INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE ELIZONDO GRIEST
The students and faculty of the BFA program at Goddard College were honored to host Stephanie
Elizondo Griest as our visiting writer during our Fall 2014 residency. Griest has mingled with the
Russian Mafia, polished Chinese propaganda, and danced with Cuban rumba queens. These
adventures inspired her award-winning memoirs Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing,
and Havana (Villard 2004); Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines (Simon & Schuster,
2008); and the guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go (Solas, House, 2007). As National
Correspondent for The Odyssey, she once drove 45,000 miles across America in a Honda
Hatchback named Bertha. She currently teaches creative nonfiction at UNC-Chapel Hill, and can
be found online.
This interview was conducted at our Fall 2014 residency by Goddard BFA students Cameron Price, Jørn Otte, Kate Weiss and Ilana Wilson, was transcribed by Cara Sexton, and was edited by Cara Sexton, Amy Sterne, and Michael Vizsolyi.
Cameron Price: My advisor last semester introduced me to Lucy Lippard, who is an art historian who writes a lot about place. She wrote about the concept of multi-centeredness and how one can feel an affinity with many different places, and in effect belong to different places for different reasons.
So I wanted to ask you, as someone who is bicultural, bilingual, and well-traveled, do you feel a specific tie to one place, or have you experienced a sense of being at home through your traveling and your writing in a multitude of different places?
S.E.G.: There was a period in my life, for three years, when I was completely nomadic. It was an economic decision. I realized I could either write or I could pay rent, not both. So I hit the road so I could research, write, and promote full-time. Home just took on an entirely different meaning in that period. For a long time, home was oatmeal. If I could make oatmeal with rice milk and berries and have little walnuts sprinkled on top, my mindset was like, that's just going to have to do for home, because I have no home right now. I can't afford a home, so my home is going to be a bowl of oatmeal.
Then, home became an aesthetic. For those three years, I was constantly crashing on people's couches. If I walked into a home and there were hardwood floors with rugs on top of them, especially if the rugs were red, or if they had spice racks with homemade labels, little things like that, I would say, "Okay, that is home." Or, going to a food co-op that had a corkboard with lots of flyers. Or a taco stand run by a woman from Guadalajara who calls me "mija." Home became less a place and more things within a place. And above all, it became an energy.
Kate Weiss: I've been studying a lot about the rituals around writing spaces and the things people need to do to get themselves into that headspace to write. I need my desk and my cup of tea and my laptop to be at right angles to everything. So how do you create that space when you're traveling, for yourself, and what are those rituals for you?
S.E.G.: The time when I write is the most important element. I'm a very early morning writer. I also have incorporated a bit of masochism into my writing practice. When I wake up, I brush my teeth, wash my face, pour a cup of hot water with nothing in it, and then immediately go write. If I check email first, or if I eat something, it fucks it up--it all just goes to hell. For me, it has to be an empty stomach and an empty mind. That's when I'm at my optimum writing. I don't even try to write anymore if it's like 2:00 and I've eaten. There's kind of no point because I can only write when I'm clear. It's actually not a good thing to establish these sorts of rules. Right? This is a very negative practice. It's not something I'm encouraging you all to do. This is just the writing practice that I've taken on.
So when I am in the writing zone, again, going into the idea of masochism, I will write until I'm literally passing out. I will start at 8 in the morning and then it's like 1 or 2, and I'm kind of falling over the typewriter keys from hunger, but that's when the good shit's really happening, so I do it as long as I possibly can until I'm about to eat the typewriter key. Then I'm like, "Okay, time to eat." Then, it disperses. This is all psychological, right? This is not actually happening, but I believe it is happening. Therefore, it is happening.
Silence is also important. I can't write in cafes anymore. You kind of go into different stages in your writing life. So, for me, for now, I need silence, nothing in the stomach, nothing around me, just emptiness, and then the writing fills me up.
