Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “If You Spot a Crow,” we’re immediately drawn in by the vividness of the daredevil crow’s attack on an eagle. How did you decide to open with this scene?
Heather Diamond: I started with this image, and I had no idea where the essay was headed. I was entranced by the crow’s sheer audacity, the David and Goliath proportions. It was high drama of the triple dog dare variety. First the crow and then the red-winged blackbird, one impossible feat inspiring another. Isn’t that what daring is all about? And isn’t that how metaphors emerge? We see something that reminds us of something else, but in a new and insightful way.
RR: Serious and significant current events come into the piece, including the pandemic, police killings, protests and unrest. How did the progression of events in recent months influence the direction of the essay?
HD: I’m attracted to radical juxtapositions. When I wrote this piece, I was staying for five months with my elderly mother on Whidbey Island in Washington State while my sister underwent chemotherapy. I came from Hong Kong, which had been disrupted by months of anti-government protests and then the pandemic, just as the pandemic started spreading in the US. Out of the pot, into the fire. In Washington, we were fortunate enough to be in lockdown in a peaceful environment full of wildlife and gorgeous scenery, yet the news about the virus, the wildfires, and police killings got more horrendous each day. Over quiet dinners set in nature, we watched protests erupting across the country and in nearby Seattle with one eye while watching deer, raccoons, and birds with the other. We were already dealing with cancer, and now the world was on fire. I wrote this piece to try to express the tensions between feeling safe but not, hope and fear, awe and horror.
RR: Crows are a significant motif in this piece. Can you discuss how the traditionally negative archetypes surrounding crows played into how you portrayed them?
HD: Crows are raucous bullies and they appear obnoxious, but they fascinate me, and I am a little in awe of them. They have big brains and are so smart they even make and use their own tools. They are very social and have memories long enough to even scores. No wonder they figure so strongly in myth and folklore. Crow is considered sacred and revered for his wisdom in Native American lore. But crows have also entered folklore as symbols of death and bad omens, perhaps because they are black or because of the way they gather and create such a ruckus around crow death. I was thinking about that contrast as I wrote and as I struggled with fear about my sister’s cancer. Superstitions are born out of fear of the unknown and our desire to influence conditions over which we have no control.
RR: How have your experiences in visual art and American studies influenced your nonfiction writing?
HD: I’ve only recently made the transition from academic writing to creative writing, but there are influences and threads that link the two. The study of art, folklore, literature, feminist theory, and anthropology have all taught me to look carefully for hidden meanings and connections. I’m very visually attuned, and I take a lot of photos wherever I go. My essays are often inspired by things I see. I like writing in outlier forms like collages and triptychs because I see them visually on the page and in my mind’s eye. Folklore is everywhere, and I am attracted to the kinds of ordinary creative expressions that are often overlooked, like folk beliefs and sayings. I read a lot about cultures other than my own, and I now live in a country I once considered foreign. My forthcoming memoir, Rabbit in the Moon (Camphor Press, 2021) is about what I’ve learned from being in a cross-cultural marriage, and my academic background was instrumental in helping me think about and depict my experiences in Hawaii and Hong Kong.
RR: Are there other writers taking on current events that you find inspirational for your work?
HD: I’m intrigued by personal stories set against or within historical or political events. It’s a technique that is often done in film, and I just finished a stunning novel by Elif Shafak called 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in the Strange World, which recounts the personal life of a sex worker interwoven with all the religious, class, and political tensions of modern Istanbul. I have another pandemic essay coming out in (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences of the Pandemic, edited by Joanell Serra and Amy Roost (to be released in March 2021). Fifty-two writers contributed to this anthology, so clearly many writers are finding inspiration in these difficult times.
Heather Diamond’s work in Issue 8.1: