Interview with 2015 Prose Contest Winner Aria Curtis

Aria Curtis’s story, “Birds of Paradise,” was selected by Rebecca Makkai as the winner of New South’s 2015 Writing Contest. Here, Aria answers a few questions from Assistant Editor Rachel Wright. 

Aria Curtis
Aria Curtis

“Birds of Paradise” deals with a narrator who is stuck between cultures. There’s a distinct sense permeating the story that he doesn’t feel that he completely belongs in, and is not completely accepted by, either culture in which he lives. What inspired you write about this kind of situation?  

I think my own experience, as well as the experience of others that I have been close to, was a big inspiration and driving force for the way that this character straddles both cultures. It’s been a challenge for me, being half Iranian, to feel like I belong to either half completely. I always feel like I have one foot fit and one foot out of either side. I’ve been trying to work through in terms of my own identity and it’s been a theme that’s been popping up in my writing quite a bit.  

The story takes place over a long period of time and begins and ends at pivotal points in this character’s life, yet it’s surprisingly short. How did you go about structuring it? How did you keep it so concise?

Structure is not something that comes easily to me, and talking about it is even more of a challenge. I can’t say that I structured it with intention or that there was any sort of method I was working with. It was all very intuitive, but looking back I think I was dead set on connecting and alternating his relationships with women and the violence that he inflicts or is inflicted upon him in different ways. To me, the story is how these characters collide with each other, how their histories are just as present as the present, sometimes in destructive ways. I wanted to have this as the bones of the thing.

How did you go about choosing and establishing the settings for this story? How did you go about ensuring that these two locations (Madison, WI and Tehran) were distinct from one another without becoming caricatures of the real places they represent?

It’s interesting you ask that because at the time I wrote this I had never visited either place. Iran is a place that lives so vividly in my imagination, but it’s almost like a dreamscape. The place feels real to me without having any sort of waking knowledge about it. The only moment I ran into trouble with it was when I started over-researching way beyond what I already knew. I had to stop reading online about the demographics of neighborhoods in Iran and just live for a while in my heart’s version. I didn’t want to have my descriptions of Tehran read like a tour guide or to over-explain the place to make it easier for readers, either, but I think that research was important to do. After visiting Iran for the first time this summer, I didn’t feel my sense of place was lacking anything. If anything, I was happy about things that I had initially included but omitted through revision.

Which parts of this story did you have the most difficulty in writing/perfecting? Why? How did you solve those problems?

It took me a while to be able to articulate to myself what the character wanted. A good friend of mine kindly read a draft and asked me this question and I think it was something so simple and I wasn’t able to say it in a sentence. I think afterwards I wanted to oversimplify the answer- he wants this or he wants that, and to tell the reader that. He wants love, he wants to belong, etc. I think that I eventually allowed him to want different things, conflicting things, things that are completely mutually exclusive. As writers I don’t think we need to tell the reader what the character wants, but I think once I knew for myself, once I knew him completely, the changes I made were minor but made a world of difference.

Why did you choose “Birds of Paradise” as your title?

“Birds of Paradise” itself is a title that comes up late in the story, when a character mistakenly names a play based on the classic Persian epic by Farid Attar, “The Conference of the Birds.” The epic was written in the twelfth century, however the poem was adapted as a play in French in the 70s and renamed it “La Conférence des oiseaux.” There were a few reasons I found this to be significant- one being the way that these characters are so disconnected that they end up renaming it again. Renaming is something I’m interested as just a phenomenon- cultural appropriation, either intentionally or mistakenly, particularly in the age of rapid globalization, and how this impacts the identities of transnational individuals. I think this sort of goes back to what I mentioned earlier, in the sense of not quite fitting in- I think the desire to connect to something old and ancient from our culture as a way to belong has been part of my experience as well as those around me. But this process is flawed, imperfect. How do we connect to those things when they’ve been altered and appropriated several times over? And what happens when we do it carelessly, without knowing? I’m not sure. But these are questions that I’m still thinking about.

I was also inspired by, or really obsessed with, the theme of migration. And birds, of course, migrate. Each character in this piece is caught in the midst of or dealing with the ramifications of migration- whether it was going back and forth between Iran and the States, or as a Congolese refugee, or a man negotiating the trauma of tours in Afghanistan. I wanted the piece to somehow be in conversation with the original text of “The Conference of the Birds,” which is essentially about different types of birds around the world in search for spiritual truth. I think the characters here are in dialogue with each other and yet fundamentally detached from one another in their search for belonging, or a sense of “Paradise”- whatever that means to them.  

You can read Aria Curtis’s prize-winning story in
Issue 8.2, available now

Aria Curtis was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently an MFA Fiction student at Arizona State University, and the International Fiction Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.

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