In Conversation with Our Future: Six Young Writers on Their Creativity and Communities

Interview by 
Isabella Wang
Collage of the six interview and interviees. Top row: Isabella, Golsa, Kathy. Bottom row: Neko, Raquel, and Elliot

To celebrate the upcoming Growing Room Festival 2020, we are chatting with a few festival authors to learn more about them and their work until the festival rolls. You can read all the #GrowingRoom2020 interviews here.

Next up, our submissions coordinator and organizer of our annual youth reading—Isabella Wang—chats with some of the talented young writers who will be performing at this year's reading on March 9, 2020. She asks them about their experiences and backgrounds with writing, the communities they're a part of, and what they are most looking forward to.

ROOM:  Hi lovely folks!  I’m so glad to be joining you in this here today. First off, tell us about yourself. Who are you, and what does the audience out there need to know about you?

Kathy Mak: Hi Isabella! Thank you to you and Room for this opportunity. I’m grateful to be in this space. I am an emerging writer based in Vancouver, B.C. who primarily writes poetry and creative nonfiction.

Raquel Milosavljevic: I’m an emerging writer currently residing in Coquitlam, BC. I was born and raised in Burnaby, but my parents are both immigrants: my father’s side of the family is from Serbia and my mother’s is from Portugal. By day I write poems, short stories, and I’ve been working on a novel since graduating from Simon Fraser University in the 2019 fall semester. By night, I’m heavily involved in the spiritual community as I work as a professional tarot reader and astrologer out of my home and through several different online platforms.

Golsa Golestaneh: I’m former refugee and current settler on the unceded Coast Salish Territories where I live, work, and study. I’m majoring in political science and finishing my degree this August before maybe going to law school for constitutional law studies. I work at the YWCA as a youth engagement coordinator currently and am also the creative director of BEATS Magazine, which is a platform for young migrant and newcomer voices in BC. One thing to know about me is that I’m used to being that person in the room who calls B.S. out quite often. Some like me for it; some feel the absolute opposite. I love reading, photography, fashion, and interior design. I love all kinds of arts I think but I’m not good at them all.

Neko Smart: I am the current City of Victoria Youth Poet Laureate, a graduate of Victoria High School, as well as the founder and former captain turned co-coach of the Vic High Slam Poetry Team. My spare time is spent scribbling stanzas in a notebook, playing music, and cuddling my cats. Mental health is a recurring theme in my poetry, both as a political statement and as a manner of destigmatizing something I have worked through my entire life.

Elliot Scott-Bigsby: I am a Victoria based youth poet and student, working to get to know myself and the world around me by means of spoken word poetry, by discussing politics through the lens of personal storytelling. By teaming up with my lifelong friend, Neko Smart, I am excited to expand my artistic abilities and knowledge of performance art.

 

ROOM: How did you come to writing? I know that each of you come from distinctively different experiences. Would you like to speak a bit to the role that writing, and the different forms of writing, has in your lives?

KM: I started writing because I loved to read as a child. In second grade, we wrote little renditions of existing short stories and made it into a mini paper and cardboard book. Mine was “Little Miss Sunshine Goes to School.” I really liked creating something from scratch and holding the final product in my hands. Towards the end of elementary, I realized I didn’t have a lot of patience in completing a story. I started a lot of drafts, but none of them were finished. I switched to writing poetry after reading “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse, and only two years ago did I start writing creative nonfiction. I wanted to thank you Isabella because it wasn’t for coming across your essay “Eleven Stops Until Your Halfway Home,” I wouldn’t have ventured into CNF.

I think in some ways these forms are in sync with the different stages of life I’m going through. When I’m a child, my imagination runs freer. I’m not tied down by stress or responsibilities, so I came up with a lot of stories with having magical powers and flying. As I got older, I go through different obstacles and experiences in family and culture—subjects that were close to heart so poetry and CNF were the forms I used.

RM: Although it has taken many forms, writing has always been a huge part of my life. As a child, I was an adamant reader with a wild imagination. There were always towers of books stacked up by my bedroom walls. My writing started as a very private experience. I began writing poems in my teen years as a remedy for my anxieties and fears that I rarely shared with others. As spirituality began to play a larger role in my life, I began exploring the ways in which I could connect these two things that I was so fascinated by. I found myself constantly at the intersection of spirituality and literature, so I began experimenting with short stories and eventually a novel. The truth is that writing has always felt deeply spiritual to me. 

