Spotlight on Queens Writing: Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo

Newtown Literary is pleased to spotlight Queens writer Joe Okonkwo. We interviewed him about his new novel, Jazz Moon, and his responses are below.
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Tell us about Jazz Moon. What is it about?
The novel is set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. It’s about Ben and his personal and creative odyssey which takes him from rural Georgia to Harlem to the Paris of Josephine Baker. The story is about coming out, coming of age, race, jazz, the blues, poetry, and the difficulties that the search for love presents. And it’s an ode to a vibrant and difficult cultural period that saw an explosion of black artistic and political movement. Artistically and politically, The Harlem Renaissance was the first time people realized that black is beautiful.

Tell us about the process of writing Jazz Moon.
Jazz Moon started off as a short story in 2004. I heard about a short story contest with a word limit of 1500. I thought, “Oh, yeah, I can write this story in 1500 words.” 95,000 words and twelve years later, here it is! The process drew on my knowledge of and affinity for the era: its music, its literature. I also did a ton of historical research to get the details right and make them tangible and really transport the reader to this world.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Ideally I’d like to spark a revival of interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, I’d like to continue sparking that interest. Queen Latifah starred recently in a TV biopic about Bessie Smith who was known as the Empress of the Blues. Audra McDonald is currently starring in Shuffle Along on Broadway. That show was originally produced in 1921 and was a landmark in terms of successfully bringing black entertainment to the Great White Way. So Jazz Moon is participating in bringing the Harlem Renaissance into the 21st Century.

What else have you written?
Some short stories, one of which (“Cleo”) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. And some poetry, most of which I’m not too proud of.

How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
I can’t tell you how often I’ve told people that I live in Queens and the swift (and rather rude) reaction is: “That’s SO far.” Queens is often dismissed, if not outright denigrated. The implication is that if you live in Queens, you’re not really part of New York City. You’re an outsider. I think that “outsider” status influences all of my writing, certainly Jazz Moon where my protagonist is black and gay and a poet and, therefore, not part of the mainstream.

What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
Toni Morrison is my favorite writer. Her novel Beloved makes you understand how slavery destroyed people on an intensely personal and spiritual level. James Baldwin’s Another Country was the first gay book I ever read. I got depressed when I finished it because the characters had become friends and it hurt to leave them. Shakespeare has influenced me, too. His grand language hits the mark and is so beautifully crafted. And, believe it or not, I find political writing inspiring. Political writers have to quickly get the facts across and be creative enough to keep the reader’s attention. Fiction is often like that, too. Reading politics absolutely helps my fiction writing.

When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Read. Drink wine. Think about what to write next.

Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
I’ve lived in a multitude of places: Syracuse, NY; Flint, MI; Lagos, Nigeria; Vicksburg, MS; California; Houston, TX; and Astoria, NY. I’ve lived so many places that I don’t feel I’m really from anywhere.

What should I have asked that I didn’t?
About my next book! I’m staying with the Harlem Renaissance. There’s still more to learn there. The next novel will be about Gladys Bentley (who makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon). She was a real person. Blues singer, pianist. She was a drag king, known for wearing a white tux and top hat. She would change the lyrics of popular songs and make them naughty and flirt with the women in the audience. She claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City ceremony, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. In the McCarthy-tainted 1950s, Bentley gave an interview to Ebony magazine saying she had “cured” herself of lesbianism by taking female hormones. It seemed to be a pretty rich life. And not that much has been written about her, so that makes for fertile and imaginative subject matter.
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Where can readers buy your book? Here’s a link: http://www.joeokonkwo.com/purchase-jazz-moon

 

Thanks, Joe!

Readers, mark your calendars:

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Newtown Literary Contributor: Bill Cushing

Writer Bill Cushing’s story “The Commies Come to Watertown” was featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed him about his writing, and his answers are below. You can read more from Bill at PoemHunter.com or at PoetryNook.com

What is your relationship to Queens?Newtown pic 2
I have always considered myself a New Yorker first and foremost even though I’ve spent decades in other locales. My Dad was from Brooklyn and grew up in Albany. I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, because he was serving on subs in the Navy, but before I was two, the family moved, first to Flushing and then to Douglaston. I still have many of my “emotional roots” there even though I have been gone for so long. Once while visiting a friend out on the Island, I took a side trip through the town to show my wife the places I grew up, so my relationship with the borough seems unending.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
That is tough to answer, but certainly my time both in New York through the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s has to count for something. What’s interesting are the many fascinating people I grew up with and knew in my youth: James Conlon has become a world-renowned operatic conductor, Debbie Berke is now the first female dean of architecture at Yale, and I hardly have to qualify John McEnroe.

