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Meet Jessica Yen, 2022 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2022 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected nine writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each.  Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2023 OLF applications will open in May 2022. The deadline to apply is Friday, August 5, 2022.

Jessica Yen is a Chinese American author whose work explores the intersection of memory, family, culture, language, and history. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Oregon Humanities, and Best American Travel Writing, among others. She is currently working on a memoir. By day, she writes grants for safety net clinics and edits academic manuscripts for scholars seeking to address health inequities.

Category: Women Writers Fellowship – Nonfiction


Q&A with Literary Arts

Who are some writers you look up to or who move you to write?
I loved Kiese Laymon and Alexander Chee’s essay collections. I so admire Min-Jin Lee and Tommy Orange and Amor Towles for building incredible worlds that pull me in. Andrew X Pham and Eddie Huang and Jade Chang gave me books where I could see parts of my experience reflected in their stories. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking moved me to my core, though having since become a parent and spouse, I don’t think I could read that right now, I’d feel too raw.

What are your sources of inspiration? Of joy?
I think a lot about place, identity, race and culture, family legacies, the systems that shape our lives. Reading almost always inspires me out of a writing slump, especially reading omnivorously across genre – mysteries! middle grade! science fiction and fantasy! memoir! fiction! Yes, please. Joys are often simple ones, my daughter toddler-running down the street with a basket in her hand, sharing an ice cream sandwich with my husband as the sun sets, a good conversation with a friend, standing beneath tall trees.

How would you describe your creative process?
Often I am inspired by a place, an image, a specific moment, even a mood. From there, the joy is as much in trying to capture the essence of the moment, as it is in unraveling why that opening inspiration struck me so deeply. Quite often, musing on the source of this resonance leads me to unexpected places, and then it becomes a puzzle how to pull everything together. Sometimes I have to step away from a piece for a year or longer before I can finally see what it’s about. I can be impatient, so it’s hard to wait that long! But as they say (who exactly I can’t remember, maybe this is just what I say to myself), your process is your process. So I make it up to myself by having several things going at once … maybe too many.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
The recognition and external validation are nice, especially in an industry where rejection is so much a part of the game. When I’m stuck in a piece and feel certain it is never, ever going to work, it’s nice to point myself back to this fellowship, to remind myself that I’ve been lost in plenty of pieces and found my way through. Also, the possibility of connecting with more Oregon writers!

What are you currently working on?
I’m currently toggling between two memoirs. One examines the world of high achieving Asian Americans, and the process of breaking free of the worldview that raised you. The other examines parenthood, race, gender, and identity. I also have a family of fictional characters that I adore, and have been lightly dipping into their world.

What has kept you writing through the pandemic? Has your process changed? Has the content changed?
I became a new parent right at the start of the pandemic, and those two huge events crystallized for me just how important a semi-regular writing practice is to me. I think parenthood has a way of stripping away a lot of the BS, and then the pandemic asked a lot of us to question what was really important. That said, I am trying to be more patient and generous with myself in the times when I inevitably can’t devote the time or energy I’d like to writing.

Up until last fall, I found myself writing a lot of flash nonfiction, which I had never really done before. I went from writing mammoth essays to zeroing in on one image or moment, maybe as a reflection of new parenthood’s fractured quality but also how much I could focus on with everything going on in the world. Finally, last fall, 18 months into both pandemic and parenting, I was able to find the brain space to restructure and revise one of my manuscripts.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
 For the fellowship itself – keep applying! The judges change every year and you never know how your writing will resonate.

Beyond that, find other writers who get what you’re doing. Writers who don’t get it can show you the gaps, the questions outstanding, the knowledge you hold that’s not yet on the page. Be gentle with yourself (I need this advice for myself), embrace how much compost some projects need. Reading, thinking about, researching, immersing yourself in music or movies or music that embody the tone of your work – those all count as writing process.

Any book (or movie, show, album, etc. ) recommendations?
Tomas Moniz’s Big Familia – generous, warm, funny, this novel lit me up and wrapped me in a warm cocoon during the early days of the pandemic.

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman’s Heir to the Crescent Moon – a fascinating look at a second generation Black Muslim coming to terms with family, legacy, religion, race.

Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia – hilarious and insightful essay collection about growing up Desi and queer in Appalachia.

Linda Rui Feng’s Swimming Back to Trout River – what a lush dazzling read that pulled me straight in and never broke the spell, I seriously never wanted this to end, follows four characters through the Cultural Revolution to their lives after.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK Jemisin – after I read this, I thought: no really, why bother writing anything at all? (but in the best possible way) This series is perfection.


Excerpt from RED EGG AND GINGER

The day my daughter is vacuumed out of the birth canal, gatherings in Oregon are restricted to 25 people. Students start day one of distance learning. The White House urges all Americans to avoid discretionary travel and social visits. A mysterious virus circulates the globe. Symptoms, transmission, location: unknown.

            Two days later, when the husband and I leave the hospital, we emerge to barren roads. A bus glides by carrying zero passengers. We drive entire city blocks without seeing another car. The sky is a piercing blue, but we can see no pedestrians out for a brisk walk, no cyclists zipping into downtown for a quick errand.

            What happened while we were in there? we say, over and over. We’d shut off our phones to focus on meeting our child; we do not know that bars and restaurants have been limited to takeout and delivery. Instead we ask each other, how much could we possibly have missed?

The husband’s fingers clench the steering wheel. Whether this is due to the eerie emptiness or to the sudden responsibility for the new life dozing in the car seat, I cannot say.

We hoist the car seat up one flight of stairs and collapse in our living room. I stare, dazed, at this tiny grub of a human. Her mop of black hair, so thick the obstetrician worried the vacuum would not stick, is plastered against her skull in chunky, matted strands. If you look closely, which I try not to do too often, you can see bits of placenta crusted into the strands. Just like that, we are the ones responsible for cleaning those out. I know we’ll manage, although when and how I cannot begin to fathom, nor do I yet have any inkling just how alone we will be.


Judge’s Comments

“There’s an impressive balance of humor, mortal terror, and deep tenderness in Jessica Yen’s memoir of giving birth for the first time at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Layered over her experience of postpartum isolation is that of navigating the world as a Chinese-American amidst rising anti-Asian racism; and the broken state of American healthcare. Her sentences crackle with warmth and irony, and frank honesty, generously delivering the bodily truth of what it feels like to bond with your own child, and what it takes to support life in all of its fraught and entangled beauty.”

– Sarah Gerard

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