On Empathy, Complexity, and Whimsy: Talking with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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It may seem like a dramatic departure for Aimee Nezhukumatathil to move into nonfiction with her new book, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. She has an established, arguably prolific, career as a poet. A recent recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship with six published collections of poetry, Nezhukumatathil is no stranger to navigating (and succeeding in) this area of the writing world.

But World of Wonders is a translation of the ingredients that have fueled Aimee’s success in poetry, placing them into a new medium. Nezhukumatathil’s lyrical narrative strategies, as well as a deeply empathetic and complex grounding in personal experience, make World of Wonders unlike other books on nature and our fragile ecology. As she shares below, “It’s at once a thrilling and exhausting freedom to have that space in an essay to think through a concern.”

And Aimee makes compelling use of this new space and structure. World of Wonders is a stunning union of biography, poetry, philosophy, and science; it is imbued with a love for her readers and for the natural world, and with a hope that people of color will feel more seen in nature writing.

In the close quarters of a Google doc, Aimee and I discussed the challenges and imperatives that drove the scope and complexity of World of Wonders. Aimee’s responses further showcase her writing capacity and craft, and prove that being both pointedly political and inspiringly whimsical opens space to appreciate the full complexity of human experiences. With a sense of amazement for the creatures around us, Aimee makes an ardent and artistic case for a compassionate ethics grounded in a deeper understanding—and love—of nature.

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The Rumpus: What compelled you to write a book like World of Wonders?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: The earliest seeds of this started way back when I was in grad school (my MFA is in poetry and creative nonfiction) but the first time I thought it might be possible to collect these in a book form was when I was pregnant with my first son back in 2006. I’ve always strived for a diverse reading list for my classes but I noticed it was particularly difficult to find books I could teach by Asian Americans in my environmental literature or nature writing classes. Thinking back to my own childhood in the 70s and 80s, I barely ever saw Asian Americans pictured outdoors in any media, so I know that is connected to my pull to write this.

Rumpus: On a related note, the book’s epigraph is a pointed verse on butterflies by Rabindranath Tagore, a prolific South Asian cultural figure and the first person of color to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. You’ve described in previous interviews your “life unsettled”: your parents were dissuaded from teaching you their native languages of Malayalam and Tagalog, and you moved five times before you were fifteen; poetry and writing about land have been the self-mooring tools that shaped the language you have today. Have writers from your parents’ countries of origin (India and the Philippines) moored you and shaped your language and poetry as well?

Nezhukumatathil: It’s complex. I was never introduced to any writers from India or the Philippines through my entire educational experience, so any writers from those countries I found were a result of digging around in libraries and in the dusty stacks on my own. I think of writers like Kamala Das and Carlos Bulosan and how grounding and electrifying it was in my early twenties just to hold books whose author photos somewhat resembled me, but no one I knew ever read those poets and that was a little bit lonely to not have anyone to discuss these writers with. You have to remember the internet as we know it was not around when I was in grad school—I mean, we were still getting used to email. But I think of those authors’ work as prisms—if I looked at the literary landscape in the early 90s, those writers gave me a much needed drench of color and culture I didn’t know I was so hungry for.

Rumpus: It sounds like your work, then, is a continuation of that prism-giving tradition.

Nezhukumatathil: Whew, I hope so—that would be the greatest honor, right? Though it’s for my readers, and not me, to say.

Rumpus: Why did you sequence the book in the way that you did? I noticed that the more structurally variant chapters—like “Calendars Poetica,” a timeline of your first year as a mother, and “Axolotl,” written in the second person—are kind of swimming away from the school of other essay-fish that are more closely related to one another.

Nezhukumatathil: As you mentioned, I moved around a lot growing up so ultimately I did not want to structure this as a linear work. I wanted to mimic the displacement I felt growing up (which wasn’t always a bad thing). My editors at Milkweed and my genius colleague Kiese Laymon encouraged me to not have this arranged chronologically, too, so I’m grateful for that. I’m more interested in having the readers notice repeated motifs or contrasts in the essays’ arrangement and structures than in having them focus on the “how old were you in this essay?” sorts of aspects of the writing.

Rumpus: World of Wonders is your first work of nonfiction, but it still reads as a work of poetry and verse. What felt familiar when writing this book, given your practice as a poet? What felt new?

