Elizabeth Engelman’s fascinatingly fraught debut collection of linked short stories, The Way of the Saints, publishes today. In celebration, Courtney Harler interviews the author about her many influences and inspirations.
Let’s begin with congratulations! For your debut book, you won the 2019 Nilsen Literary Prize from Southeast Missouri State University Press. In recent years, you’ve won many other writing awards and fellowships, including a grant to study in Ireland. In addition to publication, how have these varied (and coveted!) writing fellowships influenced the full scope of your art?
Thank you! The Rotary Scholarship I received to Ireland continues to bear fruit in my writing and my life. It was such a gift! There, I studied poetry at The Poets House, located in an isolated coastal village in the northwest region. The town was called Falcarragh, and it was a place so desolate and remote that its 30,000 inhabitants still spoke Gaelic. In Gaelic, the town was called Na Crois Bhealaí, a word meaning “the crossroads,” and that’s how I felt, right out of college and on the brink of a new life. It was 1997-1998, a time remembered for the Good Friday Agreement, which sought to end the Troubles between warring Catholic and Protestant factions. Living in Ireland at the end of the Troubles and reading Irish poetry underscored the connection between the personal and the political. As I wrote The Way of the Saints, I turned to the works of Latin American authors and discovered, like the Irish writers, this undercurrent of resistance. It was my hope with The Way of the Saints that my stories would reflect this same thematic spirit. All this to say, The Way of the Saints began at The Poets House, a farmhouse at the foot of Mount Muckish. Almost every story in the book originated as a poem. It took me almost two more decades to flesh out the lines into prose.
I am a fiction writer who, oddly enough, pivoted (hard) toward poetry during the pandemic. It’s very interesting to know these stories began as poems. The “story” of your stories gives me additional hope for hybridity. Speaking of other lyrical forms—
Please forgive me for what I am about to do next: “I don’t practice Santería / I ain’t got no crystal ball.” In 1996, this song by Sublime introduced the very concept of Santería to many, including me. Later, when I went on to study Nigerian literature and its cosmological roots, I became more familiar with how the practice “migrated” to the new world. Still, much remains unknown to the average person. In The Way of the Saints, you take readers on a spiritual journey. What do you want us to understand, or to reconsider, most of all, about Santería and its faithful?
I grew up fearful of the practice of Santería, because in my childhood, it was misused to dominate and control me. But during the process of writing and researching this book, I’ve come to understand more fully its extraordinary history and culture. There is so much beauty and devotion underlining the practice. Everything is metaphor, and Santería is steeped in ancient symbolism, West African imagery, and the power of parables. I see a lot of similarities between it and poetry. It’s lyrical, performance art, and spirit-tech combined. Practitioners are deeply connected to their ancestors and nature, and the more I wrote about it, the more my own heart longed to connect with my ancestors and the natural world. Like most spiritual practices, it is about finding your path, your community, and your connection with the One animating power in all things that connects us all. While this is not my personal faith practice, these truths resonate with me deeply, and writing The Way of the Saints helped me redeem my mother’s abuse of this practice under the guise of religion. When fear, oppression, and power are the motivating forces, any religion risks slipping into the alternative worlds of black magic.
I also am all too familiar with the ways in which religion and spirituality can be used against children, but that’s likely another story for another time, of course. Now for a technical question. More and more I hear advice against italics for “foreign” words in fiction. The idea is that the use of italics privileges English over the other languages. Do you agree, or disagree? You do use some italics in my advanced copy, but not pedantically—does your press have a policy? I am more so interested in the theory behind these choices than the actual, literal appearance of the words on the page—if they can even be separated, conceptually?
I went back and forth with this in the writing and editing process of The Way of the Saints. There are early drafts of the book without italics and drafts where they were reinstated. If foreign words are unfamiliar, writing guidelines suggest italicizing them, and the words in the Yoruba language fell into this category. The Spanish words, however, may be more familiar to readers, and here, the style guides vary. In the end, I relied heavily on the opinions of my publisher and editors. Overall, I think being consistent is the key. Throughout the writing, I wrestled with the fact that I’m an outsider. I’m not fluent in Spanish or the Yoruba language. So, my use of italics was not intended to diminish either language, but to respectfully tread lightly.
I think you made good choices on that front. One more (somewhat) technical question. These short stories are so beautifully intertwined. Were you at all tempted to just call the linked collection a novel, or perhaps, a novel-in-stories? One of your lovely blurbers, Jason Ockert, actually calls the book a novel, and I understand why. What factors informed your ultimate “genre” decision? Again, did the publisher play a big role?
When I set out to write The Way of the Saints, it was my aim to write a novel. Publishing definitely played the largest role in it being considered a collection of short stories. After receiving almost one hundred rejection letters over the course of two years, I edited out at least one hundred pages to pick up the pace. In doing so, some of the chapters that served as transitions were lost on the cutting room floor. What remained resembled more a collection of linked stories, but in my heart, I suppose, I’ll always consider it my first novel.
Finally, let’s talk about mothers. My mother, after a long life of illness, passed on in 2010, but daily I feel her presence (for both good and evil, to be honest). Maybe we should talk about ancestors too, the way they interject themselves into our lives, whether we worship them or not. In practice, in order to write about my mother, I also had to write about her mother, their family. Only then could I write about her daughter(s), even in fiction. To get to the point, I really admire the multigenerational, burgeoning feminist point of view you employ throughout your debut. How did these women, these mothers and daughters, present themselves to you? How did you access their voices, especially given the rich historical context you provide, on the actual page?
I’m so sorry for your loss. After my dad passed away, I also felt strangely more connected to him, and despite our complicated relationship, his presence and memory is a genuine comfort. I think we’re bound to our parents and ancestors by invisible forces that we are only on the brink of coming to understand in the West. Whether it’s epigenetics, memory, a collective conscience, or the link between consciousness and quantum mechanics, I think honoring the interconnection we have to every living thing, especially our ancestors, is both profound and healthy. Whether it’s lighting a candle, writing a line, saying a prayer, or framing a photo, acknowledging this relatedness is part of the human experience.
Accessing the voices of my grandmother and mother was a daily practice in empathy. Reading and writing novels enables us to imagine the feelings and experiences of others. But more and more, I’ve come to find that this concept of “others” is illusory. There is no me apart from them. Again, it goes back to this idea of connectedness. Writing these characters became an exercise in integrating both their light and shadowy sides, as well as finding both that same light and shadow inside myself.
During the writing process, I was raising a teen daughter, so I tapped into my own fears for her well-being. I tapped into my insecurities and the instinct to control her in my efforts to protect her. When I found these darker sides of motherhood in myself, my compassion and understanding for my characters increased. So, every character in The Way of the Saints is me to some extent. That’s the magic and illusion of fiction. And in this way, writing the book was incredibly healing.
Interviewed by Courtney Harler