“Leaving The Light On”: An Essay by 2019 Emerging Voices Fellow Dare Williams
The 2019 Fellows have two months to go and they want to talk about their experience as Emerging Voices, in the hopes that they might inspire other writers in need to apply. Stay tuned to PEN America’s blog through July for this series of essays from T.K. Lê, Fajer Alexander Khansa, Judy Choi, and Anthony Hoang. In this installment, Dare Williams shares his journey as a writer.
Are you a writer? Apply to be a 2020 Emerging Voices Fellow through August 1 (PST.) Want more of the 2019 Fellows? Join us for the Final Reading on July 23 at the Hammer Museum.
Have you ever gone along with a lie because it seemed easier than to go after what your heart wanted? In my family, seeking a career in the arts was met with resistance rooted in fear. It was never something you did in public, and certainly not as a profession. I grew up in a household with a lot of colorful characters. Men who tried to be fatherly but had their own limitations. Men like Keith, whom my mother married twice, a landscaper heavily addicted to drugs. His hobbies included yelling at the bug light we had in the backyard and screaming into the canyons. He was in constant conflict with his situation and thought life had wronged him in some way. Keith held a lot of power over the house with his anger.
As a result, I did a lot of hiding. If I could be unseen then I could roam freely and not be a target. I sought refuge in books. In a bad neighborhood, a good book is a safe house, with the porch light on, ready to be entered. My childhood home had a big bookshelf filled with self-help books no one was cracking open, clearly. But, at the very top, smooshed together, were dusty, black, leather-bound anthologies containing words and forms I had never seen before. They felt sage-like, filled with wisdom. I was fascinated by how the words rearranged themselves on the page to describe a feeling or an event. How lyric and rhythm flowed together to serenade me into wanting more. These sonnets, sestinas, haikus, free verse, villanelles had power over me. Poetry, the punk rock of the lit world, was seducing me. I was falling in love with language, what language could do. What I was reading was the antithesis of what I was hearing in my house.
I never wanted to be home, so I walked around my neighborhood, ruminating. I have learned that the wellspring of my loneliness has always been rooted in the position I hold in the world as a queer citizen. I am compelled to soak in the language of my community, to observe the environment and then respond. To engage as someone who is haunted by words.
I tried to leave writing twice, refusing to believe it was possible this practice had chosen me. I denied the need to write and told the muse to get off my back. But no matter what I did, words found their way to me, pestering and whispering. As a writer, I am out in the world head down, furiously typing on my notes app while taking the train, writing on napkins at restaurants or cafés, in closets at work, on break, on a company’s time, on receipts, envelopes, in journals, and at times even on my hand, asking someone for a pen when I am caught without one and a word or phrase comes through me and I have to fall deeply for it and stop everything to catch it, because if I don’t it will move on and find someone else to write it. That is how I express gratitude; I let the words hit me and stop me in my tracks and say, ok let’s go.
I am a writer. Saying it here and now and out loud to you means that I cannot abandon this need to describe the world around me. To reconcile my past, to indulge in future-tripping, to sit in the seat or anywhere and be word-drunk. To create a container for my grief, to be surprised by myself and others, to look at the world with fascination rather than fear. Language is the salve to my restlessness; form is my playground. Calling myself “writer” means that I am smashing old narratives that scream, “No you aren’t, no you can’t.” And if you are reading this or listening to me, I suspect that you are a writer as well. And for that, I apologize, and I welcome you. Poetry has saved me, and the hope is it will continue to save my life. And my hope is that it might do the same for you.
When I was told about Emerging Voices, I shut myself in and worked on the application as if I had nothing else in my life. And the truth is, I didn’t. What I did have was a kernel of confidence that maybe this was right where I was supposed to be. Being accepted into the Fellowship meant that what I thought of myself was true. Or that what I thought of myself was untrue. To have an organization like PEN America tell me that I was a writer made me feel both a moment of perfect alignment, and terror. It was a message to say keep going, I have something to offer. To be involved in a cohort that is loving and supportive, to find people who think like me, and to be part of the EV chorus is the familial writer dynamic I have been searching for.
My mentor, Sesshu Foster, gave me this: The answer to your question,“What do I have to offer as a writer?” is twofold. You have your individual experience, if articulated, and second, you have your own unique syntax and diction that expresses your point of view.
Forever a student, I work against my own fears and my know-it-all attitude to shape my experiences. Writing helps me to get to know both my Ego and my Id. Emerging Voices has given me a renewed sense of what it is I’m trying to do here. In my searching; my community engagement; my bridge-building; my love for my cohort, for the authors that have come before me, for the mentors who have paused in their process and work to give back, and for other writers whose voices have been squelched by a loud household, by a society who wants to silence them, I want to say now that we are here. We are looking for you, and we see you looking for us, and the door is wide open for you to claim yourself. To welcome words and language into your life. Your stories, your essays, and your poems need you to tell them. Because we need to hear them. Dear Reader, I used to ask myself, Who am I to say such things? And now I am slowly accepting the heavy and tender truth: Who am I not to?