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.

 

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The Grand Finale of the FPP Season – Sunday, March 9 at Silvana in Harlem!

Please join us for an afternoon of arts both literary and theatrical in the downstairs performance space of Silvana in Harlem at 4:00pm on March 9, 2014.  We will begin with a staged reading of Karinne Keithley Syers’ My Address Is Still Walton: A Play For The Set of Charlie Rose, directed and performed by Johanna McKeon, Caleb Bark, and Lacy Post, then we will hear poetry and prose writers Nicole Cooley and Randall Horton.  For this season finale, we will be in a new space, at the relatively new Silvana cafe and bar at 116th and FDB, across from Harlem Tavern.  Plan to eat delicious Israeli food and drink whatever suits!  As always, admission is free.

n_cooleyNicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and now lives outside of NYC. She has published four books of poems, most recently Breach(LSU Press) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books), both in 2010, and a novel. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Feminist Wire, The Nation, and Poetry among other venues. She is currently working on a non-fiction book, My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories, as well as a new collection of poems, Of Marriage. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York.

Bio Pic GtownRandall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award and most recently a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Randall is a Cave Canem Fellow, a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a member of The Symphony: The House that Etheridge Built. Randall is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Haven. An excerpt from his memoir titled Roxbury is published by Kattywompus Press. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press in the publisher of his latest poetry collection Pitch Dark Anarchy. He currently lives in NYC.

karinne-300x163Karinne Keithley Syers is an interdisciplinary artist and publisher of plays and performance texts. Her work spans dance, writing, sound, animation, essay, video, and projection, and has been seen in and out of New York since 1995. Recently her solo show Another Tree Dance premiered at The Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City after a workshop performance at Mount Tremper Arts. Her chamber operetta/museum installation Montgomery Park, or Opulence, won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Production in 2011, after its 2010 run at Incubator Arts Project. Her work has also been seen at Danspace Project, Dixon Place, La MaMa E.T.C., Tonic, innumerable installations of Catch, several Little Theaters, The Ohio Theater’s Ice Factory festival, Surf Reality, and Ur, and has been supported by residencies and workshops at the MacDowell Colony, Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, St. Ann’s Warehouse’s Puppet Lab, Silo, and Mount Tremper Arts. She has collaborated as a performer with David Neumann, Young Jean Lee, Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, Chris Yon, Sara Smith, Melanie Rios Glaser, Paul Matteson, and Yoshiko Chuma, as a sound and video designer with Big Dance Theater, Sibyl Kempson, Kate Weare, Ivy Baldwin, Chris Yon, Melanie Rios Glaser, Monica Bill Barnes, as a choreographer with The Civilians, Talking Band, Johanna McKeon, and Theater of a Two-Headed Calf, with whom she has also been a librettist. She founded 53rd State Press in 2007, and now co-edits it with Antje Oegel. They recently published their 19th book of performance scripts. She studied the dark (playwriting) arts at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman, and is spitting distance from completing her Ph.D. in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her long-running audio serial The Basement Tapes of the Mole Cabal can be found on fancystitchmachine.org, along with her treasury of ukulele covers and stop motion animations.

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