As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, authors Ross Gay (The Book of Delights) and Aimee Nezhukumatathil (World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments) discussed their new books, collected essays devoted to their appreciation of ordinary wonders of the world, rendering them extraordinary. Through short, lyrical essays, Gay and Nezhukumatathil fully explore their own places in the world and share what we can gain from being open to its joy and beauty.
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Watch the recording from this event and read the full transcript below:
Thanks to our booksellers for this event, M. Revak & Company and Barnes & Noble.
“The delights [Gay] extols here (music, laughter, generosity, poetry, lots of nature) are bulwarks against casual cruelties. As such they feel purposeful and imperative as well as contagious in their joy.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Ross Gay’s poems are little celebrations of joy, and this book of mini-essays—each centering around a particular ‘delight,’ from sleeping in your clothes to planting tomato seedlings to the nod of greeting between the only two black people in a room—is a pure balm for your soul. Savor one at a time every morning, this summer, or wolf them all down en masse on a gorgeous sunny day.” —Celeste Ng, author ofLittle Fires Everywhere
“From its gorgeous illustrations to its unusual combination of lyrical nature writing and memoir, World of Wonders is hands-down one of the most beautiful books of the year.” ―NPR, “Best Books of 2020”
“”Within two pages, nature writing feels different and fresh and new. Nezhukumatathil has written a timely story about love, identity and belonging… We are losing the language and the ability to see and understand the wondrous things around us. And our lives are impoverished by this process… This book demands we find the eyes to see and the heart to love such things once more. It is a very fine book indeed, truly full of wonder.” ―New York Times Book Review
Thanks to Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge for their support of this program.
Thanks to our community partners for sharing information about this event: The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, Fall for the Book, Montclair Literary Festival, The Muse Writers Center, Piedmont Environmental Council, Wild Virginia
JANE KULOW: Welcome to “O Wondrous World! Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil in conversation,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our booksellers for this event, M. Revak & Company and Barnes & Noble, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Thanks to our sponsor for this event: Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge.
And thanks to our community partners for this event: The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, Fall for the Book, Montclair Literary Festival, The Muse Writers Center, Piedmont Environmental Council, and Wild Virginia. Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:
Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Be Holding, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Bringing the Shovel Down, and Against Which. Ross is talking today and reading from his collection of essays, The Book of Delights. And he teaches poetry at Indiana University.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, is also the author of four books of poetry, including Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Thank you all for joining us today. Thank you, Ross and Aimee. It’s all yours.
ROSS GAY: Thank you. Hi, Aimee.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Hello. I think they just un-muted me, so I’m going to go back down and mute myself.
ROSS GAY: Okay, cool. So we’re both going to read for like ten minutes, and then we’ll have a conversation. And maybe we’ll be able to also kind of get to some questions and stuff too. But, yeah, it’s really good to be with you all for the book fest. And with Aimee, of course. It’s good to be with you, one of my dearest friends and fellow travelers in this thing.
So I’m going to read a couple—I’m reading from this book called The Book of Delights. The way the book kind of came to be, I was having a nice day. I was in the midst of a delightful kind of moment. I was actually walking through a field of like sunflowers into a castle, where I was going to get lunch for free. So it was a good day. And I was like, oh, this is delightful. So I thought, yeah, I should write a little essay about this delightful feeling. The word delight came to me, and it was not necessarily a word that’s sort of part of my normal lexicon.
Then, shortly after that, I thought—I mean, boom. I thought, oh, you should do that every day for a year. Write an essay about something that delights you for every day for a year. So that’s what this book is. And then I gave myself these simple rules. One was do it every day, which I did not quite. But I did it most days. And then it was to write them by hand and to write them quickly. So I drafted all these things in thirty minutes.
The book is 102 essays, and they have some of the qualities of rapidity. Kind of quickness. But I’m just going to read like two or three. I’m going to read for ten minutes and then turn it over to Aimee. This first one is called—so they’re all dated, so I’m going to read a couple from right around this time—this beautiful time of year.
“Babies. Seriously.” This is from March 16th.
Today, while I was reading on the airplane with my knees smashed into the seat in front of me, a toddler toddled down the aisle in her pink onesie with the panda-head hood. She was a remarkably postured little creature, like so many of her ilk, and bold, toddling toward the back of the plane in front of her mother, who was doing a good job of letting the tot explore.
