the museum of americana

a literary review

Interview with Allison Coffelt

Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Allison Coffelt about Maps Are Lines We Draw, a travel memoir about the author’s short-term public health service in Haiti. In her lyrical memoir, Coffelt explores the culture and beauty of the island along with its discomfiting realities.

Where did the title come from? Originally it was “Trapped Heat.” Why change it? You said it didn’t represent the book anymore. What was the book like when it was “Trapped Heat,” and what changed?

Ha! Funny story. The first essay from this book to find a home was called “Trapped Heat,” and that was several years before the book came out. The title came from a line where I’m describing Port-au-Prince and how it differs from the countryside in Haiti. That title did fit the excerpt, but as the book took shape, it no longer fit the scope of the work. I had a hard time coming up with a different title, though, so I kept it as the working name of the manuscript. Eventually, after the book was nearing the end of the editorial phase with Lanternfish Press, we had a conversation about changing the title.  I remember them saying, “If you just look up books under ‘Trapped Heat,’ you’ll see that there’s a lot of romance titles.  And that’s not exactly what we’re going for.” I had to laugh at that – it was true. So, we worked to come up with more possibilities.

To the second part of your question: what changed about the book? When the book became a whole, I think the biggest shift was that it began to examine larger ideas about the differences we construct between a sense of here and there, geographic luck and privilege, and how connection can span across time and space. This title, Maps Are Lines We Draw, does more to reflect that.

What is your definition of ‘Americana’ and how does ‘Americana’ relate to MALWD? In recommending your book, the founder and editor of The New Territory, Tina Casagrand, tweeted that it was written from a Midwestern perspective. What do you think she meant and does that play into the Americana question?

I suppose I define ‘Americana’ in a pretty textbook way, in that I think of it as things that relate or connect to the US. The New Territory is an “autobiography of the Lower Midwest” and it highlights work connected, in some way, to this place—so, I think part of what they do is champion writers who live, are from, or work here, or are doing work about this region. I think Maps is very much about Haiti and the United States; I’m really interested in the way those overlap. I’m not wholly separate from the environment in which I reside, and that includes the region where I live and the country. I think part of what this book does is ask its readers to examine those boundaries, those lines we draw, around identity and place—it asks us to look at the fact that the boundaries are constructed, and how we construct them, and why.  

For instance, there’s a line in the book where I connect the Haitian Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase. It’s small line, but an important one. If it weren’t for the Haitian Revolution, France would have been far less willing to give up their stake in North America, and the state where I currently live—where my family has lived for generations—was part of that Louisiana Purchase. The book is full of connections big and small (another one I can think of is sugar and coffee; these are such integral products in our daily lives—Haiti is no longer the main producer of them, but they were during a key moment of globalization and now we have habits around them). Maps asks us, then, to consider how our place informs us and how far it extends when considering connections.

When I asked about writers who influence you, you mentioned Edwidge Dandicat and contemporary essayists such as Brian Blanchfield and his “Proxies.” Can you elaborate a little about which of Dandicat’s books resonate with you, and what about Brian Blanchfield, and/or other contemporary essayists?

It’s hard (perhaps impossible) to write about Haiti now and not be influenced by Danticat’s work. She is such a masterful writer, and I’ve learned something for each of book of hers I’ve read. I read The Farming of Bones at a formative age—not long after I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is also a text that comes up in the book.  In my research for Maps, I read many of Danticat’s other books, but one of her lesser-known works is After The Dance, a nonfiction book about Carnival in Jacmel. It’s fantastic, and more reportage-centered than much of her fiction. It ended up advancing my thinking in the chapter about t-shirts because sections of it touch on industries (e.g. local textiles and dressmakers) that have evaporated over the years. Recently, I started her book in The Art Of series, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, and it’s helping me with a current essay I’m writing. She keeps writing and I keep reading.

