Today at Literary Labors we’re happy to welcome Aimee Zaring. Aimee’s a Kentucky writer who recently published FLAVORS FROM HOME, a book that draws on the experiences of a diverse group of refugees in her state. While sharing recipes that help these individuals alleviate the nostalgia they feel for their countries of origin, Aimee creates intimate portraits that shed light on the immigrants’ past lives and their current struggles to adapt in a new land. Part of the proceeds from the book go to Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities. She will be reading and signing at Carmichaels on Frankfort on World Refugee Day, June 20th, at 7 p.m. Welcome to Literary Labors, Aimee!

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You just published your first book. Can you tell us a little about it? How excited were you to hold the first copy in your hand?

In many ways, the fact that I’ve written a book (which has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl) still doesn’t feel real. Even when I held the book in my hands for the first time, I felt like I was holding someone else’s book. That shocked me, and no other writer I’ve talked to has discussed this phenomenon or prepared me for this feeling. I think it’s because in many ways, this ISN’T my book; or rather, it’s not mine alone. I share the credit with 23 amazing refugees who were brave and generous enough to share their stories and delicious recipes. Not to mention, I had a lot of additional help along the way: volunteers who helped me test all 42 recipes, fellow writers and editors who reviewed the stories and recipes, staff from the refugee resettlement agencies who supported the book from the start, and many more cheerleaders and guides who played supporting roles in the background. I’ll tell you, though, when I DID shed my first tears of joy: when I first saw the book listed on Amazon. For some reason that felt more real than actually holding the book in my hands.

What has meant more to me than the tangible fact of the book has been witnessing the refugees’ reactions when I’ve presented their own personalized copy to them. I’ve also been delighted to see their confidence boosting in the wake of the book’s release. Some of them are sharing their stories to community groups, and one just started a catering company. It’s a wonderful trickle-down effect, and I love to see them shine like the stars they are.

How did you get into writing? How did you go about becoming an author? Is this something you’ve done all your life?

I have written stories since I was a child. I was the youngest of four girls, and because my older sisters didn’t always want their pestering little sis tagging along, I had to entertain myself a lot, playing make-believe and imaginary games. I even had an imaginary friend. My sisters also helped me to write. I remember one sister in particular helping me with the grammar of stories I’d written. But I have to credit my mom, who is a teacher and reading specialist, for getting the ball rolling on my storytelling. She was working on her masters in education when I was very young, and I was one of her “subjects” for her thesis, which focused on the “Writing to Read” method of instruction. I told her stories using my own simple language and vocabulary, then she would write the stories down using proper grammar and vocabulary. We’d read the story together as if I were the author (and I was!) and finally I’d copy down the corrected story. I think that’s partly why I learned to read and write at such an early age.

I also remember my parents nurturing my writing. One Christmas I got The Nothing Book, whose subtitle was, “Wanna Make Something of it?” It was filled with hundreds of blank pages, and I loved that gift. Those wordless pages were both daunting and exhilarating—which, come to think of it, is how I still view writing.

What’s the first thing you ever wrote? Do you recall the moment you knew you wanted to become an author?

As I mentioned, probably the first thing I ever wrote was in my early childhood, when I composed very short, simple stories with my mom. I also remember loving my third grade teacher and in effort to win her approval and utter devotion, I wrote her short stories, which she was kind enough to ooh and ahh over and even on occasion invite me to read to my classmates. My seventh grade teacher also encouraged my writing and gave me special writing assignments designed just for me.

I don’t recall an ah-ha moment of realizing I wanted to be an author. It was more of an innate thing, a part of who I’ve always been. If anything, I spent the better part of my young adult life trying to resist being a writer because I didn’t think I could make a decent living at it, and perhaps I was afraid of failure. It took me until I was in my late 20s to get back to writing on a regular basis, but I couldn’t find my voice or what I really wanted to write about. Then, in my 30s, I took the plunge and applied to Spalding’s MFA in Writing program. Through that experience, I gained lots of valuable knowledge and intense practice at the form, as well as a network of supportive writing friends. It was in the program that I began to officially call myself a writer. Someone told me that that’s the first step, really, to taking yourself seriously as a writer–that you actually call yourself one, and mean it.

Describe your creative process. How often do you write a day and for how long? Are you one of those people who can sit down and write entire pages nonstop or do you labor over each line?

I would love to be able to tell you that I am very disciplined and write x amount of words every day, like a good little writer, but I don’t, and now that I’m published, I have proof that you can still be productive and have something to show for your sporadic efforts even if you can’t find (or make) the time to write every day or even every week. I’ve gone through very fallow periods in my writing and periods of great harvest. The important thing I’ve learned is knowing yourself and what works best for you and your schedule at any given time, not being too hard on yourself when you fall short of writing goals, and being open to the creative Muse, whenever and however it might show up and in whatever guise.

Dorothy Parker famously said “I hate writing, I love having written.” Do you agree or disagree?

I remember when I first ran across this quote years ago, and my first reaction at the time was, “Right on, Dorothy Parker!” But now I think of the quote as too simplistic, or too black and white. I think many writers fall somewhere along that broad spectrum of love and hate toward their writing at different times. There are times when I despise the struggle of wrangling over every word. And then there is that moment of utter contentment when I get the words just right (either after a long, hair-pulling battle or after they’ve miraculously come to me on the spot). And sometimes I have a letdown after the writing is actually completed. Sometimes I miss my characters and being so intimately connected to the work and wish I was back at the page writing instead of having to wrestle with the age-old question, “What next?”

