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by Grace Prasad

Late last year, I sent a Facebook friend request to a writer I knew but had lost touch with years ago – a Chinese writer based in Oslo, Norway. I met He-Dong in the summer of 2001. 

She had sent an email to a mailing list of Hedgebrook alumnae in the Bay Area saying she was coming to visit and wanted to meet some people here. At the time, I was working as a freelance writer and had just started exploring my creative writing more deeply. My schedule was flexible, so I wrote back and offered to show her around when she arrived in San Francisco. I didn’t know anything about her other than she was a Chinese writer based in Europe, and we had both recently completed residencies at Hedgebrook.

We met a few days later and immediately hit it off. She was tall and slender, a few years older than me but with a girlish, playful personality. I took her to the Golden Gate Bridge, and we took pictures in the fog and complained about how cold it was (a rite of passage for all visitors to San Francisco). We explored the area around Fisherman’s Wharf and walked around with no set agenda except buying a few souvenirs. We met again the next day, and the next, and by the time she left, she was like a big sister to me.

Dong and I talked about writing and life. She gave me a copy of her book, Ask the Sun, which had been published in the U.S. by the Seattle-based press Women in Translation. She reassured me that age 32 was not too late for me to find love and that she’d been around the same age when she settled down with her partner. She showed me photo after photo of her sweet-faced baby girl, Yinni. Although she was enjoying her time in the States, she missed her daughter very much as this was the longest they’d ever been apart.

A few months after she left San Francisco, I remember emailing Dong to tell her that I’d met someone special and felt optimistic about the relationship. He turned out to be my future husband. Now, looking back on that time, I am filled with awe at what a transformative year 2001 was for me. Meeting Dong was just one of the chapters.

2001 began with a three-week residency at Hedgebrook. Even though I picked the coldest time of year, I loved everything about the landscape—the ferry ride to Whidbey Island, the gentle hills of the island, the crunching leaves as I walked around the property, the vegetable garden, resident llamas, and the pitch darkness each evening that allowed an unfiltered view of the stars.

I was incredibly content in Cedar Cottage. Here I was, a die-hard city girl, living in a cabin without phone or internet access, learning how to tend a fire in the wood-burning stove. How many hours did I spend staring at it, mesmerized by the glow and the heat and the relentless, untamed beauty of fire? I still remember the smell of wet leaves every time I left the cottage — the luxury of taking a long bath in the Bath House emerging in a cloud of scented steam.  And – of course – the homemade lunches delivered in a wicker basket.

But even more powerful than the feeling of being cradled by nature and cared for by the staff was the sense that I was there to do something important. That someone specifically created that space for me. It was my first ever experience of having a room of one’s own, in which to think and create without pressure or interruption. In which my only priority was to follow my artistic impulses. Being at Hedgebrook in such a peaceful, nurturing environment and in community with other women writers, was the first time I ever felt like my writing mattered. My words might find an audience one day.

At Hedgebrook, I wrote the rough draft of what would become my first published essay, “Projections,” about my experiences at an Asian American film festival in San Francisco during a period of heightened cross-strait tensions between China and Taiwan, coinciding with the hotly contested 2000 presidential election in Taiwan. The essay is nonlinear and experimental, yet is probably my most direct statement about Taiwanese nationhood and what it means to be Taiwanese. 

After I left Hedgebrook, I went to another writing residency for two months. Based on the strength of “Projections,” I was admitted to a private workshop with Japanese American poet and professor Garrett Hongo. It was in this class of about 15 writers that I first connected with Seventeen Syllables, an Asian American writing collective that’s been my most enduring literary home and source of lifelong friendships. Over the years we’ve read each other’s work and cheered each other on through book deals, fellowships, academic tenure, cross-country moves, weddings and the births of our children.

The summer of 2001, I met my now-husband, who is also a writer. My essay “Projections” was published in the Hedgebrook Journal, guest-edited by Kathleen Alcala. Then in the fall, I began my MFA program at Mills College and became part of another literary community.

So you can see why I look back fondly on 2001, a year in which my writing really took me places and gave me access to experiences and communities that contributed immensely to my growth as a writer. It all started at Hedgebrook; Hedgebrook was the first time someone said “yes” to my writing. Without that early encouragement, I don’t think I would have had the same trajectory.

And now we come full circle. A few weeks ago, I woke up one Saturday morning and was delighted when I saw that Dong accepted my Facebook friend request, after many years of being out of touch. She sent me a direct message and some photos, I responded with the same, each of us attempting to catch the other one up on the 15 or so years since we last communicated.

I’m still in awe of Dong. Sure we’ve both aged a bit, but her face is still youthful, her playfulness is now expressed through a purple streak in her hair. She now writes full-time after retiring from her job at the University of Oslo. Her adorable daughter is all grown up and studying abroad at Oxford. And she was equally delighted to see photos of my 11-year-old son.

I can’t wait to tell her that through some cosmic act of synchronicity, my husband has been invited to attend two music festivals in Oslo this summer. This time it will be her turn to show me around her city. I look forward to our reunion, 18 years after Hedgebrook first connected us.

Grace Prasad
About Grace Prasad

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2001: A Writer’s Odyssey