Scoundrel Time

An Interview with Donald Quist

A resident assistant tries to break up a brawl between college athletes, but, as a young Black man, he doesn’t want to call the police for help.

An eighth grader who is labelled “dangerous” sits in detention, trying to understand the mathematical concept of bounded functions.

A Black journalist rides along with a white female police officer for a shift. Weeks later, he lies about knowing her during jury selection, wanting to serve as a juror to help give a Black man on trial a fair outcome.

Donald Quist’s new essay collection, To Those Bounded, is the personal narrative of a Black author and academic addressing those bounded by structural racism, exploring loneliness within racist institutions, and trying to carve a shelter for himself and others who are labeled other. The writing, sometimes poetic, sometimes scalpel-sharp, viscerally conveys Quist’s vigilance, heart-break, and hope. Tyrese Coleman (How to Sit: A Memoir In Stories and Essays) wrote: “To Those Bounded has wide-reaching implications. The stories within reflect the burden of stereotypes and caricatures on the Black psyche—a familiar experience to anyone who has felt pressure to perform or behave in a certain way because it is what others have dictated. . . . The importance of Quist’s work is immeasurable.” Robert Vivian’s (All I Feel is Rivers: Dervish Essays & Immortal Soft-Spoken) review says: “‘Every. Day.’ With these two words Donald Quist lays bare the bitter and intimate reality of being Black in America. This searing and essential book is both a lamentation and a triumphant reminder of the power of a single human voice.”

Donald Quist is author of two essay collections, Harbors, a Foreword INDIES Bronze Winner and International Book Awards Finalist, and TO THOSE BOUNDED (forthcoming). He has a linked story collection, For Other Ghosts. His writing has appeared in AGNI, North American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and was Notable in Best American Essays 2018. He is creator of the online nonfiction series PAST TEN. Donald has received fellowships from Sundress Academy for the Arts, Kimbilio Fiction, and served as a Gus T. Ridgel fellow for the English PhD program at University of Missouri. He is Director of the MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Scoundrel Time Interview


SL: Some of the essays in this collection are substantial, spanning several pages, while others are short, such as: “Every day, learn new words for terror. Every day, without rest.” Can you talk about the use of space after this micro-essay and the technique of sprinkling similar ones on the theme of hyper-awareness throughout? How would you like your use of space and length in the collection overall to affect the reader’s experience?

DQ: When envisioning how to approach this book, I knew I would have to experiment with form, genre, and space. I believe in the golden rule of design: form follows function. I needed the text to embody my reflections on moving through spaces shaped and bounded by whiteness. I’ve sought out ways to make my words more than symbols of language pointing to meaning. I want the text on the page to also serve as a visual representation of the alienation the words are attempting to convey. The hope here is that the reader does more than interpret the sentence; they start to feel what I’m saying. They see some sparse, black lines, a dark body of words floating in a predominantly white space. The reader makes meaning with me. They read the message that this kind of oppression is every day and it is everyday, and that meaning gets reinforced and internalized by the use of space on the page. Likewise, the frequency of these micro-essays throughout the book are my attempt to have the reader consistently reminded of that loneliness, the apartness and othering Black and Indigenous people of color often feel in the Western world. My hope is that those that identify with that feeling will have moments of self-recognition, and those who haven’t experienced these emotions might gain a kind of understanding.

Also, I’m a fan of brevity. I’m no maximalist. I want my narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, to have a sense of depth and quickness. I want re-readability, and some of my favorite stories are ones I can return to and discover some new aspect. I want the book as an object to work like a really complex piece of visual art, like “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” by Betye Saar, just as an example. It’s this small, layered object that just gives more and more each time you look at it. The time spent looking at a painting, sculpture, or installation is kind of brief when compared to the time spent reading a book of nonfiction, but that piece can be just as engaging and satisfying.

SL: In the essay THE CITY VS. MLK, I noticed your use of archival ephemera. What inspired you to deepen the narrative with these old advertisements or brochures, where and how did you find them, and how do you think their inclusion deepens the reader’s understanding of how Black men have been duped into thinking conforming will yield acceptance? I’m also curious about how the ephemera relate to the essay’s title.

DQ: So, this kind of relates to my previous response: I’m into the intersections between visual art and literature. I am particularly attracted to texts that have an assemblage or collage approach. Adopting this framework seemed especially advantageous to my attempt to build narratives that pull together a bunch of examples of the ways in which America subjugates and binds one’s identity. In a piece like “The City vs. MLK,” in which I’m examining my experience serving as a juror and an occasion when I went on a police ride-along, it required me to place my recollection within a much larger historical context. I had to look back into American history to try to make assertions about the events in my modern past. In that research, I came across documents that kind of convey the truth(s) of my reality in a way I might not be able to otherwise. The archival ephemera, as you call it, complicates and broadens my experience, and when placed on the page alongside my words expands the story for the reader as well. Every story is better understood within the context of its making. This is my attempt to give a physical representation of that.

SL: You’ve spoken before about hip-hop, pop, and punk music as inspiration. You even published a playlist, including a song to accompany every story, for your collection For Other Ghosts. Music figures prominently in this collection as well, such as in the essay A NOTE TO THE SHAREHOLDERS which opens with you listening to Run the Jewels’ fourth album (RTJ4), which you explain was released during the height of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Can you talk about how music relates to your writing?

DQ: Music is hugely important to my writing. I generally can’t write without some music playing. It’s essential. I can work anywhere. I don’t have any particular practice or ritual, but music is a must. It influences my productivity and so often inspires what I’m working on. If not thematically, like in the piece you’ve mentioned, then the music can influence the tone or energy of the essay. I’ve got a playlist for To Those Bounded too. I hope to share that soon.

