Q&A with Irène Mathieu


Get to know Festival speaker Irène Mathieu, author of orogeny, and a pediatrician…

If you could make everyone in the world read one book, which would it be?

I immediately think of works by Eduardo Galeano, Nawal El Saadawi, Nella Larsen, and James Baldwin, but if you’re going to make me pick just one book, then I’ll have to go with The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. This gorgeous novel contains most everything anyone needs to know about the modern world wrought by colonialism and its violences, and it’s stunningly written. Something about this book burrowed deep into me; it’s epic storytelling at its finest—tragic and joyful, specific and timeless, allegorical and literal, illuminating and mysterious. It’s a book that makes me re-fall in love with storytelling, reminds me why it’s such an important art form, and teaches something critical about the world in the process.

What is your favorite aspect of participating in book festivals?

This is my first book festival as an author, which is thrilling! I have attended the Virginia Festival of the Book and various others throughout my life, and I love the opportunity to hear from and meet so many incredible writers all in one place. I’m particularly looking forward to it as an author because there are so many folks coming who share my identities or interests in some way—physician authors, poets, writers of color, et cetera. I imagine this as a family reunion of sorts—a place to be inspired by my peers and to generate conversations that hopefully will continue beyond the four days of the Festival itself.

Which other speakers are you excited to see or hoping to meet at the Festival?

Some of my author heroes who will be at the Festival include Kevin Young, Carmen Maria Machado, Tyehimba Jess, and Michael Twitty. I find each of their works groundbreaking and necessary in singular ways. I’m also very excited to see Kima Jones – she is the founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts and I am a member of its Speakers Bureau. Kima is truly a brilliant star in the world of publishing and book promotion. Lisa Lucas is another book-loving luminary that I would be honored to meet; her passion for literature is admirable and heart-warming.

Which part of your book are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the Pangaea series—a thread of poems in orogeny that are from the perspective of a character that represents the first continent and the first woman on the earth. I really enjoyed writing the Pangaea poems because they challenged me to inhabit a speaker who is ageless and omniscient. I had to think critically about the kind of language she would use, what language might even mean to such a speaker, and what concerns she would have about the modern world. There are a few other poems whose non-human speakers afforded me the bizarre experience of writing from the perspectives of fossils and ghosts.

What are you working on next?

I am currently seeking a home for my next book, a poetry collection about (family) histories of New Orleans Creole women of color. It’s a multigenerational story told through poems that are preoccupied with inheritance, migration, belonging, and the ways in which cycles of trauma are broken. I’m also working on a bunch of poems that will probably coalesce into a third collection, and I’ve been composing some memoiristic, creative nonfiction mini-essays, which might grow into a thing over the next few years.

In the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book, Irène Mathieu will participate in Root & Tendril: A Poetry Reading and Reading Under the Influence, both on Friday, March 23.