Love Letter to a Kumquat
For writer Gayle Brandeis, the seeds for inspired writing, self-acceptance and pure fun lie on the surface of a strawberry. And deep inside a ripe pear. And at the center of a sunny mango. Her book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write is a new tool for getting at what matters in writing: the slippery, the physical, the true. Fruitflesh is a banquet of fruit-filled poetry by writers ranging from Emerson to Sandra Cisneros; a path of guided meditations on the eating of fruit, from watermelon to kumquat; and a writer’s source book of exercises to free the blocked spirit. A mother of two, Brandeis draws comparisons between the fruitfulness of women’s bodies, our "fruitflesh," to our creative potential. Brandeis was happy to reply to our questions about her sources of inspiration for writing—and mothering.
How do you suggest that women use this book? And what levels of writers might find it useful?
I hope that each reader will approach the book in the way that best suits her—whether this means going through it in order, page by page, or opening it randomly every once in awhile for a quick jolt of inspiration. I hope that women who are just beginning to write and women who have written professionally for years will find the book equally useful—I think most writers need a little jumpstart now and then, and Fruitflesh can remind us that our bodies are a limitless source of material. I’ve been so touched by the response to the book. A novelist recently told me Fruitflesh helped her get under her character’s skins more deeply, and I’ve heard from poets and essay writers that have found their work much more "alive" after working with the book.
The poems quoted in Fruitflesh make it a kind of love letter to fruit. How did you find all these wonderful poems with fruit imagery?
I’ve always loved reading and writing about food, fruit in particular, so I had a pretty deep well of favorite poems to draw from, but it also became a fun (and very juicy!) quest. I pored through poetry books in the library and poems on the Internet, hoping a mango or bunch of grapes or watermelon would jump out at me. I asked friends if they knew of any particularly luscious fruit writing. It was a blast. I didn’t want the book to be about me—I wanted it to embrace every voice—so I love being able to join in chorus with all of these fabulous writers. I do see the book as a love letter to fruit, a love letter to words, a love letter to our bodies, a love letter to our most creative selves.
You are a dancer as well as a writer—but how can some of us who have felt cut off from our bodies as creative tools (or even loathed our bodies) benefit from your book?
We definitely don’t have to be dancers to be connected to our bodies in a creative way. Our bodies are so creative in themselves (as all mother’s know!). Even our breath is creative; it’s very much like the creative process—we take the world into our bodies, we are inspired, when we breathe in, we express ourselves to the world when we breathe back out.
Part of the reason I wrote this book was to remind people that our bodies are creative and worthy of deep respect no matter how we look. I hope that Fruitflesh will help women remember to experience their bodies from the inside rather than focusing solely on appearance. I think that simple, mindful, awareness, helps a lot—if we take the time to let the mind-chatter quiet down, and just pay close attention to the moment, the senses can open and smells and tastes and other impressions can sink in more deeply. Our senses are so incredible, and when they are more engaged, not only do we feel more connected to the world, but our writing becomes all the more vivid and alive.
Some of the writing exercises in the book are very personal—writing a letter to your adolescent self, writing about your own vagina, writing with vulnerability or about difficult things. Tell me about an experience you had with one of these exercises or one you observed in a student.
I’ve had people tell me that they’ve been scared to try a few of the exercises, and I can understand this—it is scary to enter our own darkness, our own vulnerability—but I try to remind them that writing is such a safe way to explore these things. For me, personally, writing a letter to my adolescent self just about broke my heart. I was very ill as a young teenager and felt so disconnected from my body, from the world—I was so scared of life—and to return to that time was difficult. I was in tears the whole time I wrote the letter, but it was very healing for me; I was able to look at that younger part of myself with compassion, rather than embarrassment, for the first time; I could let that scared young woman into my heart rather than shoo her away.
I understand that this book evolved over many years and you even put it aside for a while. What did you learn on the long road to creating Fruitflesh?
I learned to be patient, to trust in the slow unfolding of the creative process. Sometimes it takes a while for a project to find its rightful form, its rightful home. I have always been so enamored of the first creative impulse, the passion and rush of it; I used to be scared that revision would somehow take the fire away from the work. In writing and revising Fruitflesh over such a long course of time, I learned how important, and even delicious, the revision process can be—it can add so much clarity and life to the work. It was certainly a frustrating journey at times, especially when I was receiving conflicting information about the direction of the book, but I learned to trust my intuition much more as a result and I grew as a writer. I am grateful for each step of the path, even the rough patches—they all led me to the most wonderful editor, the most supportive publisher. I feel so amazingly lucky.
When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up? Would you have thought your title would be something like writer/poet/novelist/dancer/mom?
When I was eleven, someone gave me one of those "All About Me" fill-in-the-blanks autobiography books; on the "When I Grow Up I Want to Be…" page, I wrote "a writer-mother-dancer-doctor-millionaire-Olympic skater." I’ve managed to accomplish the first three! I started writing poetry when I was four-years-old, and I can’t remember ever not dancing. I think I’ve always known deep down that those are the two arts that would sustain me; they have been the constant threads woven through my life. It’s not as if I’ve never questioned the merit of my writing—I still struggle with self-doubt—but I’ve never doubted that writing would always be a central part of who I am and how I relate to the world. I really did toy with the idea of becoming a doctor for quite a long time, but at some point I realized that I don’t need to move away from my two arts to practice healing—writing and dance can be so cathartic, so healing, in themselves.
What's your advice for new moms? And who's your favorite mom (famous or not) and why?
I would say: continue to listen to your belly. When we’re pregnant, we’re so in touch with our centers—our centers are roiling and kicking and bulging out, so they’re hard to ignore! —and after the baby is born, our focus is so often on the baby that we can forget to stay connected to our own literal body of knowledge. I believe wholeheartedly in mother’s intuition, but unfortunately it’s easy for that intuition to be drowned out by everyone else’s advice, whether it’s from books or well-meaning relatives and friends. If we stay in touch with our bellies, it can help us settle down into that slow, sensual, magic newborn time, and it can also help us know when we need to take some time for ourselves.
I have so many favorite moms! I feel so grateful to live in a time when there are journals like Hip Mama and Brain, Child, and East Village Inky (and, of course, AustinMama!) that are not afraid to be honest about all aspects of mothering—the dark and the light, the funny and heartbreaking and heart-soaring sacred mess of it! There are so many brave, creative, mamajamas out there.
Tell us a little about your next book and winning the Bellwether prize given by Barbara Kingsolver!
The Book of Dead Birds is a mother/daughter story; the main character, Ava Sing Lo, has an unfortunate habit of killing her mother Helen’s pet birds. She decides to travel to the Salton Sea in the California desert during the world bird die-off, thinking that volunteering with the rescue effort might help her repair some karma. When she isn’t scooping pelicans off the shore, Ava is working on writing the story of her mother’s life as a prostitute on a military base in Korea (to try to both come to terms with Helen’s past and understand how her past has affected Ava’s present life). Needless to say, all of this becomes quite a voyage of self-discovery for Ava. The novel will be published by HarperCollins next May.
I am still in a state of astonishment about winning the Bellwether Prize. I admire Barbara Kingsolver so much—she is so deeply generous in her work and her life—and I am beyond grateful to have been given her blessing through this award. She started the prize to recognize and encourage a literature of social change; I hope that I’ll be able to live up to this tremendous honor—it is important to me to do good work in the world through my writing.
I’d say you are!
Thanks so much! It was a lot of fun!
Austin writer Robin Bradford interviewed Gayle Brandeis via email while eating Navajo tacos with friends. Since reading Fruitflesh, Bradford reports a marked rise in the eating of fruit in her household.