By Lucía Seda
Some writers are shrouded in mystery. Their prose offers valuable insight into their worlds, and readers often feel privy to their darkest secrets. Others seem to immediately bare all of their insecurities on the page, making you feel like you’ve known them their whole lives. You feel comfortable in their presence and can almost picture their voice as they talk to you about their day.
I have not met Ashleigh Young in person, but I suspect that she falls among the latter camp. A writer and editor at Victoria University Press in Wellington, New Zealand, Young published her first book of poems, Magnificent Moon, in 2012. Five years later, her essay collection Can You Tolerate This? won the Yale Windham-Campbell Prize in nonfiction. A visit to the chiropractor, bad eyesight, a fixation on Bikram yoga that turns increasingly unhealthy—all of these seemingly quotidian moments take on a refreshing life in her essays. Her prose is quick, and familiar; her sentences can easily read as fiction or nonfiction. Above all, it is her curiosity that travels through the page, urging readers to look at the ordinary with a new set of eyes.
Young carved some time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions over email. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
LUCIA SEDA: When did you start writing?
ASHLEIGH YOUNG: I think I was about four or five. I’m not sure where it came from, exactly. I had this urge not just to write, but to make books. I wrote stories – mostly about frogs; I had a weekly magazine called Frogget – then illustrated them and stapled them together, and created a sort of library in my bedroom. I just found this whole task incredibly pleasing: the making of something and the sharing of it. As the youngest kid and the only girl in my family, it was a way for me to be seen. But I remember feeling embarrassed when one of my readers (i.e. my two brothers or my parents) didn’t seem to find one of my stories as interesting as I believed it was. So, you know, that feeling doesn’t change. ‘Why don’t you like this?! I worked so hard on it!’ I kept writing throughout school. Sitting in corners writing seemed to be a good way to get people (including teachers) to leave you alone, and I wanted to be left alone a lot.
Why did you decide to pursue an MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters?
One reason was I’d been working as a writer and editor at an educational publishing company for several years. Part of my job was to write short chapter books for kids – about subjects like the planets, how bikes work, nocturnal animals, Amelia Earhart – to a fairly strict formula, and my writing was always heavily edited and reshaped; it often became unrecognizable. Even though that work was satisfying in its own way, I wanted to write something substantial that belonged to me. The other reason was just that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d been writing almost my whole life and had published a few things and I finally felt ready to say, I want to give myself a chance to take this seriously. I’d done a few undergraduate writing courses by then, and for me there was something about the workshop formula that I found energizing. It’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s luck as to how well a group will work together – I’ve heard of plenty of disasters – but I knew that this way tended to work well for me. Also, I knew if I did this course then I’d definitely make time to write, because I’d paid all this money upfront and couldn’t back out now. Money and a deadline are always reliable pressures.
What were some of the highlights of your time there?
There’s a baking tradition at the IIML. Whenever your work is being workshopped, you have to bring the cake. It sounds kind of ridiculous but – talking is hard work, and receiving feedback is hard work. Your blood sugar really drops. It’s so good to have the cake.
Other reliable highlights: the generosity of other people in the workshop. Almost everyone would think about your writing deeply, and have things to say. Something else I hadn’t expected to love about this course was how I started to learn how to articulate a critical response: to be able to identify why something was working or why it wasn’t, and be able to voice that with compassion for others (and, with your own work, compassion for yourself). Even working as an editor hadn’t really helped me get to grips with that in the same way. Of course, at the core of everything was the writing, and the freedom/pressure to prioritize that.
Master of Fine Arts programs are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Defenders argue that they provide students a space to focus on one project that might eventually launch their careers. Yet its detractors, some of whom are MFA degree holders themselves, argue that such programs tend to lack a structured curricula in both literature and criticism. They also point out that students’ writing is so heavily workshopped that the pieces end up sounding very much like each other’s. What are your thoughts about creative writing programs in New Zealand and abroad?
I’ve read a lot of creative writing from the IIML, where I did my MA, and the idea that students’ work ‘ends up sounding the same’ is so far off the mark. There have been similar criticisms here in New Zealand – the idea that it’s a kind of factory, with people going in with raw talent and coming out bland and sort of competent and the same as one another. But the writers are just so, so different, and that’s why this particular argument about creative writing degrees is so infuriating and so needs to be debunked.
