Every week, I’ll be doing a mini feature on my site (& blasting it on social media) on activists, artists, and educators who are doing important things in the world. Like Levar Burton says, the only thing these folks have in common is that I like them, and I hope you do too.
This week’s feature is someone whose story I fell in love with in last summer’s issue of Prairie Schooner. I took a chance and wrote her a fan letter, which led to coffee on a beautiful afternoon, which led to four hours of conversation. Marilyn Abildskov is not only a skilled and thoughtful writer, she is also a lively and kind conversationalist, and a beloved new friend.
Where can we find your work?
The Men in My Country is my first (and only) book—a travel memoir set in Japan, the story of tangled relationships—what it means to fall in love with a person and a place when neither belong to you. Since then I’ve published essays and short stories in places like Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, The Rumpus, AGNI, and The Sun.
What themes or ideas do you feel your work engages with?
Loneliness. Solitude. They seem to come up again and again whether I want them to or not. Sometimes it’s the sting of loneliness, its sheer unexpectedness. Sometimes it’s the relief of solitude, a balm of sorts. I also seem to be obsessed with place though the places change.
What were you like as a child?
As the youngest of four, I was ferried about, fussed over, cared for endlessly. But was also something of a dreamy child, spending a good deal of time alone. We moved from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, Utah, when I was young—just seven years old. I loved wandering the field behind our house—a big expanse of dirt in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains—where I’d daydream and collect rocks. I begged my mother for one of those rock-polishing kits, but after the first try, I quit. The process, it turned out, ruined everything. I could tell, even then, the shiny rocks were too far from their natural, unvarnished state. Something got lost.
Can you remember the first piece of art– performance, literary, fine, street–you saw/read that wowed you?
My mind goes in all directions when you ask this, but the first thing that comes to mind is this: When I was five or six—this is when we still lived in New York—my mother took us to a glass factory. I remember watching a glass blower behind a plate of glass, the strangeness of seeing something liquid become—who could believe it!—something solid.
What work do you do in the world that you feel proud of?
I don’t know that I am proud, exactly, of my writing or teaching but I am definitely grateful to be able to do both. Similarly, I am grateful to be able to find ways to help my sister—someone I admire tremendously—care for our parents as they aged. Our parents each died at ninety-three. And I know it sounds crazy, but ninety-three seemed then and seems now too soon.
What’s keeping you embodied right now?
It’s such a strange time, politically. I struggle like everyone I know. But these past years have been filled with so much personal sorrow–my parents’ deaths; my in-laws’ deaths; the death of a friend, a colleague who killed himself. So in a way, the political has matched a dark private landscape. I try to focus on what’s in front of me. A bowl of soup my husband’s made. A class of bright students. The draft of something new. Writing essays is like oxygen for me, the thing that keeps me upright. Writing stories—in recent years I’ve focused on stories set in Utah and in particular, the stories of Mormon women born in the 1920s—is a joy, something that didn’t happen for many years and now does and I have no idea how or why or if it will continue, but believe me, I’ll take it. I’m also working on something mysterious—I’m not even sure what to call it. A memoir? Sort of. An autobiographical novel? Not exactly. I call it an “essay” because the essay is, to my mind, such a capacious and inclusive and exhilarating form. It’s about my partner’s hemorrhagic stroke and what followed and also what came before–his life before me, his stepdaughter who struggled and died before we met. I think of this—whatever it is— as a love letter to his brain. An elegy for a girl I never knew. A lament for children I never had.
Tell us a story.
A man goes out for a quart of milk. A woman asks, what about bread? A child cries, waking everyone on a plane flying late at night. On a table clementines wait. A red bowl yawns. A small bottle of whiskey yearns to be opened up. A window opens. A woman stares inside. Why is it a cliché when a woman stares out a window but arousing when, outside, on wet pavement, she steals a look in? Lights come on one by one. It’s past dusk now. Containment—is that the point? The bowl, the bottle, the window frame? The pine tree says, I may have shallow roots but I know this: everything intersects, just not the way you think. Milk sours. The clock ticks. The elevator, exhausted, makes another pithy pitch. Fireworks in six months will explode around here. A dishwasher hums. Pillows sigh. Orange remains a much-maligned color. A small boy in Kansas tells his teacher, a good story is a good story, then scratches. A 7-Eleven closes. A man returns. A woman says, what, no bread?
Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men In My Country. She is the recipient of honors from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the Utah Arts Council. She has published essays short stories in StoryQuarterly, Colorado Review, The Sun, Best American Essays, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, she teaches in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.