How would you describe the writing you do?
Because I tend to work across genres, my writing shifts gears with the theme and format of the piece, but I also find that I tend to be influenced by whomever I may be reading at the moment, which makes things confusing at times but also, hopefully, interesting. For instance, I am currently reading the novel A Void by Georges Perec, a surrealistic mystery, while also reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. I’m certain the combination of those influences must rub off into my ongoing work.

How did you come to writing?
My first interest in the arts was visual, and I used to sketch and paint. However, when I entered the sixth grade, I was lucky enough to have several teachers who chose our reading assignments very well so that I soon began to read with a passion. My admiration for these writers pushed me to try it myself, and by the time I reached high school, I was active on the student newspaper, writing across departments with a monthly column being my favorite assignment since it allowed me to choose whatever topic I wished. Even before I made writing an academic choice, I kept journals, sketchbooks, and pads of paper with short pieces and some short stories. I still have many of these in file folders, boxes, and various piles—much to the chagrin of my wife.

Growing up, my “dream” was to get a journalism degree and write for the New York Times sports section. Then I got sidetracked when I managed to flunk out of the University of Missouri and enlisted in the Navy. Then I spent about 15 years after working primarily as a shipyard worker, but I continued maintaining journals, notes, and skeletons of stories.

Finally returning college at the age of 35, I was lucky enough—yet again—to enroll with an instructor who rekindled my desire to start writing seriously. While I started school with the intention of majoring in either history or humanities, I ended up getting a dual major in literature and creative writing. From there it was an easy decision to continue, and I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the only post-grad program I wanted: the MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont.

What inspires you?
That’s simple: life. But when I say that, I don’t mean only my life but my observations of the lives of people around me whether they are known by me or strangers I happen to see. I think it is difficult if not impossible for writers not produce material based on people and events in life. Even most of my poems are images and impressions of those I’ve met or that which I have experienced. But the other part of “inspiration” is, as Philip Levine alluded to in his memoir, the willingness to spend the energy in an effort to produce pieces worth reading. If anything motivates a writer, I argue it is the desire to be read and heard as an individual. Writing becomes that person’s voice. I would say the act of writing is more a calling because, whether I get paid or not, published or not, I cannot stop writing. Perhaps that makes it more of an obsession.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
That’s an interesting perspective because, other than my internal “voice”, I likely would have written regardless of where I was from. Certainly my place of origin influences how I see things and then write about them—I am a big believer in Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa, but that is only one part of the whole recipe. Staying put or moving around only alters the possibilities, not the desire. I’ve spent a good portion of my life traveling the country because of work, and I’ve found that material is almost anywhere there is a window. Yes, I travel, but I do not travel to write; my writing comes out of the journey.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I am now trying to pare down my MFA thesis into a publishable piece. The title is Counting Down the Breaths, a “memoir” about my late wife, and it chronicles the dual lives of me and her, our subsequent relationship, her battle with cancer, and as indicated by the title, the event of her death, which I witnessed over the final hours of her life. Perhaps the greatest inspiration for the work was my desire to share with others the ordeal of the caregiver for those with terminal disease. I want it to be a way to inform anyone else thrown into that position of what to expect, to convey that the pain that people watching their loved ones go through, while personal and unique to each of us, is not isolated.

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t? 
“What is your favorite book?”

I live convinced that Anthony Burgess is one of the greatest modern writers of the English language because of his sharp mind and versatility. I mean here is the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange, one of the more disturbing stories on society versus the individual, as well as Man of Nazareth, an ode to the life of Christ that became the backdrop for Zefferilli’s six-hour movie. He has written novels, biographies, and critical studies that knock me out. I know that when I read him, I better have a dictionary nearby because of the linguistic jokes he loves to plant in his work. In fact, there is a word that I still cannot nail down from his novel Napoleon Symphony—a fictionalized look at Bonaparte’s life divided into four parts where Burgess tries to pace his diction according to Beethoven’s Third Symphony. That is magnificent, clever, and indicative of real discipline. Yet, with all that work to choose from, he also produced what I rank as the greatest novel of the late 20th Century, Earthly Powers. The book covers 80 years of history and events through the eyes of a gay writer who befriends and becomes a confidant to the Pope. It has one of the greatest opening lines ever, and no one but no one comes out with clean hands. Newtown pic 1

Thanks, Bill!

