Albert Samaha, author of Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes, is a Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant recipient and inequality editor at BuzzFeed News.
Get to know Albert in this Q&A and then see him at the Festival discussing his work in a FREE in-person event, Enduring Legacies of American Colonialism on March 19 at 10 AM ET.
Festival: What motivated you to become an author?
Samaha: I wanted to tell stories that captured the world I saw around me but that I rarely saw represented, or at least properly represented, in anything I read or watched. I’ve always been curious about the forces that shape our experiences, and chasing down those answers through reporting makes journalism more fulfilling than any other work I can imagine.
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
Tupac was the first artist to leave a lasting imprint on me creatively—his storytelling, his obsession with justice, his blunt and passionate voice introduced me to the power and joy of writing when I was 10 or 11. One thing I’ve always appreciated about Pac is his accessibility: he’ll break down sophisticated social issues with something as simple as “my stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch” or “they got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.” Long before I ever wrote a news article, I was writing rap verses lol.
What was your favorite part about writing your latest book?
Reporting it out brought me closer to the aunties and uncles I interviewed. Hours and hours of sharing stories, reevaluating decisions, pondering regrets, resurrecting old jokes—all with the hope of leaving a record for descendants curious about the generation that first landed in America. My family has always been close-knit, but there’s a unique intimacy in writing out a character’s experience through their eyes, slipping into their skin. Fortunately for me, my elders are vivid storytellers. I had no shortage of memories to work with and learn from.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
I have a few books and essays I turn to when I need an injection of invigorating prose to get my blood flowing. The opening pages of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. A couple of specific passages from James Baldwin’s short story collection, Going to Meet the Man. But more consistently, I rely on music to keep up a rhythm. My writing playlist started as mostly mid-century jazz, like Coltrane and Monk, but has since expanded to include anything that gets my mood up. Been getting into Joe Hisaishi lately.
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
Professionally, I’d like readers to come away with a better understanding of the people and institutions perpetuating or benefitting from the myriad oppressions I write about. More personally, I would love if my writing contributes to somebody’s ambition to become a writer—and especially if it spurs anyone to record their own family’s story.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
I recently started Warsan Shire’s poetry collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, and it is some of the most moving and astounding writing I’ve ever read.
What are you working on next?
Still sketching out the next book. Early in the game, but I know I want it to be different from each of my first two—I spent like five years apiece on those, so I’m hoping to immerse in a landscape that feels fresh to my eyes and poses challenges distinct from what I encountered on previous projects. That unfamiliarity at the start of a learning process excites me. To be totally honest, I told myself I’d take a year off from book work once my latest book was published last fall, but within weeks, I already felt restless and it just felt natural to start digging for a new project, so here I am back in the dirt.