Interview with Athena Nassar, Author of Little Houses

The cover of a book with the illustration of a girl of Egyptian descent with a gray head scarf and dark red lipstick against a black background. The girl's neck transitions into a brick wall which forms part of a house, and there are various pieces of different houses and buildings where her shoulders would be. The title, "Little Houses" is written in tan letters, and the authors name, "Athena Nassar" is written in light gray letters below the tile.

Ahead of the release of her debut full-length poetry collection, Little Houses, Athena Nassar spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Nicole Bethune Winters about her poetic choices, poems that were particularly difficult to write and those that Nassar is most connected to, as well as immigration, colonization, and the influence of Egypt, the [American] South, and Puerto Rico on this collection.

Nicole Bethune Winters: Did the organization of the manuscript into different “houses” come before or after deciding on the book’s title? What was the desired effect of presenting the collection in this way?

Athena Nassar: I had divided the sections into houses before I decided on the title of the collection, but the title fell into place soon after. I frequently return to questions of home and belonging throughout the collection, and after having completed the collection, I realize that I was asking myself whether it is possible to make a home out of the body. These houses function as isolated compartments of the self. Each house has its own identity and its own traumas.

NBW: Can you tell me more about the choices you made in poems like “Coming of Age” and “athena as the Garden of Eden”?

AN: The poem “Coming of Age” was conceived after this one time where my brother and I lost our dog when our parents were away. Although I don’t claim to be much of an “animal person,” the knowledge that my family was counting on me to take care of this living thing for a few hours and I failed was very jarring to me. The harsh enjambment and the lack of punctuation, which results in the sentences running into one another, is supposed to replicate a sort of heaving. In this poem, the speaker is submerged in a river searching for their dog who may have drowned, and by the end of the poem, it’s almost as if the speaker herself becomes this drowning dog gasping for air.

NBW: Speaking of “athena as the Garden of Eden,” there is a series of these “athena aspoems that run throughout the second and fourth houses of the collection. What function did you intend for these poems to serve?

AN: Being that these are persona poems, they are meant to function as a departure or an escape from the speaker’s reality, but in some of these poems, the speaker’s reality still manages to slip through. My poem “athena as princess peach,” where the speaker’s “crown has been mauled by a kitchen blender,” is one poem where this slippage occurs. On the other hand, the speaker in my poem “athena as villanelle” successfully escapes from the imposing patriarchal system and assumes another, more dominant role.

NBW: Capitalization seems to play a role in Little Houses—can you tell me more about the reasons you chose to employ it in some instances and not others? Was there a rule that dictated this throughout the collection or was it poem-specific? AN: There wasn’t necessarily a specific reason why I decided to capitalize some poems and leave other poems lowercase. I made those decisions based on what I thought looked the best on the page. Although, I do make sure to capitalize cities, places, and names most of the time.

NBW: Are there any poems that were particularly difficult to write/finish? Is there a specific poem that you feel most connected to?

AN: I wouldn’t say there were any poems that were difficult to write—there were just some that needed to be put away for a while before I could get at the meat of what I had to say. One scenario I can equate this to is when you have an argument with someone, and then you go home, and you think, well, I could’ve said _ , or _. Occasionally, I needed to return to the argument in order to flesh out, and sometimes rewrite, the poem. My poem “the performance,” for example, was one piece that was put away for a year before it occurred to me that it was a poem about reclaiming my sexuality as a woman of color. Suddenly, the “Hottentot Venus” entered the narrative, and it just clicked.

I am connected to all of these poems, but if I had to choose a few that I am most connected to, they would probably be “athena a s princess peach,” “Georgia bleeds,” “Avareh,” and “so i let you be a canvas.” I wrote “athena as princess peach” as a senior in boarding school, and although it does carry a lighthearted tone, it definitely reflects a time of my life when I was first being introduced to the value of agency, as well as questions like who is given power and who is not. “Georgia bleeds” is a piece that I toiled with for a while, but it evolved into a prose poem that encapsulates my upbringing in the South, as well as my Arab heritage, and it will forever be one of my favorites.

NBW: Does the visual component of your poems play a role in how you format them? If so, what aspects of a piece stand out to you the most, or what do you primarily fixate on while you’re writing?