Cameron Price: In reading your bio, I saw that you went to the University of Iowa, and it looks like you went later in your writing career as opposed to right after your undergraduate. Your writing draws so beautifully and directly from experience, and so, in a lot of ways you had to go later, because it gave you a lot of, like, juice to write about.
What are your thoughts on MFA programs in general? Do you think it is necessary to wait and have those rich life experiences, or not, before committing that time and probably money?
S.E.G: I went to grad school kicking and screaming. I did not want to go. But, as I mentioned, I was nomadic for three years, and nomadism eventually became difficult at a fundamental level. I became existentially isolated. I only had two conversations for three years, either the: "Hi, I'm Stephanie. Who are you?" or, "What have you been up to since I last saw you six months ago?" Because I was seeing everyone every six months or so. I was in San Francisco twice a year; I was in New York City twice a year; I was in DC twice a year; I was in Texas twice a year.
Then, the economy crashed in 2008, and it became almost impossible to live off of writing exclusively. I was getting older and realizing, "I still don't have health insurance. I still don't have a fork. I still don't have a couch. I still don't have a partner.” Meanwhile, my mentors—my mother, my advisors—were like, "go to grad school, go to grad school, go to grad school." And I was like, "I don't want to go to grad school!"
But the reality is that you have to have three things in order to get a university teaching job. One is an MFA, you need two books…well, one to two books, and you need two years teaching experience at the university level. So I had the books, but I didn't have the MFA, and I didn't have teaching at the university level.
Although I had a bad attitude going into my MFA, that ended the minute I walked in the door. I thought that I knew what creative nonfiction was, I realized I had no idea. I thought I knew what the essay was; I had no idea. I thought I knew who the cool writers were; I had no idea. I thought I knew different styles of writing. I thought I knew how to teach. I thought I had my act together. And I realized I knew nothing.
An MFA is very good for showing you that, and then giving you, in the case of Iowa, three years and some really amazing instructors and colleagues who open up an entirely new world to you. Your writing grows in ways that you can't even fathom until you start. So I was definitely an MFA hater prior to actually enrolling in an MFA program.
MFAs are not perfect, obviously. There are huge problems, everything from diversity, to funding, to it kind of being a pyramid scheme. But I am profoundly grateful that I did one. I would not be an iota of the teacher that I am today if I hadn't gone to Iowa. I don't think I would be as good of a writer. I don't think I would be as good of a reader. An MFA was pivotal in my experience.
As far as when to do it, I don't recommend going right after undergrad. Especially if you're writing nonfiction, it's key to go out and have some serious life experiences first. I don't think that one should embark on a MFA until they have a good 80 pages of manuscript written.
(At this point Janet Sylvester, our program director, pops in and tells us that she's bought a begonia that she plans to name Stephanie.)
Jørn Otte: So, I had a question about language. From what some of what you said at your reading, it was important to you to learn Russian to have the experience you had in Russia. Then, you spoke about how it was important for you to learn your native tongue to be able to have another set of experiences. For someone who wants to travel and learn a culture, how important is language? And as a writer, how important is it to learn the native language before you even put pen to page? Can you talk a little bit about that?
S.E.G: I just feel like it's disrespectful to travel to a place and write about a place without having some investment in the language. People just open up in an entirely different way when you at least make an attempt. I can't imagine having had my experience in Moscow without speaking Russian, or Beijing without Chinese, or not speaking Spanish when I went to Mexico. I'm not fluent in any of these languages, but people definitely open up in an entirely different way when they can tell that you're earnestly attempting to communicate.
To me, if you want to write a book about a place, you have to be deeply studied and learned in the language. But a lot of people disagree with that. My all-time favorite travel writer says he doesn't do any research prior to going to a place. He's a deeply intellectual man, so he has a lot of prior knowledge just because he reads a lot in general, but he doesn't make a special effort to do additional research because he thinks that his role as a travel writer is to experience something as a reader would, for the first time.
But because I see travel writing in line with social justice and I'm concerned about issues that people are experiencing in particular countries, it's necessary to have some facility in the language.
