Seven Questions for Aisha Sabatini Sloan

In Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today, we speak with Aisha Sabatini Sloan, a writer, curator, and artist. She joins us in the UNCW Department of Creative Writing this semester as a visiting professor of creative nonfiction.

Sabatini Sloan writes on race and current events, interweaving personal experience with analysis of art and pop culture. Maggie Nelson selected her second essay collection, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, for the 1913 Open Prose Contest, and Graywolf Press recently released it in a revised edition. She has also won the CLMP Firecracker Award and the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary, as well as the Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction and the Jeanne Córdova Award for Lesbian/Queer Nonfiction for her essay “Borealis.” Sabatini Sloan is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in creative writing, and her work has earned recognition in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her writing appears in the New York Times, the Paris Review, and Guernica, among many other places. Her essay “D Is for the Dance of the Hours,” originally published in Ecotone, is anthologized in Lookout Books’ Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism. 

Lookout staffer Laurie Clark interviewed Aisha Sabatini Sloan in spring 2024.

 

What do you look forward to experiencing while at UNC Wilmington? 

Seeing everyone I’m in class with who are now like celebrities to me. Now that it’s spring, I’m excited to look at what people are growing, especially after hearing everyone in my class talk about their gardening adventures. Being in a warm place. The beach! 

You grew up in Los Angeles, though you have family roots in Detroit, where you’ve also spent significant time over the years. How have these two different landscapes shaped your voice as a writer?  

Detroit has a mythological dimension for me because it is where I encountered all of my most recently departed ancestors and where my parents met and had their artistic awakenings. My parents met at the public library in the late sixties. All of their friends were these children of the Great Migration or of immigrants who were rejecting war and charting a path into a larger world. Choreographers and musicians and Franciscans. The physicality of Detroit is so symphonic and grandiose, Diego Court at the DIA, the opera house—there is all this very oldworld architecture. And my family is full of vivid storytellers. Whereas Los Angeles was all about possibility and newness. A futuristic place with beaches and skyscrapers and Hollywood and the cityscape is like holographic images floating in space. Being away from my family made me especially curious about it, which is where my writing started with this attempt to engage in this larger family myth-making endeavor. And even being in LA made me feel like I was far away from everything while also being in the center of something. My dad always talks about seeing things through a prism, and LA functioned a bit like that; it became this lens, a place through which I saw other places. And my writing has that tendency to look through things at other things and be nowhere and everywhere.  

Samiya Bashir describes your work in Borealis as a combination of “glacial blocks of white space” and “collaging of art, literature, correspondence, music, overheards, skylight colors.” Can you talk about how you approach scenes, images, and ideas when crafting a hybrid form? 

I spent as much time taking studio art classes in high school, college, and graduate school as I did studying writing, literature, and cultural criticism. So I often use art as part of the drafting process for writing. I play a lot with media, I print things and cut them up and put them on note cards and place them all around the room, I make collages, I teach classes where we bake things or make dioramas or music videos. I find this all helpful to see what I’m trying to make sense of, what I’m dancing inside. I have trouble mapping things out in a straight, linear document; but if I create a map or a scavenger hunt, I can start to see connections and visualize structure and see my ideas more easily.

In a recent interview, you discuss how much poets like Jane Miller were instrumental in shaping your aesthetic. What tools does poetry offer to a creative nonfiction writer? 

Yes, Jane Miller’s Midnights made a big impact, seeing how much could be distilled into a prose poem, how smooth entry into the past can be productively disrupted by the frame of the present. Also, how you can use a similar sense of rhythm in an essay’s structure as with something like a sestina, playing with sentence structure and repetition so that you build toward a final feeling. Another of the best courses I took in grad school was a nonfiction class where all of the books were about war, taught by the poet Barbara Cully. Even though we were thinking about a very grave reality, she included all of these mediums and genres in the reading list: Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an image/text work; Safe Area Goražde, a graphic novel by Joe Sacco; The War by Marguerite Duras. I felt like we were being invited to consider that artistic experimentation is required to tell the story so that it can be heard. I also worked with Beth Alvarado, a nonfiction writer who engages other genres in really fascinating, organic ways. Her book Anthropologies is a memoir in fragments, almost prose poems, and the concision and lyricism of that book really blew something open for me. I don’t identify with nonfiction that reads like a long, boring lecture. Cully and Miller and Alvarado were suggesting to me that the essay could be more like a gong bath or a protest or a song.  

