Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Guest Blog: Joanna Chen, Entry Five


The following is reprinted from Garnet News. VCCA Fellow Joanna Chen, who lives in Israel, is writing a six part account of her residency at VCCA. (All images, Joanna Chen)

I’m sitting out on the front step of my studio, writing and listening to the music of Eileen Edmonds. She was in the studio below mine, and her sweet voice would ring out every day from her front door as I walked by to make coffee for myself in the kitchen we shared.
I watched her one morning, playing her guitar in the middle of the field that leads to the forest. She was in the zone, creating music with a voice as clear as the water that streams down through the forest this springtime. Eileen’s gone, but she’s left me the music she made here on my laptop. Now, I’m listening to her music again, and I miss her.
My time here is fast coming to an end. I’m beginning to get emails about work that awaits me upon my return. Part of me, quite a big part, wants to ignore them. I resent the intrusion although I know that the real world is closing in on me faster than ever. It’s making me aware of every precious hour I have here at VCCA.


My time here is fast coming to an end. I’m beginning to get emails about work that awaits me upon my return. Part of me, quite a big part, wants to ignore them. I resent the intrusion…


A friend told me now is the time to put everything else aside, including all the writing I have done here, and write my heart out — to uncover all the things I have not yet dug down deep enough to find. I thought I had been doing that, I said, surprised to hear this and a little miffed. Now, as I sit here, I think of the words of Walter Benjamin, who talks exactly about this: He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.” Or a woman. Yes, I must dig deeper through the layers of my life to get to the good stuff.
***
Last night, the visual artist Katherine Kavanaugh showed her work. She dug down deep and came up with a video of a woman walking through the very same field outside my window that Eileen had walked through that morning. The video shows a blurred woman wandering along. Lurking in the background are the rickety towers made by Katherine from old wooden pallets and fallen branches.
The woman’s repeating indistinct phrases as she walks, over and over again. The words, I think, are unimportant. It’s the image that strikes me so — a lone woman traversing a space, lifting her skirts, lowering her head, stepping through grass that grows wild, mumbling a phrase, an utterance that only she can decipher, searching for a way. I, too, am searching for my way here in Amherst, and no doubt I will continue when I return home. I need to think what the words are that I have not yet said, and I need to repeat them to myself, in a loop, until they are down on the page.
It’s difficult. I’m already thinking about home, already checking the status of my flight back, eyeing up all the books accumulated here and wondering whether I’ll have overweight bags when I get to the check-in at British Airways. I am on a journey and the road ahead has never looked longer.
Joanna Chen
In NOTES FROM AFAR, writer Joanna Chen sends us weekly dispatches from Amherst, Virginia during her six-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Notes, Chen explores challenges and advantages particular to women writers, the allure and the reality of leaving her partner and children to write and the importance of personal space as she charts her own creative process in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains far away from her home in Israel’s Ella Valley.
NOTES FROM AFAR is the first in a pilot series focusing on women in the arts and one that we hope will become a regular feature. 


Guest Blog: Joanna Chen, Entry Four


The following is reprinted from Garnet News. VCCA Fellow Joanna Chen, who lives in Israel, is writing a six part account of her residency at VCCA. (All images, Joanna Chen)

This week, after dinner, I present my work to the other fellows. I decided to share work I’ve done here, an abstract piece on trees and homeland, and a new chapter from my book.
The presentation is a joint venture with Avy Claire, a visual artist from Maine who has been here almost as long as I have. Her work taps deeply into landscape, and we both feel a certain affinity.
We take walks together in the countryside around VCCA, and I enjoy seeing the world through her eyes — the invasive plants that have become rooted in the native — and her uncanny awareness of what lies beneath the surface.
I don’t usually have a problem reading. A friend once told me I should imagine I’m reading the back of a Cheerios box, and this little trick still works for me, irrespective of how many people are in the room. This time, however, as I stand there, pages in hand, reading a line about my home in the Ella Valley, the faces of my three beautiful children swim up before me, and I falter for a moment, unable to conjure up that big, bright, yellow box. I clear my throat, apologize and then continue.


