Vona Community site
VONA Community June 2017 Newsletter
From the Executive Director

Greetings from VONA/Voices HQ —

Penn Landings
Over 150 writers, 15 faculty, 7 staff and a volunteer army are all pointed to our new home for our summer workshops, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, as in two weeks, we begin our 18th consecutive year of presenting the VONA/Voices Writing Workshops. We had another record number of applications (nearly 700) for these 150 seats, in the Class of 2017, which were meticulously reviewed by our Screening Committee, Faculty and Senior Staff.

The honors continue to embrace our community as with over 2,300 active alumni, the awards, honors, fellowships, publications, plays, teaching appointments and community leadership roles…VONA Voices are being heard and making a difference. The voices from the VONA Community continue to grow as we welcome the Class of 2017 to the next plateau on their evolutionary journeys as writers, artists, advocates and citizens…Our place is clear and we are needed now more than ever.

If you are in the Philly area in June, please consider joining us at our Faculty Readings and Tributes on June 22nd & 29th Read about more of our journeys in this issue as we are the Voices of Our Nations, locked in step and flight the make a difference by telling our stories through the words on the page as well as the stages of Mother Earth.

“Be firm till I return from hell. I am very hungry. I am incomplete. And none can give me any word but Wait, The puny light.— Gwendolyn Brooks

La Luz,

Diem Jones
Executive Director

Seven Years to find The Leavers: Interview with Lisa Ko
By Gail M. Dottin

Deming Guo can’t find his mother. He’s 11. His mom, Polly, works at a nail salon. One day she didn’t come home from the shop. She’s undocumented, from China. So, the American born, Bronx-raised Chinese boy searches for her but eventually he’s adopted by a white couple. They change his name to Daniel, move him to a very white town in upstate New York. They want to make him American. The Leavers, Three-time VONA alum Lisa Ko’s, first novel details the story of Deming’s life into his early 20s as he copes with the loss of his mom, his name, his culture. The book was selected by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction and has received fantastic reviews in major media outlets. Nice! Lisa’s among my NY VONA crew so I was very excited to hear more about this singular moment in her writing life. She’s now on cross-country book tour. Be sure to click this link to check her out when she’s in your town.

Where are you now in your tour?
I’m home in New York City for a few days after events in Boston and Providence last week. Next week, I’m off to Nashville, followed by the Bay Area, Seattle, L.A., Portland, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis—one city per day. Whew.

Sounds intense but fun! Since so many VONA folks are still trying to figure out this writing career/publishing Rubik’s Cube, I think it’s helpful to understand how one of our own experiencing success got there. Personal peeve of mine is interviews with writers, performers that glaze over the tangible steps taken to get there, with no details about how they had a life—looked for other jobs, made time to polish their craft, found boyfriends/girlfriends/partners, did the laundry. It’s as though they discovered they were good at the thing that made them successful. They tried to do the thing. Maybe they messed up a time or two. Then they were successful. So, let’s start with paying work. I know you had a few jobs while working on this. What kind of work were you doing?
I’m glad you asked this, because that lack of transparency is a personal peeve of mine as well. So much of getting your writing done has to do with access to time and space, and access to time and space can also be tied to access to money and other factors, like whether or not you’re a parent or a caretaker. For me, coming from a middle-class background and not being a parent or having to financially support anyone except myself gave me the options to go on lengthier artists’ residencies, for instance, and take jobs that weren’t the most high-paying. In the seven years it took me to write The Leavers—and in the many, many years I was writing fiction before that—I worked in documentary film, book and magazine publishing, non-profit media, and as a freelance editor and creative writing teacher. During the last three years I worked on the novel, I had a full-time job as a web and marketing content manager at a university. I chose it because it wasn’t as demanding as other jobs I’d had, like teaching, and I wasn’t as invested in it as when I worked in non-profits. It was your basic 9-5, didn’t take too much effort, and it paid the bills, freeing up my financial anxieties so I could prioritize my writing.