What can you tell us about The Lester Essays, a current project that you tease as “A podcast? A documentary? A pizza pie? Coming soon . . .”? 

I have been filming my father, who is a photographer, for a few years—interviewing him, following him to exhibits in the South of France, around a festival in Italy, in search of Richard Wright in Paris. And at some point, I’d like to do something with that footage.  

At Lookout, we’re always eager to highlight emerging authors. Can you tell us about a debut book you’re excited about?   

Erica N. Cardwell’s Wrong Is Not My Name is fantastic; that’s a debut essay collection that just came out with Feminist Press. I’m also excited to check out The Wet Wound by Maddie Norris and Speculative Histories by Brigitte Lewis. These aren’t debuts, but I loved the essay collection My Withered Legs by Sandra Gail Lambert, and I’m excited to read Poupeh Missaghi’s newest book, Sound Museum. 

Lightning Round 

Coffee shop or library? Coffee shop. I need some noise.
Ocean or forest? Today, ocean. But it’s close.
Road trip or hike? Road trip
Podcast or radio? Depends where I am. I love public radio in Detroit and Los Angeles, but podcasts are kind of a constant.
Highlight or underline?  Underline. Unsteady underline.
Hardcover or paperback?  Paper
Coffee or tea?  Coffee

Oxtail Feast with Contributors to Bigger Than Bravery

“Oxtail is one of those dishes where there’s really no right or wrong way to season it (although Jamaicans and Southerners might try to convince you otherwise), so the only thing I can tell you is that when someone makes it for you, or when you make it, and when you share it or eat it alone, it should make you feel like someone gathered the strength of their hands to make something for you that says love.”  

—Destiny O. Birdsong, from “Build Back a Body

 


Destiny O. Birdsong’s essay “Build Back a Body” and Shay Youngblood’s “Feasting on Bread and Dry Bones” both feature oxtail—a staple of Southern U.S. comfort food. One of our favorite threads in
Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic is the that way food enriches our lives and evokes memories. Birdsong prepares oxtail while exploring memories and the challenges of managing an autoimmune disease during a pandemic. Similarly, Shay Youngblood relies on cooking as a way to cope, while observing food insecurity in her community. These essays led us to ask: what exactly is oxtail, and how is it served? 

Oxtail is the tail of a cow, “a part of the animal that, traditionally, no one wanted,” as Birdsong reminds us in her essay. Once considered the animal’s scraps, oxtail is now a delicacy that sells for more than seven dollars per pound. 

Popular in Caribbean communities, particularly Jamaica, oxtail is often braised and served over rice with a rich, juicy sauce, or it may be cooked in a stew with butter beans. To find oxtail, just head to your local international market. 

Birdsong hints about seasoning oxtail, writing, “At home, I rub thyme, allspice, and paprika into each disc of meat, still stiff with cold and now gritty with salt.” 

In “Feasting on Bread and Dry Bones,” Youngblood suggests creating a stew. “When I craved meat, I made oxtail stew with thyme and a good red wine for gravy that I sopped up with a thick slice of bread.” 

photographs of Destiny O. Birdsong’s oxtail stew. Used with permission.

“Many of my recipes are a combination of googling three to four recipes, intuition, taste and what I have on hand,” Youngblood responded when asked to share her recipe. “The oxtail recipe I made up as I went along. I remember, and I tell myself a story when I make comfort foods.” 

Inspired by Youngblood’s approach, we suggest starting with the recipes below. But there’s really no wrong way to do it! Just tell yourself a story as you go.

