The Writer as Foreigner: An Interview with Terese Svoboda


Terese Svoboda headshot

Terese Svoboda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently the novel Bohemian Girl, which Booklist named one of the ten best Westerns of 2012. Her fourth novel, Tin God, was re-issued this year. Zinzi Clemmons caught up with her during a mild August to discuss Sudan, life in foreign cultures, and multi-genre writing.

Zinzi Clemmons (ZC): Your story “High Heels,” in Issue 05 of The Common, is set on an unnamed island in the Indian Ocean where Swahili is spoken. Which country is this? Did you intend for the reader to gain a sense of a specific location through the story?

Terese Svoboda (TS): It’s Lamu, off the coast of Kenya. It should evoke the disorientation of an extreme change of location for the characters — and, of course, of an island in the Indian Ocean.

ZC: The story seems germane to its setting — it centers on tourists in a foreign land, and the girl’s high heels present an obstacle to her successfully navigating the landscape. The shoes are also a symbol of how out of place that character is. How did location inspire your writing of this piece?

TS: I watched one of my students hobble off the airplane. Story was flint for the setting.

ZC: You spent a year in the Sudan doing production for documentary films, which served as inspiration for your first novel, the Bobst Prize-winning Cannibal. What was your experience like in that country, at the time that you were there?

TS: I could have landed on the moon: flat, seemingly barren landscape, nude Sudanese nearly seven foot tall, not a single cognate except “machine gun.” To capture (what a strange word, capture, in this context) my experience even fleetingly took me fifteen years and at least two books: Cannibal and my second book of poetry, Laughing Africa.

ZC: In Cannibal, and in “High Heels”, you explore the role of the foreigner. What compels you about this type of role? How have your experiences as a foreigner shaped you as a person and a writer?

TS: I think most writers are foreigners — liminal characters in the world. They have to see it from the edge; they have to see under the edge into its foreignness for any kind of authenticity. Stepping away physically allows the mind to roam where the edge starts to connect. It’s lonely.

ZC: I read in one of your essays that you’ve visited Kenya several times to teach. Do you feel a kinship with Africa?

TS: Living in such a foreign culture causes a kind of rebirth. You don’t know who you are in relation to everyone else, the environment, the stars. I could never hope to feel at home in Africa; however, I do occasionally pine for the smell of kerosene. What I value there most is the contact with the people. You don’t smile so much if you’re not connected, and they smile. So far it hasn’t mattered which country of the five I’ve visited, the pan-African milieu never fails to astound me.

ZC: How many times have you visited Sudan since your initial trip? Do you have any thoughts, as someone who spent significant time in the country, on the conflict that has occurred there in the intervening years?

TS: I’ve only gone twice, with thirty years between. The second time was so thrilling, just before the referendum that decided their nationhood. I would have just been in the way any other time. I tried to adopt Sudanese children as a sop to my conscience but was prevented by the government. That was the only way I felt I could personally intervene. I have a friend who helped negotiate the first peace. He was trained as a historian, and only he could sort out the strands that made up the noose that has caught South Sudan. [The noose] is still oil but Chinese interests now figure prominently.


ZC: You have published books across three genres — poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and you’ve worked in film. Has the experience of writing in one genre influenced your work in another? For example, poets’ attention to syntax often makes them great at crafting sentences in fiction.

TS: Images press at the pen but not form. Sometimes I have to go through a number of genres before I find one that works, sometimes I go through genres because the image continues to feel potent. Trailer Girl was a poem, a story, a script, a novel, and then a night of dance.

Some experiences happen between images. Chris Marker’s San Soleil is a good example. I’m talking about the frisson between moving images, or what’s produced when the voiceover or dialogue isn’t tied to the images, not traditional narrative filmmaking. Sometimes I’ve published scripts as poems. Most recently, Narrative magazine ran the poem “Decapitated”; that is the script for “The Talking Tea-Kettle.”

ZC: Do you see all your creative work as essentially being part of the same project of creative expression?

TS: Indeed I do. Europe doesn’t make the same kind of marketing distinctions as in America, and even fifty years ago it was considered common here to write in many. It only takes one book to be remembered.

ZC: You grew up in a small town in Nebraska and many of your books are set there. So many writing programs, residencies, and conferences are in rural environments — so much so that I think that those of us interested in writing often associate these types of open landscapes with writing. How has being raised in Nebraska, or your identity as a Midwesterner, influenced you as a writer?

TS: I like a closed landscape when I write, thank you very much. Ann Lamott’s garage, no distracting landscape. Nebraska was a place for me to emerge from, to beat my way through the cornstalks. Its influence is mainly one of being simultaneously bicoastal, no accent, no identity. A great place for a witness protection program, very mysterious in its blankness. I suppose that would be terrific for a writing retreat but my history there marks it for me.

ZC: Where do you spend your time now, and where do you feel most inspired?

TS: New York City, New York City, New York City. I step out of my apartment into the world. But I very seldom write about it, instead I suck up its energy. Isn’t that inspiration?

ZC: What are you working on now?

TS: An experimental biography on the feminist anarchist modernist poet Lola Ridge who was born in Ireland, spent 24 years in New Zealand, four years in Australia, and the rest of her life in New York, with solo trips to Paris, Baghdad, and Mexico. I visited the wild South Island of New Zealand last year, a town called Hokitika that’s famous for its Wild Food Festival of stallion semen, huhu grubs (buttery like chicken but they bite!), sheep’s brain, possum, earthworms, wasp larvae ice cream, and sphagnum moss.

ZC: Is there any place you’ve been dying to visit? Any location you’d like to write about and are waiting to see first-hand?

TS: Everyone asked where was I going with my new Guggenheim. I’d just returned from the South Pacific and had no lust for wandering. Now I’m leaning toward Marrakesh and some dangerous desert.

Bohemian Girl cover

Terese Svoboda‘s short story “High Heels” appears in Issue 05 of The Common.

Zinzi Clemmons is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia.

The Writer as Foreigner: An Interview with Terese Svoboda

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