Class Notes on New York City // 7-27-16

For our final class, we considered perspectives on our hometown, New York City, from around the world.

A Christian philosopher from Kenya, a country in Africa, John Mbiti gave us an apocalyptic view of New York’s skyline belching smoke in his poem, “New York Skyscrapers;” the austerity of his poem brought to mind pollution as well as 9/11.


Heralding from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, the great poet laureate Derek Walcott offered a sultrier view of Greenwich Village in his beautiful poem, “Bleecker Street, Summer.” A number of incredible interviews with Derek Walcott are available online, such as this one with The Paris Review on the art of poetry, and this one in commemoration of his 1992 win of the Nobel Prize.

Fahmida Riaz

Our last poem took us to a familiar place inside our own heads. Writing from Pakistan in South Asia, Fahmida Riaz‘s meditation on riding the subway, translated from Urdu, resonated with many of our experiences of New York’s public transportation, always vibrating with life as much as with solitude. You can read more of her poems here. Riaz has also spoken out often on political matters, such as the crises facing the Indian state (her advice: “Don’t become another Pakistan”).

Luisa Valenzuela

A flash fiction from the Argentine feminist writer Luisa Valenzuela, “Who, Me a Bum?” took us into another all too familiar transportation-related scenario: a stranger has committed suicide in the subway, stalling service. Police arrest a homeless man, from whose first-person point-of-view the story is told, when the homeless man sarcastically speaks out against the apathy with which other commuters are angrily responding to the stranger’s death. Often only a stock character for us in New York, the homeless man gains an inner life in Valenzuela’s depiction. Part of the “Post-boom” generation of writers in South America, Valenzuela also has an interesting interview with The Paris Review and another with BOMB magazine.

Patti Kim

We finished with an excerpt from the Korean-American writer Patti Kim‘s novel, A Cab Called Reliable (1997), to consider the pressure on us, as students, to succeed here in New York. The young daughter of first-generation immigrant parents from South Korea in East Asia struggles under the pressure to meet everyone’s high expectations; rather than receiving public praise for her first-place writing, she faces judgment and possibly indifference even from her father.

Here were our final writing prompts in response to these writings, in case you would like to pick them up for later:


  • After Walcott: Personify your favorite street in New York; think about the life there, the setting, the people.
  • After Riaz: Create your own “poetry in motion.” Set yourself in the form of transit you take often– the bus, the 1, the LIRR– and reflect on that everyday experience.
  • After Mbiti: Capture the city amidst a crisis or major event, like 9/11 or Black Lives Matter. How does the landscape reflect the mood?


  • After Valenzuela: Assume the first-person point of view of one of New York’s many stock characters— a businessman, a homeless person, a police officer, etc. What is this person’s secret backstory?
  • After Kim: It’s difficult to be a student in New York! Maybe you’re the child of immigrants, or maybe you’re just under a lot of pressure at school. What is it like to be a teen in your high school/family in this city?

Next up: Our end-of-program celebration on August 22! If I didn’t hug you goodbye this past Wednesday, it’s because I’m counting on seeing you a couple of Mondays from now! So, make sure to come with a short piece of writing in hand to share with all of us before we go. If you’d like to pretty it up and send it to me for some thoughts, I’ll be happy to respond while I’m away on vacation. Until then, thank you so much for an incredible experience!

For far into the future, don’t forget, there are now extra resources for college, writing, and publishing available on the blog’s “menu” in the upper righthand corner here. Here are links to the resources added thus far:

Looking forward to seeing you later this August!


Recap of “Gender, Justice & the Arts: A Night to Celebrate South Asian Creativity”

For those of you who weren’t able to attend last night’s field trip to the special art, literature, and performance collaboration, “Gender, Justice & the Arts: A Night to Celebrate South Asian Creativity” at Bowery Poetry, I thought I would share a few links to work from the writers and artists we saw.

Benaifer Bhadha started the evening by telling an unscripted story about growing up and coming of age as an overweight child in a traditional family obsessed with marriage, desirability, and appearances. Her struggles with self harm and a self-destructive body image were disturbingly familiar for girls, regardless of cultural background.

