Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction (AWP Conference Report)

Last weekend, I attended the AWP Conference.  It was my first time going to a writer centric convention.  I had some odd run-ins at the end of the day (more on that later), but the conference itself was a fantastic experience.  The event ran from Thursday to Saturday, but I was only able to attend the final day’s festivities.  I have to save my vacation time for two more future trips to Maine.  At the very least.  🙂

Upon arrival, I took one glance at the exhibit floor and already felt overwhelmed.  The place was huge.  It was like visiting a chocolatier and staring at all of the delectable nuts and chews (I feel like I’m setting myself up for a dirty joke… I’ve been watching too many Ben Stiller comedies).  There was a vast ocean of tables from various MFA programs and literary magazines.  A “quick” walk-through lasted an hour for me, and I didn’t even get to see every single table.  I managed to stop by the booth for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.  Being an alumnus, I thought I’d check out what kind of new things the program offered.  There was an online class focusing on micro-fiction, which I hadn’t seen offered before, and an advanced class on speculative fiction taught by A.M. Dellamonica, an awesome instructor who I’ve had the pleasure of working with multiple times.  Very tempting stuff.  Maybe further down the line when I finish my MFA, I’ll come back and take another class or two.

AWP exhibit floor

Just a small piece of the exhibit floor

I also managed to find the Small Beer Press table, where the awesome Kelly Link was scheduled for a signing.  I took mental note of that as I retreated to my first panel of the day.  Panels! AWP is very serious about their panels, almost as “serial” as Al Gore is about the ManBearPig (“half man, half bear, half pig”).  There were 30+ panels running almost every hour, covering all topics imaginable.  My first panel was entitled, “Angels’ Exile: Los Angeles Natives Writing from Elsewhere.”  Panelists discussed how living in LA continued to influence their writing, even long after leaving the city of angels.  It was really cool listening to each of the panelists talk about their experiences growing up in different parts of LA, and how they still continue to draw upon those memories for their current work.

The end of this panel signaled a quick lunch break consisting of convention tacos that weren’t as bad as I expected.  Of course, they were still gross when compared to real Mexican tacos, and there are plenty of authentic taquerias around town.  I just didn’t have enough time to run out and grab some decent food.  After drenching these pseudo tacos in salsa and chowing down, I managed to make it back to Small Beer Press and had the pleasure of meeting Kelly Link.  I first discovered her work thanks to the enthusiastic discussions about her genre-bending stories from students and faculty at Stonecoast.  I’ve been a fan ever since.  And whenever I’m around people I admire, I tend get all blubbery and awkward and start talking super fast (in fact, it took me several days during my first Stonecoast residency to stop being so nervous around faculty).  So of course, I probably embarrassed myself and terrified poor Kelly, but she was incredibly kind and asked about my experience at Stonecoast.  From my understanding, she was guest faculty a while back, and she mentioned how much she likes the program.

 The fruits of my blubbery labor.

After my fanboy meltdown, I attended another panel, “In the Realms of the Real and the Unreal” (Kelly was one of the panelists), where the topics of discussion ranged from playing with the definitions of genre to the motivations behind creating secondary worlds.  The next hour was spent chatting with a really cool prospective student for Stonecoast.  I tried to answer all of her questions as best as I could.  Being a natural introvert, I wasn’t used to meeting with strangers like that, but she was nice and had a real passion for pursuing her writing goals.

Afterward, I had a quick jog to the final panel I managed to attend, “Slouching Tiger, Unsung Dragon: The Next Chapter of Asian American Writing,” which I found to be very intriguing.  Sometimes, there is an expectation for Asian Americans to write a certain way or to tell certain stories; some of the panelists mentioned being rejected simply because their stories didn’t match the agent’s expectations of what Asian American literature should be (i.e. stories about immigrants, the Chinese experience with the railroads, etc.).  It was a little disheartening to hear that, but the panelists said they didn’t give up and published the stories they wanted to tell anyway.  The idea of “Asian American” being an umbrella term was also covered.  It’s one way to organize all of us, but at the same time, we lose our distinctions.  Being Chinese American is very different from being Korean American.  That should be a given, but it’s surprising how often that isn’t the case.  One piece of the discussion I particularly liked: the majority of panelists were (rightfully) praising Amy Tan’s work, particularly in the 90’s (i.e. “The Joy Luck Club”), which helped to expose the “mainstream” audience to Asian American stories.  While I agree that it’s a good idea to have some knowledge of writers like Amy Tan who have helped to blaze the trail, one panelist, Chiwan Choi, made the comment that he had never read any of Tan’s work.  And he said (paraphrasing) that it’s okay not to; don’t get too caught up in another writer’s work.  Write the stories that you need to tell.  I think that’s a valid point, too.

