This past April 4, 2018, yours truly had the honor to introduce and chat with the poetic storyteller Shanthi Sekaran about her new novel Lucky Boy. Sekaran is currently the 2018 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College, and her work includesThe Prayer Room. Lucky Boy is the tale of two women who’s lives are forever linked by love and loss.
The video of her reading and our Q&A is now up as part of SMC MFA Creative Reading Series, so you can see for yourself the brilliance of Sekaran. Please treat yourself and share with other lovers of word and story.
Most days I feel like a mess, other days I know I’m an educator, a wife, a mom, a hiker, a home cook and gardener, but I love the days when I can call myself a “Writer” and thanks to Melissa Sipin, I got a chance to escape the imposter syndrome and discuss some of my greatest loves and life’s passions. Professor Jee Yoon Lee, who teaches at the Georgetown University Writing Program, has created an incredibly comprehensive website featuring Asian/American writers and artists with “Writing Like An Asian.” The scope is astonishingly wide and the interviews are deep, such as Q&A’s with Sipin, Barbara Jane Reyes, Marianne Villaneuva, David Mura, and the list goes on and on.
Here’s a taste:
Every word I write is summoned by my mixed race heritage, and the hundreds if not thousands of miles my grandparents traveled from the Philippines and from Mexico to make a life for them selves and for our family here in the States. I feel in some sense I am re-telling the same story, the origin of our mixed ancestry. How opposing forces from different parts of the world came together to make new.
Joy. Trepidation. Excitement. Yours truly tumulted through a gamut of responses when I opened the email declaring acceptance of a presentation proposal I almost gave up on and didn’t submit. But how could I resist the chance to throw in my hat for The International Creative Writing Conference, UK to be held this coming June at Imperial College, London? And what better topic to tackle than identity and creativity?
I’ve just assigned myself a hefty reading list to hopefully answer questions I’m a little scared to approach. The urgency to these questions is undeniable, not just for myself but for our writing communities. Below is the abstract and following are a list of links and articles that have spurred my mission along with the reading list I’ve assigned myself for the next few months.
Craft is Culture: Writing & Reading A Global Imagination
“In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all…” Junot Diaz states in his “MFA vs. POC” (New Yorker, 2014) thereby igniting an urgent conversation about diversity in the literary arts. For historically marginalized artists, creative writing begins and ends with perilous tension. If we write and read from this premise, we are primed and prepared for the necessary conflict to fuel our art. How do we engage and interrogate craft to help us explore our understandings of identity and politics, and, conversely, how do we test notions of identity and politics to enrich and deepen our craft? Recognizing that craft is culture and that tension drives all creative writing, this presentation explores reading and writing practices to incite a global cultural imagination that ultimately pinpoints intersections where truth meets art.
“We’ve certainly seen an increased urgency among individual student writers to locate themselves and their work within the evolving culture,” she says. For some, that urgency comes from self-identification with a particular ethnic or racial heritage. Others want to explore race as a means, as Voigt says, “to expand imaginative empathy without encroachment or appropriation.”
Shivani, Anis, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies
Anzaldúa, Gloria, Light in the Dark/ Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality
and more to come…
The hope and ultimate aim is to expand these ideas into workshops engaging communities in the flesh. If you have any suggestions or would like to dialogue about craft and culture, please don’t hesitate. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Since I’ve got a thing for the ekphrastic, I’m really looking forward to participating in this unique literary event. Here’s why:
The Emerald Tablet is proud to host the third round of its first homegrown performance series, co-created with and hosted by Quiet Lightning‘s Evan Karp.
Four artists perform work by some of their major influences, followed by original work created for the show that channels that influence. Artists have 15 minutes to perform and will help select the following month’s performers, so that each show is inspired by the one before. In addition, each month an influence will be announced, and we will accept submissions of original work in response; one will be selected to be performed in the next show.
Mark your calendars, please spread the word, and hope to see at what should be an enlightening experience. More to come…
This winter’s schedule might not include teaching classes but that doesn’t mean there’s plenty of homework and reading to do. At the start of 2014, along with the ongoing and maybe some new creative writing projects, the research question rattling this mind is can post-colonial discourse(s) inspire, challenge, and inform the craft of fiction writing? Pictured below are just some of the authors who may or may not light the path with a little Djuna Barnes thrown in for fun.
Forty five minutes outside of Edinburgh, tucked in a hidden pocket of Midlothian, sits a 15th century castle where I spent my June at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers. Not even the bus drivers knew of the castle. Kept a secret, deep in a Scottish glen, the ruins, renovated in Victorian-era, were tipped on a crag overlooking the River Esk, and here I continued my ongoing education of reading and writing for a summer month.
But the story doesn’t start here.
If we were to go all the way back, it would have opened two years ago when at a faculty gathering poet and friend Raina León prodded me to apply. Get thee to a writing residency was her imperative, and she clued me in on this gem of a fellowship with a low profile at Hawthornden Castle. Thank you, Raina.
