The trees here are turning ginko-yellow and jack-o-lantern orange, and the animals are going berserk. Is it this way every fall? I woke up one morning because there were squirrels chasing each other across the outer walls of my bedroom. Yesterday, I was sitting on a very low-to-the-ground bench reading a book and a chipmunk dove directly between my legs. Sometimes you can see the chipmunks jumping so high, it’s like they’ve got a trampoline in the woods. And then a groundhog runs across the lawn. And then a gigantic blue heron in the swamp rises up flapping its heavy wings. The heron: that’s when it felt most like a dream.
I finished a new full draft of the manuscript on Thursday. I struggled, psychologically, with my excitement to have reached a new milestone. Success is often a trigger for my OCD:. It’s like on some subconscious level, I am convinced that my success is going to ultimately result in someone else’s suffering somehow. But yes, I reached my goal for my time here! For now, I am giving it a couple weeks and then will read through it and begin another round of revisions. It no doubt still has a long way to go, but it’s been wonderful to be able to work through narrative problems with the listening ear of my fellow residents. On Monday I realized that the plot device I was using to drive forth the end of the book was completely unrealistic, but a more natural answer was waiting for me as soon as I was in conversation with Emperatriz about what, exactly, I wanted to accomplish.
I spent Friday & Saturday finishing two novels that I have long been meaning to get through: Danzy Senna’s New People—it shares with my book the ‘biracial in Brooklyn’ theme—and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex—often hailed now as an example of a multi-generational novel. I can’t seem to get through a good book these days without an intense cry session, which was what I did for both of these.
Danzy Senna’s book turned out to be mostly about how a biracial person grapples with their sense of self and their romantic preferences; it was so relatable, I felt very exposed. Middlesex, as you may know, was at its time a somewhat groundbreaking novel about Cal, an intersex person and their family’s history of interfamilial marriage. I think from a 2020 perspective on trans people and on gender, there are aspects that feel dated and problematic. But I still found it heart breaking, especially because of some of the ways I related to Cal’s experiences (speaking as a bisexual and genderfluid female with a high testosterone count. It’s a story for another time).
Stylistically, they are almost opposites: Senna writes in short, pithy sentences and draws us in with the irony of her understatements, while Eugenides’ narrator (first person) is verbose to the point of irritating—though this is part of the effect, as the narrator will often go on tangents, then assure us these tangents are relevant to the story. Both books were useful to me from a craft perspective New People is amazing at investigating racial tropes: which prompts me to want to dig deeper for tropes and clichés in my own book. And Eugenides proves skillful at maintaining a kind of voice, tone, and magical realist texture over the course of 530 pages. I worry that a lack of such narrative consistency may be a problem in my book right now.
Some other highlights of the week:
•My hike with fellow novelist Sarah William! So grateful for her advice about applying to MFA programs, and for our long and powerful discussion on competitiveness between writers.
•Our discussion at dinner, prompted by Sarah, about what “communities” we each belong to. We all mutually agreed that no one had ever asked us this question before!
•Our impromptu open mike last night, at which we were privileged to watch Eli Nixon perform a mesmerizing choreography including a cardboard sculpture; Emperatriz Ung read from her powerful, choose-your-own adventure memoir; Melissa Hacker share two fascinating, deeply-researched films; Sarah Thankum Matthews read from her gorgeous nove, set in the Obama years; and Michael Harrison offer us a profound composition recorded with Roomful of Teeth.
Last entry at Millay friends. Thanks for following along. ❤
I have made much progress with the novel this week but the content has been very dark. I spent many hours researching and writing about NYC’s 1977 blackout and its aftermath; white collar arson-for-profit rings; the crack epidemic, and the national sex offender registry. This was all going toward a lot of heavily revised and original content for the 1970s-1980s portion of my book; I hope it doesn’t read like a list of national traumas.
