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, Laurie Stone

Join us in congratulating past SR contributor, Laurie Stone, on the publication of her new book Everything is Personal, Notes on Now.

The memoir is an amalgamation of essays and diary entries about her life experience as she contemplates the world. The introduction writer of the book Chris Kraus called it “engaging, sharp, [and] funny.”

Her book will be released on January 15, 2020 and is now available for pre-order here. To learn more about Laurie and her work, visit her website. You can also read her essays featured in Issue 1 and Issue 10 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Laurie!

Contributor Update, Jackie Shannon Hollis: ‘This Particular Happiness’

Join us in congratulating SR interview contributor Jackie Shannon Hollis. Her forthcoming memoir, This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story, will be released by Forest Avenue Press on October 1. The book is now available for preorder.

In the memoir, Jackie explores her decision to marry Bill and commit to a childless life. But soon after the wedding, she holds her newborn niece and begins to question her decision to not have children. Told in short nonlinear chapters, the book examines what we gain and sacrifice when we love another person.

More information about Jackie and her new book can be found here. You can find her interview from Issue 7 here.

Congratulations, Jackie!

“This Particular Happiness, is a deeply moving story about Jackie Shannon Hollis’s decades-long yearning to have a child―and her complicated decision not to. But it’s also about so much more than that. With honesty, generosity, precision and insight, Hollis writes the story of her life―from her girlhood in rural Oregon, where she both broke and followed the rules, to her hard-earned self-acceptance at middle age. This Particular Happiness is a gloriously wise memoir about one woman’s unexpected path to becoming.”

―Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild
Guest Post, Kristen Keckler: The Art of Memory—Writing to Remember

Guest Post, Kristen Keckler: The Art of Memory—Writing to Remember

Even in 2019, with trusty devices always on hand to capture my daily existence, most of my life goes unrecorded (thank God). My pre-device life, a Dark Age itself, is only documented by an occasional washed-out photo, receipt, ticket stub, or “remember when?” story passed among family and friends. 

I often lament never having kept a proper journal. Only once, at age eleven, have I ever faithfully inscribed dates and happenings; the diary had a pink, puffy plastic cover studded with rhinestones. Despite the security feature, a tiny gold key, my mother and younger sister broke into it—together! —and when they later admitted it, I was relieved that I hadn’t confided anything private to its pages: no secret crushes or burning questions about my awkward, beanpole body.

In my twenties, I wrote little poems and observations in notebooks—many little notebooks. These musings now seem written in code, as if I was protecting my words from an intruder, who, strangely enough, is myself! Today, I still draft in a random, haphazard way, in spiral notebooks, and keep several going simultaneously. Writing essays, for me, is like journaling twenty years after the fact. I go easy on myself and do not—simply because I now live in a digital age—expect perfection from my memory. I figure, if I only wrote about things I remembered very well, I might never have written anything at all. 

Recently, a former student, Maritza, reached out, seeking my advice for jumpstarting her writing. “I don’t know where to begin,” she confided, a phrase I recognize in my bones. The key, for me, is not a little gold diary key, but to start somewhere—with a moment, or maybe with a song, place, or detail. I write whatever pops into mind, and don’t decide if I remember “enough” until after I’ve given it a go. 

Jumpstarting sparks remembering; you have to get the car running so that you can actually move. For me that means sometimes turning an unproductive writing day, when I’m sleep-deprived, distracted, or just not feeling it, into a semi-productive one by inventing topics and ideas for later, for when the mood strikes. (How DIY of me: a book of handcrafted, shabby chic rainy day writing exercises!) In a blank or mostly blank notebook, at the top of every other page, I write a word or a phrase; each one is a prompt. When I’m looking for inspiration, I flip through this notebook; one of the headings usually calls out to me, and off to the races I go. Occasionally, a prompt even becomes the title for a finished piece, like in the case of my SR essay “A Merry Little Group Home Christmas.”

