Pushing To The Uncertainty: An Interview with Davon Loeb

This interview was conducted via email by Summer Blog Editor Kelsey Kerley. It regards Davon Loeb’s memoir, The In-Betweens (published in 2018) as well as his process and experiences as a writer and educator.

Davon Loeb is the author of the lyrical memoir The In-Betweens (Everytime Press, 2018). He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden, and he is an assistant poetry editor at Bending Genres and a guest prose editor at Apiary Magazine. Davon writes creative nonfiction and poetry. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net, and is forthcoming and featured in Ploughshares Blog, PANK MagazinePithead ChapelMauldin HouseJMWWBarren MagazineSplit Lip MagazineTahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Besides writing, Davon is a high school English teacher, husband, and father living in New Jersey. Currently, he is writing a YA novel. His work can be found here: davonloeb.com and on Twitter @LoebDavon.

The In-Betweens is a coming of age journey about a biracial boy who is trying to navigate the nuances, struggles, and joys of growing up in two different cultures, a Black family and a white-Jewish family, while living in non-diverse communities. This memoir, written as poetic flash and lyrical nonfiction, explores how racial and cultural identity is shaped through family, friends, and community, as well as how each of these factors are deeply complex and tumultuous, especially in the very divided America we have today. And as noted by Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship and Later, “…The In-Betweens is awake to the awe of being in a boy, and the beauty and danger of negotiating a culture that wants to drive space between us, inside us.”

Superstition Review: Could you describe the inspiration for your memoir The In-Betweens?

Davon Loeb: My inspiration for my memoir The In-Betweens was really about trust—trusting myself, in my stories, in my craft. Ever since I was young, I was imaginative. Writing this collection was just about going back to being that little kid again, back to a world of make-believe, to when I was encouraged to dream, to tell stories. Sure, the MFA helped develop some skill, but this was about the persistence that followed. I was inspired to do the work, to write, to commit to this collection.

SR: Some of the chapters that stuck with me most as I read your memoir were the one-page chapters, the small snippets of a moment in time that were packed with emotion. Could you please discuss your process for writing the sections?

DL: I wrote those chapters to tell a story, and sometimes that story only grew into a paragraph or a page simply because the memory itself was small; it was a fragment, but the emotion was still like a hot wire. So I tried to lean into single images as support for the frame of those smaller chapters. In the chapter “5-Series BMW”, my stepfather is working on his car in the garage. The BMW is an image in itself but also a symbol for masculinity. Instead of explaining masculinity, the image and the symbol do the work for me. Once there, in the minute of the moment, I need to trust in the storytelling—really believe in the brevity. After finishing the memoir, I realized these flash chapters balanced the book well.

SR: You’ve managed to capture so many unique moments of your own childhood while still making them relatable to the reader, creating a sense of nostalgia and memory of things they have never known. Which memoirs and memoir authors inspired you?

DL: I intentionally wanted to capture memories that readers could identify with. I’m a real believer that it’s sometimes our duty, as writers, to create universality through individual stories. I wanted my readers to experience the same dirt of childhood, to be hand over hand with me, through the joys, the laughter, the tears. I’m so glad it worked, and readers felt a connection to this little boy. In regard to reading memoir, the genre was actually new to me. I started my MFA as a poet and left writing memoir. A reasonably short list of some of my favorite memoir authors are the following: Paul Lisicky, Roxane Gay, Porochista Khakpour, Tyrese Coleman, Chloe Caldwell, Tracy K. Smith, and more names I know I’m missing. I actually read more poetry than memoir, and that list would be too long.

SR: As well as being a writer, you are also a teacher. How has your experience as an educator influenced your writing?

DL: So much of writing is being vulnerable, which is like teaching. I believe the best teachers are the ones who are not afraid to be themselves, not afraid of getting “eye-level” with their students. When writing this memoir, I took the same approach. I said, “This is who I am. I am not scared to show you,” because readers can see through a façade as quickly as students can. But the relationship between the two is also evident in my craft as a writer and educator. I teach Literature and Composition; I read and write all day. This is my life, a muscle always at use. Consider this: as writers, we are constantly changing, a course of lifelong revisions; in the same way, teachers are forever adapting, sometimes in the moment in a classroom or as society shifts, like now, during a health pandemic. Nonetheless, these roles are inseparable; they are equally part of my identity, and I could not do one without the other. Though it can get messy. My students love to Google me, and read my book, which is cool, but sometimes makes for an interesting conversation. The point I try to impress is that I am forever in it, forever learning, forever a student.

SR: One of the main factors of an identity that you discuss in The In-Betweens is race. How did you go about addressing this topic and what did you find most challenging about it?

