Meet Mai Nardone: Coffee Lover, Wordsmith & Pundit Of the Week

Mai Nardone hiking in the mountains

Mai Nardone was raised in Bangkok, Thailand, by an American father and a Thai mother. He came to the U.S. for his undergraduate degree, studying international politics and economics, and then completed an MFA in fiction writing. He dabbles in cooking, fiction writing and is our exceptionally literary (and caffeinated) pundit of the week. 

As part of the "pundit of the week" column, we spotlight one PolicyMic-er to share personal experiences with our community, and pose one never-been-asked question to a staff member. This week Mai puts me in the hot seat when he asks about the defining qualities of the millennial generation. 

About Mai: He writes short stories, mostly about Thailand, its class politics and racial hierarchies, but also about spirit wranglers, Hindu demigods, and the quiet of the deep ocean. He lives in New York City.

Caira Conner (CC) First things first. When and why did you get involved with PolicyMic?

Mai Nardone (MN): I was in a book club run by Gracie Jin, a friend and fellow writer, where I met arts + entertainment editor Julianne Ross, who later told me that PolicyMic was looking for bookish people. I read and write fiction. I’m opinionated. I signed up!

CC: You've written exclusively about literature for our arts + entertainment vertical. What's it like to cover just one facet of a much broader section? 

MN: Literature is the one facet of arts and entertainment in which I feel comfortable publicly throwing opinions around. Being a pundit implies an authority I simply can’t claim in other fields. Also, fiction is important to me. I like to think I’m a little more sympathetic towards literature, and also, I hope, more attuned. It’s part and parcel of having looked at the art from both perspectives — writer and reader, or artist and audience. I’m content hunkering down in my literature dug-out and reading the good stuff other pundits have to say about the rest of the world.

CC: What is one outcome you'd like to result from your engagement with PolicyMic? Any ideas for the best way to make this happen?

MN: I recently found myself talking to a language arts teacher, someone who, as she put, “taught reading and writing, but not literature.” I didn’t understand the distinction. She clarified: “My students don’t read novels.” Wait, but what about Salinger, Hawthorne, Steinbeck—isn’t that the stuff teenage students have always read? (I’m working off of hearsay now, the canon of literature I was assigned to read was markedly less American, but still...) I was told that my way of thinking about English education in public schools was antiquated. Well, it’s no wonder literary fiction is nowadays heralded by doom and gloom (with the occasional article fighting back). It seems only a matter of time before someone describes the literary novel as vintage.

I like to think that those of us writing under the literature wing of PolicyMic are challenging the stereotype that our generation doesn’t read literary fiction — that millennials, with our multi-sensory addiction and fragmented attention, are somehow failing to carry forward the baton of literature.

Then again, the internet is brimming with literary communities. This website is proof enough of that. I like to think that those of us writing under the literature wing of PolicyMic are challenging the stereotype that our generation doesn’t read literary fiction — that millennials, with our multi-sensory addiction and fragmented attention, are somehow failing to carry forward the baton of literature. At the same time, I want to support the sort of fiction that, while legendary in small circles, is unheard of in most of the mainstream. Take the list of short story collections that I cobbled together. I could have included Karen Russell or George Saunders, both favorites, but both already under the glare of the limelight. On the other hand, I had to bike to six bookstores to track down a copy of Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed with Magellan.

CC: If you had to pick one thing to change about your PolicyMic user experiencewhat would it be and why?

MN: It begins as more of a technical gripe, and really it’s not a gripe at all, it’s just the way web-based media works. PolicyMic generates a huge amount of good articles in a week, but that also means that old articles get buried quickly. There isn’t much of a shelf-life to things, and I find that whenever I come to PolicyMic, or any other site after a prolonged period, I’ll spend some time trolling through the backlog searching for any gems I may have missed, and then I notice the way content runs continuously, as if I could scroll back forever.

What I love about print media is the way content is clumped, so to speak. I can track down a good essay I read based on the issue I read it in, and accordingly that issue takes on its own identity, the articles band together — whether thematically arranged or not, they become associated in my head. This clumping, to me, is also how I think of information occurring naturally in the brain, with seemingly disparate ideas linking tenuously. This is also linked (tenuously) to good fiction. For me, the most impressive writers are able to recreate that process of linking: memory with sensory, leaping about in time in a way that feels natural. That’s how narrative should work. It’s good storytelling. 

CC: Let's go offline. What do you like to do when you're not PolicyMic-in'?

MN: I work for Joe, a great coffee shop, serving up hot drinks at breakneck speed. I like to think that it exercises all my non-literary muscles, leaving me the headspace I need to write when I come home to my desk. I enjoy the coffee, the company, the occasional cookie — it’s pretty ideal.

I also like to cook. I’ve been less adventurous lately, but my sister and I have a tradition of cooking some elaborate, foreign foods during Thanksgiving holidays. Past menus have included Peking duck, inspired by this piece about Martha Liao, wife of opera singer Hao Jiang Tian, who cooks her husband a Peking duck after every performance, stringing the bird up on a shower rod to hang overnight.

CC: Your turn. What's one question you have for a member of our staff?

MN: This is for you, Caira! PolicyMic brands itself as ‘The voices of our generation,’ the ‘our’ referring to millennials, Generation Y, twenty-somethings, etc. But going beyond our birth year(s), have you, as PolicyMic’s Community Manager, found that there’s any one quality that could encompass the entire generation? Are we clump-able? But more importantly, is such clumping inclusive, in the sense that our generation is speaking out (communicating) to the wider world, or is it exclusive, indicative of a navel-gazing tendency, playing into our moniker, the disparaging ‘Generation Me’?

CC: (!) Whew, one quality that could encompass an entire generation? No. There are recurring qualities, certainly — bold, unabashed, inquisitive, entrepreneurial — but I would argue that the "clumpiest" (can that be a word?) thing about all of us is our marked restlessness & inability to embrace a static definition.  

I recently had a conversation with one of our brilliant pundits on the state of his future (as tends to happen from time to time when you're community manager) and he had this to say about (what will be) the last two years— "In some ways my life has never felt more together and purposeful, and in other ways, self-doubt and anxiety reach their lifelong zenith nearly every term." It was so powerful, and so perfect, to hear him discuss that paradox, and I think that, right there, may be one of the more encapsulating parameters of this generation. This tendency can be read either way — that we are self-involved for thinking we're the first to operate in such contexts, "navel-gazers" if you will, or you can, as I do, think that our communication of these beliefs to the wider world is just part of what makes this generation bold, and unabashed and, well, you get the picture. 

For more news on Mai, follow him on Twitter: @MaiNardone