I also have been experimenting more with variation of point of view. Most of the book is in 3rd person (“he walked, she talked”), but there are a few scenes in 1st person (characters speaking: “I walked, I talked”) . these grew out of an experiment and I kept them for a particular character with a strong voice that I felt the reader would enjoy hearing. This week, while I was writing some very heavy scenes in which characters experience intense emotions, I found myself trying them out in 2nd person (characters being addressed: “you walked, you talked”). I have seen this done in other books to powerful effect; I really appreciate the immersive experience it gives the reader. But perhaps I will discover that it comes off poorly here and feels like an effort on my part to cheat the reader into feeling something! We shall see. A lot of my process is throwing stuff up, leaving it alone, and coming back to it much later to see how it sounds from a more objective perspective.
The joy of this week was definitely having the opportunity to get to know my fellow residents better. Including myself we have two novelists, one poet/memoirist/game narrative designer, one composer and one filmmaker. Three of us are millennials in our late 20s, and we also have a self-identified Gen Xer & late Baby Boomer. We’ve had many lively conversations over dinner, nothing planned or formally organized, naturally exploring topics like:
•in what ways we have encountered or resisted the forces of capitalism in our chosen field?
•how as artists do we honor, acknowledge and compensate all the people “behind the scenes” who make the work possible—and ensure we are not simply allowing ourselves to be glorified as some kind of independent prophet/genius?
•What has each “generation” in America contributed to the discourse on social justice…and what problems has it introduced?
Though we live in beauty and peace, allowing ample time for focus and reflection, the unsettling news from the outer world still reaches us eventually. One evening we admiringly observed that the sun has turned completely red, and then realized this was because of pollution in California. Friday, several of us were eating salmon and having a spirited discussion on the taxonomy of labels for races and ethnicities, and then the filmmaker entered the room with the news that RBG has passed. I also have endless nightmares about going to school during the pandemic—but that’s actually a reality for some of you (my family and friends), not just a dream! Wishing love, safety and care to everyone who is reading this and grappling with the times.
Some other moment of joy for me this week….
•Celebrating Rosh Hashanah by lighting a candle in the dark of my studio, burning some sage and listening to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in Yiddish (thanks for the video Mom)!
•Receiving the loveliest snail mail from an artist and pinning it all over my walls.
•Speaking to my higher power in the woods —and just listening to the birds and the wind in the trees, the owls at night.
•the influx of dessert this weekend! Our program bought us chocolate bread! One resident went off campus and bought a pie, and another one made flan! (I had been developing a bad craving for sugar, so this is all very welcome.)
A few thoughts from my first week at the Millay Colony of the Arts!
It is so quiet here, sometimes I wonder if I’m wearing my earplugs.
We all have quaint private bedrooms and vast private studios equipped with desks and couches. My studio has large windows facing the brush field and sky, and a wall-ladder leading to the window of an unfinished attic. Names of past residents are penned into the mahogany doorways of our studios. My fellow writers and I made the shocking discovery on my door of the name “Leonard Cohen.” It’s truly a bit intimating—to be alone, occupying a couch and a desk that Leonard Cohen, alone, likely also occupied.
It’s incredibly beautiful here, just as I’ve heard so many times from prior fellows. I’m realizing now how, before arrival, I was subconsciously growing tired of hearing about “all that beauty.” Maybe I was becoming skeptical that I would find beauty in what so many others had already professed beautiful. Or maybe, given my aesthetic interest in the texture and density of the city, and given also my recent defensiveness and protectiveness of New York City and Brooklyn (especially as so many people have flocked elsewhere) I didn’t really want to believe it.
But it really is beautiful, hands down! You can’t construct this kind of beauty, even in all its simplicity! The fields of yellow-flowered brush beneath starry sky. The glowing, moss rugs along the forest paths. The trees filled with tiny apples. I am reminded of this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (on whose property the colony is founded) that I saw yesterday along the Poetry Trail:
Spring rides no horses down the hill, But comes on foot, a goose-girl still. And all the loveliest things there be Come simply, so, it seems to me. If ever I said, in grief or pride, I tired of honest things, I lied: And should be cursed forevermore With Love in laces, like a whore, And neighbours cold, and friends unsteady, And Spring on horseback, like a lady!
At dinner, my fellow artists, all of whom are very progressive-minded and well-informed on social justice matters, talk about the pandemic and racism and the rise of fascism—but in some ways, being here throws me back to a much younger time in my life when I didn’t really think about these things. A time when I read more pastoral literature and nature poetry and a lot of white New England writers—a time when I read myself out of my urban setting, instead of as I seem to do these days, literarily-dig my heels into it. I’m not sure what to think of all this, but I really do enjoy Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry. From conversations with my fellow residents about their grad school experiences, I’m also thinking a lot about how completely under-read I remain, across eras and genres, and how I still feel like I should go back to school; how I’m still waiting to be exposed to the whole gamet of things.
I spend most of my time in the studio, working. It’s often hard for me to talk about the details of the writing process but here I’ll give it a shot:
•I spent a few days rewriting the chapters that take place in the 1950s-1960s. This is a crucial period in the book because it’s when Brownsville transitions, almost overnight, from an 80 percent Jewish neighborhood to a nearly 100 percent Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. I spent some time rereading Wendell Pritchett’s book on Brownsville and trying to make sure my timeline was accurate. During those years, the media and even social scientists often spoke of the migration of African Americans and Puerto Ricans to urban areas like Brooklyn as an “invasion.” The biggest challenge is to render the existence of such racists narratives—and to depict the racially-tinged views (if often unspoken) of white people fleeing such areas—while also allowing the reader to see through and beyond such racism.
•I wrote and revised some contemporary scenes depicting the police shooting of a mentally ill Black man. One scene is from the point of view of a half Chinese, half Jewish female journalist (sound familiar?) and the other scene is from the point of view of a young Black male organizer in the neighborhood. For the latter, I had trouble putting pen to paper, so I pretended I was this person and then monologued into my phone’s voice recorder app for an hour. Very daunting. I have no idea yet whether I have effectively crafted a believable and engaging voice—both in terms of content and language.
•Worked on some smaller revisions to more clearly delineate the political growth and the romantic life of the character Letitia Rodriguez
•struggled and continue to struggle with some technical financial details of the plot. How does Richard end up buying all that commercial property when he can’t even afford to buy a house in the neighborhood he wants to? etc. …
The goal is a fully revised new draft by October 1st.
Last but not least, I’ll add that no experience for me can be completely serene or enjoyable while I have still not fully recovered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I don’t wish to dwell on the details of my struggle in this post. But I will note that perhaps the most profound change for me, in coming here, has been my decision to remove myself from social media and only check my text messages and e-mails on weekends. My addiction to communication is kind of stunning. I turn to my phone when I’m bored; when I want to procrastinate; when I’m anxious; when I don’t want to feel whatever I’m feeling. My goal for the coming week is to also cut out all my stupid, anxiety-driven google searches!
To have to sit in quiet with myself is very scary but also feels somewhat transformative. I think with time I might learn to hear myself better—to stop turning to everyone but myself for answers.
So incredibly grateful to everyone who routed for me this week and supported me during the transition.
Last week, I wrote in The Appeal about Brownsville, Brooklyn’s visions for the future of public safety. As I wrote there: “During the town hall and in a dozen interviews with The Appeal, residents and advocates said violence in Brownsville is symptomatic of poverty and a multitude of still unaddressed needs for youth and recreation programs, job opportunities, mental health services, and other basic services. The community can only become safer if those needs are addressed, they said.”
“Many also supported expanding alternatives to the use of law enforcement, like violence-prevention and mediation programs, though a few had concerns about whether these efforts had been effective so far. Many also discussed the need for better training for police, and for residents to have a say in the selection process for local officers, though a couple others pushed back and called for more systemic approaches. Residents’ support for the institution of policing as a whole varies, and some said generational differences are at times at play, with older residents more likely than younger ones to approve of a police presence.”
Following up on this reporting, and seeking to conduct additional research for my novel, I spent time walking around with two Brownsvillians who are on the frontlines of the neighborhood’s violence prevention efforts—Camara Jackson, founder and executive director of Elite Learners, and Ronald Robertson, founder and executive director of Brownsville Think Tank Matters. Both organizations are part of the city’s Crisis Management System, which aims to send outreach workers with street credibility to mediate conflicts and help connect people to resources and more positive paths. I asked both Ms. Jackson and Mr. Robertson for their perspective on Brownsville’s changes over the years.