This fellowship is sponsored and run by the great patronage of Drue Heinz of the Heinz company. Publisher of The Paris Review, she established the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the Drue Heinz Lectures in Pennsylvania. Deepest gratitude goes to Ms. Heinz and her staff.
There is no magic I know of that got me to Scotland for a month of committed writing. Persistence and focus is what I brought to the table. Applications to these residencies are something like gearing up for grad school. Long and involved forms that demand you know who you are, letters of recc to prove you are who you say you are, and a writing sample that speaks to enough people on the committees that matter. I’ve been applying to residencies off and on since grad school, which means I’ve lived in hope for over six years. Let me say again, persistence and focus.
The plane trip from San Francisco to Edinburgh was another test of patience: ten hours trying to sleep upright, a three hour layover in Charles de Gaulle, where splurging on Lauderée French macaroons was worth every euro, and a final two hours that seemed like forever before touching down in Scotland.
The sun still had a good hour to set when I finally arrived around 10pm, which I would later learn was the badgering hour. Jet-lagged and frazzled, I met two of the writers who I would live with for the next four weeks, one of whom was an East Coaster turned Bay Area based. She happened to know many of my colleagues and writer friends back in California and thankfully made me feel that much closer to home despite being a continent and ocean away.
Born to John Drummond, the first laird at Hawthornden Castle, William Drummond (1585-1649) turned laird of the castle himself at 24 when his father died. A poet and historian, William Drummond read well and widely, tackling the History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses as one of his many literary works. Over 400 years later, in his study, a room where he was known to pace between tackling quill to paper, I stared out the window that overlooked the gravel driveway, pulled my hair out rearranging scenes and crossing out swathes of paragraphs, and dragged myself to bed, willing myself to sleep at midnight even as the last sun rays still poked their way through the west-facing window.
On the first full day since my arrival, still adjusting to UK time, I woke at 5:30am to metallic squabbling and screeching of what I thought to be baby dinosaurs nesting right outside my western window. One bird would start up and then her siblings, would follow in discordant chorus. Almost every morning, afternoon, and early evening was graced with their shrill choir, and not only did I viscerally experience the scientific fact of how birds are cousin to pterodactyls and triceratops, but I understood how quickly and deeply I’d been thrust into nature. The castle was immersed in all things wondrous.
Evenings made the badgering hour when the lawn in front of the castle became a buffet table for a family of five hungry badgers. Stags, doe, and their fawns were frequently spotted on the road that led to the castle. Peregrines learned to fly just across the river, and we watched them from the castle garden at lunch time as they tested their wings. Spiders insisted rather persistently to claim the sinks and bathtubs as their resting spots. They were known to creep up cozy into our beds on more than one occasion.
I never knew I could be so jealous of poets.
These daily and nightly encounters with all things feathered, eight-legged, doe-eyed, antlered, and winged charged the poets, and they wrote with a sense of immediacy that doesn’t really jibe with long form fiction. One evening, a bat flew into the drawing room, circling over our heads for a good seven minutes. We tried to guide it out the window, but s/he seemed to enjoy our company more. Eventually, tiring of us, s/he took to an open casement and was gone. The next day, all three poets reported writing poems of our vespertine encounter. I hadn’t ever felt so keenly envious of poesie writers up until then. What I would have given to slip out of time for a day or two, to step away from my projekt and write in attendance to the here and now with such urgency? Fictions writers, particularly those noveling are stuck in another time zone and geography that rarely meshes with the present moment. We are caught in a loop of our own making.
We were there to write.
And we did. Everyday, at least six days a week, from eight in the morning to at least five in the evening. Oh, there were mid-day strolls along the castle grounds listening to the songbird soundtrack that ran from sun up to sun down, late afternoon jogs on the Old Railway to Dalkeith, and jaunts to Lasswade’s The Laird & Dog pub, which was the closest and easiest access to Wi-Fi. All sworn to an informal oath of silence while in the castle, Hawthornden’s motto was “Requiescat in Pace,” and from nine in the morning to six in the evening, we maintained relative quiet, so all writers could work in peace and decent ease.
With no internet access, limited mobile service, and a vow to abstain from talking, the task of writing wasn’t necessarily easier but the setting secured focus and commitment to both the projekt at hand and the vital art in which all writing thrives, the act of reading. In a recent Guardian article “publicising a novel – the problems,” (Thursday 25 July 2013) Anakana Scholfield speaks to an issue close to this heart:
…why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?
There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely. You certainly need to contemplate reading a book in translation, unlikely to be widely reviewed in newspapers, many of which are too busy wasting space on “how to write” tips and asking about an author’s personal fripperies. It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.
