Working Writers Series: Tana Young
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 Tana Young
Tell us a little about yourself
I graduated with my MFA in 2008. I taught at the college level for about six years before I decided to take some risks. In 2012-13, I taught abroad, in Thailand. I also taught on-line for a college back home. In between teaching 400 Thai middle schoolers to speak English, and 26 Community College Students to write decently, I also write creatively. I write most often at about 3:00 am. I’ve had my work published in various journals, and several this year. Mostly I’m a creative non-fictionist, a memoirist.
I’m also the mother of three grown daughters. My eldest, an educator, lives in the Arctic Circle; my middle daughter, also a burgeoning writer, lives nearby; my youngest has just returned from Afghanistan, where she led a FET. She and her team delivered 10 sewing machines to Afghani women, set up a co-op, created a supply chain, and sent an Afghan woman to business school in Kabul, creating a path for more to follow. I mention these daughters of mine because they are the influential women in my life. As a feminist and the mother of daughters, I am profoundly interested in the global health and well-being of women.
I have lived all over the U.S. My early childhood was spent in Japan. I like viewing the elephant from differing perspectives. It’s good to find answers from other viewpoints. We’re all blind to the bigger picture.
I have just recently returned to the PNW, where I will be for 6 months. I’m back to teaching on a college campus. In fall 2013, I’ll move on to a grad program in the Midwest.
You mentioned that your daughters are an influential part of your life. How would you say that, first becoming a mother, and then having them delve headfirst into the writing profession has affected your writing?
Well, that’s the connection between everything, I suppose. As a female, I’m a mother, daughter, sister, and friend. Same gendered relationships are complex, and intimate family relationships interest me most. That includes a grandfather, father, uncles and brothers. My daughters fascinate me, as does my mother and my grandmother.
How do you feel like your extensive traveling, and the distance between yourself and family, has affected the relationships you write about?
I traveled for the first fourteen years of my life. There was a sense in which I became an observer of the world. Moving constantly is like when you’ve been on a long flight and you feel the plane’s movement and vibration, hear the hum of the engines, like a phantom limb, for several nights after you’ve landed. For a long time I did not know how to stay in one place. I didn’t even know you could stay in one place. Yet I landed in my grandmother’s farmhouse from time to time. I observed her in this same place over and over. Eventually it, and she, became a symbol for home to me.
I came back to the PNW in 1990 to take care of my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s. My daughters were raised with their great-grandmother, whom they grew to know and love. We lived in that old farmhouse together. They were all in one bed, sleeping, like a pile of puppies. Now we are scattered again to the four corners. Yet, there is that farmhouse as our center, and our years there as an anchor. I wrote in those years, when my youngest was learning to make speech, and my grandmother was losing hers. I could barely speak sentences when those years (as my grandmother’s caregiver) were done. Writing was my connection to sanity.
Once that experience as your grandmothers caregiver was complete, would you say that your writing dramatically changed, or was that just the segue into writing about relationships for you?
Writing was always my way of making sense of things. I emerged from those years (nearly 7 of them), having filled pages with a verbal blood-letting, if you will. I wrote about being in a vapor lock, looking for a clearing in the forest, waiting for someone to enter the space, who might speak words to me. Yes, taking care of my grandmother was pivotal in my writing. The days of starvation are the unstated element at the feast.
How do you think your interest in feminism, and women’s health has driven the direction of your writing?
As a continual traveler, I’ve lived mostly in the margins, observing systems at work. As a child of the military there are some dichotomies in that, of course – abroad, I feel the most myself. In the U.S., I feel most like an ‘other.’ My writing reflects those dichotomies. There is a depiction of ‘one’ and the ‘other.’ Having also spent much of my life in the various parts of the U.S., I’m most familiar with being an ‘other,’ a newcomer, and also a female in a man’s world. Yet I am also white, middle-class and American. Overseas, I am (indirectly) a part of the super power.
Whatever pond I have landed in, there have been those at the center who hold sway, who are exclusive and closed to outsiders. That dynamic shows up over and over in my writing. From that position on the margins, I meet interesting characters. An eclectic bunch lives out there on the rim. It’s a dangerous place to be. I came of age in a time where there was one true center. We all circled that center from a distance. The landscape is now more varied and unusual. The rules are a bit more dicey and unpredictable. We seem to be in a state of flux. At least we’re not as sure of the center as we once were.
As a result of my travels as a child, I developed an individual voice, though it took a long time to trust that voice, to allow it to speak. I was not formed by the same factors that shaped most in my generation. Thus, I see from a peculiar vantage. I’m always searching the background for clues, and the terrain for landmines. This is also a description of someone with PTSD. The folks in the forefront offer the official message. The voices of the ‘other’ offer the unofficial, de-legitimized story, the discredited version. The stories about the back forty are what I tell.
So that vantage point must be why you see value in differing perspectives?
The world is and always has been an unsafe place for females. That’s a given. Over and over again, wherever I’ve gone, that’s the way it is. I write about being unsafe as a child. I thought it was my particular problem and largely a problem of perception. For middle class Americans, there was one official story: happy and prosperous. I didn’t realize then that the issue of safety was much bigger than me. Children remember what happens to them. I write what I remember. I write what I know. This is the difficult aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It’s anchored in truth.
Using that as a segue, with your travels and your international experience, what would you say the largest issue facing women authors, specifically internationally, is today?
I think voices of dissent, especially by women, have been silenced. That’s a historical reality. The globe is run by men. Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar, is one example of a dissident, a female voice, suppressed and silenced for over 15 years. She has been co-opted into the regime there, but only to control her. She advocates for the dignity of all peoples. Ts’ai Yen is another female name from the far distant past. Her poetry spoke to me from thousands of miles and hundreds of years ago. Writers give us a glimpse to their world and times.
I think it’s interesting that after teaching internationally, and having so much experience abroad, you are returning to grad school. What helped you make that choice?
I’m going back to graduate school because I love learning, first of all. In the U.S., I teach at the college level. In Thailand, I worked with 8th and 9th graders (about 375 of them). Before that, I was a graphic designer/illustrator. After taking care of my grandmother, I went back to school. I experienced a great hunger for literature. I read voraciously. I also began to write. My creative writing professor, Nadine Chapman, who has since passed away, gave me enough safety and permission to write my dangerous words. Writing had once been largely an act of desperation, but then it became a shared story. She taught me that I could and should speak. Another professor, Vic Bobb, helped me understand that I wasn’t invisible, which I believed that I was (and had believed since my youngest days). Education changed everything for me. I’m also going back into a graduate program because I want to deepen that connection to thinkers and writers, and because I also want to connect with my students in that same way.
We read the words of others in order to hear their stories. We write to share our stories. It’s a tapping back and forth on the walls between jail cells, if you will. We tap out messages of desperation, of desire, of encouragement and affirmation. This writing and reading of words is the connection between us, though we are separated by miles and sometimes centuries.
Upon graduating, do you want to continue teaching, or focus on your writing? Do you feel like teaching has proven beneficial to your writing philosophy?
My area of study will focus on literary studies with an emphasis on creative writing. It will be more academic, as literary theory can be. Yes, I think I have been aware of the complexities of these ways of viewing. I’m fascinated by varying perspectives. Theory allows us to place lenses on writing, and also to write with those lenses in place. Everything changes what I write and how I approach the topic at hand. Everything impacts what I know, how I know it, and how I re-present it to the world. I’m becoming increasingly more aware and purposeful of the words I choose to offer. We can make a case for authorial intentionality in that. I also know that what I say will be re-interpreted by others. I hope to be a weaver of compelling stories that are important, intrinsic, and deeply felt.