20 Stories: (#17) Mal Pavel

To celebrate our 20th Anniversary in 2023, we’re highlighting 20 stories that have helped shape StoryStudio over the years. Each month of 2023, we’ll be featuring one or two members of our community as they share their story. Whether they came from the very first class that Jill started in 2003 when StoryStudio was just a few folding chairs and a dream, or they’re from the most recent cohort of Novel in a Year students, on their way to publishing a book; these members make StoryStudio what it is.

Below is Mal’s story.

For young writers, all roads lead back to one’s mentors, and if this story were written by Hollywood ten years ago, then the camera would pan to a conversation between Vu Tran, the sifu, and me, the pupil, on the crest of a mountain, perhaps in a cave behind a waterfall, or beside an ancient looking pagoda, with the sound of a gong resonating in the distance. Luckily (or unluckily) for some of us, I’m the one writing this story, so instead this journey begins in spring 2020, on Zoom, each of us in our makeshift home offices, wondering when it will be safe again for us to go outside. 

In 2020, anti-Chinese rhetoric was at an all time high and hate crimes against East Asians were rising in the thousands, and, in the Midwest, where Asian populations are lower than on the East or West Coasts, East Asians shifted from a position of near invisibility to hypervisibility. As a young writer of mixed Asian descent, I wondered what I could do to foster a sense of community during difficult times. As Zora Neale Hurston so aptly put it almost a century ago, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” There is a tacit understanding that if we don’t use our voices, the only power we really have as writers, then we might watch others tell our stories for us and paint a very different picture. It was amid these circumstances that the idea of creating a free workshop for Asian writers in the Midwest was born, inspired in part by the Asian American Writers Workshop of New York City. 

There is a tacit understanding that if we don’t use our voices, the only power we really have as writers, then we might watch others tell our stories for us and paint a very different picture.

Thus Chicago Asian Writers Workshop was created in June 2020, and supported by a grant from the University of Chicago. After the grant money was used up, in spring 2021, I asked Vu if he knew of any other established writing groups that could support this project, which is when he introduced me to StoryStudio Chicago, a local organization for whom he taught regularly. After a promising first Zoom meeting with Rebecca Makkai, then another with Jessica Keller and Sara Cutaia, StoryStudio eagerly expressed its wish to sponsor CAWW in all of its endeavors, and offered not only financial support for teachers, but also free use of its classroom spaces and tech support, all while staunchly supporting CAWW’s most important mission: offering free writing classes to community members. Continuing CAWW’s mission would’ve been impossible without StoryStudio, and each year our community grows thanks to StoryStudio’s continued support and advocacy. We’ve now had three classes with StoryStudio, and plan for more for years to come!

Finally, in 2022, I was awarded with StoryStudio’s very own Dana Wood Chaney Writers Fund, which supports writers working on projects addressing social change. I’m currently working on a novel about trans people set in contemporary Chicago, as well as a short story collection centering around the relationship between two siblings of mixed Asian descent and their relationship to gender. I’m so excited to learn from StoryStudio’s faculty in the coming years – I owe StoryStudio so much for its belief in my projects – a kind of support that is so hard to come by in our current political regime. 

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