Cameron Price: You mentioned that you were nomadic for three years, and now you are teaching in North Carolina, which is wonderful. I'm sure it's been quite challenging at different times and you've had to have a different approach to rootedness at those different stages. I'm curious how your mindset around writing, and work ethic, and the way that you've sustained a writer's life has changed over the years?
S.E.G.: So much initially was just about sheer survival. Up until just a year ago, or maybe two years ago, I was struggling so, so, so much. The universe, when you're an artist, it really tests you. It tests how badly you want this experience.
I felt like I was continuously pushed to my absolute limit. My health started faltering. I felt like I was going crazy because I was only having two conversations. I began to have back problems from all those couches and futons. All these different things were coming as a direct result of not having a place to live. Not having a routine workout schedule. Having to eat crappy processed food. Not being in control of the diet, not being in control of when I sleep, how I sleep, where I sleep, how many hours I get to sleep. Not being in control of anything.
It whittled me down to a raw place over the course of many years. There were a couple of points where I reached this brink of, "I can't go any further. I have to give up." That was when the universe would send a grant my way. There have been these keystones, touchstones, throughout my life, right at the brink of "I'm going to have to give up now."
I do feel good about the fact that, at each of those points, I was like, I have given absolutely fucking everything, so at least I know I tried.
And yet, whenever I started thinking, “maybe I should go back and become a nurse or something,” a grant would suddenly come through. Once, I even got the Hodder Fellowship, which was $55,000 for a residency at Princeton for a year. These big things would come, and they were equally spaced out so that right when I was completely depleted, I was replenished by the universe and could continue forth, writing.
I recently spent a year as a Visiting Writer someplace, and there were long stretches of total isolation and loneliness and sadness. Yet that is also where I did my very best work. The texture of the writing does change, I think, depending on how fed you are physically, literally, metaphorically. But what does that mean? That we need to starve all of our life? No. I think it's good if you're having moments of bounty and moments of desolation, and trying to take the advantages of each, so that when you are in the moment of struggling, maybe that is an artistically rich time, and then you have your time of replenishment, and that's when you can worry about, "Okay, now I'm going to see what's wrong with my back. And now I'm going to replenish my bank account."
It’s kind of like seeing life seasonally. There are times when leaves bud and times when leaves fall. Your writing cycle will mimic that. Winter's going to come at some point.
Ilana Wilson: I have a love of traveling and a desire to travel everywhere, and it's overwhelming. It's wanderlust to the extreme. I've always been very practical when it comes to financing and I feel like that's limiting me. I want your advice to get beyond that and to just be like, "I need to go," and how you do that, because I feel like that's more where I want to be.
S.E.G.: The old way of traveling was: buy a plane ticket and have enough left over for your first two weeks and then just go and figure it out. That's how old-school travelers have always done it.
We're not often tested on our survival instincts, but we are when we travel. Those will kick in, and you will find a way to make it. You don't need to save for six months first. You just need a plane ticket and funding for a couple of weeks, and you will find something because you're going to have to find something. Again, it's just about the Universe pushing you and making you think, "Oh, you're going to have to get on that plane again," but then at the last second, someone will say, "I need an English tutor." Something will come through.
It can also be helpful to gain a few skills first. I always recommend to my UNC students that they get English teaching certification. That will enable you to teach at international schools, as well as Berlitz. Sometimes even gigs with schools that will fly you to their country. So that's a worthy investment of time. There's also a long tradition of travelers who just sort of ship themselves off to Seoul, find a businessman and tutor them in English. I know a lot of people who did that. So you probably don't need as many resources as you would think.
Jørn Otte: I have a question that might seem an odd thing to ask of someone who is predominantly writing about travel, but I think that you might have a lesson or an insight to be able to give to someone that can be transferred to the local. If someone isn't a traveler but is intimate with their own locale, their own city, town, country, whatever it might be, what can you say to them about how they can use the travel writing mentality to talk about their place?