Readers, mark your calendars:

QWW: A word from Site Captain Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

Kelly Jean is Site Captain for the Sip-N-Scribe: QED event taking place on Saturday, May 14 at 2:00 p.m

queens writes and sipnscribeRecently, I joined creative forces with Jenn Wehrung, who teaches the Young Writers Workshop at The Astoria Bookshop, to co-host a monthly Sip-N-Scribe at QED: A Place To Show & Tell. We are thrilled to be holding a bonus Sip-N-Scribe this Saturday, May 14, at 2:00 p.m. as part of Queens Writes Weekend.

Sip-N-Scribe is a chance to push away from your keyboard, put pen to paper, and mingle with other writers in person. While writing is primarily a solitary act, there are also times when you need to shake things up a bit and draw inspiration from fellow scribes.
Here’s how it works!

  • Round 1: Sippers-N-Scribers are given the first half of a creative writing prompt and start writing.
  • Round 2: Everyone trades papers with a partner and, inspired by the second half of the writing prompt, continues working on the piece the first person started.
  • Intermission: Drinking is not required, but beer, wine, and non-alcoholic beverages will be available for purchase along with light snacks and pastries.
  • Round 3: One last trade, plus a TWIST to finish the piece with style.

At the end of the session, people are encouraged to share the writing they co-created. The first two brave souls to share win a cookie! The goal is to experiment with something new on the page in an informal, relaxed way, all while hanging out with your friends and hopefully making new ones.

No one is here to write the next Great American novel. But hey, if that happens, please include us in the special thanks!

Thanks, Kelly Jean.  Readers, we hope to see you there!

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

QWW: A word from Site Captain Jennifer Harmon

Jennifer is Site Captain for the Writing about Family event taking place on Sunday, May 15 at 1:00 p.m. 

I’m looking forward to seeing familiar faces and meeting new people at my Writing About Family meetup on Sunday, May 15. I’ll be holding it in my apartment in Astoria from 1:00-3:00 p.m. It feels powerful to bring writers into my home and connect with one another in person.

I plan on reading a piece by my mom called “Mothering” since she is my creative writing inspiration and favorite poet. I remember reading this particular poem she wrote about my grandmother, which showed me it was okay to express honest, uncomfortable questions and emotions about family members and specific feelings/situations. I would also like to share one or two poems I’ve written about my mother and father to kick off the event. It’s going to be a delightful afternoon of experimenting with some writing prompts, sharing our work with one another, and expressing ourselves in a creative, supportive environment.

English: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
English: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The topic of writing about family has always been an important part of my artistic expression. I began filling pages of journals back in elementary school and poetry soon became an invaluable tool to cope with life changes dealing with family issues like blindness, diabetes, divorce, and the physical loss of a loved one. It’s also been a fun, fabulous way to capture magical moments and celebrate the beauty of family traditions (traveling, shopping, sharing clothes and jewelry, cooking, fishing), unique bonds, and gratitude for where I come from and who I am today. The other night on the subway, I found myself jotting down lines on the back of a receipt for a new poem about my mother-in-law Carmela and our bike riding adventure over the Verrazano Bridge.

Since August of last year, my husband and I have been holding a monthly private open mic for comedy, poetry, music, and storytelling in our living room. It’s pretty magical to see what happens in our home on a regular basis. We have three cats who normally hide, but lately Jupiter, the black and white cat, has been coming out to join the party.

Can’t wait to celebrate Queens Writes with everyone during the weekend of May 13-15th! It’s amazing to be a part of such a wonderful artist community in Queens!

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

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

QWW: A word from Site Captain Joan Becht Willette

1873 Beers Map of Astoria, Queens, New York City - Geographicus - Astoria-beers-1873
By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/beers.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joan is Site Captain for the Prompted Writing: Astor Bakeshop event taking place on Saturday, May 14 at 4:00 p.m

It is exciting to be a Site Captain for Newtown Literary for the third year! My event is held at The Astor Bakeshop, along with my monthly “The Enchanted Goddess Writing Workshop!”

This is a “writing prompt” meet, eat, and write group. It is wonderful to gather in community and write together, break bread together, and share with our neighbors in Astoria! A lively exchange of stories and laughter always ensues!

The Astor Bakeshop is a cool neighborhood venue with great food! Newtown Literary provides such a valuable literary resource for writers to be seen and published! I was honored to be a contributor in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue! Come out and join the fun!!!

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

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

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. 

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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.

