On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In “Furious Gravity,” 50 D.C. women writers contribute stories about the forces that bring them together and repel them apart. These women respond to an unjust world with fury, delivering a collection of stories and essays “with undeniable pull – and, of course, grace.”
It is the ninth volume of the “Grace and Gravity” series, a literary journal devoted to women writers in the Washington region. Editor Melissa Scholes Young and contributing writer Yohanca Delgado join us to discuss what distinguishes this addition to the project.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Melissa Scholes Young Editor, "Furious Gravity," Associate Professor of Literature, American University; @mscholesyoung
- Yohanca Delgado Contributing Writer, "Furious Gravity"
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. We've talked with creators and theaters before. Now, we'll be talking with writers. So, are you a writer in the Washington region? How are you spending your time in quarantine? In "Furious Gravity," 50 D.C. women writers contribute stories about the forces that bring them together or push them apart, delivering a collection of stories and essays with, quoting here, "undeniable pull."
KOJO NNAMDIIt is the ninth volume in the "Grace and Gravity" series, a literary journal devoted to women writers in the Washington region. Joining us to discuss it is Melissa Scholes Young, an associate professor of literature at American University and the editor of the latest volume in the "Grace and Gravity" series. Melissa, thank you so much for joining us.
MELISSA SCHOLES YOUNGThank you so much for having us on. It's an honor to bring this project to you, Kojo, and to the whole community.
NNAMDIIt's an honor for us to be able to receive it. What is the "Grace and Gravity" series, for those who don't know about it? And how did it begin?
YOUNGSo, "Furious Gravity" is volume nine in the "Grace and Gravity" book series. It was originally founded more than a decade ago by Richard Peabody, who's a local D.C., really, literary legend. And, together, we've published hundreds of D.C. women writers, thousands of pages. I took over the editing reins from Richard in 2016 and really established the book, the series, as a partnership between the Department of Literature and College of Arts and Sciences at AU, where I teach, and Politics and Prose bookstore. It meant so much to me to keep this local.
YOUNGIt's really a community-based project. It reaches into so many artistic spaces like your previous guests were talking about. The cover art that you see, this beautiful, beautiful portrait is done by the local artist, Marily Mojica. And Dolen Perkins-Valdez, who was on your show earlier this week, she offered the preface to "Furious Gravity." Wendy Besel Hahn is the nonfiction editor. And mostly, it's about this 50 writers that are featured and bring this real energy and these very stunning voices.
NNAMDIMelissa, what does "Furious Gravity" mean? What's the theme that weaves these stories together?
YOUNGI think it means the energy, right, that that there's this thing that's bigger than us. The title actually came about a few years ago when I was first editing "Grace and Darkness," which was volume eight. And I was the Gaithersburg Book Festival and Ethelbert Miller, who I also know is a friend of this show, took a picture of me (laugh) later. And he commented on how intense my expression was, that even though we were at this festival celebrating this day and this book, there was still this fury. There was this fuel by gathering other women writers and really paying attention to what it was that brought that kind of passion.
YOUNGSo, after the reading, I'm sitting around with Richard Peabody and Wendy and the book's nonfiction editor, and Tyrese Coleman was there, Jessica Claire Haney, other contributors to the volume. And that's really what was happening. There was this gravity that was puling us together, and this intense energy that I think all artists bring. And, to me, that's why I love this literary community so much. People show up.
YOUNGAnd so, "Furious Gravity," I think, it was a natural response to what's happening in our world today.
NNAMDIMelissa, what is the power of women's anger, and why did you want to explore that?
YOUNGI like to call it women's passion. (laugh) I think it's useful. And it's really important, as writers, to pay attention to what we hear, what we're listening to, what fuels us in our own writing. What is it that we're trying to say? I think that, as theater does, as well, art saves us. I mean, books are dangerous in this really, really delicious way. I think these ideas are threatening, sometimes, but I think engaging readers on the page invites them into kind of a conversation, right, and attention to what's happening on the ground and the air around them. And I find that writers are listening, right. They have their ear to the ground. We often hear things that are rumbling or happening in our world long before it actually happens.