SL: Can you talk about how you wanted to explore the theme of the burden of representing all Black men, or, as a child and adolescent, all Black boys, in the collection?

DQ: This was one of the driving impetuses behind the book. As a kid, I found myself continually used as a model for how little Black boys can’t act right. As an adolescent, my bad behavior was often indicative of a larger problem among Black male youth. As a young adult, every success had me heralded as a credit to the community. I was a model for how other young Black men could “turn it around.” I felt a need to interrogate the ways I’ve internalized this pressure. The book, as an exercise in this examination, was helpful personally, but it’s something I guess I’ll struggle with my whole life. I mean, even now. In July 2021, I became the Director of an MFA program in Creative Writing. There’s no way for me to ignore the fact that my positioning in this role has greater significance because of my race. If I succeed, I could model how the appointment of people of color to administrative positions might revitalize academia and empower safer spaces in education. If I fail… Well… I suppose it could make things a lot harder for any person of color who might want to step into the job after me… I don’t know, Stephanie…

Well-meaning, white, progressives might think they would be above making comparisons between people of color; they might think they’re beyond holding a Black man like me in a leadership position to the monolith of their imagination, but they’re not. If I’m not an Obama, who or what shall I be?

SL: Speaking on imagination, I was struck by the line: “He was slain by her imagination” when talking about Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby murdering Terrence Crutcher, an unarmed man looking for help with his disabled vehicle. Was that sentence in your head when you began writing, or did it come to you after synthesizing the vast amount of material covered in the essay THE CITY VS. MLK?

DQ: That sentence wasn’t in my head specifically, but that idea was. It’s kind of always been with me, the knowledge that white people’s perception of me and what I do has direct and often dire consequences. Basically, that was one of the central theses to the whole book and “The City vs. MLK” was a culmination of evidence I was putting forth. I’m wondering if that stood out to you as a person who practices and teaches law.

SL: Absolutely. Your sentence is like a perfect theme we try to distill for a jury in a closing argument after having put all our proofs into evidence. But it’s not just Betty Shelby being indicted; you’ve put the whole country on trial. I’m interested in the evolution of the question, initiated by W.E.B. DuBois, “how does it feel to be a problem” you were grappling with in your essay collection Harbors to “trying to answer how it feels to be told that [you are] a problem” in To Those Bounded. Can you explain the question’s evolution?

DQ: The process of writing To Those Bounded was meant to be cathartic. It was, but it didn’t come with any kind of peace. If anything, it made me angrier, more frustrated, and more committed to try to ensure others aren’t made to feel like a problem because their existence is a kind of counter-story to a white, cis-gendered, hegemonic, colonizing narrative. Harbors was more intra-personal; I was grappling with the self. My second book in this triptych, For other Ghosts, was a kind of ego death. It was solely about seeing and reflecting the other. To Those Bounded, this final panel, returns some of the focus to me but is largely interpersonal, examining my identity in relation to others.

SL: You’ve mentioned James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes as influences on your writing and have quoted Baldwin and Hughes in this collection. How is your work building on theirs? Are there other current nonfiction and fiction authors with whom this collection is in conversation?

DQ: I believe every piece of art is in conversation with the work of those who came before. There’s this idea in Composition & Rhetoric pedagogy—it might belong to Dr. Mike Palmquist originally—that Writing is a big conversation, like, at a party with no beginning or ending. When a writer comes into the party, they aren’t just shouting randomly for anyone to listen. The writer observes, hears a statement, looks for a gap in the discussion, and chooses to respond, to contribute to the discourse, expecting that someone will respond back. It continues like that, call and response throughout the party. I like this idea. To Those Bounded is my offering to the ongoing discourse about intersections between race, identity, gender, and class. I’m speaking back to some folks who directed the conversation for a while before leaving the party, Hughes, Wright, and Baldwin. And, I’m also hoping to offer some topics of discussion for my contemporaries, for those current voices that I often hear when crafting and reshaping my own: Steven Dunn, Ron Austin, Rion Amilcar Scott, Jamel Brinkley, Brandon Taylor, Tyrese Coleman, Jeni McFarland, Sophfronia Scott, Kiese Laymon, Sufiya Abdur-Rahman, Kima Jones, Said Shaiye, Allison Noelle Conner, Hanif Abdurraqib, Percival Everett, John Keene, Sheri-Marie Harrison, David Haynes, Anand Prahlad, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Mat Johnson and so many countless others to whom I’m endlessly grateful.


Stephanie LaRose is a professor at Michigan State University College of Law where she teaches legal writing and oral advocacy. Previously, Stephanie practiced in civil litigation, handling high-profile cases such as a civil rights case against a police department and officer for shooting a teenager and a class action on behalf of early retirees from the State of Michigan; criminal defense, including the defense of a notorious serial killer which is the subject of a 48 Hours special; and prosecution; as well as served as a family court referee presiding over child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and child custody and support cases. Stephanie is currently an MFA in Creative Writing student at Alma College where Donald Quist is her faculty mentor. Stephanie is working on a memoir about trauma.

Donald Quist is author of two essay collections, Harbors, a Foreword INDIES Bronze Winner and International Book Awards Finalist, and TO THOSE BOUNDED (forthcoming). He has a linked story collection, For Other Ghosts. His writing has appeared in AGNI, North American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and was Notable in Best American Essays 2018. He is creator of the online nonfiction series PAST TEN. Donald has received fellowships from Sundress Academy for the Arts, Kimbilio Fiction, and served as a Gus T. Ridgel fellow for the English PhD program at University of Missouri. He is Director of the MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.





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