Nezhukumatathil: Such good questions! In composing both genres, I draft in whispers or talking fully out loud to myself, and writing everything out longhand first. Music is still a huge part for me in both genres. It has to feel good on my tongue, a little electric, and fun to say out loud. I pay close attention to metaphor and ways to make leaps in imagery in prose as I would in my poems. I try to end on an image that connotes or evokes rather than being too expository.

And what felt new? Even a three-page essay felt like running a 5k. I’m so used to the compression of a poem, I’m still shocked and delighted I can leap and riff and dig and fly even further than I already try to do in a poem. It’s at once a thrilling and exhausting freedom to have that space in an essay to think through a concern. My husband, Dustin Parsons, is one of my first readers of my work, and essays are his specialty, so I especially was grateful to have him push and nudge me along the way.

Rumpus: Given this structural freedom, how do you decide on how much space you’ll give to a certain topic?

Nezhukumatathil: I think any one of these plants and animals could be made into a whole book in of itself. But for a collection like this, I very much wanted to distill and then compress the heart of what I wanted to share and offer up to the reader. In that way, I suppose that’s the poet in me speaking again. I’m working on another book about beauty and I’m curious to see how long that one will be.

Rumpus: Well this book certainly speaks of beauty, too, including as a collection of visual art. Otherworldly, yet of this world, illustrations striate the book. For example, the reader looks into the whale shark’s gaping mouth and then reads of your fear of being “accidentally gummed to bits” by the giant plankton-eater while snorkeling in its tank at the Georgia Aquarium. What compelled you to include a visual complement to your words? And what was it like to work with Fumi Nakamura, the illustrator?

Nezhukumatathil: It’s not that I didn’t trust my ability to conjure up imagery of the natural world, (after four books of poems!), but the simple answer is that I’m wildly and ecstatically in love with each of these plants and animals. And after observing or studying them (some for years), I just wanted to introduce a visual element to help you also fall in love with these representatives of the natural world. Think back to your childhood—remember that distinct alchemy at play when you read a book and then you had a picture to study alongside it? How you begin to learn, really learn, each contour or expression to see how it amplifies what you’ve just read and hopefully the illustration presses it to your heart just a little bit more? And it was of utmost importance for me to find an Asian American artist with impeccable scientific illustration skills but who also had just the right amount of whimsy. Fumi just knocked it out of the ballpark. Each time Mary (Milkweed’s art director) sent me a new illustration, I wanted to weep with joy.

Rumpus: Just weeks before diving into your book, I had the pleasure of reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Your works differ for a range of reasons, but they harmonize beautifully as (Milkweed-published) pieces of environmental literature that parallel personal/family biography and ecology so seamlessly. Both also challenge settler-colonial ideas of how humans should treat nature. Are there any works of environmental literature that influenced how you wrote World of Wonders?

Nezhukumatathil: I knew I wanted to write short pieces; I knew I wanted to include my parents (my heroes), and the family I’m helping to raise now; and I knew I wanted to confront racial issues I’d ignored in my past writing—all with feeling like you just read a giant love letter full of worry, hopes, and astonishments from a friend who has brown skin. Especially if you don’t have an actual friend in real life with brown skin. And to my PoC readers, my dearest hope is that you feel a little more seen in the world of nature writing. All of these wants came to me during the editing process, though, after many drafts—I never sit down with a project or theme in mind first. That only comes for me when I’m revising. So, for books that influenced those sentiments: Brian Doyle’s essay collection, Children and Other Wild Animals, and Braiding Sweetgrass were on my mind as I was culling this collection, and I was reading Rachel Carson’s writings on wonder, too.

Rumpus: It sounds like you intentionally shared your experiences of racism and sexism within a book that has a lot of love for other people and the natural world. Why was it important for you to co-present these themes in the way you do?

Nezhukumatathil: I think there is a good amount of nature writing out there that seemed to say something like, “I went outside and I felt great again and all my problems vanished.” I wanted to offer up an alternate perspective because while that might be good and true for some people, it certainly wasn’t or isn’t true of a diverse segment of the population. Representation in nature writing should be complex because humans are varied and complex. Seems like such a given, right? But you’d be surprised to see in 2020, there are still so many university syllabi with all white cis authors on it representing outdoor experiences.

