I’m grateful to fellow women writers of color who reach out to recommend interviewees for this column. When I received an email asking if I’d be interested in meeting a Nigerian-born, Bangladeshi-American writer and photographer who had spent her coming-of-age years in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, of course I said “yes.” A few months later, I met Abeer Hoque and read Olive Witch: A Memoir which chronicles Hoque’s childhood in Nigeria in the 1970s, her unhappy teen years in Pittsburgh, and her time in a psychiatric ward in Philadelphia. A work of prose interwoven with poetry and intersecting timelines, Hoque’s story of “family, race, sex, and the treachery of memory” has been praised for its “razor sharp edges” and “elegant and exhilarating” writing.
Hoque is also the author of the linked story collection, The Lovers and the Leavers, and a coffee table book of travel photographs and poems, The Long Way Home. She is the recipient of a 2014 New York Foundation for the Arts grant, a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a 2007 Fulbright Scholarship, and the 2005 Tanenbaum Award, and she has received fellowships to attend residencies at Sacatar, Saltonstall, Summer Literary Series St. Petersburg, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay, and Albee.
Hoque’s writing and photography have been published in Guernica, ZYZZYVA, Outlook Traveller, 580 Split, India Today, The Daily Star, and the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, among others. She holds BS and MA degrees from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.
In this interview, Hoque talks about growing up in the predominantly white suburbs of Pittsburgh, rewriting her memoir manuscript ten times, and looking for the poetry in prose.
The Rumpus: Traditional publishers sometimes expect authors to fit their book into a single category. It’s either a coming-of-age story—
Abeer Hoque: —or a memoir about mental health, or a travel memoir, or about how I became an artist.
Rumpus: And yet, Olive Witch is all of those things. So, my first question is how did you pull that off?
Hoque: I am not sure. Olive Witch started off as [an assignment] for a class. When I started my MFA program, everybody—nonfiction, fiction, and poetry genres—had to get together the summer before and take an autobiography class. For this class, we had to read a couple of autobiographies or memoirs and write a forty-page autobiography. It could be one thing in your life or your whole life.
I was twenty-seven at the time, and I wrote a forty-page autobiography. It started when I was about age five and went all the way up to age twenty-seven. And I loved writing it. I thought of it as writing these little stories from my life.
I ended up expanding on it, writing the rest of it over the two years I was in the program and making it into a full-length book. At that point, it was a hundred and fifty pages. Most of what I wrote then is still in the book. I maybe cut one or two chapters or sections.
The travel parts come in as a function of the way I grew up. My parents left their countries of birth. My dad was born in British Raj India and my mother in East Pakistan, both in present-day Bangladesh. They lived in Libya for four years after getting married, and then they moved to Nigeria where I was born and grew up. We moved again when I was in high school to the US. The travel parts are part of my upbringing, so I think of Olive Witch more as a growing up story. And it ends around when I was thirty, which is funny because when you think of a childhood story, you usually think after your teenage years it’s done. But there are the delayed adolescence years. I don’t think anybody would argue that people in their twenties are still growing up in a lot of ways. And certainly for me, that was the case. I still had a lot of growing up to do well into my twenties.
Rumpus: What was your experience like, finding a publisher?
Hoque: I had a lot of trouble finding an agent or publisher in the United States. I queried probably over one hundred agents and a few dozen indie publishers. And I had serious interest from about half a dozen agents or publishers. Some would say, “We are interested, but these are the problems with the narrative.” They felt like the three parts, set in three different countries, didn’t fit together. They found the American part, the middle part, to have a different tone of voice than the Nigerian and Bangladeshi parts. So, I spent a lot of time rewriting to try and make the parts all fit together.
The American agent had the most trouble with the American part. And when I finally got a publisher in India—HarperCollins India published it first—they had the most trouble with the Bangladesh parts. [Laughs] So, then I was thinking, “Will a Nigerian publisher think the Nigeria part is not working?”
And so, I had to do a bunch of rewriting. It ended up being wholly rewritten maybe ten times before it finally did get published in the form that it is now. I thought it was ready every time. I have this writerly ego, where every time I finish a draft, I’m like, “Okay, now it’s perfect!” And then I would give it out to readers or a publisher or an agent, and they’d give me huge, far, far-reaching feedback. And then I’d go back and rewrite it again. “Okay, now it’s great. Now it’s working, now it’s much stronger.” And then I’d go through another round again. That’s what happened between 2005 and 2015! I rewrote it so many times.
It wasn’t until after 2012, when I went back to Nigeria after twenty-five years, that I could actually finish the book. I needed to go back.
