44 // Genius and Estrangement with Ploi Pirapokin of Newfound #LitMagLove

In this episode, Ploi Pirapokin and Rachel Thompson start deep, jumping right into discussing estrangement for writers. Ploi shares about writing through immigration statuses and her Genius Visa. There is A LOT of laughter in this episode. (Rachel edited the big bursts of them, so they don’t blast your eardrums.) You will find Ploi’s joy as infectious—in the best way—as Rachel did during the interview. Ploi Pirapokin also reads from her award-winning lyric essay, “How to be Extraordinary in America.”

Jump to the episode transcript.

Links and Resources from this Episode:

Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses? by Melissa Febos

How to Be Extraordinary in America by Ploi Pirapokin on The Offing

This episode is brought to you by Lit Mag News Roundup: Stay up to date on all the latest news in the lit mag world at litmagnews.substack.com

And by Lit Mag Love, my five-week course that helps you get a big YES from a journal you love, and then another and another.

Full Transcript

Rachel Thompson
Welcome, luminous writers, to the Write, Publish, and Shine podcast, I’m your host, author and literary magazine editor, Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world, and in each episode I delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication, and the journey from emerging writer to published author. In this episode, I speak with Ploi Pirapokin of Newfound Journal, and I start deep jumping right into discussing estrangement for writers. She also talks about writing through immigration status and her genius visa. There is a lot of laughter in this episode, and I know because I edited the episode and there are big bursts of them that I had to tone down so they don’t blast your eardrums. I hope you find Ploi’s joy as infectious, in the best way, as I did during our interview.

 

Ploi Pirapokan is the non-fiction editor at Newfound Journal and the co-editor of The Greenest Geko, an anthology of new Asian fantasy forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2021. Welcome to the podcast, Ploi.

Ploi Pirapokin
Thank you so much for having me, Rachel. It is my pleasure.

Rachel Thompson
I’m really excited to be talking to you again, we spoke before when you were a guest in the Lit Mag Love course. And, so I guess as a result, I’m just going to jump right in the middle of things with you and ask you about estrangement. I know that’s a topic that we when we were setting up the podcast, we said um, I said is this something of interest? And you said it’s of interest to you, too. So for me, writing is often a way to say, hey, I exist and to counter some of the dominant family narratives that erase my perspective. And with that, of course, comes this tension and can lead to estrangement. And I’m wondering about your own experience with writing and what relationship you have with estrangement when it comes to your writing and your life.

Ploi Pirapokin
I think that all writers write because of this feeling of being estranged or alienated or a little different. I think when you’re younger, to me, the markers of writing is when you’re told that you’re too sensitive. When you are slow to have comebacks, though, let’s say a bully called your fat and it takes you about three minutes to come up with something to say, because you’ve spent that three minutes reflecting on yourself. Am I fat? Do I look fat? What does fat mean? Is that …? And I think these are markers that make a writer because you’re, you know, thinking about what makes you you, what values you hold your beliefs or reflecting on it, you’re challenging it. And so all of these things, I think make a writer. I’m not saying that, you know, you can’t write without feeling estranged, although I think that your work just wouldn’t feel that urgent and that need to connect and that need to, like you said, to exist and to be seen. And I think as time grows and we grow as writers, that “hey I exist” changes as well to, “Hey, I exist, do you see me? Hey I exist so do you.” And it becomes more of a connecting device as opposed to a statement.

Rachel Thompson
Hmm, I love that, and I’m definitely recognizing those three minutes it takes for a comeback. I’m wondering what kind of advice then, because I know you teach as well. And and obviously you’re editing and giving feedback sometimes to writers on their work. So what advice do you give to writers facing estrangement for their transgressive words? The writers who are saying, like you said, “I exist, you know, don’t erase me and I want to connect with with you the audience in some ways.” But then, of course, there’s that reaction that can happen to transgressing.