NNAMDIThis is the second volume that you've edited. What is the process like for you?
YOUNGThe process is very not glamorous, actually, compared to the actual publication of the book. What happens about a year before we plan a volume is that we put out a call with our theme and say to the D.C. writing community, you know, what do you have? And my nonfiction editor Wendy Besel Hahn, we read every single submission. It takes us about six months, and we also meet every week to talk about the submissions.
YOUNGWe're looking for stories that show us a moment, something that teaches about where we are. I love those dark moments that make me laugh, and I love the surprise. And sometimes I don't even know what I'm looking for until I actually see it. So, it takes us about six months to a year to put the actual book together. We had a record number of submissions this year, and it was very, very difficult to decide on 50, which is a record-breaking number also. There's just so much talent in this area.
YOUNGAnd part of what I love about this volume is that we have so much diversity in it. We have five writers that are publishing their work for the first time. And we have established writers that have multiple books and awards, and they're writing something new. We have diversity in generations. We have diversity in race and ethnicity and culture. They're really writers that are at various stages in their careers, and they're writing these in stories with an incredible range of experiences, too. So, many of the stories are about race and poverty, privilege and struggle, justice, and my favorite, revenge. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd, of course, we do have to point out that all 50 of these writers live in the Washington region, correct?
YOUNGThey do, and that's actually an incredible talent force that I found when I moved here a decade ago. And Richard Peabody was actually the first writer to call me and say, hey, I hear you're here (laugh) and I hear you write, and I want to see your work. So, I was actually featured in this volume years ago. And then I inherited it from him in 2016. And these titles come about very organically. And I have to be very patient waiting for what that energy is going to look like and what the community actually means. It's been -- it's a huge honor.
NNAMDIWelcome Yohanca Delgado, a graduate of American University's MFA program and one of the contributing writers behind "Furious Gravity." Her story is called "The Midnight Zone." Yohanca, thank you so much for joining us.
YOHANCA DELGADOThank you so much for having me. I'm delighted to be here.
NNAMDII was delighted by your story. You started as one of Melissa's students. In fact, you were part of the literary lab that helps produce the series. And now you're one of the featured writers. What has this been like for you?
DELGADOIt's been such a magical experience. I can't say enough good things about it. I think a lot of writers can relate to what I'm about to say, but as a second-year writer, even in an MFA program, I'm sort of mystified by what happened. You know, you work so hard on a text document on your computer, and then you don't really know what happens between you sitting in front of it and you potentially holding it in your hands in the shape of a published book or a published entry in an anthology.
DELGADOAnd so working in Melissa's class with a group of super-dedicated students, who are both undergrad and graduate students, to think about every element of the process in putting together an anthology, Melissa was super-generous in explaining things that it didn't even occur to me were questions. Things like how do you decide the sequence writing an anthology? Or what levels of editing do you undertake? Depending on, you know, what stage the story's at.
DELGADOAnd she also connected us to the editor, the copyeditor of the book, which is the marvelous Nita Congress. And this is all for "Grace and Darkness" in 2018. So, seeing this book come together sort of piece by piece in 2018 was so magical. Because then, in 2020, when Melissa invited me to contribute a story, I just -- it was just such a magical ecosystem to be a part of on the producing end.
DELGADOAnd then, on the contributing end, it just felt so wonderful to actually hold this book in my hands and sort of see how the current students of the literary editing and publishing class at American University -- they made book trailers. You know, they pitched it in local media. They tweeted about it. It just felt so wonderful, especially now, during a pandemic shutdown, to feel the sense of community and magic.
NNAMDISo, tell us, what is "The Midnight Zone"?
DELGADO(laugh) It's a wonderful question. I am not a marine biologist. I should preface that. So, what I wanted really to do with this story was write about D.C., and write about what I think -- what fills me with wonder and what is majestic about D.C. And the first thing I thought of was the Metro. And I wanted to find a sort of natural parallel that I felt could evoke the sort of grand scale and majesty of the D.C. Metro.