Mashuq Deen, who identified himself as transgender at the start of his performance, shared two moving letters from his recently published memoir, Draw the Circle, about coming out to his parents. He also performed a multi-voice piece from his one-person show.

The spoken word portion of the evening finished with Alok Vaid-Menon, who identifies with the pronoun “they” as a trans-feminine person. Transphobia recurs in their poetry as an everyday occurrence– one that reminds us that, in their words, “trauma is a structure, not a feeling.”

An example from Soni Satpathy-Singh’s Sketchy Desi comic series.

A roundtable with three South Asian women artists– Ayqa Khan, Soni Satpathy-Singh (the creator of the hit comic series Sketchy Desi), and Amina Ahmed— finished the evening. These artists discussed the politics of representation in their very different media. They especially focused on the politics of representing female bodies in their authentic biological selves– with too much hair, while menstruating, with feisty attitudes, as Muslim and/or Hindu, etc.

The event benefited a nonprofit called Sakhi for South Asian Women, which supports survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault who are of South Asian descent. Click on all these links to learn more about their work, and see you for our last class this Wednesday!

Nanjing, 1937

Nanjing, 1937

By icejjforrest

The rising sun liberates itself within the sky

As blood-red flags flutter within the barren land

Tears disperse and stain the ground

Plastered with souls abandoned from their

Bruised and gashed molds

The harsh wind whistles and abruptly disappears into the crevasses of an abandoned building


A siren blasts a cynical anthem

It celebrates the strained whines and trembles

Of a young girl and the abduction of her radiant smile

The soldier

Who rests on top of her fragile frame

proclaims he is done and prances into the next room where another girl

Awaits to sacrifice her dignity

The girl’s father, horrified beyond words, gallops onto the bed

Wrapping her legs into a soft blanket given to her for her first birthday

He howls in grief as his fingers

Blood in the lines of his palms

Stroke her tender stomach

Duì bù qǐ1

Five minutes before

His aching feet shuffled into a corner weeping at

The blatant vandalism of his own

Wǒ ài nǐ2


Outside in the shadows, we see a flicker

The flicker reveals a faintly drawn scene of 5 or so months ago

Capturing a mother grazing the head of her young son

We hear his delicate laughter ringing throughout the now barren land

The flicker, in a sudden, grows dim and dwindles within seconds

The mother now clutches her son in terror

As a soldier

Bears a bayonet

Still spotted with dried blood

With fresh drippings at its tip

He viciously kicks her son with his mud-oozing boot

The boy’s ragged cloth falls off his limp body

Surrendering to the cold dirt

Both mother and boy crying for mercy

His mother sympathetically rests her son–

Now bleeding from the crack in his head–

On her bosom and showers him

With the rest of her maternal love


All at once

A gunshot and a shriek harmonize

As the mother’s grasp of the child collapses

Mingling with the cement ground

The soldier smirks at his deed

And runs off to brag about his heroism


Where her stomach should be

Is a hole

A cauldron of blood frothing at the surface


She draws him into her breast and cradles him ‘

With her numb arms

Bù yào kū, háizi

Bùyào kū4



2I love you

3: Mom

4: Don’t cry child, don’t cry


Class Notes on Disability // 7-20-16

This week’s session marked our last visit from a fabulous guest author, memoirist and professor Rachel Adams. In addition to Rachel’s generous Q&A, we wrote in response to two readings on disability.

Atlantic Center for the Arts
NEW SMYRNA BEACH, FL – 1983: Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist Audre Lorde lectures students at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Lorde was a Master Artist in Residence at the Central Florida arts center in 1983. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The first was an excerpt from the famous black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde‘s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Carriacou, a territory of Grenada. Ten years after publishing Zami, in 1992, she died of cancer.

In the third chapter, Lorde recounts the experience of being nearly blind as a clumsy young child, prone to shattering the glasses that were stuck to her head with an elastic band. As she considers the barriers that her near-sightedness posed to learning how to read and write, she also suggests the prejudices she faced from strict teachers. The white nuns who ran her Catholic elementary school in Harlem were more likely to misperceive her unwitting misbehavior as a sign of an attention deficit disorder rather than advanced thinking.