GG: I have been writing since the moment I learned how to write. The first time I wrote anything was in 1st grade where I wrote a short essay for the victims and survivors of a massive earthquake in Bam, a city in my home country, Iran. In the beginning of middle school I started writing my own novel which I worked on for about three years and got about 200 pages done but left it in Iran before leaving the country because it had some political content in it and I feared it being discovered at the airport if anyone searched our belongings. I never got it back afterwards. Writing for me has been a coping mechanism, but also a passion inherent in me. I was very alone in my childhood with both of my parents working full time and me not having a great relationship with my brother back then, so I sought refuge in writing. I wrote to express, to process, to live. Writing was my passion, I always wanted to be a writer, I wanted to sell my own books. But migration took a great toll on my writing. Writing in English with all its standards made the experience so unpleasant for me. I was always endorsed for my writing all my life, I wrote for Facebook pages, I edited books when I was 14. I was really good at it. But in high school here in BC, my grade 12 teacher basically mocked my writing. And since then my creative writing has not been active at all—I write political pieces, I write in a journalistic style, I translate things, but I don’t write stories. My relationship with writing is complicated now, I don’t appreciate my writing in Farsi or in English, I find myself ineloquent, but I will always cherish it as an expressive forum.

NS: Poetry has been an important part of my life since childhood. From a young age, I have been described as quirky and intense, qualities that I embrace. When I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder at nine years old, poetry became one of my central coping mechanisms. Later, through Victoria’s remarkable youth spoken word community, I was taught to value writing not only as a form of self-expression and healing, but also as a unique manner of forming friendships with others. I am truly thankful for the opportunities I have been granted to collaborate and grow beside so many remarkable humans and artists.

ESB: I fell into writing at a young age, using page poetry as a coping mechanism throughout the trials of early adolescence. However, I found myself lacking a creative outlet that could marry both writing and performance, where I could express myself fully. Fortunately, I discovered slam poetry by way of my high school's spoken word poetry club, founded by Neko Smart. Thanks to her club, I was able to begin to explore a new art form and bring my personal life experience into my work.

 

ROOM: I’d love to hear about some of work that you are doing within the community. What does that mean to you, and who are the people that have most supported, inspired, and/or mentored you?

KM: I think what drew me to writing was solitude. Growing up, I never had a lot of friends. I was shy around people I didn’t know too well. I never belonged to a certain group. To me, community is engagement with fellow artists, writers, readers, appreciators of art, but it’s more challenging for me because I see myself as an outsider. Remotely, I volunteer as the Poetry Editor at Marías at Sampaguitas, a literary magazine based in the United States. I’m always grateful to Marías. They were caring to me and gave a home to my first CNF piece “Living Up.” Later, I applied to be a reader and then got offered the position of poetry editor.

A lot of people have supported me—my elementary teachers especially Ms. Lee, Ms. Marshall, Ms. Borg, and Mr. Wrinch all played a role in brewing my passion for writing. Then to my high school teachers Mr. MacLeod and Ms. James. Mr. MacLeod hosted the weekly New Shoots Creative Writing club and it was one of my greatest memories of high school—that’s how I met Meghan Bell [editor’s note: Room’s former publisher] and later got to learn more about Growing Room. My greatest gratitude goes to my family, my sister, and my mom, who are always by my side through thick and thin.

RM: My professors at Simon Fraser University were such a great source of support and inspiration. Since graduating, I have met many wonderful people in the community and hope to meet many more as having more of a presence in the community is definitely something I am looking forward to. One thing I have noticed as an emerging writer is that it can be quite difficult and daunting to penetrate this world of literature and art and get your work noticed and recognized. Recently I’ve been formulating an Instagram page that will curate poetry and small pockets of prose from new writers across Canada. My hope is that this will provide a platform for emerging writers to share their work in a public space.

