Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Joanna Eleftheriou

An opposition to politicized forgetting is precisely the task of art. We are responsible, as artists, for documenting, witnessing, and remembering even those truths that are not in our political interest to recall…I believe we are called to recover whatever truths we have the knowledge and the desire to hunt down, those are the truths we are required (by some sacred unwritten universal law) to write down and preserve.

I recently talked with author Joanna Eleftheriou about her debut essay collection, This Way Back, how to engage in the dialectic of identity, confront the privilege of choosing an identity, and how writers prioritize discovery. You can read the full interview here on The Common Online.

We deserve to see ourselves in art. We deserve to see ourselves on TV. There is no greater anguish than the sense of not-existing that our absence in (popular) culture incurs.

Find out more about Joanna Eleftheriou on joannaeleftheriou.com. Joanna’s book This Way Back (September 2020) is available from West Virginia University Press.

Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Lara Ehrlich

I’m striving to approach my writing with renewed joy, to recognize that motherhood—in all of its messy, infuriating, exhilarating ups and downs—informs my writing like no other experience.

I recently talked with author Lara Ehrlich about her prize-winning debut story collection, Animal Wife, and the possibility, power, and resilience steeping within. You can read the full interview here on CRAFT.

That defiance against becoming the thing we are told we should become plays through the rest of the stories, in different forms. We’re told we should be mothers, and that we should devote our whole selves to motherhood. To me, the answer is not to refuse motherhood—it’s to choose for ourselves how we define motherhood. We’re told we should act like ladies. The answer is not to act like men, but to choose for ourselves what it means to be a woman. That is the true resistance.

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Find out more about Lara Ehrlich on laraehrlich.com. Lara’s book Animal Wife (September 2020) is available from Red Hen Press.

New Piece “Greening” at Tiny Molecules

I have a new piece up at Tiny Molecules called “Greening,” which is the first in a series of pieces investigating and exploring my lifetime obsession with the Statue of Liberty. A huge thanks to Kelsey Ipsen at Tiny Molecules for believing in it and being wonderful to work with!

Now here she is again, definitive as a door. She wants to turn into metal, or me, and all I can do is green all the time. And so I green to her: When were you something no one expected you to be. Which is to say I greened to myself.

When I was writing and revising this piece, the wanting and the yearning was so present in me. Perhaps this is a result of the loneliness embodied by the pandemic and the tragedies of 2020. Or perhaps it is something else. I remember making a list to myself of “what I wanted” from this piece — a list for the reader as much as for the writer. The list went on: I want this piece to transport the reader to Liberty Island, neck craned looking up. I want immediacy, obsession, and awe to be in every line. I want this piece to be tactile even without the characters touching each other. I want to write with an honor, a reverence for both the statue as statue and the statue as woman. I want the pleasure and the nerves. I want to write a queer ode to a statue who might be the most living and mysterious thing I’ve ever known. I want to write something that inherently has secrets and layers and things unsaid. I want this piece to be about the self unknown, the discovering self, the self that is striving to become something they’ve always longed to be. 

I think about the millions of people over centuries who have seen the Statue of Liberty as a paragon of freedom. Who have found salvation from this woman. And how I too have found life and wonder and hope in her. I recognize that I’m not coming to her as a refugee or an immigrant. I’m coming to her from some other place. I’m looking for a different kind of answer from her. “Greening,” to me, is a search, a fantasy, an alchemy. Or simply put, a love letter.

I hope this piece allows you to green, too, if you need it.

Wisdom from Writers: A Conversation with Jihyun Yun

In the collection, the mouths of the three main speakers struggle to articulate a kinder world still unfathomable to them, in efforts to forge a path there. Articulation is conjuring. I believe it’s the realest magic our bodies are capable of.

I recently talked with poet Jihyun Yun about her prize-winning debut poetry collection, Some are Always Hungry; the mouth as metaphor; a few favorite Korean fairy tales; and the ways in which language connects food, women, and violence. You can read the full interview here on The Rumpus.

I do find it very troubling in itself that it’s easier to imagine the female body as food, as something hunted, as prey, but I think it’s also speaking to a truth of how language, too, can be a knife, and how it is often brandished.

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Find out more about Jihyun Yun on jihyunyun.com. Jihyun’s book Some are Always Hungry (September 2020) is available from University of Nebraska Press.