But as the baby got near my row, the man in front of me with his sleeping mask slid up on his forehead widened his eyes and smiled manically, making kissy noises at the baby. He spoke a language I didn’t understand, but the sounds he was making to this baby, which, with his traveling companions, became a chorus of sounds, made me wonder if baby talk is a universal or universalish language, for I understood exactly what they were saying, and how nice of god to make this exception around a language adults speak to babies.
Anyhow, the man was so enchanted with this petite creature with wisps of hair feathering north and big eyes that he couldn’t resist first poking the child’s tummy before scooping the squirt onto his knee, where she stood, bouncing and grinning, looking back to her mom, who looked a touch nervous, before being set free and retreating back down the aisle, and returning again, upon which the choir of babbling would commence, everyone reaching toward the munchkin (picture the halftime show at a basketball game when the mascot bazookas T-shirts into the crowd), scooping her up, and again and again, until I was so flabbergasted by the endurance of love and delight incited by this child to whom I presume none of these people was related, a love and delight that seemed analogous to the one that makes some people struggle not to eat the faces of babies, that I found myself, despite the very engrossing book I was reading about something horrible, laughing out loud and babbling with them and convinced again of something deeply good in us.
And let me read two more, I think. This is called “My Life, My Life, My Life, My Life in the Sunshine.” It’s sunny here.
Which delight landed in my lap from the open window of a passing car, and is simply (although the plaintive synth chords and watery triplets betray somewhat the simplicity) an argument for the sunshine, which, true, maybe I am the choir, but I like the argument for its simplicity, which is that everybody loves it, and everybody loves it, and folks get brown in it, and folks get down in it, and most convincingly to me, and that which elevates it to the metaphysical, even the holy: just bees and things and flowers.
And then I’m just going to read this one. That one was from March 20th, and this one is March 21. I’m on a roll here. These days, I had them every day. Decent ones every day, I should say. “Incorporation.” This is called “Incorporation.”
I am what one might call an enthusiastic gesticulator, verging on the bombastic, lots of pointing and conjuring and whacking, sometimes maybe even too much, as the kid at the salad joint probably thought when I asked if I could sub out the roasted chicken for some sesame tofu and he teased me by saying, with a very straight face, no, you may not, before grinning, which made me smack the sneeze glass a little too hard with laughter. Or, also usually with laughter, striking my own body, most often the region near my heart, which I’ve only just identified as a significant place to smack with glee. I only mention this to confirm that I present no particular gestural void or vacuum. I am not, in this way, in other words, in need. And so imagine my delight when, today, after chatting with my friend Walton for about an hour, I found myself, a few hours later in another conversation, employing—embodying—some of his elegant hand gestures: the emphatic hand swimming through the air, or pointing and plucking at something simultaneously, or, always some kind of beckoning. I’ve been told there’s a term for this among behavioral psychologists, which foregrounds the behavior as opposed to what intrigues me, which is the fact of our body’s ubiquitous porosities, how so often, and mostly unbeknownst, our bodies are the bodies of others.
Thank you. And Aimee, I’ll turn it over to you for now.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Thank you so much, Ross. That was so beautiful. I love that one with all the gestures. Hello, Virginia. And I’m so glad to be with you. My only thing is I wish we were there in person together. I’m coming to you all live from Oxford, Mississippi. And same thing. I’m going to read about ten minutes, and then Ross and I will have a chat together. And what I want to say about this book—I’m going to be reading a selection from World of Wonders, which just came out with Milkweed this past 2020. And then I’m going to read something brand new. I think I’ve only read it once before. And it’s for a column that I have with Orion magazine, where I used to be poetry editor. And now I’m writing a food column for them called “The Taste of Wonder.” So you’ll get something somewhat brand new and a little something from World of Wonders.
Now World of Wonders is a collection of thirty plants and animals that I just love so much and never get tired talking about or learning from—watching, observing, hearing, reading about—that kind of thing. It started from this kind of wish list of mine of two hundred plants and animals. So I really, really whittled it down. And, let me see here. They’re very short pieces, and I would say there’s about 70 percent kind of observation or research and then 30 percent of my own—maybe about 40 percent—of my own kind of snippets of my life thrown in there as well.