DL: Discussing race is definitely the crux of a lot of my writing. I try to focus on race as something fluid, rather than stone. I want readers to value my experiences, as well as understand that my experiences are not the tell-all stories of racism or the entire black experience. I felt especially confronted with my race or my blackness in the last couple months, during the protests and public murder of George Floyd. I’m biracial. I grew up in a predominantly white community. While some aspects of my upbringing were discriminatory, I still had a great childhood and adolescence. There’s a duality that exists here, in the danger of being a minority, but also this safety in racial ambiguity. That is challenging to write about, to straddle two cultures. So instead of steering away from that, I drive forward, push to the uncertainty, the in-between of my race, of where I fit in this American narrative.

SR: As an educator, what impact do you think or hope books like your own will have on younger generations?

DL: I hope books like mine will help students who have never read an author that looks like me to realize different authors do exist beyond what they’ve read since starting education. Different stories exist, ones that are similar or dissimilar from their own. I want my students to know that the writing community is incredibly diverse. I believe that if our Nation wants to rewrite its identity, it starts here, with books in schools. As an educator, I really hope, if anything, something I’ve said will inspire younger generations to tell their stories, and know, really know, their stories matter.

SR: One of the most notorious issues in English education is a lack of diversity in the voices and stories children experience in the classroom. Have you seen any indication of a change in this pattern? What steps do you think need to be taken to increase literary diversity in the classroom?

DL: Yes! Education is changing. We need to take some steps away from the Canon. Sure, continue to read and teach Shakespeare, of course, but syllabi and curriculums need to change and adjust the perimeters to what is literature. When I was a kid, my mother required me to read books by black authors, but in school, that rarely happened. So what do we say to the kid who has never read a book with a character similar to them? Do we tell them their stories don’t matter to us? To give an example, there’s a children’s book, Farah Rocks Fifth Grade by Susan Muaddi Darraj, who is a wonderful author, and Farah is the first Arab-American character I have ever seen in a children’s book. I think about that, and it makes me so sad and disappointed. I think about that kid who is Arab-American and has never, ever, read a book about them. I think about the kid who knows nothing about Arab-Americans besides the single narrative often depicted in the media, and that kid maybe needs a book like Susan’s more than the other. For our society to grow, the required-reading list needs to reflect our country. But to get there, for these stories to arrive on our students’ desk, we need education to change as much as publishing needs to change. We need diverse leadership like Lisa Lucas, the Vice President & Publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, who is reshaping the publishing industry.

SR: In “Thoughts On Hair,” you portray the plight of racially ambiguous and mixed race children attempting to fit in. You emphasize in particular how you have experienced the perception of your race changing based upon how you style your hair. What do you think experiences like that among others say about the way racially ambiguous people are perceived in our society? Do you think this perception has changed since you were a child, and if so, how?

DL: As a child, I struggled growing up in a black family where I was biracial while living in a white community where I was non-white. I was regularly in-between cultures. But I do believe the perception of racially ambiguous people has changed since I was a child. We have always been here; but I think through entertainment: television, movies, sports, books and other media, the focus has shifted toward people of mixed race rather than away from them. While this should not denounce people who are not racially ambiguous, I can barely think of any professional athletes who were biracial when I was a kid. Today, one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL is biracial; he is the face of the NFL. Though that has other implications, it also says something about our society, good or bad. On a personal note, I am interracially married and have a biracial daughter. My wife and I will raise her in a way where we celebrate all of her multitudes, rather than just focusing on her differences.

SR: The In-Betweens was first published in 2018. Now, in late 2020, we have seen a shift in the sociopolitical climate as more and more people are becoming aware of social justice issues and movements. Have you found that reactions to your work have changed now that the present context is so different than it was when you originally published?

DL: Thank you for asking this question. In 2018, my book was important to me, to the friends and family who supported my work, and the small group of writers and editors who valued this collection, some of whom even wrote reviews of The In-Betweens. For them, I am forever grateful. People like Chris Campanioni, Steve Burns, Yi Shun Lai, Roy G Guzmán, and Paul Lisicky, thank you. Now, in late 2020, the shift in the sociopolitical climate has given my memoir a new life, a resurgence. I have always believed these stories of race, identity, and culture were important, but it feels like a greater interest is stirring. I’m not sure what that means—more sales or more reviews or whatever; but I do know that it means my story can reach you and maybe before it could not. That is important and invaluable. I’m fortunate that literary journals and magazines have repurposed and republished chapters of my memoir. These literary spaces have offered a second home to my work. I am grateful for the reviews and interviews that are still happening in 2020, almost two years after publication. Yes, the context has absolutely changed, and my gratitude for the love and support of The In-Betweens is so immense.

