“I always felt like a New Yorker with an asterisk” – Talking with Novelist Patricia Park, and Readings on Immigration

Patricia Park, a novelist and proud denizen of Queens, visited our class to talk about beginnings, writing, and growing up as a “New Yorker with an asterisk.” In other words, she was a Korean-American kid from one outer borough who traveled four hours across the island every day to her high-ranked high school in another borough, Bronx Science.

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“Queens pride was an oxymoron,” she joked. “It felt like Queens reluctance.” Patricia went on to explain how her childhood in Flushing has long influenced her New York imaginary and inspired her to set her debut novel, Re Jane (Penguin, 2016), in her hometown (even though F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous author of The Great Gatsby, once called it “the valley of ashes”).

Her passion for creative writing actually started at Columbia University’s summer immersion program for high school students. (As an aside, every year, both Columbia and Barnard offer one- to four-week summer courses for high school students within and beyond New York City. Each program also awards limited need-based financial aid, with at least one full scholarship per cohort. Applications are finished for this year, but sign up on Columbia’s mailing list or Barnard’s mailing list if you want updates about deadlines for next summer.)

Psychoanalyzing her fellow New Yorkers on her arduous daily commute developed Patricia’s sense of character. Moreover, her ambition to write “the Great Queens American Novel” as the child of immigrants from Argentina and North and South Korea collided with her love for the Victorian novelist Charlotte Brontë’s titular protagonist in Jane Eyre. A self-proclaimed “eyrehead” (get the pun?), Patricia found sympathy in a heroine who described herself as “poor obscure, plain, and little.”

After treating us to an invigorating reading of Re Jane, which took about ten years to write and is now in development for a television show with Paramount and TV Land, Patricia shared survival advice for young writers and students alike. On the question of writing, here are some prompts she mentioned for livening up your creativity:

  • Show, don’t tell; it’s too obvious for a writer to say exactly what she/he/they feel. So, try describing a scene or character in a way that conveys emotion rather than making didactic statements like, “I feel that…,” “She was sad…,” etc.
  • Challenge the stereotype of the other within your community– the “minority within a minority.” Patricia explained that Jane wasn’t simply a reflection of her own coming-of-age experience, but rather a composite of herself and a mixed-race child who would have been stigmatized for having a white father.
  • For a writing exercise, draw up an inventory of everything in a fictional character’s fridge or freezer. Zooming in on small and obscure details develops character in original and interesting ways. Food reflects not only a character’s social class and age, but also his/her/their personality– organized or messy, strange or conventional, healthy or excessive.
  • For another writing exercise, pen diary entries from a fictional character’s point of view with focused prompts like, “What was this character’s eighth birthday like?” Answering seemingly random questions deepens a character’s history, personal memory, and present-day reality.

Perhaps even more valuable was the unique perspective on college that Patricia was able to offer as a fellow New Yorker. She admitted initially feeling alienated and adrift at her alma mater, Swarthmore College. Her peers were not just mostly white, but “not even New York white– instead, blond-haired, blue-eyed white.”

“At Swarthmore, I felt like I was in a foreign country without a passport,” she went onto say. She warned Kaleidoscope students to beware of “over-negating yourself” when under pressure to reconcile the intellectual insecurities that might initially accompany college. She also “tried out a lot of different states of being” to explore herself in such a foreign space, and ultimately, she came back to being a New Yorker.

Finally she affirmed the need to get your version of your story out there. She recollected feeling “otherized” by a radio show host in upstate New York who wanted to reduce her experience to stereotypes and described holding fast to her interpretation of Jane’s story in order to keep the truth visible.

Before Patricia arrived, and of the four readings on immigration assigned for this week– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck” (short story, Nigeria), M. Evelina Galang’s “Lectures on How You Never Lived Back Home” (short story, U.S./Philippines), Gary Schteyngart, “Dystopia” (personal essay, U.S./Russia), and R.M. Drake’s sidewalk poetry (Colombia)– we had time to discuss two, Adichie’s and Schteyngart’s.

For more background on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose short story appears in a collection of the same title, The Thing Around Your Neck, check out last year’s blog post on immigration.

Jewish novelist and essayist Gary Schteyngart was born in Russia and emigrated to Queens as a child. The essay we read was part of an “aftermath” collection post-Trump’s election in the New Yorker. We appreciated his essay’s rueful but honest attitude towards the ubiquity of racism among ethnic enclaves against other “tribes” across New York.

