Newtown Literary Contributor: Nicole Haroutunian

Nicole Haroutunian’s work was featured in Issue #9 of Newtown Literary. Below, she discusses her story “In the Morning” and how she wrote it around her friend Lindsay Sullivan’s song by the same name, which you can hear on Spotify or buy on iTunes. You can read more of Nicole’s work at NicoleHaroutunian.com.

When I needed a few song lyrics to put into a character’s notebook for a short story in my book Speed Dreaming, I knew I wasn’t equipped to write them. Aftlindsayforsiteer a few mortifying attempts, I texted my dear friend, songwriter Lindsay Sullivan, who was at JFK, waiting to board her plane back to L.A. after a too-short visit to New York. Before she even took flight, she sent me back two perfect verses.

So when Lindsay released her most recent EP, Cross-Constellation, I wanted to return the favor. She didn’t need a short story for her song like I need a song for my short story, but we were both excited by the prospect of a reciprocal effort. I listened to the album’s first track, “In the Morning (E.S.T.)”, on repeat, jotting down phrases and images that stayed with me.

I started with the title. Because I first met Lindsay when I was living in Williamsburg in 2003, the story began to take shape on a morning in that time and place, back when The Bagel Store on Bedford Ave. was the spot to grab Saturday morning breakfast. The next line that struck me was this one: There was a time when the rocks bit the tides / and a shark came so close / pulled me aside and said whoa, it’s a warning. Fourteen years ago, the way to get to the East River was to duck through a chain link fence at the end of North Seventh Street. I braced for the worst and said whoa, it’s coming. I thought the protagonist, a young woman in a new city, a new job, a new relationship, would spend the story anticipating disaster, but not necessarily doing her best to avert it—isn’t disaster exciting, sometimes, when one is 22?

My Williamsburg phase lasted three years before I landed in Woodside, Queens, where I have spent the past 10 years and counting. Lindsay held out longer in Brooklyn but went much further when she left—all the way to the West Coast. The characters in the story head to a mattress store on Queens Boulevard, hoping to equip their new life together with some sort of comfort, but wind up sharing nothing more than a paper cup of coffee under the rumblings of the 7 train and later, tossing and turning on a cheap consolation mattress, dreaming of sharks and riverbeds. It is hard to know at the end of my story if the couple is going to make it, but listening to Lindsay’s song, I think that at least one of them will, one day, make it to L.A.

Thanks, Nicole!

 

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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:

Newtown Literary Contributor: Emma Wisniewski

Writer Emma Wisniewski’s story “5Pointz: A Subjective Obituary” was featured in Issue #4 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. You can find out more about Emma at her website, or follow her on Twitter @emmaactor76. 

What is your relationship to Queens?Emma Wisniewski Headshot 3
Born and raised! I grew up in Astoria, and went to school in Jackson Heights and Long Island City. I’m very proud of being a Queens native, and anyone who knows me will tell you not to knock my hood in my presence. : ) It’s literally the most diverse place in the whole world, and I’m constantly in awe of the sheer variety to be found – of people, art, culture, language, food, music, pretty much everything. It’s the perfect place for an actor to grow up.

How would you describe the writing you do?
As an actor specifically, I’m interested in how and why people tell stories – what people include and what they leave out, what they remember and what that says about their character and their circumstances. And as a creative person generally, I’m always thinking about how to live a creative life in a relentlessly practical world; I’m actually working on a play right now about two painters and their struggle to balance their art and their bills, and the toll that takes on their relationship. It’s a question pretty much everyone I know has struggled with at some point, but it’s not only a question for professional artists. I think pretty much everyone has experienced the feeling of being torn between their desires and their obligations, and I’m interested in how people handle that.

In terms of my style, I think a lot about rhythm. I started writing and performing slam poetry when I was 12, and it was a huge part of my creative life throughout my teenage years. And even though I write more prose than poetry nowadays, I obsess a lot over how things sound. I also idolize Virginia Woolf – as an actor, I’m in awe of the way she captured the human thought process – and her work inspires me to consider the way specific people think, and the gap between peoples’ thoughts and how they express them.

