Alumna spotlight: Alissa Herbaly Coons

“Sometimes I still suspect that I may be an unwitting extra in an Antipodean gothic horror film.”

SPU: What cohort(s) would you say you are apart of? 

I started at Whidbey Island in the Winter 2008 cohort with Timothy Bartel and Mary Burns; paused briefly for the arrival of my firstborn, and finished at Santa Fe in 2010 with Jo Anna Albiar, Jessica Eddings-Roeser, Kevin Funkhouser, Daniel Elias Galicia, Paul Hsu and Duc Vu. In addition to this excellent company, I cherish still-flickering conversations with creative nonfiction compatriots Allison Backous-Troy, Denise Frame Harlan, Danielle Jones, Emily Millikan, and Cathy Warner.

SPU: What is a couple sentence summary of your post-MFA life?

Post-MFA, in a move that still surprises me, I migrated to Australia for my husband’s work. (See my essay “A Handful of Water”, in the Geography Issue of The Other Journal, if you’re curious about the transition). At present, I am working on a PhD in Creative Practice at the University of New South Wales, where I am writing a novel based on the life story of a woman who left Hungary for Australia as a political dissident just prior to the end of the Cold War, and a dissertation on the ethics of fiction based on the lives of real people. Research has taken me to Budapest and back to Australia again in the past few years, but wherever I am, my days are shaped by the delights and disciplines of life with two young children. Now that it is Southern-Hemisphere springtime, at dusk we like to watch the fruit bats flap past our windows to feed on the pollen of a nearby bottlebrush tree.*

*While I’ve mostly made peace with the fauna here, sometimes I still suspect that I may be an unwitting extra in an Antipodean gothic horror film.

SPU: What is one of your favorite/memorable memories from the SPU MFA program?

Readings by faculty members, visiting writers, and students were always a transcendent highlight — I loved being united around a text in the rare confluence of shared space and time and sound. My first time at Whidbey, the readings took place in a room lit by the golden glow of a string of tiny paper lanterns. Then-fiction mentor Gina Ochsner read a selkie tale aloud to a rapt audience, and afterwards, she gave away homemade booklets of the story — like tracts for magical realism — produced specifically for the event. My copy, with Gina’s hand-marked corrections, remains one of my most-treasured MFA artifacts.

SPU: How has your participation in the program changed you?

I came to SPU after an undergraduate degree in journalism, and the MFA provided a welcome departure into literature after my training in textual economy and fact. During my time in the program, I gained the confidence to ask and sometimes answer questions that looked beyond the facts and reached for beauty. I also gained a community of thoughtful and generous souls whose company I still miss.

“Readings by faculty members, visiting writers, and students were always a transcendent highlight — I loved being united around a text in the rare confluence of shared space and time and sound.”

SPU: What are you reading right now?

For work: J.M. Bernstein’s Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical Theory

With the kids: Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons series

At the end of the day: former SPU MFA poetry mentor Jeanine Hathaway’s new book Long After Lauds

SPU: Do you have any hidden talents? If so, what are they?

Most people don’t know this, but I was 16, I played the tuba in my high school band. On reflection, I suppose there was nothing hidden about it. My next best answer, then, is editing.

Recently I edited a book called Tea & Thread: Portraits of Middle Eastern Women Far From Home, a beautifully photographed collection of women’s stories, recipes, and traditional handicrafts. Tea & Thread offers empathic glimpses into the lives of 17 diverse women affected by recent conflicts and also serves as a fundraising mechanism for refugee support projects. The Australian edition (by Grace Abounding Books) was a finalist for the SparkLit 2019 Australian Christian Book of the Year award, whose judges called it, “An exquisite celebration of the gift of hospitality and the art of listening.” It has also been published in Norway by Arkivet Peace and Human Rights Centre, with the addition of several local stories. The authors are looking to partner with refugee advocacy organizations on local editions elsewhere, in case anyone has any leads.

SPU: If you had to write one more annotation, which book would you annotate and what would you write about?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Dave Eggers’s What is the What: the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Novel. It is both a transparent exemplar of consensual biofiction, and also unusual in its ability to advocate for human dignity in both its narrative content and its uses of the book market.

SPU: If you could give advice to the newest cohort of SPU MFA graduates, what would you tell them?

Take the plunge and share some of your work at a student reading—the people you meet in this program are likely to be among the best audiences you will find.

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