Interviewed by Sarah Starr Murphy

Read Emily James’ nonfiction piece, Full of Light Without A Window

Sarah: One of the things that’s immediately striking about this piece is your use of long sentences, which mimic the way kids and teens speak to and over each other. It’s a comfortable classroom conversation, sometime late in the year when the kids know and trust each other and their teacher. Do you usually write long sentences, or did this piece just demand them? Would you have written it differently if they were adults?

Emily: I find myself often thinking in long sentences, the way my thoughts go—fleeting and flowing, one into the next. Curiously, this is exactly how it goes with kids, especially in this environment. They have a way of making ideas run into each other while simultaneously punctuating the room with their directness. They are incredible to listen to, and their conversations take you with them just the way I’d dream for my writing to take a reader. So maybe my writing does parallel the way they communicate, whether on purpose or not. 

Your descriptions of the students are fleeting but make lasting impressions. Mariana: “…usually she’s all gum slapping and pero like and dark hair twirling in her manicured nails.” It works in part because it’s a description filled with action rather than a more passive list of her physical attributes.  Any advice to other writers struggling with character description?

Usually when I picture a character, they are based on another person I have known closely, or a combination of people. I just visualize these people and write what comes to mind, focusing on small sharp details. I find if you provide the reader with a few specifics they happily fill out the rest, and often can do a better job with their own imagination of filling in the lines you left open.

The most moving part of this piece is how the kids themselves form a community. You as teacher admit to not knowing the answers. The reader understands that you cannot solve these kids’ problems, but you can offer love, warmth, and a place for them to support each other. Many stories set in classrooms set the teacher up to be the rescuing hero. Was one of your intentions in writing this piece to question that trope?

This is the space that most of my pieces about teaching intend to fill. These are the moments that make their mark with me, and there are so many of them—if not all of them—that fill this description. Teaching to me has never been about being a hero, it’s been about being allowed into a world I didn’t have access to before I got into this work. Observing the beauty in these kids and their interactions, the way they defy all assumptions and explode in their humanity. I am so blessed to have had a window into their worlds for so many years, and that’s how I like to write, as an observer—a learner. It’s also how I like to teach.

What can the hapless hordes streaming through Grand Central do to help these kids and the many like them? Vote? Donate? Become more educated about injustice in their own neighborhoods?

The first thing they can do is become interested. Reject the ideas they have of our urban youth, reject pity and fear, realize that each child is someone else’s child, and could just as easily be their own. Somehow urban youth has this curse where people believe they know who they are before they have ever met them. It’s insane. Each child is so different than the next, they are so complex and human and yet somehow the media and our society has dehumanized them. The worst kind of knowledge is assumed knowledge that’s incorrect. My kids are fiercely loyal and intuitive, they are silly and soft. I have been teaching 14 years now, and have had an average of 175 kids a year—so do the math—I’ve gotten to know so many little humans as they grow, and each one is different than the next. So how is it that as a society we have a feeling that we know them as a whole? It doesn’t make sense, and it’s a dangerous way to think. We need more ways of merging our worlds, of bringing people into classrooms or helping the hapless hordes see the kids and ask them questions to learn who they are, to see their strength, vulnerability, to realize you have to meet a person to know a person, and once you meet them, you will realize they deserve more than the world is currently letting them have.

What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved?

I just finished Jaquira Diaz “Ordinary Girls,” and it was honestly one of the most fantastic memoirs I have ever read. Between the actual story and the the craft—the way she uses words in a way that almost strums the reader—it was a book of a lifetime.

Congratulations, and thank you for doing this interview!