Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com.
Today’s Interview is with Olivia Kate Cerrone
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a writer and college educator, currently finishing work on a novel entitled The Hunger Saint, a manuscript of just under 100,000 words, absorbed with the messy intersection between family dysfunction and social exploitation. Set in contemporary Sicily, the narrative follows an American woman, desperate to understand her estranged father’s past as a child laborer. She soon becomes entangled in a Mafia plot for toxic waste dumping in civilian territory. Chapter excerpts have appeared in the North Atlantic Review, Hot Metal Bridge and the Italian literary journals, El-Ghibli and ScrittInediti. I have also published short fiction in various literary journals, such as New South, War, Literature and the Arts, The Portland Review, JewishFiction.net and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana. Since completing my MFA in creative writing from New YorkUniversity, I have been fortunate enough to participate in residencies at the VirginiaCenter for the Creative Arts, the Jentel Artist Residency Program, the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency, the GloucesterWritersCenter, Art Farm, The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and the VermontStudioCenter. I owe much of my artistic development and professional advancement to the enormous privilege that is participating in these residencies. I am a writer who deeply values and believes in the nurturing power of community among serious working artists.
I am a great admirer of oral historians like Studs Terkel and Anthony V. Riccio, who have captured the often raw and brutal realities of class dynamics and social exploitation through spotlighting American voices. This past January I had the privilege of traveling to Sicily to conduct an oral history project with former sulfur miners, who began their working lives as carusi, child-aged miners (some as young as four and five years old). This research has significantly informed The Hunger Saint. I am absorbed by the ugliness of class. I am haunted by the ways in which class warps and disfigures one’s personal identity, community and family relations. I produce fiction that is socially conscious, art that strives to examine society’s flaws through language. Authors like Colum McCann, George Orwell and John Dos Passos are writers that I find enormously inspiring and strive to emulate. I also have a deep interest in the Middle East, particularly the complexities of contemporary Israeli life and Sephardic identity. I plan to travel to Israel in the next year or so to deepen my understanding.
What has personally sparked your interest in exploring class dynamics, particularly the exploitation of the working or underclasses?
The limitations that class can impose on one’s social and psychological development can be devastating and have a profound negative impact on future generations. I think that this influence is worthy of a deeper investigation, particularly through a literary lens, as fiction so often showcases the abusive social conditions that people are subjected to in the face of poverty and limited educational and financial means. Those who lack adequate resources often feel as though they lack choices as well. Although I write about a wide range of social issues, I cannot entirely detach myself from my own roots as a third-generation Italian American, whose great-grandparents came to America as laborers. Growing up, I observed in extended family members a distinct correlation between suffering from a lack of resources and education with making poor social decisions, such a tendency toward crime, drug use and emotional abuse against others. There also seemed to exist a sense of mistrust or outright dismissal of attaining higher education or engaging in intellectual pursuits. Author Helen Barolini once remarked that “when you don’t read, you don’t write. When your frame of reference is a deep distrust of education because it is an attribute of the very classes who have exploited you and your kind for as long as memory carries, then you do not encourage a reverence for books among your children. You teach them practical arts not the imaginative ones.” I think there is much truth in that observation.
Is part of that distrust of intellectual pursuits a desire to maintain the culture from home, is it because of the lack of resources and help offered to immigrants, both, something else? Also is this something that we will see explored in The Hunger Saint?
I think such distrust of the intellectual stems from a deep place of fear. That fear is a social conditioning that is imposed upon people, regardless of their race or culture, to keep them subdued and easily controllable for the sake of economic gain by others driven by greed and entitlement. But it’s that conditioning and outright exploitation that creates distorted thinking among the oppressed and leads to a passive acceptance of terrible social conditions. This is in part what leads people to accept the destruction of their local environments by large industrial corporations, when those residents themselves are the ones who later suffer from cancer and severe health conditions. It’s that same sense of powerlessness that drives people to accept dangerous work conditions for the sake of earning a small pay, or a mother to sell her young child into a life of hard labor. These are issues I most definitely explore in The Hunger Saint.
