World of Wonders: A Q&A With Aimee Nezhukumatathil

by
Ross Gay
8.12.20

I was introduced to Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s work on a long drive from New Jersey to Maine, while tagging along with my friend Patrick Rosal, who was joining Adrian Blevins, Tyehimba Jess, and Gibson Fay-LeBlanc for a reading for From the Fishouse, the wonderful online audio archive of emerging poets started by Camille T. Dungy and Matt O’Donnell. Patrick had a stack of books with him—this was 2005, I think—and one of them was Aimee’s first book, Miracle Fruit (Tupelo Press, 2003). Needless to say I loved it. A couple of years later, spring 2007, Indiana Review editor Abdel Shakur and I invited Aimee, along with Patrick and Tyehimba and Aracelis Girmay, out to read at Indiana University, where I teach, for what was maybe—no, what was definitely—the best reading ever. I know, I know, there have been a lot of those. But this was one of them. We sang Billy Ocean. Everyone in the Waldron theater in Bloomington, Indiana, sang Billy Fucking Ocean. “Suddenly,” I’m pretty sure it was. Like I said: best reading ever. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in September.  (Credit: Caroline Beffa)

Aimee and I became fast friends after that, writing (actual) letters, sharing work, the whole thing. In 2007 her second book, At the Drive-In Volcano, was published by Tupelo Press, and in 2011 we shared a book party at Cave Canem for her third book, Lucky Fish (Tupelo Press), and my second, Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press). Not too long after that we collaborated on a chapbook of epistolary poems about our gardens called Lace and Pyrite: Letters From Two Gardens (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014). I can remember in those poems feeling like, goddamn, it is not easy keeping up! Aimee’s images, her beautiful music, her capacity for metaphor: It was a little intimidating. I was definitely learning how to write better poems by being in her company like this. I was also, and more crucially, being schooled in openness, in ardor, in wonder. And I was being schooled in the ways the discipline and practice of wonder deepens my capacity to love what I already love and expands the horizons of what I might. I don’t know if I knew it then, but going back to read that chapbook, I see it plain as day. She was showing me a way to make the work that I have come to make. 

Aimee has been cultivating the practice of wonder for her whole writing career, which now includes four books of poems: Oceanic was published in 2018 by Copper Canyon Press. Her new book, the essay collection World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, will be published in September by Milkweed Editions. World of Wonders, kind of like Aimee, is flabbergasted, gobsmacked, and astonished with glee by all kinds of creatures and phenomena, all kinds of kin, from flamingos to catalpas, from monsoons to corpse flowers, from dancing frogs to axolotls. In addition to being lyrical reveries and love songs and tender remembrances, some of these essays are also alarms, as Aimee writes of the octopus: “I am certain it knows we humans are messing up entirely, that in just a matter of decades the oceans will become unswimmable to any of us animals.”

Aimee was born in 1974 to a Filipino mother and a south Indian father. They moved around quite a bit; Aimee lived in Chicago, Iowa, Arizona, Kansas, New York, and Ohio and was often a new kid, often in mostly white schools. Her folks are avid gardeners and nature lovers, and you get the sense that Aimee’s sense of wonder, which she likewise is imparting to her two sons, comes from them. As she says in our conversation, the garden was her parents’ “main love language.”

After a fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, Aimee spent fourteen years teaching at SUNY in Fredonia. In 2016 she joined the faculty at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she and her husband, the essayist Dustin Parsons, teach. She recently finished a five-year tenure as the poetry editor of Orion magazine. We discussed our gardens, family, racism, corpse flowers, singing with birds, teaching, and, of course, wonder.

Ross Gay: This might be an easy question, or an overly open question, but I am so moved by your study and practice of wonder in this new book, and I kind of just want to ask you if you would talk about wonder for a little bit. Where does it come from for you? 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thank you so, so much. Wonder for me is when you get surprised by your own curiosity when confronted with something unfamiliar or unexpected and that sense of curiosity turns into a kind of joy and excitement. I moved around a lot as a kid, but the outdoors in any of those places for me was the easiest place of all to exist because I never had to explain myself or my family to anyone. Catalpa trees never asked me, “What are you?” So, in summer, for example, I’d be outside as soon as I was done with breakfast, come back inside for lunch, then I’d stay out again till sunset, and sometimes beyond that, to catch fireflies with my friends if I was lucky. If you let yourself be open to wonder, I mean really open yourself to being able to receive it, it’s the closest thing to falling in love I think—I feel like you can’t help but want to protect that animal or plant or person. But, yes, the ethics of wonder raises even more questions, right? Who gets to be outside? Who gets to enjoy being outside? Who gets depicted being outside in books and TV and movies? And if you do have the good fortune of being able to be outdoors for long stretches of time, then I’m guessing you want to tell others about it too–my goodness, how can you not want to share that goodness with others? 

