TUPELO — Aimee Nezhukumatathil is astonished by the wonders of nature. And she hopes you will be too.
Now a celebrated poet, essayist and professor at the University of Mississippi, the writer once had little interest in turning her words into a career. She started out as a chemistry major at The Ohio State University. It was during her junior year that she discovered there were still working poets.
“I didn’t know there were any poets who wrote that were still alive,” she said. “Once that world was opened up to me, I saw there was a whole planet of people who really loved literature, who loved to read, and who liked to see the world through metaphor and music. I was hooked from then on.”
Mother Nature, the greatest poet
Having spent 15 years living in western New York as someone who couldn’t stand the bitter cold, Nezhukumatathil relishes the chance to spend more time outside year-round. Nature is where she finds inspiration, blending memories and lived experiences with the landscape of north Mississippi.
“I like to think that Mother Nature is the greatest poet of all time,” Nezhukumatathil said . “I’m just trying to take notes.”
The daughter of parents who immigrated from India and the Philippines, she also explores what it means to be a brown girl who loves the outdoors.
“I grew up not seeing myself reflected in any books, any TV,” Nezhukumatathil said. “That’s not the whole focus of my work by any means, but I just want my work to open up doors for people who don’t usually get represented in literature.”
Nezhukumatathil believes people feel less alone when they practice finding wonder, which may serve as a comfort to so many who experienced profound loneliness during the pandemic.
Being human is to be surrounded by devastation, sadness and anger. But it’s important to remember humans can experience more than one emotion at a time, Nezhukumatathil said.
“I think a lot of times people forget that you can be sad and worried, but you can also appreciate the world around you,” she said. “You can also take time to wonder and ask questions like, ‘What is at stake if we tear down this patch of forest to build a car wash?’”
Encouraging people to appreciate the world around them without a pretentious or condescending tone is central to her work.
“I always come back to one of my favorite writers, Rachel Carson, who says, ‘The more we get to know about the world and its inhabitants, the less appetite we have for destruction,’” Nezhukumatathil said.
She added, “Loving things is more contagious than fear.”
Oxford, a magical place
Nezhukumatathil first came to Oxford in 2016 for a nine-month John and Renée Grisham Writers in Residence program at the University of Mississippi. One month into it, she and her husband decided they’d like to remain in the Hospitality State after the residency ended.
They’ve lived in Oxford for seven years now with their two teenage sons. As an avid college football fan, being in a place where the fandom is exciting and the art of writing is lauded is the perfect environment.
“That’s very rare, honestly,” she said. “I’ve been all over the world, all over the country, and Oxford is that magical place.”
Her book “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments” is a New York Times bestseller and Barnes & Noble Book of the Year. It begins and ends in Mississippi.
She was unloading her dishwasher when she got the call informing her that “World of Wonders” had debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list.
“If you were to tell me that even five years ago, that a book that starts and ends in Mississippi — and it’s happy, and it’s about nature, and it’s written by an Asian American — would make that list … It’s mind-boggling,” she said. “I’m just used to being a quiet little poet in Mississippi, so it was kind of astonishing that all of that happened.”
As a professor at the University of Mississippi, Nezhukumatathil teaches classes in poetry, nature writing, environmental writing, and Greek mythology and literature.
While inspiring students, Nezhukumatathil finds her own inspiration in the classroom.
“I’ve been teaching over 23 years as a professor, and I would not be doing it if it was harming my own writing,” she said. “My writing gets better because I’m constantly looking for ways to make my classroom new. I never teach the same class again and again. My students keep me on my toes, and honestly, I learn so much from their questioning, from their perspectives.”
Advice for aspiring writers
Nezhukumatathil’s simplest advice for prospective writers is to be curious.
“We all start as kids talking in metaphor, and we all are astonished,” she said. “I don’t know a single kid who doesn’t exclaim, ‘Look at the moon! Wow!’ or ‘Look at this rock! It’s shaped like Florida!’”
The basis for any poetic writing is an image, which can be associated with any of the five senses.
“It could be the smell of mint reminds you of your mother’s garden or your first dance and wearing cologne that was really overpowering,” Nezhukumatathil said. “Start with an image, and then describe that memory or landscape or family member.”
It’s also helpful to be specific.
“Don’t just say, ‘Oh, I love the color pink.’ Say, ‘The sunset is like the color of the inside of a frog’s lung,’” she said. “A 3-year-old could say, ‘I love pink’ but to really get the reader entranced and curious about your work, be as specific as possible. Even if your experience is so singular, that’s how you get to be universal.”
Writers don’t have to set out to tell a grand tale. There’s no need to be a world-traveler either. Stories from Mississippi need to be told too, Nezhukumatathil said.
“The original poets were for the people,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be a writer, and Mississippi is one of the places where writing and books are celebrated. I’m just so thrilled to be a part of that legacy.”
Everyone should find something they’re on fire to learn about. People can be students of gardening, baseball, history, identifying constellations or birdwatching.
“Just always feel like a student of something, and you’ll never feel alone,” Nezhukumatathil said.
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