Newtown Literary Contributor: M. Leona Godin

Writer M. Leona Godin’s piece “A Paris Wasting” was featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. Here, she discusses the story. You can read more from Leona at DrMLGodin.com, and follow her on Twitter @DrMLGodin.

 

Leona-Godin-160webCathryn Lynne Photographer

 

The Detective Story Behind “A Paris Wasting”

I’d heard from my mother years ago that my childhood friend had died young, causes unknown. When the news struck me, googling hadn’t risen to ubiquitous, so the hearsay sufficed. But recently, having thought of her randomly one day, I finally typed her name into the search box. The details of the two online obits were intriguing with respect to her life and virtually nonexistent with regards to her death. She died, apparently alone, in a German city “with many projects left in progress.”

When I’d first heard of her death, I’d assumed rather offhandedly that it must have been suicide. How else would a 30-year-old who had everything die? But it didn’t feel right. Drugs crossed my mind, but were quickly dismissed, as being just too far-afield from her personality–the one I remembered from when we were little playing horsey games, and also from  the one glimpsed in the obit, lovingly and respectfully written by her parents on two coasts. She had, after a youthful stellar career in horse jumping, moved on to a worldly, writerly academic life. She was, no doubt, an overachiever, a winner from a winning family.

We’d made friends early in my long career at an all-girl private school in San Francisco. I was a scholarship child whose mother wisely told her upon her entrance in first grade, “You will be going to school with people who have much more than we do, but never be jealous. Just enjoy the experience.” My friend, who we will call Catherine as in my story but not real life, was among the richest of the rich. My mother dropped me off every weekend to play at her walled mansion where the living room, or rather I must call it a drawing room for its old-world appearance, likely boasted a greater square footage than our entire apartment.

My mother’s advice proved prophetic when Catherine invited me to visit Disneyland. Flying in the family’s private plane and staying at a villa was almost more amazing than the amusement park and I remember chattering away about it excitedly, having no feelings of jealousy tainting the wonder of it. But I hadn’t seen her since 4th grade, when she’d left our school to attend one closer to the family ranch with its horses she rode competitively.

The sparse but loving obituaries referred to her early success in that austere competitive world, and then of an equally stellar academic career. Also mentioned were her two publications, which turned out to provide the overwhelming fodder for my fictionalized snapshot. I’ve no idea what actually happened to her in that lonely death, but her short story published in a highly respected literary journal a year or two before her death, and an academic paper published a couple years earlier still, offered clues to a life. The picture emerged, colored by intense solitude and keen sense of particularity.

Thus “A Paris Wasting” is a wild amalgamation of Catherine’s published writing and my memories, as well as a few news clippings. There is also one more line of inquiry pursued as a result of reading her academic paper on Catherine of Siena but, for fear of spoiling the story, I will leave that thread unspoken…

The methodology of juxtaposing Memories with research represents a new approach to writing for me. I’m so proud to have it appear in Newtown Literary. There are others from this collection, both written and planned, so I will take this happy publication as encouragement to continue!

Thanks, Leona!

 Readers, mark your calendars:

Newtown Literary Contributor: Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

Writer Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons’s piece “Waked” was featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. Here, she discusses her workspace. You can read more by Kelly Jean on Medium.

My workspace is a hub of assorted creativity that I enjoy opening up to friends and fellow writers. As you can see, it also comes with an in-house editor. My cat, Clarence, has honed the art of the gentle nudge.Workspace2

The peculiarly-angled living room of my one-bedroom apartment in Astoria, which tilts toward the morning sun, makes for a pleasant work haven that has become quite dear to me for two major reasons:

  1. I almost lost it when my building was recently sold and the new landlord jacked up my rent $300 (shortly after I quit my full-time job of almost 10 years to go after being a full-time writer/producer. Yay, timing!)
  2. It is where I host a small salon for writers looking for a relaxed space, motivation, and time to work. I limit sign-ups to four people at a time to keep things intimate, and sessions are available on Sunday mornings and Monday evenings. The YouDoYou Writers Salon’s motto is “Write Together or Procrastinate Alone!”

Having people participate in the YouDoYou Writers Salon has also helped inspire and motivate my writing along with theirs. I enjoy the early Sunday session best: sitting around with coffee, working, and sharing progress, then going out and enjoying the rest of the day.

The index cards pictured are part of the salon’s goal board. When writers come for their first session, I give them an option of filling out a card with a big lofty goal and then, underneath that, I have them write down a smaller goal, something they can achieve in the two-hour session. This is to make the larger goal less daunting. Plus, it is fun to look across the board and see what people are working on, everything from a one-man magic show, to a book of short stories or a memoir. When people come back, they can switch out their index card out for a new one and chart their progress.

