To Whom We Belong: An Interview with Glori Simmons by TiLena Camp

Glori Simmons is the author of the story collections, Carry You and Suffering Fools, and the book of poems, Graft. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she has received numerous awards for her poetry and fiction and has taught throughout the Bay Area. Glori grew up in eastern Washington and received a B.A. from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Michigan. She has lived in Seattle, Tokyo, Ann Arbor, and San Francisco. She currently lives in Oakland, California, and is the director of the Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco.

TiLena Camp: In the beginning of the story collection, you mention an epigraph from Fawzi Karum’s The Scent of Berries. How did you use this epigraph within the overall theme of the collection?

Glori Simmons: The question, “Who among us belongs to another?” is at the core of many of the stories, whether it be Sahar’s relationship with the boy she hits with her car or Clark’s relationship with the young woman he finds in the rubble. I hope the poem fragment also illuminates our collective accountability for wars and to each other as individuals.

TC: The beginning of the book starts in the viewpoint of Sahar Khalil, the mother of the family in the story. How important was it to you that the audience first experiences Sahar’s perspective?

GS: Truthfully, I wrote the collection out of order, with the stories of the Khalil family coming last. “Alive” was my first story written from an Iraqi perspective. As I wrote future stories, I often thought of “Alive” as a prologue to the collection, with each story that followed bringing us closer to that point. Ultimately, I chose “Female Driver” as the opening story in order to simplify the chronology. I think that the collection could have started in other places, but I like beginning with Sahar, the most transnational of the characters, running from her own actions. The idea that she is stopped by the gate to her own home—a gate that is designed to protect her—hopefully reveals her state of mind while setting a tone and foreshadowing what’s to come in the collection.

TC: There are obviously a lot of issues that Sahar has with her life from the start of the collection. However, the reader isn’t given much insight into any specific issues between Sahar and Qaseem (Sahar’s husband). Is the reader meant to assume that Sahar’s boredom and sense of rebelliousness the only reasons for her constant need of an affair?

GS: Her relationship with her husband is up for interpretation, but I see Sahar as a free spirit who misses her life in England. She is stifled by a job that has lost meaning, the proximity of her judgmental mother-in-law, her responsibilities as a mother, her relationship with a traditional husband, life under a dictatorship, and the threat of an impending war. She wants out of her life on many levels. Driving, smoking, and infidelity are her escapes.

TC: In the collection, the main characters are immediately placed in a setting that coincides with an event of distress (i.e., the fence jumping, the car jacking, and the city being bombed). How did you decide which characters would hold up against certain scenes or situations and what was the purpose of creating the scenarios the way that you did?

GS: Although I imagined a collection of linked stories, it was more as a vague concept rather than a plotted out storyline. I wrote Carry You story by story with the goal that each would feel complete on its own. Because of that, each story had its own seeds, but this almost always included a dramatic moment, scene, or image: Qaseem discovering the painting of his daughter, Clark viewing the women’s dormitory through night vision goggles. I am drawn to dramatic action, tension, and the question: what if? I rarely begin a story knowing where it will lead or if a character will hold up against a situation.

TC: In the stories involving the male lead characters, like Clark and Qaseem, why do you think it was important to see their perspectives in a similar pattern of crisis, and not to solely give the audience the women’s points-of-view in these situations?

GS: Thinking about this question has made me realize that I enjoy writing from a male perspective. Because it feels more distant as if I’m putting on a disguise, it is sometimes easier to write more honestly for the character. I know that readers are less likely to conflate the character with me. I, as the author and a person with my own biases, don’t get in the way. Writing from a female perspective can sometimes make it more difficult to push the voice further from my own. This is not to say that I always get it right for every character and situation. I recognize the responsibility of working against stereotypes and practicing empathy when writing outside of one’s experience. Facing this challenge is very rewarding.

What readers encounter in Carry You is very different from how the stories (and collection) began. Clark’s point of view took me a long time to write. For example, the first story I wrote in the collection was “The Pacific” and the second was “Peaches.” Both of these describe Clark from other points of view, in other words, from the outside. In fact, I wrote a number of other stories (some of which are published in an earlier collection titled Suffering Fools) about Clark, all from other points of view. After reading them, I realized that it was important to hear his point of view and that I had been avoiding it because his experience was so separate from mine and I was afraid of getting it wrong.

TC: The last segment of the collection is entitled “Alive.” With all of the scenarios that the characters go through, why was it so important to give the last segment such a hopeful title?

GS: I chose this title as a way to ask readers to consider the ways in which Leila, the missing sister, continues to exist for her brother, especially after he receives her letter. While the title is hopeful, the story can be interpreted in different ways depending on the reader. Some may see the final scene as optimistic—a union of an American and Iraqi beneath a city waiting to be inhabited. Others may see the relationship as doomed and the city as deserted.

TC: Are you working on something currently and will it be another collection of stories?

GS: I’m working on a historical novel, a genre that is new to me. I am a slow writer and miss the short story form very much, but each project calls for its own form.

TiLena Camp studies Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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