FPP interview: Sonya Chung

SonyaChung_Headshot_12x300Sonya Chung is a writer and teacher living in Harlem. FPP caught up with her to discuss her relationship to Harlem, her favorite spots in our neighborhood, and where and why she writes. We also talked about the “we” POV as “a fundamental world view in Korean culture.” Catch Sonya Chung alongside Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, and Deborah Emin this Tuesday, May 9th, 7pm, at Shrine World Music Venue (at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem).


You live in Harlem and teach in upstate New York. Where do you do most of your creative writing?

West Harlem / Morningside Heights is home—the first and only place I’ve ever felt truly at home. Like most New Yorkers, I think of my neighborhood as a micro-neighborhood that is essentially a 5-block radius; and I live at the cross-section of multiple neighborhoods, cultures, histories, racial groups, institutions, and social classes, which is exactly the sort of place where I always feel most comfortable and myself.  I watch the neighborhood change, for better and for worse, daily; and I also witness the diverse groups and forces colliding and converging in endlessly interesting ways.  All this to say that I get most of my real writing work done here, at my desk, which is in the kitchen of a small (studio) apartment I share with my partner and two doglets (here you can see a video of them, because you all need to watch this when you are feeling low or stressed and need a burst of endorphins).  Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 12.34.02 PMWhen I get itchy or need to breathe new air or my partner (who also works at home) needs to make a long work phone call, I walk—five blocks this way, 10 or 20 blocks that way—and I can be in a completely different world.  Just yesterday I found a café run by a Venezuelan opera singer in lower Washington Heights, and I got good work done there.  Sometimes I go to Joe Coffee at Columbia.  I have to mention that I often get good work done at Silvana (while enjoying the best uptown falafel hands-down), which I know is connected to Shrine, where FPP is hosted.

What are some of your favorite spots in Harlem?

Oh, so many.  I just mentioned Silvana.  Kuro Kuma on Tiemann Place is the best coffee in the city—and I’m a big coffee person—so please everyone go there and keep them in business forever.  Maison Harlem is our go-to for happy hour and special occasions.  The church ladies outside the Baptist Church on 125th and St. Nich sell homemade coconut cake slices that will change your life (and probably save your soul).  The best vegetable and fruit vendor (he’s from Bangladesh) is at the corner of St. Nich and 124th, and the Korean fish market on St. Nich/125 not only has good fish & chips but is one of the most interesting places, sociologically speaking, in the neighborhood. In Morningside Park we love the handball courts, where we smash tennis balls against the wall, racquetball-style, to de-stress. On long walks I love to stroll around City College and St. Nicholas Park, and up to the Trinity Church /Church of the Intercession Cemetery, which is amazing; and just a few blocks beyond that is Sister’s Uptown Bookstore, which has been there 17 years, and everyone should know about it.

What does the “we” point of view mean to you, and how does it enter your work?

I’ve never written in first person plural, strictly speaking; but I think about narrative POV constantly.  I am not exaggerating when I say I think it is the most important decision a writer makes when writing fiction (when teaching, it is always the first topic I introduce to students, via James Wood’s How Fiction Works).  There is not only the question of “which POV?”—first person (singular or plural), second person, third person (omniscient or limited)—but also narrative distance, reliability, consistency and/or shifts.  When settling on a narrative POV(s), you are essentially determining the work’s “aboutness.”  If you are writing from the “we” POV, or, say, the second person, this is especially evident. Or if your narrator is unreliable, this is not simply a “formal” decision but rather a driving force of content/meaning as well.  Finding the right POV for your fiction is often, necessarily, a trial-and-error process; it happens simultaneously as your story and characters find their own aboutness. Form and content shape each other.

