Aimee Nezhukumatathil Answers the Orion Questionnaire

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a poet, author, former Orion food columnist, tiny dog enthusiast, and champion of wonder. In celebration of her new book Bite by Bite: Nourishments and Jamborees, we came with questions. What did we learn? Librarians and lumpia, mangosteens and manta rays, Olivia Newton-John and that one big ol’ banyan tree . . . these are a few of her (many) favorite things. 

You found a penny. Do you pick it up?

Only if it is heads up.


What is your most treasured comfort meal?

My mom’s lumpia and fried rice with mangoes (chilled, sliced) from their back yard for dessert.


What is a species you feel is frequently misunderstood? 

The whale shark. And I hope it stays mysterious! 


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?

Ocean. Then garden. Both with a desert sky above me.


My favorite tree in the world is _____.

There is a giant banyan tree that overlooks Waikiki Beach that has a fury of red-crested cardinals (I call these buckeye birds because they have red heads and a gray and white bodies) flying in and around it at golden hour every evening. It’s probably the most touristy spot in those beautiful islands, but I love all the secrets and birdsong it holds.


What is something you’re looking forward to?

My family (which includes two sporty teen boys) is set to hike the Mighty Five this summer—that’s the five national parks of Utah (Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion). 


If you could, regardless of the local climate, reach out of your kitchen window a pluck a fruit from a tree, bush, or plant, what would it be?

A mangosteen.


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

I wish I could make one more tiny pancake for my beloved geriatric chihuahua, Haiku, who passed away last fall. For ten years, he’d always be at my feet, patiently waiting for his single pancake the size of a silver dollar.


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

Several. I do a pretty mean yellow warbler. But my cardinal call is probably the most convincing, according to other cardinals.


Would you rather be lost in space or lost at sea?

Lost at sea. 


What are some of your favorite words?

Crepúsculo. Diaphanous. Debonair. Jackfruit. The first time my eldest named the color yellow, he would pronounce it Lell-o, with such glee and confidence.


Read about Aimee’s relationship to jackfruit, rambutan, and mango in Bite by Bite!


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

My parents and all immigrants, and librarians, and art teachers.


Who is a character from literature or film with whom you intensely identify? 

What other people say are Felicity from television and Amelie from the movie. I don’t know how much I agree, but both have giant eyes and are often quietly observing and I can’t argue with that, so who knows.


What is something new you’ve done recently?

Swam in the darkest edges of a cenote underground.


Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain?

Happy to do either, only if there is a cenote nearby.


What’s the wildest thing you’ve witness or experienced in nature?

Seeing icebergs in July and hearing them pop in the middle of the night which wasn’t ever really night, more like hours of crepúsculo, because it was in Greenland in the summer.


It’s late afternoon on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it? 

French martini. or a French 75. Or freshly squeezed orange juice from my parents’ orange trees.


Are you optimistic about the future?



What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

My boys freshly out of the shower.


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?

Any time I write about the deep sea.

Did you know some of the essays in Bite by Bite began in Aimee’s
Orion column
Taste of Wonder? Revisit her essays on mint and maple syrup here.

You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?

First: a solid 8+ hours of sleep in my bed. Then–breakfast tacos poolside, napping outside, swimming with my family, eating locally sourced food and all the chips and guac I can handle. More naps (outside), no mosquitoes, my parents on the deck napping or reading magazines. 80s yacht rock in the background lightly playing. Ice cold lemonade all day. A bowl of peaches or cherries nearby. Tiny dog at my side.


Where did you grow up?

Suburbs of Phoenix and Dayton, Ohio, rural Iowa and Kansas, and western New York—I bounced around a lot.


What song or album reminds you of high school?

Disintegration by The Cure, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got by Sinead O’Connor, and The Immaculate Collection by Madonna.


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager? 

Early teen years were probably spent choreographing dances inspired by Club MTV. By myself or with my besties. Later teen years was goofing on the sidelines in a beaver costume as my high school football mascot.


You are in a situation where you simply must sing karaoke. What’s your song?

“Magic” by Olivia Newton-John.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Oahu. In a 100 percent sustainable house near the Ho’omaluhia gardens, but the only way that happens is if I’m a bird, so…


You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?
A coconut tree, a sturdy tent, a boat, and D’aulaires Book of Greek Myths


What would you like to be most remembered for? 

That I helped grow two young men who made this planet a kinder, better place. Someone who laughed easy and made you laugh easy. Wonderment.


What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?

A sprig of the bluest delphinium. 


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

A cross between a manta ray and a Japanese macaque from Koshima island who washes sweet potatoes. Or a luna moth with a smile.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems, including, most recently, Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and two essay collections, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, and the forthcoming Bite by Bite: Nourishments and Jamborees. Other awards for her writing include fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Mississippi Arts Council, and MacDowell. Her writing appears in Poetry, the New York Times MagazineESPN, and Tin House. She serves as poetry faculty for the Writing Workshops in Greece and is professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.