Special Guests: Storyteller Sahar Ullah and Kaleidoscope Alum Rahat Huda

Last Thursday’s extended class session was supposed to cover race and prejudice, with interludes from two very special guests on storytelling and success. However, our visitors, Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah, co-founder of The Hijabi Monologues, and Rahat Huda, an accomplished Kaleidoscope alum, were so generous with their time and knowledge that we put the syllabus aside for the day. So, be prepared to discuss two readings from last week on race (Morrison & Ribeyro) and two from this week on disability (to be voted on in class) in TOMORROW’S session (rescheduled from this Thursday) at our normal time, 6:30-8pm, but WEDNESDAY, July 18.

Sahar talked to us about how the Hijabi Monologues grew out of her desire for a venue where Muslim American women could tell their own stories. Playing off Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, each hijabi monologue spotlights a different character’s personal experience of religion, race, gender, sexuality, and xenophobia in the U.S. To start her talk, Sahar showed us “I’m Tired,” a monologue whose themes resonate for many young people. She wrote “I’m Tired” and other monologues while studying abroad at the American University of Cairo in Egypt.

Sahar described living in Cairo as “the first time I was seeing the U.S. from the outside, and how violent the U.S. was.” She had never lived without family before, though she acquired her bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami (with a triple major in religious studies, political science, and English literature!) and her master’s degree at the University of Chicago. Watching cheesy family dramas on TV in Cairo, she realized for the first time “how we do violence very well in the United States.” Meanwhile, she was also experiencing what it felt like to blend in for the first time; earnestly wondering about her ancestral roots, strangers would ask her, “Where are you really from?” The freedom not to perform a perfect stereotype of Muslim femininity liberated her to express negative feelings like aggression and indignation in public– another first.

Upon returning to the U.S., Sahar became frustrated with professors who were interested in studying the Middle East and yet behaved uncomfortably around her in general. “Why are you so interested in the subject of ‘Muslim,’ but you’re not interested in me?” she wanted to know. Her experiences gave her the idea to create a platform where Muslim women could give voice to the everyday, insidious psychological violence they sustain.

In the U.S., her team has overcome many hurdles both from within and outside the Muslim community during public performances. At a prominent Miami bookstore where the unapologetically outspoken Jamaican-Chinese poet Staceyann Chin (whose poem, “Homophobia,” was assigned for last week’s readings on race) had just performed the week prior, the manager cut out the microphone for the Hijabi Monologues performance when a white patron complained about Muslim women cursing on stage. In another performance in Washington, DC, Sahar had to concede to bleeping out the F-word with a bike horn to quell the public’s discomfort over Muslim women “behaving badly.”

Within the Muslim American community, the Hijabi Monologues have provoked both enmity and empathy in unexpected ways. Audiences demand to witness either the “real Islam”– i.e., terrorism, ISIS, etc.– or Muslim women as devoted saints, angels of the household. Sahar described keeping secret a monologue titled “Light on My Face,” in which a hijabi woman decides not to keep a pregnancy conceived outside of marriage, because she “didn’t want the Muslim community to feel betrayed, but also wanted to make sure women had a breathing space.” To her surprise, whereas some female viewers bristled at other women not being represented piously, many elders– notably, one older man who “was the image of the stereotypical Muslim male who would be oppressive and unsympathetic to women’s experience”– regularly thank Sahar for constructing such a complex vision of Muslim femininity.

Writing about serious, sensitive issues from a humorous perspective also carries real risks, she warned. “We know our communities best, so we know how to make fun of our communities best,” she said. But she also named numerous instances when risk incurred costs. In one, a director tried to convince Sahar to perform only “Light on My Face” for a segment in her film because, in the documentarian’s words, “it’s not every day you hear about Muslim girls getting knocked up;” Sahar was relieved when the Hijabi Monologues didn’t appear in the film at all.

Xenophobia against Muslims long presaged 9/11, Sahar explained. She remembered a hate-mongering film called Obsessionwhich attested to “how inherently violent Muslims are,” being freely distributed in her part of Florida, and then a mosque being gas-mobbed in Ohio; in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, a boy at school named Hussein became Omar to disidentify himself from Saddam Hussein; and even with Malcolm X popularizing the Nation of Islam as early as the 1950s, non-Muslim Americans have all too easily conflated religion with fanatical terrorism, and Islam with any non-white races.

