I am sitting in front of a half-eaten burrito bowl in a booth at 1020. I text Zoe, “quick— what do you want to drink” because I feel anxious about eating in an establishment that doesn’t serve food. I order a whiskey sour, open a tab, and quickly text Zoe an apology for my neuroticism, hearing her say, “It’s okay, bud” in my head as her hands part the curtain at the entrance— spotted, she throws up a casual wave as she saunters towards me.
Zoe packs a punch, but not because she’s violent— she’s a tiny peanut who will whip out zingers that make you double over. Big dark eyes and an itty-bitty mouth, her face suggests that she is a good listener, and it’s true, she is. But really, what we all should be doing more of is shutting up and listening to her— both on and off the page. What makes her writing unique is her unflinching eye, she sees people as they are and she is quick to strip them down to size. Not in a cruel way, in a refreshing way.
She orders a beer, and I start to shout out random questions about my idea: women who write. The interview is off to an unwieldy start, but Zoe takes it in stride. She responds eloquently:
I think that the way that women have to walk through and exist in society is similar to how a spy in shitty 80’s films has to contort themselves through a net of lasers. Versus guys, who just get to walk through to an open vault. Women constantly have to think about “How am I presenting?” “What am I saying?” “What are people thinking about me?” It’s like this very multifaceted response— not that guys don’t get any of that, I understand growing up with GI Joe must have been hard if you didn’t have the triangular body, I’m sure that was hard for you…
Okay, let me exercise my interview skills. Please, tell me about you— I wanna know background. Family… hopes, dreams, desires. Where you’re from?
I’m from Rockville, Maryland, and my cute anecdote about that is— as I told Jenny [Zhang], and I think she politely laughed— that R.E.M., the 90’s alt band, wrote a song called “Don’t Go Back To Rockville”. And I like to say that it’s all true, except we have a Whole Foods now. And an L.L. Bean! We got an L.L. Bean when I was back home, and I thought, “Where am I?”
Did you see that L.L. Bean revoked their lifetime warranty?
That’s real fucked up. I think that we’re officially in the Wild West because I thought for the rest of my life I could always take my Bean boots back and it’d be okay.
I wonder how much they had lost in sales in order to make that change.
None. It’s loyalty. Like if Trader Joe’s stopped taking American currency and only human blood, I would still shop there because I love their fucking pot stickers.
Family. Tell me about your family.
I have two brothers, a mom, a father. A niece and a nephew.
You’re Sri Lankan, right?
Yeah, my mom is from Sri Lanka. She moved here when she was my age now, which wigs me out. And my dad— I’m about to turn 26— my dad was 28 when he got married. So both of my parents were getting shit done in their twenties.
He was 28 when he got married to your mom?
Yeah. And she was— whatever 28 plus 8 is.
Wait, she’s eight years older?!
Yeah, she’s a cougar. I had to explain the slang to them.
You always say that you take the role of the “Disgruntled Dad”— is that what you always say? You always say it and it is so apt.
I think it was defeated? Like a dad at a dinner table where his wife clearly wears the pants in the situation and he’s just desperately trying to get through the meal.
He’s just like, “Susan…”
I have just heard you say, many times, “Well, I was the listening dad in the situation.” Which is so funny.
I think I definitely get type-cast as the dad, which I don’t know what to do with that situation? Because like, am I balding? Do I look good in khakis? What are you saying?
Well there’s a sturdiness to you, I think.
I get that. Even in middle school I was the friend people would depend on during scary movies, and I’d be like, “Why are you holding on to me right now?” And my friend looked at me and said, “You’re the sturdiest!” And I was just like, “I don’t know what you’re saying to me right now because I’m not good at sports.”
I don’t mow lawns very well. I don’t do anything that I would assign to father figures. People just treat me as if I were their father figure? So if you look at me like your dad then I better start acting like your dad?
That’s interesting because you’re the first lady I’ve ever heard not equate themselves to the mother.
Maybe it’s because there are way too many sub-in moms in my life? So I’m just like, okay, everybody else is already called mom, the other role— unless I’m gonna be a non-gender specific parent role— has to be dad. And I think I’m more of a dad than a mom. But I don’t know what I mean when I say that because I’m not trying to assign something to the mother and distance myself from that. Maybe I’m just trying to side-step saying that I’m awkward? And dad’s are awkward?
Maybe. Or, I almost feel like the dad is a listening role rather than a speaking role. When the father speaks it’s meaningful, which, of course, this is a very gendered approach to stereotypical fathers. But like, if we’re speaking in gendered terms.
Let’s just: #SpeakingInGenderedTerms
Ugh, if we must.