SR: This book has much to do with several varieties of learning, from learning about yourself and your family to learning about your greater identity as part of a whole. What is the main take away you want your readers to gain after having experienced all this learning with you?

DL: The main take away I want readers to gain after experiencing this with me is to learn that we are more similar than we are different. I might be of another race, culture, or what have you, but the stories that make me who I am are just like the stories that shape you. My identity is rich, and I’ve learned to love who I am and all that I am through storytelling, through writing this memoir. In a way, we write our own memoirs every day—through photos, videos, posts, calls, and texts, we are forming our memories of life into an order of things. Writing The In-Betweens was my attempt to order my life, to order it with purpose, with an attention to cadence, image, and sentiment. I want you to experience that; I want you to read my book, but I’m okay if you don’t. I would rather you partake in your own memoir, in whatever form it will be, but do it, believe in it, and share it. You’ll realize just like I did that what connects us is stronger than what divides us. 

Contributor Update, Matthew Zapruder

Congratulations to Matthew for his recent interview on Tricking Himself to Write About His Life, published on Literary Hub. Here, Matthew discusses how he accidentally stumbled upon a method to force him to write the work he needs, rather than just the work he wants to make public.

Matthew has a BA in Russian literature at Amherst College, an MA in Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author most recently of Father’s Day, Copper Canyon, 2019, and Why Poetry, a book of prose, Ecco/Harper Collins, 2017. He is editor at large at Wave Books, where he edits contemporary poetry, prose, and translations.

For more on Matthew, visit his website here.

To read more from the Literary Hub visit their homepage here.

Congratulations again Matthew!

Contributor Update, Rodrigo Franzão: María Elena Kravetz Gallery

photo of Rodrigo

Join us in congratulating SR art contributor Rodrigo Franzão. Rodrigo’s work was recently added to the María Elena Kravetz Gallery of Art in Argentina. Other artists in this gallery include Kate Blacklock, Gabriela Pérez Guaita, and Ralph Paquin. To learn more about the María Elena Kravetz Gallery of Art, click here.

Rodrigo was also recently interview for an article in the Textile Art Magazine. Here, Rodrigo discusses his art career, influences, education, techniques, preferences, and creative process. You can read the full interview here.

Congratulations on this exciting news, Rodrigo!

Contributor Update, Ruben Quesada: Revelations

Today we are happy to announce the news of past contributor Ruben Quesada! His interview with Image Journal was just published last month, following the publication of his chapbook of poetry and translations by Sibling Rivalry Press, titled Revelations. Ruben, an LGBT+ author and translator, intertwines his own work with the translated work of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda. The interviewer Cassidy Hall focuses on the relationship between religion, sexuality and poetry, as well as Ruben’s own experiences with the three.

More information on Ruben’s chapbook can be found here, his piece for S[r]’s Issue 13 can be found here.

Congratulations Ruben!

Contributor Update, Terese Svoboda: Great American Desert

Terese SvobodaToday we are happy to share news about past contributor Terese Svoboda. Terese’s new short story collection Great American Desert is to be published by Mad Creek books. The collection has found its home in the new genre of ‘cli-fi’, or climate fiction, as it explores the relationship between man and earth from the past to distant future.

The collection launches at the Corner Bookstore on March 26th at 6 pm in New York City. Terese will be in Phoenix to teach a workshop at Pipers Writing Studio on April 20th.

S[r]’s author interview with Terese can be found here, and her short story “Madonna in the Terminal” can be found here.

Congratulations Terese!

Guest Blog Post, an Interview with Laura Esther Wolfson

Cover of "For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors."
Photo courtesy of the author.

This past summer, the Review’s Student Editor-in-Chief Jackie Aguilar interviewed Laura Esther Wolfson, author of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, released this past June with University of Iowa Press.

  1. Did the essay “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors” inspire you to write the essay collection of the same title? If not, what inspired this collection?

There was no single inspiration for the entire book; each section had its own inspiration. I remember the triggering moments for only a few of them. I wrote the sections sporadically over the course of a decade and half, and one by one, they appeared in magazines. The title essay, written around 2013, was among the last to be written and individually published.

As those years of writing were passing, I did not conceive of the parts as a collection. Only very late, when almost all of them were written, did it occur to me that they belonged together.

  1. What was the most difficult part in the process of creating For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors [the book, not the essay]?

It was difficult to write regularly while working full-time, caring for infirm, elderly parents, managing a degenerative illness of my own, and sharing a studio apartment with another person plus two cats, the latter, bellies bulging, stretched out across my keyboard or patting my pen with their chocolate point paws. It was difficult to pursue the essay form (or whatever it is that I write; readers, including reviewers, do not agree), given the ubiquity and primacy of the novel and unceasing reminders from gatekeepers that collections don’t sell. Finally, it was difficult to resist the seductions of social life and the Internet. I failed again and again, at all of these things.