Sahar recently finished her higher education with a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia. Now she is working on a production of the Hijabi Monologues to be staged in London, England this September. If you’re curious to see more of the monologues, like “Hitting on a Hijabi” (a nice analog to Junot Díaz’s “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” from a couple weeks ago), subscribe to their YouTube stream.

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Our second but no less esteemed guest, and first “TA for the day” this semester, Rahat Huda graduated from Stuyvesant High School this spring and the Kaleidoscope Project’s inaugural cohort last summer. A new initiative for the 2017 Kaleidoscope Project, TAs for the day are alums who return to our summer workshop to pass on tried-and-true methods for achieving success in high school and college applications; in some cases, they are willing to become peer mentors for new K-scopers pursuing the college process.

Recipient of regional gold key and national gold medal awards from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which current Kaleidoscope students may want to apply to this winter, Rahat was also a mentee and intern at Girls Write Now, a nonprofit that supports aspiring teen women writers in New York City. This fall, she will be attending Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont as a Posse Scholar, a nationwide scholarship program that funds tuition in full at partner universities and provides young scholars a “posse,” a diverse group of talented peers, in which to navigate college together.

Rahat shared her insights alongside Julissa Nuñez and Milana Khaitova, two college-bound high school graduates currently in the Kaleidoscope Project who will be attending Smith College in Northampton, MA and Hunter College in New York City, respectively, this fall. Most of their takeaways are captured in the slideshow above, but here are the practical lessons that really stayed with me:

Visiting College Campuses

  • Ideally, you would visit colleges that interest you this summer and fall.
  • To find out information for applications and campus visits, type in keywords like the name of the college that interests you and “admissions” or “campus tour” into Google.
  • Campus tours are free; you could sign yourself up for one at Columbia before class, for example.
  • Colleges also often host high school students with current undergraduates for free in dorms during the school year.
  • However, colleges are hardly ever willing to pay for a student’s transportation to/from their location. If you want to visit a campus farther away but you and your family don’t have the financial means to do so, here are some alternatives to consider:
    • Ask your high school guidance counselor about whether your school has any funding for college visits, which might not be widely publicized.
    • Focus on visiting different kinds of colleges in the New York metropolitan area, which you can visit easily and which will give you a sense of how different kinds of college campuses feel. Granted, the overcrowded space of the city distorts size for everything, but take this grouping as an example:
    • Once you’ve visited different kinds of universities, you’ll have some sense of what to expect of an academic space based on its type, even if you can’t visit a school in person because it’s far away or in another state.
    • You can also look up photos of universities that interest you (especially Google Earth) and check out their social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) to get a sense of a campus’s personality.

Letters of Recommendation

  • If you’ll be entering your final year of high school this fall and haven’t already requested letters of recommendation from teachers, you should make a plan for doing so ASAP.
  • Choose recommenders who a) know you and your most recent work best (focus on junior and maybe sophomore year) and b) can either attest to your strengths in your intended major OR comment positively on your performance across the humanities and sciences, if you’re still figuring out what you want to study.
  • If you have your teacher’s email address, you should politely request a recommendation over the summer (if you want feedback on a draft of a request, email it to me first!).
  • If you’ll need to wait until school recommences, ready your pitch and make a plan for checking off this box by the first week of school.

Other Application Requirements

  • If you struggle with standardized tests, consider prioritizing applications to schools that don’t even require test scores for admission.
  • Write a personal statement that spotlights the values, mindset, and personality you would contribute to the community– not unlike the “What makes you different?” question you answered to get into the Kaleidoscope Project! And remember, both Rahat and I are willing and eager to give feedback on personal statement drafts! Make it a personal goal to get a draft to one of us by the end of the summer.
  • If an on-campus interview is required, capitalize on it as an opportunity to explain any obvious gaps in your academic performance and/or resumé.
  • Instead of spreading your resumé thin (community service! internships! honors! clubs!), think about your interests in terms of academic engagement and leadership skills. You don’t need to have a resumé a mile long– you just need to do a few things you really care about really well, and be able to talk about your passions compellingly!
  • This summer, double-check whether your favorite colleges require any supplementary essays. You should devote nearly the same amount of care and polish to supplementary essays as you do to the personal essay you submit for your Common Application.

