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By Grace Prasad

2001: A Writer’s Odyssey

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.

By Sylvia Arthur

Global Impact

One of the best things that happened when I opened my personal library to the public in Accra, Ghana, in December 2017, was also one of the first. It was on my second day when a small, shy teenager cautiously stepped through the door and into the middle of the space where she stood, transfixed, surrounded by books. “If I hadn’t brought her here today, she would’ve killed me,” her mum said, with a completely straight face. The girl remained stuck in her spot, her mouth slightly agape, oblivious to her mother’s obvious frustration. Recognizing her daughter’s state of suspension, the older woman resigned herself to her fate and took up residence in one of the tub chairs. “She’s so excited,” she said, gazing at her child. Pride had replaced annoyance.

When I told the girl she could borrow two books, her eyes glistened, as if tears werethreatening to form, and she immediately reached for Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. I was so impressed by her choices that I insisted she take another. She was torn. She searched through the shelves, and eventually settled on two, flitting between Margot Lee Shetterley’s, Hidden Figures and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. She opted for the latter. I was now the one in awe. Behind the reserved exterior and deferential demeanor was a steely young woman who wanted to change the world. At that moment, I felt there was nothing left for me to do. My work was complete.

When I left Hedgebrook in the spring of 2017, I had no idea I’d venture from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Guinea and achieve a long-held dream. This cross-continental journey can, in part, be traced back to conversations I had around the fabled farmhouse kitchen table with fellow resident, Saskia, a German-Indian novelist who lived between the Two countries of her heritage. As someone who’s never been at ease in groups, I latched onto Saskia soon after I arrived and we talked for hours about the places we’d lived. I confided in her that I was thinking of leaving London, my hometown, for somewhere more livable, and she encouraged me to see Ghana, my parents’ homeland, as a viable option.

One of the things that made moving to Ghana easier was that the vast majority of my beloved book collection, over a thousand volumes gathered over 20 years, were already there. Since 2011, I’d routinely ship them to my mother’s house in Kumasi when I could no longer accommodate them in my London studio. Each time I’d visit, I’d feel an overwhelming sense of guilt that the books, primarily by writers of color, were just sitting there and not being read when there was a need for access to culturally-relevant, contemporary literature. The idea behind the library was twofold: to give Ghanaians access to books that weren’t easily obtainable and to amplify the voices of Black writers on the continent.

In the 18 months since the library opened, its objective has evolved. My focus now is as much on literacy as literature, and outreach to underserved communities is a core part of my work. In Ghana, illiteracy is high (30%), particularly among women and girls. 

During my time here, I’ve met some amazing women who are doing all they can, often at tremendous personal sacrifice, to improve the life chances of girls. Auntie Grace, a former teacher, who founded Gem Star School in the compound of her small home, is one such example. I donated about 300 books to the school and we worked together to create a library for its 500 pupils.

Every other Saturday, my colleague, Seth and I teach creative writing to a group of 6-15-year-olds there.We also organize reading and creative play sessions for the children of market women and a barbershop/hair salon program that rewards children with free hairstyles in exchange for reading. The impact is significant. I’ve seen lives transformed.

The beauty of being at Hedgebrook is that it refocused my mind, not just on my writing, but on the inequities in the world, I seek to challenge through my work. The library has allowed me to dispense the kind of radical hospitality I was privileged to receive at Hedgebrook to girls like 15-year-old, Afra, who affirmed me on that second day of opening. It’s this ethos I hope to embody in my outreach too, connecting with women and girls across Ghana and helping them feel they have a place to take up space in the world.

Please read more about Sylvia’s library by visiting libreriagh.com

Sylvia Arthur, second left, with a group of girls from her creative writing class at Gem Star School.

By Gabrielle James

Hedgebrook Celebrates International Women’s Day!

The impact of Hedgebrook has a ripple effect as alumnae go out into the world and tell their stories. Their work has made it onto stage and screen, concert halls, lecture halls, classrooms, stadiums, poetry slams, bookstores, libraries and even Congress! 

For International Women’s Day we celebrate our Hedgebrook sisters around the globe. Here are a few updates on how our alumnae are authoring change in their part of the world.

