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Louise Meriwether First Book Prize

February 23, 2017

Some thoughts on winning the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize.

 

First of all, Louise Meriwether kicks butt. Her accomplishments make me wish I can someday match a sliver of what she has gifted the world. At 93, she is working on a film script for her seminal first novel. Wow.

 

Periodic pangs of unworthiness aside, I am of course overjoyed that my fiction debut is associated with such luminosity. And Feminist Press! Not only did it put out Louise Meriwether's first novel, but it also published books by Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Lim was the first Malaysian writer I ever read. Reading her made me realize that stories like mine, by writers like me, had a place on the shelves of global readers. It exploded the mind of someone who grew up conditioned that she was a kind of second-class citizen.

 

That was over a decade ago. Though I Get Home, my book forthcoming next Spring, took many years to write. I was an immigrant* on a work visa. To maintain my status as a legal resident alien, I had to hold down a full-time job in some engineering-related capacity. To do this, I joined a technology startup, working 45+-hour weeks that often also involved being paged to handle emergencies in the night. I wrote in fits, whenever I could -- mornings, weekends. Dribbles. Progress was so slow that, by the time I got to the end of a book draft and started revising from the beginning, I was already a better writer than the one who wrote the beginning, which meant I could no longer stomach what I was reading, and so had to start the book over. This happened twice. On my third time through rewriting the book, I did what I could to speed things up. Vacations and personal time off were particularly good for this. (Doesn't hurt that I do derive satisfaction from my job, plus I lucked out with a company that has decent time off policy.)

 

Of course there were periods when I despaired and "gave up" writing. Work was stressful, I lost 20 lbs without explanation, there was family trouble, and I developed health problems. Time and again, I tried to tame myself into a life without writing. Sometimes this would work for a spell, until I'd remind myself: Kafka was a doctor. Wallace Stevens sold insurance. Frank O'Hara wrote on his lunch breaks. Shirley Jackson ran a household and raised her children. Many contemporary writers, too, work(ed) challenging, full-time jobs: N.K. Jemisin, Zen Cho, Kristy Bowen (who was my chapbook editor), etc. Nevertheless, they persisted. So I, too, (eventually) persisted, with the occasional prod by David, my husband and staunchest supporter.

 

I'm now in the incredibly lucky position of being able to share my work with readers. Having lived under censorship and restriction of expression (what the book is mainly about, really), I have nothing but thanks to FP and TAYO for their decision to "amplify silenced voices."

 

To prepare me for my career as a fiction writer, my husband thoughtfully gifted me with a second-hand copy of this book titled Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame. I am now thoroughly ready for there to be subzero people at the book prize launch event, which I will attend wasted, having picked up a drinking problem between now and next month. 

 

* Side rant: Ever noticed that certain groups of people are expats, never immigrants? While other categories of people are always labeled immigrants, never expats.

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