In one undergraduate course I ran, my co-teacher and I had the students describe various objects from a laboratory – things like a piece of volcanic rock, a tiny piece of shark skin under a microscope, and so on. It was astounding how different in style and scope these short descriptions were. Students bring their own eyes and heart to any piece of writing, and encouraging them to take out the clichés or to consider slowing down or speeding up a scene isn’t going to change that. The course gives you the tools to more convincingly realize the thing you’re trying to make; the course doesn’t make it for you. It’s also worth mentioning that these courses attract established or emerging writers as well as unpublished writers; many have already been exploring voice and style for a long time before they arrive in the workshop room. For these writers, some of whom have been toiling away by themselves for a number of years, there’s huge value simply in being part of a community and having others take a critical interest in what they’re doing.
Maybe it’s worth pointing out too that it’s never a sure bet that a writer will publish a book once they’ve completed a creative writing course. Some of them decide it’s just not for them and got back to their day job. Others work on their manuscript for years after the course, or they stuff it in a desk drawer and write something else. I myself didn’t publish the book I wrote on the course until seven years afterwards. I know a poet who didn’t publish hers for ten years. It’s a long game, full of delay and worry and experimentation and failure and trudge. No one coming out of a creative writing course is on the same trajectory.
In 2009, you won the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing for your MA portfolio, which included the essays in Can You Tolerate This?. Last year, you were one of the two recipients of Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize in the nonfiction category. How did it feel to have your work recognized and praised by an American audience?
It is incredibly weird. I’d always thought this book would be a small book, read only by family and friends in New Zealand, and maybe a handful of curious others. Calling it “a small book” helped me to write it – I would tell myself, “No one will read this anyway, so it’s okay. I can just write it. I can be fearless.” So, that blew up in my face. I still wonder whether the New Zealandness of the collection translates fully to American readers, but I hope that any slippages or weirdnesses hold their own richness. For myself, as a reader, I love reading work from writers who live in places I’ve never been and whose cultures I don’t know well. I love how one reader’s familiarity can be another reader’s huge strangeness.
A funny thing about it, too, is that none of this has taken away from the profound self-doubt and even self-loathing I feel as a writer. I still continue to really struggle and to wish I was different. That’s been a good lesson. You have to work through that stuff on your own and no amount of visibility is going to cure it. It’s like when you publish a book and the world doesn’t even change! You wake up on publication day and everything is still the same and it’s very frustrating.
As I read through your essay collection, I sometimes had to remind myself that I was reading nonfiction instead of short stories. Since you write essays, poetry and blog posts, I’m wondering if you approach each type of writing differently or if you begin with an idea and allow that to dictate the course of your writing.
Yes, I do approach each kind differently – I always have the phantom of the piece in my head before I begin. Not a map, exactly, but the ghost of a structure, a space I want to explore. If it’s an essay, I just feel it differently, like something on my shoulder. If I’m trying to write a poem, I usually just feel furious or melancholy. For some reason – and this is really not good, probably – feeling furious or melancholy always leads me back to poetry.
It’s hard to categorize Can You Tolerate This?; to call it “eclectic” seems reductive. Did you have a unifying preoccupation that you wanted to explore in your essays?
At the beginning my notion was simply “awkwardness.” As in: feeling acutely aware of being out of place, or feeling ill-equipped to handle an ordinary situation. New Zealanders have some uniquely awkward body language and ways of phrasing things (sample: “Yeah, nah.” Or “Nah, yeah.”), and there is a lot of awkwardness and reticence in my family.
Where do you see the future of New Zealand writing? Or perhaps the better question is, how do you see yourself evolving as a New Zealand writer?
I know that technically I am ‘a New Zealand writer’, but in truth I just see myself as writer who was born here and lives here. This might be a crucial difference between contemporary writers and writers of about thirty years ago – I don’t think writers here feel as tethered to place anymore or to the sort of all-encompassing project of figuring out our national identity.
I see myself evolving in fits and starts – trying things out and failing at them a lot, and probably flagellating myself a lot, but still just continuing to continue. I’ve just finished a new poetry manuscript, and it’s a good feeling that all of that continuing led to something.
I think the future of New Zealand writing is there for the taking. It’s for those writers who take risks and are unafraid to experiment and push. Also I think a big part of our future writing is in young women.
Lucía Isabel Seda is a teacher, translator, independent journalist and editorial associate at the Capra Review. Her work has been featured in Refinery29, Latin America News Dispatch, the New York Transatlantic and Bedford + Bowery. She tweets @luciaisabelseda.