You’re currently teaching in UAE, how did you get started doing that?
Kateri, thanks so much for this opportunity to chat a little about my book. I’m very grateful to you, and Fulcrum Books for bringing this work into the world. So how did I come to be in the UAE? It was something of a fluke as I had not deliberately planned on being in this part of the world but given an opportunity to live here for an amount of time, I was happy for a chance to learn more about the Middle East. I’d been involved with a refugee community in Athens during a particularly intense period between 2015 and 2019 when refugee flows seemed at a peak and grew close to some of the Afghan families in particular. That proximity to a culture, and way of life, I’d known very little about made the idea of a more immersive experience in an Islamic world all the more attractive.
As an essayist and poet, you look closely and think deeply about everything around you. You’re originally from Athens, Greece, how did your hometown inform your thinking about your time in Dubai?
That’s a great question. I actually think that it’s the fact that I don’t really have a stable “hometown” that made my experience of Dubai what it became. I think of Dubai as a space of liminality as much as it is a country with a particular history; an intersection between cultural “gazes” and optics, and a space of constant change, and transition. People continually “move through” Dubai – literally through its airport, a transit point between continents as much as a hub of labor communities – from itinerant workers to digital nomads. Living in Greece for most of my adult and professional life I also felt a sense of in-betweenness – I was between my American educational background, and Greek family heritage, between a Western sense of agency and a southern European fatalism, or duende – so Dubai’s intersections of modernity, even super modernity, and tradition, resonated for me. I also think that when one doesn’t entirely belong to a place one’s senses of observation – visual and otherwise – are all the more acute.
How did the idea for this book, and structuring it around the idea of the gaze come about?
Yes, “the gaze” such an evocative notion. So very potent. When I first arrived, I kept looking at everything as if I’d landed in a totally Other world… and indeed I had. We’re used to talking about notions of “otherness” in theoretical terms – and as a concept it suggests a broadening of how to perceive difference, but as I say in my classes there’s the idea of the “Other” with a capital “O” and there’s the small “o”; the capital “O,” for me, means something quite apart from anything familiar, and this was how I saw Dubai. I really wanted to frame this in a way that owned this idea – it’s so easy, almost a default, to distance oneself by “Othering” what we don’t understand or what is unfamiliar to us. So, my entry point into the essay was just that: To try and follow a journey into unknown territory by researching the history of the place and simultaneously keeping track of how this was impacting me personally. What was my “gaze” telling me, and how was I learning about a place that shifted under my gaze, and the multiple “gazes” I was learning about. Even more intriguing – something I seemed to stumble on – how does a port-town on the Arabian Gulf, once a British protectorate state, use “the gaze” or manipulate it, to build its own futurity.
Do you have a writing practice? If so, what?
I work best with deadlines. Otherwise, I find myself immersed in multiple projects that will all be at different levels of development. I have a manuscript I’ve been working on for some eight years which I keep dipping in and out of. Then there are the inevitable notes I keep in my many notebooks. I try to keep any work-in-progress in one word document so I can go back to it when I feel it’s something I’m ready to engage with. My writing practice is a little like the way I read. It’s about the mood, and tenor of the moment, but that’s also fickle, so a deadline keeps me there and present, and “at the wheel” so to speak. I wrote On the Gaze in about five months thanks to the deadline. Sam Scinta (Fulcrum’s publisher) did say I could hand in the manuscript later if I needed more time, and I was like “No, I’ll stick to our initial deadline,” and that really helped me.
What were some of your other influences for On The Gaze other than the city itself?
Jean Baudrillard’s seminal work on the concept of simulacrums, Simulacrum and Simulations (1983), was very important to this project, as was Marc Augé’s Non-Places, An Introduction to Supermodernity (2009). There were other influences too, like Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), Zeina Maasri’sinvaluable discussion of translocal visualities, Noor Naga’s work on writers writing the Arabian Gulf, and Todd Reisz’s work on how architecture shaped Dubai were all integral to how my own writing shaped itself.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you approach essay writing?
I think the essay approaches me in that I don’t think I have much sense of what is going to happen until I begin an essay. I follow it where it takes me. Sometimes that’s the hardest part of the writing, to let it take me where it will. I’ll have numerous notes, and sometimes it’s a question of working through those, and being ruthless about discarding them as well. Once a draft is done, I need to let it sit. If I’m too much in a hurry it really shows, and then comes the embarrassment of having to apologize to wherever I submitted it, as I try to back-peddle and rework the work. There’s way too much pressure on “production” – maybe an inevitable consequence of our overtly consumerist environments; I try to resist this, what I’ve come to call “assembly-line publishing”. I had a well-known writing instructor who would say he liked to write for the magazines because it was “a quick turnaround” as in it gave him quick satisfactions to see work published. I totally get that, but I also think it’s a bit like junk food, it’s addictive and dulls your ability to hang in there for the long gestation and to develop a taste for the meal that’s carefully made.
What other books are you reading right now?
I tend to read maybe two, sometimes three, books simultaneously in that I’ll pause in a novel to read an essay, or poems, or the other way around. It often depends on how my reading time is shaped. But if it’s a novel or essay collection, I often keep that for my night reading, and savor it like I would a book I don’t want to end. I just finished reading Elena Ferrante’s collection of essays on the pleasures of writing and reading, In the Margins, where she has a remarkable essay, “Dante’s Rib,” about Dante’s Beatrice; she notes that one of the radical contributions of Dante’s poem is that he has Beatrice actually speak, which de-objectifies her: “It seemed to be a fundamental fact that Dante based the monument to the girl from Florence on the gift of speech.” Ferrante points out, “once sexual attraction and the hierarchy of beauty were set aside, the young author of Vita Nuova could inaugurate a new hierarchy of women based on the capacity to understand.” I wonder if it had to take a female writer to emphasize the importance of this. I’m also reading Özlü Tezer’s small masterpiece, Cold Nights of Childhood, translated by Maureen Freely, and Adam Zagajewski’s essays, Slight Exaggeration, translated by Clare Cavanagh.
What other writing are you working on now that On the Gaze is complete?
I’m finishing up with another essay collection, The Re in Refuge that was accepted by Red Hen Press. It’s slated to come out in 2025. Though the work is not very long it was a hard group of essays to put together, and to write; most of the essays were written at a time when much of my life was in flux. Ironically, it was time spent at a refugee squat with other volunteers that helped ground me. That got me thinking about what kinds of variables constitute refuge more generally. I tend to write within moments of acute change, both personally and more broadly. As far as what I am currently writing, ever since my father died of Covid in 2021 I’ve paid attention to birds in a way I’ve not paid attention to them in the past. I keep notes almost everywhere and kept referring to the different kinds of birds in the different places, and hemispheres, I’ve lived in since he died – from cardinals to the Eurasian Hoopoe bird. A friend of mine who is something of an astrologist asked me about the date of my father’s passing when I mentioned how attentive I’d been to birds. She pointed out that the Sabian symbol for January 18, the day he died, was an aviary, so I am now writing a grief sequence titled “Aviary.”