terrifying.

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“i think who you are is everything. and so when who you are is invisible, butchered, undesirable, and so on, it can do a lot of damage. so being a brown woman growing up in the west, where the ideal woman was white, sent me on a terrifying journey.” rupi kaur

I haven’t been myself lately.

I haven’t mentioned this to many, only my intimate partner, who is thousands of miles away on a metal carrier in the Persian Gulf. It is frightening how far away he is. And after I hit 25, these past two years—of him being here, of him being gone—have been compounding. It’s hard to admit it, even to write it, but during the past years, the past months, my C-PTSD has rippled through my body more than it ever has before. Or maybe it is because I started therapy—because I started this terrifying journey into healing, healing this body, healing this psyche, healing myself—because my illness is no longer a unseen ghost, it is now rearing its head and has made my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depression terrible culprits of its existence. There are days when I would wake up and stare in the mirror, imagining the woman’s glaring face melting off. This is what you call depersonalization.

Every morning has been a silent battle. I get up, wash my face, take a shower, brush my teeth, get my clothes on, put on my make-up—my made-up face, which is a ritual I’ve come to love, a ritual that builds my pretense, a shield, a way to cope through the day, a way to act as if things are fine, a way to combat anxiety, a way to say I am in control of something, even if it is my melting face—and somehow survive the traffic on the 405 to get to work.

I know I am lucky to be back in Los Angeles. I am lucky to be able to return home, live in the extra room at my father’s small apartment. I am lucky to have won the Poets & Writers fellowship, I am lucky to be working with amazing, radiant people in the literary world, I am lucky to be living, I am lucky to have found kindred spirits, people I can truly call friends, familia, I am lucky to be breathing.

But it’s hard.

L.A. has a way of fucking up your sense of direction, dizzying your perceptions, burning up your desires by making you stuck in traffic for years.

My mind melts because of the traffic.

So, what I’ve been doing lately is taking refuge in art museums.

It started when I was in Hawaii. When I had a big fight with my father.

At the Honolulu Art Museum, I came across these large words plastered on the wall, like it were a gift:

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What do you say in response to this? To surviving?

This is a strange blog post, because I am in a strange place.

I don’t know where I quite am anymore.

I am battling the deepest of my insecurities.

I am letting myself open. This past week, I let another person, besides my intimate partner, in—I revealed to her parts of my self I never show others, my crazy worries, my anxiety, reached out for help on a terrible bad, bad day of anxiety, and she was incredibly healing, a friend I have found and am so shocked to have found. Doing this—being open—is something that scares the shit out of me, something that is was will always be terrifying. When I called her, this was repeating and repeating in my mind: Wow, I can’t believe this I can’t believe this I can’t believe this you’ve actually letting someone in you’re letting someone in.

It was a good voice. More so saying: This is strong for you.

Strength. It’s something I’ve lost since I’ve moved back to L.A., something I’ve been trying so hard to build.

I’ve been realizing that L.A. could never really be home again, but it will always be the place of my birth.

And with all its contradictions, it holds for me what it means to be an immigrant daughter.

Adrift and unanchored.

And I have been writing. Slowly. There have been blockages. Mental. I’ve been fermenting. Interviewing. Reaching running plunging my hand in the deepest of my memories; it’s why I haven’t been quite myself. Home means facing all the fractured traumas that occurred here, bled and dipped into the horizon, the landscape, the streets. I can drive by that house on Dolores Street and see all my grandmother’s hard work, flowers, wall of cacti, dissolved. Gone. I’m slowly writing it out. I’m trying hard to be gentle. I’m trying hard to let egos slide off. I’m trying hard to find myself again. To not clasp the melting skin but let it fall, let my face be anew, fresh again, have this burning so I am returned, nascent, here.

 

Today, because I couldn’t write, I visited the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach. I thought it was pretty crazy how I grew up just a few miles from this beautiful space and this was the first time I visited. There was an exhibit there, called “The River Paintings,” by Victor Hugo Zayas. What struck me the most was the opening film by MOLAA, where an unnamed filmmaker interviews Victor on their drive to the L.A. River. They walk into its muddy waters, its almost burnt up, dried up canal. Victor talks about how he can no longer be an artist that paints a landscape just for the sake of it. How this was the mark of his growth as an artist. How this behemoth, this urban monolith—L.A.—has failed to notice the slithering river that travels, disrupts through it. He says: Water is life. Since the beginning, cities were always built by water. 

I sit here in this new, trendy coffeeshop in Long Beach, the Brass Lamp, and think of the body that was found in the L.A. River in 2011.

That body was a black body.

That body was my friend’s body.

That body belonged to a brilliant UC Berkeley student, who loved lumpia, who grew up with a lot of pinays as friends, who interned for Barbara Boxer, who loved being queer, who had a Baptist family who loved him—but—they were Baptist, who was raped by a doctor at the UC Berkeley student medical center, who who who who who…

This list could go on.

