2017 Summer Roundup

2017 Summer Roundup

This summer careened by, dizzy from travel (Ohio three times; Mexico; Washington, D.C.; Rhode Island; Pittsburgh) and some enormous changes. My beloved grandmother passed on July 31. Her absence is palpable, and I am still trying to adjust to the fact that she is not here—that I can’t eat dinner next to her, help feed her (after the stroke), and braid her hair for her (as she used to do for me when I was young); or bring her a jasmine flower from my plant (she loved the fragrance and would lift the tiny blossom to her face, lose her eyes, breathe in, and smile); or just sit with her and talk and laugh. I used to stop over to see her most days. She made me feel better when I was sad. My parents’ house feels empty now; my grandmother had presence.

IMG_9291I wrote a poem about her when I was sixteen, first published in my high school literary magazine, then in Hanging Loose magazine, and finally reprinted in the Hanging Loose Press anthology, Bullseye: Outstanding High School Writers. R. posted this photo of my poem on Instagram.

Now, R and I are packing up to move from our first apartment to our first home. We bought a house—I’ll finally have room (I hope) for all of my books.

In between house hunting and later-stage hospice, I taught a seven-week creative nonfiction class, which included reading and writing in response to Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. It feels important to be writing about race, place, responsibility, privilege, ambivalence, what we love, what we struggle with, what we hope will change about our country, and how we are part of all of it. If you haven’t read this book yet, please do.

Next on my list to read, re-read, and teach: essays by James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. What are you reading to help you get through this particular time? Please comment and let me know.

Here’s my writing-related news update—

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Writing:

My story-essay, “Skeleton, Rock, Shell,” will be published in Conjunctions 69: Being Bodies (Fall / Nov 2017). R took the screenshot of the table of contents (in-progress) above. Yes—that’s Rick Moody and Anne Waldman in the same issue (!!!). I love Conjunctions, and have been published by them online, but this will be my first time in their print journal.

My story collection, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was selected by Paul Yoon as a finalist for the 2017 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction from Sarabande Books. Sarabande will publish the winner of the prize, Tiny Heroes, Tiny Villains, by Robert Yune.

My essay collection, Things People Say, was named a finalist for the 2017 Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Competition, selected by Renee Gladman. More info in the link.

Readings, Festivals, & NYFA:

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Some of the audience saying hey. Those are the other fellows smiling at me in the first row.

In June, I was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshops. Here’s a photo from the fellows’ reading, where I shared my essay about a former teacher, the poet Agha Shahid Ali. When I remember to, I like to take photos of the audience. This was a great one.

Reading at The Library of Congress, July 29, 2017

Reading at The Library of Congress, July 29, 2017 (photo credit: Kundiman)


July: I also read the essay (published this past April in Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, edited by Kazim Ali, University of Michigan Press) at the Library of Congress, for the Smithsonian Asian American Literature Festival, with Karen Tei Yamashita and Kundiman Fellows Vt Hung and Mark Keats.

It felt significant to read in our nation’s capital at the Library of Congress, as an Asian American writer myself in front of an audience of mostly other Asian American writers, scholars, poets, and readers. Several people came up to me afterward or emailed me to say that they were moved by the essay and reading. I felt that way about the events I attended, too.

To buy a copy (and/or ask your library to buy a copy) of Mad Heart Be Brave, head over here.

IMG_3812In August, I took part in the NYFA (the New York Foundation for the Arts)  2017 Artist-as-Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Lots to learn about as I gear up to begin offering private writing workshops and mentoring in 2018. If you are a writer or artist in New York State, I recommend applying to this program, which is offered several times a year around the state—the next one is in Albany.

Thanks to Brooklyn-based writer Roohi Choudhri, who told me about the bootcamp. She teaches privately and has a terrific set of in-person and online offerings for writers. Check out her website here.

Other Nice Stuff:

Every once in a while I Google my name to see what the internet rolls back at me. I found this mention on a website library discussion board called LibraryThing. Here is what one user posted about writers of South Asian origin:

6 cindydavid4: Though I’m a big reader of Indian-American writers (or, more broadly, American writers of South Asian origin), and I’ve read some [Chitra Banerjee] Divakaruni, I’m not a fan of her work. I can’t pinpoint why exactly because I haven’t spent enough time thinking it through. I only know that, after forcing myself to get to the end of her collection of stories Arranged Marriage: Stories, I have not picked up another of her books.

