Class Notes on Religion // 6-22-16

In our icebreaker today, we started class by discussing the differences between faith and religion. Can you have faith without having religion? How? In what or whom do we have faith? What are our beliefs and values in relation to forces outside of ourselves?

Agreeing across the board that some kind of faith was universal for us even if organized religion was not, we returned to themes of religion and hatred from last week’s discussion on Orlando. Using lesbian Jamaican-Chinese-American poet Staceyann Chin’s “A City in Tragedy,” we discussed how far our country has and has not come from associating non-Western religions with fear and terrorism.

Tarfia Faizullah

We opened our reading this week with a free-verse poem called “En Route to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith” from the Bangladeshi-American poet Tarfia Faizullah. Although some of us who have our own origins in Bangladesh resented Faizullah’s revulsion for her home country, we also understood the roots of her ambivalence– the crises that displacement can pose to a person’s relationship to her family’s culture and religion. In her poem, we especially highlighted enjambmenther tendency to wrench lines out of sync in discomfiting ways. We also discussed her decision to end her poem with a few lines from the Peruvian poet César Vallejo‘s Nostalgias imperiales I.

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M. NourbeSe Philip

TobagonianCanadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip‘s interrelated pair of poems from she tries her tongue; her silence softly breaks (republished 2014), “The Catechist” and “Eucharistic Contradictions,” caused far more disorientation than we’d bargained for! It was really difficult to make sense of conceptual poetry, her hyperbolic overuse of alliteration, and the haunting, abstract imagery that linked her colonially inherited Christianity to sexuality and spiritual corruption. Nevertheless, we did our best!

Unfortunately working through her poems left us with little time for the amazing short story, “The Bridge Stories,” from a writer born in the U.S. Virgin IslandsTiphanie Yanique. A series of interconnected vignettes, “The Bridge Stories” illuminated intersections between

Tiphanie Yanique

Muslim and Christian identities across the Caribbean’s diverse mix of cultures. Written in the vein of magical realism, or what the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier coined as lo real maravilloso (“the magical real”), Yanique’s story pushed us to think of the bridge as an embattled metaphor for both the possibilities and the perils of identifying across borders.

Here were the writing prompts for this week, in case you missed the meeting and would like to pick one up at home (or finish something you already started to post to this blog!):

  • After Faizullah, write a free-verse poem about a time when you had a crisis in faith. Capture the setting and the cause of your crisis in that memory. Be strategic about enjambment, and consider starting or ending your poem with one of her lines.
  • After Philip, write a free-verse poem meditating on your relationship to the faith you grew up with. Is it a relationship of gratitude and respect? Of hostility and skepticism? Of uncertainty and doubt? Convey your feelings through tone and alliteration.
  • After Yanique, re-envision the metaphor of the bridge and sketch out two vignettes that reflect on your faith from two divergent points of view. How are these characters related? In what world– real or magical— are they circulating?

Next week: Sexual orientation with a poem from James Baldwin, excerpts from Alison Bechdel‘s graphic memoir, Fun Home, and short stories from Junot Díaz and Ismat Chughtai.


Class Notes on Immigration // 6-15-16

Today we all confirmed our pseudonyms for posting online, so I hope more voices than my own chime in on this blog soon!

As a community of open-minded people, in some cases queer, Muslim, and/or of color ourselves, we spent a good portion of class discussing the damage done to our community in Orlando, where the largest mass shooting in our country’s history occurred in a gay nightclub on June 12.

We dwelt on fear-mongering and immigration. A number of us were second-guessing plans to go to Pride with friends in case “something big” happens in New York. Rahat Huda, a Muslim student, shared her own fears of being visibly Muslim as a young woman in hijab.

As one k-scoper, whose pseudonym remains to be determined (or else I’d use it here), so aptly observed, “The very definition of terrorism is striking fear in a population, making it so we’re afraid to go out on the street and be ourselves.”

On one hand, the connections we made across experiences of sexuality and religion highlighted the deep damage created for communities like ours by Omar Mateen’s actions. However, we were also inspired by new avenues for resilience and solidarity across borders.

We ended with the need to root out both Islamophobia and homophobia from our worldviews. Here is the BBC interview with Sohail Ahmed, an advocate for greater LGBTQI visibility in the international Muslim community who almost committed terrorist actions himself, that I recommended in class.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

With less time for our normal routine than usual, we focused on only one of three pieces for prose assigned for this week, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s short story, “The Thing around Your Neck.” Born in Nigeria, Adichie has amassed a number of accomplishments, including a MacArthur Genius Grant, at only thirty-eight years old. For further viewing, I highly recommend two of her very inspiring TED Talks: “The Danger of a Single Story” and “We Should All Be Feminist.”

Adichie is also only one of many brilliant Nigerian writers to rise to worldwide renown in her generation. If you liked her work and want to learn more about contemporary Nigerian literature in English, I would recommend Teju Cole, Chigozie ObiomaChika Unigwe, and Chris Abani (who has more inspiring TED Talks about human rights and storytelling).