In addition to this memoir, Lorde was best known for her incredible poetry, which you can explore here.

Robert Hayden

On Rachel’s recommendation, we also read Robert Hayden‘s “The Tattooed Man.” Also an African American poet living with extreme near-sightedness, Hayden’s poem uses the metaphor of the tattooed man to discuss race, disability, and desire in tandem. Born to a very low-income family in Detroit, MI, Hayden spent most of his childhood in foster care and became an important voice in the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975).

A professor of American literature and disability studies at Columbia University, Rachel published Raising Henry, a memoir about raising her son, who has Down syndrome, in 2013. As a feminist scholar, Rachel’s public writing highlights intersections between disability and other historical legacies of inequality; for example, one of her opinion pieces we read, “Missing the Bus” in the Huffington Post, analogizes unjustified changes to her son’s bussing to the struggles for equal access to transportation and education that animated the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the other example that we read, “Belated But Essential Steps to Respect,” applauds the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry‘s long-awaited call to doctors to erase “the R-word” from their medical vocabulary.

41c-bV4N-UL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Rachel talked frankly about her hopes, frustrations, and epiphanies as an academic who has transformed her writing and interests for a wider audience in the public sphere. Her first book, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination, studied still-existing freak shows in outposts like Coney Island. During her visit, she  taught us a lot about disability. Topics covered included:

In particular, Rachel emphasized the perils as well as the possibilities of putting one’s voice out in public on behalf of a cause. She described receiving some surprising hate mail in response to her memoir, ranging from bigots to offended moms who felt her experience didn’t reflect theirs. Especially instructive was one criticism that she took to heart: that her “unexamined privilege” as a white Jewish woman living on the Upper West Side led her to represent her family’s experience without enough awareness for what it would have meant to have less.

We were so incredibly grateful to Rachel for sharing her experiences of publishing life writing with such generous candor– her openness to “being real with us,” as one student, Jamaican Prince, complimented her in the Q&A. With regards to writing memoir, perhaps her most striking pieces of advice were these:

  1. Know your audience (for her, she wanted to reach doctors, parents, and educators);
  2. Devote your first draft to what you really think, and your second to how not to hurt the people you’re thinking about, keeping in mind that “nobody likes to be written about, ever;”
  3. Define yourself as a character, maybe even a flawed character, in your own story; drop the illusion that you’re “writing your real self.”

You can read more of Rachel’s personal essays on her website at

Lastly, if you missed class, here were our writing prompts!

  1. Write an op-ed in which you take a stance on behalf of a political issue that affects you or someone close to you. Become your own advocate, and in a persuasive tone, explain why your opinion is the right one on this issue.
  2. Audre Lorde’s memoir, Zami, takes us back in time to early childhood memories about her near-blindness. In your own personal essay or memoir, think about an early moment in your childhood when you were accused of being sick, abnormal, or disabled and struggled to become ‘normal’ again.
  3. Robert Hayden addresses his poem to someone who judges him for his body and causes him pain— both physical and psychological. Write a poem addressed to a “you” who has caused you similar pain and judgment based on the way you look or a physical/mental condition you can’t help.

Next week: It’s our last class! We’ll celebrate with one final round of pizza and a bunch of African, Latin American, South Asian, and Caribbean poems and short stories thinking about our home, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There’s nothing you can’t do, you know?

Out of the Closet

By Victoria Kim

In the days of celebration, whenever I am required to pick special clothes out of the special closet, I back away with fear. With the closet come the passionate screams, terrorized soft whispers, the shuffling of the monster’s body as it readies to devour its prey. With the closet comes numerous memories, memories I wish would wash itself away from my brain. Now I know many of you have been thinking, passionate? Must be a romantic rant, but it isn’t. Had it been romantic, I would have associated roses with the closet, but I can’t even associate thorns; I would need something much scarier.