Rumpus: So once you went back to Nigeria, you felt that it was complete?
Hoque: I did, yeah. It was a combination of things. I found a publisher, HarperCollins India, who thought the book was working on a pretty basic level, on a very fundamental level. And my editor there, who I love, was a really good reader for me. He went through it with a fine-tooth comb, and I made a lot of changes with him. Not as overhauling as some of the other changes I had made. And I trusted him with the story, so it made it a lot easier to do the rewrites with him.
Rumpus: How do you know when to trust the editor and make changes, and when to hold fast?
Hoque: I had worked with an American agent before [working with] the Indian publisher. I trusted her too because she really loved my writing, and she really loved the book. But she thought there were huge problems with the American part, and I didn’t. After rewriting it with her four times over the course of a year—four entire, huge times—she still couldn’t get a handle on the American part. So, I had to part ways with her because I thought, “I just can’t change this or cut it anymore than I have already.”
The HarperCollins India editor gave me more specific things to do and not such big changes to make. Although the American agent never said, “Cut the American part,” [her feedback] was just too big and vague for me to work with.
Rumpus: Do you feel that the background of the editors had anything to do with their ability to give you helpful feedback?
Hoque: Perhaps. Perhaps the Indian editor was more willing to go with an experimental book, one that has little poems at the beginning of each chapter and weather conditions and slightly different voices throughout each of the three parts. Maybe they were more willing to work with that whereas American agents and publishers wanted something that was a bit more regular and cookie-cutter, in the tradition of memoir.
Rumpus: Had you decided either in the beginning or somewhere along in the process that you would just keep looking until you found the publisher that was right for your book rather than turn out another cookie-cutter memoir?
Hoque: I’ve always made it a point in my writing life to only write what it is I want to write. And that goes not just to revising pieces the way that I like them, but also the kind of writing I will do. So I’ve always said that I have to have another way of making money so that if what I write is inaccessible and unsaleable then that’s fine. It’s going to be the thing that I want to write about versus, “Let me try to target whatever market.” And then, hopefully, eventually, there will be someone who wants to publish what I’m writing, no matter what it takes. And Olive Witch did take fifteen years.
I started writing the book in 2001, and it was my thesis in 2003, so the very first version was in 2003. And then it got published in India in 2016. But 2015 was when I finished the last draft of it. So, that’s about twelve years of re-writing.
HarperCollins has a global distribution arm called HarperCollins 360. They pitch books from different regions to other regions. So HarperCollins US is publishing Olive Witch this month.
Rumpus: I know from the book what the origin is, and I’m trying not to include any spoilers here, but why did you choose that for the title?
Hoque: It’s a good question because “Olive Witch” really doesn’t mean anything. It’s a nonsense nickname, a made-up nickname, that I got in college. But these two words have followed me since then. When I made my website in 2005, I decided to call it Olive Witch because that’s one of the names I’ve had for myself in my head for a long time. So when it came time to name this book, that seemed to be the most natural name.
Rumpus: As you know, I met you in person and got your book all at the same time. So the title had me wondering, “Is she writing about an ancestral religion?”
Hoque: You know, over the years, people who have never read my book have just come to associate these words with me. They make these witchy references or olive references, so it’s become a part of how they relate to me, or how they think about me. It ends up being what they think it means to them, which is fine with me.
Rumpus: Well, the story I told myself, before I read the book was, “Some asshole kid in Pittsburgh called her that! Some suburbanite kid.”
Hoque: No. [Laughs] Well, it actually was a kid from Pittsburgh who came up with it. My college boyfriend. He also happens to be from Pittsburgh. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Okay, not what I imagined! I thought it was an insult.
Hoque: I did have a lot of nicknames, just because “Abeer” sounds like a funny name, or a weird name, in America. I’ve gotten far less applaudable names. So, I’m fine with Olive Witch.
Rumpus: So we have this Pittsburgh connection, and we both know that it’s not always the kindest city to brown and black people. What was it like for you, growing up here?
Hoque: I hated high school. I mean, I think everyone hates high school in some fashion, or maybe most people hate high school. I know some people who didn’t, and I’m always astonished at how cool they must have been. Because you’re already so uncomfortable in your skin when you’re thirteen. And when I was thirteen, I was shifting continents and cultures and entering a space where I just didn’t understand the rules for how to operate, and how to communicate with people. And so, Pittsburgh was where I did all that.
And I hated Pittsburgh for so many years because of the uncomfortable growing up years that I had in high school. I was in a suburb of Pittsburgh which was pretty white and pretty provincial. And it wasn’t cool to be smart. Not that I thought of myself as smart, but one thing I knew I was good at was school and that was not cool.