The last few months have been strange and wonderful as I transitioned from a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of freelance. Along with teaching a monthly drop-in creative writing workshop at The Astoria Bookshop, I also started as an adjunct faculty member in the College Writing Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Now my workspace is not only for writing but where I prep for my classes.

Finally, the podcast mic you see next to my laptop is for No, YOU Tell It! (NYTI), a reading series I produce that “switches-up” the storytelling. Each NYTI performer writes a true-life tale and then trades with a partner to present each other’s story. A hybrid between a literary reading series and storytelling show, No, YOU Tell It! blends the collaborative process of creative writing workshops with the intimacy and immediacy of theatrical performance to create a charged evening of personal stories. For three years and counting, the NYTI creative team and I have produced switched-up storytelling shows all over the city and I’m excited about our upcoming creative non-fiction workshops.

Fortunately, I have been able to hang onto my workspace by negotiating with my landlord to bring my rent increase down by $100. Also, I now have a “Tuesday roommate” who lives with me once a week when he comes into the city for work and helps out by paying a portion of the rent. The rest of the time he lives in Connecticut with his family – something that could only happen in New York.

Feel free to contact me at noyoutellit@gmail.com if you are interested in learning more about any of this, except on how to get a “Tuesday roommate”. You are on your own for that one.

 

Thanks, Kelly Jean!

 Readers, mark your calendars:

Newtown Literary Contributor: Micah Zevin

Writer Micah Zevin’s poem “P.S. 174” was featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. Here, he gives the background for his work.

The poem that came to be known as “P.S. 174” (my elementary school Rego Park namesake) and to be published in Issue #7 of the Newtown Literary went through several title changes with a slow evolutionary incubation, “Death and The Enemy Part I”  being the title that stuck for the longest before editors at Newtown accepted it. During the time this poem was constructed, I was in one of those reflective obsessive periods in my work, recounting the early years of my awkward youth in elementary school, where bullies dominated and oppressed and were simultaneously emulated, imitated, and respected as embodiments of “cool” and “rebellion” by their lack of effort and care in school as well as their defiance of its rules.

At first, the poem was mainly comprised of the nostalgia of running to the ice-cream truck after the final school bell had rung while being pushed and shoved by your fellow sugar-mad hungry classmates. While it had a whiff of the mythological (Lord of The Flies), it did not have the narrative focus to make the fantastical easier to comprehend and follow. This came about in a workshop several years ago when we were asked to bring in poems we still “believed” in but that were “missing” something and as a result were not complete. The ideas behind the concept of the poem and the original title, which was not clearly conveyed through it, were regarding how alive everyone is or is supposed to be when they are young, alongside the “reality”, how certain people and situations can and do shape our current adult identities. Do we change for better or good? What does that even mean? How do we define those terms? A lot of the language that instinctually and gutturally came from my mind was born of early adolescent memories of other children as mischievous little beasts on a haphazard journey of individual and group scenarios that involved risk and discovery in an often insulated and restricted universe. I often remember my fellow children as less disastrous/cartoonish versions of the Gremlins. As a result, (in the poem) that’s how they come to be attracted to danger represented by the composite bully left-back-kid, Freddie, who acts as a lure for these desires, with status objects like firecrackers and stink bombs acting as a kind of initiation into his world. The section in italics where Freddie addresses his new recruits came later. It came about not only because I felt something was missing narratively, but because it lent more mythic significance to the piece: a monologue by Freddie, the antagonist/protagonist.

As for process, this poem is a throwback to how I hope I used to write. There were several teachers and professors who recommended that before I typed up a poem I had written in my various notebooks, that I let it sit for a while and ferment before I started to type it up and start the revision process. Since my M.F.A at the New School was completed last year, I have tried to modify this extreme stance. Now, every morning that I sit on my couch and start jotting whatever pops into my head regardless of whether it is journal entry purge from my psyche writing exercise or potential fodder for poetry; I go through what I have written during the week, pick a few promising entries, type the results up, work on it instantly, and perhaps read it at an open mike.

Since November 2014, I have been running a reading series called the Risk of Discovery Reading Series, where I conduct a poetry workshop where I invent fun stimulating poetry prompts to get other poets creative noodles flowing, as well as my own. Of course, I use all of the poetry prompts to write my own poems and read them at the reading series. This is another way in which I generate new material that gives me restrictions and takes me out of my comfort zone, as well as periodically surprising myself with work that is sometimes instantly promising.

