Category Archives: Writing

After a Hiatus

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After a lengthy and complicated hiatus, I’m back to revising my novel, writing stories, and writing essays. Writing makes me feel like I’m okay again. Really okay. Even thriving. I’ve a number of pieces due out in publications over the next few months, and I’m very excited that they will be out in the world. All of them were accepted for publication in the past year, but some of the pieces were written years ago, while others were written a few weeks ago. I’m always baffled and delighted at the unique journey my work takes to find literary homes.

I’m particularly nervous about a Creative Nonfiction piece to be published within the next 8 weeks. (I will not name the publication for now, as I’m afraid of jinxing things). The essay is about my complicated relationship with the herb mint–as it pertains to trauma in my life, including intimate partner rape, of which I’m a survivor. So there’s that–the nature of the essay itself is very personal and makes me feel vulnerable. But that’s par for the course as a writer.

But then there’s the matter of permission when it comes to memoir.

There is a lot of negotiation in the realm of CNF/memoir. Your art. Their lives. Their wellbeing. Your wellbeing.

There are those of the camp that say if people inflicted crap upon you, that them’s the breaks. And there are those of the camp that say not to hurt anyone further. There are people in my life who refuse to let me write about them. And then there are people in my life who know that experiences with them will find their way into my art.

The boyfriend in the essay and I have kept in touch over the years–it’s been important to him that I remain his friend, and he recently reached out to me to share a fact that enlightened me on the matter of what happened the night he raped me.

This is a boyfriend who supported my writing more than any other. He urged me to write. We were not a compatible couple, and as a result, there were many sparks and disconnects. He is possibly the boyfriend with whom I felt the most alienated. But he loved that I wrote, before I even became a writer. He gave me a subscription to ZYZZYVA, which ended up being the only litmag about which I knew, which was therefore the only litmag to which I sent my first short story, which was where my first story was published.

But this is a boyfriend who had his demons. I had my own personal demons, too. And the two of us didn’t mesh well.

I wrote an essay about what he did. I’ve written about him before. I don’t use his name, but in many ways, I sold him out, particularly in this upcoming essay. And it weighed on me heavily. I didn’t let it weigh on me while I wrote it–in fact, I censored myself zero, but when my essay was done, I wondered about the ramifications of such a piece. I knew I loved the essay–because when i finished writing it, I was practically panting with exertion.

There was no way I was going to let this essay sit and gather dust.

It took me awhile after finishing the essay and having it accepted for publication to write him. I wasn’t even sure I would tell him about the piece, but I ultimately decided to give him a heads up. I didn’t need or want his permission, but I did want to give him the courtesy of letting him know I’d written something very dark about his behavior. I wrote:

“So. I wrote an essay. And it’s going to be published. I am not sure you will be happy about it, but I did not name names and no one will know it’s about you I wrote. I am pretty sure it will make you angry, though.

But it came out the way it came out. And I can give you a sneak preview as a courtesy. Should be published within the next 8 weeks. Under my new pen name.”

I waited for a response.

And I’m a lucky writer–because he said he fully supports me and including my life experiences in my art. I was spared grappling with his resentment.

There’s the thing he did to me.
And then there’s the thing he did for me.

Now on to other facets of my life that have lived long under the covers and must come out for air. I doubt I’ll have everyone’s blessing, but this is a start. And yes, I’m thinking my next project (after this novel) is a memoir.

UPDATE: The aforementioned essay, is up on The Rumpus. “MINT” is about my complicated relationship with mint and its relevance to traumas.

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Turning Point as a Writer

Tree limbs like legs

This is a reprint from my post up at Nova Ren Suma’s blog from last December. I answered the question, “What was your turning point as a writer?” Thought I’d reshare here, especially as I return to my novel from a year away from writing due to pregnancy, childbirth, mothering, and postpartum depression.

I have had many turning points as a writer, some more dramatic than others, each bringing a unique encouraging message.

I remember my first litmag acceptance from ZYZZYVA for the first piece of fiction I’d ever written; it was a sign for me to pursue this long-subjugated dream.

I remember my first novel workshop with VL, the one in which I began writing my novel. I wasn’t sure I had a novel in me, but by the end of the semester, I had 100 fresh pages. I’ve thrown out all 100 pages since, but the core of the idea remains and flourishes years later.

I remember JD who doesn’t pull punches telling me, “You should be proud. You’re almost there” after reading the opening chapters of my novel-in-progress this past summer. The ensuing discussion made it so I could see the light at the end of the novel-in-progress tunnel. I was so inspired. I got my second wind.