And the things that were cool were things that I couldn’t be. Like good at sports, or really pretty or really funny. So, I had a hard time in high school. It was really hard for me to just figure out the system and figure out who to be in that system. And so, I basically stopped talking. I just was a bit of a silent observer all through high school.
And I’m kind of grateful for that experience in a way. Once I left high school and was able to figure out who I wanted to be and who I wanted to be friends with, I realized I wasn’t the only one who was suffering. That Americans suffer too in high school. It wasn’t just because I was a foreigner coming into a place, or because I was one of the few non-white people in my high school. That experience gave me a real insight and an empathy for the American high school experience, which is a huge part of being an American.
So, even though it was so painful, it was really enlightening. And it made me able to relate to people. Whereas if I’d have come years later, like in college, I don’t think I would have understood as well what it means to be American. So, a lot of things were mixed up in those years, like race and gender, which I wasn’t able to parse that time. I just thought I was just different, and I didn’t know how to engage.
Rumpus: Both your photography and your writing are very intimate and have these global themes with what feels like an emphasis on place. So this has roots in your early life.
Hoque: Because my parents gifted me an international life, it’s a necessary part of who I am, this idea of place and trying to figure out where I fit in. It’s something that I’ve always struggled with, but I’m grateful for that because it makes me see things with new eyes. I love that feeling.
Rumpus: So Olive Witch deals with place, love, loss, and mental health. How has your family responded to the book?
Hoque: I know my siblings have read it. And they’re both very supportive and loved the book. I don’t know about my parents. I gave them a copy when it came out in India. It’s sitting on their coffee table, but I don’t know if they’ve read it. My dad is now suffering from memory loss. He has Alzheimer’s so I’m not sure he actually would be able to read it. Or if he’d be able to retain it.
My mom, however, is a super bookworm. But I have to admit, I’m kind of afraid to even ask her if she’s read it. And maybe my siblings are scaring me about it, saying, “I’m not sure if this is a book you want our parents to read.” But I actually would like to know that my mom has read it, and I think she would enjoy it even though I think some parts of it would be painful for her. Or maybe just too open, or tell-all. And I have shared some chapters over the years that were parent-friendly that she really loved. But I don’t know if she’s read the book as a whole.
I know that one of my aunts who I’m super close to has read it, and she loves it. She’s been very supportive of me.
Rumpus: Were you worried about your family’s reaction when you were writing the book?
Hoque: Oh, I was terrified of it. A large part of the conversation in the nonfiction classes that I took in school was how to write about people who are close to you. I learned while writing these stories that you have to ignore any fears, any paranoia [in order] to write what you want to write.
And so, I said to myself, I’m going to just write this book and then maybe after it gets published, if it ever does, I’ll worry about it then.
Rumpus: Other than worrying about what your family would think, did you find yourself hesitating to write as candidly as you did, for other reasons?
Hoque: The other thing I had to struggle with the idea that what I write doesn’t have to be the whole story. It doesn’t even have to be my whole story. If you read this book, it wouldn’t be like, okay, now you know everything. It’s one version of my life that I’ve chosen to tell at this time of my life. And there’s always more. There’s always more to somebody than what’s on the page. Or even what they tell you. Everyone has an inner life that’s rich and complicated. Even your closest partners and family and friends will never know everything that’s in there.
When I write, I remind myself this is the story I’m choosing to tell, but it’s only part of the story. And the way I remember something is not necessarily the way someone else will remember, and that’s okay. I want to acknowledge other people might remember it differently, but still stand by my right to say how I saw it.
The first thing I ever wrote in my MFA program was nonfiction and that brings into play all these things about writing about real people and the tricks of memory and how your version of things is necessarily going to be different than others. And even the way you remember something when you’re twenty is going to be different than the way you remember it when you’re forty. If I were to write this book now, I think I would write a different book because I’m a different person now.
Rumpus: Did you have any concern about stigma around writing about mental health?
Hoque: Yeah, and it’s still so very much a stigma to be depressed. Like a weak thing. And certainly this is intensified in Bangladeshi, South Asian, Asian and immigrant communities where these aren’t things you’re supposed to suffer from, or make public. I’ve found it difficult just because I did grow up in a world where it’s not a thing to talk about.
But I have also been able connect because people relate to being sad, they relate to being depressed. Everybody has had this sensation, so it’s a real connecting, connective experience, as painful as depression is.