I don’t usually have a problem reading. A friend once told me I should imagine myself reading the back of a Cheerios box, and this little trick still works for me…


I’ve never been good at art, but with the help of Avy’s visual acumen, we turn the residency living room into a forest. There’s a sound track of birds recorded at 5am one chilly morning when I could not sleep; there are thin strands of yellow string tied with twigs and tiny bits of satin to represent the red cardinals that we hang together from the rafters after I climb a precariously high ladder, ignoring my vertigo because I want to prove that I can do it.
Together, we articulate through artifacts and words what it means to us to create. There’s a lot of fun in the process, too, and I’ve grown accustomed to Avy’s sudden eruptions of laughter as we work. 
There are two weeks left before I pack my bags and return home. My book moves across the cork board in my studio, changing shape daily as I add another photo, another note, another theme scribbled in felt pen that escaped
It has flown the confines of my laptop and has become a visual entity that breathes and speaks. I will keep adding to it and will eventually write it into the book that, I hope, will speak not just to me but to others.
Last night, I slipped away from the living room earlier than usual, walking away from dinner and conversation with the other fellows and down to my studio in the dark of night. I arrive at my studio door, fumbling with the key in the lock, and open the door. What The Trees Reveal is waiting for me.
********
In NOTES FROM AFAR, writer Joanna Chen sends us weekly dispatches from Amherst, Virginia during her six-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Notes, Chen explores challenges and advantages particular to women writers, the allure and the reality of leaving her partner and children to write and the importance of personal space as she charts her own creative process in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains far away from her home in Israel’s Ella Valley.
NOTES FROM AFAR is the first in a pilot series focusing on women in the arts and one that we hope will become a regular feature. 



Friday, March 25, 2016

Joanna Chen Explores Landscapes of Dislocation

Joanna Chen’s studio wall is covered with an installation of post-it notes, photographs and scraps of paper. Like many other VCCA Fellow writers before her, she has mapped out her book in this way. It’s a great organizational method, but it also has a visual impact that Joanna admires. “One of the great things about being here is all the visual artists also in residence. It’s brought all this out,” she says. “You could use Scrivener and all sorts of programs on your laptop to work out what your book is, but here,” she point to the wall, “is the book.”

A poet and journalist from Israel, Joanna came to VCCA with the intention of finishing her memoir. “It’s about the search for home when there is no home and what happens.

“It’s my life story, but I want it to be everybody’s life story. I’ve always been really hesitant, wondering am I deep enough or important enough. Everybody has a great story, why would anyone want to read this? I think the reason will be that it touches other people’s lives.”

Joanna was born and raised in England. At the age of 16, after the death of her brother, her parents sent her to boarding school in Israel. Moving to a different culture and different landscape—exchanging the Yorkshire moors for the Negev Desert—after such a tragedy was traumatic, creating a lifelong sense of dislocation.

Not surprisingly, landscape whether physical, political or social, is a major theme of Joanna’s memoir, which she hopes to be about the people of the Middle East who suffer from this same dislocation. “Everybody in the world is looking for home. Working as journalist privileged me to people’s homes in the West Bank and Israel. I’ve been in those belonging to very far right Israeli settlers and on the other side, very extreme Hamas supporters. They all want the same thing in the end: they want home. They want to sit down with their families and break bread. What’s so difficult about that? But, it isn’t happening.

“My first day in the studio, I put the bag down and I wrote the two titles of the book:
What the Trees Reveal and Checkpoints: Landscapes of Dislocation. The latter one’s more for me. It’s a little academic sounding, like a paper for a conference.”

Having worked for Newsweek for 15 years, Joanna knows what a checkpoint is and how to go through it, at least as a journalist. She calls each chapter a checkpoint and each checkpoint has a trigger: what happened because of this and where (i.e. the landscape) exactly did it happen?