Six years into the projekt, reading is the through line that keeps this writer grounded as the shape and meaning of the story collapses, condenses, and often over complicates itself, constantly morphing like land shifting under volatile forces. To write is to read. There’s no way around it. But how to keep up the art? How to maintain the necessary strength and focus for such a vital skill? You’d think that as one grows older, reading would become easier, but it doesn’t. Its just as much of a challenge as it ever was. Technology and the ten million distractions aren’t just to blame. The old adage the more I learn, the less I know seems to confound the reading eye. The mind skitters, won’t settle but jumps with expectations, preconceived notions, rather than sitting with words, images, sentences. Slowing down to savor syllables seems a fleeting wish. The reading mind must be taught and re-taught, and taught again. Its a muscle that can easily atrophy.
Reading at Hawthornden was s-l-o-w. As it should be.
Decades into becoming a “professional” reader, its hard to come to literature with an open mind. The more one reads, the more layered the lenses the reading eye gains and cannot shake away. So we must learn to read through prisms, knowing these prisms can be switched, combined, simplified, or complicated.
Prismatic. Requiring constant practice. The conjoined arts of reading and writing remained the main focus, but not the only activities at Hawthornden. There were encounters with Crusties, treks to the Pentland Peaks, and day trips to Edinburgh. But that’s all to come next…
For another a peek at the Hawthornden experience, check out poet and professor Gregory Leadbetter’s post “After Hawthornden” on his site.
Let’s not be sad about Sunday’s outcome. San Francisco is still a city to be proud of because it’s home to winning readers & writers, some of whom will be reading their work, myself included, Saturday, March 2, 7:30pm at Cantina SF. Aside from a stellar roster, Cantina SF serves some tasty cocktails. Below are the details. Please consider marking your calendar and forwarding to all interested parties.
Also presenting transmedia artist Kate Durbin, novelist and screenwriter Louis B. Jones, author of California’s Over and Radiance, novelist Renee Thompson, author of The Plume Hunter, and essayist and short story writer Rashaan Alexis Meneses.
Terry Bisson is an American science fiction and fantasy author best known for his short stories. Several of his works, including “Bears Discover Fire”, have won top awards in the science fiction community, such as the Hugo and the Nebula.
Tamim Ansary is the author of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes and West of Kabul, East of New York, among other books. For ten years he wrote a monthly column for Encarta.com, and has published essays and commentary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Alternet, TomPaine.com, Edutopia, Parade, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Born in Afghanistan in 1948, he moved to the U.S. in 1964. He lives in San Francisco, where he is director of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.
Just past the mid-way point at MacDowell, a lot can happen in the space of a week and change. The second week has brought snow, snow plows, a visit with family from Maine, and sightings of one turkey, much bigger, blacker and more shy than California turkeys, a squirrel, which are fuzzier and have white bellies, and finally an interlude of birdsong during a freezing truncated walk through the woods.
It snowed the third night, and the next morning they were plowing the road with such industriousness that yours truly
could only think how grateful I am not to live in Russia. Witnessing such hard labor in contrast to the virtually immobile exertion committed in my studio made me consider the usefulness and practicality of this skill I’ve been bent on honing at MacDowell, but that worry was struck down pretty quickly when I turned back to the projekt at hand, and I have no doubt about the urgency of this piece. For a small moment of time, I almost compared the work between plowing snow to revision, trying to clear the path, for others to journey is arduous, sweaty, nerve-wracking, labor, and there is always plenty to plow.
One of the many traditions practiced at the Colony is for fellows, or colonists as they’re called here, to give presentations of their work, whether it be a reading or an open studio, you’re encouraged to share your artistic endeavors. The idea wasn’t that appealing, really, until a fellow explained that its best to present earlier rather than later during residency so that other fellows will have much needed context in terms of why you’re here and what you’re doing. This context cements a substantive foundation to conversations at dinner, breakfast, random encounters on the hallway or on the way to the studio. The whole purpose of the colony is not just for individual, solitary work but to be a part of the community, and being a part of a community means sharing. So, yes, there was a reading, and it was gratifying. In explaining my work to this crowd, I have a better grasp on how to explain what I’m doing, which not only helps keep me on track but also helps clarify the concept, so I can share with other communities as well.
I’ve heard it said that the artists who step through MacDowell are the “cultural matrix” of U.S. Arts & Culture. A fellow colonist, over dinner, urged us to imagine all the different figures who have stepped through the doors and walked these grounds. The idea is over-whelming, frankly, and something I will have to sit and live with long after my time here is said and done.
If its possible, the projekt seems to be instructing me on what needs to happen next with revision. Its as if the manuskript is teaching me how to write. How is that?
With ten more days left, I’m trying to prepare myself for the return to someone else’s fantasy that I participate in, which I refuse to call “reality” because, as far as I’m concerned, living in this artistic mind and physical space is my reality.
More to come on the last week. For now, its steady and deliberate work on writing. Though I haven’t nearly gotten as much reading done as I had hoped, which is something I would like to work on, the art of reading, but there’s still time. One can always try.