These days, the most interesting writing by Indian-American (or writers of South Asian origin) women writers I am liking are: Nina McConigleyTanwi Nandini IslamTahmima AnamMira JacobSejal ShahTania JamesJade Sharma, and more.

With male writers of South Asian origin, these are most interesting to me these days: Amitava GhoshAkhil SharmaVikram Chandra — whose Sacred Games is going to be a Netflix series, Kanishk TharoorKaran MahajanAnuk ArudpragasamSunil Yapa, et al.

I’m flattered to be in such company. The other folks have books. I’m working on it.

 

 

 

Guest Post: Yes, Even You Can Write a Book Review!

One of the great joys of my life in the last year has been teaching a year-long advanced creative nonfiction workshop. This guest post is from my student, Nadia Ghent, a talented writer and former professional violinist. Nadia writes about the process of reviewing Geeta Kothari’s short story collection, I Brake for Moose. My first (and only) book review took months to write (really, it was kind of torturous—I didn’t know what I was doing and where to start, and how to be critical and also empathetic, thoughtful, intellectual, and creative–and I thought I had to sound smart, speak the jargon like my PhD friends).  Still, I’m glad I wrote that review, and I learned a ton. 

There’s so much to learn, also, in reading about Nadia’s process, and *seeing* the work that goes deep reading and writing and reviewing.

Yes, even you can review a book!

Nadia Ghent

IMG_1342I think it was somewhere around the fifth or sixth layer of scribbled Post-it notes on top of each already note-strewn page in the composition book I’d bought especially for writing down every single impression I had while preparing to review Geeta Kothari’s short story collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, that I started to doubt my ability to write even one coherent sentence about this book.  Not that there wasn’t anything to write about—Kothari’s eleven stories are so rich with characters and the evocative details of their lives that I found myself writing down not just sentences, but also whole paragraphs of the text in my notebook.

I was struck with the immediacy of her writing, and the way each story takes the reader directly into the world of the characters in language that is clear and evocative. And also with the way every single one of these eleven short stories relates to our own world—Kothari’s characters transcend their fictional enclosure between the covers of the book, as if they were people in real life, people we would know.

Somehow I had agreed to write a review of I Brake for Moose and Other Stories for the online journal Necessary Fiction, and the enormity of the task—to do Kothari’s collection justice in even the most modest way—seemed beyond me. I also have to confess that this would be my first “real” review, since up to now my entire experience with being a reviewer of any sort had been limited to a collaborative book-reading blog that I’d participated in for the past two years. This blog was very informal, totally subjective, and the posts were mostly fun and easy to write.  The review for Necessary Fiction was going to be a completely different experience: objectivity would be paramount, and I would need to develop some kind of a critical stance.  I was going to have to write a lot more than, “What a great book. I really liked it,” and I had one thousand words in which to find something to say.

And so I began the only way I knew how—I read the book.  I read it as I would any other book, sprawled on the sofa, or in bed, or while eating lunch, and I read completely for pleasure, without the notion that I was going to have to say something that made sense or make some kind pronouncement of my fledgling critical opinion.  I am not an academic, and I’ve only recently returned to writing.  I used to be a violinist. The last paper I wrote in graduate school was on Beethoven’s string quartets, and that was in the previous century. But I have always been a reader, and I knew that if I could find the way Kothari’s book spoke to me as a reader, I would be able to find a way to write about it.

IMG_1343After the first reading, I got to work. I wrote down the basics of each story in my notebook: characters, setting, conflict, first impressions. But what really drew me in was Kothari’s language.  This is when I started writing down chunks of the text that resonated with me. I read each story a second, third, fourth, and even fifth time, becoming slightly obsessed with how much more each re-reading brought into focus– hence, the multiple layers of Post-it notes—while also beginning to understand the themes and subtle points of connection between each story.  I began to develop enough ideas about the book to write 10,000 words, not 1,000. The problem was that there was so much to write about in each story.  And the directions for reviewing from Necessary Fiction were clear—1,000 words was a strict limit. No indulgence in writing about every emotionally resonant detail.

I started reading previous reviews in Necessary Fiction, paying special attention to reviews of short story collections. I wanted to figure out how to handle multiple story lines and characters in one review, and how much detail a reviewer would go into in discussing each individual story. And I had stumbled into the first rule of reviewing: read the reviews already published in the journal you want to submit to. Suddenly I became aware of how many opinions about things—books, movies, restaurants, music, clothing, shoes, dog kennels, grass seed—that came pouring out of the media I engaged in every day. And that I mostly ignored. I began to feel totally overwhelmed. How was I going to figure out what was important enough to write?