It was my twelfth summer. I was labeled an innocent child, a true replica of the sweet virgin child expected of someone my age. I was quite ruthless as I was raised alongside my two elder brothers Ravi and Sam. I was far more interested in playing soccer with my brothers than going inside the kitchen to help my mom prepare food for the guests soon to arrive. My mother wanted to go on a tirtha to pray for the longevity of her family. She had asked me to accompany her.

Well, what I would I have preferred to do now? Go barefoot for miles and bang my head across the temple floors, asking God to reconsider my sins? Or would I prefer to lie in bed and get up only to reply to nature’s call?

I preferred the latter, which disappointed my mother, as she went on to give me an hour-long lecture on how unreligious I was. I was the type to pray to God before a test, asking God to help me get above a 90. I was rather joyful at the fact that I got to stay home with my brothers. Now we could spend the entire day playing soccer without having anyone screaming at us for not arriving home early for dinner.

However, my mother’s antagonistic character prevented me from living my life. “There is no way I am going to leave you home to the hands of men!” said my mother.

“Men, they’re my relatives! I know them, and I grew up with them!” I said.

“Have you even thought of what the neighbors would think? What would they think of me if I were to leave you in the hands of men?” she said.

The old fleabag really didn’t know how to stop. No matter how much I fought with her, she would always have it her way at the end. It would be better if I listened to her now rather than get a few beatings later on.

“Then where do you want me to live? On the streets, where a random stranger can come and pick me up anytime?”

That got her. I knew it would. She gave me a shocked face full of horror, possibly wondering what kind of idiot she had given birth to. Her only daughter was thinking the way all the women of her family were taught now to.

“Why, of course not! I’m not that bad of a mother, for heaven’s grace! You have many relatives. I’ll arrange your stay with one of them. And if none of them are available, then I will have no choice but to take you with me.”

From that moment on, I started praying earnestly for one of my numerous relatives to let me live with them for a while. God must have felt the eagerness from my prayers, seeing as He answered them. My aunt and uncle said they would love to have me over until my mother came back.

As grateful as I was, I didn’t know what to think of the situation. Although my aunt seemed somewhat softhearted, my uncle was cold and distant from others. Whenever we would gather together for special occasions, my uncle would excuse himself from the rest of us and sit alone in the family library, casually reading the newspaper. My aunt was kind of pitiful, to be honest. She had lost her parents at a tender age. Her aunt and uncle were empathetic towards her, which made them adopt her whilst having a daughter themselves.

Although my aunt wasn’t treated maliciously, she wasn’t given the same special treatment as her cousin. When it was time for her to be married off, her aunt and uncle did their best to marry her of to a respectable family, and they succeeded in doing so. My uncle didn’t lack anything. Not only was he handsome, but he was also wealthy and well educated, as he owned his own entertainment industry.

When my aunt was married, everybody was happy for her. At last! She can taste joy in her life for once! However, things didn’t necessarily go as planned. She was left all alone on her wedding night since her husband had a matter of business to take care of. He would distance himself from her every day as my aunt tried to get closer to him.

My uncle was notorious for bringing people home. He would often claim that they were rookies who were waiting for a chance to hit it big in the music industry, but nobody knew what happened behind the doors. He would often bring home men ranging from adolescents to middle aged and take them inside his private chambers. When his servants started creating a scandal out of the whole issue and calling him gay, he started bringing home women of all sorts. My aunt didn’t say much about her husband’s disgraceful actions. She closed her eyes and blindly trusted him since she was afraid she would create a rift in their nonexistent relationship if she said anything to him; so, she kept quiet and let her husband’s cryptic acts pass.

I started packing my clothes and valuable items into a small suitcase my mother gave me. My aunt had sent a chauffeur to pick me up and take me to their estate. It was considerably nice to be swimming in luxury once in awhile, but the fact that I would have to encounter about my uncle eventually chilled me to my bones.

When I got to their house, my aunt rushed me into their estate while the servants greeted me enthusiastically. I locked eyes with my uncle, and I bowed down to him to show respect, which he acknowledged and left after greeting me back.

“Don’t worry about your uncle. He will be back with us for lunch. He is often busy with his work and giving the new rookies work,” said my aunt.