ICAN, You Can, We Can Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Two weeks ago, I returned from a truly unparalleled experience in Hiroshima, Japan. It was my second trip to Japan this year (I had embarked on a solo adventure to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Tokyo in January), but this particular time was a trip unlike any I have ever had before and probably ever will.

To my great surprise, I was selected as one of 15 international participants for the inaugural Hiroshima-ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Academy on Nuclear Weapons and Global Security, a 10-day intensive for young professionals ages 25 and under. The Academy ran from July 30 through August 8 and included eight participants from nuclear-weapons states (e.g. USA, Russia, China, France, and England) and seven from non-nuclear-weapons states (e.g. Germany, Japan, South Korea, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Australia). Throughout our 10 days in Hiroshima City, we heard testimonies by atom bomb survivors; learned about global trends on nuclear weapons and global security through exchanges with UN officials, diplomats, and NGO members (including members of ICAN and Peace Boat); and brainstormed concrete plans on how to engage young people in the realization toward a more peaceful world. Most humbling of all, we had the opportunity to participate in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on August 6th and honor the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing.

How did this all come about? It all started back in May when the Academy’s application came across my Twitter feed. I had been following the ICAN organization for several months as I worked on my thesis, so when ICAN shared this opportunity online, I knew that I had to apply—not only to research for my novel, but to become the global citizen I want to be. And there’s really no greater opportunity than to engage in nuclear disarmament and peace education in one of the two cities to ever experience nuclear warfare. For the application, I wrote a 700-word essay which assessed the current situation on nuclear disarmament, the priority agenda for action, as well as my personal involvement and interest in nuclear issues. I’m quite proud of that essay, and still, I never expected to be selected.

The majority of the other participants—my brilliant new friends—were hardcore students in the nuclear policy field. In contrast, I came to the Academy as “the artist” whose goal was to learn as much as she could about the technical elements of nuclear policy and international law, and translate that information into meaningful articles and texts for the masses. As someone who is usually a vocal presence in the classroom, it was at first difficult for me to take a step back and realize that I was not an expert on this topic and THAT’S OKAY! I quickly learned that one of the greatest tasks I could do at the academy was to listen, record, and absorb.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned at the Hiroshima-ICAN Academy was that when it comes to the abolition of nuclear weapons, we need everyone to put the specific skills that they have to good use. I remembered what Sasamori-san told the audience at the University of Vermont Hibakusha Stories event in 2018. She said that we must do whatever we could to ensure that no one suffers as the people did—as she did—on August 6, 1945 and August 9, 1945. Education is the first step: We must tell the stories of how nuclear weapons have affected people since 1945, provide information on the dangerous health effects of nuclear weapons, and explain why we should be extremely concerned that the Doomsday Clock is once again at two minutes before midnight. The humanitarian aspect of nuclear weapons is a key part of bringing awareness to the masses. In many ways, this humanitarian education is synonymous with storytelling.

I’ve already begun that work with my thesis, which attempts to reignite empathy and remembrance for the nuclear tragedies of the past. My hope is that, through my fiction, the curious will be inspired to read the personal accounts of the hibakusha and explore how you too can join in the movement for a peaceful world.

Be on the lookout for more blog posts coming soon, including specific highlights of the Hiroshima-ICAN Academy, a guide to the vocabulary of nuclear weapons, and supplemental books and films for continued education on the nuclear issue!

 

 

New Essay up at Entropy

I am excited and humbled and incredibly nervous to share my newest piece of nonfiction, “The Fly,” which was recently published online as part of Entropy‘s “Health and Wellness” series.

The fly has become a deep symbol in my life for a kind of never-ending state of recovery, and the insect’s incessant nature sparks the question: Is there such a thing as recovery? Can physical and mental recoveries align, and if so, how long does that alignment take?

Historically, this has been an extremely difficult topic for me to discuss, and I have only recently been able to put it into words. I don’t know if I will ever say all that I want to say on this particular topic, or if I will ever say it HOW I want to say it, but this is me now, attempting just that.

I hope that my piece allows someone to realize they’re not alone and gives them inspiration to tell their own stories.

And when it does and asks for shelter, I’ll surely offer up my body as host to that buzzing fly, because now that there’s enough of me to protect the two of us at once, the least I can do is be hospitable.

A huge thanks to Ian Riggins at Entropy for publishing it and being so wonderful to work with!

