Green Box’s 2023 Artist in Residence Arvin Ramgoolam

As Green Box’s 2023 Artist in Residency, writer Arvin Ramgoolam’s new book unpacks the question of who land is protected for—and from—in the American West.

Arvin Ramgoolam
Photo courtesy of Arvin Ramgoolam.

For the past 20 years, Arvin Ramgoolam has worked on many short stories and two novels while building a community of writers across the west and growing as a storyteller. His work focuses on otherness, especially immigrant experiences in the United States. For him and his characters, the west is indigenous, black, brown, queer, unjust, besieged, supernatural, and many, many other things.

How have your past residency and current one with Green Box helped in the writing of your book A New West?
All residencies offer different things. MacDowell in New Hampshire was wonderful for the camaraderie of other artists in various fields. It helped me in terms of thinking about different approaches to my work. The Hemingway House in Ketchum, Idaho, was a mostly solitary experience, but it accentuated my work in terms of place and communities as outposts of culture, displacement, and class. Residencies are great for dealing with a work like mine that ties disparate threads across natural, supernatural, and human histories together, which requires space and solitude. Green Mountain Falls and liminal places in the West that resist change, acting as a doorway between wilderness and civilization, prompt an unending list of questions in my mind about how we interact with land and what we use it for. At home with small children and a business, writing happens on the margins of that life. As an artist in residence, I begin with morning pages and move into the day’s work of writing and editing. I like to work on short stories to punctuate the work on my novel. For me, any time I can combine writing with hiking or skiing is the best writing day ever.

Why was the Gila in New Mexico the perfect setting for your book representing the American west?
The Gila is the first designated wilderness area in the world and is a decidedly American invention. It is revolutionary in its institution. The idea that the Gila is a protected space in the American west speaks to our innate understanding that if left unchecked, everything about the west can be consumed every time the country makes a leap into the future. The existence of the Gila also relates to my central question of who is land protected for, who is land protected from, and what can that land be used for. The Gila speaks to me as a character in itself that wants revenge on people for the explosion of the atomic bomb in nearby White Sands. The naturally occurring fires that burn there all year long are a constant threat to people. The West is always under enormous pressure when the nation makes a leap into the future. Indigenous land dispossession, oil and gas development, atomic energy, weapons of war, and now rare earth elements and lithium for electric cars all come from this landscape, and the people who call it home pay a price for the future.

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This book is an examination of the West. So as best you can, please describe what “West” comes to encompass and mean throughout the book.
The west is the canvas I work within and every writer that embarks on telling a story set there reports to the rest of the country what it feels like to be there. The West is a place where we realize ourselves in the most visceral and raw ways possible. What are our tolerances, and weaknesses, our strengths. People come to the West to find themselves and there exists no other landscape where people imagine themselves becoming more or being challenged in a way that changes the very fiber of their being. Every character brings something to that landscape and is profoundly changed by the interaction of these forces.

How much of Vikram’s (the main character in A New West) experience moving to the Gila mirrors your experience moving to Crested Butte from Florida?
I think all people who come to the West are a little off balance for a while. We also have 120 years of movies that fill our imaginations with what we think the west is and come to realize the other dimensions and histories we neglect, or choose not to see or are unaware of. Vikram is discovering the west much in the same way I did, but with the added pressure of a job that places him in high pressure situations.

Vikram moved to the Gila to become a supervisor for the Forest Service. What role does the Forest Service play in the book?
The United States Forest Service is one of the most intriguing federal entities that exists. Most people in cities assume that the USFS has a responsibility towards the environment, but it is a convoluted 120 year old engine that balances use and conservation. Depending on your perspective, the Forest Service can exist as an outpost for a far off government to exude power over you or it can be an arbiter in deciding what land can be excluded from development. This brings me back to one of my central questions in my work: who is land being protected for, and who is it being protected from? Does the Forest Service perpetuate the dispossession of Indigenous lands for the benefit of settler wealth and recreation?

In A New West and in your past work, Do You Eat Monkey Brains, you use young immigrant voices. What does this bring to your writing?
I am interested in the transition phase of the immigrant experience. I am interested in exploring what things are remembered and what things are forgotten in the immigrant transition to becoming American. We are blessed with many books and stories about the initial passage into a new place, which are vital and necessary, but I would like to explore the space as parents pass away and leave legacies that are either cherished or left to the past.

In A New West, there seems to be a theme of male widows. What was your intention with that?
Thank you for catching that! Loneliness and grief are powerful forces that shape us in unexpected ways. Men have a tendency to avoid emotion and when faced with loss, have to confront parts of themselves they are uncomfortable with. Some go inward, some lash out into the world, some find other distractions. But ultimately, they have to face these things and reckon with them.

Tell me about your book store, Townie Books and Rumors Coffee and Tea House in Crested Butte.
My wife Danica and I have been fortunate to own and operate our bookstore and café for 14 years. We started in the downturn and survived the pandemic, all thanks to the wonderful, supportive community we have in Crested Butte and beyond. To wake up and turn people on to books and have great conversations around books and art everyday, and to raise children in that environment is a real dream come true. If there are writers reading this, I hope you consider visiting our Mountain Words Literary Festival on Memorial Day weekend.