I think of the L.A. River. I think of this never-ending drought. I think of my melting face. I think of Zayas’s melting paintings. I think of my beloved friend’s body. I think of the rollings hills of dried grass and the expansive Pacific roaring besides us and the cliffs of Palos Verdes and the snaking freeways and the scorching sun, the scorched earth.

I have not been myself lately. It’s appropriate. I have been burning off this ego, this persona that is not me. I think of the research I’m doing right now. I think of these old, medical documents that detail my grandmother’s brain surgeries. I think of the phone call I had with a kind neurologist who explained to me these documents slowly, paragraph by paragraph, word by word, and this image stays: They burned the vessels to stop the bleeding. This is normal.

I say to myself: This is normal. Burning my face—burning the recognition of my face—burning my old identity—burning my million of identities—this is normal. This stops the bleeding. The agitated heart. The anxiety building rippling through my veins.

I return to poetry, often, when I am this lost. To poets. To the words of poets. I think of rupi kaur’s words: “sent me on a terrifying journey.” It’s been terrifying. Terrifying still. But like the river that’s keeps flowing, despite the sun, I swallow it up. I think of my grandmother’s words: small but terrible. I go to her grave, on these green hills facing single-family homes sprinkled about and the sea, and I eat this sandwich I made the night before, I play a song by The Kinks, I cry, I hold my face, I answer the sky, I become the grass, I imagine falling deep beneath the dirt, lie besides my grandmother’s bones, and it is there, in this terrifying wake, in the coolness of the earth, where I hold her bones and she holds me back. It is here, here, where I find myself again.

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Old haunts, city of dreams

I just felt all of Dolores longing and desperation for an out, for love, for kindness, and it’s so true, no one can understand how much we want to be loved, no one but the dead.

Nghiem Tran, Kundiman fellow, on my short story, “Dead Girl in the Bed,” published in Amazon’s Day One.

I’m very excited to share my story, “Dead Girl in the Bed,” something I forgot to do on my writing blog, especially now that Day One has come out with another issue with the fabulous fiction writer, Kali Fajardo-Anstine.

It’s taken me five years to write this story. It’s a little surreal—to have it out in the world, living and breathing and kicking all on its own. On certain days, my anxiety wants to eat me all up—I think: what if no one reads it? And to be honest—probably no one will. Regardless, I am damn proud of its publication, but most of all, I’m incredibly moved by what my fellow Kundiman writer said of my piece (posted above).

no one can understand how much we want to be loved, no one but the dead.

Such deft truth. I balled when my dear friend sent me this. I don’t know how to thank him enough for these words.

I’m too exhausted to write anymore, which I should… About my time in Italy (or more appropriately called, My first time in Europe, which was both exhilarating, painful, but wonderfully tensed), about what’s it like being home (which is exhausting), about what’s it like to be working at Poets & Writers (which is wonderful), about what’s it like to re-suffer L.A. traffic (which is terrible and dreadful), about what’s it like to return to a city so filled with haunts that I consider Mulholland Drive an ironic but incredibly accurate depiction of my life—all of it, especially in its crazed ambitions.

I had these big dreams while flying back to LAX that I would write a beautiful blog piece with Nghiem’s moving and touching quote as the epigraph… But.

I’m tired. I have nothing grand to say. I think I said it all in the story, and my words right now can’t process anything but my exhausted and sleep-deprived body. Plus—didn’t I say exhausted, like, a million times?

But I’ll leave you with a photo of a building near Mulholland Drive that I took the day before I left for Italy. It says everything I want to say, everything I can’t say. If you do read the story, please know you have my deepest gratitude… Sincerely, thank you so much. While I was writing it, I didn’t know I was writing a “literary horror romance fiction” piece, but I ended up doing so anyways. I truly hope you enjoy the story.

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P.S. Here it is, just in case you don’t have a Kindle. Here’s another: I truly hope you enjoy it. I really do.

 

#IEW: International Education Week 2014: Writing Your Origin Story

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Writing Your Origin Story: Creative Writing Workshop By Melissa R. Sipin

[2014 International Education Week Event]


The Office of Intercultural Relations promotes campus internationalization at Old Dominion University. All departments, organizations, students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to host & participate in the 2014 International Education Week (IEW), a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education.


Writing Your Origin Story: Creative Writing Workshop Proposal: Approved!

“As immigrant artists for whom so much has been sacrificed, so many dreams have been deferred, we already doubt so much. Who do we think we are? We think we are people who risked not existing at all. People who might have had a mother and father killed, either by a government or nature, even before we were born. Some of us think we are accidents of literacy. I do.”