The only solution was to start writing. But because I actually didn’t know what to start with, I made a list of verbs as a warm-up exercise: craft, follow, fracture, mirror, reflect, create, temper, contend, and as many others as I could think of.  My first day of actual writing consisted of listing verbs. I thought that if I could think of what the writing was doing—as if the writing were a person engaged in some kind of action—I would be able to convey how this action reveals the ideas Geeta Kothari engages with in the stories, and how successful she had been. This also began to fix in my mind a specific place to start: verbs as the motor in constructing sentences and creating structure. Instead of an amorphous sense of what I wanted to write about (everything!), I had a way to bring motion to my own ideas. Next, I grouped the stories into those that shared themes, and I decided to focus on three of them in greater depth, while saving room to mention all the others at least in passing.  And then I re-read all my notes, added yet another layer of Post-its, and finally sat before the blinking cursor and the blank screen. I dug in.

Of course the first draft was terrible. Most of this awful initial attempt consisted of long quotes with just a few of my own sentences woven in to hold it all together, which they barely did. I thought that the language of these stories was so incredible that the review should consist mainly of the text, while what I had to say needed to retreat into the background. It was like baking chocolate chip cookies but leaving out all the flour because you just wanted to eat the chocolate.

This was not the best approach.  Sejal read this draft and made some gentle but firm suggestions that helped me think more deeply so that I could really begin to write and not just reproduce the text. Or actually hide behind the text—it was going to take some courage and resolution to put my words first. I took out most of the quotes, and found that this opened up space for what I needed to write. And that I actually had something to say.

IMG_1344After a few more drafts, I put the review down for several weeks and worked on other projects. I felt as if there was still more I needed to do, but that time and distance were needed even more. And I continued to think about the stories as I walked the dog, went for a run, read other books.  Points of connection between the stories and larger themes that I had missed started to become clear. It was as if the stories were talking to each other in my imagination even while I was doing other things.

As the deadline approached, I returned to what I had, re-wrote it again with these new thoughts, changed the middle and the end, sent it to another friend to read, wrote some more, ever mindful of the fluctuating word count. And then finally, two days before it was due, when there wasn’t anything else that still bothered me, I decided that the review was ready. I sent it to the editor early mostly because I was worried that a monumental snowstorm predicted for the day of the deadline would affect my Internet service (it did not). But also because two more days would not have made it any more finished.  And amazingly, it really was ready: when the editor sent the review back with her comments a few weeks later, she had made only minor punctuation edits—her precise and consistent red marks throughout the review might finally cure me of my terrible habit of using two spaces between sentences. The review itself didn’t need any revision, and after I fixed the spacing issue, the editor scheduled it for publication

What I learned from this effort is how important it is not to think that we can’t write something worthwhile about a work of art, that somehow only super- qualified people get to have a voice, to put forth an opinion, or to write about literary and real-life themes that affect all of us in different ways.  I learned that it is incredibly important to advocate for writing that speaks to us, even if we are not academics or book critics or even published authors, and that writing about compelling fiction like Kothari’s is part of what we need to do as literary citizens in this world. It’s difficult, though, and reviewing takes many, many times longer than reading.

But how incredible it is to get into the inner workings of these stories, to enter the world, if only through the imagination, that Geeta Kothari has created.  And then to have a chance to think even more deeply about these stories through the process of writing about them. I hope that more people will read I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, and that the review I spent many weeks struggling over will contribute to others feeling drawn to Geeta Kothari’s stunning collection of stories.  Then my effort will have been entirely worth it.

None of this would have happened without Sejal and her incredibly generous and transcendent teaching. Thank you, Sejal, for suggesting I just give it a try, and for always asking for something better (and not giving up on me after that terrible first draft!) I don’t think I would have thought of writing a review on my own, and I certainly didn’t believe that I could actually do it. But I made it through, thanks to Sejal’s encouragement and an entire pack of Post-it notes, and now I feel as if I might just have enough confidence to write another review sometime soon.

 

 

 

I Had a Moment: A Few Thoughts on Readings & Endings

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Poster from Denis Johnson’s reading at the University of Rochester. October 9, 2015.