And it was really important to me to have illustrations in it. And then specifically I wanted to have an Asian-American illustrator for it. And this woman who did all the drawings for the cover and for the inside of the book is named Fumi Nakamura. And I just never saw people with last names like ours in the nature books that I read so much growing up. So I’m so pleased to have Nakamura and Nezhukumatathil on this book. Because it’s 2021, and I think there’s more room for people of all backgrounds at the table of nature writing. So I’m going to read a little snippet of an essay called “The Narwhal,” which, when I started this essay, it was very rare for people to know what a narwhal is. And now I think you can get like narwhal socks, stuffed narwhals, narwhal backpacks—that kind of thing. But hopefully there’s still a little bit of wonder and magic about these animals. All right, the narwhal.
Narwhals are found mainly in the Arctic Ocean, but occasionally a small pod of them wanders into a Canadian fjord. The word narwhal comes from the old Norse word nar, which means “like a corpse,” due to the distinctive mottled skin that looks like the spotted skin color of drowned sailors. Narwhals don’t have a dorsal fin, and they have vertebrae in their neck that allows them to do a whale of a double-take—the only other whales that share these unique traits are beluga. Now narwhals eat cuttlefish, cod, and armhook squid. Nothing too disturbing, right? But the way they eat can be alarming: a narwhal will swim up to its food very stealthy-like, slow, and steady—opening its mouth and inhaling like the world’s scariest vacuum—and then, in one giant and powerful gulp, it will swallow the unsuspecting animal whole. Now did I mention that narwhals like to swim upside-down? Can you imagine seeing a three-thousand-pound narwhal sidling up to you, upside-down, and slowly starting to open its mouth?
Just who are these teethy creatures’ predators? Orcas and the occasional polar bear sometimes hunt baby narwhals. But when orcas go after an entire pod, the narwhals just dive, dive, dive, dive—they can survive at almost five thousand feet below sea level. And yet, narwhals are classified as “almost threatened,” because humans hunt them for their teeth and valuable fat supply.
One afternoon in Kansas, my sister and I were riding the school bus back to the doctor’s quarters. As we neared home, I saw my mom in our driveway, unpacking groceries from the car. A chunky blonde boy on the bus asked if my mom was Chinese. When I said, no, she was actually Filipino, he flipped his eyelids out. And I don’t know if kids still do this anymore. Do you know what I’m talking about? Like they flip their eyelids out. Anyway, it was so gross. I cringed and groaned. I can still picture the greasy, dark, who-knows-what jammed under his fingernails. Can still see his belly hanging over his Wrangler jeans as he chortled at his own joke. And then, as if flipping his eyelids wasn’t enough, he tugged at the skin at the corner of his eyes and pulled it to his ears. “I bet she’s Chinese! Her eyes don’t even look like yours!”
Ice. Snow. The white plastic of the milk jug she was carrying in each hand as she smiled at the bus, scanning the faces of all those staring kids for her own. I wanted to dive deep, deep into the darkest of seas so no orcas could find me. I had no sword, and worse, no sharp tongue with which to sass this guy back. Instead, I just stared straight ahead, gathered up my books, and left without saying goodbye to poor Mr. Johnson, the kindly bus driver.
I’m going to stop that one for now, but I’m going to read that second piece, brand new, on chocolate. Let me see here. And again, this is for Orion magazine, and it’s for my column “A Taste of Wonder.” Each issue, I’m going to focus on something kind of that made me wonder about its origins or wonder about how it’s made or wonder about all the different ways we can eat it. This month is chocolate. I just finished one on the dandelion. And we’ll see how that goes. And this starts off with an epigraph from Lucille Clifton. And it goes, “The plainest things, it seems to me, are filled with wonder.”
Some people are perfectly fine without it. My friend Ross jokes that he can go for months at a time and not even notice. I too felt like that about chocolate—that is, until the pandemic started. When schools and restaurants first shut down last year, my family stocked up on essentials as if planning for a hurricane or tornado. When I ordered groceries online from our local supermarket, I threw in a couple of travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer (all I could find in those frantic early days) and then I also threw in a Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate bar just because it made me feel happy, and, I confess, seeing the word lonely on the bright red wrapper made me feel a little less lonesome.