Speaking of famous writers, who are some of your favorites in the literary world? Which ones have influenced you most? Why?

Sherwood Anderson was one of those writers that made me want to be a writer. His Winesburg, OH, which I read in high school, is such a quiet novel filled with quiet characters leading quiet lives, but I’m impressed every time I return to the book in how well Anderson captures sudden, short extraordinary moments of illumination. Another author is Elizabeth Hardwick, who passed away almost a decade ago. She was a Kentucky native but moved to New York and ran around with literary intellectuals, including Robert Lowell (whom she married) and Mary McCarthy. Hardwick’s beautiful semi-autobiographical Sleepless Nights has been very influential to me as a writer. Hardwick, like Anderson, wrote about the outcasts, the drifters, the forgotten in society. It is not surprising, when I reflect on it now, that I feel compelled to work with refugees and immigrants, and that I wrote a book about them. They, too, are an often overlooked, disadvantaged population. (I have a huge heart for the underdog.) I also really love the spiritual writings of Thomas Merton and Anne Lamott.

Do you have a favorite spot to write?

When I’m journaling or free writing, I love being out in nature; I find that the words flow better in that setting. When I need to buckle down and do some serious writing, however, the outdoors can be a distraction, so then I prefer being inside, but close to a window. Nature always calms and centers me. A cool, eclectic coffee shop is nice, too, but so often I find myself either distracted by people-watching or music playing too loudly. I need a fairly quiet environment when I write, or only very soft background music. I wish to goodness I could write in the midst of lots of activity and noise. I’d get a lot more written. But I’m just not wired that way.

What do you do when you’re not busy writing?

Well, like many writers, I like to read and watch movies. I like to cook, but I like it better when I have people to cook for. Hobbies that have come and gone, but which I hope to get back to, include learning Spanish and playing the piano. I also like to have at least one trip to look forward to, so I spend a good deal of time dreaming and scheming about travel.

Would you like to tell our readers about anything you’re working on at the moment?

I might return to my novel, or some other work of fiction. FLAVORS FROM HOME took a lot out of me, as writing any book will, so I need to just relax and get back to having fun with writing and enjoy not working on a deadline. I’d also like to do a little more spiritual and inspirational writing. Outside of writing, I’m still very motivated and committed to helping the immigrant and refugee communities. I’m involved in a new group called Global Commons, which is an initiative to bridge our local and international communities in town and provide transformative educational opportunities that will help cultivate global citizenship. And of course I still love teaching English to immigrants.

Your recently published book features a number of recipes and has food as a topic. Did compiling and writing recipes teach you anything about writing in general?

This is an excellent question. I worked on a novel for years and could never find an agent or get it published. So I was about to give up on writing altogether (or that’s what I told myself) when the idea for this book came along, which came out of my experience teaching English to refugees. For a while I tried to talk myself out of writing the book because I’d never written about food—not even a casual mention in a Facebook or blog post. What really interested me were the refugees’ stories and how food is a universal language—something that crosses cultures and can bring people together. So what working on this book taught me the most was that we shouldn’t pigeonhole ourselves into one genre or limit the scope of our creative endeavors. If we have a great idea that we feel passionate about, even if we don’t have experience in that area, we should push past our fears and just go for it and see where it leads. I never in my wildest dreams thought that my first published book would be about food or refugees. I thought it would be a novel. Now I’m so glad and proud that FLAVORS FROM HOME is the first book I brought into the world.

What are your thoughts about food writing today? It seems that there has been a tremendous surge in food-related themes and topics in the last decade or two. Why do you think that is?

I was thinking about this not too long ago. In large part, we have TV food and cooking shows to thank, broadening our understanding of ingredients, techniques, and different cuisines. I also think, on a deeper, fundamental level, food speaks to our souls. It is so closely connected with memory. Eating and cooking are multi-sensory experiences, engaging almost all the senses in a way few other activities or events do, and research tells us that the more senses that are engaged, the more we will remember something. I think that’s why we have such powerful and deep-rooted memories associated with certain foods and meals, and why food is never just about food. Food also brings people together and unites people across cultures—one of the main themes of my book. And all this makes for an endless supply of writing material.

And since we’ve come around to talking about food, let’s close with our obligatory set of questions:

Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces, our literary inspiration here at Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip)? Do you like cheese dip, by the way? Do you have a favorite cheese dip recipe you could share with us?

Um, will you still publish this interview if I admit that I have NOT read A Confederacy of Dunces? Does it earn me extra points that it’s a book I’ve read a lot about and have always WANTED to read but just haven’t gotten around to it yet? Maybe now is the time!

Perhaps I can redeem myself with my cheese dip answer. Heck yeah, I love cheese dip! Any kind. I love cheese in general. In fact, one of the refugee’s recipes in the book I tweaked once to BECOME a cheese dip. It’s a hot chili pepper and cheese soup called Ema Datsi, the national dish of Bhutan, and the cheese is actually very light and subtle in it. The soup is great, but one day I was playing around with the leftovers and decided to add a bunch of Mexican cheese and melt it to achieve a thick and creamy consistency, then I served it with blue corn chips. Very tasty. (The Ema Datsi recipe is in my book!)

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Aimee Zaring has taught ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) to refugees and immigrants through Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Global LT, Inc., and Jefferson County Public Schools. She has also instructed educators how to teach ESOL at Spalding University. Her writing has appeared in Arts Across Kentucky, Edible Louisville, New Southerner, The Courier-JournalThe Rumpus, and other publications. She is the recipient of two artist enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.