But no turning point has been so life-changing and incredible as the time during which I had zero writing achievements, when I was unable to write fiction, let alone read a novel for two years. It was then that I knew I would do everything in my being to be able to write again, and that I would never give up on my novel.

I had a stroke on December 31, 2006, at the age of 33. Amidst the festivities of New Year’s Eve, no one thought much of the fact that I appeared quiet and spacey. I’d had the weirdest migraine of my life earlier that day in the parking lot of a South Lake Tahoe shopping center; the world tilted 90 degrees and every object doubled. If I were to write an imagist poem about that moment, I’d write about the twinned red snow blowers lined up in the snow outside a hardware store.

My husband says I complained of an enormous migraine-level headache, but I don’t remember pain. I remember disorientation and wonder and sudden exhaustion. What was happening? I should say something, but what is it I could say? What were words? What was language? I felt like my Self was buried under a thousand layers of cotton blankets.

It wasn’t until we got back down from the mountains a day later that we realized that something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t remember my way home from the neighborhood grocery store and I couldn’t process the labels on the shelves of the store and I couldn’t remember my husband’s phone number when I decided that perhaps I needed to go to the hospital. I wondered what the phone number for 911 might be.

At the hospital lying in bed my neurologist told me that I had had a stroke.

My stroke didn’t affect my body—I didn’t limp and my face didn’t slide like melted wax. I looked completely normal. My stroke had occurred in the left thalamus, the mysterious “hub” of the brain, and it among other things, the stroke affected my short-term memory, my coping mechanisms, and it affected my ability to retrieve memories, spin language, and weave stories.

In short, I was Dory the Fish in Finding Nemo.

My doctors told me to keep a journal as my memory bank—to write every happening inside the journal and to timestamp each entry. It was my physical short-term memory repository (and it worked a lot better than tattooing things on my body a la “Memento Mori”).

That Moleskine journal saved my life.

I was determined to “come back like Lance (Armstrong)” and I wrote my feelings and happenings in my Moleskine every single day. I often slept 20 hours a day. My waking hours felt like what healthy people feel like in the first few minutes after waking up in the morning; hazy and not quite present. In the first months, it took me two of my four waking hours to compose three paragraphs. But I wrote them.

I was convinced that if I kept writing, my brain would heal and make me a stronger writer. That I’d come out of this better than before. That somehow the synapses in my brain would synthesize a new and better writer. (Cue Six Million Dollar Man theme music).

Several months into my recovery, I was well enough to comprehend my situation. And yes, I cried. Yes, I got depressed. I would pick up books, and find myself reading the same paragraph over and over and over because by the end of the paragraph, I’d forgotten what had happened, so I’d keep reading and forgetting.

At around the year mark, my doctors told me “I was cured.” I was not cured, I told them. I couldn’t write fiction. How was this cured? Most of my doctors and therapists shrugged with a shadow of pity behind their eyes. My neurologist said I would keep improving, but this was, he said, as far as most doctors would go.

I was functional. I could hold a conversation. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, but I could get money out of the ATM and I could pay for my purchases. I could read People magazine, and I could even read a short story by then. I could go on drives and remember where I’d parked my car and find my way back home, but I couldn’t yet read a novel.

My stroke helped me to realize that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, was to write. My marker for “being cured,” was not what the doctors designated. It was not being able to function in life. It was not what my friends designated, which was to appear normal and be able to participate in discussions. My marker for being alive was to be able to write fiction again. To write my novel.

It took two years before I could look at my novel, and imagine worlds again. Two years before I stopped flipping homonyms in my writing. Two years before my prose became more than pedestrian.

I’m not sure if my brain, as I’d hoped, formed new synapses such that they made me a better writer—but I’m most certainly a more determined writer. And that has made all the difference. There is a black spot in my brain now, and it will always be there, near the center of my brain. And I consider that my writing birthmark.

It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.

—Christine Lee Zilka

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Writing Characters of Another Race As It Pertains to Southern Cross the Dog

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Writing characters of another race is an ongoing craft/political interest obsession of mine. I’d say my thoughts on the subject are evolving, but at this point, they are deepening as well.

More and more, I do not think “freedom of the imagination” reigns supreme. More and more, I do not think one should consider writing another race and/or culture with any lightheartedness. In an ideal world, art and freedom would reign supreme, but because we don’t all enjoy the same freedoms and privilege, the act of writing another race is not that simple. And to think it’s that simple is to discount and dismiss the complications out there–complexities that include race and racism, no small things in the cultural landscape.

