Scorpio: Nabil Kashyap


The HOW TO BE YOUR OWN NATURE interview for (the very end of) Scorpio season is with Nabil Kashyap, who has been my friend and a hero for close to 20 years. Last year my sister and I loved his book of essays so much that we had to publish it, and if you know anything about independent publishing, that means we loved this book a lot. There’s a link below to buy it. (Buying books from independent publishers is a beautiful and important act, sort of like supporting an endangered species.) Nabil, and especially his writing, of which I have been a fan since I’ve known him, is an incredible expression of Scorpio, Virgo, and Taurus, among other things. The precision, detail and wit of Virgo, the penetrating insights of Scorpio, and the sensory immersion of Taurus contribute to a feeling that it doesn’t matter what he’s writing about, I want to read it. So happy to share this interview with you, to engage with his specific perspective on the world.

Nabil Kashyap is a writer, librarian, and technologist living in Philadelphia. He is the author of an essay collection, The Obvious Earth (Carville Annex Press, 2017). He works on websites and digital projects related to critical perspectives on computing, public art, and activism.

1. What brings you the most joy?

I think it's hard for me to think of something out there bringing me joy in here forever and for all time. E.g., I really do like ice cream sandwiches, but sometimes they bring me zero joy plus maybe a stomach ache. I probably feel compelled to make the distinction in the first place because I tilt towards obsessiveness, so I have had to learn how to cool it on trying to recreate a situation or get more of a thing because that situation or thing brought me something good at one point.

Ice cream sandwiches aside, I will say there are three joys that come to mind and I can't say which is most. I would find it hard to exist without some of each. First, every once in awhile I wake up or otherwise find myself engaging the tasks of the day (make coffee, stir oatmeal, pour cat food, tie shoes) and I'm struck by how oddly fun it is, how the implements feel in my hands, how I like moving my body in just the ways required. Joy #2 is maybe because I know this is supposed to be about scorpios and it's something I had to learn. Has to do with sometimes, only occasionally, being with a few people, a little dinner party maybe, people you like and/or love, when without qualification, without thinking about it, suddenly feeling connected to these humans, feeling supported, seen. Number three is the big guns, the splashes of colossal feeling that sneak past, outside, ahead of what is immediately occupying my current scene. What might spur such a feeling is, in multiple senses, private. Rarest, but seems essential to be reminded we have access to such places. Don't forget.

2. How do you relate to Scorpio characteristics?

Yes. More or less all of the Scorpio memes. But I should add that much of what resonates does so because it helps me think about my past rather than what's going on this very minute. People grow up! One thing I'll call out because it seems kind of meta-Scorpio: A reason astro signs are compelling to me at all (they have not always been) is how embarrassingly helpful to have names with which to name the motivations of others in relation to my own. It used to be comically challenging for me to fully get that not everyone was experiencing the world, especially one-on-one interpersonal dynamics, as intensely and fixedly as I was. My first visits home after moving away for college, I'd try to describe what I was learning or adventures I was going on, but always with too much enthusiasm, speaking too quickly, gesticulating, intense. My family had a code for it. Oh, like camping, they'd say. The first time I was visibly puzzled. In-tents, get it? Followed by peals of laughter. They still rib me about it. Scorpios are so in tents.

3. How does your work as a librarian and as a writer interact? Where do the two diverge? How do they relate to your politics?

Old story: Hard to prioritize nebulous creative projects when swimming in emails reminding you of more concrete obligations. Before deciding to abandon the adjunct grind and go to library school, I had a fantasy of a job I could stand behind for a not-terrible institution that would allow me space to make stuff. As it turns out, it's challenging for me to stand behind a job if I am not totally into it, and as a result, I am much more intellectually (often emotionally) invested in my library than I'd thought.

Still, there are some ways they interact. At the library I am surrounded by new ideas with a density and constancy that I take for granted, which is definitely part of how I think through writing. I am deep in the minutiae of how cultural production is published, acquired, and preserved, how all that's changing--which has reshaped how I think about the forms writing takes in the world, how a reader might encounter it, and what the implications of those systems might be.

Also, in my regular life, I feel resistant to minor performances of my politics, especially on social media. Among my acquaintances, too much is assumed to be shared and too little is at stake. But in the library, weirdly, it seems to make a difference, however tiny, just saying, just articulating what I am for. On discussing what I think to be uncontroversial readings I've assigned, hearing computer science students say stuff like wait, algorithms aren't objective? or I had just thought tech meant progress. Direct quotes! Or a student stunned by the fact I am willing to sign her BDS petition, that I could suggest related activities in the city. Or the student who hovered awkwardly to ask about the quote on my door about financial capitalism and the instrumentalization of language. I am not and have not been a human to tape a goofy critical theory quote to my door, but in an environment where little adults are actively pitching around for models for how to be in the world, well, there it is. I think this impacts my writing in realizing what ought to be named, even if it has been said before, even if I can claim no special relationship or expertise.

4. How does writing affect your relationship with the world? Does it bring you closer to yourself? Further away? What about with other humans?

I think it has something to do with investigation, how I'm too lazy to investigate if not in writing. I operate in an active cloud of impressions, about how the world works, how iniquity happens, memory, emotional states, the ways I think ideas fit together. Having to shape those impressions in sentences always reveals how flimsy my premises. To be clear, this isn't about articulation or accurate description. More about practicing for myself what a durable connection feels like, a way through, even if the terrain is murky and is probably going to stay so. I'm convinced that practice is important to me not just as a writer but as a human intent on getting a sense for how one fits inside a world.

Coming from poetry, I mostly think of language as material. If I perform myself or some version of myself in writing as I have done in the essays I started after poetry school, it is to leave open a wider entrance than poetry usually allows. Plus throwing in the personal adds a little bit of risk, even if artificially. That's how I see it. How strange a surprise, then, when people read something of mine, whether already close to me or strangers, and suggest that they know me better or feel closer to me. This has only happened a couple of times, but in each case felt super disorienting. Gut response is invariably: You don't know me. If anything, my writing involves a kind of aestheticization, remove, and maybe even control, not at all what bring me closer to living breathing others.

5. Can you tell us something about butterflies?

Eek, a little embarrassing. Nothing complicated, just little flashes of color in the periphery, what will not sit still or brook heavy examination, little calls to attention, and like any kind of attention, the more you see the more you see. Of course for the acquisitive kind of nerd eros (Sarah calls it Virgo Venus), there is the endless tiny intricacy of insect anatomy to suck you in. Not cute or auspicious or inauspicious or gendered or mammalian, thousands of years of overuse in the stories of every culture where there are butterflies, and still they resist. No matter how many shitty ankle tattoos or greeting card prints, looking close, a butterfly is indelibly, inscrutably weird.