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VONA Community September 2017 Newsletter
From the Executive Director

Greetings from VONA/Voices HQ —

Summer 2017 Reflections
We expanded our community with an embrace of our new home in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. Over 150 writers of color came together, from 8 countries and 19 states, under the guidance of 15 of our most distinguished faculty and 7 staff members. Beth Nguyen and Danez Smith joined the faculty to make this summer the broadest offering in our 18-year history. Our frontline staff, Kayin Albright, Ahimsa Bodhran, Clare Calderón, Nívea Castro, Keita Erskine, under the leadership of Vanessa Mártir, were supported by Eleanor “Rigby” Phipps and Mona Washington, did a fabulous job hosting our community.

Our two faculty readings were elevated to signature status by tributes to Samuel R. “Chip” Delany and Gwendolyn Brooks respectively. VONA co-founder, Junot Diaz hosted the tribute to Chip Delany, which included an in-person reading by the honoree, and Quraysh Ali Lansana presented his traveling tribute, “Our Miss Brooks,” honoring the 100th birthday of Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks.

Hear some of the voices of class of 2017 in our first “Open Studio” recording series in partnership with the Kelly Writers House by clicking here, and read on to feel the journey as witnessed through the eyes of several members of VONA/Voices 2017.

“I felt that I had to write. Even if I had never been published, I knew that I would go on writing, enjoying it and experiencing the challenge.” — Gwendolyn Brooks

La Luz,

Diem Jones
Executive Director

Coming Home: My First Year at VONA
By Leonora Simonovis

When I received my acceptance letter to VONA I was surprised. I had expected a rejection because I didn’t think my writing was good enough. I hadn’t written for months and thought about giving up. It took me several days to process the fact that I was going to do a poetry residency with Ruth Forman! I was so anxious I asked the Universe for a sign. A week before my trip I met Tomas, a VONA alum who patiently answered all my questions. “You will love it,” he said. After our conversation, I felt something waver within my chest. The dam that reined in my voice and held me back was about to get hit. Hard.

My first impression during orientation was something like: “Man, everyone is so nice, is this real?” The second: “It’s LOUD in here!” It reminded me of home, back in Venezuela when we got together with family and friends and shared stories over meals. For the first time in many years, home became something tangible, not just a memory. Being at VONA was like learning a song you love from the first time you listen to it.  You start tapping your fingers on a table, humming a little, moving your hips, shoulders, feet, and once you get the lyrics you go for it with your whole being. VONA challenged me to explore, not just the darkness, but also the light within me. I realized I was afraid of my own light, my voice, my truth. In the residency, Ruth made our goals a priority and our meetings became a sacred space for empowering, encouraging, motivating, and healing each other. I got back in touch with my body, physically grounding myself in the energy work we did every morning, in the way I grabbed the pen and touched the page. I learned to trust the process and more importantly, to enjoy it. The dam broke and my voice came flooding back. I am water. Again.

Leonora Simonovis grew up near Caracas, Venezuela. She holds a Ph.D.in Hispanic literatures from Washington University in St. Louis and is currently an Associate Professor of Latin American and Caribbean literatures at the University of San Diego. Her academic essays and articles have appeared in peer reviewed journals and anthologies in the US and abroad. Her poetry, in English and Spanish, has been published in “The Eunoia Review,” “Sorbo de letras,” “The American Journal of Poetry,” “San Diego Poetry Annual,” and the anthology A Year in Ink (vol.10).

A VONA Education
By Jennifer De Leon

2003—University of San Francisco
I am a graduate student at the School of Education at USF and my car gets towed somewhere on Turk Avenue for the second time that week. I go inside the closest building to use the restroom before taking a bus to the tow lot. On the wall I see a neon-green flyer advertising a faculty reading for something called VONA. I stare at the date, the time, again the date. The reading is happening right now. Why not? I step into the auditorium. It smells like history in here, the polished wood and squeaky seats. Time stops. Words take over. Willie Perdomo. And Junot Díaz. And Diem Jones. And Suheir Hammad talking about mike check, mike check, can you hear me? I sit in the back row. I begin to take up space.