How did you come to writing?
I was a reader first. As a child I read absolutely anything I could get my hands on. I would even read the cereal box over breakfast! My father is also a writer, of plays and screenplays, and it was powerful to have that – to be able to see that a living breathing person could be a writer, that writers were not these unapproachable icons, to learn that it was a matter of working at it every day. I also was incredibly fortunate to have an English teacher in seventh grade who convinced me to enroll in an after-school slam poetry class. It’s impossible for me to overstate the effect slam poetry had on me – it made me a better actor, a more confident student, gave me a safe space to experiment and express myself, and I developed a sense of power and agency that I had never felt before. That was when I started calling myself a writer.

What inspires you?
As I mentioned above, I’m so inspired by all creative people (and not just professionally creative ones), and how they live creative lives. I’m also inspired by the relationship between place and memory, and the way memories can seem like physical, tangible things that take up space. That’s one of the reasons why the 5Pointz was always to fascinating to me – the way the artwork has been layered on the walls year after year, it was like the neighborhood’s memory bank, as well as being an incredible celebration of the street art movement, and a living breathing piece of art in itself. Not to mention its proximity to my high school, which means I have some very important memories attached to the place. It was a confluence of pretty much everything I’m interested in, and even now that it’s gone, I find myself going back to it.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
Queens is absolutely overflowing with fascinating stories that demand to be told, and I think we have an obligation to tell those stories, especially the ones that no one else wants to take on. I think on some level that’s true of every community, but it’s especially true here.

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
What am I reading right now? (Chimananda Ngozi Adichie – her work is just brilliant on every possible level; and Brene Brown – inspiring research on the power of vulnerability. All good things.)

Thanks, Emma! 

Readers, mark your calendars:

Discover “Nature of the Muse” in LIC

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Host Audrey Dimola with LIC Bar’s Gus Rodriguez and musical guest Ace Elijah

By Audrey Dimola

I’m a proud Long Island City/Astoria native, and I feel very grateful to be among the ranks of Queens writers and curators I admire with the founding of this new series. “Nature of the Muse” came out of many things – my experiences as a writer, reader, curator, audience member, and writing workshop participant, as well as a lover of improv and the unexpected – what happens when you push creative people to produce work in the moment and share it with spectators. The events are meant to be experiential for everyone involved – thus far, I’ve featured several local writers sharing their previously written work, with a twist.

How it works: Everyone in the audience writes a prompt on a slip of paper (a word, phrase, song lyric, image, anything!), and then each writer chooses a random prompt they will use as a jumping point for a piece they will compose on the spot, which will then be presented to the crowd at the end of the night! In this way, we can see different sides of each participant’s talents – what moved them to write on their own time, and then what happens when they write LIVE from a random trigger.

The inaugural event, staged by the gorgeous fire in LIC Bar’s carriage house, was so fun and outrageous – and really exemplary of the range of talents in Queens. Going forward I’m aiming to have the series drift through the borough every few months in interesting locations, perhaps even working in multi-disciplinary performances, but at its core, “Nature of the Muse” will always play with themes of inspiration and on-the-spot creation. If you’d like to get involved (not only limited to writers – musicians, playwrights, artists, etc.) please contact Audrey via her website.

The next “Nature of the Muse” event will be by the fire at LIC Bar once more before the warmer weather sets in – Thursday, April 4th @ 7:30pm. Featuring: Aida Zilelian-Silak, Tim Fredrick, Joe Yoga, and Greg Kirkorian, with special guests Siobhan O’Loughlin and Tam Lin/Paul Weinfield. Details on this and past events: http://audreydimola.com/tag/nature-of-the-muse/.

carriefire
Poet Carrie Noel reading at the inaugural event