They were all young, beautiful, vibrant, and clearly multiracial and multicultural. As I walked into the registration lobby of the writing conference, I couldn’t help but pick up on their energy. I live in New York City, a place where it is difficult, if not impossible, to miss the changing demographics of the world, but, here at the conference, it was particularly noticeable.
I had been ill for the past week. From the sidelines of the first workshop, I texted Rosemary, who was with friends in the Hamptons, “Not feeling very sociable. Hoping no one talks to me…I sat over on the side by myself so as not to share my cold.”
As had been the case last year when I attended the conference, which takes place a five-minute walk from our apartment, I was, hands-down, the oldest person in attendance. I saw one man who could have been in his early sixties and a couple of people possibly in their fifties. I am half way through my seventies. A chasm, not a gap, existed between me and the others. The conference was to “nurture emerging writers,” so it made sense. As I walked down the hall, I thought of my mother, who, in her sixties rode on the Yarmouth (Maine) Clam Festival float called, “Emerging Young Artists of America.” In retirement, she had taken up painting, and her latest accomplishment was a feature of the event.
At workshops, I listened to agents and editors talk from the stage about the publishing process. They too, were young, multicultural and so, so energetic. Some talked too fast for me to understand what they were saying. They talked over each other in their enthusiasm. I got the feeling I get watching our pre-school grandchildren race frenetically around the house , “If only they could share some of that energy.” None of them were looking for books about elderly women looking back, making sense of their lives, but their comments gave me insight into their thinking and what they deal with in a day in their work life: Don’t waste my time, be concise, try to establish a personal relationship, don’t be clever.
Midday, I thought about going home and curling up on the couch. I could pass the Farmer’s Market in front of Borough Hall and get some late season corn and tomatoes. The U.S. Open women’s final was coming on later in the day; Serena Williams and Bianca Andreescu, an exciting young Canadian of Romanian ancestry, were playing, and it was tempting to think of napping until the match. But, I stayed. I waited in the long bathroom line and the longer lunch line for a piece of pizza and some salad. I found a seat in the middle of the room which was by itself and no one could join me. At the previous year’s conference, I had been more gregarious. I had had lunch with a writer in her sixties. A young writer from D.C. introduced herself at break and I now follow her on Facebook and Goodreads. I had met several young writers from the Maine Writers and Publishers Association, an organization to which I belong. They had sent a delegation and I was happy to connect with fellow Mainers. Now I felt old and tired. It is easy to fade into the woodwork when you are old. No one approached me. I don’t think anyone even saw me.
I was glad I stayed. The afternoon feature was an interview with two extraordinarily articulate young women, both of whom had written memoirs. The interviewer was superb, asking intelligent and thoughtful questions and fading into the background. The two writers looked like a younger me, or like girls from my high school class. Or so I thought.
T Kira Madden (Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls) teaches at Sarah Lawrence. Her father was Jewish and her mother is Chinese and Hawaiian. “My mother, as a Chinese Hawaiian woman, was raised in a Mormon household with Buddhist grandparents. And my father is of course Jewish from Long Island. They always let me learn about every different religion, every culture. I went to temple, I went to church, we did Chinese New Year’s — we did everything. They told me: Wherever you find your place, that’s your place. We’re not gonna tell you where you belong. So that mix — which was confusing at the time — is something that was really part of my becoming
Mira Jacob teaches at the New School and has published a graphic memoir (Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations). She cited Ta-Nehisi Coates as an influence and talked about the challenges of having a brown son and of living with and loving white in-laws who support Trump. Her parents were Indian and she grew up in New Mexico, where she was often mistaken for being Native American. Later, I learned that she was one of the older people at the conference – 46, a year older than my daughter. She talked about how her half-Jewish, half-Indian son tries to make sense of the world.
- “What happened to Michael Jackson’s other glove?”
- “Is it bad to be brown?”
- “Are white people afraid of brown people?”
- “Is Daddy afraid of us?”
In case you haven’t gleaned from my blog thus far, I grew up rather isolated from this kind of diversity, in a small, paper mill town in northwestern Maine, the whitest state in the Union. Diversity in our town meant you were Italian, Polish, or Lithuanian. I went to Bates College, 28 miles from home, where, in my era, the two or three Black students were well-known by everyone on campus and some even became famous more broadly (Peter Gomes, Bryant Gumbel). My Junior Year was spent in Scotland. My first graduate degree was at the University of Maine. All universes far from this one.
This conference did not represent the world I was born into, nor the one I grew up in. But it is the world I live in. This demographic transition has been happening under my watch. I guess the age transition has been transpiring at the same time, often equally unnoticed.
I feel fortunate to live in such a time, in such a place, to see some of the best aspects of understanding that we are all one people and how different we are. To genuinely question how to deal with the challenges. To be able to leave chair yoga and my Proprioceptive Writing Group (both comprised of women my age) and walk a few blocks to step into the world of my future, of someone’s present. To leave my life of doctor’s visits, infusions, and ill health and have access to this world of the young and diverse; to be able to look at it even through the small end of the telescope.
[by] Brynna G Kaulback