Things you can buy online made of chocolate: a camera, a teapot, a key, golf ball. A complete tool kit: hammer, wrench, saw, pliers. You can buy food that looks like it was dipped in it: an orange, a piece of toast with egg and bacon on top (complete with a chocolate fork and knife). And you can buy a box of Brussels sprout–shaped chocolates painted green. Also green: a chocolate Yoda. There’s chocolate chess sets, a watch, handcuffs, a gun with chocolate bullets, a high-heeled shoe, a rose, bunnies (of course), a pair of lips, and for someone truly out of this world, you can buy a whole chocolate solar system of planets (minus Pluto, much to my chagrin).
In Austin, Texas, I’m particularly fond of Madhu Chocolates, who source their cacao from Tumaco region of Colombia and then roast, crack, winnow, grind, flavor, temper, and wrap all their chocolate bars by hand. My father says their masala chai dark chocolate reminds him of the chai he used to drink back in Kerala.
This past summer, we lost my paternal grandmother, the greatest cook I’ve known (doesn’t everyone feel the same way of their grandmothers?) and, because of the travel restrictions, none of us were able to attend her funeral in India. I won’t pretend eating chocolate helped our grief across the ocean in any way, but I wonder about the families all over the planet unmoored by so much separation these days.
When we eat chocolate, our brains release dopamine as a way to activate pleasure and pleasurable feelings. And someone, somewhere, once imagined whole planets of chocolates, maybe to soothe a loneliness bubbling up. Some heavy days, it feels like perhaps we could all use a universe of chocolates, something to help ease our losses, big and small. Maybe just a few stars or a nebula for the graduations, weddings, births, and funerals we’ve missed. Something to conjure up a taste of India here in northern Mississippi. Go ahead. Add another couple of chocolate bars to your cart.
I’m going to end there, and then invite Ross to come on back.
ROSS GAY: That’s great. That’s beautiful.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Thank you. I’m so happy to be chatting here with you again.
ROSS GAY: Yeah, same here. Same here. I’m here in Philadelphia to work on a project, and as you were reading, I was hearing—I think there must be a school nearby. And I was hearing kids yelling, and I was like I love that sound. Because one of the things that’s so beautiful about your work—and I think we’re in this kind of wheelhouse of work together—is it just tunes you up a little bit to what makes you feel like, oh, right, that’s a thing that brings to me delight. The sound of the racket of kids, you know?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah. And for a long time—I still don’t hear it very often now. But for a long time last year, I couldn’t hear that. I mean, unless it was the racket of my own kids upstairs or something. But that playground noise, yeah. I miss that.
I have lots of questions. I always have lots of questions to ask you, whether we’re on Zoom or not. So let’s start out with can we talk about—I’m going to talk about—we’ll probably talk about the pandemic at some point before this is done. But can we talk about the act of writing just something new. Just something brand new. I’m always curious—it’s something I don’t think I’ve ever asked you in any kind of official, formal way. But when you sit down at your desk and you’re writing something—I know you’re working on something new right now. But if you did not have like a project in mind—like you’re not, I’ve got to work on my book, or I’ve got to work on this thing that’s due—how do you begin? How do you start? And has that changed in the pandemic? Has that changed since you were first starting out? That kind of thing. When you have that glorious snowfall, that white page, that white screen—where does Ross Gay begin?
ROSS GAY: It’s so neat. I think that’s a really good question, and I think it’s a fun conversation. Because we are like—we’re such deep contemporaries. Like we’re basically the same age. We were both born in 1974.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: You’re older.
ROSS GAY: By like, what? Four months or something?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: I still count you older. The old man.
ROSS GAY: I’m older. I’m your elder. So, you know, watch how you talk to me. And we both have books, and I think you published your first book a couple years before my first book. But we’ve been kind of like moving along. And then we both published a book of essays kind of around the same time.
So one thing that I realized as you were asking the question—I did sort of think, oh. Whereas before, I think—before writing The Book of Delights for sure, I think I thought books were just sort of things that gradually accumulated over time, and then you sort of shaped them up into a thing. So that’s sort of how it was for my first three books, I think. And then I think it was around that time where I was thinking of a number of things. But one of the things that I was thinking about with The Book of Delights, it became a thing of like this is a book thing. Like a whole book. And I had been like—when I started that book, I had been at the point of starting to, you know, putting together a proposal and trying to sell a book. So I had been thinking of it in that way.