Both were intimately acquainted with the challenges that Brownsville, but effused a deep love and commitment to the neighborhood. Ms. Jackson grew up in Riverdale Towers in a single-parent household and lives with the invisible disability of sickle-cell disease. She recalled coming into her adulthood and realizing that rather than leaving her community, she wanted to make a difference in the neighborhood. She notes that her launch of Elite Learners coincided with a boom in new Black-owned non-profits and businesses in Brownsville, particularly along the Belmont Avenue corridor where Elite Learners’ first storefront opened. That boom also coincided with the arrival of new leadership, including Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuels and Assemblymember Latrice Walker, she said.
During out interview, Ms. Jackson and others from Elite Learners were also in the midst of a boycott out of a local food eatery; they’d formed a picket line in front of the eatery’s door. Their contention was disrespectful customer service, and some conveyed to me that such customer service would not be tolerated in a different neighborhood. “They think they can do this because it’s Brownsville,” one person from Elite Learners alleged. Eventually an owner or manager arrived on site, and there were words exchanged between the boycotters and the staff of the restaurant—by the time I left, it was not clear to me whether and how the dispute would be resolved. I am not including the name of the eatery, as I didn’t have a chance to interview the staff and therefore cannot judge the merits of the activists’ accusations, but what struck me most was how strongly the activists from Elite Learners were determined to ensure that businesses in the community understood they would only be welcome if they treated the community with dignity.
What was one thing Ms. Jackson wished people from outside of Brownsville understood about Brownsville? That it is not, as the night news would make it out, “covered in violence”—that people thrive and positive work happens in this neighborhood.
Ronald Robertson, born in 1959, remembers Brownsville through many contrasting era. Like many Brownsvillians of his age and older, he recalls the popular Jewish-owned stores that used to draw customers from afar. He also remembers the disinvestment crisis that hit the city in the 1970s, the Blackout of 1977 and subsequent riots , and the years when the neighborhood’s beloved Betsy Head Park pool became an unsafe place, with sneakers stolen from the locker rooms, and the dead bodies of residents suffering from drug addiction were sometimes found floating on the pool.
There are ways in which Mr. Robertson is still fighting for resources to address the neighborhood’s poverty and disinvestment. Like Ms. Jackson, he’s pressing the city to provide greater funding for the Crisis Management System; his organization spends a great deal of his time helping to resolve conflicts in the nearby housing complexes. He also recently reached out to the city to ask for street safety improvements along the New Lots Avenue corridor,, which is overgrown with plant-life and dark at night.
At the same time, Mr. Robertson is worried about gentrification and the potential for Brownsville’s residents to be displaced as the neighborhood improves. He’s noticing the new medical facilities, bike lanes and housing developments rising up around him (though the ones I already know about are income-targeted, city-subsidized buildings; I would need to look into whether there’s also market-rate housing on the rise) . Brownsville activists are contending with their fear that their very efforts to improve the neighborhood might end up pricing out their own people.
I was also grateful to receive a copy of Mr. Robertson’s book, The Blueprint for Personal Transformation (co-written with Thomas W. Holley), in which Robertson reflects on how he changed his life path after spending many years behind bars. During all my interviews in Brownsville this summer, I’ve learned a lot about PTSD in this commmunity, the way people who are violent are often people who’ve experienced trauma or feel profoundly unsafe themselves, and how important it is to ensure every individual has the opportunity for personal growth and transformation.
As strange as it may sound coming from me, a person with considerable privilege, I’ve found it all very relevant and relatable and interconnected to my own life. As someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and as a member of a 12-step program (Obsessive Compulsives Anonymous), I know just how much fear and a deep sense of “unsafeness” can shape my actions in profoundly irrational ways. As someone who is impressionable and craves belonging, I know how much my desire to please others can take me away from my goals. And I know that when it comes to overcoming a mental illness—at least mine—there’s a complicated range of factors at play that do influence one’s recovery. On the one hand, we cannot expect individuals to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they are facing all kinds of survival challenges and emotional stresses. On the other, I do also believe that changing one’s mindset and partaking in personal, internal growth is vital. What is truly nauseating is the right-wing notion that advocates who want resources to address the first factor—to tackle poverty, meet essential needs, and create programs to address people’s mental health—are in anyway denying that internal work is also valuable. As our society we must be able to satisfy people’s basic needs for shelter, food, and safety, even as we recognize and honor the agency of each individual.