How did you make time to write while working?
Very often, I didn’t. But here’s what has worked for me: Getting up early to write before work and having everything ready the night before so I could get to it right after waking up. Saying no to things. Using all my vacation days to go on artists’ residencies (ones where you don’t have to pay a cent and they feed and lodge you for free) where I could binge write to my heart’s content, and subletting my apartment while I was away for extra money. Of course, like I said above, this isn’t an option for everyone. I was also fortunate at my last job to have the option to work a summer schedule for three months out of the year, where I’d have one weekday off that I could dedicate to just my writing, and I’d work extra-long days the other four weekdays to make up for it.

Did you bring any of the novel to VONA?
I workshopped a chapter pretty early on, in 2011. I started writing it in 2009, so it was first-draft material. I was stuck, and that class moved me forward.

Who’d you work with? What did you get from coming to VONA? I know you had a less than fantastic experience during undergrad at Wesleyan.
I worked with Junot Díaz that summer. In previous years, I worked with Elmaz Abinader and David Mura. Each of those teachers gave me valuable insight and hope in precisely the way I needed it at the time.

I’ve gotten so much out of VONA. Understanding, community, the right readers for my work, and an education on craft and process. The support and the rigor that were missing from writing workshops I’d taken in other spaces.

Talk about your process of submissions. I know you had a specific goal in 2014.
Well, I decided to shoot for rejections rather than acceptances, then arbitrarily set the goal of 50 rejections in a year. It was a little mind trick—when I got a rejection, I’d be like, “Score, I’m closer to my goal!” Plus, it forced me to submit more. And it worked, because not only did I get more rejections than in any previous year, I also got more submissions, because I was sending out more writing.

Who did you submit to? You know, I actually hate that we use “submit” when talking about putting our work out. It just sounds like we’re serfs groveling before some master for recognition. During my first VONA a poet came up with something like “Offer Our Brilliance for Inclusion and Enhancement of a Publication”. So, let’s just say to whom did you offer your brilliance?
Ha, I like that! I offered my work everywhere, really. Magazines, journals, residencies, fellowships, grants. One of my short stories, “Pat + Sam,” ended up getting published in a journal called Copper Nickel after previously being rejected over 25 times. The following year, it was chosen to be in Best American Short Stories.

Did you have an agent yet?

You didn’t make it to 50 rejections though.
I’ve kept going with this goal every year and have yet to make it to 50. I usually end up sending out around 25 submissions a year. I’m holding steady at an 80% rejection rate for 2017 so far.

In the fall of 2015 I sent out a draft of The Leavers for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, which was established and funded by Barbara Kingsolver. I didn’t think I had a chance of winning and only submitted it to reach that 50 rejections goal. So, I was shocked when six months later, I got a phone call from Barbara Kingsolver telling me I’d won.

I love that you were on vacation Barbara Kingsolver is searching for you!
Yeah, I actually lost my phone and came home to find an email from her saying she’d been trying to reach me for days. I think she thought I was blowing her off.

I just realized that you and Christine Huang Oak-Lee have the same agent, Ayesha Pande. I interviewed Christine las month about her new memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember, for the newsletter. Ayesha also liked my memoir and gave me some terrific feedback when I sent my manuscript to her. She does well by VONA folks! How did you both come to work together? What was the agent search like?
Ayesha is fantastic! She’s also Patricia Engel’s and Daisy Hernández’s agent. My agent search was unusual as a fiction writer, since typically you finish your novel, then you query agents, and then your agent looks for a publisher. But when I won the PEN/Bellwether, I also received a book contract with Algonquin, so I already had a publisher when I began to search for an agent to help me with the contract. It all happened very quickly—I already knew I wanted to work with Ayesha because she represented so many great writers, so after I won the award, I sent queries out to her and a few other agents I’d had my eye on, and luckily, she said yes.