DELGADOAnd "The Midnight Zone" is just an underwater zone that is deep enough below the surface that sunlight doesn't reach it. And anyone who's been on the D.C. Metro can attest that naturally sunlight is not making its way down to the platform. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah, because you're from New York, but you hadn't ever seen escalators (laugh) the length of the D.C. escalators in New York. That said, could you read a passage from "The Midnight Zone"?
DELGADOAbsolutely. I would love to. On the Metro, Lexy leaned her head back against the cool wall of the train car and closed her eyes. What was it about Chad that repelled her? She imagined that the whole train was underwater, somewhere deep in the Potomac. She had read recently about underwater zones, and they had immediately reminded her of the Metro in D.C. and the way the long, long escalators rollercoaster swooped down deep into the Earth. She had never seen anything like those escalators in New York. And when she first arrived in D.C. three years ago, she had marveled at the coffered sky-sized ceilings, a whole world, with a sky of its own, underground.
DELGADOThe doors chimed again and the Metro Alexa voice spoke announcing that the next stop is Cleveland Park. If you went deep enough underwater, there was a zone that ran at an oxygen deficit. The amount of oxygen consumed for respiration exceeded the amount produced by photosynthesis. This deficit severely limited what could survive there. This disphotic zone, it was called.
DELGADOI think I'm going to get out at DuPont Circle, Lexy said, and go to Cramer Books. So, you can go home and go back to sleep. Oh, I'll just go with you. I don't have any plans, he said, nudging up against her. His breath smelled like the onion and lox bagel he'd inhaled on the walk to the Metro. Okay, she said. Lexy hated onions. Was she overthinking this? Chad was just a nice guy who wanted to spend a day with her. Isn't that what she was supposed to want? But why was she supposed to want that, to pair up with anyone who would have her?
DELGADOBelow the disphotic zone, deeper still, is the aphotic zone, which is characterized by darkness. Sometimes called the midnight zone, because so little light makes it down there. The main source of food, dead organisms sinking down from somewhere above.
NNAMDIThat is Yohanca Delgado reading from her contribution to the "Grace and Gravity" series, this one called "Furious Gravity." Her piece is called "The Midnight Zone." The thing I noticed about Lexy is that she's very straightforward when she doesn't want to see someone anymore, but what I found even more fascinating (laugh) was the response of the guys to what she had to say. But you'll have to read the story yourself to see that.
NNAMDIBut, Yohanca, it sounds strange now to hear about riding the Metro, which was once a daily activity for many of us. Have you had that sense that, like, rereading your old work, that it's almost of a different time?
DELGADOIt does sound like that, doesn't it? It feels -- reading this now -- because my whole purpose was to sort of talk about the Metro to someone who had never seen it before and really render it in a way that was kind of defamiliarized. And now I feel it twice. Reading it sort of sounds eerily unfamiliar to me, sort of like a distant Atlantis. Even though I know full well that that's not true at all, and that it's still, you know, the bloodline of the city. And it's still providing transportation for essential workers. But I personally haven't seen the Metro in a long time, so it feels -- yeah, it feels strange.
NNAMDIHere is Naomi, in Gaithersburg. Naomi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NAOMIHi. I'm one of the contributors, and I wrote a story about a difficult time in my mother's life. The story is called "My Mother's Rages." And I am so honored that Melissa accepted my story. And the fact is, her editor, Wendy, was able to pull out of me some of the difficult things that I always felt, but was never able to write about. And that's a sign of an excellent editor. And when I read it, it surprises me how well she did and how well the story comes out, even though it was such a difficult time between my mother and I. But it ends very well, so I just wanted to thank Melissa for choosing me.
NNAMDIThank you so much for calling, Naomi. Before I ask Melissa to respond, let's get another contributor on the air. Here is Wendy in Kensington, Maryland. Wendy, your turn.