S.E.G.: The deepest message you can gain from travel writing is how to be a traveler all of the time, to approach all life with an innate curiosity. How to always be awake, to enter into every experience as though it were the first time, as though you were perpetually a foreigner. And you're feeling all 10,000 taste buds in action, and all 10,000 sensories on the tips of your fingers. It's just about being awake. It's about opening your consciousness to always being alive and awake. Travel writing is a metaphor for being alive.
Ilana Wilson: I've always been waffling between the idea of being a teacher and not being a teacher. I feel I have little patience for people who are in a classroom sometimes, especially since I grew up homeschooling in the middle of nowhere and doing my own thing, and classrooms are just this foreign thing that I don't understand.
But my grandmother was a teacher and she loved it, and I'm trying to find a way of imparting everything that I've learned in my life, especially about writing, to the world, and teaching seems like it's the only real answer, so I want to know, what you think about that. Should people go down that road?
S.E.G.: I think it gets down to your mission as a writer. My mission as a writer has always been to give voice to the voiceless. So I tend to write about marginalized populations, or survivors. That's deeply important to me. The more that I've done it, the more I begin to realize that sometimes the best thing for a community is not to have an outsider come in and write about them, but to instead try to help empower them. Give them skills and resources so that they can express their own views and their own ways of being in the world themselves.
If your writing mission is social justice, I think teaching has to be part of that mission. At least in my own way of viewing the world. I have found that my students are dealing with some seriously challenging life issues. I am devoted to giving them the tools to heal and to render their life experience into art, so that they own the experience rather than the experience owning them, and they have agency over the experience rather than the experience having agency over them. And that is such a powerful human exchange.
Teaching also deepens what you know and shows you what you don't know. You learn more from the students than the students actually learn from you. It’s almost like, that’s when you really start learning about writing, through teaching. Which might be kind of selfish!
The schedule is also conducive to writing. If you're a professor, you have your summers off, you've got your winter off, you have access to resources. So there's also an economic reason to teach. People do it for love, people do it for security, people do it for justice.
One of the main reasons I do it is for joy. It's just sheer, unadulterated joy for me. Students are just so immediately reactive. With the kind of long-form journalism I do, it takes six months to a year before anything is ever published. You have to wait that long to get a reaction. But teaching is immediate feedback and immediate connection. You feel like you're immediately doing something important.
Jørn Otte: You know, it's hard to make a judgement call just spending a couple of hours with somebody, but that workshop that you led this morning, if that's any indication of what kind of teacher you are, you're an extraordinary teacher.
S.E.G.: Yay! That was so fun.
Jørn Otte: What are your bucket list places that you haven't been to yet that you really want to go to, and why?
S.E.G.: I actually just did the big one this summer. Ever since I can remember, I have always had a deep, deep desire to go to India. Something has always mystified me about India. I love the food, I love the music, I love the dress.
I've always felt like Indian women are the most beautiful women on the planet. Literature. Hinduism. Yoga. Anyway, so I've now been to more than 40 countries, and India is the only place where I've ever planned a trip that has fallen through. And not only has it fallen through once, it's fallen through three times.
And very dramatically. The first time, I actually got a job in Delhi. I had a plane ticket, I had a visa, I'd been studying Hindi for six months. I was two weeks from leaving for India for a year, and my father found out that he had cancer. I canceled the trip to go home and be with him. Thank god, he made it through. It was prostate cancer, so he caught it early and he made it through the experience and was totally in the clear about six months later. Eventually I started thinking, "Well, maybe now I can go to India, but I should brush up on my Hindi first." So I went to a bookstore and bought a box of Hindi language tapes and took them home. Every single one of them was blank.
At that time, there was one Indian restaurant in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I was staying. I thought, "Oh, maybe I'll go there, and I can hire somebody to be my tutor," and I start calling and they were never ever there. I called in the morning, called in the evening, called in the afternoon, and they never seemed to be open. So I drove by, and saw they had burned down.