  1. Writing is at times a healing journey for writers. Was writing these essays a healing journey for you? What did it give you?

I approach writing as a process, with little thought to outcome. It’s true that each section is about some sort of loss, and that I fashioned each loss into a written creation, so that the writing resulted in certain gains. Writing these pieces did make me into a better writer, and publication of the book did make me into an author, serendipitously providing me with a readymade new identity just as my health worsened to the point where I could no longer continue at my day job.

However—and what follows here is a catalogue of many of the topics the book covers—(the) writing and authorship did not save any marriages, remedy childlessness, restore health, or make up lost income. In fact, writing and publishing the book heightened my awareness of those lacks and losses.

None of this is a disappointment, though; I did not write in order to heal.

  1. Your work as a Russian linguist looms large in many sections of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. Can you expand on how your knowledge of other languages and work as a translator/interpreter has affected your writing and transformed your view of writing?

An awareness of the world as a large and multifarious place led me to languages, and languages then increased my awareness of the size and diversity of the world. Between my awareness of the world and my interest in literature, history and international affairs there exists a similar circularity.

We translators and interpreters often fret that our work is not ‘substantive,’ i.e., that our language expertise is in service to the thoughts, information and knowledge of others. However, deep and sustained language study and language work (as a translator, interpreter, transcriber or terminologist) lead inevitably to a grasp of whatever topic is taken up in the documents or meetings assigned (for example, international humanitarian law, nuclear physics, renewable energy, etc.), as well as a general familiarity with geography, geopolitics, history, international affairs, foreign cultures, language acquisition and immigrant adaptation, both linguistic and cultural. It is these latter topics especially that find their way into my work.

Knowledge of other languages gives me a varied palette, providing access to more—of everything: more worldviews, literatures, stories, current events, histories, jokes, folktales, proverbs, syntaxes, grammars, etymologies, words, and most of all, more meanings, and more meaning.

As a translator-turned-writer, I am of course obsessed with accuracy and style; le mot juste is crucial. For the translator, this means fidelity to the source document. For the writer, it means fidelity to the thing depicted, whether that is something that exists in the world outside the creator’s mind and soul, or within.

  1. What writing project are you currently working on? Does it have a connection to your essay collection “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors”?

I’m now at work on a long autofiction about love, infidelity and chronic illness, with embedded nuggets of flash literary criticism and flash international affairs punditry. Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra is the working title. The voice is recognizably mine, and it partakes of many of the same obsessions present in For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. However, it is an entirely separate work.

Contributor Update, Matt Bell: Conjunctions: 71, A Cabinet of Curiosity

Conjunctions Issue 71 coverToday we are happy to share news about past contributor Matt Bell. Matt’s short story, “Fur, Bark, Feather, Leaf, Faun,” is upcoming in Conjunctions: 71, A Cabinet of Curiosity. About the issue, the description reads:  “Curiosity in all its guises is the wellspring of revelation. It is a prime mover behind our deeds, good or evil, simple or complicated. While the thirty-one writers gathered here individually explore many of the ways in which curiosity drives and defines us, together they propose that the realms of curiosity are, finally, inexhaustible.”

Conjunctions: 71, A Cabinet of Curiosity is available for preorder through the Bard College here. Shipping will begin by the end of November, 2018.

Our interview with Matt can be read in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Matt!

Intern Update, Sean O’Day: Voyage Phoenix Interview

Sean O'DayToday we are excited to announce that our former art editor, Sean O’Day, was recently interviewed by Voyage Phoenix. In the interview, Sean, who goes by the artist name Zanereti, walks us through his unique story and talks about the challenges artists face today. Read the interview here.

Congratulations, Sean!

 

 

Authors Talk: Jenny Day

Authors TalkToday we are pleased to feature artist Jenny Day as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this short interview, Day talks about her five art pieces from her “Nearly Somewhere” series and “Forgotten Topographies” series featured in Issue 19. Day expands on her own artistic background, influences, goals, and the places and memories that inspired her art pieces.

Jenny Day’s five art pieces appear in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.

Contributor Update, Kirsten Voris: HippoCamp Summer Conference Speaker & Preview Blog Post

Kirsten Voris

We are happy to announce that past contributor Kirsten Voris from Issue 18 will be a speaker for the 2018 HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers! Voris will be speaking on the “Writing Life after 40” panel. She was also interviewed for HippoCamp’s Conference “speaker preview” blog post series. Congratulations Kirsten!