 

Fiction Writing Prompt: Take a Walk

In lieu of this week’s Sandbox Notes, here is a writing prompt that my thesis advisor, Rita Banerjee, gave to me, and I’d love to pass it forward.

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If you are feeling stuck in your fiction, take a walk and embody your main character(s).

Time: At least 20 minutes.

Where: You can walk anywhere you like! It can be around your neighborhood, a downtown area, a nearby park. Make sure to walk the same route for every character. The environment is your control variable in this experiment.

What: As you walk, take notice of how you transform into your character. Note how you (as your character) walk. Which gestures give you comfort? What do you smell, taste, touch, see, hear as you travel through the world? What stops you or keeps you walking? What pops into your brain? What are you preoccupied with or worried about? Do you talk to yourself? Do you make eye contact with the people around you, or do you stare at the ground?

Once you’ve completed your walks, write a 1-2 page scene, in which all your character does is go for a walk. Try to incorporate as many of the details from your own walk as possible.

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Pro tip: Last week, I tried this exercise with my novel’s three main characters, and at times, I felt like I was forcing behaviors or thoughts onto them. In those moments, I tried to break out of character and become myself again. It’s funny I had to remember what it was like to be a living, thinking human. I made myself aware of what thoughts naturally come up in a mind. I should write to my grandmother. I said this thing to so-and-so, and are they still thinking about it as I am? Should I have soup or more oatmeal for dinner? Once I was able to identify what I, Cammie, was thinking about, I was then able to categorize “types” of thoughts and decide which of my characters were more likely to have a similar thought.  

Take what you need from this exercise! Let me know how it goes for you, and if you choose to adapt it in any way. Walk on!

 

New Piece “Sad Animal Facts in the Style of Ikkyū” on Queen Mob’s Teahouse

I am overjoyed that my piece, “Sad Animal Facts in the Style of Ikkyū” was recently published online as part of Queen Mob’s Teahouse‘s collection of “Misfit” documents. According to Queen Mob’s, a Misfit Document is “a text that doesn’t easily fit into any genre or category. It’s not quite a poem or short story or novel excerpt or essay. Or if it is one of those things, it doesn’t quite qualify as “literary” or sci-fi or mystery or memoir or whatever.”

I had recently created a series of hybrid, Frankenstein-stitched pieces—unexpected mashups from different sources—including this sequence which mixes Brooke Barker’s “Sad Animal Facts” with the poetic style of 15th-century Japanese Zen monk and poet Ikkyū (for this, I used Stephen Berg’s 1989 English translation of Crow with No Mouth). This sequence is original in the sense that no one has ever thought to pair these puzzle pieces together, but leans into the idea that all art is borrowed and all art is a commemoration of the art that came before.
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(Puffins are called the clowns of the sea)

dignity

the lace-ruffled puffins want it too

A huge thanks to Reb Livingston at Queen Mob’s Teahouse for publishing it and being wonderful to work with!

Contest – International Young Writers Prize

Back in August, I had the wonderful opportunity to Skype with six high-school-aged writers as part of the Youth Studio at Fuente Collective. While I mostly talked their ears off about Hunger Mountain, how to navigate the labyrinth that is Submittable, and how to be a fabulous literary citizen, I also asked them questions about what teens are looking for in terms of writing and publication opportunities. I listened and considered their advice, and brought my scheming ideas back to the Hunger Mountain offices. After a brief discussion, the vote was unanimous, and so…

I’m thrilled to announce that Hunger Mountain has a brand new annual contest: The International Young Writers Prize! Do you know a high-school-aged writer whose story needs to be heard and celebrated? This prize (deadline March 1, 2019) is now open to all young writers around the world. All genres welcome. For more information and full guidelines, click here.

