Interview with Kazim Ali on Anaïs Nin: An Unprofessional Study

Julianna DeMicco talks with poet, essayist, and fiction writer Kazim Ali about his collection of essays Anaïs Nin: An Unprofessional Study (Agape Editions, 2017) and how he engages both critically and creatively with the collection’s subject matter.

JD: Tell me about the process of writing Anaïs Nin: An Unprofessional Study. When did you first know you wanted to write about Nin and her work? Did you know right away what form and structure the book would take? How did the project come together?
KA: I have been reading Nin for many yearssince college when I discovered her fiction. I even wrote my senior thesis on the differences between scenes in her edited diaries and the first volume of the so-called “unexpurgated” diaries, which had then just begun to appear. So I carried a book around in my head for years. It wasn’t until the fall of 2010 that I began writing. The previous year, during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, I had kept a blog which was published as a book called Fasting for Ramadan. So I had this idea that I would write every day during Ramadan and it occurred to me that I could finally write about Anaïs Nin. Throughout the month I sat down for hours a day, carrying all my Nin books out onto the dining room table. By the end of the month, I had a first draft of around 150 pages. Of course, there was a lot of work after that. The structure developed because I began writing about the various images and forms of art that appeared and reappeared throughout Nin’s work.
JD: Tell me about your relationship with Nin’s work. When did you first begin reading her? How would you describe the effect her work had on you—and on your own work as a writer?
KA: I do talk in the book how Nin’s poetic approach, not just to language but really to the structure/architecture of fiction, had a strong influence on me as a young writer. I do think that the typical influence she has had has been about style and language and also on the courage of women and other marginalized writers to bring their internal experiences out into the world. But there really is an influence Nin had in terms of how she constructed her novels, how the plot was created and refracted throughout the separate books. There were times it felt she was really writing music or making a painting or choreographing a dance. So in my research and writing process for the book, it was gratifying to discover that Nin herself really did believe she was doing those things as well.
JD: This book is both highly lyrical and a work of scholarship. It’s an unusual book in that it’s often analytical and critically engaged, and yet the language and approach to the subject matter (Nin and her work, her life, her aesthetic) is very poetic, often a bit dreamlike. How did you combine a love of lyrical language with the academic concepts surrounding Nin? What was, or is, your process?
KA: It made sense to me to create my own creative responses after that. The “instruction painting” came because in one of her essays Nin discusses Yoko Ono but Ono herself also discusses Nin in one of her own essays that she publishes as liner notes to one of her rock albums from the 70s. I am not clear on whether Ono and Nin ever met each other but they were certainly in New York at the same time and knew the same people. That connection further inspired the other creative responses, as did the choreographer Leah Stein’s collaboration with poet Josey Foo where Stein wrote choreographic notes on Foo’s texts.
JD: How do you think this book adds to the scholarship surrounding Anaïs Nin? In your opinion, what perspectives does it add to the extant body of critical work regarding its inspiring subject?
KA: It is both critical and creative engagement. It’s my hope that it provides some window into Nin for people who are unfamiliar with her work. It would be even more gratifying if it suggested new ways of undertaking scholarship. There is excellent scholarship on Nin but the way that the archives are closed to only a very few number of scholars has definitely bottle-necked and dissuaded scholars from working on Nin. Perhaps soon that will changeit is up to the trustees of the Nin estate, all of whom have worked and are working very hard to promote Nin’s legacy. There have been critical engagements with Nin’s work, but none by fiction writer himselfand there have been more creative responses to Nin but none of these had an academic or critical approach really, or used the form of the essay (there have been novels, poetry, and at least two films)so I do think this book is unique.
JD: What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
KA: I am working on a short book of essays, journal entries and lyric prose entitled Silver Road. It’s a swirl of a book, very widely ranging over its 80 brief pages, but among other things, it engages astronomy, Urdu grammar, contemporary poetry, Emily Dickinson’s “open folios,” Vedanta philosophy, Islamic metaphysics, yoga, translation theory, contemporary Indian gender politics, a possible scientific and geological basis for astrology, Israeli settlers in the West Bank, Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” paintings, quantum gravity, and the discovery of a new poem by Sappho.

Kazim Ali‘s books include five volumes of poetry, The Far Mosque, The Fortieth Day, Bright Felon, Sky Ward, the winner of the Ohio Book Award for Poetry in 2014, and All One’s Blue: New and Selected Poems; three novels, Quinn’s Passage, The Disappearance of Seth, and Wind Instrument; and three collections of essays, Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence, Fasting for Ramadan, and Resident Alien: On Border-crossing and the Undocumented Divine. He has translated books by Sohrab Sepehri, Ananda Devi, and Marguerite Duras. He is an associate professor of Comparative Literature and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Oberlin College as well as the founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books.
Julianna DeMicco is a senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.

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