Then there’s the idea of “pulling it off,” or “getting away with it,” as Gracie Jin’s astute little post on polymic points out. Mainly, she asks the question, “Who gets away with writing another race/culture?”:

How many celebrated white writers have written characters who were not exactly like them? William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Pearl S. Buck, Colum McCann, Yann Martel, and Arthur Golden immediately come to mind. In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.

So there’s what. And she makes a good point.

Then there are the words, “getting away with it,” which in and of itself sounds shady (this, brought up by Tayari Jones on twitter). Is it a shady thing? And what’s so shady? Does the writer think that all writers should be able to write outside their race, or does she think no one should?

I have so many questions.

To that end, Matthew Salesses and I sat down with Bill Cheng, author of SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG to discuss the very subject of writing and race. In particular, we wanted to talk about writing characters of another race. The interview is published at ALIST Magazine.

It was a conversation that had its dose of friction and honesty and exhilaration. Friction, because Cheng and I don’t agree on most facets of writing characters of another race. Honesty, because Cheng and I were able to speak frankly about race with Salesses’ moderation capabilities. Exhilarating, because this is the kind of conversation that usually happens behind closed doors, and here we were discussing in a format intended for public consumption.

The interview is long. Salesses chose to run it unabridged; we touched on many things that would have suffered had they been put out of context.

Bill Cheng wrote a very good book set in the Jim Crow South, with nary an Asian American character. Cheng is Asian American, has never lived in the South (nor has he visited), and of course, was not alive in the Jim Crow historical timeline. Provocative. Risk taking. Daring. I find that pretty awesome.

But I also wanted to know what was going on in his head and heart when he wrote this book, for my edification as well as yours. Was he aware of the political nature of his doing so? How did he approach writing another race?

So does Bill Cheng “get away with it?” I’m not sure. The reactions to his interview with us at ALIST are spurring all kinds of reactions. And it’s interesting to note his observations and thoughts alongside the points made in Gracie Jin’s polymic post.

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On Opportunity and Unexpected Collaboration

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Busy Mockingbird’s post on art collaboration with her four year old is inspiring. She is an artist. With a sketchbook. All artists know that there is sacred space–for me, that’s a Moleskine or my novel on Scrivener–for Busy Mockingbird, it’s her sketchbook. And you cannot invade sacred space. Nope.

Unless you’re a child. And you are all, “Sacred space? Huh? No. All space is shared space with me!”

And that’s what happened with Busy Mockingbird. Her daughter took over her sketchbook:

No longer had I drawn my first face (I love drawing from old black & white movie stills) had she swooped over to me with an intense look. “OOOH! Is that a NEW sketchbook? Can I draw in that too, mama?” I have to admit, the girl knows good art supplies when she sees them. I muttered something about how it was my special book, how she had her own supplies and blah blah blah, but the appeal of new art supplies was too much for her to resist. In a very serious tone, she looked at me and said, “If you can’t share, we might have to take it away if you can’t share.”

Oh no she didn’t! Girlfriend was using my own mommy-words at me! Impressed, I agreed to comply. “I was going to draw a body on this lady’s face,” I said. “Well, I will do it,” she said very focused, and grabbed the pen. I had resigned myself to let that one go. To let her have the page, and then let it go. I would just draw on my own later, I decided. I love my daughter’s artwork, truly I do! But this was MY sketchbook, my inner kid complained.

Not surprisingly, I LOVED what she drew. I had drawn a woman’s face, and she had turned her into a dinosaur-woman. It was beautiful, it was carefree, and for as much as I don’t like to share, I LOVED what she had created. Flipping through my sketchbook, I found another doodle of a face I had not yet finished. She drew a body on it, too, and I was enthralled. It was such a beautiful combination of my style and hers. And she LOVED being a part of it. She never hesitated in her intent. She wasn’t tentative. She was insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done. …And the thing is, she DID.

The result of the spontaneous collaboration is ASTOUNDING. Busy Mockingbird draws the human heads, and her daughter draws the bodies. This means dinosaur bodies. And slug bodies. And lobster bodies. And human bodies, too. But different. Together, they are amazing. Seriously, go take a look.

I was mesmerized. Mostly, I was hopeful.

You see, I’ve been, for the most part, miserable these days. I love my kid, but my life has been turned upside down. Inside out. Gutted. Meaningful fiction writing has been impossible. Sleep has only just recently been attained (and nowhere near pre-baby levels). I know, it’s only been 7.5 months. But still. My writing life is in shreds. I want to get back to my novel. How do other mom-writers do it? Is everyone lying?

