Here it is: my attempt at articulating the tumult of emotions and thoughts following my first Writefest.
Where can I begin? How? Well, the whole weekend I was there, I just felt this overwhelming joy and peace, the same mix of feelings I get when I’m sitting in an empty cathedral appreciating its architecture and soaking in the sacred atmosphere (one of my favorite pastimes, I must admit). This time the sense of content and belonging came from being among other writers. Living in Houston, growing up, raised, and surrounded by Vietnamese Catholics, I never lacked in being part of the community on an ethnic and spiritual level. My parents saw to it that I got my fair share of cultural association events, Christian retreats, etc. But never before have I been part of a community on a creative level (well, since graduating from High School for Performing and Visual Arts, and I didn’t get into that school for writing, anyway). I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, recently making the transition to original fiction after flexing my creative muscles in fanfiction for a decade. This creative endeavor, while emotionally rewarding, felt quite lonely at times, and I longed for that satisfying feeling that I wasn’t alone.
I found that through Writefest.
I lost count of the times I sat in those panels wanting to punch the air and go “yes, yes, I’ve found my people. They get me.” Everyone had something valuable to say, and I find their insight enlightening, empowering, and encouraging. I particularly enjoyed panels exploring Our Own Voices, speculative fiction, women’s fiction, fanfiction to original fiction, Bonnie’s Art + Words collaborative event, and various writers sharing their creative process.
But, while I’ve enjoyed every panel I attended, by far my favorite part of the festival was sitting down for a chat with Ken Liu on Friday. In my mind he’s up there on my list of literary heroes, particularly Asian writers I look up to. It’s thanks to him I even heard about Writefest in the first place, when I joked about being mad at myself for missing his talk at UT-Dallas and he assured me over Twitter that I could see him at the upcoming Writefest. So the day came, and Ken and I sat down just to talk. It felt casual yet surreal, just the two of us munching on Girl Scout cookies at a table in a long hallway. It was empty, due to attendees sitting at the last 2 panels for the day, and quiet, save for the overhead pattering, which we initially mistook for applause but turned out to be heavy rain (welcome to Houston, y’all).
Ken and I talked for a good hour or so, about everything from his opinions on other Asian-Americans’ opinions to what it means to be an Asian-American writer, and how to handle criticism from within our own community. In turn, I shared with him my journey as a budding physician and writer.
Few Asians I know write, even fewer Vietnamese people I know write, and if they do, more often than not it’s Vietnam War nonfiction. Nothing wrong with that medium, of course, and the war shouldn’t be the only thing that defines us, but reality still stands that we as an overseas community are recovering from the wounds. The war wasn’t even that long ago; my parents themselves have been refugees, boat people, victims of an oppressive regime that won. I am a product of that generation still reeling from the damage, a generation still branded by that story. It’s going to take time for us to shift away from telling the diaspora narrative we know so well, and look elsewhere to tell our story, either to our history and mythos before the war, or a future we’d like to see.
Me having my heart in spec fic goes against the grain, in that sense. So meeting Ken, who writes Asian spec fic like I do, means the world to me.
During the days up to Writefest, I was afraid of looking like a bumbling idiot in front of writers I admire and looked forward to meeting. They put my fears to rest—everyone I’ve met has been welcoming, gracious, kind, modest, and so…human. My anxiety went out the window to the point I could joke around and open up in ways I usually wouldn’t. I would never forget the quirky highlights of my weekend. Anecdotes abound: My thoughts on science and faith in harmony provided the perfect segway to Kate Lechler sharing her amazing Jurassic Unicorn idea. I mock lamented to Julia Rios that I can’t send Neil Clarke my Vietnamese zombie saga, after all. Ken laughed at my “Nguyen-Nguyen situation” pun (like legit laughing, not just laughing to be polite), when my friends, if they heard it, would just facepalm and groan. I fangirled with Cassandra Clarke a bit on the joys of fanfic writing, and joked with her about the trainwreck that is “My Immortal” (with Ken being morbidly curious at what has the dubious honor of being the “worst fanfiction in the world.”)
I have no intention at all with seeming like someone with Schadenfreude (uniquely German word for “taking delight in other people’s misfortunes,” in case you didn’t know). That said, I loved hearing about writers I see as prolific and successful talk about their rejections. None of us, even the best of us, are immune to them. Never giving up, always striving to create more, and knowing you try to stay true to your vision regardless of outside opinions, really is the key to success. That’s the most valuable lesson I took away from this conference.
I really appreciate everyone involved in handling this event for making it happen. Thank you for all your hard work and dedication to create a space for writers from all walks of life and ways of writing. I’d especially like to thank Layla Al-Bedawi, Julia Rios, Ken Liu, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Kate Lechler, John Shade, and Cassandra Clarke, who’ve all welcomed me to the legion of spec fic writers.
I will value these interactions for years to come, and that’s no exaggeration. I am so, so happy to find a writing community in my own hometown and I hope to give as much as I had been getting.