Below, check out our notes on the writing strategies that made both these pieces successful in our minds:

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This week, we tackle religion! If you missed last Thursday’s class, here are the reading packet and writing prompts, under the header for religion.

Also, begin thinking up a pseudonym if you’re under 18! Even if you are 18, you might want to use an alias anyway to maintain your privacy in class. I’ll be showing you how to post to the blog in class this week.

Language Politics, or How to Repossess Your Voice

It’s a hectic time of the school year! Regents exams are finishing up, and doors are closing for summer recess (the longest day of the year is today!). Nevertheless, those of us who could gathered last Thursday to talk about our relationships to language. How do words empower, harm, disable, or inspire us every day? Since many of us are proud of being bilingual or trilingual, we sought to figure out ways to keep alive our mother tongues, even as our audience is primarily American and English-speaking.

Our session started with a free-writing prompt to recollect “the last time language hurt us, and the last time language touched us.” Sharing out our answers gave vent to bullying, slurs, catcalling, insults, threats, and subtle jibes, but also expressions of love, confidence, and admiration. We then launched into talking about the poets we read for this week– Sandra Maria Esteves (Dominican Republic/Puerto Rico/USA), Myung Mi Kim (South Korea/USA), and Carol Lee Sanchez (USA/Native American, Laguna Indian Tribe).

If you’re interested in learning more about Esteves and Sanchez, you can read about their biographies and links to their work in last year’s class notes on language.

Myung Mi Kim is a new addition to the syllabus. She emigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when she was nine years old. Currently, she is an English professor at the University of Buffalo in upstate New York– K-scopers applying to state schools, maybe she’ll be your professor sometime soon! Kim primarily writes conceptual poetry, postmodern, often non-rhyming free-verse whose aim is to communicate an affect, idea, or abstraction rather than a linear narrative story.

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I met her in 2010, when she was a judge at the Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition (the list of winners is the only Wikipedia page on which my name appears). If you’re interested in her style, check out her latest, Penury, and Durathe collection where the poem we read, “Cosmography,” comes from, at the New York Public Library.

I photographed the strategies we listed for writing your own language poetry, based on our talks about Esteves’ and Kim’s poems:

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Tomorrow, we pick up with our session on immigration; here’s the reading packet and the writing prompts if you missed class! Don’t forget that the novelist Patricia Park will be visiting us for an intimate Q&A at 7:30pm.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Visit & Kscope Seminar on Gender

Last week, Kaitlyn Greenidge, the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin, 2016), visited us to talk about her path to publication. Currently she is a contributing writer to Lenny Letter, Lena Dunham’s website, and a professor at Bennington College in Vermont (this fall, a professor at the New School as well!). If you want to read her novel but can’t afford to buy it, check out the copy at your local library.

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For those of you who couldn’t make the session, here’s an undoubtedly inadequate recap. Kaitlyn started her story across the street from our classroom at Barnard College, though she ultimately transferred to Wesleyan for her history major. The start of her writing career was fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, she loved researching history, especially oral history, and considered being a Ph.D.; indeed, she applied to and rejected offers from programs more than once! But she was also stumbling upon prestigious offers in the writing world– the chance to intern at The Atlantic, and, ultimately, to enroll in the Master’s of Fine Arts program at CUNY’s Hunter College.

Kaitlyn Greenidge chatting over pizza with K-scopers:

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At Hunter, Kaitlyn got the chance to work as a writing assistant for Colson Whitehead, whose novel, The Underground Railroad, won the 2016 National Book Award. In the end, her own novel took about eight years to finish– six years of active writing, two years of waiting for printing after the contract was signed. But earlier this year, she sold the novel’s movie rights, so keep an eye out for it in theaters for the next few years!