Ploi Pirapokin
Mm hmm. I think in nonfiction in particular, I always advise my students that I know other teachers and editors say the same thing to it’s not writing for revenge and not writing to make yourself look, I guess like always, the bests always right infallible, that sort of thing. So I do think to clarify what transgressive means, you know, it’s if you’re writing out of anger or out of revenge, that could be a really good catalyst to start. Certainly for me, it’s a huge catalyst to start. And I always threatened my parents when I was younger that all of these things that you say would make such great dialogue if I wrote it in a story which is so funny, because my first I think essays and stories are all about fights with my parents, and I think it can’t stop there. Right. Like, you can’t just say I was right. I’m the writer. I get to write this down. You have no say. And so to move away from that, I think to face estrangement or a transgressive word, it’s if you’re trying to be yourself and somebody has an issue with you just existing. So whether you’re talking about race or whether you’re talking about gender or sexuality, I think when it feels like you’re being alienated or excluded just for existing, I think you do hit a very important thing that you have to say. And so my advice at that point is, you know, do you want to give someone the opportunity to write that narrative for you or are you willing to be erased by somebody else who thinks that you don’t deserve to exist? When it comes to political, I think, ramifications, I definitely have had fear about that as well for myself. I’m Thai and we’re not supposed to talk about the monarchy, and I’ve chosen just to sidestep that as in it’s not worth the risk for me. I think that every writer should have that have that chance to decide for themselves. And I do think that publishing, especially in a very white centric Eurocentric language, you know, English, they need to understand that, that there is no one way of being a certain type of writer from a certain country or the things that, you know, writers are expected to talk about, when they’re not white. And so that’s my my point of contention where, you know, not every Thai author, for instance, is going to talk about the monarchy and nor should they, especially when they do have serious political ramifications, should they even mention a king or mention the monarchy in general. And I think it applies for writers of other countries, too, whether it’s China talking about the government, whether it’s any of the Arab countries, I think talking about their governments and their people. So my advice is to really contend, well, am I willing to let somebody else write my narrative? Am I willing to be erased? And then if so, if so, what would I be OK with being remembered for or, you know, sharing?

Rachel Thompson
I love how you bring in I mean, all the considerations required, it’s not just a black and white case of writing with, you know, having more sensitivity around that and how you want to be remembered. Yeah. And another thing that we talked about when we were talking about possible topics with this interview, we were talking about writing through fear and surprise. And this really ties into what you’ve been saying as well, because for you, it’s writing through immigration statuses, which feels, it seems to me, maybe correct me if I’m wrong and it’s like estrangement writ large. Can you tell us about your genius visa, what you described in another interview as the “arduous process of waiting and constantly proving my worth?”

Ploi Pirapokin
Thank you for inviting me as a genius.

Rachel Thompson
Oh, I would have done that without knowing about the visa.

Ploi Pirapokin
And I, I really feel like it changed me completely as a writer and where I focused on and I know we were talking in our in the in the class with you about worth and fear and writing. So I know we’ll get to that later. But for me it was definitely life changing and perspective shifting. So, you know, first of all, as you write in general, you want to be published, you want to be read widely. And then there are these sort of demarcations of success that whether the MFA tells you, you know, these are things to look for, whether it’s mentors that tell you, whether it’s other authors at workshops. And so you have this idea, I think, as a literary writer and for me, fiction that I must print in journals. You know, I must have this kind of teaching job in order to make it like the authors that I liked before me, I need to do these types of fellowships.

Ploi Pirapokin
And the visa requirements, especially for the O1 visa, require a lot of. Awards, you need awards, you need recommendation, letters, you need I mean, like 20 recommendation letters, you need five job offers, you know, a lot of requirements that go into this. And then you start to realize that from for me, in my case, you know, am I writing to be published? Right. Am I writing to win these awards or am I writing for myself? And I spent that sort of year before I had to apply just building my resume. And it honestly felt quite soulless. And obviously, I have it, which is why I’m here. But it really changed my relationship to, well, what does it mean to be successful and how it’s constantly proving my worth. It’s like, well, what does this actually mean to me? You know, why am I writing this, right? Am I writing this for a byline? Am I applying for this fellowship because it works for my resume? Or are all these things actually helping my writing, helping me become clearer, in my words, helping me find more exact phrases for the feelings that I want to talk about? And then what’s so funny is that once I got the visa. Other people obviously wanted to connect with me who were also looking for the visa, and then some of them would say, look, what’s your process? Can I ask you for advice? Sure. And then they would make a comment like, well, it must be easy since you got it. And I and I would be like, OK, sure, go, go for it, but I think because, you know, when you think of the list of people who do have this visa, you know, Salman Rushdie or I want to say Yiyun Li had it, it’s, they have these big careers. But I think it’s the work ethic that comes from this immigration status that instills like, you know, this is just how you have to do it. But then you have to find within yourself, you know, what actually makes me happy. And I think when others are asking me, you know, I’m young, I’m, you know, sort of, you know, I don’t come from a literary family or I don’t come with connections in that way, it seems possible. And so I’m happy that I can inspire that possibility. But it definitely took a lot of my soul and it took a lot of changes for me to understand, like why am I doing this? And this access to having this visa allowed me to remain in America, to write, but also to, you know, participate in the American arts and letters in a way that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to if I didn’t apply.