You’re on a book tour now. Love the video to promote the tour! I love that you use Never Too Much as your background music. Luther [Vandross] holds a lot of memories for me.
Thanks! It was fun to make since I’m a true goofball at heart. My partner shot it on my phone in various places in our neighborhood and then I edited it on iMovie. I had Luther in my head for weeks; I’m not complaining.

That’s [touring] really kind of rare for a first novel from an unknown author. Did your agent push for that with the publisher or is this something you’re funding on your own?
I’m really lucky that my publisher, Algonquin, has been behind this book from the beginning, so the tour has all been planned and paid for by them.

I saw a sweet picture of your dad holding a copy of the book. I’m also a first- generation American writer and my family is fairly-sure that I don’t do much of anything because they don’t know what it is to be a writer. Even though my parents’ decisions to leave Panamá allowed me the freedom and options to pursue this as a career. As immigrants, do your parents and family understand what you do? Was there every any pressure to be something else?
My family is proud and supportive of my writing now that I have a book out, because it’s a tangible product, there’s been external validation, and because money is involved, so it makes sense from a capitalist standpoint. But prior to publication, my writing was often worrying and frustrating to them. Like why would I choose to stay home and work on my writing when it neither brought money or, honestly, much joy? And why was it taking so damn long to finish this mythical book, anyway? Over the years, I’ve gotten “helpful advice” from family members to pursue careers in everything from computer science to physical therapy.

Talk a bit about the character development. Without giving anything away, was it important that the Deming and his mom, Polly represent the experience of being Asian in the US in a particular way? Was there anything you were aiming to counteract or affirm by writing them the way you did?
As writers of color, because so few of our stories are told in mainstream publishing, even our specific stories become weighted with the responsibilities of representing everyone from our ethnic or racial groups. I won’t lie and say that concerns of representation haven’t come up for me. I do want to write Asian American characters that fully reflect our diversity and our experiences. Polly and Deming’s journeys are atypical, and as characters they’re a bit atypical as well. Polly is a reluctant mother with severe wanderlust; Deming is, well, kind of a mess. But they’re not written this way just to defy stereotypes: their characteristics make sense when you look at their stories, surroundings, and trajectories.

There’s an interesting parallel to your own life; Deming is American born of Chinese parents being forced to assimilate. Your parents are Chinese but born in the Philippines which you’ve said has similarities to the US and you’re a Jersey girl, first generation American. All of that migration and first generation experience had to inform the writing.
Definitely. Though the circumstances of Deming and his mother Polly are vastly different than mine, I’m familiar with the emotions that a lot of kids of immigrants feel: guilt, yearning, displacement, resentment, resistance towards assimilation, and many others. Those emotions helped inform some of the scenes in the book.

People often ask authors what their next project is when a book is finished. Seven years is a long time to work on a project. I'm wondering if after all that time you can just stay in the moment of having gotten this book published. I know you're on tour now to promote it but have you been able to just enjoy the accomplishment?
It’s been a challenge to stay in the moment because so much has been going on, I’ve barely had a second to think. And because I started the book so many years ago, I’m no longer the same person I was when I was writing it, and yet the promotion part of publication requires me to talk and think about the novel constantly. But I’m finding time to be more present. Journaling about everything has helped, so at least I’ll remember what it was all like.

And were there any surprising feelings you experienced when you finished, things you didn't expect to feel when it was done?
When you obsess about something for so long, it’s both a relief and a bit of a loss.

So, every review and interview comments on the prescience of this book because of the immigration issues we’re dealing with now. Let’s say your agent gets you a meeting with the Fascist Ferret Who Has Invaded Obama’s White House to present your case for reading your book as a way of understanding why he should reconsider. You’ll be one of a few authors presenting. What do you say?
I don’t think FFWHIOWH is capable of empathy, nor does he read, so attempting to use my book to help him understand how immigration policies affect actual people won’t result in much. Instead, I’d figure out a way to use my time during the presentation strategically regarding the resistance, or maybe psychologically messing with him. (Shhh.)

