Occasionally, we here at The Literary Man look at literary people we know and wonder, ‘how do they do it?’ We all have different experiences to draw from and we certainly have differences in methods of writing. So we decided to explore and probe into the psyches of one of our fellow writers.
Andrew Slater is a fiction writer teaching English in Erbil, Iraq. Prior to receiving his MFA from Columbia University, he served for ten years in the US Army with combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. In May ’12, his story, New Me, placed third in Glimmertrain’s new writers contest. In February ’13, it will be published in Da Capo press’s anthology featuring fiction about Iraq, Fire and Forget.
1) What prompted the return to Iraq? Why Iraq? Surely you could have taught English anywhere?
I’ve been writing about Iraq for a while now, so it only made sense that I should return to Iraq to keep writing. I enjoy teaching and I saw Iraq as a place where I could get a lot of writing done without distraction. There has been more pleasant distraction than I expected, and I’ve been traveling a lot, but I think it has all been good for me. Kurdistan is a lot more stable and developed than the rest of Iraq, but it is still socially and culturally connected. I had never been to Kurdistan before so I am learning a lot about Kurdish culture.
2) Tell me about your syllabus. What do the kids read?
I teach English to the 6th and 7th graders who need to catch up in their English proficiency with the other students, so they get 14 periods of English per week (about 3 English periods per day). I teach my two sections for a combined 28 periods a week, which is good that I see so much of them, but some of them need more help than I can give them. Most of the high school children speak English very well, but if my kids don’t make it through middle school English, they won’t go on to high school here. For my 7th graders this is their last chance, which is stressful. The general rotation for the syllabus is their grammar workbook, their writing workbook, vocab and spelling work, and their class reader, a short novel.
We’re actually reading an awful book called Crazy Horse, which is a humorless, colorless, young adult fictionalized summary of Crazy Horse’s childhood. Young adult fiction often has this robotic, irony-starved prose that reminds one of propaganda, which perhaps it is. I am chained to my syllabus or I would use Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian instead, which I used at Wadleigh High School in Harlem.
It is impossible to get good English books here so I tell most of my kids to find good things to read on the internet to help improve their English. For non-native speakers in non-native speaking countries, TV and movies are unfortunately the best way for them to build their vocabulary and speaking proficiency, so I actually encourage them to watch the crappy, syndicated American television they get here. My kids watch a lot of WWE and the girls are so obsessed with Justin Bieber I worry that they are going to get carpal tunnel from repeatedly writing his initials in their notebooks.
I’m really hoping One Direction can take their minds off him for a while.
3) Anything in particular they enjoy over the rest? Do they hate anything?
Yes, they hate school because they’re kids. I don’t really blame them, except when I am being their teacher and I am blaming them. They actually like writing the most, so I try to give them writing assignments that will spark their interests. Unfortunately, they don’t care as much for editing and revision.
Sometimes it’s hard to give them poor grades when they are writing about heavy material. For example, am I really going to give this ten year old Syrian girl bad marks for her personal narrative about her family fleeing the fighting in Damascus to come to Erbil? Of course I am (what part about vary your sentence beginnings did you not understand, Mariam?).
“Did you ever think you were going to be in a war???” is how it starts. No, Mariam, I suppose not.
Sometimes my kids seem so intensely westernized that I can forget how some of them have had traumatic things happen to them. It also doesn’t help that this society is not always capable of dealing with childhood trauma openly and kids just have to process things for themselves. Add adult trauma to that too. And sexual trauma. Also, there is nothing available yet for children with learning disabilities, and I have children that certainly have them and it is hard to watch them struggle to keep up when I have nothing to offer them but sympathetic nods of the head/pats on the back.
4) How about you? What are you reading these days?
I just finished a book called Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad which is a good background on the situation in Syria, but no one really seems to know what is happening in Syria right now. I read a book on 19th century Japanese history and another on the Franco-Prussian War to help teach my world history class, which was unnecessary. I read a collection of stories by Mo Yan, who just won the Nobel, but I think the translator might not have been the greatest. I’m reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Brothers Karamazov, because it’s supposed to be the best. I’m trying to teach myself French by reading Zola. I have The Pale King sitting on my shelf, glaring at me. I expect to be starved for reading being here since the postal service is only theoretical and my Kindle app on my iphone is my only way to get new reading.
Mostly I’ve been reading about Kurdistan and the region online.
5) Do you read literature about war? Are there any particular stories or books about war that you feel ought to be taught in schools?
I am only interested in good books; that is as discerning as I get. I don’t really care for topics or themes. I tend to think themes mislead or we mislead ourselves when we start talking about themes.
Some of the writers that seem to evoke ‘war-ness’ for me weren’t really writing about war. There is a darkness about Flannery O’Connor and Kafka that seems appropriate. Beloved often felt like a war novel to me. Autumn of the Patriarch has a sense of the myth-making insanity of war that I keep coming back to. Red Cavalry is probably the best ‘war’ book I would recommend, despite my scare quotes; Babel does so much with so little. Sadly, I don’t have any exquisitely recherché works to recommend.
6) Do you make distinctions between protest and war literature? Or do you believe that any work of fiction that talks about war automatically protests it? The Things They Carried, for instance, seems to protest war while describing it. And Heller showed us its absurdities in Catch 22. That was a protest in itself.
I don’t always find categories useful. War seems like a topic while protest seems like an intent. I think the anti-war label is misleading because if war is a piece’s center of gravity it is obviously trying to make it aesthetically compelling. The proof to me is how much soldiers love ‘anti-war’ movies and books. It just adds a new victim hero identity on top of the war hero identity. I’m not really interested in works that seem organized around either one.
The only way I can stay focused on what seems worth writing about is to emphasize imitation of reality, almost to the degree that it should feel like automatic writing once the details of scene are established, and then parse/crop it down to a story (or perhaps this is leading me nowhere). If war seems like it is good for revealing something it is that there are no themes, no orders, no lessons, and no revelations, but we are still desperate for them. Or I could be wrong about that. We are born addicted to apophenia. I guess that is a ‘theme’ or just, plainly, a theme (or a theme, if you will). That all sounds a bit pompously gloomy, I guess. Writing about writing makes me feel anxious. Perhaps I should sit down for a while.
7) Were there times when you felt like protesting the war you were in?
8) What are you working on these days?
I’ve been trying to turn my thesis manuscript into a finished novel manuscript. I think I’ve got about 30,000 words and six months of editing to go. Oddly enough it is about Afghanistan. I left the MFA with a lot of half-finished pieces, so I guess I’m not much of a ‘closer’. I’ll have to work on that.
9) What is your writing routine like?
Is that like a kind of French pencil? They don’t have those here.