Although she was smiling at me, I could see the glint of sadness in her eyes as she showed me to my room. “If you need anything, just call me over. I will be in the room across from yours, so don’t hesitate. Just get comfortable and treat this house as if it was your own house.”

My aunt was the only one who reassured me that I was indeed living with loved ones and not a mental institute. Lunchtime came, but my uncle didn’t. When my aunt asked for his whereabouts, the servants replied that he had gone to his workplace to judge the audition of new trainees who wished to be a part of his agency.

My aunt’s face went pale as she put down her fork and knife. She looked at me and said, “Vicky, continue eating. I must have had a lot for breakfast, as I don’t seem very hungry at the moment.”

I nodded back to her and eagerly dug in to my four-course meal. Later that night, I lay on my bed and thought of my uncle. Was work so important to him that he couldn’t spare a moment for his loving wife, who had spent hours making lunch in hopes of him being there? If I had a job where I couldn’t see my family, I would have quit.

Sleep came after homesickness, because now I wanted to go back home were everybody wasn’t living their lives as fugitives and captors. I wanted to run home and jump into my mom’s arms, asking her to take me to her boring tirth. I wanted to go home and kick a soccer ball with my brothers. I wanted to go home and accompany my mom in the kitchen. I wanted to go home and do everything I once hated to do, anything but be here.

I woke up at the crack of dawn. The sun was still rising, as was I. I needed to find my aunt and ask her to send me home to the comfort of my brothers and the aromatic kitchen. I darted out of bed and went across the hallway to the room where my aunt and uncle were. I knocked softly as I said, “Auntie, Auntie, are you there? May I come in?”

No one replied. I twisted the doorknob to find it open. Did my aunt not fear the dacoits in the night? I tiptoed inside the room and closed the door behind me, preventing much noise. There was nobody on the four-poster bed. The lights were off. What was going on? If my aunt wasn’t there, then where was my uncle? Did he sleep in his office, too? Suddenly, I heard noises. It was the roars of the monster and the screams of its prey.

Now alert, I turned my head at the speed of a hawk’s, determined to figure out where the noise was coming from. The closet. The closet was shaking. Was it giving birth to a new monster? It shook so vigorously that I was afraid I may land underneath it. With each courageous step, I took in a deep breath, adamant about opening the closet. I needed to know what was in there. My hands shook as I turned the lock to open. In a flash, I opened the closet with the speed of lightning, and I screamed at the sight to behold in front of me.

The monster held its prey captive, bound with ropes. The prey’s wrist was bleeding as the ropes dug into its flesh. As for the monster, it looked like a deer caught in headlights. I looked the monster straight in the eye as it dared me to open my mouth. I was terrorized and shaking violently as I slammed the closet door and ran with all my might into my room. I shut the door closed as my legs let out. My aunt was really pitiful. Where was she? Did the monster devour her? How was I to tell her that the monster was no one else but her husband!

Until this day, I haven’t returned to my aunt’s house. In fact, she stopped coming to family reunions, along with the monster. The monster never came out of the closet. In fact, it is still known to secretly take its prey inside the closet and devour them. The monster hides itself like a coward. While some know its reality, it still hides from the world. To be honest, I now wish I had never seen the monster carrying out its rituals. Had I not, then my aunt wouldn’t seem as pitiful as she already does. From that day on, I would ask my mother to open the closet and pick out an outfit for me. I refused to look inside it. The closet had become my nightmare, my worst nightmare.

This story was inspired by Ismat Chughtai’s horror story, “The Quilt,” originally written in Urdu in the 1940s, from our unit on sexuality.


