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Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient: Peter Nathaniel Malae

We’re excited to be featuring the 2015 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog this spring! The applications for 2016 fellowships are due Friday, June 26, and you can read the guidelines and download an application by clicking here.

Malae2015 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient

Peter Nathaniel Malae




Peter Malae is the author of the novels, Our Frail Blood, What We Are, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and the story collection, Teach the Free Man, a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, the Glasgow Prize, and a notable book selection by the Story Prize.

Q&A with Literary Arts

1. What are your sources of inspiration?

I’m what I call an ad posteriori writer, which means I pull everything out of my back pocket because—having been seared/screwed/but not yet killed by life—the larger hope is that I’ll therefore commit myself more truly to its aesthetic simulacrum on the page. Art happens however it happens, of course, case by case, each to their own, such that biographical protocol is only interesting retroactively, meaning once the art we dig has been made we’re then and only then curious, but for me the dusty halls of researching a story bore me into a state of somnambulism that takes me right out the door and to the nearest bar. Probably sounds narcissistic and too emboldened, but my real wish is that time would stop for ten years, so I could write the 9 or 10 books in my head up to this point, and then when time kicks in again, start filling up the jar with marbles on day one.

2. How would you describe your creative process?

I started writing 500 words-a-day on the night a man named Manny Babbitt was executed by the state of California in the very shithole that he was executed (an event around which my play for this fellowship, “The Question,” partly focuses). Sixteen years later, I can still recite the baptismal poem I wrote. A lot of water trickles down from that place, that moment, but to a certain extent, I’m against the romanticism of needing “catharsis” to get the work done. I’m with O’Connor and Faulkner and a whole horde of other dead masters who describe the deal in terms of a blue-collar work ethic. I see the creative process as merely this, a dress-down of self that more or less occurs daily: do you have the balls to call yourself a “writer”? Yeah? Well, then, “put the posterior in the chair,” as my freshman comp teacher used to say, “don’t talk,” as Hemingway advised, and handle your business. (The nicer gentler warmer probably preferable version of the answer is that I write to say thank you for my life.)

3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?

Being a Cali transplant in ‘08 means that I don’t really know too many people in Oregon, most especially Portland. Living in the Yamhill Valley, which in lifestyle and expression and politics might as well be twenty hours away, ensures I probably won’t ever meet anyone from Portland. The bigger problem is that being an artist means I don’t especially care to meet too many people in the first place, whether they’re from Portland or right next door. (No offense: I’m attending all celebratory events) But having the fortune of winning a fellowship in Oregon might get me the chance to have people meet me through the handshake/hug/Mediterranean-Euro/New York double-cheek peck that I truly prefer: reading/seeing the work itself. That is to write, getting to know me and what I value through my novels, stories, poems and plays.

4. What are you currently working on?

On the creative end, I’m working on two epic novels, one set here in Oregon, involving the life of a crossed-up, tortured, just-arrested man fighting to keep his family together; the other set in American Samoa, Hawaii and California, whose long narrative line spans 60 years and covers three generations of the first South Pacific Polynesians to become Americans; also working on a new domestic play, and, thus, rereading lots of O’Neill. On the business end, I’m trying to get two finished short novels published, two finished poetry collections published, a finished play made and a finished screenplay read by whomever the hell reads finished screenplays. Anyone interested in being my personal assistant should write me at: Yosnaya Polyana, Russia.

5. What advice do you have for future applicants?

I’ll assume that my life-coach advice is not being sought here, and infer rather that I consider how to help future applicants secure a fellowship. The only answer I could possibly give in good conscience and without feeling like a fake is the same for applicants as it is for non-applicants: do your best work. Keep your antennae up, your ears and eyes open. More importantly, though, live with your heart open so as to write something about the price (which always comes) of that choice, and then commit to the work (which doesn’t always come) with as much life force is left after the blood wound.