Financial Aid & Scholarships

  • Look into national scholarship applications early and create a spreadsheet for keeping track of deadlines, application requirements, and benefits (ex: “full scholarship” is a wishy-washy term– for some, it actually means full tuition but not room and board is covered, whereas others cover everything).
    • Some scholarships, like Posse, have prerequisites, like being nominated for consideration in the scholarship in the first place. If you’re interested in being nominated as a Posse Scholar, talk to me or Rahat, who both have connections that could benefit you.
    • Questbridge is very similar to Posse, emphasizing inclusivity and leadership as central values, and it also covers room and board; however, not all Questbridge Scholars get to attend their “first choice” of college, because awards are prioritized based on a “match system” (meaning, a student who names a less prestigious college in the Questbridge network as their first choice has a much better shot at receiving a scholarship than the student who lists only Ivy Leagues).
  • Kaleidoscope Project students are especially lucky for being New York State residents! Not only are there many kinds of need-based college aid for NY residents, but by the time some of you apply to high school (2019?), Governor Cuomo’s recently pledged Excelsior Scholarship, promising free in-state tuition for students from families making less than $125,000/year, should be in effect.
  • Private universities, especially small liberal arts colleges, can be less generous with financial aid at first because the sizes of their endowments vary (an “endowment” basically refers to the college’s investment fund– the amount of money, largely from donations, it has to devote to all necessary costs, like professors’ salaries and students’ financial aid). If a private school is your top choice, but their “financial aid packages,” the combination of scholarships, grants, loans, and work-studies they assemble for you, are less than stunning, don’t give up! Do your research:
    • Merit-based scholarships are often specific to certain institutions, so you should look up possibilities for your favorite colleges this summer– especially if their merit scholarships require different deadlines and additional essays. Google the name of the school and “merit scholarship” to locate resources. Some colleges automatically consider every applicant, with no additional effort, for merit-based scholarships based on essays, transcripts, and standardized test scores.
    • Of course, there are also athletic scholarships as well; if you’re a top-notch athlete, you should talk to your coach about how to be scouted for a scholarship.
    • Keep an eye out for colleges that identify as need-blind” or “need-sensitive.” There are catches to both identifications.
      • “Need-blind” means that your financial need won’t factor into your eligibility in the admission committee’s eyes, which is good because it means you can’t be rejected immediately for your socioeconomic background. However, “need-blind” also does not guarantee that the college can fully remit a student’s demonstrated financial need, so many students who are accepted often find themselves choosing less costly options anyway.
      • “Need-sensitive,” on the other hand, means that financial need can be reason for a school rejecting an applicant. But at the same time, acceptance of a high-need applicant means the school is more willing to remunerate the full cost of the need the student has demonstrated.
      • In short, if you apply to a need-blind school and can’t get them to give you a full ride despite having no college savings, don’t be discouraged; consider any loan (especially government loans, which are much more stable than private for-profit lenders) and work-study options the university offers you alongside grants (which you never have to pay back). On the other hand, if you don’t get into a need-sensitive school despite being a high achiever, don’t beat yourself up about it– it very well might be that the school just couldn’t provide the financial backing you needed from them.
    • Don’t be afraid to call up the Financial Aid Office at your favorite school and ask about whether there are any funding options you’re not aware of.
      • Ask your guidance counselor or parent for help if you’re nervous about making the call yourself.
      • Be prepared to make your case for why you really want to attend this school. You need to make it clear that would be an outstanding addition to their community but simply can’t afford the tuition with the financial aid package they’ve initially calculated. Be diplomatic, patient and earnest, not demanding and aggravated (even though the money situation is stressful).
      • Upon calling, if the Financial Aid Office won’t budge on reviewing the package they’ve offered you, you might learn you qualify for a first-come, first-serve funding pool, like the Higher Education Opportunity Program (specific to New York State) or another institution-based “opportunity program,” which have been devised by universities in recent years to accept more students from underrepresented backgrounds.
  • Remember, it is extremely common for colleges to refuse financial aid for room and board, which seems hypocritical. What college student goes to college without living and eating in the dorms? And why does living and eating in the dorms have to cost ~$10,000-12,000 on average? But again, don’t give up hope; student loans are becoming an increasingly common (and therefore, normal) financial burden for young adults to shoulder, and there are A LOT of bumpers built into loan repayment plans to help you manage your debt.
    • For example, a “grace period” straight after college suspends your loans for long enough for you to get a job.
    • If you continue your schooling with a master’s degree or Ph.D., your loans go into “deferral”— meaning, you have a certain time period wherein you do not have to be paying on your undergraduate loans since you’re still studying (and not making much money– this is the situation I’m currently in).
    • Income-based repayment plans” allow you to adjust your monthly loan payments to align with a reasonable amount you should be expected to pay, based on your salary.
    • Consolidating” your loans can vastly diminish the “interest” over time (racking up “interest” is the most expensive element of any kind of debt– it’s the additional monthly fee the bank charges you for not having the debt fully paid).
    • In general, $30,000 is the amount of loan debt the average American student carries right now. I just looked up my own balance, and it’s $42,181.17— 140% of the national average! On the one hand, the number terrifies me. On the other hand, you’ve seen me: I’m living my best life in New York City, far from starving or homelessness, and I’ve been privileged with an education fifteen-year-old me would never have known to even dream up.

