Category Archives: Writing

of the sounds of birds

Last week was my 360-minute residency at Freshkills Park (a hidden gem!!) and my blog post about my time there is up on the Holes in the Wall Collective’s website here.

My text is below but go to the link for photos and accompanying text from Julia and Dhira!

Coming here to Freshkills, there’s a lot to take in. The transformation of the park from landfill to nature preserve, the resiliency of nature (the deer that swim across the river, the volunteer trees on the mounds, planted by seeds dropped by birds and other animals), the effect on the local economy, the understanding that this is a project that takes years and years and years. In the here and now, so much has returned—there’s fish in the creeks and osprey in the trees, and a quiet that signifies space to breathe and to think.

Because there are so many birds in my story and here in Freshkills Park, I’m thinking a lot about sound and how to capture it on paper. The mechanical whirr and twang of the red-winged blackbird, the strident calls of gulls signaling a bird of prey overhead. The soft chirps of sparrows and the familiar warbling song of the robin. Killdeer, nothing as imposing as its name suggests, call with their high-pitched cries—what I’d thought somewhat like a gull’s, and the sound they’re named after. A high chipping call of another bird I cannot identify and a high-pitched whistle like the intake of a breath. How to bring sound into a story: here, the wind rustling new leaves, the hum of an airplane overhead, those various birdcalls that are both familiar and unfamiliar. Just a part of the landscape but such an important part: how do you describe what you expect to always be there? What happens once it’s gone?  

Gorgeous space, tons of birds, and creative, interesting people meant I got a lot of thinking and writing and observing done. Thank you to Dhira and Julia for accepting me and setting it all up, and Mariel for hosting me at the site!

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and later this week…

I’ll be doing another mini-residency this Wednesday as part of Holes in the Wall Collective’s 360 One Turn Residency! It’s a 360-minute (6-hour) residency where, once accepted, they pair you with a location to spend your 6 hours. I’ve been lucky enough to be paired with Freshkills Park in Staten Island, which I already know and love after having kayaked there and watched osprey and turkey vultures, since I’ll be working on my bird-centered, mythology-influenced short story. It’s a really nontraditional way of holding a residency but I think it’ll be a lot of fun! Expect some words/images about it this week :]

Far Rockaway II

My second day in the Rockaways dawned clear, with bright blue skies scattered with clouds. Taking a bus to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, we found tree swallows in the dozens swooping around in the wind. The views were across marsh and water, and we learned the odd creaking song made by the red-winged blackbird. Below, my list of the birds I saw here:

There were a few tourists from out of the country, which I found interesting, but it was a gorgeous day to be out. At the visitors center, a woman imitated a bird call for help from a staff member on identifying it. As she sang, his eyes caught mine, a slight grin on his face. He, of course, could not identify the bird she was imitating. What poor voices we humans have. Later, lunch at The Restaurant, a local diner, and a gorgeous sunset across from JFK, where a few locals were fishing. The texture of the beaches there, with skeins of dried saltmarsh cordgrass lining the sand; they’ll sink just a little beneath your feet.

The next day, it began to rain again but I still made my way down to the beach where a number of surfers were battling the swells. In even larger numbers were sanderlings–I love the motion of them, the push and pull of their movements with the waves. Their marks like the sketch of labryinths in the sand. There, there were also a few piping plovers whose tan feathers blended in with the beach, and a few American oystercatchers with their high-pitched calls and thin, bright orange beaks.

I’m calling the photo above “The American Dream.” 😉

It was an amazing, relaxing retreat at beach64 that I sorely needed. I’m rethinking the story I’m working on, the focus of the narrator and the nature of what she’s battling; the role of the birds will probably play an even larger role, as well as the mythic underpinnings of the story. Reading I’ve been inspired by lately are Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Jon Young’s What the Robin Knows, as well as Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread.  I only wish I could’ve stayed longer!

Far Rockaway

Since January, there’s been a lot to catch up on, the biggest of which was that I went to Sri Lanka for vacation. Photos will eventually go up but right now, I’m in Far Rockaway in Queens at the Beach64retreat, thanks to the invite of talented artist Wojciech Gilewicz and his husband, Bartek. I arrived late, after several delays with the MTA, and fell asleep to the sounds of wind and rain.

Heavy rain in the morning but by noon, it had stopped. The clouds are so heavy and thick that I can hear but not see the airplanes that pass overhead. So many more birds here than where I live in Manhattan–the squawking of gulls, the singing of mockingbirds and robins. I ventured out to the small wildlife sanctuaries nearby; there were no real paths but I glimpsed a loon among a fleet of dark-headed ducks, and several laughing gulls with their dark heads and gray and white bodies. On the way back to the apartment, a bright red cardinal sang on top of a TV antennae. Since the story I’m working on a bird-centered narrative and I’m currently reading all about bird language, I’m really glad to be here. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is only a short bus ride away; I’m looking forward to going when it’s sunnier tomorrow! I only wish the skies would clear so I could try to get a view of the Lyrid meteor shower…

Privy

I’ve got a microfiction piece called “Privy” up at The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. Check it out here!

