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What I found is that, when my mind is stimulated, I want to write. No matter that I was sharing rooms with strangers. No matter that, between socializing and sight-seeing, I might’ve had only an hour to scribble down thoughts. I wanted to write. I wrote.
What my students in China have taught me during my short stay at Sichuan University is that the magic is a secret shared among writers.
It is writing in English even when it is your second language. It is in perseverance, determination…It is acknowledging that storytelling is one of reaching out to the world, to contribute to the tapestry of shared, recorded experience.
In order to really write about the world, one must be actively living in it—experiencing it in all its wonders and horrors and continually be challenging what we have so easily accepted as our right to write.
Not only do the global outreach programs of this organization educate those in other nations, but they continually challenge and strengthen the formative experiences of those in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.
Through teaching, I had a rich interaction with the local people that I could never have as a tourist or traveler.
The more of the world I see, the more I want to see, and the bigger I realize it is. Thank you Piper Global for allowing me to continue to experience the vastness of this planet, and the wonders of the people who inhabit it.
As the sun rose over the sea and my friends and I watched from the porch of a church, I recited a Langston Hughes poem (“Being walkers with the dawn and morning/We are not afraid of night”), and I wasn’t the least bit out of breath. I felt vigorous and ageless, like part of the landscape.
In an unexpected way, this sense, so thick on the island, of the continuity of life allowed me to reaffirm why I am a writer…But on this island where people have been living and eating and telling stories, where I and my cohort lived and ate together and told each other stories, was incredibly reaffirming for me. I write because I want to tell stories, and because I want to attune myself to the stories of other people.
I think the island itself gave me some wisdom with which to cope with the times when writing will be a murky or painful act. A few of the friends I made were Orthodox Christians, and their company along with the landscape of Serifos made me think of Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” Whatever seasons lie ahead, I will be grateful, as I am grateful—so grateful—for my season in Greece.
Spending time in Greece enriched all aspects of my life and work by exposing me to a new landscape, broadening my sense of community, introducing me to Greece’s famously hospitable population, shedding light on Greece’s national identity and often turbulent history, and allowing me to form friendships that will last for years to come. I would recommend without reservation that the fellowship with Greece continue.
When I look back on my trip, I appreciate the things I learned, the connections I made, and every new experience, but above all I will remember how working hard just seems that much easier in such a beautiful place.
“Reading major Greek poets such as C.P. Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis, and Oddyseas Elytis not only helped me understand Greek history and culture more intensely, but it expanded my knowledge of the country’s vast literary importance…. being in Greece at the time its financial issues reached a boiling point forced me to pay attention to a problem I most likely would have ignored had I been in the US. But being there and seeing the people these issues are affecting made me reconsider how much I pay attention to foreign problems like this.”
It is the act of being transported to a magical place where there are no distractions of coursework, bills to pay or papers to grade, and the incredible natural beauty of the Aegean and Greek islands, and of course the opportunity to work with a fresh mind and mentor (in my case, Carolyn Forche) that acts as a catalyst for new material.
As a writer, I so often close myself off from the world. I sit behind closed doors or in the dim corner of a coffee shop, lost in my own imagination.
While isolation and sitting still are certainly necessities of writing, a substantial benefit of my Global Fellowship was realizing how important it is to balance the cerebral experience of a writer with a physical one. Wandering around Thasos often felt like walking through a story or poem. It meant exploring olive groves—tree trunks twisted, scarred—listening to the chimes of goat bells, faint on the breezy whisper of the Aegean, a breeze seasoned by wild oregano and thyme… It was a pleasure to be in a landscape steeped in language, a place where storytelling seems endemic.
In the end, I felt SLS (Summer Literary Seminars) was exactly what it should have been: an experience defined more by the friends I made than the luminaries I encountered. The incredible readings, the opportunity to work with a fiction writer and a poet whom I particularly admire, the window into a different nation’s literary culture—all these things were valuable, but variable.
My experience in Oxford reminded me of why I write—why we all write—and that’s to make connections, establish relationships, to make them better, stronger, to reinforce the love we have for others, to excite and encourage us to take on adventures, meet new people, travel new lands.
You cannot write about people if you stop living among them, if you forget what it feels like to talk with a stranger and somehow not find a lull in the conversation—that great pleasure, always a surprise. You cannot write about what it means to be a human being in this lifetime if you don’t get anxious about finding a seat at a large dining table, if you don’t wonder if you’ll enjoy the company of your neighbors or they yours. And you definitely cannot know what makes for a good story, a compelling, honest-to-God good story, if you don’t ask others to share their own first.
In Prague, I came closer to understanding, and better capturing in my fiction, the complexities and intricacies of identity, and that deep longing for place and home that has created some of the world’s most gorgeous and meaningful works of art, many of which I encountered during my time there.
I am a part of this place—or at the very least, I feel as if I am; the pulse of the river, of this city, is now in my veins. In Prague, I felt, oddly, and perhaps for the first time, as if I belonged. Sometimes we feel more comfortable not in the cities where we are born or in the ones we are raised, but in cities that nourish the soul, that deepen the love we have for others, cities that inspire us to create great art. I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to live in Prague and to now call it a home.
Having never left the states before, I found the Prague Summer Program to be a vital component to my cultural, personal, and academic growth. This made for a comforting and educational month of cultural exposure and literary indulgence that I will value for the rest of my life.
