Alyssa Songsiridej on Reaching the Limits of a Self… and a Neighborhood
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Alyssa Songsiridej (Little Rabbit) chats with Jordan about moving to a new city, the scary-freeing experience of being away from one’s community, and how letting a book out into the world is a process of letting go.
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Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang • How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti • Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel • How cold winters get in Boston
From the conversation:
Alyssa: I moved back to the same neighborhood that I moved away from, so it’s funny to talk about in the past tense and the present tense. I lived in this very tightly knit neighborhood in Philly where it’s very walkable and it feels like everyone lives within ten blocks of you. It felt very cozy and comfortable. But I was also just having a hard time writing when I was first living here. I had lived in Philly for my entire adult life. I grew up in Iowa, and then I moved here to go to college and then moved into this neighborhood and stayed in this neighborhood for about seven years.
Everyone looks to other people to find cues on what to do. But I think growing up, I felt like my family especially leaned on other people to figure out what they needed to do and how they should be living their lives. Because they moved from Thailand to the US and they just got thrown into this different culture and this different context.
I remember growing up, if I was trying to get permission to do something, for example, the question would always be—I’m just throwing out a name—“Does your friend Theresa, is she going to do that?” Theresa being someone who they trusted, whose family they trusted. And so I always tried to make sure that imaginary friend Theresa was also doing that thing so my parents would feel comfortable and safe.
They were always asking around, trying to understand what was the thing to be done. And so I carried that with me through my adult life without really realizing it. I unconsciously was looking to everyone around me to understand what I needed to be doing or what was the right thing to be doing. And I really wanted to do the right thing. I was very preoccupied with being good and being fair and those sorts of things.
Living in the same place for such a long time, where it felt like everyone I knew was in that same place, I didn’t develop my own instincts about what I wanted or what being good actually meant to me. I never quite figured that out for myself. And for many years, in my early twenties, it worked out okay. But then I kind of reached this point where I felt like I was reaching the limits of that, that I had sort of spun out the person that I had been for years, and I needed to do something else, but I couldn’t figure out what.
And so then my partner getting into graduate school was a convenient reason to move. I could say we’re moving for him to do this thing for his career. But that kind of got me into this bind where it also could seem uneven or unfair to people. And so then I had to contend with that, too.
For more Thresholds, visit us at thisisthresholds.com. Original music by Lora-Faye Åshuvud and art by Kirstin Huber.
Alyssa Songsiridej is an editor at Electric Literature. Her fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, The Indiana Review, The Offing, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and has been supported by Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, the VCCA and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Little Rabbit is her first novel. A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree, she lives in Philadelphia.