Rachel Thompson
You first connected with Newfound, the Journal, by entering a contest and then kept that relationship going and one thing led to another. This is the story, anyway, that I was reading a bit more about online and wondering, can you tell me more about that relationship? And especially, you know, especially now that you’re an editor, how do you foster relationships with writers? And what would you suggest writers do to build relationships and support for their writing?

Ploi Pirapokin
I think it goes back to this, the notion of the visa for me, one of the requirements of the visa is you need to have about 10 to 20 recommendation letters. And where would you get that? You know, where would you get that if you didn’t make friends or you didn’t foster relationships with other artists? And I think, you know, at work, let’s say you work in an office, you want a harmonious cubicle life. You don’t want to anger your neighbor next door by playing to loud music or, you know, eating your Cheetos really loud. And I think it’s the same with writing except writing. I think we don’t get to see our colleagues day to day. Our colleagues are on the Internet or they’re based elsewhere. And, you know, how do you foster relationships with other writers? One way is to submit. One way is to try to put your work out there and know that whether or not it’s accepted doesn’t change the fact that somebody had taken the time to read your work and somebody had taken, you know, their time to consider your work for a publication or an award or panels and that it’s a real human being on that other side. And when you receive a rejection or an acceptance, it’s somebody who had considered and believed in you and really thought about whether this opportunity was right for you or not. And I think to remember that that is also a person. So, to how to build relationships, I think submitting work, I think offering support yourself, right, it’s like making friends like, oh, this person seems, you know, if you go to a workshop or if you take an online class, right? And there’s somebody in that class who seems like they match you or they align with you in terms of reading list and the way they were thinking, don’t be shy to reach out. I think that’s something that as instructors, I’m sure you can agree. We try to foster that, but the writers are usually introverted and sensitive and so. So how do you put them, how do you push for the students to form their own alumni group afterwards or connect with one another that they feel special? I think in terms of offering, you have to offer to be someone’s reader and then vice versa, right? It’s it’s not a take and take relationship. Um, you know, when Newfound reached out and was speaking to me about editing my at the time, the chapbook. I was responding back, like, let me know how else I can be involved, you know, just because I really liked them as people. And so that’s how one thing led to another. And I think that’s how we can build relationships in our community as well.

Rachel Thompson
Maybe not by questioning why how easy it was for you to get the visa. It would be a way not to build relationships.

Ploi Pirapokin
I feel it’s I do think I was thinking about this question deeply that there seems to be and maybe it’s in our culture, our culture of sensationalism, our culture of celebrity, that bad writing behavior or bad people behavior is rewarded. And I’m sometimes myself even shocked by the lack of professionalism amongst other writers, just like plain common sense. And I think it is to do with celebrity isms when you have a very famous writer or well-known writer and they can act poorly without consequence.

Rachel Thompson
The “enfant terrible” kinda idea, right?

Ploi Pirapokin
Yeah. And it’s just not cute, I think. But I do I do think at least with communities I’m a part of, like we do put our professionalism in front because it allows for us to work together, it allows for us to collaborate. And it also doesn’t get our, I guess, like personal feelings involved, which I just feel, well, it’s like a workplace. It’s like going to work.

