A Cozier Alternative to the Classroom (An Interview with Paloma Gratereaux)

An Interview by Carly Sorenson 

Paloma Gratereaux is a junior double-major at SUNY Purchase and recent founder of the African American Women Writers Book Club. The club meets biweekly on Mondays at 6:30 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Shortly after the club’s first meeting, the two of us sat down for a conversation about representation, reading for leisure, and Zora Neale Hurston’s long-lost nonfiction novel, Barracoon.

Carly Sorenson: What inspired you to start the book club?

Paloma Gratereaux: I’m a playwriting major but I declared as a literature major at the end of last semester. My teacher, Aviva, told me to go to a meeting for lit majors to make sure they’re on track to graduate where this one girl asked the professors what they were going to do in the classes they teach to promote diversity, and specifically to promote black women writers. The teachers did give her an answer, but it was vague. They were aware that diversity in the curriculum is a problem, but I guess it’s difficult to tackle.

So then I turned around to the girl and I was like, You should start a book club. Those were my words to her. And she’s like, I would, but I’m graduating. And in my head I was like, That sucks, but it shouldn’t stop there.

So I told Aviva and she directed me to Daisy in the Multicultural Center, and then Daisy did everything. I gave her a book list and she got it off its feet. She’s amazing at what she does. Without her, I doubt the book club would have worked. It would just be an idea.

CS: What was the process of starting a book club like?

PG: Daisy asked me if it would be weekly or biweekly, and if I wanted internship credit. I could have done that, but I didn’t have the extra time to commit to journaling and all that. I was more than happy to just do it, to provide the space as a volunteer. That was always my intention.

I publicized with flyers, and I posted about the club on the open forum. I made the flyers myself! They’re not that good, but I’m proud.

CS: What books do you plan on reading at the club?

PG: Right now we’re reading Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ by Zora Neale Hurston, and let me tell you about that. It’s a really cool book. It was written 90 years ago but it was just published last April by Deborah Plant. She’s really into Zora Neale Hurston, that’s her specialty. So basically, 90 years ago Zora interviewed this man, Cudjo Lewis, who was the last survivor of the slave ship Clotilda. She interviewed him about his life back home and the process of being taken away on a ship, and serving someone else, and having all that stripped away from him. Cudjo Lewis wanted to save up money to go back to Africa but he couldn’t gather the funds. Instead, he started a community in Alabama called Africa Town, which is still there. They have their own language and everything. So the book is about his legacy and her interviews with him.

Deborah Plant found and edited the book. She’s coming here to Purchase to give a talk, so hopefully we’ll have the book finished in time for that.

The other books that we might read include The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tarbaby, and Love by Toni Morrison, then Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo, Betsy Brown, and Liliane by Ntozake Shange, who also wrote For Colored Girls. Just really classic titles by Black American women. I haven’t read any of them, but I feel like they’re must-reads.

CS: Sounds like a great reading list. How did you choose these particular books?

PG: Well, I knew all these names from somewhere, but I never had the chance to read them before. I wondered why that was, and I realized it was because I had no incentive. So I feel like this book club will be good for people like me, or people who have a passion for these writers. Also, I picked books that were under 250 pages, because we all have lives. I’m not going to assign a huge book.

CS: What role do you think a book club should play in the literary world? Or more specifically, what role should this book club play on campus?

PG: Oh, wow. I want it to be a safe space where we can read these books comfortably. I feel like a club is different from a class setting because it’s cozier. The Multicultural Center is super cozy, and I bring snacks and stuff. I want it to be a super chill place where if you feel some type of way, you can communicate that.

I had six girls show up to the first meeting, all black female students, and the conversations we had moved me. I told them that there are so many things I cannot relate to because I’m not a black woman in this country, so I don’t see myself as a leader in this club. I just see myself as part of it. I told them that they would be guiding the conversation, and I would provide the snacks and the books. This is for them. They deserved a place, and someone had to provide it.

