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Pieces of a torn up story. Later, I reconstructed it.

When he was thirty, artist Richard Kehl said he burned everything he’d ever done. All his artwork—up in flames. Not only was it liberating to burn things, it was the only way to see with “beginner’s eyes”—and we must always see with beginners eyes, he said.

As someone who saves just about every draft of everything she writes, this struck me with both horror and seductive intrigue. I wondered what would happen if I burned all my many boxes of papers—drafts of poems, stories and novels, and in some cases, the original works themselves. But I couldn’t imagine ever doing it. What if I lost something vital in there that would never return to me? But, too, what if these kept boxes were keeping me from moving into deeper, richer territory as a writer?

In a KUOW interview, novelist Jonathan Evison talked about how he buried his first novel attempts. He wouldn’t disclose burial location or anything about these novels, only indicated that they were really bad and that they needed to be buried, rather than another method of destruction. He found the effect cathartic, clearing the way for his first published novel.

Sandra Cisneros, when asked at a reading in Seattle what advice she’d give a beginning writer, said that one should write the truth, write all the things one doesn’t want to write or even think about, then tear the papers up into tiny little pieces—eat them, burn them, or let them float down the river.

Tempting as that is, I find myself grateful for those writers who at least kept some of their raw drafts. To see their processes, mistakes, bad lines and titles is comforting. Even those considered our very best have often begun on shaky footing. I remember seeing an exhibition at the National Library in Dublin of W. B. Yeats’s early drafts of poems and feeling heartened by his struggles to find the right word or line. He began by failing.

Early drafts are also works of art in their own right, with marginalia and strikethroughs and rewrites between the lines. I love seeing the draft destroyed with ink and reconstructed anew, constantly shape-shifting to find its true self. It’s enough to keep me creating, writing—and seeing with “beginner’s eyes.”

Dan Smith and Claudio Sotolongo find a poster by Darwin Fornés in a shop in La Habana.

Dan Smith and Claudio Sotolongo find a poster by Darwin Fornés in a shop in La Habana.

I’d never really written an article before, and as I was writing what became “The Miracle of Saint Lazarus” in the Seattle Weekly, I found it a challenge to stick to the truth. What is the truth, anyway? We are constantly reinventing what we saw, what we heard, what really happened. Thankfully, I kept crazy notes and we recorded interviews and conversations, and my friend Dan took over 4,000 photographs—so usually there was something I could check my writing against. I was amazed how many things I did get wrong. I mixed up who said what, the colors of shirts and locations in Havana; a coconut shell became a baseball cap. It made me question all my memories, all the things I absorbed as truth, and made me wonder—did any of it really happen that way? Likely not.

In an article, as in memory or in the many stories that make up our lives, events and details are arranged in a way that makes a better story, not necessarily how they happened in life. Some details are brought out while others are tossed into the ditch altogether, and moments and meetings with people that stretched out over days are strung into one narrative.

But what I found most fascinating about writing a piece of non-fiction is that while the story seems to live in a frame, its tendrils are already extending out of that frame almost as soon as it’s written, seeking new soil, new stories. It’s a living, breathing being that has its own life.

In the time between the publication of the article in mid-February and now, designer Idania del Río’s shop Clandestina finally opened; designer and tattoo artist Roberto Ramos opened a tattoo poster exhibition, and designer Darwin Fornés is moving forward with a new exhibition of posters for the Havana Biennale, a collaboration with designers from Seattle and from Havana, partially inspired by the Seattle Weekly article. This exhibition, he wrote in an email from Havana, will consist of cartoon characters from the US (which in the past were seen by the Cuban government as a dangerous ideological influence) and cartoon characters of Cuba. He said that “all of them together will look like a only one looong poster, like el malecon habanero.” They are working hard, he added, to get official permission to post the posters in some public spaces—which is a really big deal.

So Cuban artists, too, keep pushing themselves and their art out of their frames. The story never ends—it only keeps expanding.

In January, longtime friend, curator, and graphic designer Daniel R. Smith and I went to Havana, Cuba, to talk with poster designers.  After 7 interviews, 2 print shop visits, and a tour of Havana’s Superior Institute of Design (ISDI), we collaborated on this article for the Seattle Weekly. There is so much more to say about Havana, but for now, let the article speak for part of our experience there.

10974322_922081331157635_4952943626972035777_o-194x300Tonight I’ll be taking a break from book editing and will be reading as part of Old Growth Northwest’s Reading and Open Mic series at the Rendezvous Jewelbox Theater in Seattle at 7pm.  I’ll be opening up for Doug Nufer (check out his self-interview in The Believer Logger) and Michelle Peñaloza (a fellow Poetry on the Busses poet).  Though the poster for the event is reminiscent of a boxing match, I won’t be fighting them.  At least, if they try to fight me I won’t fight back.  We’re just all going to get along instead.

Me with my agent, Dean Cooke, and the Editorial Director at HarperCollins at the prize announcement

Left to right:  My agent, Dean Cooke, me, and Jennifer Lambert, the Editorial Director at HarperCollins, at the prize announcement on Granville Island. (Photo: UBC Creative Writing)

At the Vancouver Writers Festival they shortened the shortlist and announced the winner of the UBC/HarperCollins Canada Prize for Best New Fiction. And guess what?   It’s me.

This is an incredible honor. This means that not only do I have an agent, but I also have a book deal with HarperCollins Canada. The book is slated to come out in Spring 2016.

I wrote this novel as my thesis for the MFA degree at the University of British Columbia seven years ago, and it’s amazing to me that it has finally found a home. There’s lots of work ahead—I have just begun digging into the editing process—but I’m excited for the chance to work on this book again, to make it the best it possibly can be.

Below are the judges’ comments on the novel:

Chelsea Bolan’s In the Place of Silence is a compelling and vibrant novel set in contemporary Mexico, where old paternalistic customs still hold sway. When a young girl is banished from her home, the reverberations are deeply felt in an already fractured family. Bolan portrays, with deft skill, a mother’s anguish, a sister’s desperate search and a father’s hypocrisy, alternating these distinctive narrative voices to build toward an ultimate revelation. Moving from the shiny resort towns of the coast to the most dangerous streets of Mexico City to the furtive, undocumented lives of illegal immigrants over the American border, In the Place of Silence is an engaging, beautifully realized novel, and a fascinating exploration of betrayal, steadfast devotion, and the ways in which our own biases can harm what—and who—we love the most.

 

Incredible news!  The manuscript for my first novel, In the Place of Silence, has been shortlisted for the HarperCollins Canada/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction.  It’s been seven years since I wrote the book as my Master’s thesis in grad school, and the possibility of it finally getting out into the world seems extraordinary to me.  We’ll see what happens:  The winner will be announced on October 24.

Borderlands_40Out of Austin, Texas, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review has released issue Number 40—and I’m honored to have one of my poems, “Let Them Light,” be a part of it. This issue, as well as my poem, is all about loss. We are always losing, every moment of our lives, whether it’s someone we love or something we hoped for, or the small failures of every single day. The poems in here confirm this. But they also reveal what can be gained or recovered—be it beauty, a quiet revelation, or something simply appreciated. Thus the meditative photographs of agave by Joel Salcido, documenting tequila production in Mexico, to help assuage the loss.