Protected: Notes on Writing this “Novel…” and thoughts on Iris Chang

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I won ON SQU’s Flash Fiction Prize!

Yay! I won the Washington Square Review‘s Flash Fiction Prize!

The amazing, wonderful Tope Folarin judged the contest.

‘”Wow. What wonderful stories. […] After many hours of contemplation I have decided that ‘This First Breath’ by Melissa Sipin resonates most deeply with me. This story is, in effect, a story about stories; it is also a story about how we craft stories about survival, and how these new stories inevitably alter the trajectories of our lives. What I am trying to say is that this story says so much in just a few words; in the end, this is what all writers are trying to do.” — Tope Folarin

<3! Yay!


Congratulations to our winners!

We’re pleased to announce the winners of our 2015 contests in Poetry, Fiction, and Flash Fiction: Sophie Klahr for her poem “Summer Job, June”, selected by Eduardo C. Corral, Justin Bendell for his short story “Fire Complex”, selected by Jacinda Townsend, and Melissa Sipin for her flash fiction piece “This First Breath” selected by Tope Folarin.

Winners receive $500.00 and publication in the forthcoming issue of Washington Square Review. Be on the lookout for their outstanding work in our 36th issue, alongside other established and emerging talents.

Thank you to everyone who entered for the opportunity to consider your work and to our esteemed judges!

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The Need to Write

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your wild life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. […] A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.

— Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

It has been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. In actuality, I’ve written many, almost three, half-written things, and I was afraid to share it—they were nonsensical essays about “writing,” or, really not about writing but the writing world, or, not the writing world but the writing industry, and in that case, not particularly about writing at all—it was just a rumination of the capitalistic machinations of it, of how writing and its process and productions function in an American context. Really, I wrote different versions of an angry blog post against Boudinot’s lambasting and elitist article in The Stranger. What I wrote was a rant, and regardless of my critiques, and even Boudinot’s own rant, it was a distraction. So I didn’t make any of them public. I didn’t feel the need to; many were already having lengthy and illuminating discussions on the article’s essential quips, and one of the better responses to Boudinot was (synchronically) written by one of his own students: “I was the Student who Made Boudinot Cry.”

But I am writing in my blog tonight, on a night where the moon is but a sliver in the sky and my partner is actually home—he’s been gone so much that he’s become a ghost, works every day and leaves for 24 hours every third day. As he desperately works to learn what is hidden in his materials science book, I am slowly, after these past, tenuous eight months, returning to writing, and writing for fun, for play, for necessity, for love. I realized lately that when I write, I feel less alone, and maybe this is what my answer is to Rilke’s deep invocation of the self, the excavating question of why must you write. Mine is simply this: I must write to feel less alone. I can say it is something I have always done, and in a way I have. But in a context of blogging, of writing for pure mirth, or rather attention, for an unknown audience, readership, I remember when I was eleven years old, writing in my numerous and decorated composition journals until I was 18, which is when I burned all my diaries in sadistic achievement of adulthood (I was and still am an overwrought person); then, I remember my first blog on LiveJournal, then Xanga, then my notes on Myspace, Facebook, and et al., and my will to “burn everything after reading”; I’ve since deleted each online repository and have kept one, this one, as a safe haven for my elementary thoughts, my nonsensical rants, my useless ramblings, and it is a joy, I find, that I’ve cultivated this “artless” place for so many years with so much bad writing. It is a place where I play, and for that, I’m thankful.

So, I am here again. And to me, it is a triumph. I have had a rough eight months, an awkward and terrible eight months, a time of deep self-hatred, self-doubt, and much self-flogging (mentally), and I feel as if I am slowly crawling out of this dark place and into another state of being that is much closer to who I was when I was eleven, so fresh-faced and deliberately loving. I am caring less of the harsh and judgmental things people, especially my family, have said and do say (or not say) about me; I am overcoming my tendencies of overwrought jealousy, anxiety; I am slowly remembering my love for wordsmithing, for narrative, for imagination. For once, I do not feel this immense and destructive pressure to rush, to be something I am not, to write something that is false, unsure, and needy. Though I am sure this will change, that I feel this paralyzing pressure again, but at least I can say, for now, I have a method to deal with it.

