Newtown Literary Contributor: Sherese Francis

Writer Sherese Francis’s work was featured in Issue #9 of Newtown Literary, and was previously featured in Issue #6.  For more of Sherese’s work, check out Futuristically Ancient; you can also keep up with her work with J. Expressions. She interviews herself below:

So we’ve reached 2017. 2016 was quite a year, and I heard you came up with your own motto for the new year!
Yes, I did! And yes, 2016 was a year of hardships, opportunities, and figuring out what I want for myself. My first half of the year was mostly centered on building up towards the first Queens book festival, along with working on No Longer Empty‘s Jameco Exchange Exhibition. But when it was done, I realized how burned out I was. So the months after August leading up to the New Year, I needed to do a reevaluation and some self-reflection. And I ended up with the motto: “Understanding Your Worth”.

Oh, I like that motto: “Understanding Your Worth”! What does it mean for you?
Well, for a long time I let fear rule me. I had a fear of failure and social anxiety that prevented me from going after certain things. Then, a couple of years after college, I decided to take a chance on opportunities presented to me, such as doing the Queens Book Festival. I had to understand that I was worthy enough to do something like that, and it has been a great opportunity that has allowed me to connect with various people. But in doing a project of that magnitude, I lost balance and would push projects that I was personally passionate about to the side. Working with No Longer Empty and starting J. Expressions pop-up bookshop helped me to see that. I learned that I can’t say yes to everything out of fear that another opportunity that great wouldn’t come along, especially at the expense of something important to me; sometimes I have to say no or else I will be drained of my spirit, my energy, my purpose, myself.

Wonderful! So how are you executing that motto in the New Year, and finding that balance again?
Well, I rededicated myself to my blog, Futuristically Ancient. I committed myself to do at least one post a week. I recently debuted my first blog video, too, featuring a couple of local visual artists talking about their work. Additionally, I started a new blog series called StoryCraft, where I showcase and mention my writing projects in progress. Speaking of writing, I rededicated myself to my writing. Again, thanks to No Longer Empty, I had a chance to showcase and read an excerpt from the fantasy novel I am writing now at an another exhibition they did in Jamaica. Doing that pushed me to go full force on writing it again. I tried doing so before I left for Barbados as part of the NaNoWriMo and during my trip, but that didn’t quite work out.

Oh, you went to Barbados! How was that?
Not what I expected. My mother became ill only a couple of days in, and so a week and a half was spent taking care of her. Plus adjusting to the heat, the flies, the mosquitoes, and the small space we were staying in added to the difficulty. But don’t get me wrong, Barbados is a beautiful place, and when my mother felt better, we did get to see my family (and I have a lot I didn’t know about), we were able to see some sights and go to a few events in honor of their independence anniversary, and I was able to see Barbados beyond the “touristy” part of it. New experiences like that can be the fertilizer for new creative inspiration.

Wow, that sounds like a lot. Speaking of creative inspiration, what was one that you had?
I did receive a lot of inspiration. Some for my novel and some for poetry as well. For example, both my mother and I had a beach day, and since neither of us can swim, we only went in up to our waist. The symbolism of that and the water made me think of motherhood, wombs, feminine power, ancestry, and lineage. A poem might result from that.

Great! You have been mentioning your novel. Can you tell us a little about it?
Of course! It’s called The E, and it is a science-fiction/fantasy story set in Jamaica, Queens, and inspired by the Underground Railroad and subway culture. It follows a young woman named S.W. Isibe as she learns that she is part of a team of underground agents with magical powers, two of whom are inspired by Harriet Tubman and William Still. They travel and mostly live in a quantum time-traveling, shapeshifting subway E train. S.W. is pulled into a world beyond her current imagination, and as she explores this new world, she is also exploring herself and her own inner strength.

That sounds interesting! I look forward to getting a copy. What has the process been like? And do you know when you will be done with it?
It has been a process that has tested my confidence as a writer. I have been mostly a poet as a writer, and so delving into fiction is like stepping into a new territory where I am not completely fluent with the language yet and learning as I go along. But I have learned to use my strengths as a poet and as a researcher to help me flesh out both my short stories and my longer novel. Fiction is filled with poetic language and with the concept of my book, learning historical facts, but the task for me has been developing three-dimensional characters and a compelling plot, which is good mental exercise. Hopefully, within a few months I will finish the manuscript for the novel, but definitely before the end of the year. Then I will start sending it out.