The bottom line is this: if you really want a college– and the college really wants YOU too— you’ll figure money out. Get in first, then worry about the rest!

Besides this blog post, don’t forget the college preparation resources available in the “menu” dropdown for this blog:

Whew, that was a lot, huh? I’ll see you for our rescheduled class TOMORROW, Wednesday, July 19, 6:30-8pmremember, bring back reading packets for both race and disabilityAnd our deepest thanks go to Sahar and Rahat again for sharing so much with us.

Who Am I When We’re an Us? Sexuality across the Spectrum

In last week’s class, four writers explored their sexual coming-of-age experiences from multiple directions. Rather than making the “sexual orientation” session code for “LGBTQI literature,” I wanted students to rethink the stereotypes we take for granted in heterosexuality, too.

To that end, we read poems and stories not only from women thinking about other women and men thinking about other men, but also men thinking twice about their relationships to women and vice-versa. I’m still looking for world literature on sexuality from a non-binary gender perspective, though; so, if you have any ideas, please, email me at kscopeproject [dot] nyc [at] gmail [dot] com.

downloadJunot Díaz, the widely acclaimed Dominican-American author, and Alison Bechdel, a lesbian graphic memoirist and cartoonist from Pennsylvania, reappeared from last year’s syllabus. You can check out Díaz’s story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” in his longer short fiction collection, Drown (Riverhead, 1997). His story takes the form of a mock “how-to manual;” his protagonist, a very insecure young man, gives some pretty pathetic advice for getting different kinds of girls to mess around with him. He now teaches in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, if any of you are looking to bridge creative writing and computer science in the near future.

out100_2012_AlisonBechdelxCRBechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), was recently transformed into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that left New York to tour the country in 2016. The memoir tries to figure out the logic behind her father’s potential suicide, countering his closeted homosexuality with her own choice to be outspoken and self-accepting of her queerness. The full archive of Bechdel’s syndicated cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, is free online.

800px-Joumana_HaddadNew readings included poems by Joumana Haddad, “I Don’t Remember,” and Reinaldo Arenas, “As Long as the Sky Whirls.” Born in Beirut, Lebanon in the Middle East, Haddad is a prominent women’s rights activist and artist in the Arab world; she has been described as a “risqué writer who loves to be hated.” Her poem, translated from Arabic, describes a woman measuring her strength against her male lover’s; by subordinating him, she achieves power hitherto inaccessible as a straight woman. In fact, her collection of essays on Arab femininity, I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (Saqi Books, 2011), is in the process of being made available to the public at the New York Public Library chapter right down the street from Columbia’s main campus.