M. Evelina Galang

Both Adichie and M. Evelina Galang, a Filipina-American writer whose short story, “Lectures on How You Never Lived Back Home,” was also due this week, write their fictions from a second-person point-of-view. We discussed how this “you” uncomfortably positions the reader as both the subject of the story and the object of the writer’s gaze. To that end, we highlighted women’s agency as a major theme at stake for both these authors.

Although we didn’t get the chance to discuss it before the poet Deborah Paredez arrived for her guest speaker talk, we also read “Westbury Court,” a memoir by Haitian-American

Edwidge Danticat

writer Edwidge Danticat. Danticat recounts a traumatic event that befell her Brooklyn housing complex shortly after her family’s arrival in the U.S. She is especially recognized for her fiction; I would recommend Breath, Eyes, Memory (1998), about a young Haitian girl coming-of-age and battling cultural displacement in Brooklyn, and her young adult novels, Untwine (2015) and Behind the Mountains (2004).

We had two options for writing exercises inspired by these authors:

Adichie & Galang – Fiction

  1. From a second-person point-of-view (ex: “You did this…”), write a coming-of-age story (a.k.a. a bildungsroman) using what you know of the immigrant experience.
  2. Think about which “you” you’re addressing. Who is your audience, and why?

Danticat – Memoir

  1. Think back to a turning point in your immigration experience; it might have to do with violence, xenophobia, assimilation, alienation, etc.
  2. If you are not an immigrant, think about a time when you witnessed these issues affecting a neighbor,  classmate, or stranger. How did you react?
Deborah Paredez

Finally, Ms. Paredez joined us for a conversation about he new book she’s publishing, writing as a commitment to developing one’s own voice, the differences between writing and performing poetry, and the importance of reading everything, from John Donne to spoken word poets at the Nuyorican.

The author of This Side of Skin (2002), Deborah is also a visiting professor of creative writing at Columbia University and founder of CantoMundo, a nonprofit that fosters the literary arts in the Latino/a community. She read aloud her poem, “The Gulf, 1987,” which she referred to affectionately as the “little poem that could” since it was republished in so many prestigious venues. To illustrate the need for honesty and vulnerability in poetry writing, she also shared Lucille Clifton’s poem, “why people be mad at me sometimes.”

Deborah shared a lot of helpful advice for budding writers, which I’m happy to share with you here!

Next week: Religion with poetry from Tarfia Faizullah and M. NourbeSe Philip, plus a short story from Tiphanie Yanique.

Class Notes on Language // 6-8-16

We started Wednesday’s session on language with sharing our highs and lows from the week. Rahat’s kitten turned one! Nia won her sixth basketball game in a row! Many of us were thrilled to be in the last week of school, even if a lot of exams and state tests were looming.

Hemayel Martina

Our discussion started with Hemayel Martina, a Curaçaoan poet who died tragically in a car accident in his early twenties. We read his untitled prayer-poem from Ansestro Preokupa and thought about his translation of his own work from Papiamento, a Spanish Creole language mixed with Dutch and Portuguese, to English. His work also introduced us to cryptogram poems and apostrophe.

Then we compared Sandra María Esteves’s “Not Neither” to Carol Lee Sanchez’s “Tribal Chant.” Esteves, of mixed Domincian, Puerto Rican, and Taino descent, is a founder of the Nuyorican poetry movement, born and raised in the South Bronx. Sanchez comes from the Laguna Pueblo Native American reservation in New Mexico; her mother was mixed white, Mexican, and Native, and her father was Lebanese.

Although making sense of these poets’ Spanish interjections were difficult for many of us who did not speak Spanish, we were up to the challenge! We talked a lot about the extent to which access to a language determines our ability to make sense of the story, but we can also infer a lot through context and repetition, especially Sanchez’s song-like refrains. In both of these poems, it was interesting to notice that we could often discern who these poets were via whom they claimed “not” to be in English.

Next followed three writing prompts. Take up one at home, if you didn’t already start in class! Or finish one if you did.

Untitled Poem

  1. After Hemayel Martina, write a prayer-poem apostrophizing your “[ADJECTIVE] ancestors.”
  2. End by declaring yourself “I am [FILL IN IDENTITY],” in any language you choose.
  3. Consider writing the poem in your original/native language (if not English), then translating it to English. Or writing it as a cryptogram (shape poem).

“Not Neither”

  1. After Sandra Maria Esteves, write a free verse confessional poem about your conflicted identity.
  2. Try interjecting an original/native language, cultural references, and/or non-standard English to reflect on your internal conflict.
  3. Strive for whatever transitions feel right even if they don’t “make sense.”

“Tribal Chant”

  1. After Carol Lee Sanchez, write your own free verse tribal chant about who you are and where you’re  from.
  2. Consider incorporating a refrain that repeats essential conflicts from your origin story.
  3. Try interjecting an original/native language, cultural/religious references, or non- standard English.

After a few snapworthy share-outs from students, I read aloud one of my own published poems and gave a Q&A about publishing poetry in literary magazines. In the Winter 2011 edition of Descant, a Canadian print literary magazine, I published my poem, “Missing Persons,” which also won the 2010 Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition. One of the oldest and most prestigious college poetry contests in the U.S., its past winners have included Sylvia Plath, among many others.

