Friday, July 8, 2016

Peace is at the Beach

Temperatures have soared in Chicago, and so it's fitting that my beach article appeared on kveller today. The idea for it occurred to me many years ago while sprawled on a beach towel, running the fine Chicago beach sand through my fingers. (Side note: You can make good on an idea many years later!)

Even with three boisterous kids, there was a certain calm that descended upon me once we were settled at the beach. The kids would happily dig away, and I had some blissful moments to myself, lying there in the sand, letting the constant swoosh of the waves wash over me.

Happy summer everyone!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Xi'an Muslim Quarter

Perhaps because, unlike sites like the Terracotta Warriors (which had been my number one China bucket list item--photos soon!), I had no preconceptions, no one else's images in my head of what it would be like. Xi'an used to be the eastern end of the Silk Road trading route, and during the reign of more tolerant dynasties, such as the Ming (14th - 17th century), an Islamic but Sinicized community established itself in Xi'an. Today, about 20,000 Muslims live in this quarter of the old city of Xi'an.

We found ourselves strolling through Xian's Muslim Quarter at the end of a long day of touring, having already seen the Terracotta Warriors in the morning and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Xi'an's Great City Wall in the afternoon. Thankfully, I had agreed with our guide that yes, even though we were tired, we did want to visit the Muslim Quarter.

According to my writer acquaintance Wenguang Huang, author of The Little Red Guard, who grew up in Xi'an, the Muslim Quarter is the only neighborhood within the old city walls that is still mostly original and hasn't been destroyed by massive development yet.

Oh, the characters! Sipping soup, pulling candy, frying tofu, giggling, pouting.

Cooking and eating Xi'an's signature dish, Paomo, a stew of pulled steamed bread, topped with chunks of lamb. 

By the way, even during China's terrible Cultural Revolution, when much of China's ancient culture was uprooted and destroyed, and traditional religious practices were outlawed, the Muslim community had special dispensation to be able to abide by their Halal dietary laws of slaughtering. These days, fake food is a problem in Chinese restaurants, and thus Muslim restaurants with their stricter food laws are popular because they are considered safer.

After the teeming food market, the dry goods market in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter was almost deserted, much unlike the dry goods markets in the Old City of Jerusalem.

And then, the magical peace of Xi'an's Great Mosque, which was also so very unlike any of the mosques I've visited in the Middle East. Dating back to 742, the architecture visible today is from the late Ming period (16th and 17th century). Its entrance gate was built in 1600-16.

The Great Mosque in Xi'an is a Chinese pagoda-style courtyard garden, a peaceful oasis in the midst of this otherwise crowded quarter jostling with old and new.

At the end of the courtyard, there is the mosque itself, i.e. the prayer hall, which I only recognized as such because of the carpets spread inside and the Arabic writing here and there.

Prayer carpets

Just outside the mosque, the impossible high heels on the old pavement, and the kids absorbed in their electronic devices and the sheer visual overload of the shops.

I wrap up this photo essay of the Xi'an Muslim Quarter with my second favorite photo in this series, a Great Mosque wall detail. (My favorite shot is this post's title photo of the old man.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Insights from Judging a Writing Contest

I just wrapped up serving as one of the judges in the Hemingway Shorts contest sponsored by the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, and I thought I'd share some of the insights I came away with:
  1. Don't start your story with a weather report unless the weather is the main topic. This is my number one pet peeve from having judged this contest! About 80% of the stories submitted began with a weather report, and about 95% of them had nothing to do with the weather. Beginning with the weather is not the way to distinguish your work from a pile of submissions. Weather reports are boring, so even if the weather is the topic, get on with it.
  2. Have your protagonist appear in your first paragraph. Readers relate to people, not things. Ditto the weather issue. If I couldn't figure out who this story is about by the first paragraph, chances are I didn't read on.
  3. Too many actors spoil the story. A short story is, after all, short! Too many characters diffuse the action and tension, plus your reader gets easily confused if there are a lot of names to follow. It's another way to lose the reader's attention, and a contest judge has to pay attention to a lot of stories. If yours makes this hard, it's not going to happen.
  4. Mind your grammar, word choice, and spelling. Errors in any of these resulted in prompt rejection. By definition, a writing contest is looking for the best writing in a given genre, and the best writing does not contain errors. While spelling errors weren't prevalent, I was astounded by the number of entries that had obvious language issues, such as using "attendance" when "attending" should have been used. Have someone else read your work before you submit, as those are the kind of errors the writer will easily miss.
  5. Keep to the word limit. Entries above the word limit were immediately deleted. While I didn't come across many of these, there were still some.
  6. Submit early. Judges have to begin reading submissions before the deadline because of the sheer volume. A lot of submissions do come in right before the deadline, but a judge will also simply get tired from reading the flood and might have already settled, in his or her heart, on the top choices.

    It was great to be back in the Hemingway Birthplace
    Home; this time to sit in the library and make the final
    selections in the Hemingway Shorts contest with my
    fellow judge, current writer-in-residence David W. Berner.

  7. Stay away from imitating a famous writer's work. Because this was a "Hemingway" contest, we received a bunch of submissions that either featured Hemingway himself, or used one of his stories as a template, or mentioned his work. We didn't like any of these; they came across as gimmicky and forced. 
  8. Avoid war stories. We had too many of those and because of point 3., most of those didn't work. This prevalence of war stories might again have been due to the "Hemingway" name, so one lesson here, to distinguish your work from the pile, might be to consider what clichés travel with the contest you're submitting to and how you can counteract that. 
  9. A female point-of-view or a younger person's point-of-view are rare, and well written stories with those POVs are even rarer. Again, the folks submitting to a short story contest with the "Hemingway" name attached to it might have been a preselect group, so take this with a grain of salt, but still, if your stories feature these POVs, you might be in the minority. This doesn't mean you have to be a woman to write from this POV. In fact, the winning entry featured a female protagonist but turned out to be written by a man. 
  10. Rejection is easy. There weren't that many stories I read to the end. If a story piqued my interest in the first paragraph, I kept on reading and, if it had my attention by the third or fourth, it at least ended up in the "maybe" pile. 
  11. Coming up with a winner wasn't hard. We judges were surprised that we instantly agreed on the most outstanding story. It had the most unique point-of-view, expertly executed. Choosing the ten finalists that would be published in the first Hemingway Shorts anthology along with the winner was harder. Presenting a variety of voices and topics became the decisive factors in making our selection, and we did have to let some good stories go.
  12. Judging a writing contest takes less time than you think. When I agreed, as a former writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home, to judge this contest, I expected it to be a huge time commitment. It wasn't. As outlined in points 2-5, I ended up not having to read all of the submissions that came my way. My job was, after all, to weed out.
I hope some of my insights here are helpful if you're considering submitting to a writing contest. Going by my experience, if your work is polished, adheres to the guidelines, has a beginning, a middle and an end as well as a narrative thread that pulls through, chances are you will make the first cut.

For me judging this contest was a refreshing experience and a wonderful way to engage with literature in the making. It was also lovely to be able to make a few writers happy by recognizing their work.