No, but it’s interesting— if anything, to use your word, it’s darling. It’s subversive somehow, which I really like.
Maybe because I’m a chaotic neutral, maybe because I’m a Pisces, I like it. I’m just grasping at terms— am I the dad, am I the mom— drifting to a side of the binary. I do enjoy poking holes in the set terms of things, whether it’s saying I’m the dad rather than saying I’m the mom.
Well this is a really interesting conversation to slide into the main task of this Column—Do you identify as a writer?
I actually had what I’d described as a polite shouting match with a bunch of kids from the program at the end of last term. We were sitting in the office because I was bored, I guess.
So I thought, let’s say something controversial and see what people do— which I guess falls back to the chaotic neutral.
This girl knows herself.
I asked the room, “What is a writer?” Because I had someone, when I was in undergrad say, “I’ll only consider myself a filmmaker when I get paid to do it.” And at the time, I had landed baby’s first writing gig and I was paid, like, $50 an article or, like, some mad money. I was gonna spend them on Cheetos. I was like, “Oh yeah! I’m getting paid to do something! I’m gonna identify as that thing!” But then I also got paid to do all sorts of nonsense— does this make me an asshole if I’m paid to be one?
If you apply that logic to anything that isn’t a creative pursuit, that’s so diminishing of all the activities that go on within the person. [Writing] it’s almost like a fermentation process. All throughout the day and the night I have a weird itch in my person, you are thinking “I need to write.”
I think it’s a complex definition.
Do I consider myself a writer? Fuck, I have to at this point.
Thank you! Finally! Someone identifies as a writer!
I think it’s trendy be part smoke, and be like, “Who am I— you tell me.” And I’m just like, “I’m not flirting with you, I’m trying to see if you’re a writer. Jesus!”
I laugh so hard I start coughing
You shook something loose in my lungs, Jesus!
I identify as a writer— I don’t know why I identify as a writer, but I’m gonna say it and stick to it.
I love that.
If I say I’m a Democrat, if I say I’m a Mets fan, or whatever— you believe me.
You said you are a chaotic neutral.
And you believed me! I told someone I was a Buddhist the other day, and someone looked at me and said, “Why?” And I said, “Pardon?”
I don’t need to present my chips or my license or my ID badge. But if I say I’m something I fucking said it for a reason.
There’s an intimacy to the identity of being a writer, it feels hard to legitimize because it’s not external.
It’s not a kink, but people treat it with the same kind of hushed tones unless they know they are around other writers. I am definitely in rooms where I tell myself, “Don’t mention anything creative because everyone is already pigeon-holing you as the weird artsy type and you don’t want to enforce their nonsense.” Verses in other rooms I can say I am writer because everyone there is a writer. But not in the obnoxious LA everyone-here-has-a-screenplay kind of way.
Do you identify as an artist?
Yeah! Because I think writing’s an art. I think that writing gets shafted in the digital era because it’s easy to say, “You just sit in front of your laptop all day!” If I wrote in blood, would that earn more respect?
I’m not gonna belittle someone’s process based on how they communicated their ideas.
Yeah, I consider myself an artist. And I think that art is such a moving target. Like if someone said, “I make memes” and they were mad successful, I’d be like “Fuck yeah, you do!” Because if there weren’t memes, I wouldn’t have laughed in the past in the eight years.
We argue about memes— I don’t like them, she does.
I respectfully disagree.
You and your respectful disagreement.
I think it was my— Leslie Jamison, first year, first semester workshop, and someone said, “I respectfully disagree,” and it was such a Model UN moment that I was just like, hold the phone! I now know how to insult people in public.
What’s the lady equivalent of dick swag?
I don’t know if there is one.
Like if I whipped my bra off and slammed it on the table, that’s not quite enough.
I feel like the equivalent is being the thinnest in the room or something that is simply horrible. Some version of “Let me flaunt my body and see how far I can disappear into myself.”
There are things I want to say in workshop— you can call them bitchy, you can call them unfair, you can call them honest, whatever you want to say— I preamble them with, “I respectfully disagree”, because usually my comment spars with some other comment that’s been said. When I learnt how to let the phrase…
Did you say “learnt”?
Learnt? Is it leeeeeearned?
That’s very British of you. Was Sri Lanka a British Colony?
Does your mom say it that way?
I’ve never caught her saying it that way. My favorite part about my grandma creeping senility is the British slang comes swinging.
That’s probably why you just said it all British.