Shasta Grant – Singapore

In Singapore, I’ve been meeting up with a group of diverse women writers for “submission parties.” We get together and submit our work to journals/contests/residencies/etc. It’s a great way to make the business end of writing more fun and social (and of course, it’s wonderful to cheer each other on!). I’m working on revising a novel and — fingers crossed — will send it to my agent next month. My website is www.shastagrant.com

Edna Manlapaz– Philippines

Currently I am Executive Director of Sacred Springs: Dialogue Institute on Spirituality and Sustainability at the Loyola School of Theology here in the Philippines. This coming school year, we are introducing into our Certificate Program in Integral Ecology a theological course grounded in eco-feminism. Yes! 

Minal Harjatwala – India

My travel guidebook to Fiji is about to launch, with an emphasis on local artists/artisans including women landowners, business owners, artists, entrepreneurs, and eco-friendly tour operators. I met an indigenous Fijian divemaster who was part of the original group of divers who mapped the Rainbow Reef, now considered one of the world’s top dive destinations for soft corals (she has a dive site named after her). And I profiled a trekking company run by another woman, where indigenous Fijian guides co-own the company and lead hikers through their own mountain highlands. In Fiji–where indigenous communities own 87% of the land–travelers have plenty of choices that strike a good balance of having a great time while also learning and respecting the gorgeous land and sea. Women and LGBTQ people are creating change in Fiji, which is also taking on a leadership role in battling the climate crisis and taking in climate refugees from other island nations in the South Pacific. It was my honor to meet some of the folks doing this important work and help draw attention to it. The book (with 100+ color photos, so perfect for armchair travelers!) is in pre-orders now. My own website is www.minalhajratwala.com.

Monica Macansantos– New Zealand

I recently earned my PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters in New Zealand, and I am currently finishing the novel I worked on as my dissertation, which centers women’s experiences during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. I am also about to attend another residency in the US, the KHN Center for the Arts in Nebraska, where I hope to finalize edits on my novel. I also work as a freelance journalist, and have written about topics such as a mining disaster in the Philippines, Filipino food in the diaspora, Filipina sexuality, and mourning my father’s death for anthologies and outlets such as The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Around the Globe, VICE New Zealand, New Naratif, SBS Life, andAotearotica, among other places. You can learn more about my recent projects on my website, monicamacansantos.com. Here is a picture of my workspace in New Zealand, where I lived until very recently. 

Githa Hariharan –India

My new novel, I Have Become the Tide, was just published by Simon & Schuster in India; and an edited volume called Battling for India: A Citizen’s Reader will be out later this month.

Tania De Rozario – Singapore

In January 2019, my new book, “Somewhere Else, Another You”, was released by Math Paper Press. On 15 March, I will be speaking on a panel about “Writing Across Intersection: Asia Diaspora”as part of Growing Room, a festival organized by Room Magazine, Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal. On 28 March, I will be on an AWP panel called “Assimilate This!: Queer Literary Community as Sites of Mobilizing & Resistance”, where I will be talking about Queer Lit communities in Singapore.

Mary Teng – Australia

My translation of 60 Chinese classical poems, ‘Not Perfect’ is in its second imprint; I am writing a memoir that includes my poetry and running a bilingual poetry workshop as a volunteer at MOSAIC, a multicultural center.  Most members are migrants. They bring their favorite poems in their native tongue and read them to the group; I help some of them translate those poems into English.  More on our website: bilingualpoetry.wordpress.com. photo by William Yang.

By Hedgebrook Guest

Rio’s Black Heart and My Black Feet

I entered this city through its music, and with every step I hear the sounds of a tradition so rich and powerful its roots spread across the Atlantic Ocean from the coasts of Africa to Brazil, and then ricocheted back to Europe and the States, where it influenced generations of musicians … and one fifteen year-old girl who sat in a movie theatre, watching A Man and a Woman, the classic film by Claude Lelouche, for the third time—not just for the love story, but for the song Pierre Barouh sings to Anouk Aimee as he climbs stairs behind her.    Read more

By Abigail Carter

Video Youtube

Whatever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, Letraset sheets.It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets

 

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2001: A Writer’s Odyssey
Global Impact
Hedgebrook Celebrates International Women’s Day!
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