2004—Boston, MA
I think about applying to VONA but it’s too scary.

2005—Boston, MA
I think about applying to VONA but it’s too scary.

2006-VONA Fiction Workshop with Junot Díaz at the University of San Francisco
I am scared. What was I thinking, trying to be some kind of writer? My parents moved to this country from Guatemala. They left poverty and violence for promise and security. But I want to write stories. Around the table: Tiphanie Yanique, Sharline Chiang, Patricia Engel. I am quiet. I take notes. I hold my breath for five days. On Monday Junot asks us to write a letter to our critical self. On Tuesday he asks us to do it again. Dig. Go there. He fills the chalkboard with everything I don’t know. On Wednesday night we go salsa dancing at a club in the Mission. David Mura buys us a round of drinks. Lizz Huerta talks with her hands, makes me laugh. LiYun Alvarado, too. But I can barely hear anyone over the music. I smile wide at the dance floor full of brown bodies. I wish I had packed my middle-school self, the girl in Honors classes with all the white kids, always the only person of color, just so she could see the drops of pink and green falling from the ceiling, all the possibilities of light.

2007—VONA, University of San Francisco
I return. I bring a new notebook. A charged laptop. I am hungry. I meet Mitchell Jackson. Charles Rice-González. I meet Olufunke Grace Bankole, a sister in another life. We talk about our stories. We order soy lattes and sit on the benches on campus and talk and talk until the San Francisco fog blinds us from our insecurities. We are both new to writing even though we have degrees in Law, Education, International Relations. We promise to keep in touch. We promise to keep going. At the table: Yalitza Ferreras, Shivani Manghnani, Amalia Bueno, Vanessa Hua. We will find each other again and again, on Facebook, at AWP, and long phone calls. We forward calls for submission, grant opportunities. We talk about everything from publishing to pregnancy. We lift as we climb.

2009—VONA, University of San Francisco
VONA celebrates its tenth anniversary. Elmaz Abinader receives a standing ovation when she steps to the podium at the annual faculty reading. She wears a dark velvet top and reads about a girl who mistakes fireworks on the Fourth of July for bombs. Writing is about so much more than what can be contained within the margins of a page.

2014—VONA, UC Berkeley
Vanessa Mártir organizes an affinity group for VONA moms. We sit in a circle on the carpet in the lounge. I am a new mother. I cry. It is the first time I have left my baby. I am three thousand miles away from him, from Boston, but I am here to reclaim a part of myself that is lost. I am here to lower the volume on the noise that comes from the pressures I put on myself, my career, my life. I am enough. I am enough.

2017—VONA, University of Pennsylvania
The fireflies are out in this thick, humid gray air. My shirt sticks to my back. It is the final night of week one. Memoir goes out for a last round with our captain, Reyna Grande. Beloved, brilliant Reyna. She steers the ship. She teaches us how to steer our own ships. At the bar tonight: MaryLuz, Joe, Vonetta, Aracely, Melissa, Jessica, and more. The DJ takes requests. It’s on. We dance. We sweat. We get on our phones and invite all of VONA to the spot. Voy a reír. Voy a bailar. Playwriting joins us. Genre Fiction. Vivir mi vida, la, la, la, la. We dance in a circle around Kim Euell. We raise our hands in the air whenever someone from VONA steps into the sticky bar. We dance battle to Beyoncé. We move to Rump Shaker and Teach Me How to Dougie and Despacito. When Danez Smith rolls in with his crew, it’s over. We take over. The place is ours. Shivani is there. Ingrid is there. A stranger off the street comes in says, “I heard my song and peeked through the window and saw y’all.” He slays on the dance floor then goes back out to the street. We keep dancing. His words stay with me, how he said he had never seen anything like this before, nothing like it at all.