The “we” POV is in fact a fundamental world view in Korean culture: in the Korean language, it is a grammatical rule that one must say “our” house, “our” mother/father/grandmother, etc., “our” church; there are other words for which this is the case (money?  I’m not sure, but that would make sense), but these are the ones that come to mind.  The communal-vs-individual tension is always, always pressing for me—in life and in art.  If there is a way in which I feel my soul-level Westernness, it is in this tension—my natural (while at the same time conflicted) leaning toward individual liberty/identity over communal obligation/conformity.  The characters in both my novels struggle with all this as well.  They are shaped by and beholden to their family cultures, while at the same time deeply, conspicuously at odds with them.  The I/We tension is endlessly difficult and interesting.  I seem to have thus far coped by writing ensemble casts. I have yet to be able to write a novel featuring a sole protagonist.  The novel I’m working on now does feature a single protagonist, and I am writing her in first person; and frankly I’m having a heck of a time with it!

At a recent reading Teju Cole, another New York-based writer, said he started writing because it was “a way to be intense about my life.” Is writing for you a way to be intense about your life, or is it a way to escape from your life, or something else? In sum, why do you write?

Writing is definitely a way to be intense about my life.  All throughout my adolescence I was told that I was “too serious,” and finally when I found my vocation as a writer, I was allowed to immerse in that seriousness. In life we live on the surfaces and interact via simplifications, and that can be enjoyable and entertaining and nourishing in various ways; but in books we plunge deep into complexity and the real.  Life has always felt unsatisfyingly fragmented to me; in novels we aim for something like wholeness.  If I didn’t have writing, I think I might have (more) serious mental health issues, because the gap between the call of reality and how we live day-to-day would trouble me a lot.  In that sense I suppose writing is both intensity and escape.




The FPP Season Kickoff Blew Us Away!

What a privilege to have had Lacy M. Johnson, Kiese Laymon, and Tiphanie Yanique share the stage this past Monday for First Person Plural Harlem’s season opener.  It was a profound reading– not a word to be used lightly, and we don’t.

Lacy M. Johnson‘s latest book, The Other Side, recounts the harrowing experience of ljohnsonher kidnap and near murder at the hands of a former boyfriend.  Johnson read of the dreams that haunt her still– the expected nightmares of threats and violence, and the perhaps more disturbing dream of sitting down to a calm, comforting conversation with the man.  Through her children, Johnson showed us the lasting impact of the violence done to her.  “I want her to be a little afraid of me,” she writes of her daughter, a three-year-old as irrepressible as Johnson herself was as a child.  The traumatic event taught Johnson to retreat into herself, and in moving moment after moment, Johnson worries about how she closes the door on her children, forgetting how to open it again.

klaymonKiese Laymon decided to read an essay “from the heart,’ one he feels uncomfortable reading outside of his Mississippi birthplace, and we will be forever grateful that he did. “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” the titular essay of his recent collection, is a revelation about what it means to be a young black male in a country that is anything but post-racial.  Whereas wealthy/white youth have their foibles and serious crimes alike laughed off as growing pains, Laymon writes, “I was born on parole,” and “nineteen-year-old black boys cannot be perfect in America.” And while he writes of the ways his life might have and did go terribly sideways as a young man, he also finds deep empathy for, among others, his mother, wondering how he has failed to add love and comfort to her life. The essay was a wrenching tour de force.

Tiphanie Yanique read a section of her new novel, Land of Love and Drowning, which began with the musicality of poetry recounting the charmed life of an impossibly tyaniquecharismatic man from St. Thomas who joins the US Army in the time of Jim Crow.  We were spellbound as Yanique narrated a trip he and a few other “Islander” soldiers take to a restaurant near their New Orleans base.  The excursion nearly ends in tragedy as the realities of violent racism slowly– almost too slowly– sink in for the young men, unused to segregation and anticipating the respect the uniform should afford.  The beautiful, talented protagonist cannot believe the local men won’t listen to reason.  The whole of Shrine was leaning forward throughout, to see him safely through.

photo 2(1)Huge thanks to DJ Lady DM spinning us on home!  And thanks again to Lacy, Tiphanie, and Kiese for the work that your words do in the world.  We will not soon forget this reading!

