Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Allison Gruber’s nonfiction piece, Imagine Texas
Sommer: Your beautiful essay is, essentially, about finding home. Yet, as your opening quote by Lorde attests to, home is everywhere and nowhere; it is in a constant state of being discovered. In what ways do you think home is everywhere and nowhere specifically for “the embattled”? Can some places, like Amarillo, ever truly be home?
Allison: While I’m presuming Lorde meant something pretty specific, I was interpreting her words broadly. I was thinking of “embattled” as a perception – a sense of never belonging. This sense of alienation can arise out of material, actual circumstances –people are openly hostile – but it can also grow from a more diffuse sort of discomfort with the very idea of having a home.
For me, claiming any place as “home” often feels uncomfortable because it feels so horrifically final — like a fucking grave. So, initially, I was thinking about that kind of “embattled” – an internal conflict, influenced by the exterior struggles of being a woman, a lesbian, gender nonconforming, etc.
I don’t want to dis Amarillo, because I was just passing through, but it reminded me so much of little towns in Illinois and Indiana and Iowa where I was afraid to stop and pump gas – there’s a kind of airborne hostility that women and homos and, I presume, people of color, have learned to, kind of instinctively, be in tune with and avoid. It’s a sixth sense. We can, and in fact do, live in these places, but whether we claim them as home, whether they ever really are home is another matter.
I think people who feel “different” or feel “other” or who are seen as different/other are constantly in flux. We’re perhaps a bit more adaptable because we don’t assume that we’ll feel at home anywhere – we’re always kind of ready to pack our bags.
I love that even though by the end of your essay you have come to love Arizona’s natural environment, you still miss Lake Michigan and water. Do you think part of this could also have something to do with past/present tension—a longing and mourning for parts of the past while learning to love the present?
The past is always with us, the past informs our take on the present – this, I think, is an inescapable, indisputable fact.
Even if we have a healthy relationship with our past, we still carry it around in our grotesque, complicated chunk of gray matter – we carry it in every perception, in every second, as we go about the business of existing. So that tension – between what was and what is – always is, unless you’re a phenomenal fucking Buddhist, which I am not.
I also believe love is not an absolute state. If I love a place, I do not love it at the expense of forsaking all affinity for the previously loved place. This is what’s difficult, and kind of shitty, about love – love for a person, a place, an idea doesn’t eradicate all the previous love. We simply reposition love. Other loves overcome, but all love casts a shadow.
Like, I love the kitchen in the house I rent with my wife, but sometimes, when I’m in the kitchen loving the light and the plants and the space, I remember other kitchens in other apartments I rented and loved and I miss them fiercely. It’s freaky.
But to miss and to want are two different states. I can miss something without wanting it – cigarettes. Christ, I miss cigarettes all the time, I loved smoking, but I really don’t want that habit back.
In order to survive, we learn to live in the present, to love life as it is in the absence of . . .
As a writer, I find this particular tension really compelling.
You bounce around in time quite a bit in this essay, and to great success. What methods did you use to keep yourself (and the reader) from getting entangled?
Mentally, I’m usually in multiple places at once. I’ve learned, over time, how to make this work as a memoirist by reading my life as a text – I try to figure out how disparate parts intersect.
I have to be a little objective about myself, which isn’t easy, but one can train oneself into it by seeing one’s own life as a movie or as a song or a whole album.
So I do with my writing what I do to get through a day of teaching, or through the task of making dinner – I draw a straight line from where I’m at to where I’m trying to go. It’s actually more like a fly strip than a rope, and whatever sticks to that strip is probably going to be referenced or somehow centered in the work. It’s messy, it’s gross and self indulgent, but it works.
With writing, unlike daily life, you can afford to be sloppy as hell as first. You can be all over the place and then carve away. You can catch all the flies and gnats and then pick off the bugs that don’t match your purpose. This is probably totally unhelpful, not to mention disgusting as a metaphor. But autobiographical writing is kind of disgusting.
So long as there’s a link between one moment and the next, whether or not they’re chronological, it tends to work. That link may be an image, a significant word, a subtle idea, or an impression. I follow my gut.
Any advise to writers on handling rejection?
Rejection is so personal. When I was just starting out, I remember people would say, “Don’t take it personally.” How the fuck can you not take it personally when it’s absolutely personal? A part of you is being straight up rejected.
That’s not very helpful, but what felt honest to me as far as “coping with rejection” was accepting that literary tastes are subjective. Like, you could give Donald Trump a perfectly cooked steak on a bed of beautiful greens and he’s going to scowl and say, “Where’s the ketchup?” Doesn’t mean the steak sucks, it just means it isn’t prepared to the, um, diner’s needs.
One of the novice mistakes I made as a young writer was submitting work to journals I hadn’t yet read. You must familiarize yourself with the journal or magazine before you submit. And even then, you might get rejected and it doesn’t necessarily mean you suck, it might just mean they’re not ready for your voice yet.
Tenacity is everything. I recently told a student who’d been rejected to go home, cry about it, feel mad, and then after forty-eight hours get over it and try again. If you can’t get over it in two days, if you can’t try again, maybe you’re a dilettante.
Thank you very much for doing this interview with me. It is such an honor to publish “Imagine Texas.”