His characters span countries, cultures, and concerns, but come together in curious ways
Jamel Brinkley said of Donald Quist’s linked short story collection, For Other Ghosts, “The words gathered into a book of fiction are often said to conjure up a world. Usually this is an exaggeration, but what Donald Quist has accomplished in For Other Ghosts is to truly give us what feels like an entire world’s breadth and depth.” Indeed, reading For Other Ghosts is like stepping inside worlds within worlds, a universe within a universe where characters across a globe interact and appear to be side-by-side despite the “breadth and depth” of our earth. Structurally innovative, For Other Ghosts is twelve stories organized in three sections meant to distance the reader from an internal perspective toward a universal one. For Other Ghosts is not only about the impact of globalization, it is also about legacies, human nature’s true “ghosts,” and the shape of what lingers after politics, after war, after colonization, after misogyny, and after loss.
Donald Quist is author of the the essay collection Harbors, a Foreword INDIES Bronze Winner and International Book Awards Finalist. His writing has appeared in AGNI, North American Review, The Rumpus, and was Notable in Best American Essays 2018. He is creator of the online micro-essay series PAST TEN, and co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast.
Donald and I spoke on the phone about our experiences publishing with “small” presses, our responsibilities as storytellers, and how globalization impacts characterization when writing about cultures you do not belong to.
Tyrese L. Coleman: This is your third book published with an independent or “small” press. I really wanted to speak with you about that because I find there isn’t much out there about writers who publish with independent, and in some cases, university presses. What are some of the benefits of working with an independent or university press?
Donald Quist: I feel like independent presses are making the most exciting work right now. They aren’t beholden to trends. They are publishing the most diverse, the bravest stories.
This is not to knock any big publishers, in case they want to publish me, but I do like working with small presses because there is more control over the finished product. It feels more like a team effort, and I don’t feel lost as a writer in a lot of the promotion and the aspects of making a book profitable. The goal with small publishers is to make a book that’s profitable, but that’s sort of second to publishing the work they find the most inventive. They’re more enthusiastic about the work. They’re more enthusiastic about you as an artist. They have a great investment in you. Because they’re a small press and if they choose you and work with you, it’s a huge compliment. I’ve noticed that, for me personally, it kind of brings out the best in my efforts because, again, it’s a team thing. It feels like something bigger than me.
TLC: How does For Other Ghosts speak to your essay collection, Harbors? I felt like they are complementary books. Was that intentional?
DQ: Well it was intentional to me, so that’s good to know and highly validating. Both books were created with the same ethos. This idea of writing in services of others. One of my writing philosophies is that everyone has varying levels of privilege, and with that privilege we owe it to ourselves and others to use whatever skills in our disposal to improve situations and try to limit the disparity of those around us. I was hoping that sort of tone would move throughout both books.
On a craft level, if someone were to read Harbors, stop and then read For Other Ghosts, it would almost feel like the first story of For Other Ghosts continues from Harbors. So, it moves from nonfiction into fiction. That was intentional. In fact, this is part of a three-book set that is going to come from Awst.
One of my writing philosophies is that everyone has varying levels of privilege, and with that privilege we owe it to ourselves and others to use whatever skills in our disposal to improve situations.
TLC: Would you classify some of the stories as autobiographical?
DQ: I would have to. I would say a lot of my fiction is autobiographical, but particularly that first story. It came about while I was traveling through Ghana with my father. I was trying to consolidate some of these ideals I have about Africa and about, specifically, the pan-African movement with sort of the realities of what globalization and colonization and those effects have on modern-day Ghana. It was this conflict between the dream and the reality, and my father’s intention of what made him leave or emigrate from Ghana to America. Sort of what happens when a lot of these ideals intersect or clash and then what to do with them. A lot of times you can get closer to the truth through fiction than through memoir. It became a fictional story and so it felt right to start the collection with that. I have a collection that seems to be about people and populations that don’t get a voice and often feel vanished and disappeared. People who feel like ghosts.
TLC: Have you seen the show Black Mirror? When you first start out watching it, you don’t realize that all of these short stories are happening in the same universe at the same time until you get to the last episode of the latest season. I felt like that when I first started reading For Other Ghosts, but then it felt like each story was about different people in different parts of the world, all scattered throughout, in the same time and universe.
DQ: That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I tried to connect, physically, some of the stories. So, characters show up in some, but they aren’t major characters. I wanted it to work where you could read it out of order, jump around, and each time find something new. There’s one story called “#COOKIEMONSTER” where all the characters from all the stories converge but not in the main storyline. They converge in the comments section [of different online articles] because characters and elements from every other story appear there.