Lisa Kenner, the resident association president of Van Dyke I Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn, has been called the “guardian of a Brooklyn housing project” by the New York Times. Born in 1958, she’s lived all her life in the New York City Housing Authority’s Van Dyke Houses campus. She’s a former district leader, and dedicated to maintaining Brownsville residents’ living standards and dignity. Brownsville has the highest concentration of public housing in the nation, and the area that Ms. Kenner calls home has a median income of about $14,000, as compared to the citywide median income of roughly $61,000.
I was very excited to speak to Ms. Kenner, especially because Letitia Rodriguez, a character in my book, is also a long-time resident and advocate for this area in Brownsville.
On Tuesday August 11, I accompanied Ms. Kenner on some of her local errands around the grounds. She needed to make copies of a flier promoting a group discussion on “Back to School Anxiety” to be held by the New York Psychotherapy and Counseling Center, and also deliver a pack of masks to a resident who hadn’t left her apartment in months. When we came upon a group of workers who were mowing the lawn in the hot sun, she returned to her office, then came back to distribute bottles of water. Along the way, she stopped nearly every person passing on the streets of the complex.
“Hey T_, where are you going? Close your pocketbook!”
“How you feeling? Where you been, I haven’t seen you? Where your mask at?”
I asked her if she’d always been this way—a mother to everyone in the neighborhood, even when she herself was a young woman. In her matter-of-fact way, she responded that she’d always tried to set an “example” for others. Her parents came from the South and emphasized education. We spoke about the pressures of urban life, and Ms. Kenner noted that she has never been an easy victim of peer pressure. “I didn’t go to hookie parties or nothing growing up.”
Since the pandemic began, Ms. Kenner has become known as a dispenser of masks — and some people, recognizing her from a distance, hurriedly donned theirs as she approached. She’s also paying a stipend to a couple people to make deliveries for seniors and disabled residents. The virus is still a concern to her; Van Dyke Houses lost at least 14 residents to the virus this spring, she told me.
Some of the other issues on her mind included:
Van Dyke’s maintenance issues. A week after a tropical storm knocked down trees across the city, there were still a chunk of tree lying across one lawn, and a pile of dead leaves on another. As she walked along the sidewalk, Ms. Kenner picked up stray branches, as well as scattered items of trash. Ms. Kenner acknowledges that NYCHA faces a gigantic budget deficit and she calls out residents when they don’t clean up after themselves. Still, she believes NYCHA itself could do a better job keeping up the property, and says there’s insufficient oversight of contractors’ work. Ms. Kenner also noted a lack of working door intercoms, which can contribute to security issues. Asked to respond to Kenner’s maintenance concerns, a NYCHA spokesperson said that NYCHA is “extremely proud of the maintenance work conducted by our groundskeeping staff throughout New York City during Tropical Storm Isaias, including at Van Dyke I Houses, where fallen branches were promptly gathered and sealed with caution tape to protect the safety of residents. We are aware of intercom issues at the development and are working with a telecom vendor to resolve them.” They promised that fallen tree branches were slated to be removed the following week, though according to Ms. Kenner, the branches had still not been fully removed by August 21.
The need for open space—and jobs. An influx of affordable housing development projects in Brownsville is changing the landscape of the neighborhood, and Kenner worries that it’s confining residents to less and less space. While wary of this added density, Kenner also described her efforts to ensure development projects result in resources and jobs for the community. She says she meets regularly with Trinity Financial, who are building a low-income housing development on the Van Dyke campus, and says she’s already helped to ensure dozens of residents have gained jobs at the site. Yet Kenner says that what Brownsville really needs is a trade school. “You can go in to be the electrician— instead of the electrician’s helper,” she said, describing the potential benefits.