To be honest, I don’t dare imagine too much more of what I hope the reader understands about these experiences, but I hope that this book helps the reader picture more Asians in the outdoors. I hope teens can see possibilities for them that perhaps don’t align with their parents’ hopes and dreams. I hope for people’s imaginations to grow wider after getting to know these plants and animals a little better. And given the violence in the world, I think that is most definitely related—too many of our leaders in government want to make you scared of other cultures, they encourage fear and distrust, so it’s a little easier to hurt and kill each other. Same with animals and plants—I think if you get to know these animals and delight in these plants, how could you want to destroy them or their habitats?

Rumpus: Showcasing empathy and that full span of human complexity, at the same time that the book is deeply personal and political, World of Wonders is at many points also really funny. My deep-belly laughs reading about your long conversations with cardinals—and cackling at your zippy one-liners about the potoo’s gastrointestinally inspired mating call—were the closest I’ve come to a core strength workout in months (thanks for that!). How do you translate the joy of being around non-human creatures to the page?

Nezhukumatathil: Anyone who has heard me speak for two minutes about an animal or plant I adore knows I have zero chill about things that excite me in the natural world. And why should I? My father and mother’s love language to each other, and to the whole family, really, was the way they work so beautifully together in their garden in Florida. My dad could be genuinely excited about the shape or intensity of color of a starfruit or dragon fruit or one of any of the five varieties of mango trees on their property. There is so much to be sad and enraged about on this planet. I think it’s important to understand that we are in a state of trauma, that some of us have been in a state of trauma for quite some time now. I don’t have a road map out of it. But I do know what makes me feel good and safe and something like joy again—and this is something I’ve carried with me since I was a child—is finding something you are utterly besotted with from the outdoors. Find out its name. Learn everything you can about it. Once you have named it, it’s hard to not want to fight for it. One of the roots of the word wonder is rooted in the same word as smile.

Rumpus: World of Wonders’s acknowledgments thanks more people than there were in my high school graduating class. It seems that writing this book was a deeply collaborative process!

Nezhukumatathil: Ha—I know, I know! I can’t help it. But I myself love robust thank-you pages! I love seeing how people are in community with each other to push a book out into this world together. This book was over a decade in the making but always a little bit on the back burner because… away from what you may see on social media, I was busy with life. I got married, had two kids, wrote four books, made it to full professor, switched jobs, and moved our entire family below the Mason-Dixon line all in that space of time. And we barely used sitters after my youngest turned seven, except for date nights and attending conferences with my husband. You don’t get to do all that without a ton of help along the way, from my non-writer friends, too.

Rumpus: To finish up on that note, I’d love to hear how your experiences as a professor—an interpersonal, but often selfless vocation resistant to change—shaped how you wrote a book that teaches us hard lessons in such a compelling and loving way.

Nezhukumatathil: This fall will mark my twentieth year as a professor, and I think when I first started publishing my poems and essays, I felt like I had to explain or set up a lot about my culture, my parents’ countries, even the foods that I loved. I’m much less interested in explaining anything about myself now and (thankfully!) feel like I really don’t have to anymore. My “ideal audience” has changed now, too, I think. They are much more well-read, and much more aware that other writers who don’t share their same experiences exist, too. What a novel concept, huh? It’s more like—if you still name what I write about “exotic” (something that happened lots when I was first starting out)—that says more about your limitations than mine. I don’t mean to sound flip or irritated. Well maybe the latter. It’s just that the literary landscape was so, so different in the late 90s. Again, without social media, it was a lonely place to be an Asian American writer in the Midwest. Most Table of Contents of the journals I had access to at the library were full of straight white men. To crack into those contents at all was a triumph!

I suppose after twenty years, one thing I’ve learned is that my writing students learn best, not when I’m explaining or lecturing, but by my example of how to be curious about the world, how to champion each other’s poems and also how to support each other when something doesn’t work out. How to open themselves up to trying a new technique or writing experiment, and how to give each other (and themselves!) a bit of grace. How to smile and even laugh at ourselves as we share drafts and be vulnerable and respectful. These things are not found in any craft handbook, but I hope with all my heart it will sustain them long, long after they have left my classroom and venture outside.

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Photograph of Aimee Nezhukumatathil by Ted Ely.


Adam Willems reports on religion, technology, incarceration, and the climate from Dabob Bay, WA. They write Divine Innovation, a newsletter on the spiritual world of technology, and can be found on Twitter @functionaladam. More from this author →