A week of momentous writing events

Week 2 of NaNoWriMo is not going well, but like I say to anyone who asks, the whole point of the exercise for me is to get into the habit of writing every day. Of course, having a lot written down is good, too, and so far I’m over 15,000 (though technically I should be at around 25,000), so there’s some material to work with for the future.

Most important this week was the start of my six-week memoir/autobiographical fiction workshop with Bushra Rehman and two big literary events: a conversation with playwright/novelist Ayad Akhtar through the Brown University entertainment group last night, and tonight Junot Diaz will be at the United Palace in Washington Heights to promote the illustrated version of This Is How You Lose Her.

I’m excited about the workshop — Bushra is encouraging and helpful, and Corona was a great read, but of course I’m nervous, too. I volunteered to be the first person to turn in a piece to workshop next week. Since AAWW is having an open mic for readings on the theme of ancestors next Friday, I thought I’d try my hand at the topic while writing as many words as possible for NaNoWriMo, so I cleaned it up a little and just sent it out to the class. We’ll see what I can do to make it better, and whether I think I would want to read it in public….

Last night, my coworker Nadia and I went to a Brown alum’s apartment on the Upper West Side for this 20-seat event to hear Ayad Akhtar ’93 speak. He had been on a panel for Page Turner, our huge literary event in October, but neither of us had heard it because we were both running around working. When we heard that he was going to do this Brown group event, because he has had a lot of success recently (like winning the Pulitzer Prize this year for his play Disgraced), Nadia and I scrambled to read his novel, American Dervish, in time to actually hear him speak. It was a very good book; both Nadia and I cried at the ending, which I think is saying something, because while I cry at everything, Nadia said she hardly ever does.

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I was inspired by hearing him talk about his trajectory from Brown to now, because he really persisted in writing, through years of struggling, having to learn to take criticism, and opening his mind to lessons from really unexpected places (like from the ultra-successful creator of Survivor and other reality shows). And he also had to come to terms with his identity and background, growing up Pakistani American in Wisconsin, and I think he did that through his recent writing and through his novel in particular, which is autobiographical to a mysterious degree. That is something that I aspire to — simply because that’s all I end up writing about anyway, myself — and letting my past experiences and background be fodder for creative work. I had recently decided, whether or not anybody wants to read about my life, I just have to do it, and then maybe I can move on to other things.

I related a lot to Akhtar’s novel, even though I knew close to nothing about Islam or Pakistan — the book taught me a bit about the Quran because the protagonist starts learning about it as an adolescent — but the experience of growing up Asian American with immigrant parents in a white community was familiar, and interest in spirituality and religion at a young age, too. The story in the novel, about the consequences of a childish error, was fascinating, similar to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, tragic and riveting, like a train wreck. I would like to read Disgraced and see his new play, which will be produced at Lincoln Center next year. (Shane will be happy because I have up to now had very little interest in going to any plays at all, not having ever been in the habit of going to the theater as he did growing up.)

In preparation for tonight’s event with Junot Diaz, I made myself read This Is How You Lose Her, which I finished last night. I enjoyed it, but not as much as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (coincidentally, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2008). Well, this new one was just different. I would like to read Drown next, which was his first book, a collection of stories. Looking forward to hearing him talk tonight and hanging with my AAWW comrades coming up to my part of town.