Ismail Muhammad Explores Culture and Literature in Nonfiction

By Amy Lutz, MCWC Executive Assistant

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As a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at U.C. Berkeley, MCWC 2019 nonfiction instructor Ismail Muhammad combines his mastery of academic writing with personal narrative in his criticism, essays, and book reviews. By blurring the lines of genre, Ismail explores the intersections between literature, art, identity and culture. His work has appeared in Slate, New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult, and more. He’s the reviews editor for The Believer, a staff writer at the Millions, a contributing editor at ZYZZYVA, and a board member at the National Books Critics Circle.

Ismail is currently working on a novel about the Great Migration and queer archives of black history. He shared with us about how nonfiction and fiction work together in his creative process, as well as tips for honing our writing skills. To continue learning from Ismail, you can sign up for one of the last few open spots in his nonfiction workshop at MCWC 2019 at

How does writing nonfiction provide you with opportunities to explore the natural connections between topics like race, pop culture, politics and literary critique? Do you have a writing process for structuring those intersections?

The nonfiction writers who influenced me most in high school and college were Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin; they’re writers who just assume the connections between literary critique, pop culture, race, politics, and personal narrative. I admired how their essays careened between a diverse set of topics, from jazz, to 19th century American literature, to 20th century film, to black humor, often within the same essay. Reading them was an early education in criticism, so I suppose I never really learned about criticism as anything other than a practice that helps us articulate the connections between disparate cultural fields, even genres. The flexibility of the critical essay form allows me to inhabit whatever genres or modes I need to in order to approach a certain topic productively.

My process for structuring intersections between these fields mostly involves a lot of false starts, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of revision. I often find myself writing drafts of essays that I think of as being separate, but actually turn out to explore overlapping ideas. I set aside most of what I write, only to return to it in a later context, when a new perspective allows me to see something I couldn’t perceive before. I just have to give myself the time and space to write, mess up, cover a lot of ground, and see what happens when I’m done. It’s all somewhat haphazard and improvisatory. The most important thing is to write every day, to the extent that that’s possible. I try to write at least 300 words a day, just to see what comes out.

How did you get into writing book reviews, criticism, and interviews? Has writing nonfiction helped you grow as a fiction writer as well?

I came to book criticism through my studies as a graduate student in the English Ph.D. program at Cal Berkeley. By the time I was writing my dissertation, I found myself feeling dissatisfied with academic writing: I enjoyed the process of criticism that the program had taught me, but felt constrained by the formal demands of academic writing. Writing public facing criticism became a way to work through the ideas I was studying, without the formal burdens of the dissertation. I feel like public criticism has been a way of teaching myself how to think and write in a way that clarifies my literary critical chops, even if I never actually return to academic writing as a profession.

Nonfiction writing has definitely helped me grow as a fiction writer. Writing my criticism—which often interweaves elements of personal nonfiction and literary critical analysis—has helped me refine skills like scene craft, or narrative structure. I never studied creative writing in an academic setting, so nonfiction has been a kind of school for me, a space where I can experiment with and sharpen my skills.

In this interview with Literary Hub, you describe being a critic as “much more about learning—from the authors I’m reading, conversations I have with other critics, and other readers’ observations—than knowing.” This reminded me of the age-old writing advice that reading is the best way to learn how to write. What advice to you have for writers who want to read and write with the intention of learning?

The best advice I can give is read as broadly possible, even if you don’t “like” a certain kind of literature, don’t see yourself reflected in it, or find yourself disturbed, unsettled, or offended. I went to a college where education was conflated with reading deeply in the canon of Western literature and political thought. That rubbed me the wrong way, considering my background. I reluctantly read a lot of stuff that I would never have found myself reading in any other circumstance: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, St. Augustine’s City of God, Machiavelli’s Discourses, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Austen’s Emma, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, on and on. On the surface, these books had nothing to say to me; but I always found myself shocked at how they resonated with me on frequencies I didn’t know I had access to, and how they taught me elements of craft and inquiry I never would have learned otherwise.

There’s a theme through some of your writing about the presence and accessibility of culture and politics in today’s world through the internet and social media. How do you think writers play a role in adding to the conversation productively, and what might be practical steps writers can take to avoid media burn-out?

In a time where critics are expected to have an opinion ready within a day, if not an hour, of a cultural object’s appearance, a writer productively contributes to the conversation by speaking less and thinking more. It feels important that we all take a step back, observe, think, and then speak, instead of obeying the Internet’s dictate that we broadcast our first impressions to the world as soon as we have them. Good criticism feels dependent upon durational attention and considered speech. You’ve got to read something, meditate on it, maybe even read it again—and then speak.

I’m not sure that my strategies for avoiding burn-out will work for everyone, since I’m just not very into Twitter, Instagram, etc. But I engage with social media very little. I like to see what people are talking about, if there’s anything cool to learn out there. I like to see what people are excited about, what people are reading and watching and listening to. Otherwise, I stay off social media. I spend most of my time listening to music, reading, watching movies, following sports. I talk to my friends. I just like paying attention to what I think and feel, and what my friends are thinking and feeling.

You’ll be teaching the nonfiction workshop at MCWC and intend to focus on hybrid forms of nonfiction. What can participants expect from your workshop and what do you hope will be their biggest take-away?

I want the workshop participants to consider ways that the personal essay can be less a revelation of the self, and more a series of aesthetic explorations that refract society and culture through the self. I think that happens best when we allow the narrative personal essay to slide into genres that we normally think of as diametrically opposed to the personal, like cultural criticism and academic inquiry. Our chief question will be, How can we tell our stories through attention to cultural objects? Participants can expect to read and discuss excerpts from authors like Saidiya Hartman, Imani Perry, James Baldwin, Brian Blanchfield and Theresa Cha, and to do exercises that encourage them to investigate their relationship to cultural objects.

To learn more about Ismail, visit

Registration for MCWC 2019 closes on June 30th. There are just a handful of open seats left, so don’t wait to register!