s Poet Laureate, if you don’t know her. Just the tender way she writes about family and about the quotidian, it felt like a friend was talking to me in the middle of all these chemistry honors students. They were so excited about measuring and lighting things on fire.
And that is just not for me. It was poetry. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I know that I felt a kinship with poetry in a month more than I ever had in three years of studying chemistry. My life went in a drastically big direction once I switched.
Ellison: So you do have a bit of a scientific background then. I was wondering, I was going to ask.
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah. You know, I say that with big, big air quotes. When I was sitting in chemistry lectures and someone would say hexavalent chromium, I was thinking of the music and the verbal on my tongue and daydreaming about what the syllables were, because I had no idea what the professor was talking about. And I would be daydreaming. I was daydreaming during lectures, a struggling B student. I always say my greatest gift to humanity was not becoming a doctor. I’ve saved so many lives by not doing that.
Ellison: You’ve saved a lot of lives with your work. I think that’s a beautiful thing. All right, we’re going to do a lightning round. Butterflies or fireflies?
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, fireflies. Oh gosh, you’re killing me, cause now I’m going to be thinking I’m going to be haunted by this question all day long. I would say the way butterflies are made, the way butterflies emerge, they’re given new life. And then I would say the way fireflies are on their last days when they’re blinking, you know? So the birth of butterflies, the end days of fireflies.
Ellison: Perfect. Pencils or pens?
Ellison: Letters or email?
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, letters for sure.
Ellison: Oceans or mountains?
Nezhukumatathil: Oceans, oceans. These are easy. I feel like you dig through my social media or something like that.
Ellison: I read your work! What’s your favorite word?
Nezhukumatathil: Favorite word. It’s not a word, but it’s a sound. It’s the sound any dog makes when when they are drinking water, it’s just the most cheerful. It makes me laugh. It makes me giggle. I love hearing animals drink water.
Ellison: Um, so lapping in some way?
Nezhukumatathil: Yeah, yeah. Yes, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Lapping as a verb because you don’t really hear that with humans. So that automatically for me, signals, um, animals. There’s just such joy. It’s really one of the most beautiful sounds to my ears to hear that little happy lap, lap, lap. I’m thirsty. And now I’m drinking water.
Ellison: How about your least favorite word?
Nezhukumatathil: Hmm. I’ll choose my words carefully. I just think it’s such a childish phrase that when I hear it, I turn dark. The phrase “fake news.” I think that was a way to discredit hard working journalists, and it opened the doors to discredit, professors, learning, being curious about this planet, searching for answers. And it’s such a childish taunt to say fake news, fake news, you know? It’s a wiping away of knowledge in the pursuit of curiosity. So that’s a phrase that I just narrow my eyes and I clench up every time I hear that.
Ellison: Fair enough. What gives you creative satisfaction?
Nezhukumatathil: Creative satisfaction. I think, making a mark, it’s the physicality of it, but making a mark, be it in a water color brush or on my walls, in calligraphy or even just scritchy, you know, on the back of a receipt is making marks on paper, making marks on the wall. Listen, if you’re really, really quiet and you have to be super quiet, you can hear if you’re using ink, like the fountain pen, you could hear the paper take the ink and it’s the quietest sound. Notice I’m not even saying a finished draft. That is great, but it’s the physicality of writing and putting a mark on a page. So exquisite to me, it’s my favorite thing. It’s been one of my favorite things since I was a kid, even though I didn’t know what I was writing or drawing or painting at that time, but creating something on the page, that physicality, not even the finishing, it’s the doing. That was so beautiful for me.
Ellison: That’s fantastic. Amy, thank you so much for being here today. I honestly could continue talking for hours.
Nezhukumatathil: Thank you JT, you made it so easy. I felt like I rambled. You asked such kind questions that just cracked me open and they were great because I didn’t feel like I was giving a sound bite. It just felt real, you know? I hope… I don’t know if they were the most professorial, you know, that kind of thing, but they were honest, true answers. So thank you for doing that. Sometimes it’s very easy to be able to give a quick soundbite because the questions are pretty flat, but the questions were magical actually. Thank you.
Ellison: That is… you have no idea how much that means to me. Thank you.
And thank you for watching A Word on Words. Keep reading!
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