Joanna began at Newsweek at the bottom and worked her way up, doing everything from running the office to translating and eventually reporting. The challenges of working in such an embattled place finally got to her. “I couldn’t do it anymore; I couldn’t see where it would end. It’s not going to end; it’s just going to keep going on and on and on.”

Thereafter, she wrote poetry and did literary translation. Then, almost two years ago, the war in Gaza happened. “Knowing both sides so well, I felt, I can’t just be here like this and not say anything or do anything, and I began writing essays. I started to see a thread running through them of myself, of this search for home and sense of dislocation and displacement.

“I write mostly in the present tense because it’s energetic and immediate. A lot of my essays are braided, weaving together two stories. One was on the death of my mother from ALS. (Joanna’s parents moved to Israel a few months after she did.), She died within months of her diagnosis. “I was with my mother every single day,” she says. “I promised myself, I was going to do everything for her because I knew she was going to die. For that one year, I went every Friday to demonstrations against the construction of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. I wanted to immerse myself in other people’s sorrows, and I kept going back again and again. I wasn’t going there as a supporter or opponent of the wall, I just came to witness what they were going through.”

Joanna is in residence at VCCA for six weeks. When she got the acceptance notice she couldn’t remember applying for six weeks. With three children (28, 25, 16) and a husband, it didn’t seem feasible. But her husband urged her to go. “The first time I came into my studio, it felt like my space immediately. I thought, yeah, this is why I came here.”

But she had had her doubts. The night before she left Israel, sitting in her garden with Virginia a distant unknown, she was plagued with doubts. “I have a really pretty garden and a lovely house in the country.  I have a dog and a cat and it’s all very nice, and I thought, why do I have to go all the way over there to write about what’s happening here. Why would I do that? I was sitting up at 2:00 am thinking I’m such an idiot, why get on a plane and go all that way?  And now I know. Sometimes you have to go far away to see things close up. Plus you get this incredible dialogue with the other Fellows in residence.” 

Joanna originally thought she would finish up her residency with her memoir completed. Now, she hopes to leave VCCA with a strong book proposal and overview.

Of her residency Joanna has nothing but praise: “It’s been amazing; you cannot imagine what a treat it is to be here and have almost every night this very stimulating conversation and these wonderful presentations. While I have my own English writing community, it’s small.  So I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. Being surrounded by visual artists and the composers it’s been fantastic to see how we create in similar ways. I’ve made good friends here. And, I don’t have to make an effort to look for women because they’re all over this residency, which is really, really nice.“

An incident occurred that demonstrated powerfully to Joanna the very obvious respect for the Fellows’ work that is a central element of the VCCA culture. She needed to return a key to the office and mentioned that she would forgo her planned walk in the woods in order to get it there before the office closed at 5:00 PM. A staff member overhearing this said, “No, you must go for a walk. It’s okay; you can give the key back tomorrow. If you need to go for a walk and think, or take photographs, of course you must go.”

A simple thing that many take for granted about VCCA, but which Joanna relishes is its sense of security. “I live on the edge of a forest, I don’t ever walk there on my own because of where I live. I‘ve been to some tough places in my time working for Newsweek, but I would never walk in the forest alone. And here, I can do it. I wake up really early, no one else is around and I have my door open and I sit outside and I’m not at all afraid.”

Living in Israel she says, you’re always slightly looking over your shoulder. “I say that as somebody with both Palestinian and Israeli friends. I am dedicated to doing whatever I can to show the real faces of people who live there and ignore all the clichés that you read about, but it’s very difficult to live there. If it weren’t for my parents sending me there and then meeting my husband, I wouldn’t be in Israel, but on the other hand, it’s given me an amazing opportunity to go places and meet people. I want to know what they have to say, and I want other people to know, too.”  

In an ironic twist, Joanna’s 16-year old son goes to a school in the exact same place where she went to school. (It’s not the same school as hers, which was English speaking; his is Hebrew speaking, but the landscape is the same.) “He fought to go there. I told him over my dead body. Then one day in the kitchen, he said—it’s your trauma, not mine. He just loves the desert and wants to be there.”