Better Than This
By Gail M. Dottin

There’s always been a somewhat romantic notion of the depressed writer, creating artistry of beautiful tragedy. We see them in movies, pacing sun-lit studios, crumpled pages surrounding their feet, chain smoking cigarettes. From Wolfe to Foster Wallace, the miserable scribe barely holds on to a wretched existence, bangs on their typewriter, while managing to craft transcendent masterworks. This mythology is embedded in our idea of the author.

I’ve been the newsletter editor for almost a year. I’m told that I was immediately thought of when Vanessa Martír could no longer continue in the position. Reading the email asking if I’d be up for taking on the role, my response was visceral: tingly, brain-stopping. I remain honored that I found a space in the thoughts of those who hired me.

VONA is sacred; those are my people. I’ve been part of this community for a decade and it’s rejiggered nearly every facet of my life. It’s pushed me to places—emotional and terrestrial—that I wouldn’t have willed myself to envision on a dare. Thus, I’m terrified that I’ll mess up this job as editor which is beyond a gig to me; it’s evidence that I’m valued and trusted by the VONA tribe.

Truth: I’m out of contact for stretches at a time. I can meet deadlines but it’s a struggle. I know myself to be better—a focused, insightful, detailed writer. But here’s the thing: I’m depressed. Seriously. I have a diagnosed mental illness: drug-resistant depression. It has taken up residence in me along with chronic anxiety and a succulent array of other mental health infirmities. This is not new. Depression and I go way back. Decades.

At seven years, this is the longest bout I’ve ever experienced. I was hospitalized for almost two weeks last November. My VONA fam drew close, visited me in the hospital, reminded me I’ve got friends and I matter to them, especially when it’s hard for me to matter to myself. I’m now on disability and in an intensive program to help me move through.

Daily, my brain tells me the 1000.5 ways that I’m worthless. Still the one thing I know I do well— like, really well— is write. No matter how much of me my beast swallows, I always know that my shit is dope. I also know that the deep sensitivity, empathy and insight that make me a gifted writer are the same elements that give my depression a dark moist loam to embed itself in me. Every day I wake up to my “canvasses” from two of my previous VONA experiences on my bedroom closet door. They remind me of who I was at my best. Reminding is required now.

In 2014, when my beast was inhaling me, I was over a decade into working on an intensive historical memoir about my experience learning that my Bajan grandfather helped build the Panamá Canal. I’d received a Fulbright to research this project a few years before because of support I received through VONA, Elmaz especially. Though I started the project at Columbia University where I earned my MFA, my biggest breakthroughs happened when I brought slices of it to my tribe, first in Berkeley then in San Francisco.

Writers write for many reasons beyond the desire to tell a story. Finishing this book was going to make my family understand that I’m not a failure; be a concrete testimony to the unadulterated love I have for my aging dad before he dies; make my mother love me like she did before I came out 20+ years ago; allow me to live like an adult, not in my parents’ house; be an heirloom of our family’s grandeur to share with my extraordinary little guy nephews as they grow up; make my VONA people proud; make my writing career a real thing. My writing was the dues I was paying to grant me the right to take up space on the planet.

So, 2014. I’d been grinding on the work as it was the centennial of the canal’s opening and I was pushing to get an excerpt published. With encouragement and guidance from VONA faculty Minal Hajratwala, I sent out pieces to all the big mags—Atlantic, Paris Review—stacking up rejections. I’d also sent something to Essence. Finally, there was a promising moment when I’d run into a college classmate who’d become an editor there and assured me she could help me get in in time for the canal’s centennial. Essence: my manual for black womanhood when I was barely out of training bras. This was huge. But ultimately, she jerked me around for weeks with emails and stilted hurried phone conversations about sending contracts to publish that never hit my inbox or mailbox. Thrown on the pile of stresses I had about what I needed this book to do for me, I finally broke. I couldn’t write any more. I couldn’t function.

Despite the romanticized mythology of the tortured scribe, depression is generally an obstacle some writers must navigate to get the work done, including writers who have been through VONA. Out with a new memoir about her stroke at 33, depression is familiar for Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, “I have to ride its wave. Sometimes it helps me by unearthing something I've been avoiding. Other times it's prohibitive and keeps me floored.”