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat

I. Workshop Proposal

This 3-hour creative writing workshop will emphasize the communicative thread of writing one’s origin story and immigrant/international narrative as a source of self-empowerment and building student community. Each writing prompt will guide the student through the creative process in hopes that they will become self-explorers in finding and calling forth their own voice through engaging in challenging, viable, and creative written, verbal, and visual expression.

The curriculum is designed to provide students with access to a diversity of models of prose and poetry, as well as to encourage self-actualization by aiding students in improving their writing and reading comprehension skills while using a variety of literary techniques and genres. Students will read and discuss narrative prose and poems focused on personal narrative and social commentary.

At specific points in their reading, students will conduct research by exploring questions about the author, the stories/poems, and how they can relate the content in the narratives to their own lives. Students will develop a series of poems and pieces of writing focusing on specific facets of their humanity and themes concerned with issues of social justice.

The student work will be published in a Special Issue in TAYO Literary Magazine as a mark of culmination for International Education Week and celebration of intercultural relations.

Dialogue will be facilitated during the workshop around the subject matter at hand in order to create an inclusive community of writers.

II. Workshop Goals

– Participants will gain access to creative literature that is concerned with social justice.
– Participants will develop technical and conceptual skills related to the practice of their writing while engaging both individual and collaborative approaches to the artistic process.
– To understand and develop the potential that writing has as a tool for self-exploration, change, and power.
– To examine critical and theoretical issues of race, culture, history, and socio-economical positionalities.

III. Workshop Outcomes

– Demonstrate verbally and in writing an understanding of the composition of a narrative poem and fiction piece through discussions, written poetry and short fiction, and shared writing.
– Demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the social context surrounding poetry and fiction through reading poetry and short fiction, writing poetry and short pieces, and discussing literature.
– Convey a sense of personal conviction, dignity, and knowledge of self through writing poetry and short pieces, reflecting through taking a narrative snapshot of personal life, and discussing content.

IV. Instructor’s Biography

MELISSA R. SIPIN: As a writer from Carson, California, my work hinges between the empty spaces of autofiction. My writing was awarded First Place in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open (2013), a Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (2013), the Miguel F. Flores Prize (2011), the Amanda Davis MFA Thesis Award (2013), and a VONA/Voices Fellowship with Junot Díaz, M. Evelina Galang, and ZZ Packer (2014, 2012, and 2011, respectively). My work is forthcoming/published in GuernicaGlimmer Train, PANK Magazine, Kweli Journal, Fjords Review, and Hyphen Magazine, among others. My short story, “How To Leave Familia,” was selected by the Hyphen Magazine Reader, a monthly roundup of APIA lit reads as their “Best APIA Fiction Pick for June 2014.” I received my M.F.A in Fiction from Mills College and my undergraduate degree in English and philosophy at the University of Southern California. As the first Community Engagement Fellow (full-ride) at Mills, I taught political writing and multi-genre workshops in the Bay Area, partnering with PAWA Inc., Anakbayan East Bay, and UC Berkeley’s Maganda Magazine. As the editor-in-chief of TAYO Literary Magazine, I blog at www.msipin.com, teach at Old Dominion University and Tidewater Community College, and am currently working on a novel.

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Photography above: Stephanie Hsu’s “My Way of Home,” previously published in TAYO 1.

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.

“A Nonsensical Fable for Birds” (Grind Day No. 2)

A wise bird once told me to give up. A wise bird once said to give in. A wise bird once flew high and high and then fell by the limbs, fell because the flap of the wings failed, because the sky said, “No,” because the earth said, “Come,” because the wind said, “Fall.” A wise bird once flew up and up to the great blue and empty sky and met the sun, and the sun said, “Burn.” A wise bird once told me to work hard and fail. A wise bird once worked hard and failed. A wise bird once won all the birdsongs’ love and the birdsongs’ worms and the birdsongs’ prizes and the birdsongs’ books and the birdsongs’ validation but the wise bird was not a bird and was a poet instead and the wise poet once told me, a young bird, a young poet, that I will never fly or sing or reach the sun or see the stars because my bird wings were too frail, too weak, too young, too undeveloped, too petty, too sad, too rejected. The wise poet took me by the arms and tried to clip my wings and I almost fell by the burden of my loneliness. But I flew instead. I did not fly to the sun, I did not fly to the stars, I did not fly, I glided, I struggled, I sang, I remembered why the caged bird sings. I flew up and up and up to the clouds, over the sun, and straight to the moon. At the moon, I told the blackness I came from dirt and soil and I once met a wise bird who told me I would never fly. I told the moon she was wrong. I told the moon she was me.


I’ve started this month’s The Grind Daily Writing Series, which was founded by Ross White. It’s a group of amazing writers who band together for a whole month and promise to send each other a piece of prose/poetry/new work/revision/manic mix every day. So, periodically, I’ll update my blog with my silly daily writings. Today’s short prose is a nonsensical fable I wrote about a bird. I hope you enjoy it. ❤