Near the beginning of Alissa Hattman’s novel Sift, Tortula reflects on Death, which to her is both miraculous and everyday. (Literally: Sift is about two women, traveling through a choked and smoky post-apocalyptic landscape in search of food and rest.) In the next paragraph, Tortula says, “I know, in that moment, we are going to die.” The next chapter is just one sentence: “Then, a horrible accident—we survive.” I love these moves, which feel beautiful and true to me—one, that a character can die and not (because you do go on, even when you can’t, not because you learn to suck it up, but because the world continues), and two, fragments that mean differently, depending on the light. Did we survive despite the horrible accident? Or is the accident our survival? Does it matter? Not, I think, as much as the question.
I met Alissa Hattman over twenty years ago. I was a wildly shy young adult, and we worked together at Scribes, a summer writing camp for all teenagers held at Hugo House in Seattle. I remember Alissa in a yellow cardigan and black glasses, holding a candle and reciting poems with her eyes closed in the corner of the room. Everyone was rapt. It felt holy, because it was. Since then, I’ve realized how vulnerable it was too, and since it—meaning storytelling—is all of these things at once, it is also a compass for our journey as humans. As I wrote in a blurb for Sift, we are lucky to hold a book by Alissa Hattman, whose attentions to time, gradient, and tremor have always been realized through the knowledge that a world with these abilities must also hold beauty and truth.
Alissa and I chatted at length over email in the spring and summer of 2023. This transcript was lightly edited by us both before publication.
Family relationships are a big part of Sift, mother/daughter ones in particular. I know you have strong ones with the women in your family too. How do those show up in the book?
My grandmother and my mother have always been supportive of my writing and my creative life. They’ve inspired me in many ways. They’re both very strong, very resilient, positive people who have been through a lot, but I think the person who shows up more in Sift is actually my great-grandmother, Maya Brodell. There are some lines from her poems that are quoted in Sift. My great-grandmother—we called her Mother May—was the writer in the family.
What did her laugh sound like? Or did she not laugh very much?
Sometimes she’d laugh, but not all that often. She was this hardened old woman with messy red hair and a raspy voice like Lauren Bacall. When I was in high school, I would visit her in the nursing home, and she’d ask me uncomfortable questions about my grades or my bra size or if I had horrible menstrual cramps. And sex. She always wanted to know if I was having sex and with whom. She didn’t laugh much, but she made me laugh often. She lived to be 100.
She never published, but she loved to write and shared her writing with family and friends. I’ve inherited her writing—tons of poems, journals, letters. The section in Sift that borrows lines from her poems is from chapter 19, when both characters are in this helicopter and the narrator is sort of stuck swirling around in her memory. I was re-reading Mother May’s poems during the time I was writing Sift, and I knew that I wanted to weave in some of her lines, but I wasn’t sure where. I remember writing that helicopter scene—I knew at that moment that it was the right place for her voice.
How did you know?
I guess I try to remain open to others’ voices. What people don’t see on the page is the inherited narrative that often comes up when I’m writing, a narrative that I’ve learned to recognize and resist. I ask myself: is this really what I want to say, or is it some absorbed voice or structure? What people see on the page are moments when another voice organically interjects in a way that feels active, rather than passive. I think of the inherited narrative as passive receiving.
I knew I needed Mother May’s voice there because there was a type of desire for other voices that arose in the process of writing, and it made sense for it to be Mother May’s voice, because it was a section about inheritance. I think it’s meaningful to note that the poem that’s quoted is a poem that my great-grandmother wrote about giving birth to her first child, which was a very difficult, complicated birth. It’s a poem that really stands out from all the others. It’s sad. Haunting.
You’ve always been a writer—a person who actually writes. How did that support Sift, and how did writing Sift change your practice?
I’ve come to writing at different stages of my life, and I suppose the practice has had to adapt for each of those stages. It has to be something that works with my life, and, at times, that has meant scribbling notes on a Guest Check notepad over lunch break or recording ideas for a story on my phone while commuting between classes. Sometimes you have to get creative with how you use downtime in your day. You have to find the practice that works for you and your life, and life is always changing.
