In mid-September, Grace Talusan, Fulbright Scholar, English professor at Tufts University in Boston, and winner of the 2017 New Immigrant Writing for Nonfiction by Restless Books, contacted me to let me know that the Boston Filipino-American Club (BFAB) was going to be reading my novel, A Village in the Fields, for the month of October. Grace, whose memoir, The Body Papers, will be published in the Fall of 2018, asked if I would be willing to Skype with the members at their October 29th meeting following their traditional brunch. Absolutely, I let her and book club founder and artist Bren Bataclan know.
At some point in October, my husband, David, suggested that I use up points and fly to Boston the weekend of the book club meeting. At first, I dismissed the idea. I’m not spontaneous, I pointed out, echoing a famous line of mine from my college days. But as the days went by, I started to warm up to the idea. However, I didn’t want to burden anyone with my visit. When I finally reached out to Grace and Bren, they were enthusiastic and welcoming of the visit. So I booked my flight and was looking forward to the trip. My job has been very stressful these past few months and I pulled two near-all-nighters the week before my planned visit. In fact, that Thursday evening, I worked until the early morning. I wasn’t sure then if it was a good idea to be going away. But David noted that I needed to get out, that being around book lovers would be a welcome change and just the community that I needed to be in the midst of.
So I took the red-eye from Oakland to JFK in New York and caught the next leg to Boston. (An aside: It turned out that the woman sitting across the aisle from me was headed for the Boston Book Festival. Her publishing company, New York-based Other Press, was hosting a tent, which is where she brought up recognizing me on her flight. She noticed that I was reading Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.) Grace and a good friend of hers picked me up at the airport, and we had a nice breakfast at the Eastern Standard, an elegant French-period appointed restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of Kenmore Square, which is on the other side of the highway from Fenway Park. Afterwards, Grace dropped me off at Copley Square, site of the Boston Book Festival, a one-day event of talks and panels, tents filled with myriad publishers, and book signings! I was in heaven and the weather was perfect – fall chill in the air, changing colors of the trees. There were multiple sessions that overlapped, so I had to make some difficult decisions.
My introduction to the festival was listening to The Shakespeare Time-Traveling Speakeasy. During 2016-2017, Shakespeare to Hiphop (literary performers and TEDx Boston alumni Regie Gibson and Marlon Carey) partnered with the Boston Public Library to celebrate the great bard. The result is The Shakespeare Time-Traveling Speakeasy: “an all-new presentation combining American jazz-funk-country-pop and hip-hop with poetry, song, storytelling, rap, and Shakespeare’s own words.” Their performance was entertaining and crowd-pleasing.
I walked around the tents, checking out the various local presses, and then I walked over to the Church of the Covenant to hear the fiction keynote featuring Claire Messud and Jacqueline Woodson discuss their recently released coming-of-age novels, The Burning Girl, and Another Brooklyn, respectively. Both read excerpts from their novels. According to the book festival program: “The mutability of memory, the swift passage of time, the use of stories to make sense of experience, the treacherous landscape of female adolescence, and the simultaneous vitality and volatility of teenage girls’ friendships – these are common threads that run through these narratives, as both writers draw perceptive, unsentimental portraits of young women growing up and growing apart.”
I couldn’t stay for any book signings afterwards. I would have had to stand in a long line, considering how packed the church was for their keynote. I dashed back to Trinity Forum to catch the “Voices of American: The Immigrant Experience Through a Writer’s Eyes” session, which featured Ha Jin, Marjan Kamali, and Grace. I have read Ha Jin’s books, including Waiting, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1999. I picked up Marjan’s novel, Together Tea, which is about the matchmaking exploits of an Iranian woman’s parents. And I look forward to Grace’s memoir to come out next year. Grace read an excerpt about her father’s childhood in the Philippines that was gripping, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. My heart was literally in my throat as she read, which is how I define meaningful storytelling – the kind that stays with you, that you turn over and over in your head at night and for days. The three panelists talked about being immigrant writers, and while Marjan wished to be thought of as a writer and not “labeled” as an Iranian-American writer, I applauded Grace’s response: There are few Asian-American writers; she is more than happy to take on that mantle to draw more attention to the stories of Asian Americans, of Filipino Americans.
Once I briefly met Ha Jin and Marjan, I dashed to the Boston Public Library. I wasn’t able to catch the session “Fiction: Missed Connections,” with Eshkol Novo, Celeste Ng, and Lily Tuck, but I decided that getting their books signed was more important. I ended up reading a good chunk of Celeste’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, on my long plane ride back home the following evening. It’s a beautiful novel, both in character revelation and insight and in her writing. I wasn’t familiar with Lily Tuck, but I picked up her latest novel, the slim Sisters, which I read in one sitting that night. I appreciated the structure of what I consider a novella, and I learned a lot about crafting intense short scenes/chapters. Another writer to read more of her previous works!
I completely missed “Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing.” John Freeman, literary critic, poet, and former Granta editor, is a childhood classmate of one of my favorite local proprietors, Jen Komaromi of Jenny K. I wished I could have attended, but it was time for me to head on over to Bren’s place in Cambridge. I caught a Lyft and met my gracious hosts, Bren and Bob, in their beautiful turn-of-the-century flat. The trees had already changed colors and it was cold. Perfect fall weather. Bren grew up in the Bay Area and is now a successful painter and muralist. He and Brian share the distinction of being one of the first couples to be married in Massachusetts when same-sex marriage was legal. While they had a dance performance to attend that evening, I was perfectly happy to cozy up on the couch and read Sisters in one sitting. And then cat-nap and catch the World Series.
In the morning, after my error of telling Bren and Bob that the weekend before Halloween was Daylight Savings time was discovered, we had enough time to right the ship, get ready, and head on over to hosts Rory and Jane’s home to enjoy a Sunday brunch and discuss my novel. I was in awe of all the great food that was on the table. What a wonderful tradition of a having a potluck brunch with Filipino food such as puto and a rice dish that was supposed to feature Spam (Anna, who brought the dish apologized for not being able to find the tin of Spam in her kitchen). I met some wonderful people and new friends. I felt so welcomed. Rather than drain me, my short whirlwind weekend energized me. I was surrounded by books, book lovers, writers, my Filipino American community, warm hospitality. What more could a writer ask for? Maraming salamat, dear new friends!