Thanks, Micah!

Readers, mark your calendars:

Newtown Literary Contributor: Jennifer Baker

Writer Jennifer Baker’s story “The Pursuit of Happiness” was featured in Issue #6 of Newtown Literary.  For more of her writing, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter @jbakernyc. We asked her about her piece, and her answer is below. 

Reflect on the process of completing your piece. What inspiration started your journey? What lessons did it lead you to?

The piece Newtown Literary published of mine titled “The Pursuit of Happiness” was one I had struggled with for years. Most of the short fiction I’ve been working on for seven, yes seven, years are part of a linked collection about an interracial family in my hometown of Long Island, NY. At the center of this collection is Mikayla Jenkins Smith, a Black woman who’s been told all her life she had so much “potential”. And let me tell you, “potential” is a dangerous word to use with someone. It can make you feel like no matter what, you’ll let someone down with your own choices. “Potential” can make it seem as though you’re slumming it simply by being.

When I began this collection at age 27, I purposely avoided Mikayla’s stories because I didn’t know who she was yet. I think I knew what I wanted her to be, but not what she as a character needed and wanted to be when I put pen to paper or my fingers to the keyboard. She’s a woman born in the 1950s who married a Caucasian doctor and left medical school because it was not her desired path. She’s a woman who wanted a family at a time when women were supposed to, and pushed to, want more than a matriarchal role. She’s a woman who had to navigate being a good Negro with constantly being perceived as “less than” when it was seemingly okay to make this claim as it was laid out very broadly in media, on television, in the news in a way that anyone seeing this today would flip a table at the audacity to say such a thing about a group of people.

So how was I, a 27-year-old, newly married woman, who was more career-minded than family-minded, going to portray that effectively? Other stories in my collection were drafted with ease, yet with others it took a while to slip myself into these characters skin or wait for them to instruct me on the direction of a particular story. Writing can be like using a Ouija board. You put your hands on the mirror and wait for the spirits to direct you to each letter constructing a larger message. So, for years I waited until Mikayla told me what her true fears were, what her passions were, what she sincerely wanted and the obstacles she faced. I listened to stories from my family—my mother would be around Mikayla’s age—about what she dealt with as a woman of color working in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s. What her childhood was like as the eldest daughter and how she saw herself in conjunction with how the world saw her.

And as I waited for Mikayla’s stories to take hold concentrating on others, I went through a divorce. I had a miscarriage. I was looking back on my life wondering if I had made the right decisions and if I had followed my own path or what I thought others wanted for me. What I thought I, as a Black woman, needed to do to continually prove myself as being good enough. I failed at what I wanted and succeeded at things I had no interest in, just like Mikayla. My marriage turned rocky before it completely dissolved and I found that while I hadn’t thought I could fully identify with Mikayla, she and I had much in common. Not just as women of color, but as people who wanted to believe that this time was the time that things would work out and in a blink it was gone. I remembered the pain of my miscarriage and being thankful and scared, and I wondered, how would it feel for a woman who was not thankful in this instance but very, very torn with fear?

As writers you grasp for something that almost seems unattainable. You hear the stats of how many people submit work and how many get published, you see the numbers, you get rejected over and over again. Even this story that took two years to polish and came in so many iterations in various workshops was rejected by a dozen or so magazines, sometimes with personalized letters admiring the work but saying, ultimately, “it wasn’t for them but send something else.” I took getting personalized rejections instead of form ones to mean I was getting closer. And I believed in this story.

Interestingly enough, many who read this particular story told me it made them uncomfortable because it put them so deeply in the body of Mikayla. That’s also when I knew that I was getting better and the story had life. If I could make someone feel something from this piece, that Mikayla’s experience could urge someone to see things from her perspective, then I had done her and this piece justice. After so many revisions and hours staring at the screen, then submitting it to critic after critic who told me there was more work to do, I wasn’t really failing, I was growing, and as long as I kept pushing myself, kept pushing this story,  I would eventually succeed if not in publishing it as a standalone then getting it to where it needed to be. In the end I learned, just like Mikayla does in “Pursuit of Happiness”, you have to move forward to try and get what you want in life regardless of outcome; you have to keep trying. It was in finishing this story, in a way conquering it, that Mikayla was no longer a mystery to me as a character and I gained more confidence in myself to continue my collection as a whole.

Thanks, Jennifer!

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