Of all the instructive writing advice Kaitlyn gave, here are a few favorites I wrote down:

  • “Once the heat of being excited cools away, it’s time for objectivity.” Take a step back– or even better, two weeks– away from your project so that you can come back and reassess your work with a clear head.
  • “Be concrete in your criticism,” whether you’re critiquing your own work or someone else’s; in other words, identify specific moments, phrases, and ideas to rework, not big-picture generalizations about whether you think the piece is “good” or not.
  • Read widely, as much as possible, and especially from other countries (as we’ll be doing for the next six weeks! Aren’t you lucky?). Kaitlyn pointed out a statistic I didn’t know– that only 1 percent of the world’s literature is translated and available in the US, which means we have way less access to ideas from other places than they have to American literature.
  • Distinguish between realism and cliche. Just because a story’s been told before doesn’t mean your telling of it won’t be authentic. A familiar story that explores the complexity and dimension of a character, and makes the reader feel the emotional impact of a conflict on the character’s life, may be a realistic story, but it does not have to be a cliche.
  • If you are worried about cliche nevertheless, remember that cliche is a language problem– a repetitive phrase that has no original meaning, like “it’s raining cats and dogs.” If you keep your language fresh, your story will also be bereft of cliches.
  • “A novel is just a big book with a lot of mistakes in it.” So don’t get hung up on imperfections! Just keep generating the material.
  • If you’re feeling stuck for how to start, create an outline and then leave behind the introduction to tackle another scene that you do feel able to grasp right now.
  • Let your readers figure out some things on their own. Don’t feel compelled to demystify every complexity for them.
  • When you go to edit a draft, print it out in a different font so that it feels like a different story! You can also print it in landscape format with two columns so that it looks like an actual book.
  • If a character starts to feel boring, research experiences they would have had; “looking at images of a place” can also “prompt the imagination.”
  • Never worry about being offensive. Kaitlyn herself “doesn’t believe in likable characters.” The character who’s messing up is the one who most likely reflects our own complexities and imperfections!

Once Kaitlyn bid farewell, we devoted our last hour to discussing two of three readings for this week. Lysley Tenorio’s “The Brothers” follows the kind of unlikable character Kaitlyn vouched for; the protagonist, a Filipino adult, is called home to help manage his brother– now, his sister– Erica’s unexpected funeral. Erica has died from an asthma attack and had undergone gender reassignment surgery– a source of shame for his traditional family, and which they try to suppress. However, exposure to Erica’s closest friend, Raquel, prompts the transphobic surviving brother to rethink his disgust for his sister’s gender identity.

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And here are more tactics for storytelling that you might adopt from Lysley Tenorio.

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” heralds from Antigua and is taught in high school classrooms with increasing frequency (finally!). This flash fiction tracks a young girl’s growing, internalized aggression as she withstands belittling commands from her family’s matriarchs to act, think, and be a certain way as a woman.

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Here are some strategies you can tackle in your own writing. Thanks, Jamaica Kincaid!

The text we didn’t get to discuss in person was Lee Mokobe’s untitled poem about being a transman in South Africa. View his spoken word here! Only twenty years old, he is the youngest TED Talk speaker in history and, impressively, also the founder of Vocal Revolutionaries, an organization that empowers young people to speak out against injustice in Cape Town, South Africa. He is also the newest addition to the Kaleidoscope syllabus, so don’t miss his video.

Tomorrow, we gear up to discuss language politics in three poems from Myung Mi Kim, Sandra Maria Esteves, and Carol Lee Sanchez. Here are the writing prompts and the packet of readings if you want to join in!

Sandra Maria Esteves, “Not Neither” (US/Dominican Republic/Puerto Rico) | Write a free-verse confessional poem about your relationship to your language, whether you identify primarily with English or not. Remember, in a confessional poem, the speaker exposes something deep and honest about his/her own relationship to the topic (which, in this case, is language). If you speak languages other than English, consider interjecting non-English words at key moments in the poem. You might also insert “insider” cultural references or non-standard English into your poem. Don’t worry too much about whether your transitions “make sense;” just go with the flow of your own language!

Carol Lee Sanchez, “Tribal Chant” (US/Laguna Native American Tribe) | Write your own song about who you are and where you’re from. If you speak languages other than English, feel free to mix two or more languages together. Consider incorporating a refrain to repeat the sentiments that are most important to you.

Myung Mi Kim, “Cosmography” (US/South Korea)| Write your own conceptual poem about your relationship to language and culture. Remember, conceptual poetry defies the logical, linear conventions of narrative form; you can string any words, phrases, and rhymes together to make meaning. Use blank space and order your words in unique, visual configurations to catch your reader’s attention. Consider including another alphabet if you know a language other than English.

Welcome to Kaleidoscope! Orientation 2017

104 applications rolled in from all five boroughs for this year’s Kaleidoscope Project at Columbia University. The students who made it to the final cut are intrepid, sharp, well-spoken, audacious, and honestly just plain fun.