“Depression seems to steal my words,” reflects Jasmine Wade. “It’s always a sign that I’m depressed or about to become depressed when words seem just out of reach.”

At times, writing is part of the treatment we need. “I would say that writing was the mechanism that helped me cope with my depression before I made the decision to seek out therapy,” says VONA poet Addie Tsai. Having found treatment now “I write in order to break out of the episodes of depression that occasionally strike.”

Strategies like creating deadlines, joining writing groups, experimenting with writing other genres are helpful in continuing to be productive. But depression is a diagnosable and treatable medical illness. There comes a moment when you just need to get help.

As colored folk, we’re often the ones who need mental health support most but have a pile of reasons to just keep pushing. In various ways and a multitude of languages we’re told by our people it—therapy, psych meds, group counselling—is not what we do. But self-care and upkeep have no color.

Like VONA fiction writer, Kirin Khan, I’ve had moments when what I needed to keep writing was to stop writing. For her, depression blocks time with the page, “…but I don't really feel guilty about not writing, because I don't feel like it is an obligation I am fulfilling so much as a thing I want to do.” She’s gentle with herself when she can’t get going and allows the moment to be just that, a moment. “I trust that I'll want to do it again,” she says, “when I'm ready.”

Taking a break from putting new stories or poems on paper doesn’t have to mean taking a break from the work. Many writers use the time to indulge in writing associated activities: reading; reworking our old pieces, finding comfort in a familiar author or discovering inspiration in new ones, is all part of the writing life.

We write what we know. Until I can get back to the memoir, I write about depression. I also know VONA. I’m the editor of this newsletter. This work, during this round of my illness, has been priceless. I know I have it in me to be more focused. I can. I will. Earbuds in, Jill Scott or Chopin pumping into my head, my fingers surf the keyboard and I remember who I am. I know I’m like so many other writers using the tools to find my way back.

VONA Accomplishments –June 2017

On the count of three, I need all of you to stand up and shout “Hug A Mug of Joy“ to our inspired and diligent executive director, Diem Jones in honor of his birthday on Cinco De Mayo. One…two…three—HUG A MUG OF JOY, DIEM!! We got nothin’ but love for ya!

Download the VONA Accomplishments PDF

VONA at Vortext/Hedgebrook – Year 2
By Zhayra Palma

Vortext has attracted VONA women writers for two years in a row. In the four-day experience, the writers mingle with other women and faculty at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island. They have workshops, hear craft talks, and do some serious sharing and support of each other. Here is the experience of one of our many attendees.

I was excavating through so much grief when I heard the call to attend an all-women’s writing conference at the secluded Whidbey Institute in Washington. So I applied for a scholarship to Hedgebrook’s Vortex at the insistence of a sister who had attended the year before. She knew the kind of heartbreak I was under and thought this would be a great way to retreat and remember the power of my own voice.

She was right. And I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly what it was. But somewhere between being surrounded by women writers and the tiny slow moving creatures of Whidbey Island, I received the invitation to stop trying to mend my broken heart. As I made my way through inspired keynote speeches, writing workshops and conversations over deliciously nourishing meals, I made a leap to accepting my heartache and even my months-long writing drought. I began to feel grateful for the words I will eventually bleed and even the delays in my writing that I will inevitably move through and overcome.

I’m not sure that it will make me stronger, but I know it will keep me connected to my determination as an acutely sensitive woman of color author who has already survived a lifetime of not good enoughedness. The space to pause and consider the kind of work and courage it takes to accept and love myself through my own self-doubt, is really the gift I received from Vortex.

There was something profoundly supportive about hearing the struggles and stories of other women authors. I think this is part of the reason why plants do better around other plants. We gathered as women, as writers, and were reminded of the fulfillment that comes from simply allowing ourselves to just be who we are, inherently worthy, powerful, wild creatures that embody these qualities in the shape of our own choosing. It also really helped that I actually got some writing done.