This pretty much sums up my first and only day at the AWP Conference, but my day didn’t end there.  Fresh off the panel about Asian American writers and the stereotypes/expectations we face, I stopped by the convention cafe for a quick bite to eat because I was starving.  While mulling over the discussion from the previous panel, a lady sat down at my table.  She didn’t really ask to join me.  She just said, “I’m going to sit with you because this is the only time we’ll ever see each other.”  So of course, my first thought was, STRANGER DANGER!! I NEED AN ADULT! But the conversation started out pleasant enough.  I assumed that this older woman was just lonely, so being a nice person, I did my best to entertain her.  She mentioned several times that she was originally from India and that she wrote poetry.  She discussed her family, her master’s degrees (plural), and all other matters of her life.

I didn’t talk much, simply because she didn’t give me the opportunity.  However, she did ask me if I was Chinese, and I told her “No, I’m Filipino” (author’s note: I’m actually 1/8 Chinese, but I don’t identify with that – I’m about as Chinese as a bowl of orange chicken). I thought that would be the end of that.  But then she began talking about the Indian work ethic, and she asked me, “It’s the same in China, right?”  And my response was, “Uh… I wouldn’t know.  I’m not Chinese.  I’m Filipino, and I was born here in the States.”  To which she responded with, “Oh, but Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, they’re all the same.”  Now, in all fairness, I believe she meant we had similar work ethics, but I had to assure her, “No, we’re not the same.  I’m Filipino, and that’s different.”  But I don’t think I was getting through to her.  It’s funny, because I’m certain that if I insisted Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans were all the same, she would’ve probably gotten upset.  And this is after I went to a panel where we discussed how Asian Americans tend to get lumped into one, indistinct group.  Oh Irony, you cruel mistress.

Needless to say, I quickly finished my slice of pizza and politely excused myself.  I wasn’t rude or anything, and I did feel bad because she just seemed to be lonely.  I certainly hope she continues writing poetry.  I wished her well before leaving.

I took the subway halfway home.  I sat next to a man who insisted, loudly, that the government was stealing his cigarettes.  One of the passengers next to me vehemently agreed, then quickly exited at the next stop.  I kept quiet.  I figured, if he was angry at the government, then he couldn’t possibly be angry at me.  I’m no cigarette thief.  Cookies, however, are a different story…

The final leg of my journey was fun, too.  Before boarding the bus, a Jehova’s Witness approached me and told me to come to a free concert being held that evening.  I glanced at the flier and noticed that all the songs were religious in nature.  I politely declined.  She said, “Are you sure? We’ll have songs in Korean, too.”  I responded with a sigh and said, “I’m not Korean.”  She apologized and moved on.

I went to the AWP Conference in hopes of getting some tips on becoming a better writer.  Check.  I also wanted to meet Kelly Link.  Double check with a cherry on top.  As an added bonus, I had some real-life experiences of how Asians get lumped together.  While similar, we are definitely not the same.  Here’s one way to think of it – many Asian cultures have versions of noodles, and yet, they have distinct flavors and textures: lo mein, ramen, bun, sen lek, pancit…  And within each culture, there’s even more variations of noodles (i.e. pancit lomi is different from pancit sotanghon).  Asia is a rich tapestry of cultures.  If you’re ever uncertain of an Asian person’s ethnicity, just ask.  Most of us are happy to tell you how we identify ourselves, as long as you’re willing to accept our answers, our truths.

–LA

Title Quote: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” — Mark Twain

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