Robert Anthony Siegel is a writer and writing coach. He is the author of a memoir, Criminals, and two novels, All Will Be Revealed, and All the Money in the World. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian Magazine, The Paris Review, The Drift, The Oxford American, and Ploughshares, among other places, and has been anthologized in Best American Essays 2023, O. Henry Stories 2014, and Pushcart Prize XXXVI. He has been a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, a Mombukagakusho Fellow in Japan, a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Paul Engle Fellow at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Robert taught in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington for 22 years, helping students write and publish their first books. He has also taught at Hollins University in Virginia, Tunghai University in Taiwan, and the LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore, and is a regular at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and a BA from Harvard. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Sheeraz: Your story “Flight” brilliantly uses setting—doors, borders, roads, tree branches, air, water—as metaphors of fluidity, abandonment, and departure. It also juxtaposes two spacetimes, one in the close-up of Violet’s basement defined by its slow, careful motions, while the other in the narrator’s mental long shots of speedily changing places as he imaginatively follows his father driving from Buffalo to the Canadian border, “eating packets after packets of peanuts” in a plane, sitting on a bench overlooking the sea in Tel Aviv, looking at his passport. What is the magic that layers the setting into the architecture of a story like “Flight”?
Robert: If I’m understanding you right, Sheeraz, you are asking what makes the setting important to the emotional movement of a story like “Flight,” which is about growing up while your family is falling apart. Maybe the best way to answer that question is to go back to first principles for just a second. A fiction writer’s most basic task is to show what a character is feeling without explicitly stating that feeling. One of the most interesting ways to do that is through character perception, by which I mean revealing what a character is feeling by tracking what they are seeing. Instead of saying “I’m sad,” your character glances outside the window and notices the bare branch or bedraggled patch of old snow (apologies for the cliché, but you see what I mean.) In “Flight,” doors, roads, borders are all images of loss.
Using perception to reveal emotion does all sorts of interesting things to a story, recasting perception as a form of expression, and making setting into a mirror in which a character’s feelings are reflected. There is nothing artificial about this; it is true to the way we experience life: when I’m happy about something, the bare branch just looks austerely beautiful.
Sheeraz: Irene in “The Silver Door” lives in an old-age home and doesn’t like its silence at night, “the way the tree outside her window threw shadows on the wall,” and “the residents—shrunken, hunchbacked, tremulous, hard-of-hearing, foul-smelling, caked with rouge.” At the same time, she is haunted by the fear of being sent to the memory care unit, where every door is locked with a key. How does our memory define and decide our relationship with a place? How does a place—despite all its silences and shadows—become a character’s desire?
Robert: Place and desire are intertwined in wonderful ways in fiction. In “The Silver Door,” Irene looks down on the other residents at the old age home, in large part because they remind her of her own vulnerability. The problem is that she is losing her memory, and she doesn’t want to be transferred from independent living to the memory care unit across the courtyard because that building is locked; she won’t be able to go outside anymore. In a sense, the geography of the story is the story: two buildings staring at each other across a courtyard, one of which represents life and the other loss—loss of freedom, loss of memory, loss of self. You can’t live in the first building without staring at the second. But what Irene learns by the end is that you can stay in life just a little bit longer if you open yourself to the people around you and accept their love. In that moment, the victory feels total, even if it is short-lived.
Sheeraz: How would you define the setting in creative writing? Your award-winning story, “The Right Imaginary Person”, is set in Japan. In what ways can a writer’s firsthand experience of a place be beneficial? Is there anything like knowing more or knowing less about the setting?
Robert: For me, direct personal experience of the place I am writing about is crucial. The more I know about the place where my story happens, the more lines I will be able to draw between the character’s emotional experience and the details of the character’s physical environment. I spent three years as a student in Japan, just long enough to feel myself a kind of intimate stranger there, speaking the language but not of the language, full of a yearning I couldn’t quite define. That is the feeling I tried to capture in “The Right Imaginary Person” by evoking my memory of the place as accurately as possible.
At the same time, I know that many other writers work differently. I’m rereading The Ambassadors, for example, a wonderful book that left a big mark on me when I first read it, and I’m surprised to see how little time Henry James spends on the physical reality of Paris, even though Paris as a place of personal transformation is crucial to the story. What matters to James is what people say and don’t say, and what they think about each other.
One last thing—it’s humbling to be read with such close attention and generosity of spirit, and to be asked such deeply considered questions. Thank you, Sheeraz, I’m truly grateful.
Raza Ali Hasan, the Pakistani-American poet, earned a BA and an MA from the University of Texas, Austin, and an MFA from Syracuse University. The published collections of Hasan’s poetry include Grieving Shias (2006), Sorrows of the Warrior Class and 67 Mogul Miniatures (2008), which loosely follows the Urdu poetry structure of musaddas. Ali currently lives in Boulder, where he teaches at the University of Colorado. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sheeraz: Your musaddas poems in 67 Mogul Miniatures successfully invoke far-flung places and different historical periods. How does a poem shape its landscape and history?
Ali: Each musaddas poem in 67 Mogul Miniatures is only tangentially (not by subject or place or historical context) related to each other via a narrative questioning arc about the state of the global south, and the urgent answers sought and found. And so the places and history and times all change from poem to poem. Different landscapes are hinted at in each six lines of poem, but cannot be built over a set of poems. Thus the formal constraints of the architecture of my book’s borrowed from the great Pakistani (South Asian) poet Muhammad Iqbal’s “Shikwa” and “Jawab-e-Shikwa” leave little room for anything other than clay models for larger unwritten versions. With such a tight space for words, pictures of different places and occasions are made with as few words as possible. A description of musical night out, in poem no. 3 in the collection, to see a Qawwali concert starring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, does not even have enough space to spell his name out. The whole thing is evoked with “Khan”, “Karachi”, “tabla” and its “unsteady beat” and a “harmonium” and its “wheezing.” A poem about Prophet Muhammad’s companion, only has two words that set up the historical context for the poem: the name of the companion, “Bilal,” and the hyphenated word “crescent-world.” Sometimes literary landscapes are invoked by just two names, “Qais” and “Leila,” or the cinematic world with “Zeba” and “Waheed Murad,” or the Iraq War with just one word, “children” and one line, “unburied littering its smudgy, tar highways.”
Sheeraz: Most poems in Sorrows of the Warrior Class are set in the Cold War. What is the process of giving a clear sense of time?
Ali: The Persian poet Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnamah, or more accurately, the miniature illustrations of its heroes (Alexander the Great, Sohrab, etc.) and stories serve the role of antiquity in my poems here. The 1950s and 1970s are evoked via American movies shown in Pakistani Cinema houses and by the poems on the ouster of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in the fifties and the coup and hanging of Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. For the first half of the American Cold War, the tropes of heroism, valor, dignity, and hope from Shahnamah still seemed timeless.
Sheeraz: How do you conceptualize the role of setting in poetry?
Ali: For my work, the setting (in place, in culture, in history) of my poems, however achieved, with much labor or just a word or two, is crucial. My serious, somber poems, have to announce their origin and their place of denouement. A perfect example of that is my long poem “In That Part of the World,” published in my first book, Grieving Shias, whose very title alerts the reader to its crucible, its location: Afghanistan.
–Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti, Mid-American Review