Stayed up for the lunar eclipse last weekend—truly a cool sight despite the wind. Actually, because the wind was blowing so hard, the scuttering of the clouds made it look as though the moon were rapidly traveling across the sky. It was so bright before the start of the eclipse, I could see the dark shadows across the face of the moon. I was also not in the city, so the light pollution didn’t prevent me from seeing Orion and some of the other constellations. One of my goals this year is to go somewhere where I can see the Milky Way. I’ve only seen it once, out in the desert of Gansu many years ago.

My reading at Erewhon Books with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry was so much fun! It’s such a low-key yet intimate venue, and all the people there were super friendly and welcoming, and gave me plenty of advice on a work in progress flash fiction piece that I read. Special shout-out to Liz Gorinsky, who invited me to read and welcomed everyone into her publishing company’s space. It’s really a wonderful community (even though I am not even close to well-versed in most of the fandoms that others there were) and I definitely plan on going to more of their salons.

This month has also brought me back into contact with folks I knew while I was in grad school and before—it’s always fun to catch up with other writers that you admire and hear about all the cool things they’ve been up to. It’s also a reminder for me to carve out more time for my writing this year. Maybe I should set myself a weekly quota…

Oh, and for those who’d like a reminder now that nominations are open, I have a couple of stories eligible for the Hugo and Nebula awards (my post about it is here). Also, I’m on Twitter for those who want to follow my very occasional posts (but more than what I have here!)

Ocean

Popping in to say I’ve got a new flash fiction piece called Ocean up at Bracken Magazine!

It’s been a busy half year back from Asia: I’ve started working on a novel that is obsessed with all things fish and ocean life related, catching up on all the reading I hadn’t been able to do in Asia (my gosh, so many great debut books!), visiting family and friends, and just getting back into NYC life with all its readings and art openings and cool events.

Speaking of cool events, I’ll be reading at a speculative literature literary salon in January! More info on that soon.

I also received my copy of the Pushcart Prize anthology and it is huge! So excited to delve into it and read all the great work that’s come out the previous year.

A Pushcart Prize!

First off, I wanted to let everyone know that my story, A Flock, A Siege, A Murmuration won a Pushcart Prize! I’m really honored to have been nominated by Bennington Review and excited that the Pushcart Prize committee chose it to receive a prize! You can read it online here or buy a print copy of either the Bennington Review issue or the Pushcart Prize anthology coming out this autumn.

A lot of changes these past few months—writing up presentations on pigeon racing and finishing up classes in Taipei, snorkeling and rock climbing (Taipei rock gyms are HARD but the people are crazy nice), traveling and researching in China on a series of islands, visiting relatives, and catching up with L—but now I’m back in New York and finally settling back in. It has been less than a month but my life in Asia already feels somewhat dreamlike, especially since I never have to speak Mandarin here. But I miss my sweet potato guy and my pigeon-keeping neighbors and the mountains and plants and birds there.

I’ve just started writing again, though, and it brings the places I’ve been back to life for me. I’m really excited about what I’m currently working on even though I’m not quite sure where it will go. It’ll have crabs and windmills and the green sea in it for sure though.

Hiking season

In Taipei, I measure time by particular seasons. It was strawberry season not too long ago, tiny strawberries in cartons that were halfway filled with padding to protect the delicate fruit. Right now, it’s the season for golden-hued pineapples straight out of ads and giant watermelons the length of one’s arm, sometimes sold out of the same open fruit truck (you know the kind I mean, all open sides to display the fruit.) The first pineapple I bought was from one of those trucks, the young guy selling them surrounded by women. One even took photos of him as he removed the outer layers of her pineapple expertly. His pineapple cost me 120 ntd but the taste was incredibly sweet and floral, no sourness at all.

It’s also the season for giant snails with pointed shells on the mountain trails of Xianjiyan, and barn swallows in little nests above storefronts. I saw a nest with six swallows inside recently, their heads all poking out and watching me. The weather is changeable but mostly it’s hot, hovering around 30 degrees Celsius lately. My teacher says the rainy season is starting and when I asked about typhoon season, she said that it was separate from the rainy season and started in summer.