But now it is not at all—whereas it used to—it just wouldn’t even go through my head, now it’s very much part of my thing where I think, “Oh, that’s a book.” And I think that’s maybe a different—and I will say generation. Like generationally, I feel like we came up in a time as poets where you didn’t necessarily have to have a project—like a book project.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Absolutely, yeah.
ROSS GAY: And that’s a little bit of a different—maybe we’re in a little bit of a different moment, in terms of even the way that I hear our students talk all the time. It’s like what’s the project and what’s the thing. But now I feel like—I often am writing things that are just like whatever, but I’m also way more acutely attuned to the fact that things might be a bigger thing. What about you?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: I think you could’ve answered the same thing for me. I think sometimes my students get freaked out when I say, with poetry in particular, I’m just trying to write a poem. There’s no kind of larger goal in mind. Or there’s no even manuscript I’m shaping when I sit down to write a poem. But lately, I mean, yeah. When I sit down—and I don’t know if it’s pandemic. I think a little before that too. When I sit down—about a year ago, I wrote something on snakes that nobody has seen, not even you. And I show you a lot of my work. I wrote something on snakes, and I was thinking, huh, do I have the capacity to write a lot about snakes? Or is it veering into something else? Is snakes just like an exit ramp on a longer kind of highway that I don’t even know yet? You know, that kind of thing. But it did make me pause. Whereas before I would just be like I’m writing about snakes. Next. And then the next day it’ll be something—I’m going to write about peaches or whatever. That kind of thing.
So I don’t know if that’s good. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing, though. On the one hand, it helps me get organized a little bit. On the other hand, I don’t know. Maybe I’m swooning too much over those early days where I could just write and not be—I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a negative thing. But I think maybe in some ways possibilities—
I’ll tell you this. I will say that what I like about it is I think possibilities are bigger and open to us—not just us but to people of all backgrounds now—than they ever were before. So that’s one huge positive out of it. Like if I wanted to, I could say I’m going to be writing about snakes and most probably could get a book out of it. I don’t know what genre. Whereas I think maybe twenty years ago I might’ve had limits. I don’t know. I’m just trying to churn out one poem about a snake a time. You know, that kind of thing. But I think that’s a good thing for contemporary poetry and contemporary writing in general is that doors have been opened now in ways that they were closed to us when we first started out.
ROSS GAY: Yeah. I think it’s also—when you were talking, I was thinking I also—something that I’m more like acutely aware of being interested in now is doing stuff that I just don’t know how to do. That’s just so fun. And I kind of feel like when you’re a younger writer, part of the thing is just trying to figure out how to do it. And part of what I think is really interesting and moving and exciting and actually sort of an ethical interest, I think, is trying to figure out how to not be able to do it and do that. So that once—because I can hear myself sometimes be like, “Blah, blah, blah. Book idea. Oh, that’s a hit.” You know? And like that’s not really that interesting to me, actually.
What’s interesting to me is the beautiful thing that you can’t conceive of, that you can’t make, actually. I’m way more interested in the thing that you can’t make. And that when it comes out, it’s actually like, “Wow, you made that thing. Wow.” Which is a puzzle to me. Like one of the funnest puzzles to me is to be along with the folks that I study with, trying to figure out how to both set up and kind of co-conjure this space of doing things that none of us could imagine ever having done before.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s where I think that sweet spot of magic and learning and opening doors to possibilities in a writing space led by a person of color, but we’re all in this together. I know I say it, and I’ve heard you say it, and people who know us know that we truly, truly mean it. The best workshops for you and I, I think I’m confident in saying, is not the ones that we happen to be writing on our own a lot and we’ve got X number of pages. It’s the ones where I’m learning the most. We’re figuring things out together and moving forward together on this and taking the twelve of us all together, and doing something in our work that hadn’t been done a semester ago. You know, that kind of thing.
To me, that’s the excitement of living, breathing, teaching in this world. Is making space. I’m not interested at all in people bowing down to me, revering me, scribbling down everything I say. I think a lot of that was in some ways how creative writing workshops were run before. I want to make things with my students. I want to help them envision worlds and possibilities that people had said is not possible before. You know, that kind of thing. I want to make that possible for all of us.
ROSS GAY: Yeah, me too. It’s the funnest thing. And it’s the funnest thing to sort of be—I mean, it’s fun because in part—there’s many reasons that that’s fun to me. One was that—and I don’t know if you know this, but I was kind of sick of teaching. Like five or six years ago, or maybe seven years ago, I was like, f*** it, I’m done. I’m done.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: I know. You told me.
