The Pearl Necklace: A Conversation with Alex Poppe
This summer, TMR's Mandy Grathwohl sat down with Summer 2016 contributor Alex Poppe at Chicago's Volumes Bookstore to discuss her new short story collection, Girl, World, published by Laughing Fire Press. You can purchase the collection here, and keep up with Alex on Twitter at @sapoppe and LinkedIn here.
M: What about prose compels you?
A: I love storytelling. I was an actor first—I wanted to be an actor, and writing stories is a natural offshoot of storytelling.
I teach a lot of public speaking and presentation skills, and I always tell the people I'm coaching, "You need to frame a narrative." We're hardwired for narratives. We go to bed with stories, our lives are stories, and that's really the way that we compel and engage each other. For me, stories are everything. They always have been, they always will be.
I didn't start writing until late in my life. I started in October of 2010. I'd moved back from Ukraine, where I had been working, and I was living in New York. I wanted to start writing, so I started taking classes at The Writers Studio. That's really where I learned how to write.
M: I would hope you've never experienced the sort of things that happened in Girl, World, but you write as if you've lived these experiences. "Moxie" in particular was one of my favorites.
A: I turned "Moxie" into a novel, and recently finished it. I'm trying to shop it now.
M: What is the novel about?
A: I had an agent that was interested in Girl, World but didn't take it. However, she really liked the stories "Room 308" and "Moxie," so I decided to expand "Moxie." We know what happens right in the first ten pages, so the novel had to become about how Jax puts her life back together. She has her journey. I'm really happy with where and how it ended. I hope someone takes it. So far, people don't know what to do with it.
This collection is themed around loss and identity, and who are we when our lives get derailed. But the political is in the background. Jax becomes a bit more aware. She's so self-centered, and she's not fixed by any means by the end of the book, but there is some growth. I don't want to give it away.
M: You worked at the University of Iraq, and elsewhere in Iraq and the West Bank. It seems that you're drawn to areas that might be considered "areas of conflict." Why go here? What is the draw to you?
A: Initially, I was curious. I had the good fortune of meeting Jere Van Dyk in 2011. He's a CBS Afghanistan-Pakistan go-to guy. He's written two books, one on Afghanistan published in the mid-80s, and Captive, which came out in 2010. He was captured by the Taliban and held for 45 days. I went to a book signing of his and met him, and he became like a mentor and encouraged me to go to Iraq because I was curious about it.
My first two years in Iraq, I was near Erbil, which is the de-facto capital of the Kurdish region. It was a good experience. Then I moved to Germany for two years. Then I went back, this time to Sulaymaniyah, the other city that has the opposition party political stronghold. It's been a very different experience.
Sulaymaniyah has a broken education system. ISIS moved in close to Erbil in 2014, so it changed the nature of everything in northern Iraq. Barzani won't step down. He uses ISIS as a reason to stay in power, and people in Sulaymaniyah are upset. They aren't getting their money from the central government because the central government accuses the Barzani government of smuggling oil. Civil servants haven't had a full salary in two years, and 65% of Sulaymaniyah's people are employed by the government.
The first year of this conflict, the teachers in the school system were teaching half of the time. This year they didn't come back into the classrooms until December. These kids aren't graduating. They've probably gotten about 25% of real education over the last two years. It's a failed education system, and in a lot of ways, the corruption is so endemic that it's a failed state.
Our university, though, is a private university. It's a formidable university, and it's been effective in evoking change. We have a liberal-to-left-leaning faculty and administration. Because we create our curriculum, I'm able to bring authors like Noam Chomsky into my classrooms, and Democracy Now. These are new things for these kids. There's no legacy of education in that part of the world because it's been rife with conflict.
M: Would you say that you're most dedicated to helping to enact change within Iraq?
A: Kids are great everywhere. I've taught in several countries, but there's a sweetness to kids in that region that I've never experienced. Every day I get a message from a kid: "I miss you, are you coming back in time for graduation?"
Their lives have been touched by war. A lot of my kids that were raised in the south, Sunnis, they remember the invasion, and they have positive or negative experiences, as you know from the non-fiction piece Matador published. In some ways they're like old souls, because they have these horrific experiences of war. But they don't know how to ask a girl out, and they've never cooked for themselves or done their own laundry. They live with their families until they get married. In some ways, they're just so young, mentally and maturity-wise, and to me, that disconnect is fascinating. But they're so sweet. Boys will tell you, and it's not sexual, that they love you. They're just so excited that someone cares about their education. I would say that's in the region. I found my Palestinian students to be the same.
These are areas that have been ravaged by war. I do feel a responsibility, from the vantage point that America broke it. Education is the only way it's going to be put back together. But I have no life there. Every year it's like, "This is the last year," then one more year and it's, "This is the last year."
M: As a teacher, what would you say is the most important thing that a teacher should impart upon their students?
A: The purpose of education is to be able to take in information, decide if it’s true or false and make a judgement on it, and then articulate an opinion in speaking and writing. Some of my girls in the high school, they were going to high school but they weren’t allowed to go to college. That’s it. And so this is important for them, even to take in information, so they can make the best decisions for their families. Education isn't just about getting a job. It's about fulfilling and realizing potential.
M: Islamophobia has been on the rise in America for the past few years or so. USA Today reported that "the number of anti-Muslim groups in the United States tripled between 2015 and 2016." It's evident that you have a great compassion for people of the Islamic faith, because of your stories and the work that you do. What are your words on the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in the world?
A: Ridiculous. Islamophobia is just a convenient way to raise fear. What do bullies do? They pick on the weakest people because they have no substance of character on their own, and Donald Trump is the biggest bully to take public office I think the United States has ever seen. He's giving a legitimacy to hate, and that's not going to go away when he leaves office.
M: How do you think that art can be used to combat bigotry and hate?
A: Through storytelling. One of my first acting jobs was with this group—I forget the name. The artistic director had a master's in social work. She had four plays: Good Touch vs. Bad Touch, Living With a Substance Abuse Parent, Self-Esteem, and Wellness. We would perform these plays in schools, and the kids connected to the characters. They would disclose, and we would connect them with someone permanently in their environment to get ongoing treatment. Our whole mission was to get them to admit and disclose so that they could get treatment. And the core of that idea, that people connect to characters, they connect to narratives, is a way to change perception.
Art is a bridge. Depending on what your artistic medium is, you're working collaboratively with people from different backgrounds. Any time people from different backgrounds get more exposure to each other, the "Other" becomes more similar, and therefore familiar. There's common ground, and a connection can be made.