Joanna’s clearly been making the most of her residency, reveling in her surroundings and the other Fellows she has met, and getting important work done. In addition to her memoir, Joanna has been blogging about her experience at VCCA for Garnet News, turning in weekly posts that have consistently been the most popular for the online publication. And with good reason. Joanna’s wonderfully evocative vignettes are both highly personal and yet widely appealing. “I hope that it comes out in the series how crucial having this mental and physical space is.

“I didn’t know before I came here exactly what to expect, but I didn’t apply anywhere else. I saw VCCA’s website and looked at some of the photos and there was something about it and I said yes, I want to do it. www.joannachen.com



Friday, March 18, 2016

Guest Blog: Joanna Chen, Entry Three



The following is reprinted from Garnet News. VCCA Fellow Joanna Chen, who lives in Israel, is writing a six part account of her residency at VCCA. (All images, Joanna Chen)

Earlier in the week my daughter, Emily, sends me a text message. I’m in the zone, sitting in the studio here at Amherst, listening to Patti Smith and writing a new chapter. What she has written stops me in my tracks. We’re all safe. Don’t worry. I immediately worry, checking the wires for news from back home in Israel.
There have been three knifing attacks in Israel, one in Jaffa, an area I know well and where I recently took an Arabic course. I watch a video online, freshly posted and unedited, of a man running along a street, close to a fish restaurant I’ve eaten at a number of times with my three kids. A man’s voice yells out: “Give it to him! Give it to him!”


There have been three knifing attacks back in Israel, one in Jaffa, an area I know well and where I recently took an Arabic course.


I learn later that the 22-year-old Palestinian attacker was bludgeoned with a metal rod and then shot dead. I’m out here in my little writing bubble, disconnected and distant, writing about the past but also about the present I share with others, both Palestinians and Israelis.
Part of the goodness in being at this residency is the sharing that goes on between artists, musicians and writers. Patricia Aaron, whose studio is just below mine, paints in layers of wax and paint, fusing each layer with heat before adding another color over it.
After the layers have set, she takes a ceramic tool, or even a fork, and digs down deep below the surface, without knowing exactly what hue or tone will emerge. This is what I’m doing here at Amherst with words, layering the story of my life and of others, allowing the sentences to settle.


This is what I’m doing here at Amherst with words, layering the story of my life and of others, allowing the sentences to settle. 


Afterward, I go back into those sentences and dig into them, deeply. I often don’t know what will be revealed. Being so far away from home has enabled me to look at my life more closely, to see things I couldn’t see before, like stepping back a couple of paces in order to move forward.
Ree Davis, a writer in the adjoining studio, gives me a great piece of advice. “Write forward,” she says, and I’ve taken these words to heart. This is what I’m doing here.
The work is slow and painful. Years of working in foreign journalism has conditioned me to quick publication times, words that are here today and gone tomorrow. This is different. I want these words to last and to resonate. I’ve stopped obsessing over word count and instead am editing, which often feels like I’m taking an axe and chopping off chunks of words. There are questions to be answered. The poet C D Wright once said that good writing has a hand, a breath and a lexicon that resonates for the reader. Will the reader sense these in my work, my hand as it hesitates over the keyboard, the sharp intake of breath as I retell my brother’s death, the words unsaid? 
Patricia told me that the layered work of her paintings is subtractive, not additive. It’s a paring down, a distilling of color and tone so that only the essential is visible to the eye. So I choose my words carefully, I hold them up to the light.
I do the same when texting my children and husband. I tell them I miss them, and I mean it. My hands are accustomed to baking cakes, peeling vegetables for soup, packing little cookies into boxes for my son to take back to his boarding school. My hands are accustomed to holding other hands but right now I reach them out towards the screen while we are Skyping, I let my fingers form heart shapes and hugs, I put an ink-stained finger to my lips and blow a kiss to my daughters and to my son.
I sleep in the studio again.
I dream it’s dawn, but instead of the sun rising there are birds flying across the window of my studio, moving slowly by my window so that I can see the outline of their bodies, the soft curve of their wings through the mist. I look for the sun, but, in fact, it’s not the sun that rises but the faces of people I’m writing about. The work continues.
********
In NOTES FROM AFAR, writer Joanna Chen sends us weekly dispatches from Amherst, Virginia during her six-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Notes, Chen explores challenges and advantages particular to women writers, the allure and the reality of leaving her partner and children to write and the importance of personal space as she charts her own creative process in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains far away from her home in Israel’s Ella Valley.
NOTES FROM AFAR is the first in a pilot series focusing on women in the arts and one that we hope will become a regular feature. 