By Melany Watts

Admiring you the way an artist to a piece

Unraveling your every structure

Yes I was watching you

Book held up tightly clenched by

 Your smooth caramel hands

Nose twitching to the horrid

Details watch the book in lies


Yes I was watching you

Wondering if you notice me not trying to notice you

Is it obvious when you give my body attention

I leave it unnoticed

You have me in shackles

When I look up to see you smiling at me


Yes I was watching you

Oftentimes I try to study you yet un-researched

Until the next time you decide to approach me


Yes I was watching you

When you entered the room

My personal song beating in my chest

Waiting….. for you to put the headphones in


Yes I was watching you

My body becomes active when you log onto my eyes

God cursed for the prevailing screens you called humans

From blocking your beauty


Yes I was watching you

Cheeks high risen

Voice soft and warm

Welcoming to my reply


Yes I was watching you

watching my easy red face

thinking what I could possibly say to interest you

to talk to a youngin’ like me


Yes I was watching you

Too much time waste in awkward silence

Wondering what you think of me

Or if I’m thought of at all

Times I wanted to execute a conversation

But felt restricted to what I can have


Yes I was watching you

Watching somebody else

Could never be worked up over someone I never pursued

A book left unopened

How can I get so worked up to someone I talked to

Compared to the number of times on my short stubby fingers


Yes I was watching you

Your mature figure a masterpiece in the making

Pink rose colour lips,

Eyes that cut through me like a knife

Hair silky and colourful like flowers in the springtime


Yes I was watching you

And frankly, how can I deny myself so much pleasure

Based on principle from a book

I could never meet the author  to

Your faced fogged out a memory I cannot even imagine


Yes I was watching you

Speak your word you interpret so clearly

And me accepting them so fluently into my vocabulary

You’re a four-dimensional person

And I can barely handle the surface


Yes I was watching

Yes  you lived more days in the unremembered adolescent stage

But I’ve been told I’m more mature

Than the people my age


Yes I was watching you

But I’m ignoring the uptight male

Specimen prolonging my reply for a rather

Sweeter dessert


Yes I was watching you

But can you look beyond the page

To see I am scared to

Dive into the deep



Yes I was watching you

But I don’t look like my words


A note from the writer: Thanks for reading. I’m not a poet just decided to go for it, trying something new.

This poem was inspired by James Baldwin’s love poem, “Munich, Winter 1973 (To Y.S.),” from our unit on sexuality.








Class Notes on Prejudice & Race // 7-13-16

We returned from a long break to a lot of excitement– new stories and poems posted on our blog, and our second author visit!

Staceyann Chin

Starting our conversation on prejudice and race with Staceyann Chin, we watched her performance of “All Oppression is Connected.” A lesbian of JamaicanChinese descent, Chin’s unapologetic poem screams back at the interconnections between homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and sexism that so many people around her fail to see.

Next our conversation turned to a bit of an odd piece: Michelle Cliff‘s short story, “A Hanged Man,” in her recent collection, Everything is Now. Age 69, Cliff just recently passed away in California on the same day as the Orlando shootings.

Michelle Cliff

Although Cliff was also Jamaican and queer like Chin, her story takes an entirely different approach to representing racial oppression. The little “action” that takes place circles the eerie setting of a whipping house, an outpost common to plantations in the American South, where slaves would be sent for corporal punishment. A slave hangs himself, and readers are forced to meditate on the gruesome reality his corpse evokes. Meanwhile, well-meaning but ignorant abolitionists trudge through, and an enslaved woman decides to follow in the footsteps of Peg-Leg Joe, a mythic figure who led slaves to freedom.

Toni Morrison

Last, we turned to the only short story Toni Morrison, one of the most inimitable voices in contemporary American letters, has ever published: “Recitatif” (1983). The story follows a lifelong friendship and falling-out between two girls of opposite but not quite defined races; we can discern that one is black and the other is white, but their identity markers shift so often that it’s impossible to pin down exactly who’s who. In signs that align blackness and whiteness with poverty or wealth, religiousness or hedonism, il/literacy, and social im/mobility, Morrison challenges us to reconfigure our own assumptions in relation to race, gender, class, and religion.

If you missed class, here are the writing prompts we had, which you might want to pick up at home!