WENDYHi there, Kojo. Hi, Melissa. This is Wendy Goodman. I have a story in here called "The Toupee." I'm new back to creative writing after -- well, still being a lawyer for the federal government. But have just, in the last year-and-a-half or so, been back to writing. And this is not my first publication, but one of my very first. And it's been beyond thrilling to be included in a community of D.C. writers that I was only just starting to discover and now feel like I've just jumped into this huge pool of brilliance and talent. And it's an extraordinary and honoring experience. So, Melissa, thank you and, Wendy, thank you.
NNAMDIMelissa, why is it important to provide a platform like this exclusively to female writers? And you can respond to our callers, too.
YOUNGOh, I have so many things to say, Naomi. It's so lovely to hear from you and Wendy. I love these stories. And, Yohanca, she's just an absolute literary rising sensation. And it's been an honor to know her as a writer in the MFA program, but also, the story speaks so much to the ways that these feelings of intimacy and fear and hope continue, even though we're all locked away, often, inside.
YOUNGAnd, in fact, this is such a great platform, Kojo, because we -- the 50 writers in this volume and the editors and all of the people that go into making this a thing have not been able to gather in the spaces that we would normally gather. When we hold a launch party at American University, hundreds of people show up. And when we have a reading at Politics and Prose, tons of people show up, at Loyalty book store. We can pack these local spaces.
YOUNGSo, it's an honor to bring them together on your show in this different kind of space, right, that invites, I think, even more people into the space. I think there's a lot of overlap between really being an author and an editor. And I think a huge amount of that comes from being a woman who's a writer in the community and looking for other women who also have stories that they want to tell.
YOUNGAnd, as an editor, it's my job to listen and to see what the authors' intentions are, and to help them tell the story that they most want to tell. And this is a huge part of being a teacher as well. So, as an editor, it's my honor to champion, to guide, to cheerlead stories that really have something that they want to say.
YOUNGAnd so many of the writers in this collection are just incredibly willing to go through that editorial process, which isn't easy and often happens off the stage, right. You see the book. The book's amazing, right, but you don't all see sometimes all the labor and the struggle behind it. But editors have to have a really clear vision. That's my job, but it's very different to be an author on the other side of it. But the writers in the D.C. community are so incredibly -- especially the women, are so supportive of each other. It's just an incredibly generous group of writers.
YOUNGWhen Mary Kay Zuravleff, who wrote the introduction for "Grace and Darkness," and she also has an incredible story in "Furious Gravity." When she brings the DMV women writers together at a potluck, she says, what is it you need and what can you offer? And it's that spirit of what this community means that I think makes us such a success.
NNAMDII am thinking about the gravity relationship between editor and writer. There's a push and pull there that certainly takes place, but it seems in this case that, yeah, that kind of sometimes love-hate relationship, you have come out, according to most of your writers, on the love end of it. But you alluded to this earlier. How has the publication and promotion process for "Furious Gravity" shifted in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak?
YOUNGThat's a great question. I feel that it's required a lot of creativity, because the ways that we normally -- and this is happening to writers all over the country, all over the world, who normally launch books in a very traditional way. We simply had to think more creatively. Where are our readers? I mean, books are selling. Audio books are selling. E-books are selling. Politics and Prose is backed up with orders and shipments. Books are selling. People want stories.
YOUNGSo, how do we actually reach them? The class that Yohanca was in called Literary Editing and Publishing, that I teach, we actually spend months studying the publishing industry. And we read all the D.C. literary journals. I mean, we have a wealth of Barrelhouse and Poet Lore and Gargoyle, Little Petuxent Review, Potomac River. There's so many. And even trade publications like the Washington Department Review of Books.
YOUNGAnd those editors actually come into our class. And, in the final weeks of the semester, we create this literary lab that Yohanca was mentioning that she was a part of. And my students really take over. They learn by doing, which is my favorite way of teaching. And I'm always lucky that AU lets me do (laugh) this kind of experiment.