Here were a few tips that emerged from our Q&A:

  1. Find reputable print literary magazines and journals by perusing the periodicals section of your local library (or a university library, or even Barnes & Noble!). Skim magazines for a sense of their tone. Prioritize the publications that publish writings that remind you most of your own. You can find online magazines with resources like the New York Public Library’s Best of the Web List.
  2. Have 5-6 poems ready, regardless of how long or short they may be, or one long poem (mine had five sections, like five short poems). Often magazines will want to pick two to four to publish in a batch.
  3. Make a habit of sending out your work at least once a year– especially once you’ve had some success! Gain momentum with your first publication; don’t just check it off your bucket list and forget about it.
  4. When revising poetry, keep in mind resonances between lines, including rhymes within lines, and cyclicality between the beginning and end of your poem. With a pen, circle the assonance and consonance that recur from line to line, or ideas or themes that are linked. Check that some thread from your beginning crops up in the end. These moves will tighten up your words and reinforce your lyricism.
  5. Take advantage of inspiration whenever it comes! Pause in what you’re doing (if you can) the moment you feel inspired, and capture your language the moment it occurs to you.
  6. If you’re into spoken word, decide for yourself whether your poem works in print. If you feel the performance is really essential to the meaning of the poem, consider creating a YouTube channel like the teens at Get Lit in Los Angeles instead.

Next week: Immigration with stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and M. Evelina Galang and our first guest speaker, the poet Deborah Paredez.

Class Notes on Gender // 6-1-16

In case you missed Wednesday’s class, or just wanted a reminder of any writing prompts you might like to take up in your free time, here’s what we did.

A Conversation about Conversations

We started with a meta-conversation about what makes for a good conversation! We agreed on a list of characteristics that reflect the discussions we’d like to have with each other in class.

Here are the must-haves we came up with:

  1. Openness to a variety of opinions, with an aim not to demean anyone’s opinion
  2. Playing devil’s advocate as a way to push our thinking and grow as writers
  3. Recognition of each other’s contributions as essential evidence for active listening
  4. One mic, or step up/step back: a promise not to talk over each other, or talk too much
  5. Complete confidence in expressing and defending our opinions, or a willingness to admit we’ve changed our minds
  6. No judgment for people who prefer to be quiet and listen

Pseudonym Creation

Because most of us aren’t actually adults, we generated and shared possible pseudonyms for the writing we’ll post on this blog. If you missed the session and don’t have an idea already, here are some exercises that might help you brainstorm:

  • Celebrity that you admire, find attractive, intriguing, etc. (Marilyn Monroe)
  • Fictional character who you relate to, who is a role model. (Annalise Keating)
  • Crayon color you like (or whose name you like). (Chartreuse)
  • Place where you have good memories, or where you’d like to go. (San Francisco)
  • Vocabulary word, in any language (not necessarily English), you think is beautiful (Aurora)

Some examples form above: Marilyn Chartreuse, Aurora Monroe, Annalise Francisco

Next week, everyone should come in with their final choice for a pseudonym that they’ll use to post their work throughout this semester.

Gender, a la Lysley Tenorio and Jamaica Kincaid

Short stories from contemporary writers Lysley Tenorio and Jamaica Kincaid jumpstarted our conversation about gender.

Jamaica Kincaid

“Girl” is a piece of flash fiction by Jamaica Kincaid, a world-renowned novelist, essayist, and former editor of The New Yorker from Antigua. Her thinly veiled, semi-autobiographical piece lists the many gender-based rules that define one young girl’s existence in the Caribbean. For more on Jamaica Kincaid, check out this interview and this video.

Born in the Philippines, Lysley Tenorio is openly gay and lives in San Francisco. “The Brothers,” a short story from his new collection, Monstress, discusses transgender identity from the perspective of a traditional Filipino-American family. The story follows the family’s inability to accept their loved one’s gender reassignment, even in the wake of her sudden death. You can read interviews with Lysley Tenorio on writing here and here.

Lysley Tenorio

With Kincaid’s and Tenorio’s help, we discussed everything from gender roles, to gender inequality, to gender identities, to sexism, stereotypes, power, shame, and prejudice.

We closed with two writing prompts, at least one of which you should feel free to pick up at home, if you haven’t already!

  • After Kincaid, write a flash fiction using the imperative tone (i.e., commands) and repetition to reflect on your own gender identity. Think about who has helped determine your gender identity, who has bossed you around, and whatever rules you have been told you must obey. Title the piece after your preferred identity label or pronoun (ex: “Boy,” “They”).
  • After Tenorio, write a short story or poem reflecting on your relationship to a family member (sister, cousin, brother) in terms of gender. How is your gender identity the same or different? Title the piece after your relationship to the person who inspired your writing (ex: “The Siblings,” “The Twins,” etc.).

Next week: Language with readings from Sandra María Esteves, Hemayel Martina, and Carol Lee Sanchez