Fajer Alexander Khansa

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, Dare Williams, Judy Choi, and Anthony Hoang. In this installment, Fajer Alexander Khansa talks about his real experience in the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship.

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.

I thought I’d be good at this kind of thing—talking about my experience. I’ve done it in countless job interviews, speaking about why I applied to this particular position, what I love about my current role, what sets me apart, where I see myself in 10 years, and the list goes on. Every time I gave answers, they sounded a little better until they became perfectly polished. So much so that I almost believed them myself.

On the other side of the desk, I’ve asked the same questions that were asked of me. I started my career in restructuring, which is industry lingo for helping companies in financial distress. I knew very well that no one grows up thinking they want to be an analyst, and no one has a passion for bankruptcy. But I expected to hear exactly that, because that—like it or not—is the standard to get in. So, now you ask me about my experience in the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship (EV), and my instinct is to draw from my prepackaged polished answers. To tell you something you expect a writer to say, like how much a book inspired me. To give you an answer you approve of.

It’s true—the EV classes are effective, the events are rewarding, the readings are fun, and the connections are valuable. But, just like with any job, the true experience is not a bullet point on a piece of paper, but something unique to you. What I’ve learned from the Fellowship is to refuse what I used to think was expected of me to call myself a writer: mimicking the numberless books by white men, or giving the reader exotic details they presume a token minority author should provide. If I hadn’t learned to refuse these expectations, maybe one day—perhaps without being aware of it—I’d expect the same from other emerging writers.

I’d write stories about Syria because I wanted to talk about the people, not the politics and war tactics. I didn’t know whom I was writing to, so I overexplained; I elaborated on things every Syrian already knows. My classmates told me they wanted to know what people eat at Syrian weddings, what they wear, what cultural differences there are. So, of course I added sentences about the tabuli and baba ghanouj, about the garlic scents and the folk music. I even changed the wedding venue, the guest list, and the live band to be a little “more Syrian.” That’s what my readers want—what they demand.

In the Fellowship, I found a new world. In this world, there are Latino authors, Asian poets, African American instructors. There are female characters who are not wives and sisters. There are homosexual men who are not background props. And these authors—they’re not explaining; they’re not apologizing; they’re not writing about the spice market. They’re bold. They’re true to their characters. They’re challenging the roles our society pre-defined for them.

So now when I write a Syrian wedding scene, people go to a Westernized venue, they drink Johnny Walker because that’s what they consider luxury, they play disco music, and wear suits and ties. And that’s okay. They drink arak and I don’t explain what that is. That’s also okay. I get rejected from magazines and journals I like. When my stories get published, some readers will be disappointed; they’ll want more. That’s okay. Because these are the stories I want to tell.