YOUNGBut they had to come up with a business plan. They had to come up with how they would reach readers. And that came from a website, of course, but also designing a book trailer that one of my students, Gabby Brenner, did. Interviewing -- they go out in the community and they interview contributors. So, normally, they might meet up at a coffee shop, right, in D.C. And they had to do those over Zoom or they had to do those over the phone.
YOUNGThey write feature articles, and they really pitch a successful local media campaign, really during a time when getting books to readers has been an extra level of challenge. But if you have a copy of "Furious Gravity" or want one, it's because of Politics and Prose. They have moved mountains to not only print the entire series for us, but to actually ship it for us. Because those types of machines, I don't have access to from my home office, where I've been teaching and writing and editing for the last couple of months. But Politics and Prose has really stepped in and made this project a success.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Wendy, who writes: one of the most fabulous aspects of this collection is the combination of fiction and nonfiction. Unlike with other anthologies, Melissa Scholes-Young does not separate pieces by genre. Flash fiction mingles with personal essays on the page. They have dialogues on the page. So, Wendy clearly appreciated that.
NNAMDIWe also heard from Robin who said, my short story "Birdie" appeared in the second "Grace and Gravity" collection. I went on to get an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland and academic writing. And have been teaching both creative and academic writing ever since. "Grace and Gravity" made such a difference in the direction my writing life was able to take. Yohanca Delgado, when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
DELGADOThat's a difficult question, but I think one that I now finally can answer. I think I was a reader from the moment I sounded out my first sentence. But it took me a long time to think of myself as a writer, because I was always grappled with the sort of -- the huge distance between what I loved to read and what I thought I had the ability to write as a newer writer.
DELGADOBut what really snapped everything into focus for me was the realization that I'll never have it figured out. (laugh) I'll never master writing. And I know it's a vocation, because nothing makes me happier than that, than knowing that there will always be more to learn, and, along the way, endless books to read and new writers to discover. Like, the ones in this collection were all so talented.
NNAMDIMelissa, you're not just an editor, but an author. Your novel "Flood" won in the literary fiction category for the 2017 Best Book Award at American Book Fest. What can you tell us about "Flood," and do you have another novel in the works?
YOUNGI can. I do. And I have to agree with Yohanca, and it is her reluctance to call herself a writer that I know absolutely will make, and makes her what she already is, a successful writer. There's always this striving, this trying, this risk-taking that's involved in it. And it's a different hat to be an editor. The editor hat is closer to being a teacher, which I love so much.
YOUNGBut being an author means really having your ear to the ground, paying attention, and not always knowing how the thing you're creating may speak to the world in a few years, if you're honored enough to publish. "Flood" came out in 2017, and my next book comes out probably next year, 2021. And I wrote it, the second novel, about a family business of survivalist preppers who they're struggling to keep their family business alive during a recession. And I wrote this book a year ago, and it seems incredibly poignant now in the moment that we're in.
NNAMDIIndeed, it does.
YOUNGAnd yet, I don't know that I was conscious of that when I was writing it, or maybe I was.
NNAMDII think we're going to have to look out for that book, because we're out of time. Melissa Scholes-Young, thank you so much for joining us, and for this series.
YOUNGThank you, Kojo. It's an absolute pleasure.
NNAMDIYohanca Delgado, thank you so much for joining us.
DELGADOThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIThis segment on D.C. women writers in the "Furious Gravity" literary series was produced by Julia Depenbrock. Our conversation about local theaters was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up tomorrow, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam talks about reopening the Commonwealth and what that means for Northern Virginia.
NNAMDIThen Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich discusses remaining under a stay-at-home order and the financial toll the virus has taken on the county. Plus, what to know about requesting your absentee ballot in D.C. That's all coming up tomorrow, at noon. I should have mentioned that American University holds the broadcast license for WAMU, and that's where Melissa Scholes-Young works. But, coming up tomorrow at noon, The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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