Award-Winning Short Story Author Helps Students Prepare for the ‘Writing Life’

College of Arts & Sciences Creative Writing Professor Amina Gautier Wins Elixir Press Award for Forthcoming Story Collection The Loss of All Lost Things

Amina Gautier – an award-winning short story author and creative writing professor in the UM College of Arts & Sciences – is inspired by life.

“I wake up, get dressed, leave my home and walk into a world of stories that are just waiting to be written,” Gautier says. “My inspiration comes from observing the world around me, being curious about the people I see and encounter, and wondering how to put different stories together. Seeing or hearing something or someone that piques my interest then leads to a series of questions and the journey to uncover or supply the answers ultimately inspires me to write.”

No stranger to awards and accolades, Gautier has recently received the 2015 First Horizon Award for her first short-story collection, At Risk. This book, published in 2011, also won the 2010 Flannery O’Connor Award, the premier recognition for short stories.

Her second publication, Now We Will Be Happy (2014), won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series in Fiction in 2013, among other honors.

2016 will bring the publication of Gautier’s third book, The Loss of All Lost Things. It has already won the Elixir Press Award in Fiction.

The New York native – a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania – is also a scholar of 19th Century American literature. She splits her time between Chicago and Miami.

As her first year teaching at UM draws to a close, Gautier shared thoughts on her writing, teaching and scholarship.

Q: What are the themes that run through your fiction?

Gautier: My writing has been primarily concerned with depicting the quotidian nature of African American life by focusing on dispossession, liminality, and social mobility. I write about characters who live their lives between various socioeconomic and sociocultural spaces, or those who live marginally on the edge, but who struggle to move into the center; I write about the ways in which those characters are changed and impacted for better or worse because of their struggles.

Q: Why do you think your writing resonates with so many people?

Gautier: One reviewer once referred to my style of writing as “ultra realism” because of the specificity of my details and the accuracy of my renderings. Other reviewers have similarly commented on my details and have said that my stories feel “real.” So perhaps the fact that my characters seem like real people living real lives in realistic situations is what resonates with readers. I hope that my writing resonates with them for the same reason that the works of other writers resonate with me: because I see a little bit of myself in the reading, because there is something in the art to which I can relate.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1934 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the narrator recounts a brief origin story:

 

When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chipped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song.

As a writer, I want my work to illumine aspects of the human condition which readers can relate to and I am seeking that same sort of illumination in the works I read. When I say I can “relate” to a character, story, or a book, what I mean is that I can see its shine and song. Hopefully, my work resonates with readers because in it they can see their own shine and song.

Q: How does your scholarship inform your work?

Gautier: Being both a writer of short fiction and a scholar of 19th-Century American literature allows me the dual function of positioning my work to enter the contemporary conversation on the place of black writers in American literature, as well as enabling me to respond to the ways in which African Americans have been depicted and represented in American literature from the 19th Century to the present day.

Q: What is your teaching philosophy?

Gautier: The cornerstone of my creative writing courses is the workshop experience. The workshop is an intimate space for lovers of writing to improve their craft as well as an environment where students can examine the ways in which their writing reflects their cultural, social, religious, ethnic and racial influences. They are encouraged to write not only what they know but also to write what they wish to know about. I seek to create an environment wherein the workshop operates as a place of shared learning and not the place where broken stories come to be fixed; therefore, I strive to empower students by putting them in conversation with one another. I seek not only to instill knowledge and help them develop skills, but I also work to prepare my students for the writing life that comes after the workshops and the degrees.

Q: How do you inspire your students?

Gautier: I hope to inspire my students by demystifying the process of writing for them, breaking it down into its smaller components so they can see how stories and novels are built and put together to make a thing of art and beauty. I try to pull away the veil of mystery and let them know there’s no magical process, no guru on the mountain who bestows wisdom, no fairy godmother who waves a wand and grants talent, no muse one has to wait for in order to be inspired. Our English word “inspire” is derived from the Latin inspiro, inspirare, inspiravi, inspiratus which means to breathe into, to instill, to implant or to excite. So I try to instill in them a love for writing, to implant in them an understanding that writing requires diligence, to excite them to go out there and see what happens when they try it for themselves.

May 26, 2015