From the New York Times 

From New Orleans native Kenneth Temple, author of the cookbook Southern Creole 

From Tiffany of Foodie Not a Chef, which showcases Afro-Caribbean recipes 

From AJ and Mirlene of Savory Thoughts, which highlights traditional Haitian recipes 


For more food memories and tips on cooking oxtail, read Destiny O. Birdsong’s “Build Back a Body” and Shay Youngblood’s “Feasting on Bread and Dry Bones” in Bigger Than Bravery. If you’re not much of a cook, don’t worry; these essays have all the rich details you’ll need to taste oxtail, simply by reading.

Find Destiny O. Birdsong’s and Shay Youngblood’s essays in Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic.

 

Thanks to Lookout staffers Jenna Johnson and Wyatt Leong for compiling this article.

Ecotone Wins CLMP’s Firecracker Award

Firecracker Awards logo We’re proud to share that the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) has selected Ecotone for the 2023 Firecracker Award in the category of Magazine/General Excellence. Recent past winners include Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, Mizna, Two Lines Journal, Zyzzyva, and One Story.

The Firecracker Awards, as described by CLMP, are awarded each year to “celebrate books and magazines that make a significant contribution to our literary culture and the publishers that strive to introduce important voices to readers far and wide.” CLMP also recognized The Arkansas International, Ninth Letter, Orion, and Oxford American as finalists for this year’s award. We’re delighted to be in such good company and congratulate our fellow finalists for the work they’re doing.

We’re thankful for CLMP’s continued, crucial advocacy on behalf of small-press publishing. And we’re so appreciative of the judges for reading, supporting our mission, and offering these kind words:

Ecotone is a wonderful journal, whose consistent excellence is all the more impressive for its continued thematic focus. As befits a magazine with a focus on place, the visuals and layout of the print journal are compelling and enhance the written work while standing on their own. There aren’t many publishers taking on the challenge of amplifying incredible environmental and political pieces, and the editors’ attention to diversity among the contributors is clear. Ecotone is carving out their own lane with ease!”

“I’m so thankful for this support for Ecotone’s dual missions—to publish and promote writing of place, and to train new editors and designers in the craft of literary publishing—along with our ongoing work to shed light on the climate crisis,” says editor Anna Lena Phillips Bell. “Long live litmags, and long live the fight for a livable, equitable climate future!”

Front cover of Ecotone, issue 33 and text: "Winner of the 2023 Firecracker Award in Magazines/General Excellence"

 

Bigger Than Bravery for National Poetry Month

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’re featuring the poetry of Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic and excerpting meditations on navigating the early days of Covid-19, celebrating Blackness, and thinking beyond.   


In “Spring Mix,” Opal Moore watches a brown wren care for her young. Hurried yet resolute, the bird lives a simple life, unburdened by human problems. 

 

She flits. Frets. Undeterred.
She knows the world as it is. No
conspiracy, no theory. Life, for her, 
is life. Open throats and beak. Trust,
her leaving marked by each return.

 

“Memorial Day 2021,” her second poem in Bigger Than Bravery, is dedicated to George Floyd and asks, “What does it cost to be kind?”  

Opal Moore’s poetry collections include Lot’s Daughter and Why Johnny Can’t Learn 


Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s “Lockdown Prayer” captures the listless feeling of lockdown and reflects on a lost sense of normalcy.  

 

For this coping     this air
pushing through vents
this car sitting outside     a reminder
I can’t go anywhere 

 

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s poetry collections include The Glory Gets, which won the 2018 Harper Lee Award, and The Age of Phillis, which won the 2021 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary WorkPoetry and was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Her novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, was a finalist for the 2021 Kirkus Prize and longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction.

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Earth Day: Black Women Writers on Nature and Environmental Equity 

“Perhaps a future of environmental writing is in those who haven’t yet spoken, and in those who haven’t yet been heard. So many, like stars in the sky, writes Lauret E. Savoy in her essay “To See the Whole: A Future of Environmental Writing,” published originally in Ecotone and collected in Trespass (Lookout). 