Jennifer De Leon is the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education and a City of Boston Artist in Residence. Her short story "Home Movie," originally published in the Briar Cliff Review, was chosen as the One City, One Story pick for the 2015 Boston Book Festival. Named the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence by the Associates of the Boston Public Library, De Leon is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Framingham State University and a GrubStreet instructor and board member. She is working on a YA novel, Don't Ask Me Where I'm From, which received a Walter Dean Myers Grant from We Need Diverse Books.

VONA 2017 Roundup: Week 1 Reading in Honor of
Samuel R. Delany
By Yohanca Delgado

Speaking to a full house, VONA co-founder Junot Diaz kicked off the evening with love and admiration for this mentor, Samuel R. Delany. For Junot, just watching a writer of color create a place for himself in science fiction was inspiring. Watching him mold the genre was transforming.

Before he read, Mr. Delany took the stage, all sparkling eyes, suspenders, and white beard, and discussed the power of art in times as dispiriting as these. He argued, citing Jacques Derrida, that while literature itself may not always be explicitly political, the defense of literature is. The defense of literature as a space beyond the rabble of politics is important, unifying work. Isn’t it worth noting, he wondered, that Bloomsday, a holiday celebrating James Joyce’s Ulysses, is the only non-political, non-religious holiday celebrated across the world?

Mr. Delany then plunged us into a new world of his own making: a moonlit night in Brazil, in a world of amphimen and amphiwomen, with gills in their necks and shoulders and webs between their fingers. Delany is praised for many as aspects of his writing, but when I listened, as Junot taught us, for something “to steal,” it was the unique texture of his descriptions that captivated me. Vivid phrases like “a corona of bubbles,” “a wound tossing scarves of blood,” “a flare that drooled smoke down her arm” brought Delany’s fantastical world to life.

Reyna Grande shared a poignant essay about fathers and daughters, describing the few months her father spent living with her in her home. Feeling indebted, he builds her a gazebo or casita, but the psychological rift is still there, underscoring for Grande the real difference between a house and a home.

Marjorie Liu read an exhilarating scene about mothers and daughters from her Hunter Kiss series. The series tells the story of a demon-hunting mother and daughter who bear demonic tattoos. As her daughter watches her kill a demon, the mother teaches her daughter how to kill without losing her humanity, “We’re already monstrous enough, without becoming monsters ourselves.”

David Mura brought us a poem about the death of his son’s best friend and a piece in the form of a letter from a Japanese internment camp. The last lines are hauntingly resonant: “When you write back, please tell me which country I’m in. I feel so poor now, these words are all I own.”

Faith Adele delivered a tender essay about visiting her father in Nigeria, and witnessing his dramatic memory loss. Faith sits with her father, who has had a long and successful career, as he anxiously awaits his university acceptance results. She questions unconditional familial love when she asks, “How many times is this bastard going to leave me?” Instead of leaving him in return, she says: “I held the tiny hand of the man who would become my father.”

Kim Euell started a monologue from her play The Dance, told in a narrative voice so mesmerizing that the audience moved seamlessly with it when VONA writer Jorrell Watkins took over. Playwrights are builders and Kim built a sad, funny, exquisitely nuanced world from spoken monologue.

Junot returned to the stage with a shout-out to the readers in the audience. “We often obsessively fetishize the writer. When I think of my number one tribe, its readers.” Readers, he said, are the real engine behind literature, the true support system for writers. “To be an artist of color requires tremendous courage.” Readers are an important source of that courage.

Danez Smith read from his forthcoming book of poems Don’t Call Us Dead, poems bursting with gorgeous lines like, “[they’re] convinced the very skin of my palms was stolen,” and “all my sleep smells like smoke and iron.”