ROSS GAY: Yeah. I’m going to try to get out of this. And it was tied into many things. And I didn’t quite have the language for it, and I still don’t quite have the language for it. But among the many things it was is like this whole kind of—the push toward what you’re talking about. Toward mastery and a kind of expertise and a kind of elevated—you know, despite all the rhetoric, despite all the workshops, despite all the everything, the deep impulse of the university is excellence and individuation and elevating one above the others and accomplishment and achievement and all the rest. And part of that whole kind of mechanism is all that evaluation and all that assessment and all that grading and all that blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And I was just like—and I didn’t have the language for it, but I was just like I always feel horrible. I always feel horrible. Not always. I’m totally, you know. I’ve learned from enough therapy that when you say always—it’s like you’re being like your child. I didn’t always. Sometimes it was f***ing awesome, too. But I often would leave to say a graduate workshop where people were really like really deeply loving this stuff and invested in their work, trying hard. And I felt like those classes were always—I left exhausted and I left kind of sad so often. And worried. Worried and nervous that I was never doing anything good enough.
And that’s my own thing I’ve got to deal with. But also I think the context of the classes—that’s the point: to make you feel like you’re never doing anything good enough. That’s school, actually. That’s what school is for: to make you feel like you’re never doing anything good enough. So when you’re in a classroom in this different kind of way—I’m going on and on, sorry.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: No, that’s fine. That’s fine.
ROSS GAY: But you can’t stop me because I’m your elder. But when we start to teach in these ways like you’re talking about, you don’t want anyone to come like sit at your feet. It’s like what can we work on together. What can we make beautiful and get lost in together?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly it. And I remember those conversations too, where I think the both of us at some point—that was just before I came here to Mississippi. I was at kind of breaking point with my own teaching and frustrations with my former university. But then I realized I have the power—we have the power—to change this model. And I think it’s just been so exciting since. I think what we’re seeing now—we just came off of—and probably you all too—reading applications for the next round of students, and it’s so exciting. It’s so exciting just to, oh, I can make things with these people again coming soon. Yeah. It’s not like, “Oh, these get to be my disciples.” That’s not at all what I’m thinking. I’m thinking who do I get to make and learn from. You know, that kind of thing, so.
ROSS GAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: We have a lot of questions here, I realized. I didn’t even take a look through. But let me see here. There’s a couple questions. Let me see if I can combine both of them from Monica. Monica is asking me how did you narrow down this two hundred number list of creatures and plants—how did you do that? And then also, though, in Book of Delights she said you made her cry. But do you find that delightful things also make you cry? So I don’t know if there’s an exact way that we can answer—but I’ll answer mine quick first, and I’ll hear from you too.
Anyway, so it was easy. The litmus test I had for my two hundred list is what are the things that I felt confident about that, A, that I never was bored myself of learning about. So when I start a poem, I start with an image. When I start an essay, I start with a question. And each of the things that are now in World of Wonders, I’m not done learning. Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean like, “Well, that’s done. No more narwhals for me.” I’m still learning. In fact, there’s so much that has been discovered about the narwhal just since 2018 that I’m kicking myself I didn’t get a chance to put in the book. But then I also want to explore further. And who knows? Maybe I’ll come up with different metaphors from different life occurrences. I didn’t also write anything about the pandemic in this book. This was all before the pandemic. So that might affect the future—that kind of thing.
But for me, envisioning it, it started out first as just being a record for my kids who were six and nine at the time. And then I realized I should probably write this to a slightly bigger audience. But then even that bigger audience was just one. I was just picturing kind of a really good friend and how would I talk about these plants and animals to a friend.
And there was animals and plants that I just either wanted to keep to myself for whatever reason or I didn’t feel like I could talk longer than maybe two minutes about it, and then that was just easy to push to the side. So these were truly the things that I was just bubbling over with. This kind of hopefully contagious energy that I wanted to share with other people. And to me, that was how I separated it out.
But I will also say, as a segue to your question for Ross, I cried—this is called the World of Wonders. I think I cried on every single essay as I was writing it. Out of joy, out of memories that I kind of forgot about, that I hadn’t brought myself to think about or even name before. So it wasn’t all a sad cry throughout. But I was laughing and crying to myself as I was kind of knocking these essays out.