So what am I trying to say? Not particularly anything, to be honest. I am just writing because I felt the urge to write and say something authentic, something of gratitude, something of peace. I had a breakdown last week, about whether or not I am a “promising” artist, whether or not I am “good” at it, whether I am throwing my life away at this consuming practice, always in need or in want of something more—another thing that will tell me that I am “good” at this—and is it not always in the form of some prize, fellowship, journal acceptance, or compliment from a writer friend that we think we desperately need to solidify how “good” we are? I am sure I will have this breakdown again, sometime soon or distant, and it will hurt as much as it did that one day. But what I did to overcome it was this: I watched art. I watched an art film. I watched Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 and wept like a child. I don’t particularly know what got to me: maybe it was the music, maybe it was how spoiled and vain Cléo was—and how she reflected and mirrored my childishness and vanity—or maybe it was her desperation, her need to know what will happen to her, it was her honest anxiety, her acute awareness of her morality, her fascist need to be in control, her exposed understanding that she was indeed controlled by others, controlled like a beautiful doll, a doll with no whims or fantastical impulses toward happiness. Cléo was me and not me. She was needy, desperate, anxious, a child. She is, I think, what others see in me when they dislike me from afar, when they only know me by my social media persona, or when they think, particularly my family, that I ought to stop trying to tell the world that I exist, that I am talented, that I have a place within it; they want me to stay within the boundaries they’ve already set before me, as a woman who is married and should rear children. It was purging to become Cléo for 90 minutes, to weep and cry like an insolent child for wanting the world to notice her, to love her. Then my partner came home, and asked me what was wrong. I told him everything. I was reminded at how silly I was being, how needy, but it was good, it was good to let these irrepressible feelings come and have them leave. Is this not what art should do? Aristotle said that art was catharsis. It is and it isn’t. It can be whatever it wants to be, whatever it needs to be, and that is its power, that is what compels me to it. It is like what Varda said in her illuminating interview in Angela Ismailos’s Great Directors documentary: “Sometimes, you feel like a failure. You’d rather watch other people’s great films, read other people’s great art, and just submerge yourself into other things. Then, the impulse will return to you, like a lightning bolt. You will be compelled to create. This is how you know you are an artist: after a period of un-creation, you are compelled to create. That is what makes great artists—that unrelenting need to make art.”

I read a wonderful article in The New Yorker the other day that relates to Varda’s promise: that after a period of doubt, you will be called to create again. It was called, “The Middle of Things: Advice to Young Writers,” and I read it very late in the night, when the moon was bright and full and in need of something. I could not sleep; I was restless; I was depressed; I was afraid of night terrors; I was alone. My partner was away at work. It’s become my nightly tradition, I think, to read these powerful essays to young writers by giants of lore, and I am always amazed at how sincere they are, how giving, how truly loving a master writer can be with his/her/their words. This is what led me to Rilke and his wisdom, to his book of essays, Letters to a Young Poet. I’ve since started reading Rilke alongside the other books I am reading: Gun Dealer’s Daughter, Claudia at School, Boyhood, and Those who Stay, Those who Leave. I don’t usually cheat on my books; I am usually a monogamous reader, someone who devotes her entire time to one singular affection. But this multiplicity opened the wound that was within me for so long, it revealed my desperate desire for attention, my long familial history of receiving the extreme states of love and negligence. I am a strong believer that sometimes, the books that come to you arrive when you most need them, and the thematic linkage between these five books reminded me of this, that I believed if I can just be “good” at something, then that will bring me love. It is a lie, an illusion, and a untruth; it erases my natural inclination and natural love for writing, my answer to why must you write: I write to feel less alone; I must write because it makes me happy. That is the truth, a truth that has never been bent by time. It is better said by Rilke:

To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them.

It is why, when I read Rilke’s words to another young poet, his revelation that to be an artist is to look toward eternity, to what Micheline Marcom once told me: “Think of timelessness,” I am brought to a place of acceptance. I’ve journeyed far to return to the young girl I once was, a girl who wrote because it brought her happiness, because it reminded her that she was not alone, and it is why it is a blessing to undergo these purging moments, these descents into cathartic self-doubt and self-hate. I am reminded that these growing periods are painful, they are awkward, they are desperate and needy and uncoiling, but they are unraveling like the light, like when you are once unseen and now seen. They will come again, these desperate and painful growing periods, and they bring us closer to an ethereal state, an eternal peace, an understanding that it is okay to want, but it is a want that is unfounded, and that want is rooted in a place that can only be found within, within a well-lighted place that only the self can build and make a home.