Paying it Forward
By Gail M. Dottin

I asked three long time VONA alums to pass on some wisdom about their first VONA experiences for new tribe members about to join our family.

Serena W. Lin
ZZ Packer-- Fiction
Tananarive Due-- Fiction
Elmaz Abinader Memoir
David Mura --Residency

In 2011, I was a community lawyer in Los Angeles. After eight years of practice, I thrived on nothing less than the revolution -- the cause, the incredible joy that comes with finding the right outlet for your talents, from fighting alongside leaders, women of color organizers. But I spent weekends and nights writing plays and poetry at night after shouty, red-faced meetings, after researching and writing policy after those meetings. I longed to carve out the space to write more, but I also longed to sleep. It felt selfish and idiotic to bumble at art and creativity when I was trained in some kind of power, so I told myself I was okay.

When my friends Ching-In and Deirdre encouraged me, I applied and went to VONA and encountered the Lucky 13 fellow workshoppers. These people were serious! These people were brilliant! They were way past asking whether or not they were writers -- they simply wrote for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

As an amateur magician, I practiced my fake-it-until-you-make-it for that whole week as we talked story, craft, character. I soaked in their origin stories and took notes on what time of day and where and how they preferred to write. On that final morning as we stood in the Octagon at UC Berkeley and held hands delivering our intentions, I spotted a pair of the kindest eyes. They belonged to Junot Díaz and when he spoke -- he said he believed in me. Then, it was my turn.

"I never thought I'd be somewhere that poets wandered and dotted the hills like sheep...I deserve to write." I was crying when I opened my eyes to the beaming circle.

A year later I left LA on a Truman Capote Fellowship to Rutgers-Newark for an MFA and formed one of my most nurturing writing relationships with dear teacher, Tayari Jones. For every doubt and difficulty I've encountered in the last five years living and working as a writer VONA peeps have re-centered my writing. With them, it's the constant sound of "What are you writing?" "What are you working on?" "How's the writing going?" This is invaluable. For writing is truly hard, and a commitment to it is easy to forsake. David, ZZ, Elmaz, and Tananarive have taught me not to give up. As Elmaz once advised: It's easier to do everything else but write. People are more likely to make a dentist appointment and keep it, despite what comes up, than to keep the writing time they have tomorrow.
If you're anything like I was, and you did everything you could for your community, for your family, for your people, without ever truly internalizing the power of your own voice -- then come to VONA prepared. Do whatever emotional work you need to do so you can be present, so that you can receive its gifts.
Be ready to claim.
Be ready to write.

A few weeks ago, I moved back from Brooklyn to the Bay Area to be close to my family in Cupertino and to start my own family. I’ve been scared that I’ll lose my queer social justice writer’s life during this transition. To get some support, I drove to SF to visit my friend Tara from my very first VONA workshop and her twin girls.
“What are you doing today?” Tara asked me. “We’ve got to rush out, but feel free to stay before your work meeting.”
"I'm tired," I said. "I’ll probably go straight to work. Oh, and I promised Gail that I would write this snippet about how VONA changed me as a writer, advice and all that, but I don't know if I have time."
"Okay, or you can sit in my living room and write."
"Mama, I'm a poet," Ixchel interrupted, giving us some serious ten-year old eyes.
“Where does poetry come from anyway?" Tara asked her daughters.
"Poetry isn't a seed you plant. It's a weed that grows on its own," Kali explained.
Watching Tara nurture her children’s creativity, I understood that this was precisely what the VONA family did for me. As she and her merry band of writers laughed their way into the fog, I pulled out my laptop.

Kenju Liu
Suheir Hammad –Poetry (twice)
Anna Castillo-- Residency

VONA was my first real intensive creative writing workshop, and I was very lucky to have Suheir Hammad as my teacher. I had few expectations since I didn't have any experience, but an all-POC environment was important to me. Aside from craft, the most important thing I learned from Suheir was how to give and receive well-thought out, truly useful feedback, and to never belittle myself as a writer. She convinced me I was ready to put a book into the world and gently kicked me out the door.