Anyway, so that’s something that I think people maybe wouldn’t realize with me. How about you, Ross? Did you ever make yourself cry through any of The Book of Delights?
ROSS GAY: I don’t know if I did. It’s funny because I’m thinking about this new project I’m working on. And I got—it wasn’t while I was writing, but—
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: You’re probably crying all the time with this new one.
ROSS GAY: I was listening to the soundtrack to The Wiz, and I was just like—
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Is that “Home”? What is that Diana Ross song? Is it “Home”?
ROSS GAY: “Home,” yeah. And the one on, you know, from the movie. Her version and her performance of it is just like so beautiful.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Oh my gosh, yeah.
ROSS GAY: But to make it better is that I was crying about “Be a Lion.”
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: What?
ROSS GAY: “Be a Lion.”
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh my gosh. This is a deep—those of you tuning in, this is a deep focus in. This is like a therapist session here.
ROSS GAY: Yeah, hmm, “Be a Lion.” But what was the question about the delights?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: You make others cry. You made me cry with Book of Delights. You made me cry with Catalog. Did you cry, I guess, as you were composing any of these? Or just, I don’t know. Tell us what makes you cry, Ross.
ROSS GAY: I don’t know if those—I can’t remember, actually, in the process of writing those. Though, that being said—yeah, I can’t remember about in the process of writing those. It’s so interesting. And it’s funny. I’m working on this basketball book with my friend Noah. And we have this little thing going on about crying because for years I didn’t know how to cry. And Noah was not afflicted in this way. And we kind of go through this, and I’m trying to like tussle with that. But the process of composing those pieces—it’s such a good question. I don’t know.
It’s also a good question because I feel like what I’m working on now is so raw in a certain kind of way, that maybe in the process of working through or working toward being able to even like put it to language requires a certain kind of, I don’t know, emotional something. Yeah, so you can kind of tell that I can’t even quite articulate it. I’ll just say I can’t quite articulate the thing yet.
But those pieces, they move me. From the delights, they move me, and they’re really interesting to me. That was actually a thing I was curious about. I know we don’t have a lot of time. But in terms of sort of selection and how do you choose and all that stuff. And that thing of like when you were saying they remain exciting or curious to you.
And these pieces from the delights, they remain exciting and curious to me. Like I read them—and it’s nice because in my book there’s 102 essays. So there are some that—like the ones that I just read, I probably haven’t read those in months. And to read them and be like, “Oh, I like that. That’s good.”
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: I know. I’ve read with you enough times that—and I know this isn’t a fake. You genuinely are cracking yourself up when you’re reading some of these. And I love that. I think I could speak for Ross Gay fans because I’ve been in the audience when you’ve read. When you’re laughing at your own thing, it’s not like insert laughter here. You know what I mean? Like you genuinely are re-remembering this kind of funny memory. And you can tell when people are doing that and when it’s not. And with you it’s always genuine.
So I guess what I would say is—just the converse part of that. Did you find yourself kind of chuckling to yourself out loud? Like I know if you’re writing—
ROSS GAY: Hell yeah, hell yeah, hell yeah. And that’s sort of the thing. That’s a thing that I think is actually kind of interesting. So I’m forty-six years old. And I’m like still kind of trying to come to terms with what kind of writer or whatever—I’m trying to figure out how to write. And the more I kind of like—I don’t know what you call it. But I’m learning how to be like, no, you’ve got to write what you love. You’ve got to write what you love, and you need to read. That is sort of like—you know, I have things that are interesting to me. And things that are interesting to me are not interesting to everyone, and that is such a good thing.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yes. That should be an awesome thing, yeah.
ROSS GAY: Exactly. So there’s moments where I’m like, man, that is—when I’m writing it and I feel—that’s so f***ing good. That’s so f***ing good. And there are other people who will be like, “That is stupid.” And that is a good thing, you know? That is a really good thing. So that’s one of the things I feel like trying to figure out.
I was just having a long conversation with my buddy Walton about this. Like coming into a place where we are able to sort of understand the expectation of something and be like, okay, that’s one thing. But there’s this other thing, which is like what do you want to read, you know? So that when you’re reading something, you’re like, “Oh, that was pretty good. That’s right. That was pretty good.”
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. You’re nailing it. I think we’re kin in that way of putting the energy that we want out there in the world, putting the writing that we want out there in the world, insisting on it, even if and especially when people are like, “No, not funny,” or, “No, not interesting.”
I mean, like, are you kidding me? From my book. If I listen to the little devil on my shoulder that says, “Aimee, nobody cares about a narwhal, an axolotl.” I’ve been talking to you. You know me. I’ve been dropping axolotl information in our conversations for like a decade. That’s not because I’m planning a book. That’s just because I freaking love axolotls.
For me, it was slightly different growing up. There was just no Asian women depicted with any sort of smile on their face. Even just walking outside. Just being, that kind of thing. So it’s not like I wrote these one day, and they were published. That’s twenty years of being told, “No, not interested. Not great. I’m going to put out the same white guy outside in nature all the time.” And there just comes a point where I’m like, “No, you’re going to hear from me. I’m going to keep talking about how I love axolotls. I’m going to talk about narwhals. I’m going to keep doing this. And I’m also going to put a girl in there that’s smiling. And all my author photos are going to have a giant smile on my face, and you’re not going to take that joy away from me. I’m going to insist on it. And I’m glad that you’re telling me not to because I’m just going to insist on it more.” And that’s a good thing. In some ways, it’s a good thing. Because I don’t think had I had that resistance, I would’ve been—maybe I would’ve. But I was going to say like it just fanned the fire even more for me to be like I’m—again, you know this. I wrote this book for my kids. I never thought that—because I had been told by so many publishers, by so many editors: “Not interested. Not interested. There’s no drama. Nobody died. You’re not addicted to anything. Where’s the drama?”
And I’m like, okay, well I’m going to write what I love, and this is going to be a record of what I love on this planet for my kids. And now hundreds of thousands of people have been proving those editors wrong. You know, that these stories need to be told. That’s not a humble brag. That just is. You know, that kind of thing. That’s just what happened. Because you and I are insisting to write about what we love. And I think people pick up on that.
ROSS GAY: Yep, yep. I love that. That’s the thing. Like I love this. I love the axolotl. I love the narwhal. I love my kids. I love, I love, I love, you know? That’s a legitimate—more than legitimate, obviously—that’s a beautiful—that’s the engine. That’s the engine.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: And I think a lot of times—someone asked in the question how do you start, or can you talk about the role nature plays. I don’t have like a set exercise that I do to myself. And I’m pretty sure you don’t. But just like kind of what—and this is nature. This is even if you’re not writing about nature. Just write what you love. The audience will come with you. I think it’s just so palpable. Why? It’s so contagious. I don’t know jack squat about basketball. And I know your book Beholding is not about basketball. It’s so much more. And that love is in there. So that even if I were to say like Ross Gay wrote a book about basketball, my immediate thought is not going to be yuck. For many reasons, it’s not going to be yuck. Because you’re one of my dearest. But because I know that when Ross Gay puts his name to something it’s going to showcase a whole litany of what you love. And I’m going to feel like I traveled without ever leaving my little rainbow room here. So I want to be taken on that journey as long as I have a guide who is insisting on love.
ROSS GAY: I think that’s maybe where we should end. Is it a book about love?
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah.
ROSS GAY: And that does not at all foreclose the possibility of any subject. It doesn’t. But the question of like is it a book about love.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yeah, there you go. That’s the prompt right there.
ROSS GAY: Yeah.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Excellent.
ROSS GAY: Thank you. Aimee, it’s so good to see you again.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: It’s so good to see you. And for those listening, we’re going to be back chatting again in about an hour—in a couple of hours. Tune in. We’re just having one long lunch conversation here together.
ROSS GAY: Yeah. Thank you, Virginia Festival of the Book. Really appreciate it. Thanks for bringing us.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Yes. Please bring us back together.
JANE KULOW: Well, thank you, Ross and Aimee. I wish we could’ve all been in the same room so you could’ve seen us strike our hearts in glee and love. This has just been a wonderful conversation. And for everyone who is watching, if you have not read these books, we encourage you to rush out right now. We have links at VaBook.org, or you can buy them from your local independent bookseller. And you can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org.
And especially for those of you who want to rewatch this conversation, like me, we will post a recap at VaBook.org/watch. Aimee, Ross—thank you so very much.
ROSS GAY: Thank you.
AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL: Thank you all. Take care.