by Anitra Ingham, Colorado Review Associate Editor
“Anything Good Is a Secret,” selected by Kent Nelson as the winner of the 2014 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, appears in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of Colorado Review. The author, Amira Pierce, generously agreed to share her thoughts on the story with Associate Editor Anitra Ingham.
Anitra Ingham: Your descriptions of setting in “Anything Good Is a Secret” were compelling, such as “Electrical cords crisscross a gray wall, paint peeling to show white. A turbaned politician is caught mid-gesticulation on a television; in the foreground, a large can set upright on the carpet blooms with flame.” I assume you drew upon your experience living in Egypt to write the story. Did a particular experience in Egypt inspire this story?
Amira Pierce: A patchwork of experiences inspired all the imagery in this story, and those experiences include meeting people during the nine months I spent working and living in Cairo from 2004–05, visits to the desert and smaller cities and villages throughout Egypt during that time, and probably also experiences in places that I consider similar throughout my life, and I guess “similar” means a lot of things that I won’t go into here, but I’ll tell you those places include settings in Lebanon (where my mother grew up and I’ve made regular visits to and continue to write about), Syria, Mexico, Indonesia (where I graduated high school), and etc. etc. etc.
AI: To what extent did you use research to supplement your own experience in Egypt?
AP: The first story I submitted in my MFA workshop was the original version of “Anything GoodIs a Secret.” This was three years after leaving Egypt, which is where I started seriously writing, and it was the first story I wrote that felt completely fictional, where the protagonist wasn’t simply a version of myself (and if I’m honest I would say I haven’t completed a story with such a distant protagonist since). It was also the first story that sent me to the library since undergrad. The main book I used for inspiration was cloth-bound, with pages falling out of it, a history of Bedouins throughout Arabia. It had black and white photos and represented things I found useful about social roles in Bedouin tribes, and the phenomenon of tribes being encouraged to settle by the governments of the newly formed countries who suddenly ruled over the lands where they had travelled for generations. I needed to get an idea how the desert town of the story would look and function, and also to understand what roles my characters might fit into and/or struggle against, and the book gave me that. I probably also had a few conversations about it with my father. He’s always up for a good phone talk about Arab history.
AI: Is travel important for you in general as a writer? How so?
AP: Travel is important for me in life, and so it is important for me as a writer. I grew up living abroad and traveling with my mother, father, and sister, and my becoming serious about writing was entwined with continued decisions to spend time abroad after I left home. It was never like: oh, I’m going to take a trip to this place and write about it. But has been a more meandering process, like: oh, I’m going to take this opportunity to leave one version of reality and experience another, to resist, enjoy, and understand new people and things. During that time, I will inevitably be writing about the newness, usually in the form of journal entries. (While I’m traveling is the only time I religiously keep a journal.) Later on, those entries become bigger things, as my traveling finds its way into my stories, and now my novel, as image, idea, character, whatever. Many of my characters–George, for instance–travel and have to deal with the emotional effects of displacement, also the surprising connections displacement brings.
AI: George’s photography hobby is central to the story in that he is asked to be a photographer in the village, and his photographs serve as captions for sections of the story. Did you know from the beginning that George’s photography would guide the narrative direction and structure of the story?
AP: Thinking back on it, the caption thing sort of happened during the earliest drafts as a way to organize the vignettes that were starting to build toward a story. I do remember playing around with their order many times, and the last one, about the flower, I definitely added in a much later version. Oh, now I’m starting to remember that the whole story started with the penultimate caption, for the only color image George made, of the couple in the watermelon grove. That was the thing that I put into words first. Thanks for bringing that back.
AI: Was George’s voice/POV with you when you began the story?
AP: George’s voice was the voice of the man who told me the story that inspired this one. I knew him in Egypt, and he had first been a photographer when he came there, though he was no longer taking pictures when I knew him. He wasn’t American, and the marriage to Mona wasn’t his marriage. He had gone to a village as a photographer when he was a much younger man than George, and I never got to see his photos. But the voice has certainly remained his as I’ve worked on many versions of the story. And the couple he photographed–Aya, the nurse who would visit the village, and Sahel, the son of the village’s chief–feel as real to me as when he told me their story, over the course of a chain of cigarettes he smoked at his gigantic office desk where we worked together in Cairo.
AI: Would you tell me a little about your revision process for “Anything Good Is a Secret?” Were there any major changes that pulled the story together?
AP: I can’t recall one big change. There were many small ones and medium-sized ones over the years since I wrote it, years I have been submitting it here and there. I have gone through extended periods of obsession with working on this story, and I am an obsessive editor overall.
AI: Which authors have inspired your writing recently?
AP: bell hooks, Mary Ruefle, Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson. I’ve been into the idea of the work we do for truth, and the way these women do that work with words is courageous, delightful, sublime. And always, there are so many other inspirers, including many dedicated and selfless writers and writing teachers that I’m blessed to be friends with and exchange ideas and work with.
Amira Pierce was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and has lived in Cairo, Egypt; Chiapas, Mexico; San Francisco, California; and Falls Church and Richmond, Virginia. She teaches in the Expository Writing Program at NYU-Polytech in Brooklyn and is an editor for failbetter.com and the Blue Falcon Review. Her short fiction has received various honors and appeared in publications including Cream City Review, the Asian American Literary Review, Makeout Creek, and miraclemonocle.com. She received her MFA in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University and is at work on a novel. (Photo of Amira Pierce by S. Lohiser.)