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Interviewer: Associate Editor, Kristen Coros
Amanya Maloba’s debut collection, Harvest, was published this month as the Grand Finalist of the Vine Leaves 2014 Vignette Collection Award. The collection is no less than a literary feast: the voice is seductive and arresting, the pages bursting with colour, flavour, and nuggets of emotional truth. In all, it is a banquet of the senses, guaranteed to leave any reader feeling dazzled and pleasantly full. We recently posed these questions to better get to know the woman behind the tour de force.
At what point did you realize you wanted to write?
I wrote a story in fourth grade about what it means to be a patriot after 9/11 (I was nine at the time of the attacks). I showed the story to my dad, who told me that I had real talent. In retrospect, the story sounds like total crap, but I think the positive response was enough for me to run with it. Later on writing became (and still is) a coping mechanism, so I’ve always done it, though I’ve also always been reluctant to share my work.
How would you describe your collection?
Harvest is my first full collection of any kind, so I think it reflects the same timidity and honesty I felt writing the first patriot story. For a long time I was writing what I thought were snippets of longer stories, but eventually realized there was something to short form, hence a collection of vignettes. Throughout the duration of the writing process I moved from London back to Chicago, finished my undergraduate degree, started two jobs, completed two internships, ran a marathon, started and ended a relationship etc.—needless to say I was not in the same place by the end of the project as I was when I started. Harvest is a reflection of all of the different phases and places I was in, so I don’t necessarily think that there’s a cohesive, simple way to describe it.
How long did Harvest take you to write?
I started writing Harvest spring 2013 and wrote most of the pieces last summer. From when I started scribbling in my notebook to submission the whole process took about nine months…my literary baby!
Your writing has a clear global sensibility. Have you lived in a number of places, or traveled a lot?
As the product of a black American mother and a Kenyan father, I’ve spent my whole life moving between cultures and identities. Attending a predominantly upper middle class white Quaker school in Wilmington, Delaware and a historically black dance school in Philadelphia, I had to learn how to navigate between the different aspects of my American experience with regards to class and race. This task was further complicated by the fact that I had to reconcile the customs and culture of my Kenyan heritage with the western norms of my peers. While growing up in a constant in-between state presented its challenging and lonely moments, it also provided me with the opportunity to explore what specifically defined various cultures and continues to allow me to move fluidly between many cultures.
This movement between cultures was not something that my parents tried to downplay during my childhood, but rather promoted it through extensive travel. Each summer, as a family, we would travel to a different city in the country for the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference. While my mom attended meetings during the day, my dad and I would explore the cities. Additionally, I was exposed to international travel, through visiting family in Kenya and accompanying my dad to England, where he conducted research. Discovering new details about life through immersing myself in different environments gave me exposure to places and people I didn’t otherwise encounter in my day-to-day life and the ability to think of myself as a global citizen.
While I realize that this ability to travel extensively is an elite privilege, the ability to think globally is something that I wanted to emphasize in writing Harvest. Far too many of us (across race, class, and gender divisions) get caught into thinking in very small frameworks, which inhibits us from fully understanding the very issues we’re trying to address. For instance, I think that I learned more about what being American means to me from one year living abroad than in the first twenty spent living in the States. Seeing how people react to me in different countries teaches me a lot about attitudes toward black people, Americans, and women. Namely, white supremacy and misogyny exist everywhere. It always tickled me how some Europeans would just unload all of their frustrations with the United States on me…I’m like, I’m pretty sure I have more beef with the place than you do, but please continue to blame me personally for the mess George W. Bush caused (despite the fact that I was not of voting age for either of his elections!). In London, my friend and I were called mulattos, shushed for speaking, and had our hair petted by strangers, while in the village my dad comes from little kids follow my mom and I in packs of as many as twenty because they don’t see visitors as light as we are. Same body, different reception. Not many people I know experience all of these reactions, so it was important to put the main character of Harvest, Sukari, in many of the same places and spaces I’ve been in.
Harvest uses food as a lens to explore various aspects of human experience, both positive and negative. One of my favourite pieces from your collection is “Perfect White Rice,” in which you use the frame of a recipe for rice to tackle slavery and exploitation. It’s wrenching and brutally funny satire. How did you come up with the idea for this piece?
This is one of my favorite pieces as well. “Perfect White Rice” came about through my experiences with a class on Trans-Atlantic slave trade I took at King’s College London. We learned in class about the continuity of food production from West Africa to the New World, hence the specificity of the piece. However, some of the kids in that class were intent upon asserting that slavery has no tangible legacy to their lives. So, “Perfect White Rice” came from a place of frustration. In my experiences, many white people (in the USA and abroad) want to wipe their hands clean of slavery, though it is impossible to do so. At its core, the United States is founded on genocide and slavery, so even if your great grandparents were also immigrants, their success in the country was dependent upon the products of slave labor and the oppression of black and native peoples. Not to mention many major banks and institutions were founded by slave owners—as we know money doesn’t die, and so neither can the legacy of slavery.
I chose to focus on rice, because the idea that you would need a recipe for rice is pretty absurd, but it could have just as easily been sugar, tobacco, beans, or coffee with regards to food or roads and the wrought iron of New Orleans in terms of infrastructure. I wanted to show that many of the luxuries and conveniences we now take for granted have a history of screams and death behind them, and that even now as people live comfortably in their middle class homes, their lifestyle is supported by institutional oppression and suffering.
Who do you consider to be your literary influences/inspirations?
I fell in love with magic realism about six years ago, so obviously Gabriel García Márquez is a huge inspiration. His death was really hard for me—I cried alone on a bench in a San Francisco dog park for an hour, while people moved slowly away from me. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is one novel that I felt profoundly different after reading. My first exposure to vignettes was A House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, so she’s definitely had a huge influence on me. Cane by Jean Toomer is another excellent example of vignettes from the Harlem Renaissance. Among contemporary authors, I absolutely love Zadie Smith and Junot Díaz—they are both hilarious and preach the truth! I met Díaz once at the ALA conference and he said that my sister (who had previously attended his VONA workshop) and I were both book nerds, so that was a definite highlight of my life.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
This is technically not a piece of advice, but Toni Morrison said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” I keep that in mind as I write and make sure that I’m producing work I’ll still be excited to read in 50 years.
Since Harvest is so strongly tied to food, will you share your favourite meal?
This is honestly the most difficult question to answer. I can’t say I have a favorite meal, but there are certain foods that I know I could eat every day. The piece, “Chapati” was inspired by one of my favorite foods. One of the best parts about going home to Kenya is getting to eat endless chapatis—there are so many variations available in the States, but nothing like the ones at home! Butter is probably my original favorite food. I was on a butter diet when I was a baby because my weight was too low and I was never able to give it up. It just makes everything better—cinnamon raison toast, all types of potatoes, fish, burgers, steamed in coffee…everything. My favorite types of butter are the kind made by the Amish and the French kind with the salt crystals in it. I’m pretty strict with my diet, so I never feel guilty going overboard with butter.
What are you working on now/next?
I’m making the leap to novel writing, though don’t expect a finished project for a couple of years as I’m still in the reading/ research phase. I’m always doing a million things, so right now I’m experimenting with different mediums, mainly fashion, so who knows what will emerge.
Thank you, Amanya!
If your appetite for Harvest has been awakened, check it out HERE.