Whole Lotta Love: the Next FPP Lineup Enjoys Critical Acclaim

It seems every time we blink there’s another rave review or fascinating new article out on Kiese Laymon, Lacy M. Johnson, and Tiphanie Yanique, our First Person Plural Lineup at 7pm on Tuesday, September 30th at Shrine in Harlem.

the other sideThe Wall Street Journal Online writes of Lacy M. Johnson’s “incandescent” memoir: it is “written with both fury and restraint. The reader feels pulled onto a fast train, in a compartment with a narrator telling an intimate and terrifying tale.” Kirkus Review calls The Other Side, “Ferociously beautiful and courageous, Johnson’s intimate story sheds light on the perpetuation of violence against women.” You can read a fantastic interview with Lacy at The Rumpus, which says, “Johnson’s memoir is an extraordinary document, and she herself holds an important place in a movement to stop violence against women.”


Long DivisionKiese Laymon published not one but two books in 2013. His novel Long Division was on the “Best of 2013” lists at The Believer, Buzzfeed, Guernica, Salon, and many other publications.   Roxane Gay writes in the The Nation, “[Long Division] is the most exciting book I’ve read all year.  There’s nothing like it, both in terms of the scope of what the book tackles and the writing’s Afro Surrealist energy.”  Essays from his collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America have appeared in the Best American series, the Best of Net award, and the Atlantic‘s Best Essays of 2013. The Rumpus writes of the collection, “[I]n this very un-post-racial world, Laymon picks up where Baldwin left off, surviving and living to tell the tale….How does he kill himself and others? By fighting, by loving too much or not enough, by eating too much, by quitting, by writing or not writing, and by continuing to push forward despite opposition.

Land of Love and DrowningTiphanie Yanique follows up her award winning short story collection with the stunning debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning, about which Publisher’s Weekly writes, “Through the voices and lives of its native people, Yanique offers an affecting narrative of the Virgin Islands that pulses with life, vitality, and a haunting evocation of place.” Flavorwire calls the novel “sublime,” Huffingtonpost writes, “Yanique’s debut novel bursts with imagination and intoxicating atmosphere, and the deeply felt characters at its heart demand to be heard,” and TimeOut writes, “How rare to encounter a dauntless and complex novel that convincingly melds true history with magic, but Tiphanie Yanique’s debut—a rich seascape about family and legacy, beauty’s clout and the variable waves of race and class on the twentieth-century Caribbean islands—accomplishes just that.”

We feel unbelievably privileged to welcome these three authors to the same stage next Tuesday night.  These are the voices that will be shaping the conversation for years to come.  See you at Shrine at 7pm September 30th!

Announcing Our October 15 Lineup in Partnership with Belladonna Collaborative

We at First Person Plural are thrilled to announce that our second reading this season is in partnership with Belladonna Collaborative and features three stellar poets: r. erica doyle, Tonya Foster, and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs.  The Belladonna* mission is to “promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language.” This is a mission we wholeheartedly support!  Join us at 7:00pm on Tuesday, October 15 at Shrine in Harlem.  As always, admission is free.

ericar. erica doyle was born in Brooklyn to Trinidadian immigrant parents, and her first book, proxy, was published by Belladonna Books in 2013. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Ploughshares, Bloom, Blithe House Quarterly and Sinister Wisdom.

She has received grants and awards from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Erica is a Cave Canem Fellow and received her MFA in Poetry from The New School. She lives in New York City, where she is an administrator in the NYC public schools and facilitates Tongues Afire: A Free Creative Writing Workshop for queer women and trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

Tonya-portraitTonya Foster is the author of poetry, fiction, and essays that have been published in a variety of journals. Tonya has worked as a teacher at City College’s Bridge to Medicine Program, the Saturday/Outreach Program at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and the Middle School Program at Wadleigh Middle School.