I was really struck by Brian Blanchfield’s book, at first, because of it’s subtitle: Essays Near Knowing.  It struck me that in many ways this is the job of an essay – to try, attempt and, yes, hopefully, get somewhere near knowing. I also found his structure neat: to try not to look anything up, but to try writing them, as he says “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” This does not mean, of course, that they’re not highly revised, and he has a rolling “Correction.” section in the back that serves as a mini-essay and amends his factual errors (because, you know, #FactsMatter). But I was intrigued by this attempt at having this self as the main source and still writing—largely—beyond the self. It’s so easy to look some things up nowadays; there are times when I think it is harder to try to remember. Of course, my own work with this book required a lot of research and weaving in of other sources, so perhaps that was another reason I was drawn to Brian’s work: I like to think my work has some similarities with his in the way it moves, but they take pretty different approaches.

Re: music you write to. You don’t listen to music while writing. You said that while writing you like to sound out the words in your head. You spoke of gray noise. Can you elaborate on your favorite or most effective gray noise? Or did we decide pink noise was better?

I recently learned that there were all colors of noise—white, grey, pink, and probably more!  Wild. Generally, though, I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, and only rely on the noise channels when I’m in a busy, loud place. I tend to prefer the quiet. With the occasional interruption of the dogs barking at something. I’m fortunate enough to have an office in my home where I can find some relative solitude—I don’t live in a big city; that works for me. My preference does have to do with the sound of sentences and words; when I get to read them aloud, or when I’ve found the rhythm of them in my head, I need as few distractions as possible to get it down or rearrange them. I enjoy music, but I can’t have them both at once.

You mentioned to me that you really liked the concept of museums. What is it about museums that you appreciate?

I believe it was Maira Kalman in an On Being interview where she and Krista Tippett talk about museums as being one of the handful of public spaces of meditation. You kind of meander through them and, if you like, can just be lead by your less-loud brain (or System 1, or whatever you want to call it); you can have an experience of a gentle, self-guided movement, sometimes without a ton of language, and without specifically voicing why you move from one piece to the next. I loved that when I heard it; I’d never thought of museums in that way.

It’s such a wonderful conversation, I just looked it up:

KALMAN: I absolutely think that a museum is one of the deepest places of meditation that there could be, maybe even more than a library, because you’re looking. I mean in a museum, you’re not reading — I mean you’re reading a little bit, but you’re basically just wandering and looking. And once again, the function of the brain, what happens to the brain is very different than — I don’t know, than being in a supermarket — even though I love being in a supermarket, so wait a minute. I love supermarkets. I love to look at all the packaging. To me, that’s a little bit like a museum. But that’s a digression. I think that we have the opportunity to understand silence around us, and really looking, all the time. There’s always the opportunity. And there’s never a lack of things to look at, and there’s never a lack of time not to talk.

Isn’t that just lovely? And it’s true, by and large, to my experience of a museum. They go on to talk about how a museum might be different than a concert, and how at a museum one is “alone, together.” If you want to hear it, you can find it here. I mean, it’s just a hard to summarize Maira Kalman when it’s so fun to hear it from her.

What are you working on now? Is it an extension of what you came away with from writing your first book? Something totally unrelated? 

I find myself continually interested in thinking and writing about place. So I’m working on another place-based writing project now, and it might include experimentation with other forms of media. We’ll see. It’s in its early phases.

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Coffelt+photoAllison Coffelt lives and writes in Columbia, Missouri. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Hippocampus, Oxford Public Health Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, museum of americana, Prick of the Spindle, the Higgs Weldon humor website, and University of Connecticut Journal of Contemporary French & Francophone Studies (SITES).  She was a finalist in the 2015 Crab Orchard Review Literary Nonfiction Prize, the 2016 San Miguel Writer’s Workshop Essay Contest, and the winner of the 2015 University of Missouri Essay Prize. She currently works for True/False Film Fest, where she is the Education & Outreach Director and host of the True/False podcast.