Review of “Articulations”: The VONA/Voices Workshop Faculty Reading

Junot Diaz at the podium during the VONA/Voices faculty reading

Junot Diaz at the podium during the VONA/Voices faculty reading

Yesterday I attended a really inspiring reading put on by the faculty of the VONA Voices Workshop based at UC Berkeley. Voices of our Nation (VONA) is an organization that provides writing workshops for emerging writers of color.  The distinguished faculty members of the , including renowned writer Junot Díaz and acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, read their own work to an audience comprised of students from the workshop program and members of the community who just wanted to hear from some talented writers.

I heard about the event from my friend’s mom, who knows one of the faculty, Elmaz Abinader. It was my first time attending a VONA event, and overall I really enjoyed it. The event itself was held in a lecture hall at Berkeley City College, and it was packed with people. They had so many audience members that all the seats were filled, and they had to open up another room for overflow and simulcast the event there. The air had an electric buzz of anticipation as we were waiting for the reading to start. Among the audience members, I noted the collision of a sophisticated New York-esque vibe with the hippie, loud, radical political culture of the Bay Area. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a reading that felt so lively, and the readers pumped up the audience even more by delivering words that leapt off the page.

I also have never been to a reading that had so many writers presenting (there were fourteen faculty members who read), and at first I was worried that it was going to drag on. But once I started listening to what the writers had to read, I was lost in their words and didn’t even notice that a whole two hours passed by.

The Emcee, Jacqueline Luckett, did a great job of introducing each writer with a funny anecdote from their twitter feed or facebook profile. There were certainly common themes that many of the writers touched on in their readings of poetry, short stories, or excerpts from larger works. Since VONA’s focus is on promoting the voices of people of color, it was no surprise that many works poignantly explored the difficulties of facing racism on a daily basis and discussed the struggle of minority communities in the U.S. and in other countries. Some delved into the pain and heartbreak of violence as it tears apart families and communities, while others deftly weaved together humor and social critique.

Junot Díaz, the well-known writer of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which admittedly I have not read yet) and one of the founders of VONA, was the star of the show, although I have to say I liked some of the other writers’ work better. Still, Díaz, who read from his novel This is How You Lose Her, probably projected the most outrageous persona out of all the writers, wildly gesticulating and swearing without recourse. After the first time he dropped the f-bomb while introducing his work, he admitted that he should have warned the audience, saying “I am a trigger warning.” It was quite a treat to hear him read.

There were so many great pieces from last night’s reading that I can’t possibly describe the all, but at the end of this post, I will list the fourteen authors in case you would like to look them up. I know I certainly plan on picking up some of their work after hearing them read.

My favorite poems from the night came from Patricia Smith and Andrew X. Pham. Smith’s poem was one of the most devastating pieces of literature I have ever read. I didn’t catch its title, but it reimagined an event taken from a newspaper headline about a man in New Jersey who throws his daughter into a sack and drowns her in a river. The event itself is shocking and heartbreaking of course, but the way Smith drew it out was unbelievable, using haunting language and wielding a harsh, powerful voice that just sliced through me like a knife. Her description of drowning made my own throat close up, and the way she described the man’s indifference… it gave me chills, and not the good kind.

Andrew X. Pham, who is a memoirist and food writer, read a fantastic poem about zooming down the California coast on the Pacific Coast Highway on a motorcycle after a heartbreak. At one point, the speaker sees families taking photo after photo at a lookout and the speaker remarks, “We are drawn to certainties even if they are boundless.” His imagery and the way he matched the feeling of speeding on the highway to that rootless feeling you get in your life when everything has gone wrong, it was magical.

We are drawn to certainties even if they are boundless.” – Andrew X. Pham

My favorite prose pieces were from Marjorie Liu and Faith Adiele. Liu is a fantasy author, so her writing was different in content than most of the other people’s. Still, she really captured the same tone that many of the pieces carried, one of fury against injustices. The selection she read was from her Hunter Kiss novels, which are about a woman with demonic tattoos and magical powers.

