December 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my “writer identity”. There are Michigan writers, which can be further classified into categories like Detroit writers, U.P. Writers, and nature writers. Then there are queer writers, mixed-race writers, minority writers, women writers, feminist writers, religious writers, and this is just to name a few. But what really is a “writer identity”? Once you have it are you stuck with it for good? Is a “writer identity” beneficial or detrimental? How does one live up to this sort of badge?
Meet Aimee Nezhukumatathil: a half Filipina, half South Indian poet and professor of creative writing and environmental literature at State University of New York at Fredonia. I fell in love with her work because of the contagious beauty of her voice. She flawlessly deals with issues of seemingly small scale to issues of much social gravity. But, furthermore, she has a “writer identity” as an Asian-American poet. Somehow she has struck a lovely balance of writing poems that lean on this identity and, simultaneously, bloom far beyond it. Read one of my favorites of hers, Two Moths, below.
P.S. It’s pronounced Neh-Zu-Ku-Ma-Tah-Till.
P.P.S If you are looking for more inspiring mixed-race identified writers, check out Aaron Samuels.
By Aimee Nezhukumatathil
December 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Our first issue of the school year.
November 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
(who has not won any Scholastic Award and is scared to write).
You are in the eighth grade and you are scared to death because your scribblings have been rejected by the Scholastic Writing Competition. You are vowing never to write again because you have never dealt with this sort of failure. You can’t remember why you ever started writing in the first place. You can’t remember what the point of it all was. I’m here because I wish to remind you why you’re supposed to keep writing, before you do anything rash.
(Why I Write & Other Relevant Scribblings)
So you wish to know what my hobby horse is. You want to know why I do what I do and how I came to do it all in the first place. Well let me begin by saying that horses have never been my hobby. I am asthmatic, un-athletic and allergic to animal dander so from any early age any activities involving horses and sports were ruled out entirely for me. Having sports cut out of childhood activities dramatically alters one’s childhood experience and creates a divide in the school yard that can never be reversed. In fact, I offer up a law: Young’s Theory of the School Yard. For every school yard, S, there exists two groups of children. Group A: the rowdy, athletic bunch with bruises and high-pitched screams and in-your-face energy. Group B: the kids that sit on the wall and watch as a ball bounces by or someone falls down and cries. I belonged to Group B. I was the stout, chubby kid in recess who sought out quiet corners with my friends so that we could make up elaborate narratives about our past lives as civil war survivors, detectives and ancient Egyptians. I was the last person to be picked during gym volleyball tournaments and I have a vivid memory of failing the pull-up test as I dangled helplessly from the metal bar and swayed back and forth while my classmates watching me, utterly bewildered by my lack of arm strength.
But this history of un-athleticism can only explain so much of my love of story-telling. It cannot explain the urge I get throughout the day to simply write things down. To make sure that a thought doesn’t slip away I scribble furiously on nearby post-its, papers, hands–whatever is near to ensure that things are not forgotten. The thought of leaving a thought undocumented and letting it float away beyond our reach somewhere in our past is unacceptable. Not only is it terrifying (if you have nothing to show for your past–how can we be sure of its existence?), but it is also a waste. Look around you, there are so many sounds, so many lines etched into faces, so many exchanges and expressions and languages and gestures and so many bits of humming and vibrant life. How can it all go undocumented? We all have a natural desire to preserve. We want to preserve beauty that we see around us and we want to share it with those who are willing to stop and look and listen. But it’s hard to ensure that they will see what we see. Perhaps they might miss that extra crinkle in that woman’s face when she smiles. Perhaps they won’t see the beauty in the picture you give them. So we give the viewer a lens just to make sure they’re seeing everything clearly (we have all worn the wrong prescription from time to time). Everyone plays optometrist. When I play, I prescribe them the right story to make sure their eyesight stays intact.
I am baffled when it comes to explaining my motivations for embellishing stories. I cannot explain why I told a drunk man on the L train that my friends and I went to college in Australia and had known each other since birth. I cannot explain why I order food in different accents and give Starbuck’s different names to be written down on my coffee cups. This need for occasional embellishment is impulsive. It is not the desire to lie but rather it is the desire to tell a smaller story in order to add to my own larger, on-going narrative. I tell others stories so that when I sit down again to tell them of my life it will be just a bit more outlandish, a bit more animated, a bit more story-like. I write because historically, writing was kind to me. But I also write because I have a desire to do so–one that runs deeper than mere historical convenience.
