The PEN Ten: An Interview with Meron Hadero
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Free Expression Programs intern Rei Wolfsohn speaks with Meron Hadero, author of A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times (Restless Books, 2022). Amazon, Bookshop
1. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I was recently on a panel called “The Art & Craft of the Short Story” for the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and I read amazing short story collections written by my fellow speakers Said Sayrafiezadeh, Mariana Enriquez, and Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, whose book My Monticello is composed of short stories and an eponymous novella.
Next up on my reading list are some exciting new releases: the short story collection Homesickness by Colin Barrett, Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao, Moon Witch Spider King by Marlon James, and Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde. I’m also looking forward to new and forthcoming books by Bay Area authors, including Forbidden City by Vanessa Hua, Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen, and Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ The Man Who Could Move Clouds.
2. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
There’s a lot about the writing process that’s mysterious, but one of the most surprising things I learned is how much goes into putting a story collection together after the individual story writing has been completed. Once you set out to create a collection, you’re taking these pieces you’ve written one by one, fitting them together, figuring out which ones to keep in the collection and which to set aside, putting them in a sequence so that they’re in conversation with each other in a particular way. It creates a new layer of meaning as you work to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
“Frustration is part of the process, and perhaps it’s best not to try to overcome it or fight it as if it doesn’t belong. It might be better to just make room for it and accept it as a natural element in writing.”
3. If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
I would have submitted work more often, let myself become more comfortable getting rejections and critique earlier on. Learning how to be open to feedback while still being able to filter it is an important skill you can’t learn on your own. It’s the art of being receptive but also holding strong boundaries in terms of what you let in. And putting work out there is really the only way to find a community of writers to encourage your growth and to help develop an ear for an audience.
4. What is a moment of frustration that you’ve encountered in the writing process and how did you overcome it?
Frustration is part of the process, and perhaps it’s best not to try to overcome it or fight it as if it doesn’t belong. It might be better to just make room for it and accept it as a natural element in writing. Embracing a sense of play, of curiosity, of experimentation is important. And not every story becomes a completed piece, which is fine. You can still learn through that, or maybe find an element—a character, a line, an observation or idea—that works somewhere else. Sometimes the trick is just to give a story time; time can be a crucial tool in the writing process. You may just need to put a story away and come back with fresh eyes later on. Sometimes distance and a sort of detachment can breathe new life into a story when you return.
5. Where do your ideas come from? What inspired you to write A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times as well as your other recent works?
These stories are about immigrants, refugees, and those on the verge of dispossession. That’s something that all of the characters have in common, and the collection allows me to explore these themes through the eyes of different characters in different parts of the world told in different voices using different styles. I love that about a collection—you can have this one organizing idea, then look at it from various angles and really deconstruct a concept.
“I think fiction can create a sense of empathy, a pathway to understanding, allowing a reader to reflect on other experiences and lives.”
6. What types of research do you undertake before you sit down to write? Did you speak to older family and friends you know? Did you read any history books?
This really depends on each story or project, but to answer generally what it takes to get started, I would say that an author can always go back to do more research if needed. What it takes to sit down and actually embark on those first steps to begin writing a piece—even if it’s just a title or a first sentence or a last phrase—can be the smallest prompt. That impetus to get started can come from anywhere. It can take a lot of time and tremendous planning, outlining, and research, or it can be the result of a flash of inspiration that leads to an opening.
7. How do you approach describing places where readers may have never been? Is there a certain mood or headspace you get into in order to write the poetic descriptions you have in this book? I was particularly struck by “thick, mingled smells and heavy, wet heat,” because it completely immersed me in a New York summer.
“Immersed” is a good word here because I think writers also try to immerse themselves in the feeling of place in order to convey that to a reader. With the particular story you quote, I found music to be very transporting, and there were certain songs I listened to that kind of set a tone for me. There’s also music mentioned in that story, so I listened to those songs as a way to evoke within myself the mood of a place. In general, before you can ask a reader to feel a deep connection to a setting, a writer has to really access that first. Music is a wonderful way to do that.
8. What is the role of a writer in an era of such anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment globally?
I think fiction can create a sense of empathy, a pathway to understanding, allowing a reader to reflect on other experiences and lives. For those of us writing about immigrants, refugees, those facing displacement, hopefully the act of writing offers a portal to these experiences and an invitation to connect.
“In being unbound, fiction has the ability to inspire us to think outside the box, to challenge assumptions and take nothing for granted, to free the mind in creative and unexpected ways.”
9. How can writers affect resistance movements?
This is a big question, and there are many ways to approach it. But let me narrow it here to fiction, which I think is extremely powerful. Fiction to me isn’t about presenting answers or being prescriptive; it’s a space for asking questions that audiences can explore on their own. Stories are co-created with a reader in that way. What seems so unique about fiction is that we enter into these new, unfamiliar worlds with a sense of total openness, and I hope this frame of mind encourages readers to imagine, come up with innovative thoughts, questions, answers, reflections of their own. In being unbound, fiction has the ability to inspire us to think outside the box, to challenge assumptions and take nothing for granted, to free the mind in creative and unexpected ways.
10. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
The question about threats to expression is an important one, and it’s something I look at from different perspectives in multiple stories, including “The Case of the Missing ————–” or “The Life and Times of the Little Manuscript & Anonymous.” These stories, among others, explore this theme as characters face obstacles to expression that are external, internal (or internalized), or both. I’ll let my characters speak for themselves through these stories where they must sometimes risk it all to live authentic lives.
Meron Hadero is an Ethiopian-American who was born in Addis Ababa and came to the U.S. in her childhood as a refugee via Germany (East then West at the time). Winner of the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and 2020 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, her debut short story collection, A Down Home Meal for these Difficult Times, will be released June 28, 2022. Meron’s short stories have also been shortlisted for the 2019 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and appear in Best American Short Stories, Ploughshares, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Zyzzyva, The New England Review, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Addis Ababa Noir, 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology, and others. Her writing has also been published in The New York Times Book Review, the anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, and Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us. A 2019-2020 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, Meron has also been a writing fellow at Yaddo, Ragdale and MacDowell. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, a JD from Yale Law School, and a BA in history from Princeton with a certificate in American studies.