Written by Elsa Kim, Creative Writing major
Sumita Chakraborty—essayist, scholar, and author of Arrow—strode to the podium. Setting down her sheaves of notes, she held up her phone. “I’ve set a duck noise timer,” she told us with a smile, “When the duck quacks I know I’ve run out of time.” Having introduced us to her quirky side, Sumita then proceeded to tell us about her childhood. She’d grown up in the midst of severe domestic violence, and even years later, the trauma still revealed itself through her poetry. “I wanted to tell the story about the aftermath of the violence,” Sumita explained. “About learning to enjoy kinship and community again.”
Sumita started out with a few poems from her debut, Arrow. She admitted that the narrator of Arrow is an overdramatic version of herself, still figuring out how to take up space in the world and claim her anger. Before reading the first poem, Sumita explained that the title came from the French word soucis which means “worries and preoccupations” as well as “marigolds”. In “Marigolds”, Sumita uses a collection of striking metaphors to chronicle the aftermath of her experience with domestic violence. After reading this and several other poems, Sumita admitted that she’d often found herself modeling the desire to claim her anger off public figures she didn’t admire, and that in these poems she’d been exploring how to take up space in a way that was “godly.”
Then, Sumita proceeded to read us a couple of poems from her new project: The B-Sides of the Golden Records. She started out by explaining that NASA had sent out the Golden Records as a way of introducing humanity to any extraterrestrial life they might encounter. She joked that they must have just hoped the aliens would have a record player to listen with. Next, she read “Track One: The Canary Flies toward the Mine,” which recounts details that the NASA scientists didn’t include in their Golden Records, such as the fact that “how to trap and kill an insect can sometimes be an entire plot point in our romantic comedies.” The last poem she read us was called “Track Seven: Apostrophe, a Literary Device.” It was a short poem, more haunting than angry, that ended with the narrator screaming into a forest—and the question of how you would feel “if the forest screamed back.”
Next, Noé Alvarez strolled to the front of the stage to tell us about his book Spirit Run. He started out by sharing how he went to college with the idea that he needed to save his family from poverty. Despite those pressures, he ended up quitting college at nineteen to join the Peace and Dignity Journey—a movement where indigenous people run from opposite ends of the Americas to meet in the middle. During the Peace and Dignity Journey, the runners would listen to people’s stories and then take a feather from that person as a symbol of their narrative. Over the course of the run, the feathers accumulated as more stories were told.
Noé then proceeded to read the prologue of Spirit Run. The book begins with an indigenous woman named Crow leading Canadian authorities to the place she buried her dead son. After her six-week-old son had died, Crow had buried him to avoid giving him to the hospital. But after the Canadian authorities made Crow show them where he was, they proceeded to dig up his body before taking Crow herself into custody. The prologue then begins moving to different areas of the world where hundreds of people are preparing for the Peace and Dignity Journey. After giving a brief description of several of these people’s stories, Noé closes his prologue by reminding readers that each of these runners, including himself, is just an ordinary person.
After listening to both Sumita and Noé read and speak about their work, I was struck by the way they both viewed writing primarily as an act of vulnerability. Even though Sumita and Noé both started writing in order to reflect on personal experiences, by sharing their work, they invited the rest of the world into that process. Similar to the way Noé had described running, writing “only becomes a healing act when you dedicate it to something else, an act of remembrance and self-transformation.”