What is your relationship to Queens?
I’ve lived in Queens for 20 years. My life has been enriched by the cultural splendors of this borough of workers, immigrants, great food and vibrant art. I’m not Queens-born–I was born and raised in Detroit, and lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan for the first 12 years after I moved to New York–but like so many others, I found my way here and am very glad I did.
How would you describe the writing you do?
My first novel, Vera’s Will, was published on February 2 by Hamilton Stone Editions. I write some poetry, but mostly fiction, and I consider myself a political writer. I know this is the ultimate literary sin in this country, where we’re told political art is an oxymoron, but in my opinion the prohibition on political fiction is itself highly political, meant to promote the status quo and suppress dissent. All fiction is political, as the great Toni Morrison has affirmed, it’s just a matter of whether you make your political agenda explicit or not. I do, and I hope that my writing serves to raise consciousness, arouse anger, and strengthen those who struggle against oppression and exploitation.
How did you come to writing?
I’ve always written — labor journalism, political fliers, speeches — but how I made the turn toward literature is a bit of a mystery. I think it had to do with my age (I started writing fiction very late, in my mid-40s), the experiences I’d accrued, and ultimately a story that thrust itself to the front of my brain and demanded to be told. This is the novel now being published. Once that ball was rolling, other stories made themselves manifest as well, and images for poetry, and so on.
What inspires you?
Stories of struggle and suffering. That sounds grim, I guess, but for me it’s all about hope. I’ve come to think that the single great subject of art, of meaningful art that will resonate and last, is human suffering. And from human suffering arises human striving and joint action for change. The common experience of the great mass of suffering and striving humanity, the great billion-fold effort to build a better world, this is what drives my writing. To give voice, to reach out, to make connections. “Only connect”: that great phrase which is usually misunderstood as pertaining to individual interpersonal relationships but which actually, you find when you read the sentence in Howard’s End, is an exhortation to make the political connections, between, for example, one’s own well-fed belly and one’s neighbor’s hunger, between, for example, the wealth of the one percent and the hardships of the 99 percent. All of which I know will strike most as hokey or preachy in this time and place where the i-This and the i-That reign supreme, but which I nevertheless believe is the core and foundation of the best art and literature.
And what does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
Well, for me at least, it means staying connected (there’s that word again) to the vast range of experiences, journeys, hopes and aspirations of the people who’ve come here from all over the world. Being reminded again and again, and staying open and tuned in to these reminders, that mine is a single puny individual story, that there are so many other stories so different than mine. Listening for them, learning from them.
Readers, mark your calendars:
- Work on your development and revision skills! Heightening Stories presents the Community Writing Exercise Workshop. The next four-session cycle begins September 15, with enrollment open until November 10.
- On September 15 at 8:00 p.m., the LIC Reading Series presents: Akhil Sharma, Justin Taylor, and Sam Lipsyte. Check out some great Queens writers in Brooklyn as part of this official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event.
- Also on September 15, The Risk of Discovery Poetry Workshop and Open Mic will be held at 6:30 p.m. at Q.E.D.: A Place to Show and Tell.
- Come help us celebrate the books published by Queens LGBT authors in 2015! Support five local writers at LGBT Queens Book Night 2015, a reading, discussion, reception, and book signing on Thursday, September 17 at 7:00 p.m. at Queens Pride House,
- Want to give your writing a kick in the pants? Heightening Stories presents the Jumpstart Your Writing online workshop starting September 20.
- Tickets are limited for the September 26 Poetry and Apple Picking excursion sponsored by Poetry and Coffee. Sign up now for some great Autumn inspiration!
- The Queens Young Authors and Poets Contest needs your support! QYAP is the biggest writing contest in the borough, inviting kids in grades 3 through 12 to submit poetry or prose. The winners get published in Newtown Literary. Between now and September 30, you can support the contest at our IndieGoGo page, where you can learn more about the contest and the great perks we have for donors!
- Will you be at the 2015 Comadres and Compadres Writers Conference on October 3 at The New School? If you are, be sure to look for our own founder, Tim Fredrick, as he leads a panel on getting published in mainstream literary journals.
- On October 4 at 5:00 p.m., come to the Astoria Bookshop for Poetry and Coffee’s discussion of Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald. Tickets are free but required.
- Boundless Tales is accepting submissions for its current reading series! Submissions are considered on a rolling basis; the next reading will be October 8.
- Delve deep into your personal writing as Heightening Stories presents the Creative Nonfiction/Autobiographical Fiction workshop. Enrollment is open until November 4.