The author of A Swarm of Bees in High Court (forthcoming from Belladonna Press/Futurepoem Books) and co-editor of Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2002), her research interests include 19th and 20th century poetries of the Americas; 20th century poetics; the poetics and politics of space; African diaspora fiction; and Afro-futurism; and dystopias.

Tea Time by TateLaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a writer, vocalist and the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Her poetry has been published in Ploughshares, Jubilat, Fence, Rattapallax, Nocturnes, and LA Review. She has received awards from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, New York Foundation for the Arts, Harlem Community Arts Fund, Jerome Foundation, Barbara Deming Memorial Grant, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She is a native of Harlem.


January 28, 2013: What a Great Night!

The sleet deterred neither our artists nor our big, warm FPP audience!  We had a fabulous time listening to work by Stacey D’Erasmo, Monica Ong, and Michael Thomas, and to DJ Lady DM‘s groovy opening and closing sets.

Stacey D’Erasmo‘s forthcoming novel tells the comically bittersweet story of a singer trying to make a comeback years after her youthful success.  The excerpt D’Erasmo read led us into fascinating first person plural territory, as the main character recalls the making of her second album, a spectacular failure: seven musicians and producers hole up in a chateau and become a “we,” bonding over drugs and isolation and the mating calls of deer in the woods around them. But the artistic transcendence they feel never manifests in the music.  Monica Ong combined projected images and poems to stunning effect.  Her first image was a childhood photograph of her mother gathered with her mother and six siblings.  The accompanying poem revealed that her mother was one of the three “boys,” dressed and staged so that the family would not lose face from a surfeit of girls.  Her next images and poems brought us into human physiology, giving voice to the silent mechanisms of the body– to the body’s frightening failures and the way we fail our bodies through cultural mores and silence.  She closed with a moving poem written for the FPP reading in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.  Michael Thomas read an electrifying essay from his forthcoming collection.  He recounts a roadtrip he took with his brother who was recently arrested and floundering; as he departs, he fears the trip is ill-advised, that two black men on the highway at night are an easy target for police, and that his unrestrained, undiscriminating brother might threaten Thomas’s hard-won equilibrium and the privacy of mind he fiercely protects.  The essay was a challenge to the comfort and validity of the “we.”  Thank you to our readers for a compelling array of work and for their responses to the FPP theme.  Special thanks, again, to DJ Lady DM who closed out the night with more great music (that very nearly got us dancing– okay, maybe we danced a little)!

FPP Harlem Reading this Monday: Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright…

What a crazy week–a hurricane, its aftermath, a cancelled marathon,
an election, a nor’easter–these changes in routine brought New
Yorkers together in new ways. Join us at Shrine for more drama and
togetherness next Monday.

Ashley Byler will start things off with a performance to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls),” followed by readings from Jacqueline Jones LaMon, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Phillip Lopate.  We can’t wait to hear their work. As always, our event is FREE, though we will be collecting donations for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. (An added bonus: Stacy Parker Le Melle, one of “us,” will share some of her Harlem photographs.  Her images are featured in the FPP event posters, like the one above.)

See you at 7:00pm!

Announcing the Lineup for Our November 12th Reading!

The next event in the First Person Plural Harlem reading series will be November 12th at Shrine.  Authors Jacqueline Jones LaMon, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Phillip Lopate, and dancer/choreographer Ashley Byler will be reading and performing work responding to the first person plural theme.  We can’t wait to see what this exciting group of artists brings to the First Person Plural stage!

Jacqueline Jones LaMon is the author of two collections, Last Seen, a Felix Pollak Poetry Prize selection, and Gravity, U.S.A., recipient of the Quercus Review Press Poetry Series Book Award; and the novel, In the Arms of One Who Loves Me. A finalist for the 2012 NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literature: Poetry, she lives in New York City and teaches at Adelphi University.   www.jacquelinejoneslamon.com.




