Books Breed At Night: An Interview with Toni Nealie

A few days after 9/11, our fifth-grade English teacher had us spend an entire class period writing a fictional story about what happened in New York. Being Minnesotan kids, most of us didn’t understand and couldn’t totally appreciate what happened that day, but we were nevertheless scared of some unknown people from an unknown place attacking our cities. Free-form writing was supposed to be our release.

I remember writing a story about a happy family from India that moved to New York because they loved America in early September 2001. In my story, the family was out sightseeing on 9/11 when the towers went down and their uncle lost his leg because he didn’t run fast enough and was crushed in the rubble (facts/precise detail about what exactly happened was unclear to me at this time). My story ended with the little girl central character visiting her uncle in the hospital where he told her not to be scared, that everybody in America has been nice to him, and that it is the terrorist, not the Americans, she needs to fear. Obviously, a 10-year-old’s story of an immigrant’s 9/11 experience is nothing if not idealistic.

The only thing my fractured story had in common with the essays contained in Toni Nealie’s collection, The Miles Between Me, is this American, post-9/11 fear of “the other.” Moving from New Zealand to the U.S. just two weeks before 9/11, Nealie faced the real struggles of being an “other” in a country so crazed to stand united within itself.

Between these essays on place and what “home” means to someone navigating the rules of citizenship, Nealie’s essays delve even further into the world of motherhood and its peculiar identity, her family’s possible criminal past, to the future she sees for her sons, two boys from the same parents with different skin tones. Nealie’s work offers more insight into the idea of place, home, and family than almost anything you’ll read this year.

Kati Heng: Can you give me a time frame for when these essays were written?

Toni Nealie: They were completed last year, but most originated when I was completing my MFA. Some began ten years ago, but fragments morphed into quite different essays. I’m happy that I kept bad early drafts—line or paragraphs that I coaxed into fully fledged essays.

KH: Many of your essays include reference to the time when you first moved to America — just before 9/11. I’m interested in how you kept memory of that time. Did you keep journals or other writing? Or did it just stand out by being such a time of change in your life?

TN: That period is etched into my [probably unreliable] memory. Do I remember home or is my mind’s eye shimmering? “Mind’s Eye Shimmering” was my earlier working title [for the book]. I don’t keep journals and don’t write every day or to a schedule. My mind meanders while I’m in motion, on a journey. I like to walk. I think thriting should be a word, describing the writerly thinking that takes place in my mind as I walk, or wralking, writing while walking. Also shinking and bithing, the quality process that occurs while taking long showers or lounging about in the bath until my fingers wrinkle. The downside is that by the time I get out of the steam, the brilliant idea may have wafted away. I just read that creativity is spurred by walking and showers, so I feel vindicated for being leisurely in my approach.

KH: Many of the essays in the first section of the book deal with the “new” racism you faced in America compared to what you were used to in New Zealand, London, elsewhere. Can you describe a few ways the racism is different? Has the racism quieted down (to you) as the years past 9/11 increase?

TN: Racism exists in many countries, including Aotearoa, New Zealand, which was colonized by the British. In both places, structural racism determines who has access to employment, education and the best standard of living. An isolated island nation, it can be xenophobic. It doesn’t have such extremes as here. There are stricter laws about hate speech, and white supremacist groups do not hold as much sway. While I encountered petty racism there, the political policies and legal restrictions that my grandfather faced are long gone. I never worried about my or my child’s safety there.

The 9/11 attacks revved up extreme fear of the “other” leading to close scrutiny and suspicion of some groups in the U.S.—but this is nothing new. I don’t think racism has quieted down since then – thinking of opposition to the first black president, police shooting people of color, active white supremacy groups, deportations of undocumented immigrants, fear of terrorism, and presidential candidates stoking the fires of bigotry.

Right now there is pressure on the housing market in Auckland, and Chinese residents are the targets of racists slurs. Fear of terrorism, even in a place like New Zealand, which has a very high death rate from car crashes and no deaths from terrorism, has fermented hostility towards innocent people. Fear and economic pressures heighten bigotry, and the identifiable “other” is the target, as usual.