And it’s really important to talk about it. Thankfully, it’s getting better, and it’s talked about more. Even in Bangladesh, there are people who have their psychiatrists. One of my friends [there] is married to a psychiatrist, and his patients aren’t the rich people who can afford to have mental health issues, or the pernickety artistic types. You get a lot of middle class people who are having problems with their families, or with their own mental health issues, and it’s okay to go to somebody to talk about it. There’s still very much a stigma, but when you talk about it, people can relate to it, and maybe add their own stories.
Rumpus: In addition to memoir, you tell stories through a number of forms and genres—poetry, novels, short stories, erotica. Do you have a form or genre you’re most comfortable with?
Hoque: I definitely feel most comfortable with poetry and nonfiction. When I started writing fiction, it was more of an experiment to see what it would be like to write a short story. And I got a lot of feedback that said, “Go back to nonfiction,” that those stories were more natural and had more confidence. But I kept writing fiction because I was determined to get better at it. I wanted to stretch myself and figure out how to tell short stories better.
I started writing fiction after I had gone through a whole round of agent rejections for the memoir. The novel [The Lovers and the Leavers], a collection of linked short stories, was my first published foray into fiction. Olive Witch is the second book of mine that HarperCollins India published.
And the other novel I’ve been working on for the last five years is about memory loss. Many of the agents I queried about the memoir said, “Oh, we’re looking for novels now,” and I was thinking, “OK, I’m going to write a novel and maybe I’ll get that published first and then these other things will finally come through after.”
So I started from scratch and wanted to see how much better I could get at fiction, because it does not come naturally. It’s something that I definitely have to work at. Hopefully, this second novel will be the next thing that comes out.
Rumpus: I read that you’re also working on a series of ekphrastic poems. Poetry that describes another work of art—a painting, photograph, or sculpture. I had to look that up!
Hoque: I also had to look it up because somebody told me that the stuff I was writing was ekphrastic, and I said, “What’s that?” At the time, I had gotten so focused on prose, but I wanted to get back to writing poetry because it makes me so happy to write a poem. It will take me five days or a month of rewriting and rewriting, and I just find it to be a really satisfying process. But I wasn’t doing it, and before I had only written poems when I was inspired to write. I was trying to make myself write poems, and I couldn’t figure out what to write about.
So, I thought, I’ll write poems based on these photographs I’ve taken and that will be the launching point. I’ll look at the photographs and make up a story either about the mood or the color of the content. And I’ll write a poem about it. And that’s where the series started, just to try and jump start myself back into writing poetry and having to inspire myself.
Rumpus: When did you know that you were a writer?
Hoque: I had an epiphany when I crashed and burned out of business grad school. I’d been working at a startup for a while, and I hadn’t written for a long time. I had written poems when I was a kid, when I was a teenager. Then all through college and business school, for ten years of my adult life, I hadn’t written anything. And so, I started writing again, pieces of poems.
And I had this long wall in my apartment which I covered with butcher’s paper, and I would fill the entire wall up [writing] with markers. Every time the paper filled up, I would put a new one up, just layers and layers of butcher’s paper on my wall. And I didn’t think about it, other than the fact it felt really good to do it. And people would come to my apartment, stand in front of this wall and read all these pieces of things that I was writing. I made a joke at some point, “Oh, look, all this writing. I should be a writer.” And a friend turned to me and said, “I think it’s obvious to everyone except you, that you are a writer.”
It was a lightbulb moment, and I didn’t look back. I decided to apply to a writing program because I was shifting careers so drastically, and I thought it would be a great way to find friends who are writers, to make a creative community from scratch. And also, to create some work. Because if I went to school, I would have homework, and I would have a thesis. So I would have pieces that I would be writing.
So I went to the University of San Francisco for the MFA program. It’s one of the only programs that lets you study different genres. So even though I entered into poetry, I ended up doing a combination. I wrote a memoir that involved poetry, a mixed genre piece. But I also took fiction workshops and lectures. Being able to take all these different genres, which is something that MFA programs unfortunately do not typically allow, let alone encourage, was really important to who I have become as a writer. I was able to play in all those genres. I think all writers should take poetry, no matter how much they’re afraid of it, or hate it. And that’s part of the problem. People are afraid of it or hate it. But if you actually engage in it, then you can see how it could be a part of your literary personality.
The fictive techniques I learned in my class, about how to tell a story and narrative arcs and building a character—all these things are really important in nonfiction as well. And in nonfiction, knowing where the story is—that’s important in fiction too. The small moments of nonfiction that often become your larger essay themes, you can also draw on these in fiction. You have everything to learn, from all of the genres.