OLF Judge’s Comments 

Words are used as weapons and shields, as battlements and places of hiding in Peter Nathaniel Malae’s fierce play The Question. Malae creates a world of dense linguistic and emotional textures that vividly convey a sense of life as it is experienced by prisoners behind bars—life that is felt, seen, heard and, above all, thought. Ethical questions saturate the consciousness of the characters, serving as important markers as they make their way through confusions of verbal and physical violence. The special courage of this play is that within its anguished world, space is made for the innocent perspective of a child struggling to understand the same issues that torment his elders. Malae shows how a gentle question can cut through obfuscating angers and terrors with the force of divine light. Congratulations to Peter Nathaniel Malae and the other extraordinarily fine Oregon playwrights who offered their work for consideration to the Oregon Literary Fellowships for Writers Program.

Dare Clubb

Excerpt from current work:

from an unpublished finished novel, Son of Amity

Chapter 1: Pika—May 6, 2006

He entered the town of Amity, Oregon in complete accordance with the law. Fifty miles per hour, no faster, no slower. The ’74 Datsun truck couldn’t break sixty, anyway—he was grateful the old boy made it all the way up from Cali in one shot. Ten hours from the Bay, half hour pit stops every hundred miles at the tweaker-infested rest stations. He’d have brought a gat if he’d known this. Pocketed a bag of rocks to toss into the grass like pellets of fertilizer just to watch the twacks set chase. Shit, he should’ve jacked one of those peeled-back crater-faced mutherfuckers on principle: let me do something valuable with those dimes and pennies you got baggied in your Goodwill socks, friend. Allow me to interrupt your discussion on shape-shifting zombies and accept your involuntary donation to the universal cause of goodness and peace and soundness of body and mind and grill.

Now the 99 wound around a glistening LDS church, its phallic spires sprouting for the vaginal folds of heaven, then a weather-beaten farm falling in on itself apocalyptically, everything even well-done man-made buildings the subject of Time’s bulldozer (Somehow, he thought, all y’all gonna end up in the ground: Mormons, farmers, atheists, capitalists. Me.), when he saw the trap pop up to his immediate right, calmly downshifting from fourth to third to second in almost a single motion, the cliff-drop to 20 a steady ride on the engine’s maximum RPM capacity—mmmmmmmmmmm!, almost as if he were test-driving for some local yokel civic official this 30 MPH reduction in speed over a mere hundred yards of road.

Scams, he thought, are everywhere. No one owns scam. Every people on the planet—every race, culture, every little two-bit mapdot—has scum in it.

Wanna get rid of scam? he thought. Get rid of scum.

Right on cue, he passed the police, sitting there under the massive split log whose bark-face read in chiseled etching, Welcome to Amity, “A Nice Little Town,” Home of the 8-Man State Football Champions 1991 2003 2005, plus the half dozen charity outfits endorsing the welcome, the claim and the team, the set-up only notable—he saw in his cracked rear-view mirror—in that the cop car was empty. This was a first, an officially unmanned speedtrap, something he’d believed to be an element of small-town myth, colorless Andy Griffith b.s.

Just the ghost in the machine today, he thought, operating on the street and jungle law of a legit threat to your safety. This squad car right here won’t getchu, yo, but someone else down the way sure as hell will.

Where he came from, the idea would get looted before the day officially died. King and Story, East Side San Jo, the Bay, Norcal all the way. Right when the moon stepped in and the automated city lights went on, everything even the rubber of the tires would be straight-up gone. Like the copper-dense railing on the 580, unscrewed from the structure like a Lego piece. A one-car junkyard rooted-out right there on the side of the road, redeem-for-chump change feast, stripped down more thoroughly than a pole-dancer, the quaint notion of a tourist destination an urban planner’s joke. Nasty community policing—he put the bet to himself—didn’t happen in Amity, Oregon.

Still, he had to admit, this stuff right here—the clean smogless Northwestern moisture in the air, these ten-acre fields of alfalfa shining like astro turf, a clump of oak trees as leaf-dense as the thick lifetime growth of a Punjabi’s beard, and everywhere the Evergreens arrowing out of the earth—this was real-deal green no doubt. A blessing from someone. From something. He’d never seen this kind of straight-up authenticity of the color of money, this hardcore blue-yellow combo. It was like that scene from the Wizard of Oz, his sister Sissy’s favorite movie, Dorothy and her crew of benevolent male protectors sprinting through the poppies to the gates of the Emerald City.

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