Some of my most cherished memories of the program involve blindly wandering through the city with peers after workshop and discovering the magic of being completely open to whatever the city and its people had to offer. It was through this experience that we were led through Harry Potter-style doors into a labyrinth of underground coffee shops, skate parks built behind the remains of the former Stalin statue, and secret gardens hidden beneath the shade of a mini Eiffel Tower.
I learned a good deal about Czech culture and Czech writers, as well as the history of the area during WWII, which has definitely impacted my writing and cultural awareness.
Being somewhere that spoke a different language (this immersion in another language for such a period of time) changed my relationship towards my own language. When I write now, there is a different feeling to how I approach English. I no longer view it as the be-all-and-end-all, but merely another form of artistic expression. It’s hard to explain really, but the world of words feels larger to me, more complex, and infinitely more ripe with possibilities.
Traveling is important because it pushes you out of your comfort zone. When you don’t know how to pronounce a request for English–Mluvíte anglicky?; when you’re hurriedly groping for what feels like a 2-crown piece in your purse in line at the grocery store; when you don’t know how to get yourselves out of the twisting, cobble-stoned roads of the Old City: you learn a lot about yourself and what you can put yourself through.
This is why traveling makes us grow as people, I’ve certainly learned this on this trip to Prague and during the traveling I’ve done before and after. But what I’m interested in is as follows: Why is this exploration of self especially important for writers? I ask myself this because I’ve found tremendous similarity between the risk taking I’ve done abroad and the risk taking I do and hope to do more of in my writing.
One of the greatest benefits of attending the Prague Summer Program, though, was simply working with another set of writers. As much as we all try to critique stories in a way that looks at the intention of that work in particular, I think we all have the tendency to recycle suggestions. So, having the opportunity to have so many new sets of eyes on our work, to step out of the ASU MFA model of thinking was incredible. I’m still realizing how invaluable this was when I go back through the comments I have from other students in the program who have asked me to think about things that no one in our MFA program has ever asked of me before. Stepping into a new workshop was a great push and it makes me realize that I always want the workshop model to be a part of my writing.
In that regard, to say that the trip was what I expected would be absurd. It was at times beautiful and idyllic, an experience of abundance and pleasure, and at other times challenging, disconcerting, and downright frightening—but never “expected.” But sometimes it is exactly what you don’t expect that offers you what you most need. I have come back from this experience both deeply sobered and motivated to share this place and the lives of those who inhabit it through my film.
The tremendous gift to my writing that Singapore has given me was one I couldn’t anticipate: that leaving my home was the only way to examine it. That putting physical distance between myself and what I have always known creates profound perspective. For the first time in my life, what I wanted to say was perfectly clear because I wasn’t surrounded by it.
But the teaching experience was the true highlight of the trip and the reason the fellowship to Singapore is so exceptionally valuable to a young teacher and writer. It was my first experience teaching a creative writing class and from the moment I began planning it, I felt an ownership and mastery of the material: these were my experiences, my turn to pass on the wisdom I’ve received.
I loved how we showcased the reading not just as the fun or culminating event of the course, but also as a professional experience all writers go through.
From the start, Naomi and I stressed the importance of the public reading to our students. We told them that as writers, we are required each year to do a reading, the first of many in our professional lives.
We were fascinated and excited by the opportunity to spend time working with students (most of whom didn’t have much formal creative writing instruction) from not only Singapore, but also China, Malaysia, India and the Philippines, among other places. Because most of the students in the class were studying everything from economics to engineering to television production, we really had a diverse and knowledgeable group with very unique perspectives to discuss the stories and poems and engage in literary analysis.
Though my students constantly surprised me throughout the six week summer course, our final reading was the most wonderful surprises of all—our initially reserved students from the first week now reading intimate, vulnerable, pieces, laughing about them with an audience, acting playful and despite their nervousness, acting confident.
As both a teacher and writer, it was an incredibly rewarding experience. Yet also, throughout the summer, as both a teacher and writer, I’d never been quite so challenged—challenged to clarify my goals, techniques, and beliefs about the craft of writing.
My students took me far beyond the guidebook descriptions of the city. Through their work and our conversations, I learned about the concerns and day-to-day lifestyles of their university culture, their families and their parent’s expectations, the dating scene—and of course, like any Singaporean, where to get the best dim sum, seafood, Korean BBQ, bubble tea, Indian pratha and the pros and cons of durian. By the time we had our final reading, I felt as though I’d finally started to understand the country I’d been living in for the past few weeks—and that though I’d been sent to teach, I learnt more than I could have ever expected.
Our students: in many ways they were the best part of the fellowship. Curious, dedicated, inquisitive—the fact that many of them sacrificed time in their summer jobs and busy schedules to take a non-credit course, often commuting an hour or more to come to class, made the teaching environment all the more dynamic.
I’m excited to take this experience into the creative writing course I’m teaching at ASU this fall—as well as into my developing career in education. I have a wealth of new texts to share with students: authors such as Alfian Sa’at, Alvin Pang, and Catherine Lim. International literature often fails to get the air time it deserves in American creative writing classes, and I am grateful to the Piper Center for providing me with the time and space to explore the literature of this region—both with respect to my teaching, and my own creative work.
My notebooks are full of musings and anecdotes about adventures around the island, as well as several trips to neighboring countries. For this writing time—and financial support—I cannot say thank you enough. The balance of teaching and writing provided an excellent structure over my seven weeks abroad, as lessons and conversations with students often prompted creative output.