Behind the Words: Angele Ellis

Posted by on Aug 30, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Angele Ellis is the author of Arab on Radar (Six Gallery)–poems from which earned her a 2008 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts–Spared (A Main Street Rag Editors’ Choice Chapbook), and with Marilyn Llewellyn, Dealing With Differences: Taking Action on Class, Race, Gender, and Disability (Corwin Press). She has published widely, including chapters from her novel in progress, “Desert Storms,” and poems from her new chapbook manuscript, “Departing Chameleon.” She lives in Pittsburgh.

 

There’s a poetic, abstract quality to “Ashes,” your flash fiction piece that appeared in Spry. How do you balance the piece’s abstractness with the need to communicate a story, all within the limited word count parameters of flash fiction?

“Ashes” walks the line between flash fiction and narrative prose poem. It felt right to me as a prose piece, more immediate despite (or because of) the elegiac, trancelike quality of the narrative. I hoped that the prose would immerse the reader in the story, as the bereaved speaker of “Ashes” immerses herself in “our lake.”

This is the second piece I’ve published that uses the experience of scattering the ashes of someone dear to me. The first, “Elegy at Friendship School”—a poem from my chapbook, Spared—follows the reality of that day much more closely than “Ashes,” although like “Ashes,” it takes a number of fictional liberties.

I learned to communicate a story within a limited word count in college, where I studied journalism along with literature, and worked as a writer and editor (including copy editor) for our student newspaper. Having to edit a story to word count or column inch in a short time concentrates the mind wonderfully!

 

“Ashes” also contains some wonderful examples of figurative language: “jeans anchoring me like stovepipes,” “smooth and white as a cigarette stubbed out in a silver hotel urn.” What inspires your choices when it comes to your similes, metaphors, and allusions?

When I write, I try to imagine the speaker’s or subject’s experience with as many of the five senses as is possible; some of my similes, metaphors, and allusions spring from this intense, multisensory imagining (“jeans anchoring me like stovepipes”). Others follow figurative language previously evoked in a piece—“smooth and white as a cigarette stubbed out in a silver hotel urn” is an image from “Top Hat,” the movie in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance cheek to cheek. (All writers steal; the trick of course, is to make it seem fresh.) And at some level, I’m always aware of the rhythm of the words, of alliteration, assonance, consonance, even when writing prose.

 

You’ve written a collection of poetry, Arab on Radar, partly–according to the book’s blurb–as a reclamation and reaffirmation of your Arab-American identity in a post-9/11 world. You’ve also written a guide to celebrating diversity in the classroom. What steps does the literary/publishing world still need to take in regards to truly representing the experiences of writers of color?

It could start by publishing more writers of color, and more women of every racial background. As Roxanne Gay of The Rumpus reported, after analyzing every book reviewed by The New York Times in 2011: “…We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.”

The New York Times largely confines itself to reviewing books from major or prestigious publishing houses, and these 742 books represent a tiny fraction of the books published in the United States in 2011. But the playing field isn’t necessarily more level at smaller publishing houses, or at journals that concentrate on literary fiction and poetry. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has been tracking acceptances to literary magazines by gender since 2010, and only Poetry magazine has come close to achieving gender parity. I’m sure that racial parity lags well behind too, along with representation by writers with disabilities.

Treating writers of color not as exotics, but rather as voices from the great mainstream, would be a significant improvement. I say this knowing that a number of writers have found solidarity—and help in getting their work published and promoted—in organizations dedicated to writers of color: VONA, Cave Canem, and RAWI are a few examples. Yet I can’t help thinking of a RAWI conference during which a number of Arab and Arab American women who’d published books said they’d had to fight their publishers not to use a veiled woman as the cover image (sometimes unsuccessfully). And of Junot Diaz’s cutting quip: “M*****f*****s will read a book that’s 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

 

You received the 2008 Individual Creative Artist Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts. How did that fellowship influence your writing life? 

At the time, I’d been working on publishing my poetry and fiction for just a few years. I’d published a total of six poems, and won one award—third prize in the 2007 RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) Competition for Creative Prose. I also was engaged in an exhausting struggle with Six Gallery Press to publish Arab on Radar, the manuscript that provided me with poems for the PCA competition.

So being one of thirteen poets in the state of Pennsylvania to win this prestigious fellowship for 2008 (all work was judged anonymously) was huge. It put me on the map as a serious writer. I used the prize money to finance a month at a writers’ retreat in Costa Rica, where I had the privilege of concentrating on my work in paradise. To date, I’ve published nine poems, three short stories, and one flash fiction first drafted during that month.

This being said, winning a prize (or a few prizes) doesn’t make you rich, famous, or happy, and doesn’t guarantee you continued professional success. I believe that a writer must be compelled to write, because most writers—including myself—face rejection, self-doubt, financial insecurity, and obscurity on a daily basis.

 


And to end on a more lighthearted note: what are your interests outside of writing? (If I’m not mistaken, I think I found a video of you singing on YouTube when I Googled your name, but in all fairness, that could be some other Angele Ellis…)

I’m not Angele Ellis the Tahitian singer—although, despite my unfit-for-karaoke voice, I’ve dreamed of being Billie Holliday, Janis Joplin, or Chrissie Hynde. Like many writers, I’m a passionate reader. I recently finished the complete works of Octavia E. Butler, who’s often classified as a science fiction writer, but to me is a brilliant dystopian/fantasy writer with a highly original grasp of class, race, gender, and history, as well as great compassion for the Other (human and alien). I love theater, movies, some TV shows (I’m hooked on The Walking Dead), museums, dance, and music from symphonic to heavy metal, even opera. Although I’m not as involved in community projects as I once was, I serve on the committee for my neighborhood’s annual outdoor festival. I’m an intrepid urban walker (20+ miles a week), and enjoy hikes that don’t involve giant packs or sheer rock faces. I love board games, particularly trivia and word games. I’m a good baker; as a teenager, I made puff pastry. I relish almost every cuisine, but my favorite meal of all time—aside from anything made by my Italian grandmother—was hard-shelled crabs steamed with Old Bay spice, piled on a newspaper-covered picnic table, cracked open, and washed down with ice-cold beer, one summer afternoon on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I was with the friends who helped to inspire “Ashes.”

 

Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach for America corps. She recently received her MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Midwestern Gothic, and is forthcoming in Connu. She lives in Los Angeles and is currently at work on a novel.

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