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Rachel Thompson
So speaking of your work at Newfound, Newfound publishes work about place, and I’m wondering if we can turn to the writing that you’re reading that’s being submitted to the journal. And can you tell me what places you have loved going to when reading submissions and what places you’d like to go, meaning what kind of submissions you’d like to receive?

Ploi Pirapokin
Uh. I had mentioned in your class that I like the non literal take on place, so avoiding travelogues, avoiding compare and contrast, I guess, with two physical places, just because I think it’s the first cliched or generalized thinking of when you see the word place. And so I really am interested in the writer or the author’s ingenuity in on the subject matter and where they can take us and make real for us, perhaps the places they’re talking about, whether it’s an emotional place, whether it’s the dream place, a virtual place and the list goes on and on, I just think to avoid the very general or first cliched thought about what that word means. In terms of how literature is changing and the scope is expanding, I do think that because our department and then also I think our masthead is becoming more inclusive in terms of, let’s say we are the gatekeepers, we are getting a lot more work that is more diverse and covers more difficult topics, I think of identity. It’s not just an immigrant, but an essay about, you know, old world traditions versus new world traditions. Now we’re questioning whether those new world traditions are actually helpful or harmful or part of systemic racism. For instance, um, we’re looking at imperialism. I think there is an essay that I really like that with more scholarly that we just published that was looking at the dominant culture, let’s say Indian culture, to these group of Himalayan farmers and how climate change has changed their way of farming and way of life, but also how capitalism and also the dominant culture has changed the values of what they they want in their agriculture. So I do think the scope is expanding in that sense, maybe because of who these authors see is in charge and willing to take more risk with their work. So that’s what I would say, that, you know, even in the literary sphere now, we’re seeing a lot of Black editors finally becoming vice presidents of publishing houses, agents who are more diverse. And I think that will change what type of work will be accepted. You know, so late in the century.

Rachel Thompson
Another form of diversity, I guess I always feel like I want to address, too, is like around age two. So a lot of writers I work with are like me, not millennials. I’m Gen X, and they often feel like they’re not trending when it comes to what editors want. But any thoughts on this attitude? Is it right? Is it changing? Or sometimes I wonder if even that’s the wrong focus. But, you know, I just love to hear your thoughts on that.

Ploi Pirapokin
It is the wrong focus, but it is easier for a millennial to say that, right? But here, here is why I strongly believe that writers, writing in general, there is no age to be a writer. I definitely think and I’m sure I’m going to get harpooned for this, but I don’t think anyone in their early 20s has anything of weight and substance to say, and it’s not to say that they can’t feel that way or they don’t have anything but your mind, your your mind and your heart and your mental health is still figuring itself out. And I do think there is an urgency with earlier work. But, you know, to be sort of sound in terms of your career and validation, seeking validation and not, I think you should be a bit older and have a little more experience with life and have a little more perspective that writing is not do or die. So I don’t think there are any there is or are any limitations when it comes to age. I do think we have a culture in terms of capitalism and success and again, back to celebrity and sensationalism that privileges the young. But that is not to say that it has anything to do with the writing. When you think of writers who have published later, it’s actually quite the norm. You know, Toni Morrison didn’t publish until her 40s. Roxane Gay was writing all this time and didn’t publish until later. Jonah Harvey, who’s the poet, you know, didn’t publish and write for Marvel, the Black Panther series until her 40s. I think a lot of women in particular, you know, sort of women, they have to do a lot of caretaking before, you know, whether it’s getting an education, whether it’s taking care of your parents, whether it’s getting married and having children, all of these things that sort of set back that time that they could have been studying, writing and learning how to write and publishing that men don’t have because they are not asked to take a stop or to consider or to think otherwise. So I don’t think there is. That’s why I say it’s the wrong focus. I think one way to think about it is to sort of overcome that fear is to really, and it’s hard, right, because you have to confront yourself, why are you writing and what are you trying to gain from it? Because if you’re in your 40s and you want to have a Vogue cover shoot with your book and you then want to be in the National Book Awards five under thirty five, then it’s impossible. You might actually get the Vogue cover, but I think you can’t hold yourself to these standards that just don’t make sense. What is five under thirty five right? What are these age fellowships? What are they trying to say? And I think it’s just the wrong focus, but it is easier said than done. I just think look to the writers who published later. I always think that, you know, the more experience you can offer in terms of exactitude in your writing, the more nuanced you become, fame that comes with writing and celebritidum and sensationalism is, I’m sure you can want it, but there are better careers to get that first.

