Small Wonders: An Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Between the pandemic, Florida’s unbearable summer heat, and a badly sprained ankle, I have been spending more time indoors lately than I prefer. I was fortunate then to read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s debut essay collection, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, at the perfect time. Nezhukumatathil’s essays are a reminder that as many delights can be found in the backyard or home garden as in the isolated wilderness. Each work is a small marvel filled with infectious joy. Together, these essays are a map that reveal we don’t need to trod off the beaten path to appreciate the beauty around us. That is part of what makes World of Wonders such a treasure. Even when focusing on rare plants and animals, the prose is grounded in everyday curiosity. The author reminds us to take a closer look, there’s wonder everywhere.

TriQuarterly was lucky enough to publish an amalgamation of two essays, “In That Slowdown: On the Southern Cassowary and Fireflies,” from the collection in our most recent issue. I spoke with Nezhukumatathil about nature writing and childhood wonder via email.  

TQ: One thing I really love about World of Wonders is that you often consider marvelous and astonishing parts of the natural world through a lens of daily routines and familiar settings. I think a lot of narrative nonfiction about nature winds up being, intentionally or unintentionally, elitist in that the writer decides to run off into the woods without worrying about money or a job or other obligations. Maybe another way to put this is that nature meditations often exist in a kind of privileged literary space, but I think you break away from that here. What inspired you to write about the natural world and how were you thinking about your relationship with nature as an artist?

AN: Thank you so much! I think you are absolutely correct in that nature writing often assumes being outside or away from any other obligations is easy and accessible and safe for all. I could swoon and be in awe of those narratives, but I always felt like those experiences were just not made for a large segment of the country’s population. Quite honestly these essays started from a place of joy and exuberance in wanting to share a little bit of my nerdy obsessions but it was only when I started culling them together that I realized my relationship with the outdoors is absolutely informed by having two Asian parents and now, trying to be a present partner and parent myself all while navigating spaces that are primarily white. And where were those narratives of the outdoors?

TQ: This collection bounces around a fair amount in terms of time and place in your own life, honing in on important moments not only in terms of close connections to the natural world, but also in relation to how you're thinking about the concept of home. Of course, flora and fauna vary by region, they become integral to how we think about certain settings and geographies, but I wondered if you could expand on this idea a little bit. The writing in these essays is incredibly rich with setting details, so how were you thinking about them in connection to your own relationship with specific places and environments?

AN: The easy answer is the outdoors has always been a sense of wonder and home for me even if my actual street address changed several times during the course of my childhood. Salamanders I find along a creek don’t ask me what are you. And no matter how much I missed my friends in previous homes I could look up into the night sky and find constants there since I was seven or so. I could look up in the sky in Iowa and then later in the suburbs of Phoenix and see my old buddies—the constellations—again.

TQ: The wonders of childhood run through much of this collection. You include vignettes from your own childhood as well as many exploring nature with your sons. I guess I have a couple related questions. When writing this, did you think about childhood as an access point to the idea of being astonished or awed? How does, if at all, the lens of youth influence or alter your prose? Did your approach to these essays vary when you were reflecting on your own childhood and when you imagine nature through your sons' eyes?

AN: Excellent connections! I never set out to do this purposely but one thing that became quite clear the more I wrote is that for most children you don’t have to be taught how to wonder or be in awe of things. Spend any time talking to a four-year-old outdoors and one of the most common phrases you’ll hear is “Look!” The smallest things are filled with joy and astonishment. A cloud shaped like a bear, a smooth pebble, a creamy magnolia bud left on a sidewalk. I guess you could say I wanted my readers to go back to that place in their lives where they could share in my awe and wonder about the outdoors. Where they wouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed to say “LOOK!” In my research I also happily discovered one of the origins of the word ‘wonder’ is the same as the word for smile. My hope especially in this dark period in our country, is that in these pages my enthusiasm for these plants and animals is contagious.

TQ: You've published four books of poetry and I know a lot of consideration goes into ordering a collection. World of Wonders consists of nearly thirty essays. What considerations did you make in terms of order and flow? From my reading, I felt a tonal shift in the last third of the book, a slight pivot from wonder to warning. Was that intentional?

AN: Yes, but I had great readers and editors who all agreed this should not be in any sort of chronological order. My colleague Kiese Laymon brilliantly pointed out that there were several echoes between the essays that reverberate without having to follow a timeline of my life. I would be dishonest and the whole book would have read too saccharine if I’d ignored the very real environmental concerns of some of these plants and animals, so I did not want to leave the reader without showing what could be at stake if we lose these creatures and plants. But the final note, I’m hoping, is that the book ends on love.

TQ: Throughout World of Wonders, there are these beautiful illustrations by Fumi Nakamura. I found the visual art was delightful and helpful in terms of reading experience, because at times I would not have known what a creature or plant looked like without the illustration for reference. How did you go about this collaboration? Was there an ongoing conversation? Were you thinking about how the illustrations complemented the written work or did they come after the essays were complete?

AN: After observing or studying these obsessions, I wanted to introduce a visual element to capture a pop of surprise for the reader. After four books of poetry, I trust my descriptive ability, but in prose I wanted it to be amplified and supplemented by a visual artist. After a lifetime of reading books about the outdoors that didn’t feature authors who even remotely looked like me, it was of utmost importance to find an Asian American illustrator who could join me in presenting these essays. Fumi Nakamura not only captured the exquisite scientific detail but also captured that exuberance and love that I hope to convey in my prose. I completed the essays first and was delighted every single time that Fumi captured the tone and mood that I was going for.

TQ:  An essay like "Flamingo" juxtaposes profound beauty with the ever-present reality of death. A big part of nature is recognizing its cruelty along with its wonder, the ephemerality of everything and the frantic, constant striving for survival. Can you talk a little bit about writing in praise of nature's astonishments while also considering its dangers and depletion?

AN: Throughout the process of writing these essays the news constantly reminded me that being outdoors is not always a safe place for everyone. The young woman who was murdered at my alma mater could have been any of us and just because a beloved flamingo was kept in a zoo doesn’t mean automatic safety, as in the horrific case of Pinky from the Tampa zoo that I wrote about. I wanted these essays to reflect the precariousness of who gets to be outside and who and what is safe and why. I don’t have the answers for all of this, but I wanted to at least add these concerns to the conversation: that you can be in awe of the outdoors and also be worried about other things and people besides yourself.

TQ: In the final essay, "Firefly (Redux)," you mention that when you teach in elementary school classrooms fewer and fewer kids have ever seen a firefly. There's a sense that we're losing our connection with nature. You go on to note, "The number of my students who can tell the difference between, say, a maple leaf and an oak leaf has dwindled in my college-level environmental writing classes, too. This shared decrease in knowledge about the outdoors can't be a coincidence." I am perennially worried about climate change, but I finished this book with my happiness accompanied by a particular sense of mourning. I started thinking, "will these essays soon be eulogies?" Five years from now will these wonders still be with us? What were your intentions for the closing of the collection? Can you talk a little bit about the environmental message in this book?

AN: I’m hesitant to say more about the end of the book than I already have earlier, because it is out of my hands, and part of the joy of releasing a book into the world is hearing the myriad reactions and interpretations of it. But I can say with all confidence that I put my whole heart into this book and I literally laughed and cried as I reflected on these beloved plants and animals for the very reasons you outline here. But my greatest wish with this collection is, after learning about these wonderous plants and animals, readers will have less of an appetite for hurting each other and the planet—and feel a little more likely to exclaim in wonder at the marvels around them. Is that possible to do in a pandemic? It has to be, right?