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It’s Your Country, Too
A conversation with authors Yousef Allouzi & Samuel Snoek-Brown about writing, publishing, and co-creating
With the launch of The Bedouin by Yousef Allouzi and There Are No False Alarms by Samuel Snoek-Brown right around the corner, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to give readers a deeper understanding of the how’s and why’s behind the paired chapbooks and their authors. So, we asked Yousef and Sam to chat with us about their writing, the publishing process, and their relationship as writers and co-conspirators. Enjoy, friends!
Yousef Allouzi, “It’s Your Country, Too”
Q: Yousef, your essay centers on heritage and reconnecting with your family, but it also touches on racial profiling and discrimination in the U.S. Will you talk about how those themes intermingle in your writing and personal life?
A: The intermingling of heritage and family with discrimination and racial profiling has always been a part of my life. From the time I was young, I was very aware that being Arab-American was drenched in stigma, whether it be the “t word” (terrorist) or the general portrayal of Arab-Americans in pop culture and television. I lived much of my youth ashamed of my heritage. I liken it to the feeling of being poor. I can remember the first time I visited a kid’s house in a gated community back in Texas. I felt like I shouldn’t be there. No matter how many showers you take, or how expensive the clothes you are wearing, you don’t feel like you belong. So, naturally, I try and let those feelings seep into my writing.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from reading your essay?
A: The American story is a story of diversity. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s your country too. It’s become somewhat of a cliché, but history has a way of repeating itself. Our country has a very fickle relationship with civil rights during conflict, and the fallout of 9/11 was no different.
Q: Your and Sam’s work complement each other quite a bit. Is that a product of having studied under Sam or having worked alongside him in the editing process?
A: Absolutely. Sam was my first writing professor. He believed in my writing long before I did. There was a story I had been kicking around that Sam really liked and worked with me on in his class. He encouraged me to submit it, and then to keep submitting despite the rejections that were rolling in. He was also really good at being a reader and giving me feedback … I don’t have an MFA, or even a bachelor’s degree in English or writing, but the professors who really impacted me over the course of my lifetime were, and for that I’m forever grateful.
Q: As far as we know, this was one of your first publishing experiences. What was it like compared to your expectations?
A: Honestly, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was so happy when I got the call that I danced in the kitchen for a bit. It took a few days for the adrenaline to completely subside and then it was all about editing. I prefer to come up with ideas and make an outline of how I see the story unfolding, but once that first draft is on paper the real story starts to take shape. So, getting through the edits was less painful than I had imagined.
Q: What advice would you give to emerging writers about navigating the publishing process?
A: You’ve got to be patient. Things may or may not go according to the timeframe you are expecting (hello COVID-19!) and you may have to start and stop a few times before the ball really gets rolling. Try to find a way to offset any frustration, approach the work with professionalism, and be ready to work when you get the signal (and shut it down if things get delayed). If you can find a beta reader, that will save you time in the editing department. I’d also suggest being flexible and listening to the feedback you get. I never told him this, but Sam cut my favorite part of “The Bedouin”out when he edited it. Your story will go through so many edits. On the flip side, if you really feel strongly about a part of your story, then professionally advocating for your work is okay. I realize that might sound like threading a needle, but it helped me to remember that everyone involved in the publishing process wants your work to be the best it can be.
Yousef Allouzi is an author and data analyst currently living in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a BS in Economics from Oregon State University and a Master of Public Policy from the same institution. His previous writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Scintilla Magazine, openDemocracy, Atticus Review, Malarkey Books, Peculiars Magazine, Gallimaufry Press, Pidgeonholes and Blue Cactus Press. You can follow him on Twitter @j_allouzi where he discusses literature, politics, and economics.
Samuel Snoek-Brown, “I’m a Non-Fiction Coward”
Q: Sam, what drew you to Yousef’s work, and to deciding you’d like to work with him for the BCP Chapbook Series?
A: I had the good fortune to work with Yousef in some of my classes back when I taught in Oregon. For one of his essays, he submitted a narrative that at first seemed to be a nostalgic story about his grandfather back in Texas, and, as a Texas expat myself, I was drawn to the details and the sense of place in the story. But something seemed off, and it wasn’t until my second reading of the essay that I realized what was hiding in the narrative: a harrowing account of covert racism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The subtlety and deftness with which Yousef handled that narrative told me right away that he was a talent just waiting to be discovered, and I’ve been a huge fan of his work ever since. For the past few years, he and I have swapped emails and notes as he began polishing and developing his writing and sending it out for publication. So, I knew he had more stories in him, more perspectives and memories to share with the world. That’s why, when this opportunity arose to help an emerging writer take the next step in their literary career, I thought of Yousef.
Q: Have you had this sort of collaborative publishing experience before? What was it like for you?
A: I view my work as a teacher as more of a writer/mentor relationship, helping each student recognize their perspective, develop their voice, and realize their vision of their own written work. But it’s a different sort of relationship when you’re working with 75 or 100 students at a time … This is the most intensive conversation about another writer’s work that I’ve had so far, and it’s the first time I’ve been directly involved in guiding someone else’s book through the publication process.