Embellishment is crucial. It’s part of the prescription. But it’s also writer’s insurance. It protects us from criticisms that can get too personal. Writing demands a certain vulnerability but baring yourself to the world can leave you wobbly and weak-kneed. Sometimes the world knocks you down. Embellishment makes sure that you can get back up again. It makes sure you’re always hiding something–even when you’re completely bare there’s always something hidden up your sleeve: the whole truth.
It is an ideal blend of fabrication and documentation! Behold: writing. It is the right amount of cowardice without any of the malice that can often trail behind lies. Writers are gentle people. We are observers. We sit quietly, we slip in and out of crowds and conversations, we wait patiently, we keep our eyes open at all times because we are afraid if we close them for one moment we might miss something. We write to relieve ourselves of the constant narrative stream that rushes in our heads and pounds on our skulls. We write because there are times when the tongue can fail us. We write because there are things that can only be said through paper, things that flutter away and get lost in translation when spoken out loud.
It’s too grand to say that I write to introduce the world to new ideas. It’s also untrue. Most of what is written has already been written ten times over. But I write in the hopes that my lens might add a bit to the picture that is being looked at. Because there is no feeling greater than the one that a reader encounters when they see their thoughts replicated on the page of a book. Those are the moments that comfort us, the moments that remind us that we are not wandering aimlessly through space–there are others who think just like us. And we are relieved when we find them. It is a feeling of secret camaraderie and solidarity.
But writing is terrifying. It is not as clean cut as solving a math problem, it is not as esteemed as working in a research lab. It is not as selfless as volunteer work. In fact, writing is selfish. I write because I am good at it. I write because writing loves you back with an infectious, toxic love that goes to your head. But there are other times when writing takes you by the shirt collar and throws you against the wall!
Worst of all, writing is personal. Terribly personal. You prescribe your lens to your patients, the lens that you so painstakingly developed and the frames that you made from scratch and sometimes they take the prescription and crumple it up in your face, other times they take the frames and stomp on them, crushing them mercilessly with their boot heels. And you must start over. But there are moments that can make up for years of such brutality. They are small and instantaneous but they are the moments that keep us writing. They are the times when a patient comes in and looks at the prescription, tries on the frames and turns to you and says “This is just what I’ve been trying to see.”
And those are the moments that keep me writing. *
*And to all those other times when the work of a writer is cast away or goes unnoticed, all we can do is dust ourselves off and keep writing, because even though we’re completely bare as writers–there is always something hidden up our sleeves.
November 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Ever wonder why the English language is so crazy? Want to learn how to order a loaf of bread in Old English?
Look no further!
University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan has a nifty little video series of short grammar lessons, the most recent being a lesson on why we still have those funky silent consonants in words. Check it out!
November 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
November isn’t a pleasant month, at least for me. I find it one of the most difficult times to be creative. Something about it just doesn’t settle well with me. It’s like the feeling I get in my stomach every time I attempt to eat a Poptart. November makes me question and inhibit myself from being able to think. As I try to sit down to write or do anything to stimulate my creativity, I get stuck. Anything I make is based off of something else. A song I didn’t write, a story I didn’t create, an idea I didn’t imagine. At this point, all I can think is, “Am I original? Is any of this stuff even authentic? Am I a fraud?” Hell, even this blog I’m writing is filled with quotes and references to other people. Before I started writing this I dug through books, random anecdotes, and quotes I had written down that inspired me. This whole thing I’m writing is actually inspired by an “Ideas at the House” presentation at the Sydney Opera House given by Tavi Gevinson. It struck me when I heard her say exactly what I was constantly worried about:
“It’s hard to start creating things when it feels like everything has already been said, every story has been told, and every song has been written…Part of what bothers me is all my references are traceable, everything I do or say can be tracked down and exposed as being heavily influenced by something else.”