Faith Adiele is a travel writer, and the piece she read about one of her trips to Nigeria stood out to me because it overturned many of the travel writing genre’s expectations. She wrote about spending time with her father who had dementia and attending her brother’s wedding, and managed to find humor in that period of her life,without sugarcoating the stark reality of her father’s illness. She didn’t idealize the experience, especially when she discussed what happened when she consumed the wedding soup that her sister-in-law made. Let’s just say this particular piece of writing is not for the weak-stomached, but her descriptions of unsightly things made it all the more hilarious.

Below is the full list of all the people who read at last night’s event. I definitely intend on looking them up because what I saw last night blew me away. Also, I’m eventually planning on applying to MFA programs and many of the VONA faculty members teach at programs all over the country during the regular school year.

 

 VONA/Voices Workshop Faculty Members

Chris Abani
Elmaz Abinader
Faith Adiele
Staceyann Chin
Junot Díaz
Tananarive Due
M. Evelina Galang
Mat Johnson
Marjorie Liu
Randall Kenan
David Mura
Willie Perdomo
Andrew X. Pham
Patricia Smith

If you are interested in applying to the VONA/Voices Workshop, which is held durng one week in June, you can find out more information on their website:

voicesatvona.org

 

 

Five Chapters

My last post, back in May, was about serial online writing, so I thought it would be apt to review an online literary journal devoted to serial writing, Five Chapters. Five Chapters publishes one short story each week, but in five parts which are released sequentially Monday through Friday.

I really like the concept of Five Chapters because it offers a different kind of experience reading a short story than we would normally have reading one in a literary magazine or an anthology. Five Chapters is clearly catering to readers’ diminishing attention spans, but it does not do so by lowering the quality of the writing it publishes. The stories I have read on Five Chapters have been well-worded and thought-provoking, although they tend to be strictly literary in style and academic in content. The journal seems to be going for a New Yorker-esque vibe, which doesn’t always appeal to me.

For example, latest story they published, “HTLV-III” by Matt Sailor is told from the perspective of a philosophy graduate student. It has a compelling narrative, but in my opinion, the overly-jargonistic narrator who contemplates the narrative structure and effect of his own story as he is telling it is quite off-putting, albeit true to the personality of the character.

On the other hand, I really liked the story “Dubrovnik 1989” by Paula Whyman, which is about a young single woman who feels listless, drifting from one man to another just as she drifts from job to job. I like the story’s narrator, who talks in a very detached manner about her own life, but at the same time is frank and observant.

To read Five Chapters properly requires one to diligently check the website every weekday or to subscribe to their email list. I haven’t yet done either, but I did stick with the serial reading experience for one week, back in May, reading the installments on the days they came out, instead of reading all of them at once (which is what I did today).

The story I read was “Somewhere Around Then” by Nick Kocz. I enjoyed the story, which is about a boy’s summer romance before he goes off to college. Reading the story in parts, I realized, made me engage with the plot and the language more deeply than I would have otherwise, just skipping through it to reach the next important plot point. Each day while I was reading it, I had to go back to the earlier part so I could remember the context for what was currently going on in the story. So delivering the story in bits actually helped me improve my absorption of it, funnily enough.

The authors or the editor of Five Chapters choose deliberately when to break the story in a way that enhances suspense. Most of the time, the breaks feel natural because it comes during a change of scene. That doesn’t mean that the story must consist of only five parts. Some of the stories that I read had smaller breaks within the chapters. I’m not sure whether the editor looks for stories that could easily be broken into five parts or whether he works with the author to make the stories fit.

The editor of Five Chapters is Dave Daley, the editor in chief at Salon.com. The journal accepts unsolicited submissions of stories between 5,000-10,000 words. Since they have published Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners, and PEN/Faulkner award winners, having your story published on this website would put you in great company.

One critique I must make of the website is that is has a funky logo and backdrop, which could be much improved upon, but that doesn’t detract from the high-quality writing they publish.

Submission Information

Submissions are accepted year-round and the site does charge a $3 fee for submitting

For More Information:

Five Chapters
www.fivechapters.com