3. The recent conversion of a local facility into an emergency homeless shelter. Ms. Kenner’s concern was that some of the shelter residents had mental health issues that could pose dangers for neighborhood youth and seniors. She hadn’t forgotten, she said, the time a man who was homeless and mentally ill stabbed two Brownsville children in 2014. She also feared the shelter residents might have had sexual offense records. (The Department of Social Services (DSS) did not provide information me with any information about the shelters residents’ mental health and sexual offense records, and said they couldn’t identify the location of shelters due to privacy laws protecting the shelter residents.)
Ms. Kenner was also concerned about the level of services and programs the shelter residents were receiving. And while Ms. Kenner acknowledged that people without homes needed some place to stay during the pandemic, she said her main frustration was that she hadn’t received any notification of the shelter’s opening. Although Ms. Kenner said DSS told her they had informed neighborhood representatives like the local community board, the community board chairperson Genese Morgan told me in an e-mail that the board also hadn’t received any notice of the shelter near Van Dyke. Morgan also said that the board “is taking action to address the health and safety concerns expressed by our local residents with DSS and Salvation Army Management.”
In recent months, it’s not just been Ms. Kenner in Brownsville worrying about the presence of new emergency shelters and angered by the lack of notice—residents of wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side have made similar complaints. To protect the health of homeless New Yorkers during the COVID-19 outbreak, the city moved roughly 10,000 people from congregate shelters to hotels across the city. The Department of Social Services told me in an e-mail that they were not able to give the usual 30-day notification while opening up emergency shelters, but that they do work with communities to resolve issues when they arise.
“Since the outset of this crisis we’ve followed the science and the health experts, temporarily relocating thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers citywide for their safety—and the data shows these decisive strategies over the past five months have worked, saving lives and stopping the spread of a deadly virus, with more than 98 percent of all the cases we have experienced since March now resolved/recovered,” a spokesperson for the agency wrote me in a statement. “Our whole City is navigating this unprecedented situation together, and our emergency use of commercial hotels ensures New Yorkers experiencing homelessness continue to receive the same protections from the pandemic as New Yorkers fortunate enough to distance at home right now.”
Personally, I feel quite strongly that we need to welcome residents who are houseless into our communities during this time of crisis, even at little or no notice. Certainly not all people without homes suffer from mental illnesses or addictions. Yet I also understand that Brownsville already has some of the city’s highest rates of violence, and I can understand Ms.Kenner’s fears about having an inadequate plan in place if some shelter residents suffer from mental illnesses.
My quick google search of existing research on the impacts of shelters on neighborhood crime rates did not yield much insight: This study concluded there was no link between crime rates and the presence of homeless encampments in Portland and Seattle; this Vancouver study found higher rates of property crime around shelters. A 2015 report by City Limits noted a lack of studies about crime rates and shelters. It found that when it comes to long-term, supportive housing facilities for the homeless, “concerns about the impact of residential facilities for the homeless on surrounding neighborhoods often prove untrue .” City Limits, did, however, find evidence of inequities in the way the city government was siting homeless shelters—making poor neighborhoods absorb a far higher number. It is unclear how the pandemic has temporarily changed the distribution of where the city is housing homeless residents.
Ms. Kenner and I also spoke about her own trajectory and plans. She said she had the opportunity to run for councilmember once, but wasn’t interested in a political path. “I really try to keep a low profile,” she said. These days, as she approaches her mid-sixties, Kenner is feeling ready for someone else to step up and hold down the fort at Van Dyke.
“I really want to sit down, but I can’t sit down, because if I sit down, everything will fall down.”
I believe that by the end of my book, the character Letitia Rodriguez is similarly ready to rest her feet, and unsure how she will ever find the time: like Ms. Kenner, she is a round-the-clock advocate barely paid for what she does (Ms. Kenner receives a $100 stipend a month for her position).
Letitia Rodriguez is a former Young Lords member with political convictions likely more radical than Ms. Kenner’s. But I do believe Letitia would share much of Ms. Kenner’s impulse to pick up those tree branches on the sidewalk.