This is especially exciting to me because it is my way of contributing to the mission of Write for a Bright Future, an international conference I attended in 2015 while interning at the Ministry of Stories in England. I wrote about the event in the blog I was keeping for the duration of that trip:

Write for a Bright Future was the first international gathering of organizations and projects that have been inspired by 826 centers in the United States (like 826michigan that I work with!) The Ministry of Stories hosted the event, which enabled them to let part of the week be led by children from its writing clubs. This was super important to us – if we are meeting for and about children, they should be represented at the event, too! There were 26 sessions over 4 days, which were attended by over 150 delegates and guests (all of whom I made the name badges for, so I knew everyone’s name!) The range of content included presentations and workshops by the various centers’ ambassadors,  panel discussions with writers, a walking tour of Hoxton, a literary battle and the launch of a book contributed to by over 200 children from across the world. (Read the full blog post here)

Working as the Project Manager Assistant at one of the most inspired weeks of my life, I vowed to continue to champion young people’s stories for as long as I am able. This prize is one such way to encourage young writers and give them an opportunity to be supported by the generation above them. I’m so thankful that my lovely team at Hunger Mountain holds the same values and beliefs as I do in our youth’s wisdom and creativity. The idea is not to promote competition between young writers, but to show them that adults care about their stories, that we will give our full attention to them, that we will listen. We are all in this crazy world together, after all. So, let us spin some flax-golden tales.

 

 

Introducing: Sandbox Notes

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to pal around with the exquisite musician and composer Carla Kihlstedt during the MFA in Music Composition residency here at VCFA. Over cans of Conehead IPAs, we talked about anything and everything. Favorite books, social and language development in children, Carla’s latest project “Black Inscription,” the Borges lectures,  Mary Ruefle, etc.

Later, Carla mentioned Marina Keegan’s lists of “Interesting Stuff.” I don’t recall the context around why she brought this up, but I remember being afraid to say I didn’t know about Keegan’s lists. I, of course, did know about Marina Keegan and her posthumous book of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness. Curious to know more about the “Interesting Stuff,” I scoured the internet and found this beautifully genuine and heart-wrenching tribute written by Anne Fadiman, one of Keegan’s professors at Yale. On her application to take Anne’s creative writing class, Keegan wrote: “About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.”  

I continued reading the article, to the part where Anne retells how she received an email from another student, breaking the news that Keegan had died in a freak car accident, five days after graduation. Below, a smiling girl in a mortarboard was shown in a photo with her mother and father. I couldn’t read any further, suddenly blurry-eyed and sobbing alone in my tiny studio.

It’s odd, isn’t it? Staring at a photograph of someone about your age, who is no longer alive. It’s a much different thing than reading, say, Charlotte Bronte or Virginia Woolf (someone you know lived in a very different time than now. We have come to accept the fact that they are no longer living.) But Keegan should be here. I  couldn’t stop thinking about her all that day.  I was so moved by the stories of Keegan, her curiosity, her realness, and something clicked for me. Marvelous things are all around us, brimming with stories and captured detail. I wanted to capture it too. I don’t want to let all these hints of stories pass me by.

So beginning this past Monday, I decided to pretend 10,000 eyes were covering my entire body and opened my whole self to whatever the world wanted me to pay attention to. I carried a sketchpad with me everywhere I went, and recorded every marvelous thing, thought, wonder.

It was also Carla who told me that she often encourages her music students to take the first two months of their semester for playing “in the musical sandbox.” She explained the sandbox phase to me as “a period when you’re just playing with your materials to see what they want to do before you ask them to jump through flaming hoops with bows on their heads for the paying people.” The sandbox is just as applicable to any art, but especially to writing.

Each grain of sand contributes to the fullness of the sandbox. The more sand, the more castles and faces and cakes you are able to create. Simple, right? It also isn’t lost on me that some of our best development and thinking as a kid happened in those sandboxes. Time evaporated, dripping off your head with all that sun sweat. This was where we went to focus in the extreme. For many children, this is still the loci of their first go at creative flow.

That being said, let me introduce you to Sandbox Notes.

Sandbox Notes is an experiment in observation and openness. In just one week, I’ve already found the value in this level of awareness. Writers frequently talk about keeping their “writer’s notebook” which always seemed to daunt me. I suppose this is my own way of keeping a kind of practice, one I know I can sustain. After a particularly difficult and down day yesterday, feeling guilty for a lack of productivity, a friend told me: “You processing life and your emotions is helping you to create what you will eventually create.” Perhaps Sandbox Notes is one potential way for me to process, discover, and absorb. After all, in order to write and create things, we do need to get out there and experience life. This practice serves to encourage me to be a witness, a detective, a collector of EVERYTHING. 

Each Monday, I will post a photograph of the sandbox collection from the week prior—always right here on the blog, so stay tuned!

I’ve had a lot of fun this week digging in the sandbox, and I hope it continues to be fun to both collect & read as it goes along and as the project evolves.

Comments and suggestions are always welcome!