Gay: I’m going to keep digging, maybe selfishly, because, as you know, this is in the ballpark of my favorite things to talk about. World of Wonders models the practice of trying to be perpetually open to “astonishment” and recognizes astonishment, or wonder(ing), as not only required for transformation, but maybe also required for our survival. Can you talk about that? And the second thing I want to ask you about is the connection between wonder and terror.

Nezhukumatathil: Oh—yes, that’s it! Of course wonder is required for transformation. I mean, without a capacity to wonder about a life—animal or plant—besides your own, how much has been lost? How much violence to the planet and to one another has resulted because of that lack of imagination and wonder? It’s staggering. If you can’t imagine that cutting down this patch of forest is going to have consequences for house finches, tanagers, towhees, and dickcissels, and that in turn will have consequences for insects and moths, and that in turn will have consequences for frogs and snakes and salamanders—well, it’s easy to see how this lack of wonder and imagination and care can have terrible generational effects for people, too. 

I’ve been visiting elementary school classes to teach poetry since I was in grad school, and little kids don’t have to be reminded or taught to wonder. They naturally are curious and astonished by cloud shapes, leaf shapes—bugs and birds—they have a gabillion questions for me about making a line of poetry, about the planet, and they naturally speak with metaphor. I’ll never forget one sweet boy who missed his dead mom and said, “I have a cloud in my pocket,” instead of saying I feel sad. Something happens, though, in high school or maybe junior high, when some of those same kids are taught that wondering and wandering is silly or uncool, and wanting to learn about the planet and really—about one another—often takes a back seat to what can earn them money. And of course we need money to function, and I love being able to help provide for my family, but I also try to suggest finding a different kind of currency—in addition to, not instead of—another way of being rich: with time, with friends, with knowledge. The Environmental Protection Agency did a study that found the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors. Ninety-three percent! And this is in spite of so much science that shows how being outdoors is physically and emotionally good for you. 

And going back to your question of survival and maybe also terror, too, I think it goes back to if you open yourself to wonder and learn about a plant or animal—human too—that you didn’t know about before, like if you knew their names, knew the tender way they took care of their tiny eggs in their very own mouths (jawfish), knew how they used the moon and stars to figure out how to fly home (indigo buntings), knew how they pulled a blanket up to their son’s chin on a cold night, I would imagine it would be harder…how could you still want to make violence on them? 

But again I come back to the stark reminder that being outside has long been, and still is, a place of terror for so many. My question for white people—who have long held “power” in deciding who gets to be safe in nature, who gets to decide who or what is represented in nature, and who gets to write about nature in the first place—is: What are you doing, or going to do, to make the outdoors more inclusive and welcoming to others who don’t look or move like you?

Gay: Yes, this question recurs throughout World of Wonders. In the beautiful essay “Cactus Wren,” talking about hiking with your dad, you write, “I never saw any other Asian Americans there. I don’t know if my father noticed; perhaps he was too busy pointing out mica-edged rocks or ocotillo blooms or the occasional chuckwalla skittering behind a boulder. Or perhaps he was too busy making sure his daughters knew how to tell time with the sun…” You go on: “It was one more way we were different from other families in our suburban neighborhood—I didn’t know anyone else’s dad who took the time to do this with his kids.”

The differences, as you say, are being Asian American in mostly white spaces, and being in love with the outdoors, which are often imagined to be, or constructed as, or preserved as, and policed as, mostly white spaces. That is something that is interesting and moving to me—as someone who loves the woods, a Black man who loves the woods, but mostly doesn’t go to the woods here in southern Indiana, with its particular history and present and all these goddamn Dixie flags. I mean, I guess I’m talking about the outdoors as refuge. And I’m talking about your father, this brown dude just in love with and astonished by the earth, and sharing that love and astonishment with you. What was he thinking? What were you thinking? What do you think?

