Interview: Nina Adel

Nina Adel: Winner, 2020 BLR Nonfiction Prize

BLR: Congratulations on your lyric essay, “Refugere,” winning the 2020 Felice Buckvar Nonfiction Prize. … Where does it fit in the genre of creative nonfiction, and how does it differ from “fictionalized memoir” which I understand is the style of your current 8-year project entitled Leila’s List?”

Nina Adel: Refugere is, as you’ve said, a lyric essay, combining elements of poetry, essay and memoir. Almost all of my work takes place in the realm of the hybrid, and increasingly, hybrid poetics. If you look up that term, it’ll say something like “a playful mix of disparate and formal aesthetic strategies.” While those may seem like lofty terms, I myself am just a regular person and artist who finds rules very difficult to adhere to, and at every turn. I have to have a compelling reason to follow rules – a paycheck, the law, people don’t get it, my kids need food, I’ll die if I don’t – in order to do that. In the end, my work is just some kind of mix of obligatory convention and yearning innovation.  Leila’s List is the story of my life, told backwards from a 3-hour vacation some years ago to a day in my early childhood sitting in a driveway playing in gravel, my mother watching from a window.  I’ve used the author-as-character approach and created Leila to allow myself absolute freedom in the telling, the ordering of events, the interpreting of people and moments. Yet it is in many ways an external view of that person – Leila – told not only in her voice and my voice, but in the voices of others. Refugere, on the other hand, isn’t a story at all. It’s an experience revealed from the inside, reflecting the interiority of a person – me – with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not a story, like Leila’s List, but an experience.

Almost all of my work takes place in the realm of the hybrid… I myself am just a regular person and artist who finds rules very difficult to adhere to.

– Nina Adel

BLR: As a multidimensional artist, how does your songwriting and performing inform your creative writing?

Nina Adel: I’m an artist in my relationship to the world more than through one specific medium or genre. Whether I’m creating a meal composed of dishes I’ve conjured out of taste or sight-memory, writing a piece of music, making a freeform quilt or arranging tangible pieces of my life on a table– quills, shells, dishes I’ve dropped that shattered into pieces, a little bell from Japan, I am committing acts of critical thinking, intuition and maybe a little bit of witchery. There is, in a sense, no boundary between my acorn squash filled with fruits, herbs and multiple rices and my essay fueled by melodic lines. There is, however, a necessary boundary – necessary for me – between me and whatever audience I may have. When I used to perform concerts, I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) have my creative performance moment interrupted by what seemed like a requirement to say insipid things like, “Hello, Pittsburgh! How’s everybody doing tonight?” or by concern over the audience’s good time. I wanted to give my audience something in general, something that was true and in line with my artistic self-respect; but I needed to protect my vulnerable self. If I felt I had to “perform,” or suffered from audience-awareness (whether a real or potential audience) on the mike, I couldn’t breathe. Without breath, there is no voice. With the gradual move from an artistic medium requiring me to exist in the moment for an audience to one in which I could be simultaneously vulnerable in the intangible world and safe in the tangible one, I found a way to keep breathing. I could finally avoid all the little deaths I might (or might not) experience on a stage (likely due to C-PTSD) yet maintain my rhythmic and melodic sense and lyricism with the air flowing through my fingertips instead of just my trachea. The music carries on inside every other medium and genre I inhabit. I believe – I’ve been told – you can feel it clearly in my creative writing.

BLR: Some readers are more interested in an author’s real life rather than what’s in the author’s imagination. Do you think creative nonfiction is a good bridge between the two?

Nina Adel: Yes, perhaps it is! Not all Creative Nonfiction reveres imagination; quite a lot of it privileges creativity (or science, or diction, or philosophy) over imagination. In my little corner of this vast genre, however, imagination is a primary nutrient.  And so much of life – every person’s life – occurs in that elusive place, imagination. The way people toss around the term can be terribly dismissive of lived experience. How often do we even try to remove the filters through which we live and observe? How unencumbered is our sense of taste, or sight, or smell, or touch or sound? I think of the taste of cilantro, which my daughter hates because it tastes soapy to her and half the people in the world, but I love because it is fresh and pleasantly startling to me and the other half. Because experience, relationships, events and even the way light falls over the world are multi-faceted, imagination runs the gamut between subtle interpretive shading and pure invention. The genre name Creative Nonfiction, in my view, acknowledges our human inability to perceive and re-create life without at least some measure of subjectivity. It also evokes the universality of experience, despite how unique we think we are, in the sensory world. The reader can know how I feel and what I’ve lived (it’s a bit of a one-sided relationship) because they have tasted or seen or felt what they see on the page – my page – and suspend disbelief. They believe it’s real because it’s been real for them. They can come over that bridge by trusting in the shared parts of our perception.

BLR: Which writers have influenced you and do you have specific book recommendations for beginning writers?

Nina Adel: The kind of literary writing that influences me (and perhaps a more justifiable word here is inspires me) the most is lyrical prose, sensory elaboration of or specific attention to a character or author’s interiority, and freedom from conventions. Some of the writers or works that come to mind when I think of those three qualities, not necessarily all together in one work, are Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which I had to read four times before I could even tell you what is was “about,” so lost was I in her prose; Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle; Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts; Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (which, incidentally, is that work that urged me to write Refugere in the first place). There is so much breath in all of those works, and breath is my obsession, perhaps because I so often lose my own. Quite a lot of my influences and inspirations have come more from music than creative writing. Above all other songwriter-musician-poets, the Cuban artist Silvio Rodriguez opened a path of artistic desire for me that never disappeared though I’ve scarcely listened to him these recent years. There’s also this one moment in pianist Keith Jarrett’s improvised Koln Concert – I wish I could point you to the exact moment – that is so simultaneously devastating and uplifting that even thinking about it right now makes me want to communicate something to someone, anyone, this very minute…so, my recommendations? Maybe read those books I’ve just mentioned and listen to some music that practically kills you with its breath, beauty and haunting nature.