A few months ago, I came across the words “Memories to Age Six” written atop a blank notebook page, jotted by my own hand a year or so earlier. When I re-discovered it, my husband and I had been speculating about how much, if anything, our two-year-old son would remember about being two. (Would he recall his first trip to Florida, those two-foot long iguanas? Or his Matchbox cars being confiscated, temporarily, by mean Mommy after he clocked her on the head with a Mustang and left a boo boo?) As I started to freewrite about my own early years, I was surprised by how much I actually, truly remembered from my life, especially between ages three and six. Some of my memories originated in stories told by my parents throughout my childhood, but other moments I recalled simply because I lived them: I was there. Whether routines that occurred in a pattern, or one-time events, the more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more material I generated, until I had a finished essay draft plus pages of extra notes. 

As I drafted a six-year-old memoir, I had to quickly decide: do I comment and reflect on the child’s life, or do I let her experiences speak for themselves? I decided on the latter, to focus on the child’s impressions and lived moments, allowing the adult writer to hang back, quietly choosing language and forming a structure. I find that when writing about a very distant past, concrete details are especially important, as memories need physical objects in which to take root, spreading their shoots into the darkness and reaching for context. My Six-Year-Old Memoir has many such anchors: a sewing machine, a horse track, green shorts with daisies, a tiny tarnished silver cup, a gun, a hospital bed, a two-toned Buick, and maraschino cherries. 

Since writing is remembering, and writing is crafting, you often don’t know how much you recall about your life until you face the blank page (or screen) and dive in.  Memory is part black magic, a deeply intuitive conjuring, and part rolling a tumbleweed through the mind’s desert, gathering what sticks. The more I go with it, the more I think, (a fully focused, meditative-type thinking), and the more I perform other little exercises to jog my recollection, for example, looking at Google Maps street view or texting a family member or friend. 

It is usually not until after I’ve written quite a bit that I figure out what an essay is about, and often that “what” defies summary, is more of an emotional cue than a lesson or theme. For me, the purpose of nonfiction is not to see how much I remember, but to determine what I can do with what I think I remember. And when I’m finished writing a particular piece, I always feel like I remember those events more vividly than when I started—sometimes the writing and memories become intertwined, interchangeable. What has happened is gone, and let’s face it, there is nothing, not even writing, that can ever bring it back. What’s left is the art of memory. And I’m okay with that.

#ArtLitPhx: Am I American Yet? with Abdi Nor Iftin

Date: Sunday, May 5, 2019

Time: 4:30 PM – 6:30 PM

Location: Changing Hands Phoenix, 300 W Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013

Cost: Free

Event Details:

Join author Abdi Nor Iftin in partnership with Snell and Wilmer and The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing for a community reading and book signing Sunday, May 5, 2019 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Changing Hands Phoenix (300 W Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013).

While encouraged, RSVPs are purely for the purposes of monitoring attendance, gauging interest, and communicating information about parking, directions, and other aspects of the event. You do not have to register or RSVP to attend this event. This event is open to the public and free.

About the Book

Abdi Nor Iftin first fell in love with America from afar. As a child, he learned English by listening to American pop and watching action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. When U.S. Marines landed in Mogadishu to take on the warlords, Abdi cheered the arrival of these Americans, who seemed as heroic as those of the movies.

Sporting American clothes and dance moves, he became known around Mogadishu as Abdi American, but when the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab rose to power in 2006, it became dangerous to celebrate Western culture. Desperate to make a living, Abdi used his language skills to post secret dispatches, which found an audience of worldwide listeners. Eventually, though, Abdi was forced to flee to Kenya.

In an amazing stroke of luck, Abdi won entrance to the U.S. in the annual visa lottery, though his route to America did not come easily. Parts of his story were first heard on the BBC World Service and This American Life. Now a proud resident of Maine, on the path to citizenship, Abdi Nor Iftin’s dramatic, deeply stirring memoir is truly a story for our time: a vivid reminder of why America still beckons to those looking to make a better life. (Penguin Random House)

About the Author
Abdi Nor Iftin

When the civil war in Somalia began, Abdi Nor Iftin was five; he and his brother became the sole providers for the family while they also attended a madrassa. Amidst the daily shelling and the famine, Abdi had one escape: American movies and music. At neighborhood showings of RamboCommando, and The Terminator, Abdi learned of America, and taught himself English, and began to dream of a life in the United States.  

