Leone Brander for AGNI: Much of your nonfiction work, both essays and your book, Harbors, contain social-political themes. Are you consciously using literature as a political tool, and if so, where and how do politics and storytelling intersect for you?
Donald Quist: I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent to answer your question. I’m sorry. One of my favorite TV shows is the short-lived American adaptation of a British series called Getting On. It follows a group of highly flawed individuals serving a fledgling hospital’s elder care unit. In the final moments of the series, Laurie Metcalf’s character says, “There is no justice; but there is mercy, because that is what we can give each other.” The first time I heard her monologue, I squealed. That’s it! Anything I write starts from a desire to offer empathy, understanding, grace and mercy.
This pursuit for mercy—the attempt to remind others and myself that all human lives have value—inherently leads to an exploration of the nuances among governing systems and ruling social constructs. One’s race, gender, or sexual identity can make their experience political. Because of where I’m from, looking the way I do, because of how I was raised and because of who I am, my existence in the United States is politicized. Since the 1800’s the rights of those with my complexion, our role in this society, have been public affairs issues open to debate—”The Negro Problem.” So, although I don’t intend to write overtly political pieces, I accept that the stories I find worth telling will be social-political. I know when I write about shoplifting as a latchkey kid with my poor white friend it’s not such a simple anecdote. There are layers. I hope the stories I tell encourage more constructive discourse about some of the exigencies of life in North America.
LB/AGNI: What you said about “layers” is interesting. As an author who writes both fiction and nonfiction, do you find that the nuance and layers can change from genre to genre? Are there certain considerations you have when writing in fiction that you don’t have for nonfiction, or vice versa?
DQ: Yes—I think the way these nuances and layers are portrayed vary between genres. Fiction has a set of expectations. Readers demand authenticity, that the characters of an imagined universe move within the parameters or conceits introduced by the author. For me, fiction lends itself to the exploration of hypotheticals, the imagined limits of divisions we create in reality. When I write nonfiction, I have greater consideration for the existing disparities which frame the narrative I wish to tell. It’s a matter of varying responsibility. With fiction, I must convey a sense of truth and believability. In nonfiction, I must provide truthful examples demonstrative of a shared experience while recognizing that these examples are invariably shaded by my own perception. Nonfiction requires me to acknowledge the limits of my perspective.
Donald Quist is the author of the nonfiction collection Harbors. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the 2017 International Book Awards and runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. He is creator of the web project Past Ten and co-host of the podcast Poet in Bangkok. See what he’s published in AGNI here.
In addition to being an intern at AGNI, Leone Brander is a Canadian author and illustrator. Her work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries, Bacopa Literary Review, and the Bellingham Review. She earned her BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria and is currently an MFA student at Boston University.