On Thursday, June 1, most of us met for the workshop’s introductory session. The theme was origin stories. Students had been asked to read a short memoir from Native American writer Yvonne Lamore-Choate, who passed away in 2015, and replace the material in her opening lines with details from their own lives. Here’s the template we used, in case you’d like to try the exercise out at home:

“I was born in ______________[Location] in ______ [Year]. My mother was ____________[Mother’s race/ethnicity], and my father was _________________ [Father’s race/ethnicity]. I was always taught that to be _________________ [Your race/ethnicity] was something to be _________________ [Feeling], and I always felt it was a _________________ [Noun] to be ______________ [Your race/ethnicity].”

Lamore-Choate’s urtext (in literary studies, “urtext” is a fancy way of saying “the original text that inspired this new work”):

“I was born in the Ft. Yuma Indian Reservation in 1945. My mother was Quechan and Mojave Indian, and my father was half Maricopa and the other half we didn’t claim. I was always taught that to be Indian was something to be proud of, and I always felt it was a privilege to be Indian.”

In my own presentation, I introduced myself to the class using this same prompt, explaining not only where I’m from and what experiences have made me me, but also why I believe participating in the activities I assign to my students is important. I intend to serve our class not only as a university instructor and academic mentor, but also as a future colleague who learns just as much as my students in our exposure to each other.

That was why I especially appreciated the courageous, constructive spirit our class showed in the guidelines we crowd-sourced for the qualities we believe make a good classroom conversation. For future reference, I’m listing those qualities below (and also adding one or two that I forgot to add myself!):

  • Aim for good communication; be thoughtful and clear.
  • Share in creating a safe space, where no one needs to fear being shut down immediately.
  • Follow the one mic rule: if someone’s talking, let them finish until they’re ready to pass the invisible mic along.
  • The “3 before me” rule is new to me, but I love it– not just for its catchiness, but also for its sentiment. Let three students speak before you speak again– a really concrete way to make sure everybody is getting the space to contribute.
  • Put people before technology; leave our phones to the side unless we’re on a break.
  • Project your voice, or don’t be offended if someone asks for a comment to be repeated; the room echoes, and every idea we have is valuable.
  • Practice open-mindedness, which means striving to be non-judgmental and curious about other people’s perspectives.
  • Contribute to niceness in the atmosphere; try not to be foreboding, and employ positive verbal and body language in the classroom.
  • Throw glitter, not shade: respond to peers’ writing by acknowledging their strengths and offering questions, not criticisms, to push the piece forward.
  • Give credit where credit’s due: generate discussion by responding to and citing peers’ preceding comments, not always simply offering your own two cents.

Beyond generating these best practices, we also came up with an anonymous word collage of all the qualities we are as a group. You can see some pictures in the slideshow below, though I apologize that the dirty chalkboards didn’t provide the best backdrop:

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Next week, we have A LOT to look forward to for our first full session!

  • Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge, the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which won The Paris Review’s prestigious Whiting Award this year, will be visiting the first 30 minutes of our session for a craft talk and intimate Q&A. So, don’t be late (!) and, if you’re curious, read rave reviews about her debut novel on The New York Times and The Huffington Post.
  • Once Kaitlyn departs, we’ll be talking about gender, so make sure to read the two short stories and poem in the reading packet for this week. Also don’t forget to view Lee Mokobe’s spoken word poem (instead of just reading the transcript).
  • Swap an hour in front of TV or social media to hash out a response to one of the writing prompts for this week! Remember, every week you’ll have the chance to ask for my feedback, and you’re welcome to post finished work to this blog at any time! We’ll talk about how to do it yourself this Thursday.

So, get pumped about meeting an award-winning novelist, keep working on your own craft, and get something ready to share with us this Thursday.

If you need a conversation starter with your parents this week, ask them where your name came from and what it means, if you don’t already know! We’ll be sharing these roots as an icebreaker for talking about gender identity this Thursday, so make sure you have an inkling (even if you just check out yours on babynames.com).

Don’t forget your consent forms and questionnaire if you’ll be meeting us for the first time this Thursday!

Oh, and if you wanted feedback on your origin story, and I forgot to collect it, please, just email the draft to me at nmg2138@columbia.edu. See you soon!