But, yes, I have had some type of writing practice for most of my life. When I was a teenager, I usually wrote late at night. At that time of my life, I was journaling and writing poems, and sometimes those passages ended up in zines. In high school, we put out three issues of a poetry zine called Serotonin that my friend Nikki designed. I was the type of teenager who would stay out late at coffee houses—you know, greasy spoon diners in the Midwest that were open 24 hours—and I’d smoke cigarettes and talk about poetry and philosophy with friends. I put on readings and ran the literary club at my school. In the summer, we’d climb fire escapes and read our bad poetry on rooftops. We were serious and maybe a little full of ourselves, but I think we all really cared about writing and literature. I wrote poems that wanted to sound like Allen Ginsberg or Bob Kaufman, but under the influence of the riot grrrl movement—spoken-word poems about sex and sexuality, about being sexualized, about sexual abuse. Back then, I wrote primarily for myself. It was an act of survival for me. I would do readings, but it was mostly to see friends. I didn’t really care what people thought of my writing. It was something I needed to do to feel like I had agency in the world.
When did that feeling shift to actuality?
This is such an important question, thank you. I could probably chart the progression from reading and writing to agency; so, for example, reading riot grrrl zines helped give me permission to write about injustices I was witnessing or experiencing, and sharing that writing with a small group of people helped me realize that I had a voice that could affect change, even if it was on a micro-level.
So, how did this support Sift? I started Sift at the very beginning of the pandemic, during a time when I was in need of a new writing practice. I couldn’t continue with the work I’d done prior to the pandemic, and I really couldn’t do much writing at the computer. I felt a little like I was starting over again as a writer. Sift began as a type of desperation, not unlike what I felt when I was a teenager. I felt stuck in my house. I felt afraid and frail. Hopeless. I returned to the page because it was what I needed to do for myself in order to go on.
Pass this over if it’s too much, but—can you share more? Like, I know that when I feel afraid and frail, it’s really hard to write. So, to me, it’s miraculous and strong that you did. Did you write in the same place every day? When did it shift from a need to go on to a story?
First, I scheduled writing time, and I told myself I could write whatever I wanted. Then, I changed my routine, so instead of writing at the computer, I wrote on legal pads in my living room as the sun came up every morning—just after breakfast, but before teaching over Zoom. Some of my early entries were just descriptions of colors, sounds, textures. I let myself write as a type of therapy, and the therapy ended up being a voice or perspective that was stronger than I could be. That voice ended up being the voice of Tortula. I shut everything out for an hour and just let myself write from that place of fear, but also strength.
First books are a whole thing (at least, mine was) because on some level, we want to put everything into them. I think this is particularly true for people like us who came up through the ephemerality of letter writing and zines, who have written a ton for decades but not in this permanent of a form. How is writing a book different, for you? How did you know what needed to be a part of Sift and what should be set aside?
This is a great question. I think one of the pleasures of zine-making is that you really can do almost anything. It’s such an expressive form. A zine could include sketches or comics or photos. It could include stamps or handwritten notes or typed text.
Like the letters you sent out during the pandemic.
Yes, exactly! A zine could include partial thoughts and quotations and poetry and reviews or theory. That a zine doesn’t have to be linear—that it can be just a collage of texts and images—offered, for me, a certain freedom with storytelling that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. In writing Sift, I felt really free to bring in these short poetic fragments, I felt free to bring in quotations, or write the story like a letter. Really, when I think about it, being a zine-maker and reader has influenced all of my writing. And I love reading zines!
Any in particular, now or as a younger writer?
Some of my favorite zines were/are Riot Grrrl, Maximum Rocknroll, Cometbus, Evil Twin Sister, Xtra Tuf, Evolution of a Race Riot, Somnambulist, and pretty much any zine that zines + things publishes. Since zines have no specific form, each reading experience feels new and fresh.