  1. What oppressions are connected in your life? Write a poem (it can be spoken word or another verse form) that expresses your frustration and/or fury with intersecting oppressions in your own experience. Use force; if you want, like Staceyann Chin, reclaim slurs and offensive conversations you’ve had with uneducated people on these crossovers.
  2. Write a short story about two characters of different races, and see if you can leave hints without giving away either character’s identity. Play on stereotypes with Toni Morrison’s savvy and style: why would we assume either of these characters is a particular race, based on the way they dress, talk, think, and interact with others?
  3. Write a flash fiction or short story inspired by race in relation to a place and/or historical event/persona. What residues does the place bear? What people walked through here? Like Michelle Cliff, don’t worry about plot; focus on impressions. Help us understand what this space or time means for us today.

Although the 1 train wasn’t being particularly kind this evening, almost everyone trickled into the classroom in time for a Q&A with our visitor, Kaitlyn Greenidge. Also a mentor at Girls Write Now, Kaitlyn published her astonishing debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman to much acclaim in 2016.

Kaitlyn Greenidge and her debut novel

The novel (here’s an excerpt) follows the dissolution of an African American family displaced from Boston to the Berkshires to teach a chimpanzee sign language as part of a psychological experiment (it’s really possible– check it out!). To their chagrin, the Freemans learn what’s really at stake in the experiment; the turmoil they experience brings to life extant historical legacies of scientific racism and exploitation in the U.S.

Kaitlyn did a lot of historical research for her first novel, and she gave us a lot of invaluable advice about being a writer, publishing a novel, and sustaining a longterm project:

  • “Keep your writing muscles flexed and ready to go” by giving yourself time to write every day. Constantly provide yourself with prompts, and reserve a set amount of time (whether it’s twenty minutes or two hours) for writing on a regular basis.
  • If you’re struggling to continue a story, “write until you feel like you can’t push the thing anymore, and then let it just sit for a week or two.” If you’re really pleased with a story you’ve finished, come back to it a couple months later and look at it with a critical eye: what about this story made it succeed, and how can you repeat that effort in future work?
  • When planning a project, start with the part that interests you the most!
  • Outlines work for Kaitlyn, but they are not absolutely vital. Figure out what “little scenes” you’re going to need to lead you up to the big scenes that you really want your reader to believe are real.
  • You should always be reading and rereading your work out loud to yourself to get a strong sense of your own voice.
  • If you get bored with what you’re working on, it’s natural; don’t get frustrated!
  • When you’re editing, consider printing out your story, so that you can re/view and evaluate it based on how it would read in a printed book.
  • When you have writer’s block, figure out whether you’re scared to write about something. Often you may have an idea but haven’t figured out the right way into it. “Allow your mind to wander a little bit” even if that means googling related info without actually writing.
  • Self publication is possible without a literary agent, but beware that self publishing means going rogue without the marketing universe in place at publishing houses– the blogs, reviews, and magazines that will make sure your book is read.
  • Don’t rush yourself; find your the writing pace that suits you. There’s time! Kaitlyn reiterated a piece of advice she’d heard from the poet Robin Coste Lewis, who is also a translator of Sanskrit poetry and knows it can take 15 years to complete a translation. Said Kaitlyn: “She’s decided that’s how long it’s going to take, and she doesn’t really understand why anyone wants to rush that. Because when she’s done, she’s going to have a really great translation!”
  • Read a lot! Reading is the best way to improve writing. Here are some of Kaitlyn’s recommendations:

Here are some photos from Kaitlyn’s visit:

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And here are the steps Kaitlyn outlined on the path to publication!

  1. Send your work to literary journals and sites that you really like, not based on prestige.
  2. Think about the authors you like, then google who their literary agents are.
  3. Send a query letter to literary agents who sponsor writers whose work you like; convince that agent that your style and interests resonate with the writers who s/he already represents.
  4. Look for excitability in a literary agent; their tastes should match yours because they will insist that you make changes.
  5. Your literary agent will help you find an editor and broker a contract for your book that respects your rights as an author. Once you find an editor, expect to still be working on your novel for another year before publication actually happens.

Next week: Disability with Audre Lorde and Robert Hayden, plus our final guest speaker, the memoirist Rachel Adams. Don’t forget our ekphrastic poetry writing scavenger hunt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Sunday; hope to see you there!