As we look forward on this Earth Day 2023, we also offer a glimpse back at writing by Black women trailblazers from the pages of Ecotone and Lookout Books. In the four essays excerpted below, authors Lauret E. Savoy, DW McKinney, Camille T. Dungy, and Latria Graham share their insistent and probing perspectives on the outdoors. Ranging from an urban garden’s hidden beauties to the far reaches of the Pacific, these writers offer lyrical turns on the natural world while grappling with complex questions of environmental equity.


Lauret E. Savoy, “To See the Whole: A Future of Environmental Writing”
Originally published in Ecotone vol. 3, no. 2 (2008) and reprinted in Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism (2018)

Prompted by Aldo Leopold, an environmental-studies professor reimagines the boundaries of nature writing through the lenses of race, class, and language. 

“Perhaps a future of environmental writing begins in trying to meet all people where they are, wherever they are. Not where you think they are, or where you think they should be. It’s acknowledging and honoring difference as enriching, and at the same time finding, across divisions, common interest and common humanity. Diversity is a condition necessary for life, so why not bring difference to bear? Such writing would attempt to call into dialogue what has been ignored and silenced, what has been disconnected or dis-membered—whether by a failure of imagination, by narrowed -isms and -ologies, by loss of memory-history, or by an unwillingness to be honest.

In reimagining and enlarging our language and frames it might be possible to have creative interaction with many audiences, a calling back and forth, an exchange. So we can be in contact with and confirm each other. So through the multiplicity of true voices, we can limn larger stories that all of these are part of. So that—from land distribution, poverty, suburban sprawl, to even how and by whom so-called nature or environmental writing is defined—we can dismantle the patterns of living in this country that fragment and exclude and allow people to believe they don’t have to think about or care about . . . some other.”

A woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage, Lauret E. Savoy writes about the stories we tell of the American land’s origins and the stories we tell of ourselves in this land. She is the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College and a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. The ideas in this essay were later developed and expanded in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.

 


DW McKinney, “In the Water’s Grip
Published in Ecotone vol. 18, no. 1 (2022)

Under the waves of a storm off the Galápagos Islands, a biology student confronts her childhood fear of and fascination with the ocean, exploring the legacies of exclusion that have denied Black people in the United States access to swimming.

“U. S. racism spun the stereotype that Black people can’t swim into a fear, a genetic inability, a deficiency—all of which were spoon-fed to the public as truth. This ‘truth’ kept Black folks from water-related activities. We didn’t swim because we didn’t get wet; we didn’t canoe because we didn’t own boats. We couldn’t get stranded in deep waters because we were afraid of water in the first place.

. . . The truth is that I am always searching for a safe place for my body. A place where I can be me, completely. A place where the shape of my body doesn’t matter. Where I am required to do nothing except commune. I believe that water is that place. It slaps me down, it pushes me away. Yet I continue to believe that the water will offer salvation if I keep trying. If only I’m able to drift out far enough.”

Read the entirety of “In the Water’s Grip” on Ecotone‘s website.

DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers. Her work appears in Nonwhite & Woman: 131 Microessays on Being in the World.


Camille T. Dungy, “Reasons for Gardens
Published in Ecotone vol. 16, no. 1 (2020)

On a trip to New York, a poet is enlivened by a garden photo shoot, during which she contemplates the ways green spaces—from bustling community gardens to peaceful backyard ones—can not only provide physical sustenance but bolster our spirits and enable the work of activism.

“In the photo we took in that garden, I am standing in a bank of maple leaves, and I am looking off somewhere, toward other beings who are thriving like I believed in myself, in that moment, also to be thriving. I am smiling a genuine smile. Because in gardens, I find hope.

The photographer told me that day that the mayor of New York had been working to get rid of community gardens like the one we were in. Often founded on vacant lots as a way of re-engaging and resuscitating overlooked land, these gardens, according to the mayor, are a waste of potentially valuable property. Imagine the revenue that could be gleaned from a building full of shops and condos on that lot. Imagine how many people could be housed—at what a high price—in that now-wasted space.

