On the Record with Kazim Ali, Associate Professor
Oberlin’s own Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature Kazim Ali’s new book Uncle Sharif ’s Life in Music made its official release Tuesday. A poet, novelist, essayist and translator, Ali’s writing has appeared in prestigious publications such as The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Barrow Street, Jubilat, The Iowa Review and in The Best American Poetry 2007. Ali will read selections from the book Saturday at 5:30 p.m. The Review chatted with Ali to discuss his upcoming projects, fragmented storytelling and dreams of playing the piano.
The first thing I have to say is I really like this book design.
The book itself ?
The cover feels so nice…
The matte. The book designer is really good. This is a small press. It’s called Sibling Rivalry [Press] and it’s run by a guy named Bryan Borland and his partner Seth Pennington, and they run it out of their house in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s part of this small press zeitgeist of the moment. They’re publishing a lot of important writers because what’s happened is that as commercial publishing has been leaving behind poetry and even leaving behind literature, a lot of the small presses are taking it up, so [Sibling Rivalry is] publishing some amazing people, and [Bryan] designed this book cover. And I think it’s one of my most beautiful — like, the appearance of it is so beautiful, and the cover is drawn by a former student of mine, who is also a poet. His name is Kelly McQuain and he’s a professor at a community college in Philadelphia, and he is an artist and I asked him to read the stories and draw it. So if you’ve read it then you know [the scene on the cover] is from the first story, but then the back with all these photographs are from the other different stories, and then the tarot cards are the images of the last novella which is constructed around tarot.
It almost appears to be a children’s book of stories, but then after the first story —
It gets more experimental.
What was your thought process behind putting all of these different stories together?
Well, there are seven different stories — six stories and a novella. The novella at the end is about 120 pages. For a long time I tried to get it published as a separate book, but it’s a weird length and I’m not known as a fiction writer. … But in the end I started to see all the seven pieces, even though they’re formally very separate, I started to see this trajectory about alienation, about romantic love, about desire, personal connection, all the dangerous [things] that can go wrong, especially growing up as a gay person, as a Muslim, you know, in Trump’s America — but even before it was Trump’s America, it was still Trump’s America. I mean, America gave us Trump, you know? … I just started to get really interested in the fact that none of the stories were in the same style. You have a young adult story; you have sort of this noir, not pornographic because it’s not explicit, but there’s an edginess in how it treats sexuality; and then you have this kind of science fiction-y story; and then this really fragmented lyric experimental story; then you have this epistolary novel which is almost old-fashioned, and then a novella that’s structured after the cards in a tarot deck. So in there I just started to see that in their disparity of style and approach, they actually made a book — made a very postmodern, kind of even messy, disordered book.
It seems like that idea of fragmentation is something that you are drawn to. It’s something I noticed in [your book Wind Instrument] as well.
I definitely think Wind Instrument and my previous book Bright Felon, and then the story called “Morning Raga,” all kind of draw from that same impulse of the fragmented utterance. … [It’s] something that is no longer a broken-off bit of something, it’s not like you’re hearing snapshots of an overheard conversation. You’re hearing a conversation but it’s in these fragments, and that’s like the era of tweets and Facebook statuses … and the kind of noise of the internet — it’s a new reality. I just published a book through the press I work at that’s called Nightboat Books by this girl [named Brynne Rebele-Henry] who’s  and it’s called Fleshgraphs, and it’s written in little status updates. It’s basically about girlhood, but like in this internet age.
How does perception of time play into your writing?
It does in “Morning Raga,” and that story is in the center of the book, and that’s where the prose breaks apart completely and then kind of comes back together. So you have the first story and the last story — even though the last story is written one chapter for every tarot card, so it’s like a little experimental in that way, it still has the most normative approach to storytelling as the first story, like the bookend to this book. And then all the stories in the middle kind of explode the question of story in different ways, and “Morning Raga” as a middle is where time explodes. It is set during the Iraq war. … It’s supposed to be set in 2003, this really weird time. Dimitra [is a] professor at a college, and someone sends a letter to the dean of the college reporting him for un-American activities, and that is something that’s based on something that happened to me when I was a professor in 2003, not at Oberlin.
