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