Beyond that, books have so much depth to them, but how much are you really connecting to the text if your grade is on the line? I feel like books should be for leisure. In classroom settings, the stakes are too high. You look at a book and you’re like, Ugh, that’s for class. Why can’t we just have books to read? Why can’t we relearn that books are leisure? It’s a privilege, not a burden.


Surviving the Day: How Stephen King Helped Me Grow Up

By Nick Sapienza

I was always a shy kid. Whether it was talking to people or sending a text message, my social anxiety made me fear even the shortest interactions. During my grade school years, I felt immense pressure to be social and make friends, which left me feeling increasingly paranoid. In times of anxiety, I would submerge myself within a book. If people saw me reading, they would disengage and leave me to read. It was when I had books that I could cope with my social anxiety. Stephen King once said, “We make up horrors to help cope with real ones,” and I believe strongly in this idea because that’s what influenced me to begin writing. Weirdly enough, reading Stephen King’s fiction helped me cope with my own anxiety.

I was twelve years old and traveling with my family in Italy when I first read Misery. I didn’t have a smart phone and the hotel only had five TV channels, so I would read when I wasn’t exploring Rome. I can still vividly remember scenes such as when Paul’s typewriter begins talking to him, as well as Annie’s declaration to Paul that she will hold him hostage until he writes a sequel to his latest series. These scenes gave me chills. They were so well-written that they came to life in my imagination and have lived there ever since.

Stephen king

Reading King’s work inspired me to write. As a nerdy nervous kid, I attended writing workshops in Brooklyn where I grew up. I never left the house without my journal, a pen, and a copy of Carrie. If I needed inspiration, I would open up to a random page and read a paragraph. I could relate to Carrie’s story because she was the target of vicious bullying and was so alone. Loneliness is something that writing can conquer. Creating my characters and building a new world occupied my mind and imagination. Writing feels like a conversation between myself and the page. Stephen King believes you must write and read every day to perfect your craft. For the first time in my life, I was inspired to be disciplined. That was big!

Crippled by anxiety as a child, I chose to think of Stephen King as my own personal mentor. The first time I read his memoir, On Writing, I learned that even he struggles with his self-confidence: He threw his first story in the trash bin, and it was his wife who convinced to publish it. Even in On Writing he stated, “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.” His words resonated with me and ultimately encouraged me to believe in myself.

Living all these different lives through my writing miraculously gave me the confidence to be outgoing. I found a way to channel my fears into something productive. All of my anxieties and shyness became useful for my writing as I was able to recreate my daily challenges on the page. There is no better way to open your mind to all the possibilities that life has to offer.

We’re Better Together: On Finding a Writing Community

By Christina Baulch

As a Literature major, I’m surrounded by creative writing all the time. Whether I’m studying Medieval English Literature or Sci-Fi, I’ve dedicated my four years at Purchase to analyzing and appreciating creative writing of all mediums, genres, and time periods. Yet, with all this reading in my course schedule, I’ve found it hard to dedicate time and motivation to doing my own creative writing.

However, this all changed when I enrolled in Introduction to Creative Writing. In class, I was in a room full of creative writers- and I was finally one of them. Every couple of weeks, we herded the desks into a circle and workshopped one another’s work. Even though the comments were sometimes comically spare (a poem of mine once received the comment “nice words” hurriedly scrawled across the top margin) every comment from our class meant the world to me and kept me going.

Since that introductory course, I’ve found friends both inside and outside the Creative Writing program who, like me, simply enjoy writing and sharing it with others. If you have yet to find a community of writers for yourself at Purchase outside of creative writing classes, here are some ways to go about it:

1- Join Clubs

There is a wide variety of clubs on our campus, and several of them relate to writing. The first and most obvious choice is The Writers Club, which meets Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. in Humanities 2059. Though the club is associated with the Creative Writing major, it is open to all students. Bring paper and pen or a laptop, and have fun writing with other students on campus!