The final writer of the evening was Patricia Smith, who shared, alongside a few of her VONA students, an unforgettable reading of a poem about the four-year-old daughter of Philando Castile. The poem honors the heartbreaking video in which she implores her mother, Diamond Reynolds, to calm down so that she won’t “get shooted” in the minutes after a police officer shot her father to death in the family car. A poem dedicated to, “babies who were never babies/ bathed in the heat of new murder.”

The works could not have been any more varied, but in being so, they reflected both the breathtaking range of Delany’s own oeuvre and the unique voices of our nations. There is nothing quite like attending a VONA reading and seeing how writers of color are making space for ourselves and our stories across genres—both as readers and writers.

Inspired and a little heartsick, I read The Einstein Intersection for the first time on the way home from Philadelphia. The protagonist’s super power is an ability to find and draw out the unique song of everyone he meets.

Yohanca Delgado is an MFA candidate at American University. She attended VONA 2017 in fiction with Junot Diaz.

Poetical Content: How Do You Breathe When You've Found Home?
By Tina Zafreen Alam

VONA as home-coming. VONA as family. VONA as the long exhale after I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath. VONA as something I always wanted but, had long since given up on. VONA as community.

When I got my acceptance to VONA in April, I started crying. The crying wasn’t solely from happiness. About a month earlier I received an email from the MFA program I applied to in hopes of honing my craft. (Deep breath in.) It was a rejection. A generic form letter signed by the acting graduate coordinator of the program advising that I need to read more challenging literary works and write with urgency and my own vision. I thought I was already doing those things.

I didn’t understand how much that rejection spurred doubt in my ability to write until those tears stung my eyes and wet my cheeks one month later. (Sustained breath out.) Release. Relief. Affirmation. I realized that it’s not that I can’t write, I just can’t write for white people. Nor do I want to.

Upon receiving my syllabus and readings for Political Content from Elmaz Abinader, I cried again. This time inspired by seeing the face and words of Somali Muslimah poet Warsan Shire on the page, whose writings I have turned, palms holding up my chest. I should note that I am someone that cries frequently. However, the “I feel seen” tears are rare and this was just the beginning: of the experience as a whole, of the crying in particular and of the stuttering sighs that would accompany those sobs.

I hadn’t even written my pieces, met my classmates or crossed the border yet. More lung-tightness set in as I didn’t quite believe that I would even make it-- not having crossed since December 2016-- with the brown of my skin, my Muslim name, my dual citizenship with Canada and Bangladesh. Still, knowing where my work might be headed-- insha’Allah-- I set about writing ten new raw and honest poems, digging for stories in my memory and my body.

I try not to enter into new situations with expectations. Partially because the past several spaces I have entered have ended up being unsafe and violent, despite claiming to be the opposite. As a self-taught poet, writing and living have primarily been solitary practices. I have lived alone for the better part of twenty years. A steel protective wall in my upper respiratory tract keeps the air of each inhalation from reaching my heart. But at VONA, in Harnwell College House, Room 808, my roomies Angelique and Zhayra created a place where I felt happy to start and end my days. Across Locust Walk at Kelly Writers House, Political Content, now Poetical Content, shared emotionally animated check-ins, brave writing, boundless encouragement, periodic breaks for stretching and many, many tissues.

I don’t know the words to express how VONA met needs that I didn’t even realize I had. So, I will end this reflection with sincere love and gratitude to Arla, Cinelle, Devi, Dulani, Jennifer, John, Nour, Sarah, Soniya and Elmaz for believing in me much more than I currently believe in myself and just as much as I should; to Angelique and Zhayra for making me feel that home can exist; to the beautiful writer souls of week two for shaping a new and less lonely world with your stories; to the teachers for your honesty, brilliance and guidance; and to the dedicated VONA staff for making what I thought was impossible possible-- community. I can finally breathe. Down to my toes. Thank YOU.

