On Sept. 8, 2020, Mills virtually hosted the second event in the fall lineup of their Contemporary Writers Series (CWS) program, a reading and question-and-answer session with Fowzia Karimi. Karimi called in from Denton, Texas to read from and take questions about her recently released debut novel, “Above Us the Milky Way.” The book is inspired by her early childhood, centering around her family’s immigration from Afghanistan to Southern California in 1980 to escape the Soviet War. The book consists of a series of anecdotes and fictional stories, organized alphabetically, and earned Karimi a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.
The event was moderated by Briana Grogan, a first-year MFA student in Mills’ poetry program, who will also be in charge of the remainder of this season’s CWS events. Karimi was introduced by her longtime friend Renee Macalino Rutledge, who met the author in the first week of their shared Mills MFA program.
Karimi opened by speaking warmly of her time at Mills, saying, “I’ve had so many amazing educational experiences throughout my life […] and I have to say, of all my educational experiences, Mills is definitely the highlight and continues to be. It really feels like home, still.”
She read three sections from her book: “B is for Before,” chronicling her family history prior to the Soviet War; “Dog and Jackal,” an Afghan legend told to her by her mother; and “The Sisters, Outside,” a story inspired by her relationship with her sister Samia, who was in the audience of the event and to whom Karimi dedicated the section. After the reading, the Q and A portion of the event began, with the audience posing questions via the Zoom chat.
When asked when she knew her book was complete, Karimi remarked, “I thought I was right about that many times across the ten years that I worked on this book. […] Because it’s made up of so many little pieces…the pieces just kept coming and I didn’t really have a choice in that. At some point, I was just like okay, I have to trust this is gonna let me know when it is done […] There was just one day when I wrote the last piece and I just knew. It felt like an exhale, like a really big exhale like the book was out of me […] I wish I could give you something more conscious […] but I don’t think books work that way. They come from deep within us and then something deep within us at some point says yes, this is done.”
She added that the process of editing, choosing the order of the book’s pieces, and designing the layout and cover took about a year after the nine years of writing were complete, summarizing it with “So it’s been a really long process. I’m hoping the next [book] goes much quicker and that moment of ‘yes, I’m done’ comes sooner.”
Karimi’s sister asked why she refrained from naming the sisters and the other characters in her book. “It made it easier, fewer names to remember,” Karimi joked, before explaining that the choice owes itself to her longtime love for fairy tales, which originated with the stories her aunt told during her childhood in Afghanistan. She explained, “In fairytales, you have, you know, the king, the princess, the beggar, the rosebush. Things […] have an inherent name that comes from who and what they are. So to me, sister is already so packed with meaning, and mother is the same, and father is the same […] They’re already loaded in these really amazing ways that come down to us through life, through the stories we read as children. So [the lack of names] was a formal consideration at first, and then a social one after that. You know, like, this is a story about my family but this happens—it’s happened throughout history, it’s happening now, because of the many wars across the world it will continue to happen, and I think, to just make it more universal in that way was important to me.”
When asked why she wrote “Above Us the Milky Way,” Karimi answered, “You know, I think it’s just a story that I’ve always…it’s always been there. It comes from memory. And even as a kid collecting those memories, I knew that, someday, I’d have to put this together. I never thought it would be in the form of a book, but it felt like I was there to collect it, to guard it.” She added that she didn’t realize that she wanted to write until age 30, after she had to end a career as a biological illustrator because of the toll it took on her body.
In response to a question about why she organized the book using the alphabet instead of a chronological narrative, Karimi responded, “Well, chronology just doesn’t make sense to me when you’re working with memory. Memory doesn’t work that way. We access different points in our history at any given moment. A scent might bring up a memory, a song brings it up, and it has nothing to do with time. I think our experience with life is also timeless in that way. If we, you know, shut your eyes and listen internally, that vast place is timeless.” The alphabet aspect came from a dream she had when she’d set the book aside for a few months, knowing that she “couldn’t work on it more and yet it needed more work,” and trusting her unconscious mind to continue the creative process. The inspiration came as a dream about “a book that needed to be an alphabet. The alphabet is what’s gonna guide the reader through.”
Grogan inquired how the current moment has affected the way Karimi writes. She answered, “I take stuff in all the time, and right now we are all bombarded with too much, and I think we’re all having trouble processing, but I’m especially slow with that. […] Recently I’ve just become so burdened by what’s going on, as I think we all are. […] And in terms of writing, I just can’t do it just now. I have nothing to say about this moment in that particular form, in that art form of writing. But I know that as it settles, my unconscious mind, my emotions process all those things—it’ll rise up in another book somewhere down the line.”
Other events in this fall’s Contemporary Writers Series will include the “West Oakland to West Africa” event on Oct. 22, a celebration of the recently released anthology “Our Spirits Carry Our Voices,” and a conversation between visiting professor Susan Stryker and UMass Amherst professor Jordy Rosenberg, author of “Confessions of the Fox,” on Nov. 5.