Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Writing and Living

Hailed as brilliant and funny by The New York Times Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s first novel Panic in a Suitcase recounts two decades in the life of a Ukrainian immigrant household living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Though not biographical, the book parallels Yelena’s own experience. Her family emigrated in 1992 when Yelena was just seven years old. In the Ukraine, family members were doctors and poets; arriving on the U.S. shores, Yelena’s educated parents were forced back to square one. Beginning the steep assent back to the socio-economic standing they had once enjoyed, they took menial jobs; their only child, who had been tutored at home by her grandfather, was sent to school for the first time. It was a traumatic experience, which the family all seem to have repressed; none of them have memories of the period.

Yelena began writing poems in junior high school. Poetry is very much in her DNA. Her mother writes poetry and her uncle and grandfather are both published poets. But Yelena soon switched to writing stories. She wrote many, many stories. The one thing they all had in common was they bore no resemblance to her life. “It took me a long time until I got to the point where I realized I could write about my own experience fictionalizing it as I needed,” she says.

“I’m always writing,” explains Yelena. “Writing for me is kind of the same thing as living.” She writes in English in longhand, which she subsequently transcribes into a computer. Though seemingly laborious, this approach enables her to revise the work as she goes.

Yelena has a complicated relationship with both her birth and adopted countries. Much like her character, Frida, she feels the pull of The Ukraine. Nowadays it’s possible for émigrés to go back for visits and perhaps more. Yelena speaks wistfully of Lviv, a beautiful, peaceful city. (The fighting is largely confined to Eastern Ukraine, which has a high concentration of Russians. Odessa, where Yelena is from and her uncle and his family still live is a leisurely, free spirited city, which she likens to New Orleans.)

At VCCA Yelena was hard at work on her second book. “I’m completely in the thick of it. It’s been really hard going,” she says. “As soon as I finished the last book, I wanted to start on the next thing. It takes about a year between when the book is bought and when it comes out. So, I was writing like a mad woman.” In the end, she deemed none of it useable. “I had to throw it all out—basically two years of work. It was a very dark time.” But, Yelena is philosophical about it now, realizing that the effort wasn’t a complete loss. “I see it’s okay because you’re practicing and exercising muscles.”

While at VCCA for a month, Yelena was busy filling notebooks with words that flowed out of her. This was her first residency, but surely not her last because it certainly was valuable: “Coming here is so incredible,” Yelena says. “Because everything comes into focus.” That focus is sure to translate into another literary triumph for this young author.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nick Krieger: Exploring the Territory Between Male and Female

While in residence at VCCA, Nick Krieger was working on the third draft of the follow-up to his highly acclaimed memoir, Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender (Beacon Press, 2011). The book won a Stonewall Honor Book Award and an Independent Literary Award in the GLBTQ category.

“It’s still early on in a certain sense and yet there’s this feeling that I finally have some direction,” says Nick of this second book. “It’s been really great to immerse myself in the project. I’ve become interested in it again.”

Nick’s story adds a valuable, often overlooked voice to the transgender narrative, which typically presents a person born in the “wrong“ body. Nick shares a very different experience. For him, it is much more complicated. He embraces himself as both man and woman. 

“This gray area and middle ground is becoming a little more understandable to people because of progress in trans acceptance,” explains Nick. “Trans people have historically been so invalidated in our identities, that we couldn’t say I’m both because the reaction would be oh no, then you're really just the gender assigned at birth. It’s partially due to this invalidation that some trans folks felt forced to definitively attach to one gender or the other: I am woman. I am man. But there’s more acceptance and less restrictive categories now, so I have the freedom to say I’m both genders, whereas 20 years ago I don’t think trans people had that opportunity.”

Nick’s second memoir weaves Nick’s very serious yoga practice together with his trans journey. “Yoga has been a steady line through my entire process of transition. I found yoga after a break-up, but it came at a time when I was starting to see all the possibilities and permutations of gender expressions and gender identities.”

Doing yoga was the one time when he could set aside all his worries and questions. It became a stable, calm place to retreat to throughout his entire decision making process, and the physical practice produced cathartic effects.

Nick started out very slowly for the first year, going to yoga once a week and it grew from there. Now, he regularly attends yoga retreats around the world, and occasionally assists his yoga teacher at her trainings. 

“At a certain point what became interesting to me, and what I’m writing about now, was how yoga supported me in my gender process, but also repeatedly triggered the pain and trauma of the binary gender system. So much language, especially around anatomy, is structured around these two categories of 'man' and 'woman' and as someone who saw myself as both, I often felt invisible in the yoga studio. The lack of trans inclusion was unintentional, but it made me feel unwelcome. For several years, I battled internally, drawn to this practice I loved and yet wanting to run away every time I was hurt." 

Nick is now working within the yoga community to expand “what gender is, what it can be, and how genders are talked about.”