I hear that! People sometimes forget that just because someone is a writer doesn’t mean that they can easily write every genre. Now tell me about J. Expressions.
It was an idea I came up with after finding out Queens did not have many bookstores, outside of the Astoria Bookshop and a few niche ones, like Libreria Barco De Papel and Topos Bookstore. Living in Jamaica, Queens, I am far from Astoria, and the Barnes and Noble closed in Forest Hills, so we don’t really have much access here. Inspired by other initiatives like Queens Bookshop, I wanted to create a project centered around the southeast Queens community. The project showcases authors and other literary artists from the southeast Queens area.

How has the project been going so far since you started? Where can we find out more about it?
It is building slowly. I have tabled since July when I started at Jamaica Market Harvest Festival and at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre’s Kwanzaa celebration. I am applying for grants so I can do a series of literary events in the Jamaica area this year. Those interested in collaborating or helping to build the project can visit my Instagram, @jexpressionsbookshop and my website, jexpressionsbookshop.tumblr.com.

Are you working on any other projects?
Besides the five million other things I am working on, I decided to start a Wattspad and I’m currently writing a short story series, A Stitch in Time, which you can read here. I am still writing poetry, and writing and revising a few manuscript ideas. I am also becoming more interested in ways to combine writing and visual arts. For example, last year I started an Instagram series, #InYourQ where I took pictures of things I saw in Queens and then would use the pictures as writing prompts. The other day, I decided to decorate a binder that I had with words cut out from a magazine. I call it a binder full of magic. Maybe I will do it as a larger project — who knows! Also, I had a couple of artists show interest in collaborating by creating work inspired by my writing, so hopefully something is there!

Sounds exciting! What’s coming up next for you?
Writing. Writing. Writing. I have a reading coming in March at QCA. Opportunities are finding me and I’m just trying to breathe and again find balance through it all.

So what else keeps you centered besides writing?
I love music and dance. I am such an old soul. My favorite genres of music to listen to are classic soul music and funk music. When I hear voices like Chaka Khan, Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Shuggie Otis, Isley Brothers, and Mother’s Finest, it lifts my spirits. I don’t hear that in a lot of today’s mainstream music. And I dance, usually by myself, as a way to get out of my head. As a writer, I tend to think a lot and that can be draining. Dance grounds me and reenergizes me. I’ve been thinking of joining dance classes. We’ll see.

With the current political and social climate, what advice do you have for writers, artists, and others who are distressed by it all? 
I heard a poet the other day say that we must speak our truth because truth is poetry. And I believe going forward, we need to continually remind ourselves of that — Speak our truth, no matter how inconvenient it may be for others. Be as you as you can be and don’t let anyone tell you who that “you” is. We have someone who is taking (and I do meaning taking) the presidential office and he arrogantly announces himself as our savior, when he is more like a charlatan, a snake oil salesman. He pretends to be something he is not, so one of the best things we can do is be honest about who we are. I’ve been learning to trust more and more my inner voice and how to let it guide me. I recently read my horoscope from Chani Nicholas and the horoscope matched my motto for this year, and I was pleasantly surprised that I knew what I needed. We need to be honest about ourselves and what we need.

Thank you so much for the encouraging words! Anything else you would like to share?
Thank you, Newtown Literary, for including my poetry in your journal and giving Queens writers another opportunity to showcase our work and our borough.

Thanks for the interview!
No, thank you!

Thanks, Sherese!

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Newtown Literary Contributor: Sokunthary Svay

Writer Sokunthary Svay’s poems “The Khmer Speaks through Palms” and “Common Ground” were featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. You can follow her on Twitter @SokSrai. 

 

What is your name?IMG_1778
Sokunthary Svay. I let people call me “Sok” although people sometimes hear “sock”, “sook”, or “silk” for some reason.

What is your relationship to Queens?
I lived in Astoria from 2003-2006, and moved to Forest Hills (where I currently live) in late 2006 after I became pregnant.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
Not a fair question since there are too many. Not specifically a memory, but my impression of living in Astoria just out of college and the freedom I enjoyed before the responsibility of being a parent to my terrific kid, Soriya, who’s turning 9.