Honestly, Yousef made my work easy. He’s a strong writer to begin with, and he works damn hard at his craft. I try to keep pretty hands-off with other writers’ work—I’ll make suggestions, but I try to focus on a few things at a time so the writer has freedom to explore their work on their own terms. And Yousef took that work seriously! He would send me a draft and I might make a handful of broad comments, and when I got a second draft, it would look completely different. He’s a radical reviser, much braver than I am in his willingness to start from scratch. In fact, I think most of my job just wound up being about setting expectations for the business side of things, process and communications and how to stick to one’s vision, those sorts of things we writers rarely get exposed to except through trial and error. We spent more time in text-message exchanges than in the draft, really, because I trust his voice and his instinct for storytelling.
Q: Did you choose your essay based on what would work well with Yousef’s work, or was it a beautiful coincidence that both of you ended up choosing non-fiction, memoir-style essays?
A: Beautiful coincidence, all the way. I knew that Yousef’s strong suit right now is non-fiction, and I decided to take this opportunity to be brave and join him in putting out a nonfiction piece, too. But the only essay I had that was remotely ready for other eyeballs was “There Are No False Alarms.” So, it was really just a matter of what I had on hand. If anything, I felt like our projects were quite dissimilar, in a good way, and on the surface, I still think they’re very different animals. But I’m grateful that Yousef’s courage in telling his story gave me permission to tell mine.
Q: Was it difficult to write about such an emotionally impactful and charged experience of yours?
A: Honestly, I think it was easier to write than it is to re-read. I put down a first draft of it about a month after it happened, and I wrote it because I caught myself at work one day trembling and staring at a cubicle wall, with a deathgrip on my armchair, and I realized that I was experiencing an episode of PTSD. So, I wrote the essay to try to process what me and my students had been through.
When I first sat down, I remembered the time a neighbor shot and killed my father’s dog—I witnessed the killing, carried the dying dog back to my father, and later observed the veterinary autopsy. So, when my dad filed a police report, I had to write a narrative account of what I’d witnessed. The sheriff said it was the longest report he’d ever seen; I’m terribly longwinded, and in that case, I was also aware of an obligation to be precise and record every detail.
And I approached the first draft of this essay in that same way, just trying to record the facts. But as I wrote, I those facts kept calling up memories from more than a decade of school shootings and my preparations to face a gunman in my classroom, and I couldn’t shake those memories, so I knew I had to incorporate them, too. It was a grueling few days working on that draft, but it was exactly as cathartic as I’d hoped it would be.
I have to see things to fully process them—I like to tell my students that I’m a “write to think” type—and I don’t know if I’d have been able to let go of that experience without getting it all out on the page. But I can’t re-read it without crying over the intensity of remembering what my students went through. I mean, we all came through that fine. No one was hurt, the shooting had occurred on the fringes of campus, and, as America always does, we all just went on with our lives.
But this shooting happened halfway through an academic term, and for the remainder of our classes together, I saw how traumatized those students were. Some of them missed classes afterward, or left class during difficult class discussions. Other students kept bringing me teddy bears and thank you cards, because they kept remembering that long day in that dark classroom. And I remember my wife’s ashen face and her rush to grab me and hold onto me when I finally returned home that evening—I remember what she’d gone through, worrying about me from afar and powerless to do anything about it. That’s what still gets to me, the way these events echo far beyond our immediate experience, the way these things haunt everyone around us. That’s what wells up whenever I revisit this essay, and while I can manage my own trauma and my own memories, I have no control over the trauma that others experienced, so that’s what hits me when I come back to this essay.
Q: Most of your published writing is fiction. What was it like diving into non-fiction?
A: I’m a nonfiction coward. I’m in awe of people who write gripping, courageous, vulnerable memoirs, writers willing to stand naked before the whole world. I lack that courage, that stripped-down veracity—I’m much more at home in the embellishments and pretty lies of fiction—so it’s pretty rare that I let nonfiction slip out into the world. Even now. In my mind, this essay is more about my students and our society than it is about me. I wrote it less as a participant than as a witness. Which, I suppose, is one way I approach my fiction, too, as a witness to the lives of characters I made up. But I’m reminded of a comment from one of my memoir and fiction heroes, Bill Roorbach, who likes to joke that no one believes his essays are true but everyone assumes his fiction is autobiographical. I think I find it easier to channel any truths of my life into my fiction, where people can assume it’s all true but I can at least claim I made it up and hide behind a genre label.
Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the author of the novels There Is No Other Way to Worship Them and Hagridden, and the flash-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin. He also works as a production editor for Jersey Devil Press, and he lives online at snoekbrown.com. His work has appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Bartleby Snopes, Eunoia Review, Fiction Circus, Red Fez and Timberline Review. He’s the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship and has been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, twice for short fiction and once for his novella. He was also a finalist in the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. In 2015, he was a contributor to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. For more about Sam, his previous works and literary musings, visit his website Samuel Snoek-Brown.