Nezhukumatathil: You know, I think you are right; at heart this book feels like a love letter to my parents when all is said and done. And also perhaps a long apology and some kind of way for them to know that I was listening and observing, even if it didn’t seem like I was interested in what they had to teach me all the time, ha ha. I mean, especially as a teen, the last thing in some ways that I wanted to do was to be on a family vacation to a cave or some remote hiking spot, eating fried rice and cold lumpia on a picnic bench in a state park. But, oh, I can see now that those times were so hard-won and pieced together during their rare breaks from working at the hospital, and they always, always made time for us—it makes me so teary-eyed and just wish so much that I can go back and relish those times with them and my younger sister, you know? What you mention here about the outdoors as refuge to me is so spot-on, though it has taken me several years to fully understand it as such. But from their example in their garden or on vacations, I learned to call back parts of myself that felt unsafe when I was surrounded by so much whiteness—I think we all felt safer outdoors and away from people. I can’t say what my dad was thinking, bringing his little girls up a mountain or guiding them through botanical gardens at a snail’s pace, but I watched as a little girl how white people reacted to my parents’ accents and sometimes spoke to them like children. I never forgot that anger I felt, and I never let anyone treat my parents that way now. But outdoors—no one would challenge my dad’s knowledge of astronomy; no one could make a garden bloom better than my mom. I’m sure, I know, my parents feel whole and good outdoors, and I noticed that happiness too.

Gay: Yes, it’s such a love letter. You know, I can’t read this book without thinking of my own folks, without feeling more grateful to them, really. Could you talk some about how you came to understand your relationships differently as you were writing this book about wonder? 

Nezhukumatathil: One example could be that even though I don’t think I ever took my parents for granted, I’ve come to more fully understand what they sacrificed in leaving their families to come to this country and how hard they worked to give me and my sister the life we had, and to figure out ways to do it in spite of not always being welcomed in the country they love so much. When I got married and opened my life fully to my husband, I appreciated my parents’ marriage even more, doing so when English was not their first language. And yet they cultivated gardens together as their main common love language, another way for them to communicate. When I became a mother, I appreciated the gift of time they gave me to daydream and catch bugs or spy on robins’ nests or climb a tree. And how much they took me to the library in spite of their sometimes seventy-plus-hour workweek; I always had a hot breakfast, and we ate dinners together. My fondest memories of them are all of us outdoors, where they were relaxed and laughing and having meals outside. 

Gay: I love the idea of a garden as a love language. Your folks’ garden has been sort of a magical place in my imagination—magic and imagination have a common root?!—almost as long as we’ve known each other, even if I’ve never eaten from it, which I resent. What’s it like?

Nezhukumatathil: You are welcome to take a road trip there anytime, post-pandemic! It’s manicured in the front, a little wild in the back. Plumeria, mandevilla, sampaguita—orange blossoms that would have you clutch at your heart—plus pots and pots of propagated plants they give to their neighbors. And in winter, the citrus and starfruit would make you cry—how sweet they are. But my dad’s mango tree collection—there’s no other word for it—is the highlight. They playfully fight over which mangoes are the sweetest: ones from India or ones from the Philippines. But the truth is I’ve never had a better mango than ones plucked from their own yard. They would be all too happy to walk you through it and give all the names, folklore, and natural histories of their tropical fruits and flowers. You’d leave with a carful of fruit, guaranteed. 

Gay: Aimee, I have to tell you, in the garden today—I mean, good lord, the garden today—I ate some gooseberries, which are delicious, but they are also some of the most beautiful things you have ever seen. Glassy, sort of striped, blushed with purple as they ripen. Believe me, I have long adored gooseberries—sturdy, easy to propagate, shade-tolerant, delicious, kind—but I think I had not yet taken the proper time and energy and soul to let my knees get buckled by them. You know, this conversation with you about wonder has made me more prone to wonder—whoa, prone was going to be a placeholder, but now I realize that prone is exactly what I mean—and for that I am grateful. Conversations about wonder make us more prone to wonder. It also makes me wonder about your garden, which is sort of a new garden, a new endeavor in a new land. What’s astonishing you in your garden right now? 