A prolific, devastatingly imaginative writer, Arenas had a much sadder backstory. Born in communist-era Cuba, he was imprisoned for “ideological deviation” (code for, among many other things, “criminalized homosexuality,” since heterosexuality was the established “ideological norm”) and publishing his writings abroad. After trying to escape prison and being recaptured, he was brought to El Morro Castle, a maximum-security facility for violent criminals. He kept up writing by receiving paper and pencils in exchange for writing letters for illiterate inmates sending letters to family and friends.


However, he was caught, punished severely, and gave up writing until he was released a few years later in late 1970s. Although he escaped to Miami, Florida by the early 1980s and was able to live openly as a gay man thereafter, he did not live through the historic HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S.’s gay community; after developing AIDS, he committed suicide in 1990. I would recommend checking out this recently released interview with him in the New Yorker shortly after his advent to the U.S., his memoir Before Night Falls, and his novel, Farewell to the Sea (full catalog on NYPL).

As usual, here you can find the packet for last week on sexual orientation and tomorrow’s session on race. Up to date writing prompts can be found here; I hope many of you are planning to submit your original writing to the blog sometime very soon! Here are last week’s notes for tricks from each writer to try in your own writing, too:

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And don’t forget, our final author– Bangladeshi-American storyteller Sahar Ullah, co-founder of The Hijabi Monologues— visits class tomorrow, which is EXTENDED FROM 6-8PMDon’t miss Sahar or the pizza; please, do your best to show up on time!

Faith, Belief, Religion

Can you have faith without being religious? In what (or who) do you have faith? These are the questions that started our conversation about religion last Thursday. M.S.* told us about her thank you journal, where she records causes for thanksgiving in her life nightly– a habit we would all benefit from following.

Our readings heralded from four very different parts of the world. From last year’s syllabus, Tiphanie Yanique and Tarfia Faizullah returned (for more biographical information, see last year’s blog post), with Song Lin and Yaa Gyasi being two new additions.

Although we didn’t get to discuss Faizullah in class this time, Yanique’s, Gyasi’s, and Lin’s searching interrogations of religious identity within and beyond their cultures of heritage provoked new questions for us to consider. St. Thomas-born writer Tiphanie Yanique‘s short story, “The Bridge Stories,” from How to Escape a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press, 2010) presents four vignettes revolving around the image of a collapsing bridge. The precarious bridge is a metaphor for the sheer impossibility of unity across belief systems in the Caribbean, where Islam, all manners of Christianity, and all stripes of false gods collide. Yanique lives in New York and teaches creative writing at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, if you’re looking for colleges to apply to this fall!

Song Lin

Our newcomers, Song Lin, a contemporary poet from China, and Yaa Gyasi, a Ghanaian-American novelist from Alabama, further complicated the uncertainty and discontent stirring in Yanique’s story. Lin’s poem, “Paul Celan in the Seine,” darkly imagines the eponymous German poet, Paul Celan, a Jewish Holocaust survivor originally from Romania, grappling with survivor’s guilt. J.N. paraphrased her own piece on Christ’s infamous traitor, Judas, and we talked about the value of humanizing flawed religious figures.


Gyasi made headlines recently by garnering seven figures for her first book contract, for her novel Homegoing (Knopf, 2016), at an auction in London. Only twenty-six years old, she graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree, went on to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her master’s degree, and has won numerous national accolades for her early success. The story we read, “Inscape,” imagines a queer daughter grappling with her extremely devout mother’s devolution into dementia. In this interview, Gyasi comments on the influence religion and race have on her work.

Here are our chalkboard notes from last class, in case you would like to try your hand at any of these authors’ styles:

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This week, we confront possibly even more sensitive questions as with sexual orientation, and hopefully, we will begin feeling brave enough to share some original writing here with the world soon. Don’t forget to check out the reading packet here and attempt one of the writing prompts under the subject header for this week.

*In lieu of pseudonyms still forthcoming in our class blog, I will use students’ first and last initials to give credit for any moments of genius shared in class.

“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.


“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.


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.

Greenidge cover_0

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.

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.

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!