And from the moment I enrolled in that program, when people asked me what I did I said, “I’m a writer,” even though I hadn’t written anything other than the ten poems that I had submitted as my portfolio for school. I was determined to embarrass myself into being a writer just by saying it.
This is something really important that every writer should do from the time they start writing. Don’t say you want to be a writer. Just say you are a writer. Speak yourself into being.
Rumpus: Yes! Okay, so let’s talk about heroes. I imagine that your writer heroes or role models are across genres as well.
Hoque: For sure. But I have such an unconscious understanding of how my own writing comes about, I need other people to tell me. Like in school, I needed other people to tell me what my stories were about, what the major themes were, because I couldn’t tell myself. So, in the same way, I can tell you the people who I like to read, but I’m not sure how they figure into my writing other than me just totally, subconsciously, copying them. [Laughs] But they include nonfiction and fiction writers, novelists and short story writers. And poets, of course.
One of my favorite authors is David Mitchell because he combines story and very beautiful writing, and he uses form in a way that I think is really ingenious.
And Toni Morrison, of course. She can just wind her stories in these small moments and just build them out, and have characters that just explode from the very first moment she introduces them. You know exactly who they are and where they are. And she never, for all the kind of raw and plainspoken detail, it never isn’t beautiful, the way she describes things.
There’s a debut poet, who I just read, Ocean Vuong. His first book of poetry is called Night Sky with Exit Wounds. He’s a Vietnamese-American poet, and his book is about family and immigration and sexuality. I’ve never before sat down with a book of poetry and just read it from start to finish and then immediately started over again. It was brilliant. It was like reading any great novel.
In nonfiction, one of the most beautiful, inspiring books I’ve read was Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. She writes about the slums in Bombay, and when I first started reading it, I didn’t realize it was nonfiction because it had such a sense of barreling narrative with these characters who were so alive and desperate from the very get go. She told their stories brilliantly. I was enrapt in this world.
So basically, I like it when people can tell stories and language is also a very important part of their work. I just love pretty language. I’m a sucker for something that people often rail at—the quality of the sentence. I’m completely guilty of this. I highlight. I highlight sentences, so when I write little reviews of books, which I do for every book I read, for myself mostly, I start off just by typing out each of the quotes that I’ve highlighted. That’s part of the joy I get from reading is how people can put together words and describe things in unusual and beautiful ways, compact and beautiful ways. It’s the poetry. I look for poetry, I guess. The poetry in prose.
Rumpus: That’s a nice way to put it because whenever people talk about beautiful language, rcrical language, I wonder, Where’s the line, though? Because there’s lyrical language, but then we eschew flowery language. So how do you strike that balance?
Hoque: [Laughs] This is often applied to my writing. I’m a little bit conflicted about that because sometimes I’m just writing some pretty, flowery things and not really saying anything with it. But then I also respond to it in other people’s works.
Rumpus: “Lyrical” is so overused in reviews, it’s just been rendered meaningless.
Hoque: Yes, meaningless, totally.
Rumpus: But your writing is just so straight at you. It’s like when I met you in person. You really look people in the eye. You’re watching everything, and you’re taking it all in. And your writing is like that too. You are presenting everything, very unflinchingly. And so, that’s what comes to my mind, more so than “lyrical.” That’s not to say I don’t find the language in your work beautiful. The language is beautiful.
Hoque: When I first got to college, in my head I was inventing the person I wanted to be because I had basically spent all my high school years silently observing this terrible landscape, traumatic landscape. And so, when I got to college, I was like, Alright, now I know things that I want to absorb and the things that I want to project. I’m not the pretty one, I’m not the funny one. It doesn’t matter if I’m smart. I’m going to be bold. I’m just going to tell the truth and that’s going to be my niche. That’s going to be my thing.
And I also did it because it’s such an unusual thing. People never say what it is they think, and so I could distinguish myself in this way by saying what I think. And of course, you want to be different when you’re young, and so it was partly for shock value but partly also because it was something that made sense to me instinctively.
And it’s become, obviously, a part of how I write as well. It’s to tell the truth, to try to get to the kernel of it, the center of it. I’m glad that’s what you pick up in my writing because I think it’s also part of my personality.
Rumpus: Right, and it’s not easy because I think sometimes when people do that—in writing and in life—they don’t do it well. It comes off as performance. But you’re very organic. And that makes your writing such a joy to read, even the really painful parts. So, thank you for your book.
Hoque: Thank you. I’m so glad you responded to it the way you did because that means everything to me as a writer.
Author photograph © Josh Steinbauer.