Then my dad came up to me and he said, "You know, I'm really glad that I got sick." And I'm like, "What?!" And he said, "I had a bad feeling about you going to India, and me getting sick stopped you from going."
Jørn Otte: Wow.
S.E.G.: I was like, "Okay. Not going." And things like that kept happening, three times over the course of ten years. So when another chance arose this summer, I was frightened of it. I don't think I've ever been so frightened to travel somewhere.
This was also around the time that the media started publishing stories about gang rape in India. It just felt like an unsafe place to go as a woman, so I was really nervous—like shaking nervous as I was packing. I thought several times maybe I should back out of this, maybe this is not a good idea, I shouldn't be tempting fate. But it ended up being one of the most powerful travel experiences of my life.
I actually have a little entry on my blog about it. I was going through a lot of issues prior to India, in my personal life. But when I flew into Indian airspace, it was like a little Q-tip slipped inside my brain and removed all those anxieties. India is such an intense place to be. All senses are immediately assaulted, so you can't think about what you worried about prior to arrival. You're just completely immersed. You're a hundred percent alive. So India was always number one on my bucket list, and now my list is open.
Jørn Otte: So what about within the United States itself. Is there anywhere within the U.S. that you have not yet been that you would like to go? Or have you seen all that there is, for you?
S.E.G.: You know, I've never been to Hawaii, and there are a lot of places to see in Hawaii. I've been to all 50 states except for Hawaii.
Some sacred spaces in the United States, to me, are in the American southwest. One of my very favorite places is Canyon de Chelly, which is in northeast Arizona. If the Grand Canyon weren't in the state of Arizona, Arizona would be known as the Canyon de Chelly state. It is a spectacular geological formation that is run by the Navajo Nation. I was there with a friend who is Oglala Lakota, and we hiked deep down into the canyon just as a major thunderstorm rolled through. Being in a canyon during a thunderstorm—it's probably very dangerous—but it's also sensational to feel the thunder reverberating throughout your body. It was a very cleansing experience.
Ilana Wilson: I have another question. When I was traveling around Europe. I had kind of a couch-surfing adventure. I was couch surfing through couchsurfing.org, and I was staying on people's couches all the time and staying with new people I'd never met. Have you ever used something like that, or like…where do you stay when you travel?
S.E.G.: So cool. My major travel experience preceded websites like couchsurfing.org. It was for an online educational project called The Odyssey: U.S. Trek. I was part of a team of eight documentarians who ranged in age from 18 to 26. I was the Chicana, there was a Native American, a Taiwanese-American, an Iranian-American, and a Brazilian citizen. We had someone who was African-American. We had someone with a disability and someone who was gay. We assembled a very diverse group of people, and then we set out across the country and made a website for K-12th grade students based on Howard Zinn's, A People's History of the United States.
Jørn Otte: That's an incredible book.
S.E.G.: Yeah, it's hard to read more than a couple of pages at a time. It's basically a catalogue of all the horrible things our country has done to other countries and to ourselves.
It's a very necessary read. Through the Odyssey, we basically re-wrote that book for children. In one year, I drove 45,000 miles with this team. We would travel in pairs, so we had four cars and four laptops and four digital cameras and four video cameras. We were constantly on the road, and our budget was $15 a day. So we basically had no money. And this was before couchsurfing.org, right? And before Airbnb and before all these things that make traveling on the cheap quite easier.
So, because we had no money, we became class-A hustlers, essentially. We would just pull up to a town to write about a historical event that happened there, and over the course of interviewing people, we developed a sixth sense. We would immediately know that we could say we were living on $15 a day and had no place to sleep that night, and they would give us a couch.