Rachel Thompson
Yeah. And like what you say to you about really thinking about what you want from your writing career, and I wonder to you know, you’re talking about the urgency of the 20 something might feel around publishing, but I feel like, you know, everyone has that urgency they just have to kind of tap into what is the urgent thing that they want to say, the the thing that they don’t want to have erased. So. I really appreciate that answer.

Ploi Pirapokin
One of the most helpful advice I’ve ever received was from Kelly Link is to look at the writers that you admire, let’s say, whose career you admire and you’d like and then really track and usually it’s an acknowledgment, pages of their books, you know, who their agents are, where they’ve published, where they’ve gone, perhaps to school or workshops. And then if you think your style is like them, you know, this is not the only template, but it is a sound template, and so when you gather about three or five, you get to see the patterns. And so I think it’s to get really realistic. You know, if I’m writing lyrical essays, which is what I do, it’s not something that’s going to go viral on The New York Times unless I write one of those very structured personal essays and to really get a grip with reality that this is how the market is. They’re not fans, not they’re not fans, but it’s not as viral. Um, lyrical essay is not as viral as a very structured, you know, “I learned this” type of personal essay. And to be OK with that. For me, when I looked at all of my sort of literary idols whose careers I admire, I realized, for instance, they don’t have social media. They they are not online at all. It really changed how I felt about this advice about having to have social media and have a big following and clout and all of this. And I just felt I feel at this point, it’s like it’s not conducive to my writing. It makes me worried and engage in a way, with other writers and fans that I may not need to in order to be the writer that I desire, and I think looking at and modeling after perhaps writers that you admire, you, it’s like reality, you know, of like, well, what does it mean to write this way and what does it mean for me like that I’m willing to do this?

Rachel Thompson
Oh, yeah, and where can you find your readers? I love that you’re saying this now about social media and not being because this is all the things that I think so many of us are. I definitely know I’m reflecting on two is like, it’s not not just not conducive to maybe our rating, but to our humanity, it feels like sometimes to so, thanks for saying that. So one thing I think, you know, based on conversations and you can correct me, but I think we agree that writing is one way we can change the status quo with the power we have to create the world we’d like to see, and I’m going to quote you again from an interview where you said, “I’m not going to protest on the streets because if I get caught, I could get deported, but I’m going to find ways where my skills and my experience could be more helpful and useful.” Can you tell me a little bit more about how you use writing, I guess, and and maybe other skills that and create that change?

Ploi Pirapokin
Yeah, I think, you know, leaning into my just what am I good at, I want to say Melissa Febos had an essay on Catapult that was do you want to be known for your emails or for your writing? Right? And and it really it’s like I believe in the same thing. Do I want to be known as, you know, an activist who’s exiled or as a writer? And where would I put my efforts in that case? What does it mean to be a writer? For me, it’s somebody who produces and somebody who challenges even my own point of view and what I believe in the work, in the hopes that it connects with someone else on that same thought train or connects with someone else who is grappling with with the same explorations of ideas and themes, and also that they can comment back, you know, and it could be a conversation rather than a closed statement. And that’s what I would rather spend my time on in terms of being helpful and useful, I guess, in a more quiet way. Um, definitely this year, I think we’ve all seen a lot of Black Lives Matter movement to defund the police, um, sort of anti authoritarianism walks and a lot of activism as it so happens, because we’re all in lockdown and because our attentions are drawn to the things that we might have otherwise ignored for our lives. But I also think what comes with that is a lot of unnecessary shaming. You didn’t do X, Y and Z, you didn’t come out or what does it mean when you’re not outwardly supporting? And I just think that’s the dark side of activism. I think people contribute in many different ways, whether it’s teaching, whether it’s for me offering services through non-profits where I help at work or workshop stories as part of a fundraiser. I think there are other ways that you can get involved and offer your services that aren’t necessarily marching on the street, even though that is important too.