Such imagining leaves out the people who had found homes there already. The photographer and the other members of the community garden. The koi and the songbirds and the butterflies I watched with excitement during the hour I spent on that lot. In some cosmologies, worldviews I honor, these fish and birds and butterflies are also people, living beings, with lives of value. The tree people who found space in that garden not afforded to the trees on your average New York City street—what a high price we would pay upon felling them. What they give us, these trees, is a different kind of wealth. Carbon capture and a payout of oxygen, a space that absorbed the clang and bustle of the surrounding streets and enveloped us in a dampened, cooling, calming quiet. So much beauty. How do you quantify the economic value of beauty as compared to the tax revenue of another human structure in what is now a garden? A garden is never wasted space.”

Camille T. Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. Her most recent book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, is available for pre-order. She has edited anthologies including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and her four collections of poetry include Trophic Cascade.


Latria Graham, “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream”

Originally published in Outside magazine’s September/October 2020 issue and reprinted with permission in Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic (2022)

In 2018, Latria Graham published an essay in Outside about the challenges of being Black in the outdoors. Countless readers reached out to her, asking for advice on how to stay safe in places where nonwhite people aren’t always welcome. She didn’t write back, because at the time she had no idea what to say. In the aftermath of a revolutionary spring and summer 2020, she responded

“Vacations are meant to be methods of escapism. Believing this idyllic wilderness to be free of struggle, of complicated emotions, allows visitors to enjoy their daily hikes. Many tourists to Great Smoky Mountains National Park see what they believe it has always been: rainbow-emitting waterfalls, cathedrals of green, carpets of yellow trillium in the spring. The majority never venture more than a couple miles off the main road. They haven’t trained their eyes to look for the overgrown homesites of the park’s former inhabitants through the thick underbrush. Using the park as a side trip from the popular tourist destinations like Dollywood and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, they aren’t hiking the trails that pass by cemeteries where entire communities of white, enslaved, and emancipated people lived, loved, worked, died, and were buried, some, without ever being paid a living wage. Slavery here was arguably more intimate. An owner had four slaves, not 400. But it happened.”

Latria Graham is a writer living in South Carolina. Her work often sits at the intersection of southern culture, gender norms, class, and environmental racism. Her forthcoming book, Uneven Ground, is about her attempt to preserve her family’s legacy and 100-year-old farm, shedding new light on epidemic Black land ownership loss and redefining her own identity and sense of rootedness and creative possibility. Read more of her work in Outside and in Garden & Gun.


For more information about partnerships and funding for nature ventures, Graham recommends the National Park Foundation’s African American Experience Fund.

We recommend these additional outdoor organizations—all founded by Black Women entrepreneurs—that offer other wilderness opportunities for stewardship and connection to environmental community: Blackpackers, Outdoorsy Black Women, Outdoor Afro, Vibe Tribe Adventures.

 

Thank you to Lookout staffer Laurie Clark for compiling this article.

Where to Find Us at AWP 2023 in Seattle

We can’t believe that the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Conference & Bookfair begins next week! UNCW’s creative writing programs, including our imprint Lookout Books and magazine Ecotone, will be represented at the nation’s largest marketplace for independent literary presses and journals. Please stop by booths 609 & 611 for great deals on our catalog of books and issues of the magazine, as well as to meet our faculty and student staff.

Toast to Small Joys at AWP, hosted by Lookout Books

 

Along with giveaways and sales of our signature bag of snakes tote, we’re hosting a special bookfair event—Toast to Small Joys—featuring contributors to Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic. Join Destiny O. Birdsong, Opal Moore, and Deesha Philyaw for cake and drinks to celebrate the anthology’s publication—and to get your copy of Bigger Than Bravery signed. They’ll be at the booth on Friday, March 10, 12–1 p.m.

Aren’t registered for the conference? Not to worry! The bookfair will be open to the public on Saturday, March 11. We can’t wait to see you there!