How would you describe the writing you do?
The majority of my writing identity is a mix of my Cambodian heritage with my urban, New York City upbringing. I tend to discuss issues of hyphenated identity, mixed with class and gender. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and have always felt displaced from most settings in my life — academic, literary, social, etc. In the past I felt disgruntled by it, this feeling of not belonging anywhere since I was born seeking refuge, but now I’ve come to see that “outsider” mentality as a source of strength. It allows me to be more open to taking in the new and keeping what works for me. I don’t feel quite as entrenched as those who are more definitive in their nationality. I also enjoy breaking stereotypes and stomping on the assumptions people have of someone who looks like me – brown and Asian.

How did you come to writing?
Quite naturally, I guess. I have a second grade report card with a comment that says “Sokunthary enjoys writing about Cambodia.” That set the stage for it. I remember making a homemade book as part of a 3rd or 4th grade project and I wrote about the “war” in Cambodia (my parents survived the Khmer Rouge regime). I drew a picture of a dead person in a lake with blood seeping from the body. Nothing I write now is quite as violent, but I do enjoy a bit of shock value, though maybe more nuanced.

What inspires you?
People and music. My husband tells me I’m an optimist when it comes to people, though it’s sometimes put to the test. I love connecting with strangers. I make it a point to remember the names of people I encounter on a regular basis. There’s nothing like calling someone by their name and seeing their otherwise bland-New Yorker expression light up. That moment of recognition is what I look for. New York City is sometimes a hard place to be in, but we can share moments with people and feel a little less alone in our struggle. In addition, my parents and other Cambodians, whether in Cambodia or the American diaspora, continually inspire me to remember the unseen. I care about the stories of unsung heroes and forgotten people. My mother cleans hotel rooms in Times Square. My father worked as a porter (manual labor) at a university. People easily overlook them because of their jobs. Because of this, I have a soft spot for doormen and I always leave a good tip for room attendants (and bartenders).

I grew up in the Bronx and I have a special kinship with the borough and its people although I’m a Queens resident now. Hip hop, R&B, and Soul are in my blood along with Cambodian ’50s surf rock, and classical music from my years in music school. All these aspects of who I am that don’t seem to go together remind me of the cultural exchange we make on a daily basis. It’s what sets us apart as a city — we negotiate the boundaries of what it means to be an individual in a setting where our definition of ourselves shifts everyday.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
It means being on the brink of NYC and the world, and open to the languages and cultures that have come to define and differentiate it from other cities in our country. On my block alone, I can count 11 different languages spoken on a daily basis, sometimes three in one household. Imagine the different thinking processes involved, the clash of cultures and misunderstandings that ensue? I love the humanity of it all, even if I sometimes find myself a bit disoriented by it.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
My Cambodian heritage is a source of strength and pride for me. Like many people, I have a lot of ideas and plans, but not enough time. I’d like to do some interpretations of Cambodian folktales, either in prose or poetic form. I like that idea because it can be an educational experience for me and the reader, whether they’re of Khmer descent or not. I’m also fascinated by speculative writing, and having had some of my “speculative” poetry published in LONTAR, a Southeast Asian-based journal that specializes in that field of the fantastical writing from that region, I want to explore the spirits and ghosts that make up so much of the storytelling I’m accustomed to from my childhood. And as an active musician, I’m starting to understand that my music and writing world don’t have to be separate but can come together. I’m a big fan of Schubert art songs, having sung some of them myself. The text of his lieder (art songs) tend to be taken from famous German poetry, which he then sets to music. On that note (ha!), I’d like to take some of my work and thematically create a song cycle about Cambodia as a collaborative effort with a composer. This way my work could be breathing, existing not just on paper but in a temporal art. I’d also like to write a collection of essays about various incidences of music and its effect in my life. I’ve got a draft going right now about my obsession with Jeff Buckley, which led me to revisit music school as an adult. Lastly, I’ve got a draft of a chapbook that I’d like to submit sometime this year.

What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
“What do you wish had been different about your life?”