Likewise, the Literature Society meets Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. in Humanities 2031 and is open to Literature and non-Literature majors alike. In addition to lively discussions and debates about literature as a whole, the club also hosts events. One recent example was a “DIY Sparknotes” night in the Stood, where participants re-imagined existing stories into new genres.­

2- Form Your Own Groups

As an ex-commuter, I’m highly aware of how difficult it can be to attend clubs if you live off campus. If this is the case, consider forming your own group. A group can even be as informal as you and a group of friends writing on the Great Lawn or in the library.

One of my personal favorite group writing exercises is OuLiPo (read: ooh-lip-po), a French acronym that stands for “workshop of potential literature.” Though there are infinite variations for how you can structure your OuLiPo session, one basic option is to sit with a group and a variety of texts. You set a rule of how many words per page can be taken- say, two- and then each person opens a book and selects words they like. You write your words down in a notebook, then pass it to the person on your right. If you each start with a notebook, you’ll end up with several poems at the end of your session. Some of our OuLiPo creations have been serious attempts while others have taken surprising, comical turns. The main point here is enjoying the writing process and working collaboratively.

3- Finally, When All In Person Attempts Fail: Try the Internet!

There are innumerable Facebook groups and Subreddits dedicated to writing and writing prompts, but one Facebook group close to the heart of Purchase is The Wordsmith’s Guild. This group was started by a Purchase student, and its 106 members and counting include Purchase students and alum, as well as writers from outside the area. It’s a great space to bounce ideas off one another, participate in writing sprints, and connect with other writers both inside and outside the college.

I wish you the best of luck in your journey to connect with other writers on and off campus!

Defying Genre (and Gender): How Camp is More Serious Than It Looks

By Muse McCormack

I’m currently in an amazing class called LGBTQ Theater and Performance History where we’ve been reading plays about feminism, queerness, and genderfluidity. Many of these plays use camp or exaggeration, especially of gender, to comment on gender and feminism in America. Camp is a kind of performance or aesthetic that is usually ill regarded by mainstream society, but has found a home in the Queer community. If something is camp, it is over the top, ironic, and outrageous, usually to make a point. Here, I examine two works (one a queer play and the other a science fiction short story) that use exaggeration and campy qualities to play with mainstream notions of gender norms.

Belle Reprieve is a queer take on the play Street Car Named Desire by the company Split Britches. The character of Stanley is played by a butch lesbian, Blanche is a drag queen, and Mitch is a gay man. In Act 1 there is a song and dance number called “I’m a Man” where all the characters walk around the stage displaying stereotypical masculinity. However, while the two biological men look silly and their attempts at manliness appear contrived, Stanley looks comfortable and even sexy at times as she flexes her muscles and stomps around. By exaggerating the dance, the playwright shows us how constraining the binary of gender can challenge our understanding. We see how comfortable Stanley is exhibiting stereotypical masculinity and how uncomfortable it makes Mitch and Blanche, both of whom look more at ease when wearing dresses and moving delicately, thereby defying gender norms while simultaneously using them to perform their own versions of gender.

Science fiction has long been making use of overemphasis in order to drive home points about our own world through the display of another. In James Tiptree Jr’s story, “The Women Men Don’t See,” an unassuming woman, Ruth, and her daughter, Althea, choose to be abducted by aliens because as they see it, it is preferable to living on Earth where women are not treated as equals. Ruth says to the narrator, Don:

Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.

This take on the world, while dark and without hope, is only further proven when Don underestimates both women because they are women and thus deemed inferior. They defy what he thinks of as female by continuously showing strength and intelligence throughout the story, and yet, he still believed them to be “just women.” Both of these women are polite and quiet at first, but they are shown to be so much more as the story progresses. Both of the women are not hindered by society’s standards for family and marriage, they both have jobs and are shown to have skills other than cooking and cleaning (at one point Ruth fixes Don’s broken leg into a cast when they are trapped in a jungle). Don dismisses all of this though in favor of his previously formed idea of their gender. Despite its serious delivery, this speech is met with a patronizing demeanor and dismissal that makes the reader empathize with Ruth and her plight. She is so disillusioned by the world she lives in, which underestimates her because of her gender and the preconceived notions surrounding it, that she would rather risk an alien one at the chance of finding respect and freedom.

