An Interview with 2017 Eliza So Fellowship Winner, Melissa Sipin

03/15/2018


The deadline for Submittable’s 2018 Eliza So Fellowship is just under two weeks away on Sunday, March 25 and we are eager to begin reviewing this year’s submissions. While waiting for the remaining applications to pour in, we talked with last year’s winner, Melissa Sipin, to catch up and find out what the fellowship meant to her, how her work has progressed since then, and what her writing process looks like.

Check out last year’s winner announcement for more information on Sipin’s book project. To submit or find more information on the Eliza So Fellowship, visit a recent blog post with this year’s details.

When did you first begin writing? Do you remember the first piece of fiction you wrote?

When I began writing, at the adorable age of five years old, I wrote as every child did: for expression. I penned my first nonfiction essay for a class assignment and entitled it “I’m So Only.” It was a typo. I was supposed to write, “I’m So Lonely.” I was supposed to write a cute class essay about how much my parents loved me. Instead, I infused my childish pangs of missing my birthmother, Mercy, onto the page. I wrote over and over again: I’m So Only. It was my first creative nonfiction essay ever, the first time I tried to use expression to translate the brooding storm within.

When my father read it, he laughed. At its cuteness. Its honesty. Its repetition. To this day, I hold this essay, this memory, as a badge of honor. I wonder if my paternal grandmother, my adoptive mother, thought this—I’m so only—during the Second World War. She was the wife of a guerrilla fighter, a major in the joint Philippine–American army in Northern Luzon. Because of this, she was captured—she was confined in a makeshift garrison, in a room for over six months, a room that was not her own, a room where she gave birth in captivity: I’m So Only.

To be honest, when I was a kid, my biggest dream was to become an animator. I didn’t want to be a writer; I didn’t think someone like me could become one—only because writing was suspect, writing was too revealing, writing was confession, and my family didn’t do well with confessions. Because I was born in America, Japanese anime, for the first time, showed me characters who had the same color of hair as me. I saw myself mirrored in the shows I watched: Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Fushigi Yugi, Shadow Skill, Inuyasha.

But, I wanted to draw anime characters who looked like my sister and me, who wore Sailor Moon skirts and had wands that fought bad guys. I never wanted to write a novel about the war, about how my family survived it. Because I didn’t know about what we survived, what my grandmother had to do to live, who my grandfather—a war hero—fought on the mountain ranges of Bessang Pass. My family doesn’t talk about these things not because we can’t, it’s because trauma is hard. When you live trauma, embody it, feel it in your bones, your blood—it’s not easy to recount what one did just to get by. You’re proof of it: your body is. That you survived.

How has your book project evolved in the last year? Have you made any discoveries that have affected the direction of the manuscript?

The biggest, and most important change is that it is appearing in my mind brighter and brighter, clearer and clearer. I see it: it’s all in my head, I explain to people. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. After five years of writing, honing my craft, attending an MFA program, and researching and interviewing my familial histories, I finally know the plot of my novel — what I want my novel to say, what I want to say through my novel. That is huge.

I am not the kind of writer who writes and writes and writes until she has a massive block of text and can whittle it down into a form (like a sculptor). I wished I were that kind of writer. I’m a writer who thinks a lot, who must live a lot, who must map and draw and think and read and research and sleep and dream and write and map and write and workshop, workshop, workshop. So, I always tell people: I’m almost there. To be honest, I just need more time, space, and freedom to write the damn thing. And that’s hard to do when you’re a writer teaching and creating at the same time.

What did it mean for you to receive the Eliza So fellowship?

It meant the world to me. When I got the call, I was on my way to therapy and got to my weekly appointment happily late. To be honest, I was utterly shocked. I was like—are you sure? My work? My strange, strange work? I think what it meant to me was that despite hearing over and over again in workshop or from other writers that my work is too poetic sometimes to be prose, I felt validated that it was readers (the folx who read my manuscript and eventually chose it were those who worked at Submittable) who found my work interesting and enthralling. That meant the world to me.

It is risky work to believe that your familial stories matter. Also, to hear that I won a fellowship named after Asta So’s mother, a hard-working immigrant who sacrificed so much to give her offspring a better life in America, meant the world to me too — especially because I’m writing this book for my grandmother and for the unknown dead who were never able to tell their stories during WWII. As I’ve been writing it, I have felt closer and closer to my grandmother than ever before.

What was it like to work at The Writer’s Block?

It was wonderful. To be given time and space to write, research, and work alone is a gift. I was lucky because I also had familia who lived in Las Vegas, and it was a rare treat for me to see my family after a long day’s work. It was also inspiring to take a walk across the street to The Writer’s Block and feel inspired by the quaint and quirky bookshop. Overall, it was a beautiful experience.

The Writer’s Block

Were you able to make a lot of progress with the time and resources allowed by the Eliza So Fellowship?

Yes, definitely. I think the greatest thing was that the Eliza So Fellowship helped me identify the reason I was penning this novel. Although I believe the stories of the WWII “Comfort Women,” which are incredibly varied, nuanced, and difficult to swallow, are more imperative than ever to be remembered, mourned, and to learn from (especially during the Trump administration, where the bodily rights of women are endangered and threatened with each passing legislation), I discovered during this residency that I was not just writing for myself, it was not just to “witness” and “mourn” my family’s painful past. I was also writing for my nephews and niece who live in Las Vegas.

