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.
“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.
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:
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.