This post was written by Communications Intern Sara Heegaard.
At Girls Write Now, we’re lucky enough to work with inspiring female authors who help show us the strength of our voices, leading us by example with their own powerful words. On October 25th, we got the chance to spend time with two of these writing role models during our craft talks: Hasanthika Sirisena and Alexandra Kleeman. Reading pieces aloud and discussing the processes in fiction writing of world building, character creating, and incorporating real-life inspiration into stories, both speakers lit sparks with their words, and mentees and mentors left each talk feeling energized for the year to come.
On a personal level, we connect to several experiences of both Sirisena and Kleeman: they’ve both laid down roots in New York City, they call many different parts of the world “home,” and even as teens, they found both refuge and exhilaration in the acts of reading and writing. What’s more: they recognize the particularly powerful role writing can play in the lives of teen girls. We were thrilled to be able to extend our conversation with both authors, discussing the relationships between home and identity, identity and writing, and writing and mentoring.
As part of a partnership with VIDA, we’re asking inspiring female writers about the books that impacted or transformed them growing up. What book do you feel most impacted you as a teen girl?
- Hasanthika Sirisena: I can’t say one book really influenced me. I read a lot as a child and a teen. It was actually my form of rebellion. I wasn’t athletic, and I didn’t have many friends. So I read and read. I loved science fiction and fantasy and maybe that’s what’s actually influenced me the most. Though I don’t write in either genre, I am obsessed with how fiction constructs worlds for a reader. That must come from all the world-building I did on my living room sofa summer afternoons when I was a teenager.
- Alexandra Kleeman: I loved books by Kurt Vonnegut, especially Breakfast of Champions–he has so much empathy for all of his characters. He might begin by talking about one character’s feelings, then move on to the needs and goals of a virus living inside that character. It was an important idea for me, that the world would be so thick with empathy and emotion and that you could be fair to the world in your writing.
How do you feel your voice has evolved since you were a teen? What helped prompt that evolution? Were there certain types of voices you admired and looked up to that inspired the growth of your own?
- AK: What I think is interesting about being a young writer is in many ways you have more voices in you than you do a while later, and later on some of the work you do as an adult writer is trying to unearth that flexibility that came naturally to you before. When you get older, you have a clearer sense of who you are, what you like, what you like your writing to sound like–and this is an evolution of the voice, but also a little bit of a loss! When I was a teen I kept a blog almost every day, and in it I’d just try all sorts of stuff out–some writing about my feelings, writing down my opinions on politics, or just making fun of stuff I saw on TV. I remember I used to read my high school biology textbook and think “this writing is really beautiful, I want to write something like this” and I’d just go home and try it, try describing a creature or making one up. So I suppose I’d encourage teenagers to think of this time as one where they have a million voices, to pay attention to them and experiment.
Hasanthika, your story, The Chief Inspector’s Daughter (Narrative) explores, among many relationships, the relationship between a father and a daughter. What made you choose to tell the story from a daughter’s perspective, rather than a son’s?
- HS: That’s easy. I had just finished spending some time in Sri Lanka and felt really impressed by how strong women are there—not just emotionally but physically. They’re tough in ways that I think would surprise a lot of Americans. I wanted to write a character who reflected that toughness.
You’ve both lived and traveled all over the world – between the two of you, you’ve had homes in Sri Lanka, Japan, London, Colorado, the American South, and New York City. How do each of these places tie into your identity and to your writing, even when you’re somewhere else?
- HS: They’re inseparable. Someone once told me if you listened closely my accent was a mishmash—but all together it sounded like a whole—but a whole that you couldn’t really place. I like that idea that you can’t really place me anywhere. Actually, I think it’s more important to me that I don’t have to claim any place—that I can move in between—that really matters to me.
- AK: I moved a lot when I was young, both within the country and overseas. One of the biggest effects of that was probably that I really connected to aspects of a place that I could also find in the next place I lived. For example, oak trees: all over the country there are oak trees, sometimes fewer, sometimes more. Those were important constants for me. Writing was the same way because it was so mobile–notebooks and printer paper were pretty much the same anywhere you went, so a blank piece of paper was always familiar and kind of like home.
Alexandra, in your story You, Disappearing (Guernica), about the apocalypse, you write, “This apocalypse disappears objects of all kinds, and it swallows memories whole too.” How does memory – or forgetting – tie into writing for you?
- AK: That story’s about an apocalypse that takes place slowly, with objects vanishing one after another–but in another way it’s all about memory. I’m interested in how memories erode, how keeping them strong and vivid takes a lot of mental work. Writing can preserve memories, but I wanted to see if I could make a metaphorical world that shows how that erosion happens.
At Girls Write Now, we believe in the power mentoring can have on the development of our voices, no matter our age or place in life. What does the word “mentor” mean to you? What have your mentors in life given you, and what do you hope to give to those you mentor?
- HS: The word mentor means to me both a leg up and support. I’ve been lucky to have had many women mentors starting from my teen years and into my writing career. They’ve provided me invaluable advice and given me opportunities to get my work out into the public. I’ll also hear, on occasion, from a mentor I thought I lost touch with and I realize I’ve stayed in someone’s thoughts. That’s a lovely feeling.
If you could give one piece of advice to yourself as a teen and to teen girls today, what would it be?
- HS: I wish I’d understood the value of failing. I think girls have an enormous amount of pressure from their families and from society to look and act a certain way and to be successful. But that’s hard to maintain for long. I don’t enjoy failing, but I’ve found that each time I have, I’ve realized that it ended up being an important moment—a moment I realized I needed to go in a new direction or push myself to see the world in a different way. So, my advice is when you fail give yourself a break, pick yourself up, and figure out how to do things in a new or fresh way.
- AK: For me, being a teen often meant having a lot less control over my life than I wanted, and I remember being incredibly frustrated at times. Now, looking back, it seems like such an interesting time, with everyone around you figuring themselves out all at once. I think my advice would be to learn and observe as much as you can: about yourself and your feelings, about your family, about the people around you. Notice as much as possible and write it down. It may not change the situation, but it’ll give you more to go on, more to think with. And ten years later you’ll be glad to have a record, and glad for the stories it contains!
Hasanthika Sirisena’s stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Narrative and other magazine, have been anthologized in Best New American Voices, and named a notable story by Best American Short Stories in 2011 and 2012. In 2008 she received a Rona Jaffe Writers Award. She is currently an associate editor at West Branch and teaches writing at the City College of New York and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
Alexandra Kleeman‘s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Conjunctions, and Guernica, among others. Her first novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, is forthcoming from Harper in Summer 2015. She lives on Staten Island near the ferry, and loves to sit on a dock.