Aviya Kushner (MFA) is an Assistant Professor in Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. I have had the pleasure of being a part of two of her Graduate Nonfiction Workshops since I began at Columbia College. I recently sat down with Kushner to discuss nonfiction writing, graduate studies, and her current projects. She holds an MA in Poetry from Boston University and an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa.
Following her MA, Kushner traveled to Jerusalem to work as a freelance journalist for The Jerusalem Post where she wrote op-ed pieces and frequently interviewed victims of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was during this time as a journalist that she began to feel the limitations of forms—there were ideas, experiences, and emotions that could not be expressed or explored through journalism; however, what she attempted to put into words escaped the boundaries of poetry as well. Kushner noted that while journalism focuses on a specific moment as it unfolds, “the mind is not always about the present tense. The mind works in more than one tense simultaneously.”
Kushner’s first forays into literary nonfiction were a reaction to her experiences in Jerusalem, trying to bridge the gap between poetry and journalism to focus on what she describes as “the aftermath” which rarely, if ever, makes it into a news story. She described an incident in which she interviewed young survivors of a bombing attack. Even after getting the facts of the incident, who, what, when, where, she was left wondering about these young boys and how their lives were changed in the time following what was covered in the news article.
She began writing essays while working in Jerusalem and her first piece was published in The Partisan Review in fall 2001. In 2001, Kushner returned to the United States, needing a break from the violence and turmoil in Jerusalem. She worked as a freelance writer, which led her to the University of Iowa where she completed her MFA in Nonfiction.
Kushner admits that she didn’t plan on returning to school and pursuing another degree after receiving her Poetry MA from Boston University, but she was grateful for the change in pace after facing 12+ hour workdays and daily deadlines while working as a journalist. Despite the high-pressure environment of a graduate program, Kushner advises students to see the bigger picture and recognize that during a graduate program, beyond the advice of faculty and relationships with colleagues, the greatest advantage to students is the time provided to process, think, and read deeply. In the spirit of the word “essay” (from essais, to attempt) a graduate program is a place where attempts can be made. Kushner advises current and prospective graduate students to “think of an MFA as a gift of time” and ask themselves “If someone gave me three years to do what I wanted to do, what would I read? Think? Write?”
Kushner is currently working on her first book, The Grammar of God, which is scheduled to be released on August 25, 2015 from Random House/Spiegel & Grau. Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York, and spent much of her early life reading and speaking Hebrew. Her book focuses on her experience of reading the Bible in English after a lifetime of reading it in Hebrew and combines linguistics, grammar, and personal experience.
Multilingual Kushner was introduced to poetry translation during her MA at Boston University, and it has been an area of interest for her ever since. In addition to teaching Graduate Nonfiction Workshops, Kushner also teaches graduate courses in translation at Columbia College Chicago.
Her personal essay, “A Duck with One Leg” is featured in the current edition of The Gettysburg Review.