KH: As someone with vivid nightmares who has also looked up many interpretations of dream symbolism, I loved your essay “Dreamtime,” which included some interpretations of dreams you had while pregnant. I’m curious how often you look up these dream symbols — was it just for this essay? How much stock do you put into the science of dream interpretation and symbolism in general?

TN: I looked up dream meanings for this essay. I approached them playfully, without considering any science. Symbols, whether in dreams, tarot or runes, can perhaps help you identify what is already on your mind. I think they revealed my anxiety about the real risks that young children face and helped me process them.

KH: One of the most profound and terrifying thoughts in this essays is the way you described keeping women as homemakers, stuck in that cycle of housework, childcare, etc., as “how a woman becomes invisible.” How does a woman break out of that cycle?

TN: [For me,] the page became my outlet, a place where I had a voice. Many women, including my mother, are very happy to be considered homemakers. I found it difficult, because I had combined career and parenthood before. Maybe we should value the role more—raising children is arguably the most important work of the world but it doesn’t have an immediately quantifiable dollar value, so is diminished. Stop saying someone is “just” a mother. In heterosexual couples, we could encourage equal sharing of parenting and homemaking by providing family leave for both parents. I have friends in other countries where the woman stayed home for the first six months and the dad for the second six months. Equal pay for women would help, so it is not as economically imperative for new fathers to keep working. More job place flexibility so parents can work from home or take time off without losing work-place status. Having family-friendly workplace policies.

How to break out of the cycle—children grow up! I can only speak for myself, I started working part-time and went back to school once my youngest was in school. I can’t regain the income and career I lost, but I have forged another path, which is rich in other ways. The recession demonstrated how unstable unemployment is and no one says on their deathbed, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” Luckily, I have a supportive spouse, so I have had freedom and financial support to write.

KH: In your writing, your able to pull quotes from other authors like Annie Dillard, Maggie Nelson, etc., at what seems to the reader, the drop of the hat. It’s like they’re just THERE in your mind, as able to use as a common expression. Can you tell me a little about how you are able to come up with these so easily? Do you memorize a lot?

TN: I read widely, so I’m just as likely to quote nonsense poetry as I am to include Maggie Nelson. Quotes sift up from my subconscious mind, then I fossick in my books to see where they are from. They are in my memory, but not fully formed, not memorized.

Other writers feed me—providing the organic mix in which I germinate my ideas. I draw on other writers, but my experience, thoughts and ideas then go off on their own adventures.

KH: Finally, tell me about how/where you keep your books. What room(s) are the most in? How do you sort them? What’s been in your collection since you were a teen? What books never stay on the shelves for too long? And what’s on your nightstand?

TN: Books breed at night when we aren’t looking. They are all over our big old Victorian house. In my office I keep essays and other nonfiction. In summer, I alphabetized them and they are mostly still in order. We have two big old glass cabinets in our living room that look magnificent, but I hate not being able to touch the books. There are more on shelves in my husband’s basement office, in a room upstairs, and in boxes in the attic. My side of the bed is a mess – there are books all over the floor and in a huge Moroccan basket. If I go to a reading, I always buy a book. I’d rather support a writer than a beer baron or wine maker, so books are my main vice.

I have The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Works of Shakespeare, and The Lord of the Rings from my teen years, and The Book of Nonsense (Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll etc) from when I was a young kid.

Piled up on the nightstand: books and assorted magazines and journals. Ridiculous! The Making of the American Essay by John D’Agata, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika Wurth, Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, On The Move by Oliver Sacks, Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann, You Feel So Mortal by Peggy Shinner, a collection of Basque short stories, poems by Adrienne Rich, Rules of Desire by Dipika Mukherjee, You Tell Me Yours edited by Hope Edelman and Robyn Hemley, and an advanced review copy of The Weight of Shadows by José Orduña. Now I feel embarrassed, so I’ve tidied up.


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