Tina Zafreen Alam is a diasporic Bangladeshi poet who happens to reside in Toronto. She is a VONA alum, holds an Honours BA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto and has worked at many film festivals including: Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). Tina Zafreen is also a blog editor at Shameless Magazine.

Thanks be like
By Jorell Watkins

a group of brown and black faces

tugging heart strings through their truths

that slumbered for years waiting

for this space to exist. their laughter

a lullaby to ward hard times and soothe

aches that shaped an abyss in our

spirits. Every voice that rose in our

warm circle filled the pit with nourishment,

a poem sent down a rope, a play outstretched

a ladder, our stories elevated everyone

to new heights. This sacred space that

we share has etched a note upon ourselves

a sole line of the song that reminds us

of this space where we all belong.

Jorrell Watkins, aka "Brotha Jorrell" is an artist and educator from Richmond, VA. His work explores southern, black, hip-hop culture(s) through creative writing, drama, martial arts and peace education. He currently serves as the director of the nationally touring Hip-hop Theater play, Mixed Race Mixtape. In addition, he is a Lead Conflict Resolution Facilitator of the Richmond Peace Education Center (RPEC).

VONA 2017 Roundup: Week Two Faculty Reading and Tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks
By Gail Dottin

We know that VONA faculty are phenomenal writers. So, the faculty reading is consistently a highlight of the workshop week.  Week two attendees and Philly locals were treated to selections of spec fiction from Tananarive Due, poems from Ruth Forman and prose poetry from Willie Perdomo. Kiese Laymon read an insightful coming-of-age essay and new faculty, Beth Nguyen shared a bit of memoir. VONA board member M. Evelina Galang delivered us the comfort women from her long-awaited Lola’s House. Program Director Elmaz Abinader proffered a delightfully powerful essay about being hennaed by Arab women in Yemen.

In an exciting shift from our usual format, during the second half of the evening we honored the centennial of groundbreaking poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Special guest Quraysh Ali Lansana isthe director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature. He’s also the editor of the recently released anthology Revise the Psalm: Work of Celebrating The Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks. His personal reflections were especially meaningful as he was her last student. He spoke of Brooks’ importance as someone who “gave authentic revolutionary voice to black womanhood.”

A story he told about receiving her Pulitzer was quite poignant. When her Pulitzer was to be delivered, she had no electricity in her apartment. She’d always lived on the Southside of Chicago, but she hadn’t been able to pay the electric bill. Reporters and photographers were coming to commemorate the achievement. However, when they arrived the lights came on as some mystery Samaritan had made certain that she would not be embarrassed.

Willie Perdomo and Ruth Forman each spoke of their personal connection to the poet or her work before reciting one of her poems. Ruth remembered Ms. Brooks for her ability to meet people right where they were. Willie spoke of Ms. Brooks’ statement that to write poetry one need just look out the window.

We were reminded by Lansana, that ultimately Brooks left Harper & Row in favor of a small independent Black-owned press.  Her commitment to Black publishing cost her as she fell out of the view of the mainstream. It is especially important that we VONA writers honor her for her vision and gift. It was a beautiful evening deserving of The Ms. Brooks.

Gail Dottin is the editor of the VONA newsletter.

VONA Achievements – September 2017

Many of our new fam may now be feeling the VONA love but also a little bit weary. That’s the VONA withdrawal after two phenomenal weeks in our new home at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. We welcomed over 150 writers from around the nation and the world into the VONA tribe. Each of them brought their gifts to continue to grow their work and our community. (The withdrawal can be assuaged by looking out for local VONA writer’s meetups in your locales. If there isn’t one, start your own!)

Download the VONA Accomplishments PDF

We See You Shining!

Shine on VONA!

 When you:

  • ·    Get published anywhere
  • ·    Go on a book tour or just do a reading
  • ·    Speak on a writing panel, get your play produced
  • ·    Are interviewed for a podcast, magazine or site
  • ·    Are awarded for your literation with grants, scholarships or residencies


Download the Shine on VONA PDF