The question about what to leave in and what to set aside is a difficult one. I’m sure I tried to put everything in, as you say. My writing process with Sift was to write short sections and trust that the story would reveal itself to me in time. Eventually a narrative throughline started to take shape. Once I understood the basic shape, I started to see what could be set aside. Sort of. A lot of this happened during the editing stage with The 3rd Thing. We had a number of discussions, and then I eventually went to Olympia to talk through the sequencing with Anne [de Marken]. I won’t forget sitting on the floor and going through the physical pages of the book, arranging and rearranging.
Did you already have a relationship?
It was the first time meeting in person, though we had met before over Zoom. It really was a wonderful experience. Taking sections out, putting them back in. I think this is really just the way I revise. Adding, subtracting, adding subtracting. We went through a number of those cycles until it felt complete.
You’re both a student and a teacher (more so the latter, these days, officially, but I have always admired the wisdom in your curiosity and wonder). How did this help you write Sift? Has Tortula been with you a long time?
This idea of curiosity and wonder and observing is central to who I am as a teacher and learner, and it’s present in Sift as well. I think back to the Robin Wall Kimmerer epigraph in Sift. She says, “much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and meaning by experience.” As a student, I try to patiently listen and engage and soak up information. For me, I need to sit with what I’m learning and be with it for a while before I know what I think or how I feel. I’m not great with thinking off the cuff. It’s hard for me, for example, to know exactly what I think about a movie after I see it, but give me a couple days and I’ll have lots to say. I realize, in teaching, that there are different learners and that some may be like me and need a couple days to think about what they’re reading, while others will want to talk about it immediately. That’s why I think, as an educator, it’s extremely important to get to know people and their story first.
As Kimmerer says, “I began to understand how to learn differently, to let the mosses tell their story, rather than wring it from them.” I think what I’m realizing, in answering this wonderful question, is that this seems to be my overall disposition in life. For me, learning, or educating, or writing involves a tremendous amount of patience, curiosity, and willingness to sit with a variety of truths, some of which I might not agree with or understand. And to be open in this way during a time of great turmoil and uncertainty is scary and hard, so I think that was something I was wanting to explore in Sift. I wanted to see if Tortula would keep her sense of openness amid social and environmental collapse.
How do you keep safe, and what do you keep separate, when you write about grief and climate change?
I try to approach both with a lot of care. This is particularly hard with climate change because, though we have moments when we’re confronted by the realities–-the tsunamis, the fires, the pandemic––we’re not really grieving in those moments. I think often when we talk about grief and climate change, it’s more of an anticipatory grief, but it’s not grief for one individual. It’s for the land or for entire species. It feels so massive.
Do you feel it on your body? In sounds or places?
I think it’s an ambiguous grief that is hard to pin to a sound or a place. I do feel it in my body, though. Acutely. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt a constant tightness in my chest. It was hard to breathe. I kept thinking–-what if this is it? What if this virus is the end of humanity? I remember, early in drafting Sift, that I was thinking about it as a goodbye letter. It sounds fatalistic, but it’s not. Imagining that larger death helped me accept the current deaths that were happening while also appreciating life in a new way. It was around this time when I started to incorporate a grief ritual into my daily evening routine. I take a couple minutes at the end of the day to light a candle and grieve. It could be for my grandmother, or for the passenger pigeon, or for old growth. It’s not the only thing I do with regard to climate change, but it is how I cope with environmental grief.
In writing, I’ve tried to approach this topic with a sense of openness by showing how Tortula grieves and how that is very different from how Lamellae grieves. Maybe I am trying to keep the largeness of the story safe by sharing their separate realities. I guess what I mean by this is that often, when talking about ecological grief, we get overwhelmed and dissociate. It’s very hard to take in the realities and the devastating long-term repercussions of extraction, for example. I recognize the overwhelm, I feel it too, but we can’t simply put it out of our minds and ignore it. So, while Tortula grieves the loss of her family members, a grief that she can pin to a person or a place, Lamellae is also grieving, but in more ambiguous ways that I could only really describe through the metaphor of pond or the cloud, which is a grief that is associated with the devastating loss of land and ritual and culture and language. I wanted to keep the largeness of that story safe, while also showing the different ways that this is individually experienced.