You’ve been to quite a few residencies. Congratulations! Can you speak a bit towards the experiences you’ve had there? Would you recommend them for beginning writers, or are they something a more experienced writer should highly consider?
Thank you very much! My experience with the residencies has been extremely positive, and also transformative. I have pursued these opportunities for the sake of engaging in serious writing communities after the MFA. There is a lot of talk about how to keep writing and stay motivated after the MFA, especially when one is undertaking the overwhelming (and often lonely) pursuit of writing a novel. I believe that residencies are an ideal place for more experienced writers, who are not primarily looking for the mentorship and learning that is usually present in an MFA program, but who have already developed an understanding of themselves as artists, as well as the work they wish to accomplish. The time one receives as a resident really is a gift, and should be perceived as such. It’s a great feeling to work among other serious artists who are trying to produce creatively, but independently of one another. Great artist colonies, such as the Vermont Studio Center and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, also foster opportunities for sharing, through public readings and such. You don’t always get that sense of support and comradeship in the “real world,” especially when you’re trying to hold down a job and support a family. That sense of community and positive reinforcement is really a key to keeping the motivation and productivity alive after the MFA.
What’s it like, being a writer in the real world? We use “the real world” all the time to, I think, discuss an abstract concept of “not academia”, but what is that actually like for a real human being?
It’s challenging because there is so much expectation in the “real world” to attain immediate results, particularly monetary ones. When I am fortunate enough to have a story accepted by a journal, for instance, the first question I’m usually asked by friends or family members not involved in the arts is how much I’m going to be paid for the publication. That’s not always the case with literary magazines, even the more distinguished ones. That doesn’t mean the publication or the piece is worthless, but unfortunately, some may see it that way. Our society is so consumed with what makes fast money, that it distorts and limits what is possible and what counts as “quality” in the arts. Earning a living is important, no one will argue with that, but I find that it is a constant fight to write while paying the bills. There is not enough support for serious working artists, and a lot of that has to do with our values as a society. As a college educator, one of the most challenging aspects of my job is to foster solid critical thinking skills among students who don’t make a habit of reading in their daily lives. Reading and critical thinking go hand in hand–you can’t have one without the other. For writers, especially those who write literary fiction, that’s a challenge we are up against: producing and selling books in a culture that doesn’t celebrate and promote reading as much as it should.
Who are some of the writers that you expose your students to?
Right now I am teaching Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to my students. Most have found it to be a challenging but riveting read. Since I often teach college essay writing throughout the academic year, I strive to expose my students to a diverse range thinkers and social activists they may have not encountered before in a traditional classroom setting. This past semester, we’ve look at pieces by Christopher Hitchens, Trey Ellis and Mahmoud Darwish.
It’s obvious that your writing has a political bent to it with concern to class consciousness. It sounds, from those writers, that your teaching does as well. How do you negotiate the political in the classroom?
As an educator, my first priority is to challenge my students to develop their critical thinking abilities. Much of that comes with exposing them to different perspectives of how to view world issues, and to question especially what the media feeds us. I teach from a philosophy based on respect and intellectual empowerment, so that when we as a class are discussing delicate political or social issues, there is enough room for argument so that differing perspectives can be heard and analyzed.
How long have you been working on The Hunger Saint? What are some struggles you’ve had, especially writing a first novel?
I wrote and completed my first full-length novel as an MFA student in NYU’s creative writing program, but failed to secure an agent and a publisher for the work. I immediately moved on and began writing another book. Producing The Hunger Saint has taken me several years, due to the amount of research and travel involved with the project, but that work was necessary for me to understand the plot and its characters. Writing a novel is a great deal of trial and error: sometimes you have to write through a hundred pages only to throw fifty of them out. But you must have faith, and especially patience, with the process. It’s essential if you wish to honor the vision of the work.
You can follow Olivia Kate Cerrone at http://www.oliviacerrone.com/