“Try To Heal Or Progress”: An Interview With Reem Abu-Baker
I love your recent story, “At the Home Depot” in Cheap Pop. One of the things that I really admire about it is how you make the ordinary (a dermatologist visit, succulents, Big Lots art) turn extraordinary, dream-like. And despite (although I’m kind of doubting my use of despite and wondering if maybe I should say because of) the strangeness, things are still so heartfelt. How do you balance strange and emotion in your writing? Who are some writers who you recommend as further reading (or are inspirations to you)?
This question makes me feel really happy and flattered, because I think my biggest goal as a writer is to be both strange and heartfelt. I try to use the strange or the surreal as a way into a more sincere or heartfelt space, as a way to talk about things that are hard to talk about. I don’t see those things as opposed or conflicting at all, though I do think we can sometimes use strangeness in fiction as a mask for heartlessness—not as in cruelty but as in literally lacking heart. But I think strangeness can also be a way to discuss traumas and fears in news ways. I try to make sure I’m using strangeness to either re-approach something that feels difficult, or as an exercise in imagining the world differently to try to heal or progress. There are so many writers who inspire me in this regard, but Aimee Bender and Kelly Link are two writers who I think do really well with balancing strangeness and heart.
In a lot of your stories, things that are traditionally thought of as feminine often appear: lace, lipstick, parasols, pink. How do you think objects can influence or shape story?
I think a lot of people have to go through some process of shame around femininity and rejection of objects of femininity and then coming back and trying to reclaim them later. I think part of that reclaiming for me is putting these feminine objects into my stories. I feel a lot of cultural charge around objects—they’re gendered, they’re indicators of class, they speak to age and race and geography and political leaning. They help with worldbuilding in fiction and reveal things about characters. Interaction with objects can be a way to move a story forward for me, and a way to try to bring in class and gender anxieties that I don’t really otherwise know how to write about. And since I tend to write fiction that includes magical or surreal or strange elements, I try use physicality and objects to ground my stories and keep them in a world that’s ours but just a little stranger.
One other thing I admire about you as a writer is that you’re not afraid to talk about race in your work. I am so tired of reading a story and seeing “the Black woman”, “the Middle-Eastern woman”, then just seeing “a woman” on another page and having to realize oh awesome, to you, Author, the word woman means white woman. The rest of us are just modifiers. In your work I’ve read, you center women and people of color as narrators. Have you always done that? Or was it a process?
This became important to me pretty quickly after I started writing fiction “seriously.” I don’t think it’s something I’ve quite figured out yet, by which I mean that my view on race in fiction is always in flux and something I’m trying to always reconsider. I feel really resistant to the defaulting of whiteness in fiction (it’s so gross!), and I try to push against that. I think a bigger problem than even the defaulting of whiteness in characters is that many writers assume that the default reader is white (and straight and probably a cis man). That’s the reason characters are assumed to be white and the reason there are so many stereotypical or problematic non-white characters in fiction and so much handling of race and of trauma that’s just sort of flippant. So I think the biggest process for me has been freeing myself of the imaginary white male reader. Like, many of my best friends and loved ones are white men, and there are many white men in my life who are very supportive of my writing and help it very much, but I don’t really care about what this imaginary white male reader thinks of my fiction anymore. I used to care. I’ve had to intentionally move away from that. So now I’m trying to write towards what I wish I’d read when I was 20. I want to write stuff that would make my past self feel less alone and more full of possibilities.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year or so? Why?
I love Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho. It’s so funny and brilliant and unabashedly enamored with pop culture (which I love and don’t think there is enough of in fiction!) and it addresses queerness and gender and sexuality and race and family and all these different constructions of identity in such a smart and playful way. It’s one of those books that reminds me that you can do whatever you want in fiction, that you don’t have to abide by any rules, and that you can talk about serious, difficult experiences and have a blast at the same time.
About the Reader:
Reem Abu-Baker lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is the fiction editor for Black Warrior Review. Her writing can be found in Ninth Letter, NANO Fiction, Day One, and other journals.
About the Interviewer:
Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016. She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.