I made a crack that said Busy Mockingbird’s post made me fantasize about my daughter finishing my novel.

Busy Mockingbird has some of the collaboration prints up for sale. I bought a print to remind me of the potential of collaboration with my daughter, if not literally, figuratively. And to tell myself that motherhood doesn’t equal loss. And to continue to give in and let go. There may be unexpected gains in doing so. This is new space. New sacred space. Scary as hell, and expansive as not-hell. There’s gotta be good stuff here. I’ll keep the faith.

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Sometimes silence isn’t a rejection

Penny legs up on the bed. Happy baby.

I wrote a story a few years ago. In fact, it was a story I began writing before my stroke. It was a story I resumed writing and editing after recovering from my stroke. It was a story that led me to Kartika Review and my current position there as Fiction Editor (thank you, Sunny). It was a story that had been good to me.

It was a story I sent out about sixty times. And it got rejected about sixty times. Maybe like, fifty-seven times. I didn’t hear back from a few places (like I said, about three places)–but after awhile (a year?) I just assumed the rejection got lost in the mail or that the more passive litmags didn’t even want to bother with sending a rejection. In one case, the litmag went under.

I stopped sending the story out. In the back of my mind, I thought I would revise it further. But really, I gave up on short stories and decided to focus on my novel. So it sat on my hard drive. The characters lingered in my memory.

It’s one of a number of short stories that I wrote and never had published. Some of the unpublished stories have placed as runner up in contests, an official way of saying they had “potential,” but like one of my mentors said, “Almost still means no in publishing.”

Short stories are heartbreaking to write, for me. So much effort, such a tidy format, so much legwork to submit, and such little chance for publishing. I mean, short story collections make literary agents break out in hives. Editors will more often than not buy story collections if the writer commits to writing a novel for their second book.

So it was with both my heart and head that I decided to focus on my novel.

It was a total surprise to me when last week, an editor emailed me about the story that had been rejected about fifty-seven times. The last time I’d sent out the story for consideration was almost three years ago. It had been almost three years since they received the story. “We’d like to consider it for our next issue,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if that meant yes–but I was still shocked that it wasn’t a no, after all this time. And it did turn out to be a yes; they’d accepted my story. At last.

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VONA Seed Our Success

VONA alum fiction workshop w Junot

VONA has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself as a writer, for my writing, as a writer of color. I’ve honed my craft and my voice at VONA. I’ve met the best and most encouraging and genius mentors (Junot Díaz, Mat Johnson, Chris Abani, etc., all of whom have been formative to my work) at VONA.

I’ve found a community at VONA that stands with me everyday as a human and a writer.

If you believe in me as a writer, you believe in VONA

publishing panel

For five out of the past seven years, I have attended VONA workshops. I have attended when I felt tentative, and when I felt strong. It was the place to which I returned when 18 months after my stroke, I felt able to write fiction again, and wanted a safe place in which to revisit my writing. It is my writing touchstone, and I want it to continue to exist and grow as a touchstone for other writers of color.

I’ve finished a novel manuscript over the course of my time with VONA. I’ve published stories and essays over the course of my time with VONA. I nailed down my voice as a writer over the course of my time with VONA. I owe so much.

And this is not to say you owe; maybe you do, as a reader of works by writers of color or as a VONA alum (many of whom have moved onto great critical success and whose works have landed on such things like the NY Times Notable 100 Books lists). But even if you do not fall into these categories, I ask you to INVEST.

Workshop with Chris Abani

There is a fundraiser under way to keep the program and workshops robust–and to that end, to bring in more voices from the unknown places and diversify literature. I owe so much to VONA as a writer, and that is why I gave the healthiest donation I could muster this year. And I’m asking my friends with love for literature and the arts, writers and readers, to do the same.

We are constantly asked to give money these days, especially since funding has been cut from so many programs–but if you’re considering a monetary donation to one arts group, I ask that this be it. Your money will go directly to the program and to the writers they support.

Please give. You can either make a donation to VONA or buy tickets to the fundraiser, held at Uptown Body & Fender on Sunday June 30, 2013. The VIP reception, at which you can meet with Distinguished Writers) is from 3:00-4:30pm, and the main event (food, readings, auctions), is from 4:30-6:00pm.

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Me and Junot Diaz

Our writing workshop group

VONA 2012

workshop

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Golem Update

Beautiful day to be a golem in NYC.

It’s a beautiful day to be a golem in NYC.

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