Publishing faculty members Emily Louise Smith, Michael Ramos, and KaToya Ellis Fleming at AWP 2022

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Announcing UNCW’s New Graduate Certificate in Publishing

Beginning in fall 2023, UNCW’s MFA program is offering students a complementary post-baccalaureate certificate in literary publishing. The 15-hour degree prepares graduates to work in publishing, editing, publicity, marketing, grant writing, and book and magazine design and production, among other areas. Students also learn skills beneficial in a variety of adjacent fields—from public relations to arts management. At the heart of the program are apprenticeships with the department’s award-winning literary entities: imprint Lookout Books and magazines Ecotone and Chautauqua.

As Lookout’s graduate publishing assistant, I’ve found hands-on experiences with the imprint to be invaluable. I chose UNCW’s MFA program because I wanted to explore professional options as I gained practical, real-world experience. I was uncertain about the exact career I wanted to pursue after graduation. Working at Lookout over the past two semesters has helped me fine-tune my goals and discover new skills.

After careful preparation, planning, and care, I helped launch the imprint’s latest title, Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic, in November. I helped design the anthology’s interior and cover, executed an accompanying social media campaign, and am now seeing my work pay off in the form of accolades and national media attention for the book. It’s come with satisfaction and excitement I’ve never felt before.

Lookout Practicum staff members Morissa Young, Tierra Ripley, and Felicia Rosemary Urso at the book launch

“It’s impossible not to learn from Emily Smith as she explains in real time why we’re taking each step in the publishing process. Instead of focusing on one area, students get to explore as many as we’d like. . . .  I’m actively developing new perspectives that will be crucial to my success post-MFA, in publishing and well beyond it.”

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Bigger Than Bravery Contributors’ Favorite Bookstores

In celebration of Black History Month, we asked contributors to Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic to recommend their favorite Black-owned bookstores. Shopping at an indie store means investing in intentional programming, including readings and discussion groups, and fostering community spaces. Read on to learn how you can support the missions of these stores, as well as the larger literary ecosystem. And don’t forget to show them some love by plucking your copy of Bigger Than Bravery—and our contributors’ books—from their shelves!


Rofhiwa Book Café
recommended by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Jasmin Pittman Morell

Durham, NC

 

 

 

 

Open just shy of two years, Rofhiwa Book Café in Durham is a thoughtfully designed space, combining stellar, locally sourced coffee with a carefully curated selection of books by Black writers. Rofhiwa’s founder, Boitumelo Makhubele, and curator, Naledi Yaziyo, say that they “value books as repositories for collective knowledge.”

But their gorgeous indoor space houses more than books and coffee; it’s a gathering place for community, from book launches to readings to art exhibits. Rofhiwa’s impact on its community can’t be overstated. In a commentary for Cardinal & Pine, Yaziyo wrote, “In the year that Rofhiwa Book Café has been in operation in East Durham, it has been my singular mission to expose Black children to books about Black children in other places and other parts of the world.”

Bonus! For a limited time, Lookout is partnering with Rofhiwa to offer readers a free “Black Resilience, Black Reclamation” enamel pin when you purchase Bigger Than Bravery from them—while supplies last.

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Seven Questions (+1) for Michelle Donahue

Today in Seven Questions, we introduce Ecotone associate editor Michelle Donahue. In addition to editing, Michelle writes fiction and has published essays and poems. Her prose has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and has been published in Arts & Letters, CutBank, Porterhouse Review, Passages North, and others. She received an MFA in creative writing & environment from Iowa State and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. Before joining Ecotone in August 2022, she was an editor for Quarterly West, the Adroit Journal, and Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment.

Michelle is a generous and energetic editor and a fabulous writer (not to mention a surfer and a brewer of beer). We are delighted to welcome her to the Ecotone team!

Co–fiction editor Becca Hannigan interviewed Michelle in fall 2022.

Michelle DonahueAs you settle in to Wilmington and your new roles at Ecotone and in the creative writing department, what do you find most exciting?