So how much of this book is autobiographical?
I mean, I’ll draw from my own experience, but plenty is made up or exaggerated or invented. Or they’re stories that I’ve heard. … I had several uncles whose antics went into Uncle Sharif, but there wasn’t just one Uncle Sharif in all these things happened to him.
There’s a lot of music in both Wind Instrument and in your new book.
And my [next] book has music too.
Are you secretly a musician?
I might be, even though I’ve been at Oberlin for ten years and I haven’t signed up for music lessons in the Conservatory. Do you know what my secret desire is? My secret desire is to learn how to play the piano. I actually have big palms, but I have small fingers. … But the sound of the piano and the feeling of the instrument — I mean, you have these musicians who are drawn to these certain types of instruments for whatever reason. How do you decide whether you want to be a horn player or a string player? It would be really interesting to ask a professor about this, but I believe something in your physical body, in the way your breath moves, the way your bones are — something draws you into a shape musically. Music is an athleticism, it’s a physical athleticism. … The new novel I didn’t tell you about is called The String Quartet and it’s a novel written in the form of a string quartet. It has four different characters and each character has a storyline and they run simultaneously in a staff with clefs — like it’s music, or you’re reading music.
Are you going to have someone play it?
I want to, yeah. When I do readings from it, I’m going to invite people to do that.
What was your writing process like for Uncle Sharif?
The novella was not the thing that I wrote first. The story “Sewn,” which is the third story, and that’s the speculative fiction story … I wrote the year after I graduated from college. So I was 22 when I wrote it. That’s the oldest thing.
So that’s finally getting published, are you excited about that?
Yes. I kept it around for so long. And then the other stories I wrote along the way. “Morning Raga” I wrote in 2003 when it happened. I wrote “Uncle Sharif ” maybe 2009, I mean I just wrote those over the years. “Fool’s Errand” I started writing in 2006 or 2007 — it took me about five years to write. But this book is 1994 to now, it’s like 22 years of work. It takes a long time to write a book.
What is that feeling like to publish, since it’s been such a long time coming?
For me it feels great. I tell my students this: If you keep working and you keep working on things, and even if you don’t publish something right away, it doesn’t mean you destroy it or burn it. It doesn’t mean it’s not good. You just keep going, and then eventually what you’ve done comes through. So I feel glad that it’s out there in the world, and I have a little bit of anxiety because a lot of these stories are really personal, you know? There is a lot of myself in the young boy from “Uncle Sharif ’s Life in Music,” and the young man from “Fool’s Errand,” you know? There is a lot of autobiographical stuff in there. And there’s a lot of me in Alex, who’s the hero of “Screwdriver” and “Correspondence,” so even though a lot is fictionalized, there is still a lot of the spirit that’s drawn from my experience. It’s a vulnerable thing to put your work out there. As a poet I feel the reverse. In fiction you can make things up, but for me fiction feels very real, and fiction feels very close to my reality. In fact, fiction is where I tell the most truth. I think if I were a “fiction writer” I might feel like I have access to everything, I can make up anything I want, nobody’s gonna think this has anything to do with me. But because I’m a poet and I’m so used to exposing myself, I just obsess about what [I am] exposing about myself here.
Do you really see the book as a work of fiction, in the sense that you’re used to writing a lot of poetry and there’s a lot of poetic influence in there?
Well my publisher Byron keeps saying it’s poetry, that he edited it as though it were poetry. You know, my relationship to genre is complicated. I write poetry, I write fiction, I write essays and I also write books that cannot be categorized. … Wind Instrument — what do you say that is? To say it’s anything is going to diminish a certain approach to the book. In some ways a genre stands between the reader and the writer. I always talk about the relationship between genre and gender — that this is a reading practice. It’s something a reader brings to a text. With gender, the observer brings to the body ideas about performance. What is the body shaped like, what does it look like, how does it behave, what is its body language, does it have hair, is it hairless? This is how we determine what gender is … and sometimes I feel about genre the same way.
Interview conducted by Vida Weisblum, Editor-in-Chief