Anyways, those who like books, that community— as much as they’re very welcoming to all of the English majors and reformed Theater kids, they will sort you out the minute you mess up. If you haven’t read the right books, if you haven’t hung out at the right bars, if you haven’t gone to the right readings, if you don’t have a cool tattoo, they will sort you out real quick. And the MFA community, it’s a strange balance. People walk into the MFA having done all sorts of other things with their lives and not engaged in that community versus the people who have steeped themselves in that community and nothing else. It’s very strange.
I think you’re the first person to articulate— well, I was not engaged in the MFA world at all last year. I definitely felt self-conscious because I didn’t know who Maggie Nelson was, I only read one Joan Didion book in college. Having Jenny (Zhang, our workshop professor this semester) say, “I didn’t know what I was doing when I got to my MFA” at Iowa. I didn’t apply to Iowa, I didn’t know anything about Iowa, I wasn’t going to fucking go to Iowa.
I would rather chew my own arms off then go to a fucking corn field. And I know that sounds elitist, East Coast of me, but I am an elitist, I am East Coast— Welcome, Peanut. I don’t see the appeal. I have other issues that have to do with certain professors that teach there. But it was really refreshing to hear Jenny say, “There are standards that this community is held to that are real and then there are standards that are not real.” Some are a false force field, and if you don’t want to acknowledge them, you don’t have to acknowledge them.
I wonder if that has to do with the fact that we write Nonfiction rather than fiction or poetry. I think that Nonfiction requires a willingness to share yourself and understand yourself. Reading literature is an internal experience—
It’s a total dick measuring contest, I don’t have a penis so I can’t measure.
Let’s pick a heavy-weight. “Epic of Gilgamesh”—
“Epic Of Gilgamesh”
Sounds familiar, but I have not read.
If that’s the most impressive book that two people have read in a classroom of twenty— if you do Brackets, the March Madness of Literary, and they’re facing off, at what point do we stop and say, “I’m not measuring.” We’ve had similar experiences with similar works of a certain caliber. If the initial impulse is to measure you’re assuming there’s a champion. Like, it’s not like the rest of us best quit and become business majors.
How do you win the MFA? You win by finishing the two years and walking across the stage and submitting ninety pages. I definitely questioned whether this was worth it my first semester. I was in a terrible workshop and I was friends with the wrong people and I thought to myself, “I chose a program based on the prestige of a place and nothing else.” Obviously, I am grateful for the privilege, it’s easy to shit on it because it is an option. But names and prestige don’t mean jack shit— more times than not, you find the people chasing prestige—
Didn’t the unabomber go to Harvard?
I think so?
Whenever someone says, I went to “X” place—
It’s letting the external define the internal because there’s nothing internal to define them.
There are definitely people who come to Columbia and just hang out for two years and then turn in ninety-pages of something and they walk away with a degree. There are plenty of people who don’t deserve the acknowledgement and slip through the gate anyways.
And ride on the name, letting the name do the work for them.
I’ve never thought much of LinkedIn. I’ve never wanted where I go to school or where I’m from or where I work to determine my standing. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make me funnier or nicer or whatever else I want to be to you. But a lot of people see a lot of social weight behind “Head of the Harvard Lampoon” or whatever the fuck it is. And it’s just like, I’d say “Fuck my mother” but I respect her too much to say that.
Go fuck your mother then, I don’t know. It’s gross.
I think that this interview is giving me hope.
What, because someone else is equally as frustrated?
That, and that how a person defines themselves is entirely dependent on the internal rather than the external.
I hope so.
And that there doesn’t need to be a noun to describe a person, right? Like, calling yourself a writer is great and awesome. But when it comes down to it, there’s so much to say rather than simply riding behind a Columbia degree? I almost view the MFA from Columbia as a horse pulling a carriage. There are people who ride the carriage and there are other people who say, “Fuck it. I have two functional legs so I’ll fuckin’ walk. It’s a block away.” I like to think that I’m surrounding myself with the people who would rather walk than take the ride.
I’d probably take the horse with me because I’d be worried about him being tied up for so long. Take the bit out, give him a bath.
You’re not letting the idea of a title or a degree define you. And I don’t think you ever would because you are so funny and—
No, that’s simplistic. Everyone’s fucking awkward. You offer so much more than the name of an institution you’re a part of ever would
I think part of the reason that I’m able to do that is because when I was applying to MFA’s, people were like “What’s an MFA?” When I got in, people were like, “What’s an MFA?” When I walk around, people are like “What’s an MFA?” So I think that part of that has to do with the fact that this thing, outside of our community, is just undefined letters. So I had to define what that means for me from the beginning.
You’re a fucking writer, peanut.
So far. Who knows, I could go work on a fucking ranch for all I know.
Photo Credit: Monica Busch