"I think that you have to be willing to be in a state of embarrassment and cringe in order to write a lot. There is no other way. Self enjoyment is embarrassing.
The reason why I like to read is not because I’m looking for elegant writing or because I want to be impressed by craft really. I am not looking to be represented either. People who read don’t really want someone to tell our stories for us and, yet, we are obsessed with reading stories. The reason why we like to read is the same reason we like to snoop. We are able to intuit that sharing self enjoyment is incredibly embarrassing and this intuition enlivens our curiosity.
I think that embarrassment is incredibly important—we cannot really read if we only allow ourselves to read books that we think will make us into better people. We read because we like to snoop. The same goes for writing. We can only write if we allow ourselves to be villains, to have big egos, to be self indulgent, and to be careless. We will never write if we are trying to be good writers." —Alice Sparkly Kat
“Writing offered a way to live outside the present, skipping over its textures and slowness, converting the present into language, thinking about language rather than being present at all.” —Hua Hsu, Stay True
I always think about that: how fleeting ways of being taught or being disciplined then inform your critical practice. There’s the world that produces your work. After you’re done writing, there’s another world that the work produces. It’s important to never lose sight of that.
I’m working on The Feminist Killjoy Handbook right now, in which I have a chapter about the feminist killjoy as a poet. I use a very simple expression, “to let loose.” To let loose is to express yourself. It can even be about losing your temper. But it can also just mean to loosen one’s hold. Lauren Berlant taught me a lot about loosening a hold on things. They had an incredible way of creating room in the description of an attachment to something, which I think is really hard to do. And my aunt, Gulzar Bano, who is a feminist poet, taught me something, too. She wrote poems that were angry, on one level, but also very, very loving. When I think about both Gulzar and Lauren, I think about how the tightness or narrowness of words—of pronouns, say—can be experienced as giving you no room. You have to experiment with combination. There’s a connection between moving words around and opening lives up.
There’s one line in Audre Lorde’s “Power,” a very difficult and painful poem, about power lying loose and limp as an unconnected wire. I’m interested in the idea of language as a connected wire. You keep it going so that something can pass through. It could be electricity. When I think of electricity, I think of snap, snap, snap, sizzle. You have to let the violence in to get it out, to express it. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde talked about writing that poem after stopping the car because she heard about the acquittal of a white police officer for the murder of a Black child. She had to stop the car, she said, otherwise she was going to have an accident. She had to stop the car, and a poem came out. She had to stop the car to get the poem out. That’s the connection, I think, between my auntie, and Lauren, and Audre—the absolute willingness to register the impact of violence, so that that registering is also the creation of a possibility for being otherwise.
Oh, for sure. I mean, I don’t really understand what I’ve said until I’ve written it. I don’t know what I think about something until I’ve written it down, or found another piece of writing that can articulate it. So I feel, again, that we’re in this extremely privileged position of our work being that very thing which is not knowing. Our work as artists is exploring.
Sarah Shin: It seems storytelling is commonly studied in anthropology, but not all anthropologists are storytellers. The stories you tell are vast and entangled: how do you find your way as a writer?
Anna Tsing: For The Mushroom at the End of the World, I was thinking of each chapter as a short story rather than as an analytical article, so I started out to see what would happen if I kept chapters to ten pages or so. My academic friends all said it wasn’t possible as a scholar to work in the short form: in most scholarly book chapters, you have your analytic apparatus with your theory followed by your data, then finally you’re pulling it together. I wanted to try it, though, because as a writer, there was something joyful about writing small pieces that could each have a nugget of something, rather than explaining everything and trying to wrap it up in a package later. I carried on against all advice; I just pushed on. And in the end, I felt really delighted.
As a storyteller, I realised that these short chapters couldn’t just go on indefinitely but needed parts and interludes, and other ways of creating some kind of structure. But as an alternative genre, writing these small methods was really pleasurable for me and also mimicked some of the patchiness that I wanted to get across – to have people think through patches, rather than through a single big structure.