Nezhukumatathil: Oh, my stars, those gooseberries sound incredible, and I thought I knew most berries, but dang I haven’t had one of those! I can just see you out there smiling, all proud of yourself in Indiana, the way I’m smiling here in Mississippi, proud of myself for growing blackberries for the first time in my life in this red coastal plain soil. And astonishing is the number of hummingbirds that visit our scarlet monarda, and dangling from our fenceline, the dozen or so monarch chrysalises—the prettiest chartreuse ones dotted with metallic gold—the boys are hoping for double that number this year. But it’s the blackberries, still plum-colored, though I expect them next week to be fully black and about to burst from all this rain we’ve been having. And I’m reminded that one of the roots of the word wonder is the same as the word smile

Gay: Damn, that’s beautiful. Like thank and think having the same root. Can I tell you how much I love the image of you chatting with the birds, with whom you will be sharing those blackberries? Do you have a favorite birdsong? Any new birdsongs you’re trying to learn? 

Nezhukumatathil: Thank you. And, yes, always a new birdsong to learn. The one that is vexing and delighting me at once is the summer tanager. Do you have those there? The male is tomato red, and the female is as yellow as a banana. They go something like “chicky-tucky TUCK!” But I can’t quite get them to come close to me yet. I adore the whip-poor-will’s call—one of the first birds I heard when we moved to Mississippi. But the one that is my sons’ favorite, the one that makes them think their mom might be just a little magic because it seems too easy—yellow warblers. You just go, Sweet-sweet-sweet! I’m so sweet! Just repeat until they appear: and bam! Bright yellow birds looking at you, waiting to see what you’ll do next. 

Gay: It’s hard not to ask about the corpse flower, too. I’ve never seen or smelled one, but now I know. “Corpse Flower” is such a sweet essay—again, the wonder of the natural world allows you to more deeply understand the wonder of a relationship, in this case your emerging relationship with Dustin, who earned your love in part by loving this funky flower. You tell us so many things about the corpse flower—where you first met one, in Madison, Wisconsin; their many names, Morty, Wee Stinkie, New Reekie; even that when they get ready to bloom, they have a temperature about that of a human being. But, as in so many of these essays, you leave me feeling like you could have told me twenty more things—and I want you to tell me a couple of more about the corpse flower, please.

Nezhukumatathil: Since you asked, it takes about seven to ten years for a corpse flower to finally unfold, and its bulb is only the size of a potato, and I really wish we could have kept the Indonesian name, bunga bankai—which is ten times better than what the English called it when they smuggled it out of Sumatra, no? And about four years ago, there was a curious phenomenon—scientists still can’t definitively say what was going on—a bunch of bunga bankai were suddenly blooming all over the world. At the same time. 

Gay: What was going on?

Nezhukumatathil: Well, the best guess is that several of the corpse flowers now all over the world in botanical gardens are related to one another. Cousins in the plant world, blooming at the same time to help pollinate one another. But no one can quite agree yet on that.

Gay: No, I mean like the poetic answer.

Nezhukumatathil: Ah, gotcha. Well, then clearly they are all trying to get back to Sumatra. In my book I mention how just before they bloom their temperature gets around ninety-eight degrees—one of the closest plants to human blood heat. And the bloom is them talking to one another, making plans for when they all get to see one another again at home.

Gay: Beautiful. This is your first essay collection, although you’ve been writing nonfiction for a while and even have your MFA in nonfiction. I’m curious to know how the processes, or maybe more to the point, experiences, of writing these essays were, compared with writing poems. There are things that overlap—exquisite language, precise images, beautiful music, ardor—but the essays are different, and not just because they’re longer. So, how was it different?

Nezhukumatathil: Honestly, I started getting more frustrated with the tyranny of the line break in poems. For me writing nature and doing extra research for each essay felt like an unspooling or unfurling of language that I didn’t want interrupted with a line break’s tension. And I also was interested in a kind of rising action and denouement from building sentences—as opposed to lines—that I don’t ever think about when drafting a poem. I almost always start my poems with a very specific image, and I start my essays with a very specific scene in mind. When the writing of an essay is going good, I mean really taking off—it feels like clean laundry strung up in the summer sun. It feels free and like the snap-snap of a sheet in the wind, the words in a solid sentence click-snap into place. The writer Brian Doyle said, “The world is still stuffed with astonishments beyond our wildest imagining—isn’t that the most alluring sentence ever? Isn’t that the sentence we should have pinned up on every bathroom mirror in the world, so we all see it first thing in the morning every blessed day before we brush our excellent choppers?” I don’t have this taped up on a mirror, but I do have this written inside of my writing notebook.