I wish I had met my other three grandparents. Two on my father’s side died a long time ago (my father is the youngest of several siblings) and my grandfather on my mother’s side died of cancer. I also wish my spoken Khmer was better and that I was literate in the language as well. I wish I had followed my instincts to continue singing in my undergraduate years rather than waiting until after motherhood to allow myself that indulgence. I wish I had taken more risks with my education, but I think I was a late bloomer. An important poet in the field told me a long time ago to write in another genre (this is after he read some of my work).  I stopped writing for a few years because of his comments. I wish I had a network of writers then who would’ve told me that he was an old fart and to keep writing anyway. But alas, I found my way back and my life worked out the way it did and it’s better for it.

 

Thanks, Sok!

Readers, mark your calendars:

QWW: A word from Site Captain Craig Schwab

Craig is Site Captain for the Saturday in the Park: Forest Park Band Shell event taking place on Saturday, May 14 at 1:00 p.m. 

Forparktheaterjeh
By Jim.henderson (Own work) [CC0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The location for this site will be the iconic space in Forest Park, Glendale, known throughout the neighborhood as The Band Shell. I will be asking those who attend to write something many people no longer do these days. The idea stems from the concept that writing can be informative and also expressive in nature. In my novel, Something in the Neighborhood of Real, the characters interact through several decades by way of letters they send to one another.

The best reaction I had about my novel came by way of a letter from The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens – informing me my novel was made a permanent part of the museum archives. Armstrong plays a key role in my novel as both a mentor and inspirational character.

I intend to have those who show up write a letter to anyone they wish to communicate with in their lives. I will ask they share something on paper that details how they are truly feeling.  I will invite anyone who wishes to read aloud from their letter. My hope is they then mail their letters creating what I believe is a formula for sharing our words in a way that lives and breathes beyond the computer screens we have become accustomed to using today.

Thanks, Craig.  Readers, we hope to see you there!

Be sure to check out the other Queens Writes Weekend events.

QWW: A Word from Site Captain Rich Watson

Rich is Site Captain for the Shut Up & Write: Wallenberg Square event taking place on Sunday, April 26 at 1:00 p.m.

My writing site for this year’s Queens Writes Weekend is at Forest Park’s Wallenberg Square, on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Park Lane South, on Sunday the 26th, beginning at 1:00 p.m. It’s a largish open space with plenty of benches and shade. It’s comfortable and relatively secluded, without too much noise from nearby traffic. We’ll talk for a little bit about Newtown Literary and writing in general, to try and get a sense of what everyone wants out of their work, and then we’ll write. If you need story prompts, I’ll have some. The purpose is to start getting down some ideas as a first step towards something longer or deeper. I was published by NL recently, and doing this is my way of saying thanks. I hope you get something positive out of the experience.

Thanks, Rich.  Readers, we hope to see you there!

QWW: A Word from Site Captain Karyn Slutsky

Karyn is Site Captain for the Shut Up & Write: Private Home in Forest Hills event taking place on Saturday, April 25 at 2:00 p.m. If you’re interested in attending, please email events@newtownl​iterary.org to let Karyn know you’ll be there and find out the address. 

Saturdays are best spent quiet, with good coffee at the fingertips. We feel strongly about that, and about bringing people together in our home to inspire each other. In this cozy writing session, we’ll gather in our living room and dining room with a large couch and enough chairs to fit a whole bunch of people with space and privacy to spare. Young helping hands will be around to serve up hot and cold drinks and snacks, leaving you free to focus on your writing. So join us in Forest Hills for a writing experience that will leave you feeling relaxed and connected to other local writers and community-minded folks.

Thanks, Karyn.  Readers, we hope to see you there!

Queens Literary Heroes: Rez Reading Series

Deborah Emin tells all about the REZ reading series in Forest Hills. Their next event is tonight, 7.30pm, at Odradeks Coffee House.

The REZ Reading Series was begun in the fall of 2008 in the basement of the Church of the Resurrection on 118th Street in Kew Gardens. We held our events there seven times a year, organized around various themes. Then after two years we moved to the Community Center at Maple Grove Cemetery for one more year. Now we are at Odradeks Coffee House, where one of the owners, Jacob Ganz, is also a writer. We produce a free e-book of each night’s reading, downloadable on the Sullivan Street Press website. It is designed by Kevin Callahan of BNGO Books in Forest Hills. In the fall, we’re planning on also setting up a webcast of the events.

 

REZ1
Liza Charlesworth
REZ2
Ellen Wright