AN: The visual component of my poems are largely impacted by the subject matter. My poem “ghost girls,” for example, has these caesuras scattered throughout the poem, because the speaker is being carried with the wind. In fact, the speaker is the wind itself. These girls cannot be held or felt, and I depict this in the format of this poem. As far as what I tend to fixate on while I’m writing, I am very conscious of the “flow” of the poem. With each line I add, I usually go back and read the whole poem outloud to myself. The flow of a piece is usually the result of a number of things working simultaneously—alliteration, enjambment, percussive sound, visceral imagery, and the selection of the “best” words. There are a few words in particular that I was drawn to in the process of writing the collection: pour, swallow, body, smoke, and tongue, among others.

NBW: In most of the poems, the speaker writes in first-person, yet in a few, like “Dreams Won’t Feed You Forever,” there is a departure from this. What is the desired impact of this perspective shift?

AN: I would say that the majority of these poems are largely autobiographical, and I frequently assume the role of the speaker, but I chose to create some distance in “Dreams Won’t Feed You Forever,” because this is a poem that focuses on my aunt grieving the loss of my grandmother.

NBW: Relationships appear to be constantly evaluated throughout the collection—where do you see the speaker in regards to their relationships with family, culture, and society?

AN: I am a major homebody. I go home to visit my parents in Georgia every chance I get, and this nostalgia seeps into the voice of the speaker in a lot of these poems. I do love my home and where I was raised, but in poems like “Little Houses” and “Georgia bleeds,” I also reflect on the contempt I have for Georgia’s history and its current political climate. The speaker vacillates between these feelings of nostalgia and contempt throughout the collection, and in most poems, the speaker feels both of these things simultaneously.

NBW: In Little Houses, you touch on immigration and colonization directly in some instances, but more subtly in others. What role did these shifts in address play in the writing of this collection?

AN: My father is an immigrant who was born in Cairo, Egypt. He won his visa in a lottery after being disowned by his mother for marrying my mom, who is not Egyptian or Muslim. My father’s background, him going from being the descendant of pharaohs to being disowned and having to be at the mercy of the US immigration system in order to stay here to study, majorly influenced the statement that I wanted my collection to make. My mother, on the other hand, i half Black and half White. In the South during the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan burned a six foot cross in my grandparents’ yard, threatening them to leave the town or be killed, because they were a biracial couple. They eventually decided to move to Puerto Rico, and as a result, my mother was raised there. All of these places weigh heavily on my collection—Egypt, the South, and Puerto Rico—because they are such a large part of where I come from and who I am.

NBW: There is an abundance of strong imagery in this collection—yet I noticed a specific reoccurrence of fruit-related images. Was this happenstance, or an intentional thread woven throughout these poems?

AN: I do tend to gravitate towards fruit imagery, I think, because the settings of a lot of these poems are very lush, warm places, and I feel like the fruit of a place is a huge symbol of the place itself. When I was a child, my father would always come back from the grocery store withthese large gallons of mango juice, which he would refer to as “the nectar of Egypt,” and I began to associate mangoes with Egypt and also my ancestry and my culture. Aside from the symbolic nature of fruit, there is also so much that fruit can contribute to a poem’s atmosphere—it can drip, it can tear open, it can stain, and so on.

Order your copy of Little Houses today!


A woman with a medium-dark skin with long dark hair, wearing a black long-sleeve shirt and black pants seated in a black chair, one arm is resting on the back of the chair and the other is draped into her lap, in a gray room with a grayish wood floor.

Athena Nassar, author of Little Houses (Sundress Publications, 2023), is an Egyptian-American poet, essayist, and short story writer from Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Missouri Review, The McNeese Review, New Orleans Review, Zone 3, The Los Angeles Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, PANK, and elsewhere.

Nicole Bethune Winters is a poet, writer and multi-faceted artist, though her primary love is working with clay. Her first book of poetry, brackish was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in Backlash Journal, Wildroof Journal, and Seaborne Magazine. When she isn’t writing or wheel-throwing, Nicole is likely at the beach, on a trail, climbing, or exploring new landscapes with her dog. She currently resides in Southern California, where she works as a full-time artist from her home studio.

Sundress Reads: Review of An Accidental American Odyssey

In western Russia, a young Catherine Morland-esque woman mingles with “American princes” in exchange for a ticket west. Meanwhile, across the Bering Sea, a refugee couple and their neighbors desperately shuffle into a claustrophobic white van to escape America’s untimely end. 