When I would have difficult days of researching and writing about the mass rape the “Comfort Women” suffered during the war—something my grandmother, to the silence of my family, suffered—I would visit my family. My sister’s children reminded me that my work would be nothing without them. I am not writing to exploit my family’s past. There’s something that the poet Bao Phi once said that deeply resonates in me: “When you can no longer tell / if you’re liberating yourself through expression / or selling your oppression.”

I realized at this residency, which is named after an Asian American immigrant, that the power of writing is found in what you must say, no matter what, that only you can say. I do not think it is coincidence that I discovered this at this particular and special residency that honors an Asian American immigrant’s years of labor and love. During my reading at The Writer’s Block, it was the very first time my family attended one of my readings. It was the hardest and most terrifying reading I’ve experienced, despite the fact that I’ve read in rooms with over 100 people in them. I was terrified what my sister, who is the one person that I truly want validation from, because what I suffered in childhood is what we suffered through together, would think. I believe it was the first time my sister saw me in a different light—her younger, emotional, sometimes overwrought sister.

I can’t tell you how much that has healed or pushed my writing. A waterfall was opened within me after the Eliza So Fellowship. I can’t thank Submittable enough for gifting me this unique and groundbreaking kind of way to write—in a hot desert where, at night, all the city’s secrets are on the streets without abandon. That’s why I loved this residency so much—I love Vegas so much, for its audacity, for always being unabashedly itself. Just to be in an environment such as this is inspiring for a writer.

Melissa Sipin reading at the Writer’s Block/Eliza So Reading

What compels you to write? Are you working on any new projects?

Everything compels me to write. I’m mainly focused on my novel, but I’m also focused on writing essays on the WWII “Comfort Women” and the Rape of Nanking, and how these two historical events are intricately tied together.

Who are you reading? What authors are you particularly excited about?

My books-to-read list is never ending. I’m reading a lot of WWII novels based in the Philippines, research books on the “Comfort Women,” the Rape of Nanking, intergenerational trauma, etc. etc. Scholarly and theory-based books like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and Iris Chang’s seminal book, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.” I’m also reading a lot of historical books I borrowed from UC Berkeley’s library on the Northern Luzon guerrillas during the war. Finding small snippets of my grandfather—Major Diego Sipin—in these dusty, old books has been exhilarating.

In terms of fiction, here’s what’s on my bookshelf: Sabina Murray’s The Caprices, Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Three Apples Fall From Heaven, M. Evelian Galang’s Lola’s House: Filipino Women Living with War, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not The Heart (forthcoming in April 2018), Laleh Khadivi’s A Good Country, Nick Joaquin’s The Woman With Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, and a series of books on Philippine myths and folktales.

I’m watching a lot films, too, for research. I’m excited about all these books—I have a wide taste when it comes to literature—and I’m really looking forward to picking up Apostol’s forthcoming novel, Insurrecto, and Marcom’s The New American (I just ate up her recent book The Brick House, a stunningly strange and dreaming book that swallows you up). I’m also particularly excited about Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not The Heart. It’s a fierce, overarching book that recalls Carlos Bulosan’s classic America Is In The Heart. The current fiction coming from many Filipino American writers is astounding and exciting. Go read her starred review in Publisher’s Weekly here.

Do you have any advice to share about fellowships in general (how to structure the time, get the most out of it, etc.)?

My main advice: discover how you write best. All of us need a certain routine to produce work; remember that at a residency, producing and researching is what you’re there for. Make sure to bring all the research books you need. Make sure there’s a printer. Start your day right: yoga, breakfast, a shower, the works. Take a walk if you need to. Do what’s best for you. Write without thinking someone’s gonna read it. Write with a free mind and heart. Then go back and kill your darlings, like the old adage commands.

Remember that you are at that fellowship or residency because you were meant to be there. Remember who you are writing for, and write like hell, because the finish line is where you make it, and there are no stopwatches or clocks (advice Junot Díaz once gave me). Take your time, be kind to yourself, and overall, hold contradicting truths together: write with all the ambition in the world, and write like no one will ever read your work. The truth is many people are waiting for your book, but there’s no rush to produce it. Write because you need to, because only you can say what you have to say, and the rest, with hard work and a lot of luck, will fall into place.

Applications for the 2018 Eliza So Fellowship will be open until March 25, 2018.

Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won Submittable’s Eliza So Fellowship (2017), Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open (2013), the Washington Square Review’s Flash Fiction Prize (2014), and was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Prize (2017) and shortlisted for the 2017 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award (2017). She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on Philippine myths (Carayan Press 2014), and her work is in SalonSlice MagazineBitch MediaBlack Warrior ReviewPrairie Schooner, Guernica MagazineSlice Literary MagazinePEN/Guernica Flash SeriesVIDA: Women in Literary ArtsEleven Eleven Magazine, and Amazon’s literary journal Day One, among others. Cofounder of TAYO Literary Magazine, her fiction has won scholarships and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Poets & Writers Inc., Kundiman, VONA/Voices Conference, Squaw Valley’s Community of Writers, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and is represented by Sarah Levitt at Aevitas Creative Management. She is hard at work on a novel on her grandmother’s capture in WWII Philippines.

Grace Hulderman

Grace Hulderman lives in Missoula, MT and works as a designer and marketing coordinator at Submittable. She is also a graphic artist and poet. You can view her work here: ghulderman.com/