Mateo Askaripour on the Perks of Genre Agnosticism

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Let’s play a game. When I say an author’s name, you spit out the genre most associated with them. Stephen King. Horror. Octavia Butler. Speculative. Agatha Christie. Mystery. The list goes on and on, because it’s a fact that many authors have found it advantageous, not to mention financially lucrative, to carve out a lane for themselves. Their names, like a wretched pair of Apple headphones, become forever intertwined with a specific genre, even if they dabble in others from time to time.

But then there are other writers, like Percival Everett, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, and Jesmyn Ward, who eschew the concept of a literary lane, veering into oncoming traffic, crashing through the guardrails, and still manage to not only survive, but thrive, all without committing career suicide. These are the writers I turn to in times of existential literary angst, whose careers I study as I Frankenstein my own body of work.

My first novel, Black Buck, is described by the publisher as Sorry to Bother You meets Wolf of Wall Street. It’s fast-paced, written in first person, a little vulgar, and though I can imagine the majority of plot points actually occurring, slathered with satire and dashed with absurdity. It’s a contemporary novel set in New York that contains elements of romance, and, by the end, even thriller. To say that it both changed my life and set the tone for my career would be entirely accurate.

One lane can take you far, both literally and literarily. But there’s nothing like throwing the map out the window and freeing yourself up to forget genre and follow your gut.

So why blow it all up with my forthcoming sophomore novel, This Great Hemisphere? A speculative novel set five hundred years in the future, written in close third-person, with three main POVs, invisible people, and snatches of a made-up language? It’s because there is value, both to writers and readers, in embracing creative risk. The risk is that you alienate your audience, you pummel the traffic cones that readers and the media have placed around you, flopping, with a PLOP! as the vehicle of your career drives off a cliff and lands in a large body of water. But the reward is that you gain new and different readers, pushing yourself and your work, so that you might discover something about the vast interior and exterior worlds you inhabit, and share it with others.

An artist teaches their audience what to expect from them, or what not to—sometimes only guaranteeing an ambiguous sense of “quality.” Quality of prose, pace, thinking, experimentation, imagination, heart. For me, that last one is what matters most. If a reader can feel a pulse beating across the pages of my books, and perhaps even feel it in synchronicity with their own, I’ve done my job. But only you, the writer, can decide when to break free from the labels that others, including yourself, have imposed on you and your work.  Writers become far too concerned with the packaging, marketing, and selling of a work before they even complete it, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of sterility, and diminishing its impact in the process. I, too, have been guilty of this.

Execution, of course, can be excruciating. I am fluent in the language of my debut, meaning that when an editor of a magazine comes to me and says, “Hey, just give us that same Black Buck voice,” I can conjure it without thinking. Writing This Great Hemisphere was difficult, and, at times, painful. It felt as if I were starting from square one. I didn’t even know I was writing in close third person until my former agent pointed it out to me and my non-MFA-having-writer-self, and I had to learn what that was. I couldn’t rely on a singular, bombastic voice to carry readers over hundreds of pages, across multiple POVs, and instead had to better understand just who these characters were, and then bring their characteristics forth so that they would still be real and relatable, despite living in a time and place that doesn’t yet exist.

What made it easier was reading works that helped me better understand my own, and aided me, like Jesus taking the wheel, as I attempted something new. Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools opened my eyes to techniques, such as defamiliarization, which makes anything that could seem typical—in the case of my novel, trains, cabins, streets, buildings, even people—unique by casting it in vibrant, slightly strange, off-kilter ways. Chinua Achebe’s work showed me that though I was writing a novel set centuries in the future, the world of Invisibles, especially where they lived, was similar to the culture and customs of those characters in his 20th century “African Trilogy.” With Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, I was transported to the brutal, utterly horrifying world of Belgian Congo, which gave me a firmer grasp on just what it means to be subjugated to an extraordinarily evil degree. All of these books made what sometimes felt like an impossible task, possible.

Driving in one lane is fine. There’s a reason American interstate highways, German and Austrian Autobahnen, transcontinental African highways, like Cairo–Cape Town Highway, and Asian Highway 1 exist. One lane can take you far, both literally and literarily. But there’s nothing like throwing the map out the window—fine, when we used paper maps‚ and freeing yourself up to forget genre and follow your gut. Writing loudly. Writing boldly. Just writing, because no matter the severe jolts of trepidation, hesitation, and even intimidation, there will be people out there who read your work and think, “I didn’t know someone’s heart beat the same way as mine.”


Mateo Askaripour, This Great Hemisphere

This Great Hemisphere by Mateo Askaripour is available now via Dutton. 

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