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7.26.2010

Lots On My Plate: Also, My Artistic Statement!

Among other things, I'm in a press release: here!

I'm going to L.A. in about two weeks for the LLF Emerging Writers Retreat, which is horribly cool. Honestly, I haven't bought a plane ticket yet, but I'm in-between jobs and the next paycheck (the first full one from this new job) will be enough to cover just the plane trip and a taxi--unfortunately, I can only go to L.A. for the educational experience. I imagine myself locked in a dorm room, having mild anxiety, eating kosher meals, and writing a masterpiece that will be ripped to shreds.

I know I haven't been updating very much, which is mostly in part because lately my internet connection has been unreliable. Also, blog writer's block (What to write about, and how to do so coherently?). Also, other projects, for example, a short story collection. Also, did I mention that new job? Also, rethinking about the content of the blog--what should I have: social critiques, literary criticism (haven't written any yet, but I'm working on some...I want to collect it in a book, the same way JCO does it in her latest [In Rough Country which I can't link to right now, because my internet is being funny]...but let's not talk about wants...), news, etc.

So I'm up in the air right now as life explodes all over me (read: I need a vacation).

Overall it is a frantic time, a stressful time, an exciting time for me.

For you, today, I have my artistic statement from my LLF Writer's Retreat application. It's about...writing. I'm not quite sure. It's been a long week, longer since I've written it.

...I am sleepy...


Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been, and How Do We Live?
by Eric Nguyen

One of my favorite short stories is Amy Hempel's legendary "The Cemetery Where Al Johnson Is Buried." I first read it when I was in a used bookstore in DC and the white spine of her The Collected Stories jumped out at me. All of Hempel's stories are great, but this one in particular stands out because: a) it was her first, b) it's everything good literature is supposed to be.

"The Cemetery Where Al Johnson Is Buried" follows the last days of the narrator's friend in fragmented pieces that range from scenes in the hospital to scenes on a quiet beach, all of which add up to the turning point where the narrator, not brave enough to face death, leaves her friend in the hospital. The friend dies without her.

On this short story, Hempel said that it started as an exercise in Gordon Lish's workshop where he assigned the students to write about their worst secret, that one thing that they would never live down.  Commenting on the story, Hempel wrote: "My worst secret was that I felt I had failed my best friend when she was dying. And this is the story I wrote." And her finished story deftly shows this: the guilt, the pain, the grief. The amazing thing about this is not that Hempel could translate a real event into a fictional one—and launch a career out of it—but that any reader of the story is likely to go through the same emotions, even if they have not experienced anything like it before. With the last paragraph of the story, Hempel shows not only her craft, but also the ability of the literature to transcend the differences between people—between the writer and the reader—to create a commonality in feeling.

In sum, it is great art. Great art is simply that: it reminds us that we're human after all, creatures susceptible to empathy and every emotion between joy and grief.

This is half the mindset I have when I write: when I write as a writer, when I write as a queer writer, when I write as an activist: when I write as a human.

It is partially pragmatic. Since college, since my involvement in social justice activism—from marching in DC to lobbying lawmakers—there has always been the question of why should I help you? The answer is: because we're just like you, even though we're not. This is not a contradiction. It's a truth. Our stories show it. The language we use and its effects are further evidence.

I remember interning and lobbying for the National Center For Transgender Equality and I remember not having much to say because I did not identify as transgender. But I remember photos and newspaper clippings and crying mothers and candlelight vigils for those who died—and I used these as my stories and reasons instead.  It goes: This girl, they beat her, dragged her, killed her. This guy, you might have heard of him, they did the same. He's from your place. You could have known him.

Since I graduated college, I take that lesson with me: that stories are powerful. As Joyce Carol Oates once said, "through our individual voices, we work to create art that will speak to others who know nothing of us. In our very obliqueness to one another, an unexpected intimacy is born." Stories are powerful and even more important for queer communities because as minorities we have the obligation to be loud and to answer to the majority: Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been, and How Do We Live?—to make them understand that we're just like them, yet we're not. We're something in between. Something familiarly queer.

That, I believe, is the key function of queer literature, of any literature. And it is with that in mind that I wrote the stories included here, all of which are part of a larger collection of short stories tentatively titled Maybe Sometimes I Need You i.s.o. which aims to observe the lives of queer and nonqueer people and find the commonality we all have: our need for each other, the fact that we're social creatures.

I started the project after getting involved in writing again. It started with a class I took—Introduction to Creative Writing—because I finished the credits I needed for both my Sociology major and my certificate in LGBT Studies, and I needed credits to waste. The class was not a waste. I re-read the works of Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson, was introduced to Ann Beattie (eh, she's mediocre), Junot Diaz, Mavis Gallant, among others, and I fell in love all over again, with literature in general, with the short story in particular.

The semester ended too soon and I've become the person I've been studying all along: the working poor. I work in a bookstore for minimum wage, still hoping to find something that puts three years of college into good use. But until then—my words are my solace. Another function of literature: survival. Writers write to survive because it's the only way we know how to take in the world and deal with it. Some have therapist, others have pills or knitting; we have words, if not for others to hear, at least for ourselves. For myself.

Yet no matter how solitary a task, writing needs to be social. Literature works within a social system. Writers must be part of society, if only to learn, to observe, to be fully human. The Lambda Literary Foundation Retreat will give writers like me that: an opportunity to learn the craft, an opportunity to meet others who are queer-minded writers, who believe that writing is both an artistic endeavor as well as a social statement—opportunities that is not available elsewhere. Especially not in world where we are put into poorly kept corners in the back of  bookstores, one single shelf for all of us. Sometimes they call it the Lifestyles section, other times Gay Fiction and Lesbian Fiction. Bernice McFadden, observing the rise of African American Literature sections in bookstores, used a pun to describe it: segbookgation, a structure that makes sure that only people "like-that" read books "like that," while those deemed normal and regular writers are privileged to just be shelved under the unqualified "Fiction and Literature" shelf. They say your fiction, your literature, your culture will be segregated in the corner of the bookstore. You'll have one entire shelf for people like you. We'll stay away.

And I say, "Let me tell you a story. It's about a guy I know. He looks just like you, but he's not. Let me tell you this story."

The LLF Writer's Retreat is way to do that: to come together and go back out and tell them stories. It's about the stories.

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