Joanna Chen has written for NewsweekThe Daily Beast and The BBC World Service, among others. Her lyric essays have been published most recently in GuernicaNarratively and The Los Angeles Review of Books, where she writes a column.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Guest Blog Joanna Chen, Entry Two




The following is reprinted from Garnet News. VCCA Fellow Joanna Chen, who lives in Israel, is writing a six part account of her residency at VCCA. (All images, Joanna Chen)

Amherst, Virginia, 10pm – I check the weather report, gather up my pajamas and walk down to my studio. I have left the Republican debate, and a warm living room filled with writers, artists and composers who have become my friends over the past two weeks.
The familiar sound of boots crunching on leaves is soothing. It reminds me of country rambles as a child growing up in Yorkshire, England.
Earlier that same day, I take a walk through the woods below the barn with two visual artists. The ground is covered in dry leaves, dotted with red berries, slightly disturbed by others who have walked this narrow trail before us. The familiar sound of boots crunching on leaves is soothing. It reminds me of country rambles as a child growing up in Yorkshire, England.  Among other things, I am trying to write about my childhood during my residency here at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and this walk somehow makes it easier.
I point out a thick tree whose trunk has been partially gnawed through by the beavers that live in the murky lake below. We watch the tree, swaying slightly, and we pause for a moment, wondering why the beavers left it mid-munch. Nancy Manter, a visual artist, suggests wryly that this is another one of those art projects that never reaches completion.
We wander along, talking about our own projects and how a single idea for a painting or a poem might branch off into something completely different, the unknown. We talk about landscape architecture and desire lines that physically lead from origin to destination, and as we talk, we wander along the edge of the forest where fallen trees, their slender trunks touching, have formed triangles with the forest floor. When we realize we’ve left the trail, we scramble up the steep slope, laughing and taking photos. Finally, we come to a clearing, and then a road, which winds around the wood, that leads us back to what is home for us right now.
I think of this walk as I wake to the rumble of the train that brought me here, to the snow that fell through the night and now covers the leaves in a thin, crisp layer. At 6am, I stumble outside in boots and pajamas and head to the kitchen that I share with the others to make coffee. Through the semi-dark, I see a small figure exiting one of the studios, coming towards me. It’s Dorianne Laux, a poet who arrived a couple of days ago. We laugh as we meet across the snow, two women in pajamas and boots, hair tousled as dawn breaks.


At 6am, I stumble outside in boots and pajamas and head to the kitchen I share with the others to make coffee. Through the semi-dark, I see a small figure exiting one of the studios, coming towards me.


I think of the path that has led me to this particular moment in time: I’m terrified that I will not be able to follow my own desire line here, that I will not manage to complete the first draft of the memoir I came here to write. My writing is on the line, and I must prove I can do it.
After coffee, I bundle up and step across the field and into the woods. I’m looking for animal tracks before the snow melts. I see none but, on my way back, I spot soft imprints in the snow, curving around the back of my studio. I wonder momentarily what animal might have been moving around here but then realize with a start: these are mine.
***
In NOTES FROM AFAR, writer Joanna Chen sends us weekly dispatches from Amherst, Virginia during her six-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Notes, Chen explores challenges and advantages particular to women writers, the allure and the reality of leaving her partner and children to write and the importance of personal space as she charts her own creative process in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains far from her home in Israel’s Ella Valley.
NOTES FROM AFAR is the first in a pilot series focusing on women in the arts and one that we hope will become a regular feature.