AT THE beginning of the pandemic, like many people in New York City, I was adjusting to a sudden lockdown and constant sirens, plus news that all of my cousin’s family members in Los Angeles were sick with COVID— one person on a ventilator. Partly to take my mind off the waiting (when someone’s in an induced coma from COVID, there’s not much you can do) I was writing a reported essay for the Los Angeles Times on how South Korea had its first COV ID case the same day as the United States did but had already—unbelievably—controlled the virus. I was interviewing a friend who lives in Korea, the novelist and professor Krys Lee, about what that felt like. We decided to catch up more thoroughly after I filed the piece, so she and I planned on a Zoom. While we were at it, she said, why not do some writing?
In thirty-odd years of daily writing, I have never written with people. I know many people who do, but being solitary in my habits, I always felt constitutionally unable to join these real-time “writing dates.” But that March everything turned strange—not only was my extended family in peril, but my son with disabilities was suddenly not in school and we were receiving scary texts from the city urging us not to call 911 as it was overloaded because of COVID, while on the news Trump supporters were gleefully refusing to wear masks in public. If everything was going to be strange, I would be too: I told Krys yes. She suggested we each bring a friend.
One friend demurred, being too busy. I brought my friend Curtis Chin. Funny, almost three decades ago, we’d spent our twenties creating the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Krys brought her friend Leland Cheuk, whose novel I had reviewed (favorably) earlier in the year, and suddenly we were four Asian American writers workshopping again.
Workshopping, actually, is not quite the right word. That suggests work and goals. It was much more organic. Every Saturday we would log on at 6:30 PM Eastern for me and Leland, 3:30 PM for Curtis in L.A., and 7:30 AM for Krys in Korea. I ran the Zoom but would typically be the last to join, trying to jam in cooking dinner for my son.
We came up with a minimal structure that allowed for maximal silliness: themed and timed writing prompts. Titles of movies, for example, or colors— someone would call out a color, we would write for eight or ten or twelve minutes, the grid on the screen going quiet as we wrote in our notebooks or typed at the computer, cameras on. We’d stop when the timer went off, then call out another prompt—“Chartreuse!”— laugh, start again.
Sometimes, if the clock permitted, we’d do a lightning round of three or four minutes. The prompts often reflected things that were going on, like the election. We rewrote iconic movie scenes from other characters’ views. We wrote about what life felt like at different ages. Of places we’d like to go. Most recently we wrote on the theme of the seven deadly sins with Curtis tossing in that each sin could be represented by a character on Gilligan’s Island. We could be as silly, weird, or inept as we wanted on the page because we didn’t share any of what we produced.
Still, the first sessions tested my commitment issues. Two books in production, a medically fragile child, plus a teaching job still in full swing— forget sourdough breadmaking—COVID lockdown actually meant I had less time than before.
And I felt self-conscious just staring into the silence after a prompt had been thrown out. Singapore? I have never been there! The ten minutes seemed forever as I pushed myself just to put random words down on the page. Once, I was totally stumped and took the prompt as an occasion to revisit a scene from my novel.
Next week, I told myself, I’ll quit if I don’t like it. Everyone knows my time pressures with my son and my job. They’ll understand I can’t spare one to two hours just noodling around every week, especially when I have so many other Zooms for work. But I didn’t. The discomfort meant at least I could feel something, right? Also, everyone seemed to be writing. Once a wonky internet connection during a writing session meant that I, the unofficial timekeeper and Zoom runner, had to e-mail or text everyone a new log-in link. But people kept writing and writing and writing, oblivious to the broken Zoom link long after the ten minutes was up. I was envious of their absorption.
Then one Saturday the marimba chime from my phone’s timer made me almost fall out of my chair. Where was I? Wait—how could ten minutes be up? Preposterous! Despite myself, I had achieved that strange steady-flow state in which everything in the background fades away.
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Girmay Edits BOA Selections
In October 2020, BOA Editions, an indie press located in Rochester, New York, named poet Aracelis Girmay the first editor-at-large of its Blessing the Boats Selections, a line of poetry books written by women of color.
What We Ought to Do: THE SONG OF IMBOLO MBUE
In her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue uses the chorus of voices in a small African village fighting for justice in the shadow of an American oil company to sing in celebration of community, connection, and enduring hope.
Pandemic Pen Pals
Nupur Chaudhury, a public health strategist living in New York City, grew up in the nineties sending letters through the mail. She received weekly aerograms from relatives in India; she corresponded with a pen pal in Texas; her father even took her to admire the post office’s new stamps every month. But as she grew older, Chaudhury says, “E-mail became more popular, and I really put that writing part of me to the side”—that is, until she came across the pen pal exchange Penpalooza on Twitter in August 2020.
Neither muscle nor mouth
Neither muscle nor mouth / devoted to one way of speaking. Every language // I borrow from somewhere else,” writes Threa Almontaser in The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press, April 2021), winner of the Walt Whitman Award. In her debut Almontaser summons the language of her ancestors and family members, poets both contemporary and historical, experimental rock bands and rappers, and many more, to fashion an idiom that is both rebellious and reverent. Dedicated to the people of Yemen, the book offers a portrait of a country and its history and future. “Yemen has such an ancient and rich history, but with its current collapse, search engines show only the sad photos of starving kids,” says Almontaser. “I wanted to portray not only the war, but the beauty of Arabia Felix, of what it could still return to being.”
PANDEMIC WRITING GROUP
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New Ways of Surviving
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Revising the Dream
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Writers Confront Climate Crisis
Author and activist Toni Cade Bambara has said the role of the artist is “to make revolution irresistible.” So when Jenny Offill, author of the novels Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) and Weather (Knopf, 2020), heard about the work of Writers Rebel—the writers’ arm of Extinction Rebellion, an international activist group that works against climate change—she felt compelled to get involved.
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FINDING SPACE, AND PERMISSION, TO WRITE
In her third book, the essay collection girlhood, published by Bloomsbury in March, Melissa Febos transforms scars into meditations on culture and psychology.
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