RUIN & GRIT: A Micro Interview with ABEER HOQUE
ES: As a self-described Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer and photographer, your body of work is made up of photographs of New York, and a particular aspect of New York, elements that have to do with escape and safety. Would you say a few words about your process? Was this a conscious choice?
AH: I’ve been living in New York City for 2 years now and fire escapes are such an iconic part of the architecture here. When I started photographing them in the spring of 2014, I thought constantly of Bangladesh’s April 2013 Rana Plaza disaster (in which a garment factory fire killed over a thousand people) – one of the problems was the lack of proper fire escapes (it’s yet an ongoing issue). But the escapes in New York are not only functional, they are quite so romantic, and places people gather to smoke or get some air or catch a view. It’s a startling juxtaposition in my head.
ES: “Red Ember Grill” stands out as both beautiful and bleak. These five images shuttle between the two, some bleak, some beautiful. Does this speak to your experience of the city?
AH: I am an unrepentant lover of cities. New York is one of the great ones, and despite the astonishing loneliness that can come of being in the midst of millions, it’s also an exhilarating and beautiful thing. There is a ruin and grit to urban spaces and there is grandeur, too. That’s my filter anyway and that’s what probably comes out in my photography.
ES: Do you find this ruin and grit a part of your writing, as well? More and more writers and artists choose not to confine their art making to one or the other form. Could you tell our readers the benefits and challenges of wearing two hats?
AH: I’ve been writing a lot of fiction the last 8 years, and, for me, it’s a way to experiment with telling stories that I haven’t experienced myself, characters I’ve never met, will never be. And so the realities of the visual world which I purport to capture with photography aren’t necessarily the focus of my writing. That said, I love combining the two. My first book, The Lovers and the Leavers (Bengal Lights Books, 2014) is a novel in stories – a collection of linked stories – and each one starts with a photograph. The stories are fiction, the photographs real, but I like to imagine that they fit each other. I’ve been working on another project in which I use a photograph of mine to inspire a poem. I wrote the first one to get back into poetry which had languished in my life for years, and I found it such an interesting task – to make up these prosodic stories based on real places. I’m now trying to write a series of them, photo-poems if you like. The idea of using multiple mediums to say something, anything, is a compelling one to me, as someone who’s grown up with conflicting cultures and geographies and philosophies and ambitions. It feels like the only way sometimes to get even close to the reality of who and where and why.
Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. Her novel in stories The Lovers and the Leavers was published by Bengal Lights Books (November 2014) and she self-published a coffee table book of travel photographs and poems called The Long Way Home (Ogro Bangladesh, 2013). She is the recipient of a 2014 NYFA grant, a 2012 NEA Literature Fellowship, a 2007 Fulbright Scholarship, and the 2005 Tanenbaum Award, and has received writing fellowships to attend Sacatar, Saltonstall Arts Colony, SLS St. Petersburg, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Millay Colony, and the Albee Foundation. Her writing and photography has been published in Guernica, ZYZZYVA, Outlook Traveller, 580 Split, Drunken Boat, India Today, the Daily Star, the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, and KQED Writers Block, among others. She has BS and MA degrees from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, an MFA in writing (concentrations in nonfiction and poetry) from the University of San Francisco, and she has held two solo photography exhibitions. She lives in New York City. For more on Abeer Hoque visit her website: www.olivewitch.com