I’m most excited by the real commitment to community here. Everyone has been so welcoming, and it’s clear that people are interested in building a nourishing publishing, teaching, and writing environment. I’m honored to be a new member of such a beautiful ecosystem of writers, teachers, students, and editors.

Your degrees are in creative writing and literature as well as Could you share a specific experience, class, or conversation that’s carried you along? To what extent do you view your work as a writer and editor through a scientific lens?

When I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester studying on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos. It was such a unique experience that I’ve since tried to write about it, but always fail to capture it, with all of its strange beauty and contradictions. On the one hand, I spent my days lounging on the beach with sea lions who were wholly unafraid of humans. I watched blue-footed boobies perform their goofy mating rituals; I swam with green sea turtles, marine iguanas, manta rays, and reef sharks. It was unreal. But on the other hand, the Galápagos is a brutal, volcanic place, where the equatorial sun can burn unprotected skin in minutes. It’s a place where tourists who come to appreciate the unique life and landscape are also responsible for endangering its existence. I simultaneously loved every second of being there and felt guilty about my presence. I like this idea of an experience “carrying you along,” and my time in the Galápagos certainly has stayed with me in ways that are mollifying and maddening, celebratory and sad.

I think my background in science has changed the way I see the world, which I’m sure has affected the way I write and edit. In science, I was always drawn most to ecology, a discipline that focuses on relationships between the big and small, living and non-living. As a writer and editor, I’m interested in connections, in bringing the macro and the micro together.

You’ve worked as the managing editor for Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment as well as prose editor for Quarterly West and the Adroit Journal. How and when did you know you wanted to pursue editorial work?

As a younger writer, I wanted to be as involved as possible in any and every good literary community I could find. Editorial work seemed like such a tremendous opportunity to contribute and give back to the literary community, while learning about writing and publishing. Once I started with Flyway, I knew I’d found a lifelong passion.

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Behind the Scenes: Promoting Bigger Than Bravery

With Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic hurdling toward its November 15, 2022 pub date, the Lookout team has been working behind the scenes on creative promotions. It’s bittersweet to reach this milestone without Bigger Than Bravery’s editor, Valerie Boyd, here to help us usher her final book into reviewers’ and early readers’ hands, but we’re infusing every galley that leaves our offices with her incomparable spirit.

For Lookout, promotional kits are meant not only to generate excitement but to contextualize and enlarge the conversation around our books. They include, of course, early reading copies and details about the book, but we always add extras to remind recipients how deeply we invest in each project we acquire. Over the past two semesters, publishing students in UNCW’s MFA and BFA programs have worked with book practicum instructor and publisher Emily Smith, as well as editor KaToya Ellis Fleming, to curate Bigger Than Bravery promotions with all the dedication and care that Valerie Boyd brought to her curation of the anthology itself.

The Commemorative Pin

As we grieved and processed Valerie Boyd’s unexpected passing, we thought about items that might meaningfully honor her legacy. We wanted this commemorative piece of the kit to be solemn yet bold, representative of Valerie and her work on Bigger Than Bravery, as well as her life’s work as a mentor and friend to so many writers and editors of color. The enamel pin calls to mind memorial pins often worn to remember a loved one. Borrowing from the book’s subtitle, we selected the phrase “Black Resilience. Black Reclamation.” When finished pins arrived, we placed all two hundred of them by hand on a custom card-stock backing. Each is anchored by two small black hearts.

 

Letterpress Broadside

Lookout staffer and letterpress artist Ollie Loorz designed and typeset an excerpt from Valerie Boyd’s introduction to Bigger Than Bravery:

“I offer you a glimpse into your own bravery, your own greatness, your own transcendent freedom.”

Emily Smith’s book publishing practicum then took a field trip to Port City Letterpress here in Wilmington, where Ollie gave us a demonstration and let us each take a turn at the wheel of the studio’s Chandler & Price platen press. What a beautiful day, watching Valerie Boyd’s words kiss the paper again and again—in that bold magenta ink!

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