In both works something unexpected and over the top happen: Belle Reprieve a song and dance that not only displays gender, but defies it, and in The Women Men Don’t See the characters’ choice to be abducted by aliens is made to seem reasonable. Maybe Tiptree’s work would not be classified as camp, but Ruth and her daughter’s display of gender is no more contrived than Stanley’s flexed muscles and Blanche’s attempt at walking in pants. Gender is a performance in both pieces and the defiance of it is what is shown to be true in both as well. Maybe the means to the end are ostentatious and defy reality, but the points they make are much more serious than at first perceived.

Watch the full performance of Belle Reprieve with the original cast here:  http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/modules/item/907-britches-belle-reprieve

Read “The Women Men Don’t See” in full here:   https://www.ida.liu.se/~tompe44/lsff-book/tiptree21.html

A Magazine Given a Second Chance

By Trisha Murphy

If you travel to the back of Campus Center South, you will find a flight of stairs to your left. Take them to the basement, hang a right and walk till you’re just shy of the exit to the dumpster and room 0024/0025 will be on the left, the place I love most on this campus.

Gutter Mag began in the basement as a student-run zine that was distributed all over campus. It has transformed over the years, but has stuck to its DIY roots and is now an 11×8.5 stapled, monthly issue. Thanks to a faulty printer, the issues are hand-folded and therefore still look very much homemade.

I was first introduced to Gutter Mag as a freshman. By then, it was already a full sized, biweekly issue. I was too nervous to go to the meetings but poured over the issues when I came across them on a table or magazine rack around campus. By the time I finally got up the nerve to be more than just a reader, Gutter had ceased to exist. It was a quiet goodbye–issues had at first just become less frequent. By spring of my sophomore year they were down to just one issue a semester. Summer before junior year, Edyn Getz took it upon herself to relaunch Gutter Mag. The PSGA allowed her to do so. The budget was small and the charter needed to be tossed and recreated, but it was a start. Edyn asked me if I would assist her in bringing the literary mag back to life and I jumped at the opportunity and was given the title of Managing Editor.

Now, as a senior, being Editor-in-Chief of Gutter Mag has certainly been a learning experience. Falling in love with a publication and then being given the opportunity to run it has resulted in hours of planning, emailing, hand folding, and asking the printer if it would please do what I ask just this once.

I feel that Gutter’s place on this campus is essential. Gutter’s mission is to provide an opportunity for students of any major or background to see their art in print. Many students on this campus create original content outside of what they study. Our monthly issues give those students the opportunity to see their work in print alongside other creators on this campus. It allows them to be part of something bigger than themselves. Last year was our comeback year. We rebuilt from the rubble and continued to remember how we started.

Presently, Gutter produces monthly full-sized issues with smaller zines interspersed throughout the semesters. We work alongside the other services on this campus, such as The Forum Art Space and WPSR, to promote upcoming shows and remind students of the Safer Space Policy. We release our issues at student run events to encourage our readers to take advantage of all of the art available to see and experience on campus. We meet monthly (usually on Wednesday nights) to open submissions and discuss what we want for the upcoming issue. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a room full of faces eager to create work for a magazine that’s been given a second chance.

In this next phase of Gutter Mag, we want to make every student on this campus feel welcomed and included. We want the issues to feel like they are for them, and the best way to do that is to get submissions from as many students as possible. I have loved Gutter Mag as an admirer, a contributor, and now as its Editor, and I want nothing more than for it to thrive on this campus. Help me make that possible and send us your art, poetry, short fiction, recipes, graphic art, prints, comics, doodles, rants, horoscopes, any  and all of it to purchaseguttermag@gmail.com.

It Gets Gory: Discussing Bleeding, Healing, and Writing with Students at Purchase

By Emily Hargitai

When I was a freshman, a professor told me that writers should wait at least 20 years before attempting to write about personal painful experiences. I believe this is an accurate estimate. Two decades seems like just the right amount of time for existential pain to fully decompose into usable soil. I remember once, I brought in a story for workshop that was quite obviously written about a recent and painful event. While certainly raw, the story had no clear plot, and was so incomprehensible that it legitimately called my mental stability into question. Luckily, my classmates were kind, and no harm was done. In fact, even though from an editorial standpoint, my story was a smoldering pile of garbage, there was something cathartic about writing it, and something sobering about hearing my classmates’ feedback. The workshop was tough—almost like an intervention—but I am better off as a writer for having gone through it.