I learned last week from a friend’s Facebook post that Denis Johnson had died. I don’t know Johnson’s writing well, but I am thankful to have heard him read a couple of years ago at the University of Rochester. I know he read at UMass Amherst while I was in graduate school there, but it was during a time when I didn’t make it out to a lot of events.

The more readings I attend, the more I appreciate the good ones. His was a good one, a terrific one—memorable—in a sea of not-great ones where I’ve fallen asleep (really). Johnson was well-prepared, funny, read short pieces, talked in between. I went with my friend Angus (originally from Rochester), who was visiting from out of town over fall break. He’s a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a good Q&A and I wrote down several phrases from Johnson’s reading. I recently found the notebook where I jotted these notes down.

IMG_2972And I forgot for a while (about a  year and a half) about the Denis Johnson quotes, because most of the middle of the notebook is grocery lists, and even those languished in a corner for a while, while we looked for other notebooks in which to write lists. I just started using the notebook again for grocery lists and so had seen my notes from the reading—mostly lines from stories. Individual sentences of his stay in your head.

Denis Johnson       10.9.15   UR

“I decide to call ____. They’re in my phone. Odd expression.”

From “Silences,” a story:

“He said the worst silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine that took off his leg in Afghanistan.”

“How often can you witness a woman kissing a prosthesis?”

“Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what goes on.”

From “Accomplices”:

“People in our neighborhood stroll around in bathrobes, but not usually without a pet.”

@end of story, looking at reflection in glass, sky and celery, ski and cycling [?]. “I headed home.”

First sentence of a different story:

“I was having lunch with my friend Tom Ellis one day, just catching up.”

Other sentences:

“His opinion about the afterlife. Mason was for it.”

“Then, more often than you might think in a San Diego café, we were interrupted by a woman selling roses.”

“New York and I didn’t quite fit. I knew it all the time.”

“I presided over all the litter, the people in restaurants in small tables.”

“Our public toilets are just that—too public. We can see each other—black shoes and cuffs. The walls don’t go down all the way to the ground.”

“By staring down at my feet and hunching over I attempted to disappear (to make myself disappear).”

“I had a moment. I have them sometimes…bereft…and not even a physical gesture seemed possible painless.”

***

He signed my copy of Jesus’ Son. I bought another book of Johnson’s (Train Dreams, on a friend’s recommendation) that I still haven’t read. I will now. I want to read so much, so many things, before I die. And my shelves are full of books I’ve bought in the last two years and haven’t finished reading. That’s a goal for this summer. To read more.

Johnson was funny. He read well. He’d timed himself. The short pieces worked. I just remember, as others said about him on Facebook and Instagram, he was present. Even in that reading. I felt present, and I felt him as being present.

I’m sure I got some of the sentences wrong, they’re partial, they’re misquoted. I don’t want to go back and correct them. I don’t want to look them up. I will read his work. I wanted to write this down. That’s all. I was inspired enough, I remember his cadences—and how stories started and how they ended. That I wrote notes. And that in itself signals something to me. I felt alive as a writer, reader, listener.

Last week, I was talking to my friend Ravi about the reading. (He had been there, too.) Ravi said, “And you asked that question about his endings.” I was glad he remembered, because that was the kind of thing I would ask about, but I didn’t remember that I had asked it. I had however written something in the notebook, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it must have been his response (or my interpretation or thoughts on his response). I think I asked how he knew or decided where to end a story.

Usually, when I get that ending feeling / feel

Endings are end—ending—complete or [something] about to be said or about to be said

I remember thinking it was a good answer; it was a satisfying exchange.

***

That day was good…it was one of those good days. After Johnson’s reading, Angus and I went to the Owl House for dinner and I had tea with Irene earlier in the day. And then we also stopped by The Bug Jar. Angus was at his best—someone you could take anywhere. He talked about his mom, whom I’d never met, and the school she’d helped found, which had recently closed. I’m not sure he’d been back to Rochester since she died.

But there we were, across from the park, and we walked through Highland Park, where we had met 20 years earlier, through mutual friends. And who were we then? Twenty years ago, Angus was just leaving his PhD program in creative writing and moving to Brooklyn. Later, I moved to Brooklyn, and even later, I became a professor, too. And  then I left that profession, and became who I am now. A writer.

That October, we were just two people, old friends and writers, listening to Denis Johnson. Then we walked out into the rest of the day, still thinking about his sentences.