Rachel Thompson
I asked Ploi to prepare a reading based on our subjects for the interview today, Ploi Pirapokin reads from her award winning lyric essay, “How to Be Extraordinary in America”:

Ploi Pirapokin
1. The O-1 extraordinary ALIEN Visa, aka the Genius Visa, is granted to an ALIEN who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, and who has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements. To qualify, you either produce your Nobel Prize certificate (do they even give certificates?) or meet three out of the ten requirements that are equivalent to a Nobel.You begin the process of obtaining this elusive immigration status after graduating from your MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University with feverish optimism and hope since Justin Bieber has one. You have one year from August 2015 until your student visa expires. One year to figure out how you can stay in America as a writer. One year before saying goodbye to the life you thought you built in graduate school. You are twenty-seven years old, tall, tanned, and Thai, with as limited an octave vocal range as the Biebs. You think you stand a chance.

Ploi Pirapokin
2. You Google artists with O-1s. The list is daunting: Adele. Benedict Cumberbatch. Wolverine. Director of The Terminator. Regina George. Posh Spice. David Beckham. Sergey Brin. Pelé. Playboy Playmate, Shera Bechard. Albert Einstein, if he were crossing the border today.These ALIENS are part of a list of Nobel, Oscar, Emmy, Director’s Guild, SAG, and Academy Award winners. Even the Biebs, six years younger than you, has a Grammy. Discouraged, you try to find authors who have O-1s: Salman Rushdie. Yiyun Li. Mario Vargas Llosa. They were bookless once. You discover many testaments to how difficult this Everest-of-a-visa is, and almost all O-1 visa holders ask to remain anonymous about their immigration statuses, as they will need to renew their visas at some point. No O-1 ALIEN is confirmed, so you make a guess since they weren’t born in America. Keeping this a secret is like being at a party with little green antennae sprouting from the top of your head, except everyone is too polite to point and scream.

Ploi Pirapokin
Thank you.

Rachel Thompson
Thank you. And so I’m going to finish with you’re going to be the inaugural Quick Lit Round person and we’ll see how it goes, this will be a test, but I want to ask you if you will finish the following sentences.

Rachel Thompson
So first is being a writer is…

Ploi Pirapokin
fun.

Rachel Thompson
Literary magazines are…

Ploi Pirapokin
transgressive.

Rachel Thompson
Oh, I like that. Editing requires…

Ploi Pirapokin
patience.

Rachel Thompson
Rejection for a writer means…

Ploi Pirapokin
God’s redirection.

Rachel Thompson
Ploi said focusing on age and whether your writing is on trend is the wrong approach. Look at careers of writers you admire and kinda reverse-engineer them. What was their trajectory towards becoming the author that you love today? But most importantly, I think what she said about. Finding within yourself what actually makes you happy? I felt like that was, you know, the biggest nugget for this interview, it is really easy to get swept up in what you think it means to be a writer versus doing what is truly aligned with who you are, what you write, why you write. And here is the lit mag lowdown on Newfound Journal, you can find Newfound, an online journal at Newfound, the two words, dot org and they pay and they also respond generally within three months. Their submissions are open, except for May 15th to August 15th. That’s of course, everything is as of this recording that may change. And there’s an upcoming themed issue, deadline 21st of December—it’s not too late as of the release of this episode to submit to inner spaces, they want to be immersed in subjective and intersecting worlds.

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This episode of Write, Publish, and Shine is brought to you by Lit Mag News Roundup. Stay up to date on all the latest news in the lit mag world at LitMagNews.Substrack.com And by Lit Mag Love my five week course that helps you get a big yes from a journal you love. Sign up at RachelThompson.co/LitMagLove. Finally, if you want to advertise something that would help emerging writers who are becoming published authors hit me up at RachelThompson.co/ads.

Rachel Thompson
The Write, Publish and Shine podcast is presented by me, Rachel Thompson. You can learn more about all of that I do for writers to help them write, publish and shine at RachelThompson.co. If you learn something from this episode, if it helped you with your own writing, pass it along and share it with other writers. You could also rate and review this podcast. It really does help other writers find the podcast, and I’d be so grateful to you for that. And just keep on keeping on. Keep writing.

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