This experience–of writing an unpublishable story that tore me apart emotionally, but in time also brought me to a better place as a writer—is confusing and paradoxical. Even though I’ve gone through it first-hand, it makes very little sense to me that the writing process can simultaneously be therapeutic and maddening. At one end of the spectrum, we have heartwarming sentiments like this one expressed by Anne Frank: “I can shake of everything as I write: my sorrows disappear, my courage reborn.” But on the other, we have Hemingway’s decidedly more frightening declaration: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”

For clarity on this complicated matter, I approached some of the writing students here at Purchase for their thoughts. Their perspectives are passionate, enlightening, and derived from their own unique experiences.

First, I talked to Sydney Shaffer, a poet who is deeply inspired by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as well as Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot. On the conflict between writing and healing, Shaffer said, “The writing process isn’t a conflict between catharsis and madness, but a blend of the two. The maddening part comes when the writer needs to re-experience whatever they are writing about, but the cathartic part is putting it into beautiful new words that become unfamiliar to the reader, and sometimes even to the writer.” I found this response fascinating, particularly Sydney’s discussion of unfamiliarity as something that dilutes the raw emotion of experience to ingestible levels in her poetry. She also introduced an entirely different, and arguably more productive, way of thinking about the issue: That maybe writing and healing are not at war with one other, but in harmony, one informing the other in the process of writing.

I also approached Finola McDonald, a poet here at Purchase, for her two-cents on the matter. Like Sydney, Finola understands bleeding and healing as inexorably linked when it comes to the writing process. But she also points out that the intensity of the emotional turmoil is not fixed, that it depends a great deal on how close the writer is to the subject. She shares from experience: “The process of writing tears me open. My mind flips inside out and upside down—if the content is more personal, it’s chaos. But once everything is on the page, I’ve been stitched up and tucked in as though nothing ever happened.” I was struck in particular by this image of being “stitched up and tucked in.” For Finola, writing a personal poem is a little like undergoing an invasive surgical procedure. The procedure itself is unpleasant and messy, but if it goes well, the result is worthwhile.

Finally, I spoke with Shannon Swiatowicz, a screenwriter who studies horror films and psychological thrillers. To write them in a genuinely horrifying and convincing manner, it is necessary for Shannon to explore the darkest regions of human consciousness through observation and introspection alike. When I asked Shannon for her thoughts, she said, “Writing is in many ways both the band-aid and the scalpel. Some days I need to feel the relief of tearing myself open and seeing what pours out, while other days I would rather wash dishes than sit alone with a blank sheet of paper and the expanse of my mind.” On the topic of introspection and character development, she added, “I don’t think you can truly understand your characters and the heart of the story you’re trying to tell if you haven’t torn apart your own suffering and found the root of what makes you tick.” As someone whose work generally comes from a more autobiographical place, I was surprised by how much I related to Shannon’s screenwriting experience. Just because you aren’t writing directly about your own life, that doesn’t mean the process isn’t highly emotional, and more than a little gory.

In addition to being writers, the women I spoke to and I have this is in common: we are all college-aged. My freshman year professor’s rule—that a minimum of 20 years should pass before a painful experience meets the page—is certainly ideal, but it just isn’t possible for us. With deadlines to meet and portfolios to compile, we can’t feasibly limit our pool of writable experiences to the womb, or fresh out of it, which is generally where “20 years ago” places us. Discussions about how to produce quality work without sacrificing sanity are not just fascinating to have, they also serve practical purpose at the college level: They provide comfort and clarity for writers like Sydney, Finola, Shannon, and myself, who cannot afford to wait, and do not want to.  ​


Ernest Hemingway in the hospital during World War I