Gay: This answer reminds me that you’re a beloved and excellent teacher. And I imagine a good deal of your job as a teacher of poetry is to cultivate wonder in your students. But that’s hard! You said it earlier: Kids don’t need to be taught wonder. But sometimes, I see it in myself, in students sometimes, we trade mastery for wonder. Which is a genuine bummer. But I have a sense you know how to help with that—so could you tell us how you teach wonder? Are there practices? Drills? Do you have a story of witnessing it show up, or deepen, in a student? 

Nezhukumatathil: I’ve sat in your dynamic classes, so that is high praise coming from you. And, yes, I always teach wonder in my writing classes. I like to encourage writers to think of low stakes, or “small starts,” in their writing. You can physically see shoulders relaxing, fingers unclenching from their pens. It’s such a tender thing to behold! Of course there are difficult days when I don’t feel like drafting a poem or the start of an essay. So think smaller: brick by brick. One line. One anecdote. Make a blank journal a sky journal. Nothing fancy, a spiral notebook will do. Even if you can’t make a full poem or essay, you can designate a notebook into just having a place for your observations about the sky. In it you can record the day/time of your observation of the moon. Or make a cloud report. Describe and/or sketch the clouds. Teach yourself to identify at least five different cloud shapes: cirrus, cumulonimbus, etc. Sketch them. Make a sunset report, even if it is just from your window. What do you hear at sunset? What do you smell? How about at sunrise? And you got it—these are like sports drills. You don’t have to do any of this, of course, and certainly not every day. I have a sky journal that had a whole month missing and that’s because…I just felt like making things with my boys instead. Peach galettes. A drawing of succulents inked with watercolor. Sometimes you string words together in interesting ways. Some days you may not make with words. And that is just fine. The writing will always come. Sometimes you might need to make other things so the writing can come. But it will come. 

My students bring art supplies to class in a pouch as part of their class supplies: colored pens or pencils, glue sticks, scissors. I have them keep commonplace books too—big hardback blank notebooks where they can sketch and wonder and wander on the page. This past spring my dazzling grad students had a crash course in making poetry comics and drawn and written self-portraits. So many said how that practice of sketching and drawing helped them especially during our town’s lockdown. I gave them weekly drawing assignments in addition to their reading and writing assignments: Draw your favorite carb—bread? A bowl of noodles? Draw your favorite air transportation. Draw a nocturnal animal. By the end of the semester, their own writing crackled with an energy and unfurling I don’t think they could have ever predicted the first week of classes.

Gay: Yes, thank you for sharing this. It seems like World of Wonders comes from a similarly cultivated field of practices: attention, play, openness, tenderness, love. 

Nezhukumatathil: Absolutely. But it’s informed by my very distinct experiences as a mom, wife, daughter, friend, etc. And being a woman with brown skin in this country. I’m reminded how growing up I never saw anyone who remotely looked like me outdoors. If there was an Asian person in a book or on a screen, they were dead serious, or the villain, or the computer nerd, or an actual “gong” sound effect rang out when they had any actual dialogue. Tired tropes. Such a lack of imagination from those writers, isn’t it? I honestly cannot ever recall seeing an Asian American even smile once in any television show or movie or music video. And I certainly never saw an Asian depicted outdoors. Imagine going your whole childhood and never seeing anyone who looked like you smile? Look around us—just about every hurt we see in the news is caused by a person’s lack of imagination, a lack of curiosity about their fellow human beings, a lack of wonder. How could I not want to set the groundwork for my sons so they grow to be curious adults who let themselves be filled with awe, unapologetically. How could I not wish to celebrate and cultivate wonder now? 

 

Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006); Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), winner of a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; and Be Holding: A Poem (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020). His collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was published by Algonquin Books in 2019. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington.