Adding Coal to the Fire

June 20, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

Adding Coal to the Fire

Chaweon (CHA-wun) Koo, one of the five student winners of this year’s English Department Faculty Writing Awards, admits that when she was growing up, her genre of choice, science fiction, “wasn’t cool like it is now.”

She was reading “both Sweet Valley High, and science fiction for kids,” she says, and was interested in “technology and more comic book-related stuff—and that was kind of unusual for a girl, someone who doesn’t fit the sci-fi geek mold.”

Her award-winning story, “No Strings Attached,” is about a female astronaut pining for her love back on earth, she says, “and part of it is fantasy because she’s thinking back to a childhood story she heard about a little girl who goes to the moon and leaves behind earth, her first love.”

Looking to the future
Koo, who also writes memoir, is working on an e-book, contributes to the online magazines nerve.com, prospect.org, and eventually plans to earn an MFA in writing.

Her fellow award-winner, F. Pierce Skinner, is also considering next steps for his writing, and is looking into the English program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Skinner won the Academic Writing Award for two pieces of writing, one of which is his essay in response to an English class assignment, comparing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to a comparable work of fiction.

“I picked H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau,” he says, “and I used those two works to explore what the literary benefits of science fiction are, and what science fiction can teach us about how we deal with discovery, and looking to the future.”

His other winning submission is the short story, “The Yellowed In-Between.”

“I wouldn’t call it science fiction, according to the strictest definition,” he says. “It has robots, and futuristic technology in it, but really the crux of the story isn’t relying on that technology.”

Where stories come from
Aaron Thorpe’s award-winning story, “Josephine,” is based on “my mom working for an upper-middle class couple that lived in Westchester,” he says, “and they wanted to come to our house to kind of check out my mom … it was their newborn, and they were very mindful and protective … so they came to our house in Queens.”

Back then, says Thorpe, “I was a really avid reader and I’d just finished To Kill a Mockingbird … so I’m there talking about its themes and whatnot, and they’re impressed, and they gave my mom the job.”

Derek Brown was inspired to write “The Colombian,” his award-winning story, after reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

“I didn’t necessarily love it but it spawned an idea to do something in a contemporary setting,” he says, adding that his main character “is going to be a salsa singer in seventies New York.”

It’s also based on Brown’s experiences living in Florida and working as a musician; singing, playing guitar and writing lyrics for ten years.

“There’s a professor in there who was a sort of a role model for me when I was younger,” he says, “and the manner in which the main character leaves Bogota was the same way I left Florida, sort of abruptly, in the middle of the night. I just didn’t go back.”

The story, he says, “gave me the excuse to exorcise some demons.”

The circuitous road to writing
Raymond Chao doesn’t exorcise demons but embraces them in his award-winning academic paper on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

“It’s about the character Caliban,” he says, “who is the savage but actually speaks eloquently. So I wanted to explore what language means; does it reflect who a person is?”

As with the other winners, writing is something that arose for him, in a circuitous way.

“For me writing really started in high school,” says Chao, “and ironically, that’s right across the street at Stuyvesant High.” He next attended college in Rochester, New York, then found his way to BMCC.

“It took me some time away from the City for me to miss the City,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get out, but as soon as you’re out in the woods, with nothing but snow and rock, you kind of miss the steam and the stench.”

Pierce Skinner wound up in New York “on accident,” he says, and after working and living in the City for a time, “I really kind of got bored so college sounded like a good idea.”

He picked BMCC, he says, because “I heard good things about it, it was inexpensive, and seemed like it offered great opportunities.”

Why writers need to win
“It was a really huge surprise, a huge surprise,” says Chaweon Koo, about receiving the fiction prize, and Aaron Thorpe adds, “It’s not so much the prize money or the recognition, but just the fact that somebody else read my story and it was good enough to get an award, that was amazing to me.”

“I think that winning an award is very important because it’s very easy, especially at our age, to lose track, to lose heart, to lose focus,” says Pierce Skinner. “An award tells you, ‘No, you are doing the right thing’.”

“There were some days when I was confident, and some when I didn’t expect to win,” says Derek Brown, and Raymond Chao puts it like this: “As a writer and as an artist, it’s important to maintain checks and balances, to have small encouragements along the way … celebrating with other creators of art and writing is more pieces of coal to put in the engine, to keep yourself going.”

A ceremony and generous funders
The 9th Annual English Department Faculty Writing Awards presentation was held in Richard Harris Terrace on BMCC’s main campus.

Senior VP of Academic Affairs Sadie Bragg welcomed the audience, and the Keynote speaker was Thaddeus Rutkowski, author of the novels Haywire, from Starcherone/Dzanc; Tetched, from Behler Publications, and Roughhouse, from Kaya Press.

This year’s Writing Awards were funded not only by a generous donation from Norton Publishing, but by private donations from BMCC faculty and staff.

These donors include Veronica Alfano, David Bahr, Christa Baiada, Elizabeth Berlinger, Joe Bisz, Catherine Cammileri, Dorothea Coiffe, Maria de Vasconcelos, Page Delano, Tony Drago, Phillip Eggers, Francis Elmi, Cheryl Fish, Jeffrey Gonzalez, Doris Hart, Junga Kim, Adele Kudish, Holly Messitt, Stephanie Oppenheim, Diane Simmons, Jan Stahl, Lara Stapleton, James Tolan and Jaime Weida.

Altogether, individual and corporate donations funded the $700 Faculty Writing Award (F. Pierce Skinner); the $500 Norton Award (Aaron Thorpe); and the $200 Faculty Writing Awards (Derek Brown, Raymond Chao and Chaweon Koo).

For more information on the awards, click here.