Nick’s journeys have not been restricted to yoga and gender transition; he is also a celebrated travel writer known for his personal narrative style. He has received a "Travelers’ Tales" Solas Award for Best Funny Story and won the annual BakPak Travelers’ Guide essay contest, which resulted in a one-month trip to Central Europe to write for the travel guide. In 2013, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (DRAP) awarded Krieger a one-month residency. In 2014, DRAP nominated him for a two-month residency exchange at the Rasmuson Foundation Artist Residency Program. Selected publications include: "Guernica Magazine of Art & Politics," "The Rumpus," "The Advocate," "Town & Country," "Decolonizing Yoga," "365 Gay," "Elephant Journal," "Original Plumbing," "Velvetpark," "Curve," "The New Gay," and "Lost Magazine."

Nick has spoken about his writing at numerous universities, including Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, Colgate and Boston College.

Photo: Alex Wang Photography

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lisa Beane's Unflinching Gaze

Lisa Beane doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter and the work she did at VCCA is no exception. All spring, Lisa had been galvanized by the story of Farkhunda, the 27-year old Afghani woman who was brutally murdered by a mob on March 19 in Kabul. The incident occurred after Farkunda confronted a mullah selling charms outside the Shah-e-Doshamshera shrine. Farkunda was a devout woman and was offended by what she saw as unseemly activity occurring so close to the holy site. It’s ironic that it was her very piety that got her killed. Because the mullah became so enraged by Farkunda’s scolding that he turned around and accused her of burning a Koran. Word of this spread quickly through the crowd, which turned on Farkhunda savagely attacking her. In a frenzy, they beat, stoned and ran over her. Eventually, they threw what was left of her body “into a river and set it ablaze in the presence of policemen.”

There is much fodder in this horrifying tale, which touches on tyrannical religion, the treatment of women, intolerance of “other”, mob rule, overkill and martyrdom. Repelled by it all, Lisa also saw in the outcry here in the U.S. a form of hypocrisy, or at least convenient amnesia. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were doing much the same thing. Between the years 1877-1950 there were 3,959 lynchings in 12 Southern states according to an article in The New York Times. And it wasn’t limited to the South. The iconic photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith surrounded by Saturday night revelers was taken in Indiana in 1930. In a heartbreaking aside, as Abram (on the right) was being hanged he instinctively grabbed at the noose around his neck, so the men lowered him back down, broke his arms and then strung him back up again.

Lisa’s recent paintings weave together the narratives of these two events, depicting the martyred Farkunda and Abram with halos. Soulfully beautiful with a head covered by a hajib, Farkunda bears an uncanny resemblance to images of the Virgin Mary. For Lisa, Farkunda is also a stand-in for women everywhere.

What transfixes Lisa is the degree of hatred that propels people to behave in such a depraved way toward another human being. In these extreme cases, the hatred is so intense that the victim no longer has a human identity. When you mix this up with a crowd on edge you can easily end up with primitive, animalistic rage.

One of the more disturbing qualities of the famous photograph of the Indiana lynching is the carnival atmosphere that’s captured. This is also present in another photograph Lisa shows me that was taken recently. In the forefront of the picture, two men and a boy are capering happily—big smiles grace their faces. It looks like an image from The Family of Man. But then you find out that the nondescript form being pulled behind them is the remains of one of the two men falsely accused of bombing a church in Lahore, Pakistan.

Despite their difficult subject matter, Lisa’s paintings are anything but bleak. She incorporates bold color, dynamic line, writing and familiar images from pop culture to create works that are deceptively light-hearted. This false joviality stands in such stark contrast to what’s being depicted that it succeeds in underscoring it. Depicting things in this fashion also allows Lisa to deal with things that are too hard to talk about or really show.

In her larger works, Lisa organizes her composition into broad fields of color interspersed with highly detailed passages and expressive brushstrokes. Lisa uses words in pithy colloquial sentences to drive home her point, and images from pop culture in ironic ways. So the Keebler elf’s tree becomes the gallows and the elf is transformed from jolly baker to evil instigator. The scrawl of words and splintered composition impart an edgy street vibe to Lisa’s work almost as if the paintings are an urban wall peppered with graffiti and the layered visual fragments of old handbills.

You really feel looking at these works that Lisa is searching for the love within all the hate. She notes that Farkunda’s death has had a profound effect on Afghani culture. In a complete break with tradition at Farkunda’s funeral the pallbearers were all women; the menfolk formed a protective circle around them to ensure their safety.

In the original photograph of the Shipp/Smith lynching, there’s an older woman at the center looking out toward the viewer. Lisa has canonized her placing a halo on her head. Her speech bubble asks “Where he Momma at?” reminding everyone that this man hanging from the tree is not just a reviled piece of meat: he has a mother. He is a human being.