On nicer days, I try to make it to some of the mountains nearby. Once to Pingxi crags where three mountain peaks sit close together but rise alone so you have to climb up then down then all the way up again. The ones ijl and I climbed had bare rock on top, and one rose so steeply it required a ladder attached to the rock. I like the hiking here—there are the typical stone steps but also occasionally more natural dirt paths (sometimes not well-maintained though) and then you get the adventure hiking which involve rope to help steady you (and you definitely need them!) and sometimes actual climbing. Sometimes you see older men hiking in bare feet, as though it were typical. One of the mountains there, we managed to climb twice, not realizing the path we took down looped around and up the mountain again but it was a more adventurous one so it was fun anyway. There are signs there that tell you to beware, accidents have happened and you proceed at your own risk. And along the way, there were birds whose calls sounded like the whistle of a rocket, and a glimpse of a ferret-badger through the brush, as well as the remains of sky lanterns that we picked up. 

Another hike was from Daxi on the east coast. We took the slow train there, paying with our easycards. The day started out hot so it was brutal going up. Spiders hung on webs above us so if you looked up, you’d see spider after spider seemingly floating in the air. Occasionally, you’d catch a glimpse of ocean. The path led to Taoyuan Valley which was completely different. We climbed the ridge there; on one side, a steep dropoff with shrubs that grew close to the ground due to wind unlike the forests we had been hiking in and on the other side, gently sloping meadowland with water buffalo leisurely eating the grass. On the path were “obstacles” that were the opposite of an animal crossing, to prevent the water buffalo from wandering too far into the mountains. But continuing on the path led us to heavy mist on the ridge and because I was getting tired, we took an unofficial path down with just a cardboard sign that read Dali train station written in marker. This path was very steep, just a dirt and rock path in between wild grass almost as tall as I was, and with the wind blowing something fierce. The shortcut may have been shorter but probably tougher.

Recently, I decided to go alone to Jiandaoshi (Scissor Rock) one day after class but this path turned out to be different from many others. There, retired old men hike it every day and chat with you or hike along with you if you’re new. I was put with two Taiwanese girls and we were shepherded up, an older man with his dog giving us advice all the while about the rough sandstone rock that we were scrambling over. On the way down, another old man identified a passionfruit flower, the trail we should take down, and played us an old song on a type of flute he had (he practices on the mountain, just a hobby he picked up). And on the way to the street, past a flower garden, we were given fresh-cut lilies that were going to be discarded anyway, after we admired them. The friendliest hike I’ve been on.

It’s not all hiking, though. I write essays on Taiwanese superstitious behavior, read essays on the sharing economy, and wonder why there are always worms on the broccoli and cauliflower. I randomly hopped aboard a shuttle for a free trip out to a little town called Xinpu known for its Hakka ancestral homes/shrines and sweet potato dye. I marvel at fresh baby corn and the glimmer of their leaves; they are sweeter than canned. I wait for repairmen to fix the cracks in my ceiling, just in case it’s a danger for the next earthquake, and then ask them random questions that help me with my powerpoint presentations. Sometimes your Japanese classmate tries to teach your class Japanese in Chinese. I live on roasted sweet potatoes because the old man who sells them is adorable even if he never seems to be around when I’ve got a craving—they’re so sweet it’s like eating a healthy dessert and only 50 ntd a bag. Sometimes black-crested serpent eagles circle your neighborhood, crying out all afternoon. I’ll post about southern Taiwan later. I’m missing a good friend’s wedding. With this new teacher, I can’t seem to keep anything in my head, words just slip away as soon as I see them. What skill it takes to be a good language teacher; I hadn’t realized quite how important it was until a mediocre teacher came along.

In writing news, the anthology Endless Apocalypse is out where you can read “Away They Go or Hurricane Season” along with other stories both contemporary and classic. I joined twitter (@suyeelin) but who knows how long that will last? Follow me while you can 😉

Apocalyptic inspiration

I have a story in Flame Tree Press’s new anthology, Endless Apocalypse, coming out this March so they asked us authors to tell them what inspired our stories. My story is a reprint of “Away They Go or Hurricane Season” which was first published in Acappella Zoo. Take a look!

It’ll be a beautifully-made book and I’m excited to read the other stories in it—if you’re interested, you can pre-order it here.

Since I’m currently reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires, weather has definitely been on my mind. It’s a fascinating read and interesting to see how much of the Midwest’s weather in the 19th century was thoroughly impacted by farmers (to their detriment!) Here in Taipei, there was incessant gloom and rain for a week (and two earthquakes) but today was so hot that I wore shorts and took a wander through the botanical garden. Rhododendrons are in bloom and suddenly everyone is selling strawberries. And tomorrow is the big lantern festival in Pingxi where waves of sky lanterns will be released—I’m sure it will be beautiful but hope it’s not too environmentally unfriendly!