At the time, Penpalooza was less than two months old and swiftly growing, thanks to the inventiveness and charm of its founder, New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, and to an evident need for social outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Syme, who lives in New York City, began mailing letters to friends and family in April 2020, when, she told Pop-Up Magazine, she rarely left her apartment and “couldn’t write for more than a few minutes at a time.” Writing letters, she said, helped jump-start her work. In late June, Syme asked her Twitter followers—they currently number more than 111,000—if anyone would be interested in finding a pen pal. In a matter of days she received more than five hundred replies, and on June 30, she launched Penpalooza on Elfster, an online platform designed to facilitate Secret Santa gift exchanges. By July 9 more than 1,500 people had signed up. By the time 2020 came to a close, nine thousand pen pals had found correspondents from more than fifty countries. Penpalooza is the largest exchange ever hosted on Elfster, so large that the platform’s engineers altered their code specifically to accommodate this demand.
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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
Finding Creativity, Community, and Play
New Ways of Surviving
WRITING THROUGH A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
Revising the Dream
PUBLISHING A DEBUT NOVEL IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD
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.
A Room of (Almost) My Own
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.