Lisa grew up in Richmond, Virginia and now lives in Los Angeles. She came to VCCA as a Jacques and Natasha Gelman Trust Fellow. This was her first time at VCCA and first residency experience. “I had 
no idea what to expect, and I must say it was beyond anything I could imagine. My work is extremely 
difficult; it is deep and emotional. To go in and face it each day is challenging and to be in this peaceful 
place that buzzed with phenomenal creative energy was an incredible gift. The support and friendship 
from other Fellows helped sustain me in this demanding work.” 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Stacey Gregg: Expanding Theater’s Boundaries

Irish playwright Stacey Gregg, who just completed a month-long residency at VCCA, came armed with an ambitious project: to begin and end a play commissioned by the distinguished Abbey Theater, Dublin. She accomplished her goal, leaving Mt. San Angelo with a completed first draft and even got to experience “a sense of completeness” in her last two days.

Stacey writes for theater, film and TV. She’s incredibly prolific having written numerous plays including the award-winning Perve, several television scripts, a couple of films and even an opera. “I’ve always operated at a high energy level,” she explains. “Though it never feels that way. I’m always driving myself and really pushing.” If all this writing wasn’t enough, Stacey also performs as an actor in other people’s work. She started acting because “I just needed a break from myself. Acting’s a really good way to be in a room, to be physical and yet be out of my brain for a while. It’s galvanizing to disrupt patterns. And so far, I’ve gotten away with it.” 

From East Belfast, Gregg read English at Cambridge University and received a master’s in documentary film from Royal Holloway. She is eager to return to this medium.

When describing her writing process, Gregg says: “I look for a voice and a form that suits the subject matter, more so maybe than other writers would. While they have a particular voice that becomes, you could argue, kind of like their brand so you know what you’re going to get with them. Maybe I’m just naive; maybe objectively my work is like that as well.”

“The first play I had produced was probably the most conventional play I have ever written. It’s totally ironic to me that it’s the one that started my career and subsequent commissions. I think I had an expectation that I was going to have to write in a way that was going to have to be conventional in order to be successful. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been able to push the work back towards where I originally come from and where my excitement lies. Some people might refer to this as post-dramatic theater—it’s theater that’s aware of its form; it isn’t trying to trick you.”

Commissions vary from project to project. There's always a balance between buying the freedom or earning the money to have the freedom to write what you want to write and then hope to find a home for it. “In terms of cold hard cash, which is what you need when you’re starting out, commissions are a great way of supporting yourself,” says Stacey. “Sometimes theaters will come to you with a brief or sometimes because we’re so financially conservative at the moment, it’s gotten more like TV where even though they don’t like to admit it, it’s more and more expected that you go in and pitch an idea and then they’ll commission you. But I don’t tend to take very restrictive briefs that are more for TV. In theater, you can kind of be your own boss and that’s the privilege of being able to write in that medium.”

Though she engages in close discussion with directors when she can, Gregg is pretty hands-off when it comes to the play’s production. She likes the idea of the refraction of ideas. How first the director’s vision, then the actors’ interpretation followed by the audiences’ experience all shape the work. “I get really excited about the audience having a polyphonic experience that is really hard to translate into something clear and safe that the marketers can sell.” One area where Stacey does want to maintain control is the imagery used in promotional material, believing a production can sink or swim just because of a bad poster or poor marketing campaign.

Stacey’s more recent dramatic work deals with the intersection of ethics and technology and the debates and discussions that we should all be having right now about them, but aren’t. According to Stacey, for a long time, theaters were really nervous about dealing with anything that dealt with the future or technology.

Two years ago she wrote Override a play about body augmentation, this was not mere plastic surgery, but explored the very frontier of human enhancement and biometric medicine. Her play posited the question, how far can we take this? When she first pitched it, everyone seemed quite apprehensive at the idea of a sci-fi play, but it ended up being just ahead of the curve. Sci-fi plays are now all the rage. Stacey finds this exciting. “Because the thing about theater is it’s magical; you can go anywhere you want. I think people forgot that for a long time. But now, we’re seeing a reinvigorated wave of really bold experimental and hypothetical works.”

Stacey divides her time between Dublin, Belfast and London. The different cities offer different attractions for her: the theater scene in Dublin is very European looking and feeling, more expressive and experimental, whereas in London, the taste is for traditional social realism. Belfast is home. Stacey would like to move back there, but there isn’t enough work currently. She feels enriched by exposure to these three cities and proud of her felicitous relationship with them because they’re very different. She’s also become very adept at moving between Irish and British culture and navigating the different ways that people work and think.

“I’m still waiting on making that piece of work—maybe it will never happen—where I go, yes. I’ve nailed it. So I think I’m still learning, certainly and that’s the funny thing about theater and having work produced: it’s only after they’ve had an opening in front of an audience that you really know what the play is.” One thing you do know is that Stacey’s rigorous and challenging plays are expanding theater’s boundaries into new and experimental territory.