Photograph by Miriam Berkley

Marie Myung-OK Lee is one of the few Americans who have ever been allowed into North Korea; she was a guest of the DPRK Government in 2009. Lee is an alumnus of Brown University, where she taught creative writing until 2011, and now teaches at Columbia University. She has also been a Fulbright Fellow (the first recipient of a creative writing Fulbright to South Korea), a judge for the National Book Awards and the RFK Book and Journalism Awards. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Atlantic, Guernica, her fiction in The Kenyon Review, Guernica, FiveChapters, and many other publications. She has been awarded fellowship residencies to Yaddo, MacDowell, and Ledig House, and was the recipient of the MacColl Johnson Fellowship and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fiction Fellowship, and is currently one of the nominees for the United States Artists Fellowship, awarded for an “extraordinary vision.”


Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979.  He has written three personal essay collections—Bachelorhood (Little, Brown, 1981), Against Joie de Vivre (Poseidon-Simon & Schuster, 1989), and Portrait of My Body (Doubleday-Anchor, 1996); two novels, Confessions of Summer (Doubleday, 1979) and The Rug Merchant (Viking, 1987); two poetry collections, The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open (Sun Press, 1972) and The Daily Round (Sun Press, 1976); a memoir of his teaching experiences, Being With Children (Doubleday, 1975); a collection of his movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically (Doubleday-Anchor); an urbanist meditation, Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Crown, 2004); and a biographical monograph, Rudy Burckhardt: Photographer and Filmmaker (Harry N. Abrams, 2004.)  In addition, there is a Phillip Lopate reader, Getting Personal: Selected Writings (Basic Books, 2003).  His most recent books are Two Marriages (novellas, Other Press, 2008),  Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009), and At the End of the Day: Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010), and the forthcoming Essay Love (personal essays) and To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (both to be published by Simon & Schsuter, March 2013).  www.philliplopate.com/


Ashley Byler was born in Rocket City, U.S.A. She received a BA in Music and Psychology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and an MFA in Dance from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been seen as part of Dance Theatre Workshop’s Studio Series, The Field’s Uptown/Downtown, Movement Research at the Judson Church and as commissioned by Ketchikan Theatre Ballet. She is an arts educator at The Eliza Frost School and dances with Sara Rudner. Her recent concerns as an artist hover around reclaiming the term pedestrian from the post-modern dance tradition, redefining it through popular social dance movement and applying rigorous compositional techniques associated with some heroes of the Judson Church in the 1960’s.




Shrine World Music Venue
(in Black United Fun Plaza)
September 10, 2012 @ 7pm
2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.

Critics’ Pick: The First Person Plural Harlem Reading Series!

We’re very happy to be a TimeOutNY “Critics’ Pick” for this Monday’s reading.  Join us at Shrine this September 10, 7pm to hear Paul La Farge, Lynne Tillman, and art duo LoVid read and perform new work.  If you’re not already familiar with their innovative work, you might want to browse the following links.  You can find Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes here.  It’s a rich, funny, and searching hypertext (and print book!) about the disconnect between human knowledge and human action, and it’s a pleasure to explore online.   Lynne Tillman’s work is being published and reprinted by the exciting new press Red Lemonade.  You can view her catalogue and a fabulous cache of her short prose here.  LoVid recently led a walking tour in Harlem involving dancers, local history, video, and iPhones; you can see more of that project here and the extraordinary breadth of their work here.

One Week Until the First Person Plural Harlem Season Premiere!

We’re very excited to hear Lynne Tillman, Paul La Farge, and artist duo LoVid perform one week from today at Shrine (7pm on Monday, September 10th at Shrine).  We’ve been re-reading Lynne Tillman’s miniature masterpieces, in everything from her latest Someday This Will Be Funny (which the NYTimes calls “gorgeously at ease, technically virtuosic [and]…ever on point,” to her witty and unsettling collaboration with artists This Is Not It.  You can sample a piece from Someday This Will Be Funny here: The Substitute.  We can’t wait to hear her live and see you there!