I think my first year was around 2002, and I went a total of three times, twice for poetry with Suheir and once for the residency with Ana Castillo. My suggestion to new participants is to do your research about the workshop teacher, and to come with some goals for what you'd like to accomplish. Being humble and open to the experience and process is important, but also knowing what you're looking for will go miles toward making the workshop helpful.

Stacie Evans
Fiction – Tananarive Due
Fiction – Junot Diaz
Graphic Novel – Mat Johnson
Political Content – Elmaz Abinader

My first VONA was in 2010. I learned about the workshops after hearing Chris Abani on a panel at the National Black Writers’ Conference. Writing workshops exclusively for folks of color? Sign. Me. Up.

The workshop was fiction with Tananarive Due. I was surrounded by fabulous writers who also happened to be generous, kind, supportive people. They pulled me in, made me feel that I belonged, made me start to believe my application hadn’t been accepted by accident.

There was a moment at the end of our week when Tananarive uncovered just how little we thought of our talent. She asked us to go around the room and say, one at a time, “I’m a damn good writer.” A few folks managed to say, “I’m a good writer,” but everyone choked on that “damn,” some of us cried trying to get it out. That was round one. In the end, we were all able to say it, without tears, without hesitation. I needed that, needed the open door of that first VONA, the introduction to family, to the revelation of writing in such a nurturing, tough-loving community. I was a writer before I went to VONA, but I have become a better writer and have become myself as a writer in the years of working with VONA—the workshops and the forever soul-saving VONA NYC group.

Pre-VONA I was committed to writing, but struggling mightily against Impostor Syndrome. Post-VONA I am committed to writing … but struggling mightily against Impostor Syndrome. The difference? While I still have more than my share of self-doubt, I take chances now that I couldn’t make myself take before VONA – applying to residencies, sending out my work, stretching out into new genres, new forms, claiming myself as a writer in ways I never have, in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.

And yes, there’s still my battle against Impostor Syndrome, but today my VONA family is a rowdy chorus of “STFU!” in the face of my inner critic’s mean words. Today that family pushes me forward whenever I start to question the utility of trying. Today I am VONA.


The Faculty Readings, which take place the Thursday of each workshop week, have a new feature—giving homage to the legacy of the transformational work of our elders. In Week One, on June 22, the VONA faculty is honoring Samuel L. Delany, who has contributed over forty, novels, essays, critical works and collections of short stories to our literary canon. His work in science fiction and fantasy push boundaries as he explores and explodes societal systems and sexual. A resident of Philadelphia, Delany joins the faculty writers for the reading on stage.

The Week Two reading reminds us of the contributions of the great Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poetry and perspective shifted the poetry cannon before many writers-of-color had any forum at all. From Chicago, Brooks’ reach was national and across race lines. She was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress and published over 20 books, including fiction. This tribute is coordinated with a national celebration of her centennial, Gwendolyn Brooks 100, inspiring 18 months of events. Quraysh Ali Lansana from the Our Miss Brooks 100 joins the second week faculty on stage.

Please join us in hearing our faculty authors and in celebrating the vitality of Samuel L. Delany and Gwendolyn Brooks.

All readings take place at Bodek Lounge in Houston Hall, University of Pennsylvania
3417 Spruce St, Philadelphia, PA 19104

Thursday, June 22, 2017: a Tribute to Samuel L. Delany
7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Faith Adiele
Junot Díaz
Kim Euell
Reyna Grande
Marjorie Liu
David Mura
Danez Smith
Patricia Smith

Thursday June 29, 2017: Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks
With special guest: Quraysh Ali Lansana
7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Elmaz Abinader
Tananarive Due
Ruth Forman
M. Evelina Galang
Kiese Laymon
Bich Minh Ngyuen
Willie Perdomo

All readings are free and open to the public.