People got very taken with our story. The Internet was still novel back then, so websites were really exciting and innovative. People immediately wanted to help us. We’d be staying at somebody’s house, whom we didn't know prior to meeting five hours before, and they'd be like, "Well, where are you going next?" And we’d say, "Chattanooga." And they're like, "Okay, I've got a cousin in Chattanooga." So they call the cousin, and the cousin would host us. Then the cousin would be like, "Where are you going next?" "Nashville." "Okay, I got a friend…"
So we never paid for housing. Ever. We really got bold. We bought all of our cars on eBay for less than $1000 in San Francisco before we started. Our cars were constantly breaking down, and we would go to a mechanic’s and be like, "Let me tell you what we're doing here," and they would fix our cars for free. It was crazy. It was also before 9/11. We finished the project a month before 9/11, and we've always wondered what the Trek would have been like after 9/11, because I feel like the tenor of America changed quite radically.
People were so open and kind and trusting then. There was never any doubt, ever, of our intentions, of who we were. I often wonder, could the Trek be possible today the way it was back then?
Jørn Otte: Can you talk just a little bit about how conflicts, whether it's something like 9/11, or the war in Syria, or ISIS, or any of that stuff, how that affects your sensibility as a travel writer in terms of either where you want to go and what you want to write about, or where you had wanted to go and maybe are now trepidatious about? Even though you may spiritually feel connected, and in terms of solidarity and a social justice attitude, you want to support them, what does entering into an area of conflict do to you as a travel writer?
S.E.G.: It's something that I struggle with a lot, actually, because, when I arrive to a new place, I realize that no media portrayal has ever been remotely accurate.
For example, I was really afraid to go to India, and then I get there and realize it is the greatest place ever. I'm constantly having that experience, but yet, the fear still builds. I'm not immune to it, even though I know that a country may go through difficult times, but there will always be beauty, there will always be magic, there will always be peace, somewhere within it. Even though I know that at a very elemental level, media still takes an effect.
Jørn Otte: Yeah. Of course it does. Have you ever changed your mind about going to a place based on a conflict that was happening there?
S.E.G.: When I first moved to Moscow in 1996, there weren’t many street signs or store signs or anything then. A grocery store was only identifiable because people would walk out carrying groceries. So my roommate and I decided the only way to learn Moscow was to walk around and just push in doors. Sometimes it would be a post office, and sometimes it would be a library. We never knew what would be behind the door.
So once we pushed in a door and there was a man behind a desk with a phone, and a map of the world behind him. It was a travel agency. We had just gotten to Moscow and didn’t feel the need to go anywhere else, so we turned around to walk out, and there was a little sign that said five days, five nights in Egypt starting at $499. That included plane fare, hotel, visa, meals, everything! My friend and I, we had no money, but we were like…
Jørn Otte: "We've got to do this."
S.E.G.: We knew right away: Egypt will never be this cheap again. So we bought the ticket for spring break. We figured we would need to thaw out at that point in our Moscow stay. But two days before we left, 40 Greek tourists were shot in front of the hotel where we were going to stay in Cairo. So I called the travel agent. This whole conversation is in Russian. I'm like, "Hi, I'm calling about the trip." She's like, "Da Da Da,” and I said, "Did you hear what happened?" "Da." "Is this trip still on?" "Da." And I was like, "But aren't you worried?!" And she said: "Moscow is worse."
They wouldn't give us back our money, so we were like, "All right. I guess we're going." And again, we ended up having an extraordinary experience.
Jørn Otte: I get the sense that you come from a real place of trust and peace with the universe that things will be provided for you.
S.E.G.: Yeah. Which could also be totally naïve, but if I acted on impulses of fear, I would never have gone anywhere. Ever. So I guess I just feel like…
Jørn Otte: Fear is the great enemy of every writer, I believe.
S.E.G.: Of every person.
Jørn Otte: Alright, one last question. Can you, for our voice recording, tell us "thank you" in as many languages as you have learned that phrase in?
Stephanie: Okay! Gracias. Muchas gracias. Obrigado. Merci. Merci beaucoup. Spasiba. Shukran. Xiè xie nǐ. Dziękuje. Danke.