LENOX — In a memoir, children are rolling out naan dough for flatbread in an American kitchen, 7,500 miles from the city where their parents were born. In a novel, Catholic sisters in a convent are investigating wonder and the shape of their God. In poems, a Chinese American vision of past and strength and future takes root with the regenerative scope of speculative fiction.
“We are planets / and the contours of our breath are pulling a new milky way across the sky and no one / races for the exit at the last song / We open our mouths like drinking rain and no one wears heels / on this dance floor …”
Cat Wei invokes the energy of a summer night. This week, she and Parvati Ramchandani and Mario Giannone are writing in Edith Wharton’s innermost rooms. They have come to The Mount on a raw almost-spring day as writers in residence — three of the nine who will come in March, as part of the 2023 Edith Wharton-Straw Dog Writers-in-Residence program, a collaboration with the Straw Dog Writers Guild, a nonprofit in Northampton.
Wei is looking for quiet time here, she said as the three gathered on their first day in Lenox, sitting in a top-floor room up the hall from desk where Wharton wrote letters and the chamber where she jotted rough drafts in bed.
Wei and Giannone and Ramchandani want space to think uninterrupted, they said. Wei is a poet and essayist working in healthcare in Brooklyn, N.Y., and quiet can be rare. She is working on a collection of poems here, on family, lineage, friendship and community.
Ramchandani has found a new confidence in storytelling, she said. She is a radiologist and professor emerita from UPenn, and she has always enjoyed writing informally, narrative essays and short fiction. But coming into this residency has shifted something internally for her.
“When you have another career, it’s hard to … think of yourself as a writer,” she said. “It sounds bombastic.”
Coming here, she is taking her early steps into a memoir centered around food, exploring her experiences of moving between continents and cultures.
Giannone brings an ongoing project with him, and a substantial background in fiction. He is revising a novel that centers on a community of nuns, religious sisters, he explained.
As a catalyst, they are wrestling with the possibility that one of them has had a miraculous experience, and questioning what that may mean, in their faith, their relationships with God and each other, and a world wider than their observation.
The book comes to him in part from 10 years of Catholic school, he said. And he wants to approach it broadly, with a sense of empathy. Most writers today who work with the idea of miracles come from a place of secular doubt, and he is coming from a direction he finds more interesting, not satirical or parodic, more serious and more human.
He holds an MFA in creative writing from Cornell, where he has taught creative writing and composition, and he teaches writing now for Johns Hopkins Universityʼs Center for Talented Youth and has served as an assistant fiction editor for Epoch Magazine. Here, he said, he will see what happens as he gets into the ritual of daily writing.
Writing is often solitary, Wei said, and she values community and connection in programs like this. In Greenwich Village, N.Y., she organizes the East Village Poetry Salon, a reading series that centers on female, queer and trans poets of color.
They began on a quiet day, walking through the neighborhood, when she found a sign for a "creative community garden." On 6th Avenue between buildings, she said, a gate opened into a quiet green space with a willow tree that seemed made to hold poetry events.
On warm evenings, the group will gather and move the wooden garden benches into rows, and poets will read aloud.
In her own work, she often weaves family stories. Wei left China with her parents when she was three, she said. She grew up in Germany as a child and then the U.S., and she feels an empty space in her knowledge of the past.
Her parents, in their generation, wanted to leave behind pain and trauma, and she knows they can find it hard to speak openly about their experiences, but as an adult she has a deep desire to know more about her roots.
“It’s impossible not to wonder what kind of lineage you come from,” she said.
And so she imagines and fills in the past …
“We’ve heard the stories about days on dirt roads,
selling radishes from carts, catching frogs in the mud.
“We’ve heard about roof hidings, staying silent when the guards come through,
red, at the struggle, closing their eyes. …”
She looks ahead, imagining possibilities and dreams in her own life, thinking about how she wants to be a writer in the world. And in her writing, she creates new connections within her family.
“Before the pandemic I had gone back to China,” she said. “I wanted to ask my grandparents more about their experiences.”
“… My dad has two PhDs in the sciences, and he started writing poetry a couple of years after I did. My mother says my grandfather wrote plays. He was a schoolmaster. … I’m shaping the life I get to create.”
Ramchandani understands some of those challenges, she said, in her own generation. She and her husband have also worked to make a life here. They both graduated medical school in Delhi, and he wanted to practice abroad.
She was happy in India and close to her family, but she came with him. They have been married since 1975 — she had known him since high school, since they were 13.
“When we came, we had to make a choice,” she said. “Did we want to live in a community of mostly Indian American families, or did we want to integrate.”
They chose a diverse urban neighborhood, she said, and growing up her children did not have many Indian American friends. They felt the loss at times, as they negotiated their own relationships with this country, especially after 9/11, when they faced a new kind of hostility from white peers.
“There are trade-offs either way,” Wei said. “[You have to decide] what being American means means to you — not what other people assume it means, but what you choose. That’s why I started the salon, as a place where people of color can get together and share stories and hang out.”
The way other people identify her may be American and may not, she said. She has felt treated differently always. And so writing becomes a place to create her own identity, as expansive and warm and cosmic as she wants to make it.
“It’s hard to move between worlds,” Giannone said.
His family on his father’s side came to America in the 1800s, and his mother’s family came later, from the north of Italy by an unusual route, through the American South. They were tricked into becoming tenant farmers in Louisiana, he said, when landowners were looking for cheap labor after the Civil War.
His mother’s family has stories of escaping in the night after his mother’s grandfather’s father died and coming north, eventually to New Jersey.
In her nascent memoir, Ramchandani looks toward her warmest and happiest times. She remembers cooking in the kitchen with her husband, a great cook himself — her kids making naan, rolling out the dough for flatbreads.
She remembers them when they were young, falling asleep on her friends’ laps while the adults sat around the table and talked. And she looks across continents today, asking how to hold onto a sense of home.
IF YOU GO
Tea at Edith's Place
What: A pop-up conversation to plan the WriteAngles Writers Conference with Patricia Pin and Liz Bedell. The Mount and Straw Dog Writers Guild invite you to share your ideas and suggestion for the new and re-imagined WriteAngles Writers Conference.
When: 1 p.m. Sunday, March 26
Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox
Admission: Free, but space is limited. RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org
Information: edithwharton.org, strawdogwriters.org
2023 Edith Wharton-Straw Dog Writers Guild Writers-in-Residence
The writing residency is a collaboration between The Mount and Straw Dog Writers Guild. During the month of March, each of these nine writers-in-residence will spend five days writing at The Mount.
Selected from 427 applicants, this year's winners are: