I have written more in the past two years than in the last fifteen.
I am both reluctant and full of pride to say these words aloud, one of the sound bites I’ve been touting during media interviews. I hold my head held high, but inside I am wrought with survivor’s guilt. Then I admonish myself for being ashamed of feeling pride.
Is it terrible for me to say these two years were exactly what I needed? As the world starts to make the transition from frenzied health crisis to uneasy endemic acceptance, we can look back and take stock of our successes, failures, and the areas that remained stagnant. The world took a moment to hold its collective breath, giving all of us the opportunity to stop and look, feel and breathe, ache and heal, reach out and reach in.
In February 2020, I was coming down from the high of watching a staged reading of my play performed in Toronto. Upon my return, a local publisher had reached out to discuss if I was interested in writing a book. A few days after that, I was contacted to be part of PTE’s festival of New Works. Humble brags all around.
On March 14, 2020, the world pressed pause.
The pandemic affected all facets of my life. I was ordered to work from home full-time. My kids navigated through remote learning. My husband, who worked in health records, worked overtime and on weekends. Restaurants closed. Delivery services became the norm. We embraced curbside pick-up for groceries. We wore masks. We bought toilet paper. Family visits became virtual. Our skin cracked from washing our hands so often, the tiny cuts burned with each squirt of hand sanitizer.
Events were cancelled, including the festival of New Works. I breathed a secret sigh of relief.
My job had become chaotic. My husband was stressed out. My children were anxious.
The editor from the publishing company wanted to know if this was a good time to start writing something. After years of living my life with a ‘Yes, and’ philosophy, I said, “No, I can’t.”
I didn’t have writers block; I just didn’t want to write. I couldn’t bring myself to the mindset to create something new. I was still on pause.
In June 2020, two things happened, both profound and revolutionary.
In the macro, the shattering murder of George Floyd brought systemic racism to the front and centre as an insidious yet destructive force in most institutions. The arts were not immune, resulting in the identification of the lack of diversity among theatres, not only onstage, but in all facets.
I realized I had been hanging on to anger for years, the tiny cuts of micro-aggressions becoming hard scabs of resignation. I had believed for so long that a viable career in theatre would never be accessible because of the colour of my skin. In my second year of university, this submissive acceptance had driven me to choose a degree in social sciences, instead of theatre, where my heart truly lay. (I realize now that it wasn’t the most practical degree.)
As for the micro, a painful revelation was lying in wait at home. My then twelve year old son had refused to read any of the dozen books he had piled next to his bed, continually promising he’d read them eventually. Now that all he had was time, he spent his waking moments watching television, YouTube, or playing video games. One day I finally blew up, asking him why he didn’t read any more.
He said that none of the stories were about people like him, i.e. People who were not white.
Both catastrophic instances had collided. The significance of representation literally hit home. I am a writer. I am a playwright. I am a storyteller. If I don’t tell our stories, who will?
I looked at my son. “If I write something for you, will you read it?”
He said yes.
At that moment, my creative compass had a direction. Writing about the Filipinx-Canadian experience was always on the map. I had written several plays with stories about growing up as the child of immigrants looking for a better life, but these were produced before my son’s time. It had been almost a decade since one of these plays had graced the stage. I needed to write something for him.
Within a week, I pitched the story of a 16 year old Jewish-Filipinx girl learning about her culture through food. The publishing company loved the idea. I started writing in July; I finished the first draft in September. I was offered a contract for publication in October 2021.
That month, I submitted the play I had been planning on presenting at the Festival of New Works to the So Nu? festival at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. The story was about a Filipinx woman and her journey to find Judaism, based loosely on the story of my own conversion. My son could see the seeds of his origin story, the amalgamation of both of his cultures.
Within days, I was approached by Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre to be part of the Tiny Plays, Big Ideas festival of short plays for human rights. Immediately I thought of an incident that involved both of my children, how they reacted to the question of where they were from. My children would see their story on stage.
These three projects epitomized the intersection of cultures and generations, each presenting a different way to bridge the divide. My novel, Lessons in Fusion, used food to create connection. My full-length play, Precipice, used ceremony to create purpose. My short play, Where. Are. You. From. questioned authority from different perspectives. These are the tools I wanted to give to my children; with these tools they can build their own bridges.
In the last year, I saw my first novel published; I saw one of my plays grace a PACT stage; I was a featured author in the Kids Winnipeg International Writers Festival; and I was declared winner of the nationally renowned bi-annual Canadian Jewish Playwrighting Competition. More importantly, BIPOC actors, directors, editors, dramaturges, and crew were involved in each project.
When my son finally read my novel, he said he liked it. He said it was good. This is the accomplishment of which I am most proud.
We continue to crawl out of the pandemic, a two year period when the world stopped mid-step, and a time that I moved forward. No humble brag here; this was not incidental. It took connection. It took purpose. It took perspective.
I do not dismiss the gravity of the pandemic. The toll on our mental health has been significant. We mourned friends and family. The pandemic has given us the perspective to prioritize what matters most. Joy is so much more poignant after profound pain.
There is a paragraph from my play, Precipice, about the Selah, a Hebrew notation:
Selah. It means ‘stop and listen’. It’s the moment between the verses when you pause, but some rabbinic scholars think it’s more than just a musical direction. They believe it is the time to reflect. These are the moments in which you search for meaning. It is in these moments you find answers.
I had written more in the past two years than in the last fifteen, because I paused.
And when I pressed play, I turned up the volume.