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TLC: Let’s talk about #COOKIEMONSTER, which is a story about sexual assault, privilege, and the so-called, “he said, she said.” It’s very topical right now, considering the allegations against Supreme Court judge, Brett Kavanaugh, and #metoo.
DQ: I started writing [that story] in 2012 because, from my observation, life as a woman is hard as fuck. And it doesn’t seem to get easier. Life as a woman of color is especially hard as fuck and it also doesn’t appear to be getting any easier. I guess that story just came about over years of me just trying to parse. The best way I could put it together was through the way I found examples: search engine results. What if I wrote an entire story out of search engine results? What if I approach this the way so many people do before completely making their mind up about how a situation occurred and about the character of a person?
It came from frustration and not knowing what to do with seeing people, specifically women who are victims of sexual violence, being literally silenced by the world and then being gaslit about it. The way people would often talk about instances of sexual violence — they are just so confident about who a man could be or who the accused person could be because of their character that it completely erased what a victim is trying to say. And oftentimes people invent narratives as to why this person would do it. This is not to say that there aren’t instances or outliers in which there have been those who have lied about being sexually assaulted or abused. But what does the majority of people who come forward have to gain? What could they get from this?
A lot of the book is about wrestling with the duality of people, acknowledging and accepting that just because a person might’ve done good things or made contributions to the community, does not mean that they couldn’t also have caused irreparable damage. I just hope that the book would enter into a discourse with that.
A lot of the book is about wrestling with the duality of people, acknowledging that just because a person might’ve made contributions to the community, does not mean that they couldn’t also have caused irreparable damage.
TLC: We’ve talked about the global feel of this book. You’ve lived in Thailand, and you’ve been to Ghana, and obviously the U.S. What other countries or cultures that you visited have influenced this book?
DQ: Because I was in Thailand for five years, I spent a lot of time visiting countries around Asia. I spent a lot of time in Cambodia and Vietnam. Those countries had a lot of immigrants who would come to Thailand because China, which is situated above them, would often cut chains to resources. China stripped these Southeastern Asian countries of a lot of their life blood. Specifically, in Laos, you kind of see this. The rivers become a trickle by the time they get down. I wanted to make sure I articulated how international agriculture policy can affect people’s daily lives on a very real level. I spent time in China. Been to Japan. From Japan, I wanted to convey in the final story in the collection a sense of quietness to it.
TLC: A lot of this collection involves characters who come from cultures unlike your own. What are some concerns you had about writing from their perspectives?
DQ: It was important to me to acknowledge that when I am writing about cultures beyond my own that I will most likely get it wrong. That I need to acknowledge the limit of my own perspective and to try to be as respectful as possible. That’s part of the reason why the collection took so long. To me, writing fiction takes a longer time because of the amount of research. I am doing more research for a fiction story than I’m doing for an essay. I don’t like the word “authenticity” because I feel like when we use the word “authenticity” we can marginalize people too, creating monoliths. Nobody talks about the authentic Californian surf shop. We don’t do that. The authentic Maine. We don’t do that. But I try to be as respectful in my portrayal of perspectives and cultures that I do not belong to as much as I can. And accept the fact that if I believe all writers have a right to write about whatever they want, I must acknowledge that all readers have the right to comment, and that’s part of putting the work out there. I need to do more work on my end to figure stuff out and to do research.
You know Brandon Taylor wrote that piece in Literary Hub about how writing about other people is not hard and how a failure of craft is not a moral failing. I read it a few times as I was sending this book out to places. His piece kind of helped a lot and came at the right time. And also, after reading that essay, I looked at the pieces, and I knew that when I started each story, I wanted to start by writing against a monolith of a culture or a monolith of a gender, or a monolith of a sexual identity. I wanted to make characters that were more nuanced and complex and couldn’t be easily classified. And I think that intention helped steer me away from some of the pitfalls.
Because this collection is about globalization and knowing that as I am writing about a Pakistani immigrant that lives in America that there is no mold for that. There are some cultural things I need to be aware of and show respect to, but there is also the freedom of knowing that, because of globalization, an individual is not living as one single representation of what we can picture of a certain identity. Everyone is multifaceted. If I can recognize the diffident identities that I possess then I should be able to recognize or create individual identities within my characters. And that itself hopefully steers me away from making caricatures.
Donald Quist Brings the Whole World Into One Short Story Collection was originally published in Electric Literature on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.