I think as writers, artists, poets, or whatever you choose to call yourself, we can all identify with this to some extent. Whether we’ve felt like this in the past or right now, it’s especially difficult to deal with this question of originality in the age of “hey-all-the-cool-ideas-already-exist-and-they-are-also-on-the-Internet-immortalized-forever”. So, what do you do? You’re stuck and can’t seem to create anything. Well, the answer is quite simple. Be a fan girl. (Or boy.) Tavi says it all clearly:
“What if, when you’re in a mood when you feel sad and stuck and too many things to count, it’s just more therapeutic to write down someone else’s words than your own?”
Being a “fan girl” is a source of inspiration for your own ideas. Whether it be your devotion to Breaking Bad, your passion for Wes Anderson films, or your undying love for Beyoncé, all of that fan girl energy can be released through your creative endeavors and pull you out of that funk. The most successful work of art I made in high school was a mixed media collage entirely inspired by the song “Hjartað Hamast” by Sigur Rós. I even wrote about the creation of it in my college essay. Fan girling literally got me into college. And this has been going on for a long time. In my class on Slavic folklore, I learned about how so many people praised renowned Russian authors Alexsandr Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol for discovering and publishing huge amounts of Russian folktales, yet so many of these stories were actually tales adapted from and inspired by French and American stories. These guys were the fan girls of the 19th century, and they were damn good at it.
Now, I’m not saying you should just spend the rest of your life rewriting and recreating what inspires you, never to make anything original ever again. Don’t do that. When you get stuck, think about what makes your relationship to the things you like specific to you. Fan girling is simply a reflection of yourself. When you stand back and look at what makes you so in love with that story you read for English or why you’re so drawn to a certain movie, that passion can drive you to make your own great works of art, and they say so much about you as a person. Find the similarities within the different things you love. Find the common ingredient. Don’t hide behind your tastes; embrace them, and let them guide you. Chuck Palahniuk, the very man who wrote “Fight Club” even said, “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” It’s easy to become intimidated by the greatness of your favorite writer or musician, but remember to not worship them. They’re just regular people, and you have a place right next to them. You may not be the next Dylan Thomas, but you are guaranteed to be the next you! (And that’s even better, in my opinion.) I’d like to end this with another quote by Tavi that really sums up this whole idea. She says:
“I don’t care about being original or authentic or having some ‘artistic identity’, I just want to be happy, and being a fan girl can be the most happy-ing thing you can be because you feel connected to other people and you realize these feelings pass through all of us.”
So get out there and embrace your inner fan girl! You may be surprised at what you are capable of creating.
October 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment
So the midterm is nearing its end (to those of you still grueling through examinations: I’m sorry and best of luck!).
I’ve been strolling through old issues of Fortnight and came across this gem by the effervescent, Carlina Duan:
Point of Honor
my father cracks open pistachio nuts
with his teeth, each click of the shell a point of honor
to his lips, (salty mouth salutes the
crushing of things smaller than him,
and not his own).
tonight, we walk arm in arm by a pond.
he mentions the snow
unthawing, then casually,
smacks the word ‘arthritis’ hard
down the curve of his face. my father tells me he thinks
he has arthritis, my joints
bruise all the time, he says,
spreads open his
hands to burst forth veins
the air a thick dust snapped holy
in all the wrong dimming
of light. my father’s knuckles
unwind into husks before my eyes and i’m remembering
how his pinkies belong in the crooks
of pots and pianos,
how alone his hands must unroot
with no garden of fingers
look: we have such rockets for palms,
such a firecrackered spray
into fingers, the only sputter i know
is that of my father’s.
such unfizzing. such gentle fade
of the fuse,
my father will not go to his doctor,
he says these hands
will belong only to him
until they decide to elope.
i’m too burnt
to tell him otherwise,
he believes in dog-earing pages of books
until the covers unripen.
i am beginning to feel the splintering
inside his thumbs.
how easily he commemorates
how slow he is
on his own.
If you loved this poem as much as I did (and I mean, how can you not with “the air a thick dust snapped holy in all the wrong dimming of light”?!) then check out our Volume 3, Issue 2 of Fortnight.
Happy end of midterms and have a spooky Halloween!