Having “Mercy” in the writing life

“I only question my father about these half-truths now, after all these years, because of the nightmares. Because I think about my mother. Because I imagine leaving my husband.”

— Excerpt from, “Mercy,” in Guernica’s newest issue

As always, I feel like I am running through life without stopping. This past week, we traveled back home to L.A. because of familial loss. We flew back to Virginia, I taught, and then up we went to New York for my #LitCrawlNYC reading with Hyphen Magazine, Alexander Chee (who’s AMAZING, btw), Sally Wen Mao, Cathy Linh Che, and Jason Koo. I am so exhausted.

Today, my story, “Mercy,” was published in Guernica. When I got the acceptance news a few weeks ago, this piece had been rejected by over 30 other journals. I came home that night exhausted from teaching a Wednesday morning class, working my second job at a military magazine, and teaching a night class at a community college. I ran around my empty apartment, alone, for my husband was away at sea, and I wept on the floor nearby the porch window. I was so exhausted.

But there is something I said last July at the Kweli Journal Conference, which was also in the beautiful city of New York, that alleviated my exhaustion:

Mind you, before I came to the Kweli Journal Writers’ Conference, I was still mulling over my workshop with Junot Díaz. The one caveat he left us with before we headed into the world was this: “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” Coming to the Kweli Conference, I had this implanted in my mind—that despite what the behemoth of the industry would say, at the end of the day, I must, as an artist, separate “the work” from “the machine. As I sat in the pews waiting for the conference to begin, I could feel the anxiety rise from the belly to the throat. But my VONA tribe was there: all of us sat together, ready to get our pitches out.

— Excerpt from, “From the Belly to the Throat,” in Kweli Journal’s blog

In New York this last weekend trip, many of my writer friends were exhausted. When we took a cab to Dumbo Sky after my reading in Lower East Side, we commiserated on working over two jobs, teaching, filling up class time with writing prompts and videos and making more activities so we could have less time to talk to our students, commiserated over the amount of time it takes to eke out a life and survive while finding precious moments to write. We knew each other’s pains, growing pains, our anxiety over this “writing life,” our hopes and awkwardnesses and dreams and maybes and what-ifs.

I remembered what Steve Barnes said to me at the VONA 15th Party I planned back in June:

“I love being awkward. It’s a sign of transition, of growth. If you’re in that state, be thankful. It means you are growing.”

I don’t know if I’m growing. I know I’m in an awkward phase of my life–I’m in transition, I’m running, I’m always in transition, it is always painful, but I feel the growing. I feel the rushes from the belly to the throat; I feel my soul under pressure; I feel exhausted; I am exhausted; however, I am hopeful. I’m not sure what I’m hopeful for. Maybe this emotion is hopeful because I finally feel as if I have found my place in the world. As I sat on the second deck of the bus and watched the enormous city pass by me, I felt at home–it wasn’t necessarily New York, it wasn’t necessarily that I was traveling back down the coast to Virginia, it wasn’t necessarily my husband holding my hand next to me–but it was part of it. It’s like what I said to my half-Kurdish, half-Persian student last week–it’s what we do when we’re born of the Diaspora. Home means the city passing by you; home means the skyscrapers looking down at you; home means the taxi cab driver who lifts his fingers in the air and roars, claiming his name means “lion” in his native language. Home means here, this place where my heart meets my tongue, my memories, this trauma I’ve inherited, it means having mercy when I am feeling low, when I am lost, when I am hopeful, when I am awkward. I don’t know where I’m heading next in these few years, or where my writing will bring me, but home is like the sound of my mother’s name, “Mercy,” slow and sweet and heavy, meaning a thousand things and the embodiment of silence and acceptance at the same time.

Exhaustion: On Anger & Being a Pinay Writer

Sometimes, I am just exhausted.

A few week ago, I was exuberant and thankful when a good writer friend, Rae Paris, invited me to read my craft essay, “On Rewriting the Diasporic Body: On Trauma, Process, Body,” to her Bread Loaf Middlebury fiction class. The students and I had a wonderful, intense, and insightful conversation on the communicative thread of literature, writing, race, how to dismantle the burden of representation (which is a fallacy), and the danger of the single story (if you haven’t yet, you must listen to Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of the Single Story”: here and read here).

