Lit Chat: Meet Maya Beck
Maya Beck is a lapsed Muslim, recovering otaku, socially-awkward blipster, Cali transplant, and genre-confused writer. She is also a Givens Foundation Fellow, 2017 VONA alum, 2017-18 Loft Mentee, and Paper Darts staff member whose work has been published in Lit Hub, Revolver, Mizna, PANK, Pollen, and more. She currently works for an arts nonprofit in Minneapolis.
Sung Yun Shin: First of all (a question I should start asking everyone), do you believe in ghosts, and why or why not?
Maya Beck: I’m one of those annoyingly rational people ([Myers-Briggs type] INTP, [just so you know]) who worship the coming of the singularity and dabble in effective altruism, so I should say no. But there’s a tiny part of me that thinks that anything could happen, so yeah; I believe in ghosts as much as anything.
SYS: OK, here’s a normal literary question. Can you share how you got started as a writer and what were some seeds of your love for the written word?
MB: My parents were poor and the library was free, hahaha. But it’s true that my parents valued education and creativity. I wanted to write from the age of seven or so, probably as an unconscious impulse to write the books I wanted to read. Because I didn’t yet have any ideas good enough, my interest in books waned until I got into Pokemon, but then I shifted to voraciously reading manga and watching anime instead.
The weirdness of manga inspired me to want to make comics. I had so many ideas as a teen! I never got into fanfiction, but maybe I have one of my alt-ed teachers to thank. When I told her I hated “serious fiction” and only read science fiction and fantasy, she recommended One Hundred Years of Solitude. That book, still one of my favorites, taught me that 1) I didn’t need pictures after all, and 2) you could be serious about fantasy. So I got serious after that. I spent my high school years working on a speculative middle grade series that I still plan to finish someday.
SYS: What are you working on right now and how is it going? What’s your hope for the current projects/work?
MB: I need to stop talking about this project and complete it, but I am on the nth round of revisions for a middle grade novel based after a manga/comic character I invented when I was, like, 13 and super into Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and other magical girls. I was fascinated with the idea of magical girls, which is this whole genre in anime/manga focused on girls with magical powers who are as feminine as superheroes are traditionally masculine. I just really needed there to be a magical girl who wore a hijab so that I could feel that my hijab could be as pretty as their tiaras. I also wanted her to use technology instead of magic because, again, annoyingly scientific. And of course she’s black. I have a mentor through the We Need Diverse Books program, and after this last restructuring, I plan to think more about agents and publication. But I also do write short stories for adults/general readers, I guess, as well as some articles and poetry.
SYS: Where did you grow up, and how do you find your environment or childhood experiences showing up in surprising-to-you or persistent ways in your writing?
MB: Well, my bio is deliberately a showcase of my Otherness. Maybe you could add “Latin-honored homeschool grad,” “philosophy fangirl,” and “socially anxious social justice bard,” to that list. I try to introduce tension and implied contraction even within my introduction, so that people already know to expect weirdness, outsiderdom, and rule-bending from me. Those may be my central themes. There are things I’ve lived that I’ve scarcely seen written about, like being a hijabi tomboy, and those are the things I want to write. Two quotes I aim to be worthy of are: “A book should be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us,” and: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
I’m not surprised when a persistent theme, like alienation or mental illness, appears in my writing, but I have been surprised by what my characters and readers have taught me about my own identity, values, desires, and challenges.
SYS: What are you reading right now or recently that you really love or has changed your life or how you want to do your own writing?
MB: I am reading Spirit Car as homework for the Loft Mentorship series, and it’s making me think hard about all the ways we can tell a true story. Who owns this story? Who is it accountable to? Can we reimagine it to make it stronger, dramatize it to bring it to life? It makes me want to research my own family history, which is patchy beyond my parent’s parents. I know that we have land, we have secrets, we have unmet relatives... But I’ll probably retell my past through fiction when the time comes, so that I don’t step on the toes of anybody involved in the truth.
SYS: What’s your favorite animal and why?
MB: 1) Rabbits, 2) Dragons, 3) Axolotls. Rabbits because I relate to their silence and skittishness but also the contrasts of their symbolism. We have fertility/sexiness, innocence, and also trickiness. So yeah, basically me.
SYS: Is there something you’d love to see in the Minnesota literary community that hasn’t happened or manifested yet? Is there something you need or would want people to know about you as a writer, or what you consider your writing community/genres, that are misunderstood or not understood?
MB: I’ve only been in Minnesota three years, so I think you’re asking the wrong person. I do think we need more of a middle grade/young adult scene. I see a lot of vibrancy and youth around poetry and spoken word, and I think there should be space for all those brilliant youth to speak their truth in prose, maybe even change the rules of what prose should be so that it better suits them. But maybe I’m out of the loop and this space already exists.
I’ve given up on anyone understanding me, and my writing is very tied to my identity, so... I guess I want people to know that my range is crazy wide, although I am trying my best to control it. That sarcastic, risque, and experimental story came from the same person as that honest, bittersweet, and lyrical story, and my goal is not to cleave away any part of myself but to unite those facets.
SYS: What is some advice you would tell your younger self (at any age) in terms of being an artist, or in any other life domain?
MB: Don’t listen to the people who tell you why you should to give up, listen to the people who tell you how to keep going.
SYS: Thank you so much for your time and talent!
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose), which won a Minnesota Literary Award, and the best-selling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (anthology of essays). With the filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang she recently co-founded the Women of Color Artist Collective. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.