Mark Budman, in his latest short story collection, An Accidental American Odyssey (Livingston Press, 2021), weaves unique voices together to create an immigrant hero’s journey. Budman’s collection exposes the inescapability of the immigrant identity and the perpetual longing for something more secure than that which we already have—a feeling that migrants often carry overseas. 

Born in the former Soviet Russia, and currently living in America, Mark Budman is no stranger to the immigrant experience. His first semi-autobiographical novel, My Life at First Try (Counterpoint, 2008), follows Alex and his family as they move from Siberia to America. Similarly, An Accidental American Odyssey further explores themes of migration and the meaning of the homeland by introducing a diverse array of characters. Out of chronological order, each short story details a different phase in a character’s immigration journey. Budman describes the moment Vera Sirotina attempts to make her dreams of leaving Russia come true, as well as the grueling reality of American capitalism that the Titan is subject to at his office job in “The Titan. An Office Romance.” Budman’s collection creates a new hero archetype that centers on the immigrant’s journey while emphasizing the obstacles one endures while immigrating from one’s homeland. 

Budman’s witty narrative focus offers a unique perspective on the conflicting emotions that his characters feel when they uproot their lives. His narrative style frequently toes the lines of absurdity—In “Influencer, C’est Moi,” Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov is a minuscule personal advisor who lives behind the ears of kings. He exchanges his advice to Napoleon for the promise of French citizenship. The active choice to retell this story from the perspective of a political advisor who subjects can neither see nor hear hints at the futility that citizens often feel under certain forms of government. Ivan complains that the French rulers ignore his suggestions and fail miserably in their campaigns. He says, “I moved to the US. Everyone listens to you there, if you belong to the same political party, and if you say that the other party’s leader is an asshole” (41). Ivan notes the hypocrisy of American politics, but still prefers the ease with which one can assimilate into the masses. He acknowledges that conformity, as a migrant, allows Americans to take you seriously. Within the collection, Ivan’s story functions as an unfortunate reality check regarding the fact that, although the countries that many of Budman’s characters hail from have corrupt governments, America’s democracy is far from perfect. 

In fact, we find his characters in all sorts of strange circumstances. Vera signs up for a Tinder-like dating service, dreaming of being a mail-order bride. In “Scarabaeus Simplex,” Greg Sampson’s dreams turn him into a Volkswagen New Beetle. Absurdist story-telling functions to make abstract concepts like consumerism more accessible to readers. For Sampson, an American who hopes to vacation in Russia while so many Russians must leave, becoming an old German car symbolizes the limitations of American capitalism. 

Sampson, like so many Americans, dreams of the material—once he realizes he’s a car, he immediately hopes he is a Mercedes or Rolls Royce. Essentially, his family’s upward mobility is halted because he’s now stuck as a Volkswagen. A recently immigrated couple who “won the visa lottery” purchase him from a car dealership, ecstatic over their brand-new Volkswagen. Budman’s absurdity functions to simplify the actual absurdity of the American dream. 

Likewise, many of the collection’s female characters are passive subjects against the overarching “American dream” myth, which subtly flattens them into tropes. We perceive characters like Vera and the waitress through the male gaze—though Budman seems to do this purposefully, exposing the limiting scope of American faux diversification. In “A Perfect Rhyme Translated from Scratch,” the protagonist imagines the waitress “sitting in the lotus position,” questioning if he’s perhaps mistaken about which nation the imagery is from. The narrator admits, “[the restauranteur] forgot if haiku is Chinese or Vietnamese? He has to look it up” (10). The narrator exposes the protagonist as an ignorant authority figure whose “compassion” for a Chinese waitress is entrenched in orientalism, both exoticizing and othering the migrant.  

An Accidental American Odyssey recreates foundational myths by centering migrants as new Odysseus and Aeneas-types. When the getaway driver in “The Selfless Quarantine” asks the protagonist where they’re from, the protagonist replies, “our countries ceased to exist”—Budman’s collection implies that, when we leave our countries, we are perpetually in search of a homeland that ceases to exist. An American odyssey goes beyond an immigrant’s arrival to their destination. Like Aeneas, whose founding of Rome is undermined by the empire’s untimely end, Budman’s protagonists discover that their longing for a homeland is made insistent by America’s instability. 

An Accidental American Odyssey is available at Small Press Distribution.


Crysta Montiel is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada, where she studies English Literature and Philosophy. She previously worked as an editorial intern at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. When Crysta’s not digging through treasure troves of queries, she’s completing her Criterion Collection bucket list and playing with her cat.