I was on a high. Rae’s class was filled with many students–most of whom were white –and they were willing to listen to what I had to say. I felt as if it was the first time, in a long, long time, where I had the privilege to have authority on a topic that permeates my daily life. It is not normal that I have this “privilege.” Most of the time, my thoughts, feelings, experiences, oppressions are put into question, criticized, critiqued, and undermined, and whenever I do speak up, I am always put against a rock and a hard place, always forced into a spotlight to defend why I am, why my people are, why people like me still are, oppressed.

This is why I am exhausted when white men message me on Facebook and ask me to read their stories. This is why I am exhausted when white men become offended when I say, “No, I am busy, and I do not have time, but here are some stories to read to help you.” This is why I am exhausted when I help them further, when I say the truth of the matter, the danger of the matter: “I hope you understand if you write about a Filipina bar girl’s relationship with a Marine, you are writing into a deep crevice of complicated and traumatic colonizing history.” This is why I am exhausted when white men become offended and act as if they are “familiar” with this “neocolonial” history but conveniently bypass that they come from the vantage point of the oppressor. If you, dear white man, were familiar at all with this “neocolonial” history (as if the “neo” strips you of any responsibility or burden when the effects of American colonialism in the Philippines is still present today), you would not come to a Filipina American writer and have the audacity and immodesty to ask her to read this “brilliant” story your U.S. Marine friend has written and demand that she give him her “approval.”

I am exhausted because it is constant: this walking between lines. The decisions whether to say what I actually feel, think, and think-feel, or simply stay silent. I am exhausted because when I do speak, and they are offended, there is a interplay between safety and a use of energy that I must determine whether or not I can give. Yesterday, I did not have the energy to give the defense of my experience or bodily oppression. Yesterday, I was just tired. And angry. And sad. And trying to celebrate my partner’s birthday. Yesterday, I was reminded how easy it is for a white man to disparage my experience just because he thinks he is “familiar” with this “neocolonial” history. Sometimes, I am tired of fighting.

Because like the men who harass me on the street, who whistle at my ass or my tits and who think they can lay claim to my body, there are also men who come to me either on a viral space or in academic spaces and demand that I give them my time, for they believe they can lay claim to my mind. I believe it’s a tendency for men, especially white men, to think they have a right to be coddled. If you watched Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which has been hailed as “a sprawling investigation of the human condition,” you’d see what I mean. The white man’s story is always hailed as the “universal human condition.” The white man’s story has never fallen into the trap of the Single Story: his story is always privileged enough to be his own and the world’s. So, when a white man asks (but really, his asking is a demand) that a marginalized woman read his friend’s story about a marginalized bar girl the man has once fallen in love with, he does not expect her to say, “No.” He expects her to oblige him. He expects her to excitedly say, “Yes.” He does not expect her to say, “Do you realize, dear white man, that your friend is writing into a complicated and possibly racist history/story, because of the epidemic of the Filipina sex worker, because of the epidemic of human trafficking, because of the cultural consequence of G.I. babies, because of the history of American colonization and present-day neocolonialism, and because if I were to read your friend’s story, I would have told him this:

Because of this traumatic history, dear white man, you cannot just be ‘familiar’ with it, you must know it, think-feel it, experience it, your body must know it, lest you either perpetuate or paint your Filipina bar girl like the caricature and ideal you made her to be when you said you loved her, when you fucked her, when you abandoned her, and did you, dear white man, did you really love her? Did you even know her?”

Because the truth is, I didn’t say this to you, dear white man. I was polite. Kind. Advised a short story to read and a movie to watch, because I thought it mind have informed this story of a Filipina bar girl your “brilliant” friend had written. The truth is, I gave you this advice is the kindest way possible, and you responded like the white man you are–offended and angry that a Pinay like me had the audacity to say, “No,” and give you a lesson. And if you end up reading this essay, dear white man, I hope these words echo:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. […] The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

— Danger of the Single Story
Chimamanda Adichie

But to myself, to those who are like me, to those who are angry, to those who are exhausted, these are the words I part to you, this is what I hope echoes:

“If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

— Maya Angelou
to Dave Chappelle

We are exhausted. We are angry. And it is okay. It bleeds into our art. It makes the silence not worth it. It makes the art strong enough to salvage that which has been loss, strong enough to regain that which has been stolen and re-appropriated and taken away.