In Call Me American, Iftin recounts his harrowing, extraordinary, and uplifting story. His love of western culture and music earned him the name “Abdi American.” This became a liability when Islamic extremism took hold of Somalia. Evading conscription by al-Shabaab while secretly filing stories for NPR under penalty of death, he stayed in Somalia until he had no choice but to flee. He smuggled himself into Kenya, where a different but grinding life of hopelessness awaited. He spent days hiding silently in an apartment from raids by Kenyan police, once passing time reading The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump. And then, a stroke of incredible luck: he won the Diversity Visa Lottery.  

Now a proud and legal resident of Maine and on the path to citizenship this year, Abdi is attending a university in Maine, and working on a film about his book. He volunteers with his immigrant community in Maine, he translates for people with limited English.

Today’s America and the travel/immigration ban worry Abdi, a Muslim; as he writes, his brother, still in Kenya, is now often the one comforting him. Abdi’s dramatic, deeply stirring memoir is truly a story for our time: a vivid portrait of the desperation refugees seek to escape and a reminder of why western democracies still beckon to those looking to make a better life.

Learn More About the Event or RSVP

Contributor Update, Tania Katan: Creative Trespassing

Today we are happy to announce the news of past contributor Tania Katan! Tania’s instruction manual for inserting creativity into your work and personal life, titled “Creative Trespassing,” was just published in February by Penguin Random House. Creator of the viral campaign #ItWasNeverADress is no stranger to integrating feminism, power and creative strength into everyday life. The book is full of her own incredible stories and encourages all readers to make their own opportunities and fun.

More information about Tania’s book can be found here, her non-fiction short story from Issue 4 can be found here, along with her interview from the same issue.

Congratulations Tania!

#ArtLitPhx: Writing Autobiographies and Memoirs with Dr. Duane Roen

artlitphx

Date: 03/09/2019
Time: 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Location: Library Meeting Room B, Tempe Public Library, 3500 S. Rural Rd., Tempe, Arizona 85282
Cost: Free

Event Description:
Learn to use strategies and resources for writing autobiography and memoir to tell your family’s story. Participants will write about a life event, so please bring paper and a pen or a laptop computer.

QUESTIONS? 480-350-5500

FEE: None

REGISTRATION: Not required

Contributor Update, Paul Lisicky: LATER

Today we are happy to share news about past contributor Paul Lisicky. Paul will be presenting his forthcoming novel LATER at the Tin House Writer Workshop in Oregon this March, the novel will be published a year from then (March 2020) by Greywolf Press. His sixth book, LATER recounts Paul’s life in the early 90s during the AIDS epidemic as he explored the artistic and real world.

 

Information about the workshop can be found here, refer to Paul’s website for updates on his book here.

 

Congratulations Paul!

Contributor Update, Emily Matyas: Sol y Tierra

Today we are happy to share news about past contributor photographer Emily Matyas. Emily has a new book releasing this spring titled “Sol y Tierra: Views Beyond the U.S. – Mexico Border, 1988-2018.” The collection of photographs explores life just south of the border, beginning a conversation between the two countries. Along with the photographs, journalists Linda Valdez and Sergio Anaya have included essays and one of the photographic subjects have included a short memoir.

Some more of Emily’s work, published in our 14th issue, can be found here. Be sure to look out this spring for more information on the book and events!

Congratulations Emily!

Contributor Update, Pam Houston: Deep Creek, Finding Hope in the High Country

Today we are happy to share the news of past contributor Pam Houston. Pam’s memoir “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country” was just published by W. W. Norton & Company in January of 2019. Reminiscing about her life living in the Colorado Rockies, Pam discusses the beauty and pain of human life and her ties to the earth, specifically her 120-acre ranch. The memoir not only includes her essays but also 12 of the author’s own black and white photographs.

The book can be purchased here, and information about her signing event at Bookshop Santa Cruz can be found here.

Congratulations Pam!