Zoom has been a godsend during this era of social distancing, but what about the less de rigueur ways to stay safe and connected? Here’s an old-fangled idea, thanks to the Austin-based literary journal American Short Fiction: postcards. ASF is conducting what they’re calling a Constellation Challenge for the month of November to “strengthen the invisible threads that connect us.”
Participants receive a set of 28 limited-edition postcards through the mail, with a writing prompt emailed each day. Ideas range from writing a postcard to some mythical place to writing a postcard for the loneliest version of you. Address them to others or as a note to self. Either way, you won’t need a Meeting ID to log in.
Each summer, ASF runs a reading series featuring a group of writers who are then honored in the publication’s annual fall showcase. But not this year. “Our event is called The Stars at Night,” says co-editor Rebecca Markovits. “But a constellation is still stars, just distantly connected across space.”
The Constellation Challenge, she explains, is just one more way to work around the limitations of our current time. Four writers were selected to take part in the project, each coming up with seven postcard prompts.
“Our four honorees are a small constellation of sorts as well,” says Markovits. The group includes Austin Community College’s Creative Writing Chair Charlotte Gullick, Texas native Selena Anderson, debut novelist C Pam Zhang, and internationally-acclaimed writer Jamaica Kincaid.
Anderson and I spoke about her involvement, and what she’s been up to in general as a writer (and new mom). Anderson, who grew up in Houston-adjacent Pearland, is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at San Jose State University in California. She received her PhD in Fiction at the University of Houston in 2017, an MFA at Columbia University prior to that, and her BA at the University of Texas at Austin.
Anderson’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Bomb, Fence, Kenyon Review Online, Oxford American. One of her stories will be included in the upcoming AFS issue. She is working on a novel and has recently completed a collection of short stories.
The Rona Jaffe Foundation awarded her a prize in 2019 for fiction stating that Anderson “pushes the boundaries of realism and fantasy, as she explores and interrogates the ideas of race, identity, and Black womanhood in the American South.”
In her short story “Yavush,” which appeared in Bomb issue #145, the narrator describes her soul mate at age 14 as a boy who “dressed like a girl who didn’t really love herself.” Yavush cross-dressed, seduced danger, and kissed her “to shame.” The story is a journey of belonging and not belonging, as they wander out into the woods, where he intends to raise their vibrational level and astrally project.
Anderson writes: “Yavush had been talking like that since his auntie found love on the computer and reneged on her familial obligations. In response, he purchased this dog-eared pamphlet that promised to explain how to overcome his circumstances supernaturally.”
This phrase, overcoming circumstances supernaturally, seems to succinctly articulate a quality that many of Anderson’s characters embody: a sense of magic, possibility, and power, in a world where they feel often powerless.
I emailed her about this, and other things, to which she responded with perfectly postcard-worthy replies:
Barbara Purcell: How has motherhood changed you as a writer?
Selena Anderson: My baby restores my sense of wonder at the oddest times. He’s so curious and amazed by everything. I’m blessed to be his guide. When I became a mom, my world got weirder, though it was weird to begin with. My days are fuller. I’ve become much more protective of my space and time.
BP: Any advantages to being a writer during lockdown?
SA: If you’re a writer you sort of have to deal with long term uncertainty a lot. Being stubborn and hopeful has turned out to be a plus too.
BP: Tell me about pushing boundaries of realism/fantasy, such as in your short story “Yavush.”
SA: I write about people who want to win. They are never passive especially in situations where they are not in control. They are sometimes pushed to a point where the world around them starts to peel back and reveal itself in funny ways.
BP: What have you been working on?
SA: I just finished a collection called “Tenderoni.” When I was younger I used to hear this term said in the community which referred to a young girl of the tender age. She doesn’t “have knowledge” as they say — meaning she doesn’t have sexual knowledge. For me, she just feels that she’s at a lack. She’s not looking back, you know? She glows with vulnerability.
BP: And your novel?
SA: It’s about a newlywed who makes a doll of herself. It’s a matter of self preservation. But then she loses the doll, and as other people in the town find or hear about it, they come up with their own stories and explanations. It reaches a point to where the girl has to come forward and claim her doll.
BP: What was you experience like in the University of Houston’s newly minted Fiction PhD program?
SA: I loved the program. I had a very positive experience. My professors were so wise and supportive. I found that the program really celebrated several different aesthetics — there wasn’t one school of thought. This was Donald Barthelme’s program.
BP: As a Texan who has lived in New York and California, which one resonates with you more?
SA: I miss Texas — especially during all this mess. I’m a Texas girl. My whole family is there. California is beautiful. I live right next to the Pacific Ocean. There’s a vibe here that’s a little foreign to me because everyone seems very calm. In New York the subway doors open and people start walking so fast it’s like their running from something. I don’t think New York is as isolating as they say. You get to know what people are about pretty quickly. Everyone’s trying to make a big impression.
BP: Any last thought on taking part in the Constellation Challenge?
SA: I’m honored that American Short Fiction has included me. The Constellation Challenge is a wonderful and necessary project that encourages people to reach out to one another during this time of social distancing. I can’t wait to see the prompts Jamaica Kincaid, C Pam Zhang, and Charlotte Gullick come up with.