I remember, early in the process of writing Sift, I received some feedback from a reader. She said that there needed to be clearer boundaries in Sift, an inner logic that would help the reader feel safe within the story. She took issue with the slipperiness of the narrative, I think. But her feedback gave me pause. I wondered if that was my job as a writer to help make the reader feel safe? I mean, the world of Sift, much like our world, is not safe. That being said, I did want the tone of Sift to feel, well, if not safe, then warm and meditative, so that even though the story and setting is unsafe, something about the sound, how it’s written, will feel kind of like being held, supported. I wanted a form that could convey an emotional truth and the slippery, speculative, fragmented quality of Sift helped me get closer to that truth. I guess, for some people, this might feel unsafe. So be it.
Were you working on Sift in Iceland?
I wasn’t working on Sift when I was in Iceland, but I think there are definitely glimmers of Iceland in this book. I was there for a month in 2018 for an artist residency at Gullkistan in Laugarvatn, which is a town about an hour outside of Reykjavik. What I remember and deeply enjoyed about that time was a sense of bonding and togetherness with other writers and visual artists from all over the world. I loved being part of a creative community. I’d never worked with other artists in a studio space before.
Was it the first time you really felt part of a creative community? Or was it more about having studio space?
I think it was the combination. I’ve felt part of a creative community before, but we were all working together in the same large studio space for a month. It was definitely a different level of bonding. We all settled into a type of routine. Often, I’d start out in the studio in the early morning, and then one of the painters would arrive, and we’d have coffee together for a minute before returning to our work. Sometimes we might play music or go for a walk together. Then, at the end of the day, we’d have dinner together and talk about what came up for us throughout the day. I loved it.
Iceland really is a magical place. It’s so gorgeous. I mean the natural beauty is incredibly stunning. You can go anywhere and find waterfalls and geysers and these beautiful mountain formations, black sands. So magical. I do think there is a sense of majesty and wonder in Sift. I should say that some of the fragments were inspired by reading a book that Alison from The 3rd Thing recommended to me—the Icelandic writer Sjon’s From the Mouth of the Whale—so there is that connection as well.
What media helped you write Sift?
I did a lot of vision board work with Sift. I printed out photos I found online of different landscapes that appear in Sift—so I had a specific image to work from for the river, and the desert, and the mountain, and the forest sequences. I kept those images on my corkboard as touchstones. I had quotes from writers I was reading at the time—Anne Carson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Toni Morrison. I watched the movie The Descent, which is a kind of cheesy horror movie about these people who go spelunking and get lost in the inner reaches of a cavern. Some sections of that movie helped me in really visualizing that claustrophobic feeling of being in the deep, deep darkness of a mountain.
I had a Sift playlist that included—let me see if I can remember: Waxahatchee, Hum, Ragana, Mitski, Adrianne Lenker. Joanna Newsom. I did so much reading—I was incredibly influenced by Gathering Moss, which I know you’ve read as well, and Jenny Offill’s Weather. I read Ana Kavan’s Ice, Fugitive Assemblage by Jennifer Calkins, Roy Scanton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. I also read books that didn’t directly relate to the theme, like Anne Carson’s Float and Danika Kelly’s The Renunciations. I re-read Tender Buttons.
Do you know why kindness takes Tortula by the throat specifically?
In the moment when The Driver arrives, there has been so much devastation, so much pain. Tortula has been in the house for a very long time, she’s lost most of the people she’s loved, and she’s pretty much resigned to stay in the house forever, because it’s so awful out in the world. I was thinking about the isolation of the pandemic, but there have also been moments in my life where my desire to keep myself safe made it hard to connect meaningfully with others and with the world. I guess I imagined that, in that moment, she would need something that is somehow severe but also loving, to draw her out. There is a lot that we associate with the throat–-it’s vulnerable, exposed. It’s the site of breath and of voice. It’s located between the head and the heart. Leaving her home feels scary, threatening, but she finds ways–-in breath and in voice, in kindness–-that help her go on. But I think she needs to be jolted out of her complacency to see that there is more to life than feeling safe.
Photo: Jason Quigley