GG: My work in the community has had a bumpy road. I used to be way more active in the community, I was involved in so many groups and took the lead on so many initiatives, I organized rallies, I was an active public speaker, I engaged in different forums and opportunities for political discussion. But now, I go to school and work and that’s it. I have also detached myself from the communities I was so involved in a couple of years ago. It may be because I hold people against an impossible standard, or maybe it’s not so either way; I still have a small circle of friends who I am supported and inspired by all the time. Jennifer Sarkar, the founder of BEATS who gave me the opportunity to write for BEATS and then direct it is one of the people I’m always grateful for. Simran Sarwara, Tanvi Bhatia, Da Eun Chung are the friends who inspire me every day and have been in my life when things weren’t all pretty and happy. A small group of professors at SFU who gave me room to grow and really encouraged my writing and my thinking and made university a tolerable—and even at time pleasant—experience for me: Michael Laurence, Mark Deggan, Margaret Linley (wrote the Survival Notes for her class), and Colman Nye (introduced me to Alexis Gumbs’s work). And of course, my family are my biggest supporters always on this foreign and sometimes lonely land.

NS: Through my position of City of Victoria Youth Poet Laureate, an organizer of the 2020 Victorious Voices High School Slam Poetry Championship, as well as co-coach of the Vic High Slam Poetry Team, I am able to mentor young artists, but most importantly, am granted the opportunity to learn from them. Some of the people in my life to most support and inspire me are (of course) my family and friends, my poetry mentor Marie Specht, the current and former members of the Vic High Slam Poetry Team, as well as Jeremy Loveday and Elysia Glover, without whom Victoria wouldn’t have a profoundly talented youth spoken word community.

ESB: I currently participate in the Victoria poetry community as a volunteer coach for the Victoria High School slam poetry team and as a frequent audience member of poetry open mics and slam poetry competitions. By working as a coach to younger poets, I try to support the students in the same ways as my former coach, Marie Metaphor, was able to, while I was a competitor on the same team.

 

ROOM: I am very much looking forward to hearing you read on the night of the youth reading, March 9, 2020. Tell us about the piece(s) that you are performing, and the inspiration behind those bodies of work.

KM: Up until I read through these interview questions, I hadn’t put much thought on which pieces I would perform for the reading. For sure I would read my debut published poem “Gong Gong.” I wrote it in memory of my grandpa who passed away several years ago. It was originally written in the summer of 2016 and got workshopped in New Shoots. Two years later, I took an online creative writing course where we had to submit a literary piece to five literary magazines. I rewrote the entire piece in one sitting, while keeping some of the initial parts, and sent it out. As for the other pieces, I might read one of my CNF pieces on gratitude and a couple shorter poems. I think gratitude is something I need to be reminded of constantly because it’s easy to forget when we have what we have. This piece was inspired by a conversation I had with a student through volunteering, and it branches off of my thoughts and views of life as a child and as an adult. The shorter poems relate to family dynamics between generation and culture.

RM: The piece I will be performing at the youth reading is a short story called “The Yew Tree.” It is a story that is very near and dear to me as it is based on the true events my grandfather lived through in a war-torn, impoverished Yugoslavia. It follows his life as a young child experiencing the very real threats of violence that he may not fully understand as a boy. It is rich in symbolism and heavy in subject matter and I am honoured to have been able to tell my grandfather’s story in a way that I feel is raw and real.

GG: I’m reading bits and pieces from a mini magazine I made for an English class last semester, it’s called Survival Diaries. It is inspired by Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive, which is a beautiful piece of poetry and storytelling. It was a book I read for another class and I fell so in love with it that I incorporated Gumbs’s work in this piece and basically analyzed it in an experimental manner where I process her work as I write. It’s about the end of the world, and its many different meanings for different communities and for my own intersectional identities. I honestly tried to be non-academic but it is still a little that, which I hope works out in the end. As you can tell I’m pretty nervous about this reading because my complicated relationship with writing.

NS: My poem “drunk eulogy” is a conglomeration of a specific few months of my life in which I attempt to capture themes of addiction, misogynism, sexual assault, mental and physical illness—the feeling of watching the decor on your walls slowly disappear in the midst of a big move.

The collaborative piece “Burn,” performed by myself and Elliot, is a product of frustration at the manners in which we internalize cultural constructs from the time we are babies into young womanhood. It is an exploration of the self-deprecation that festers as a result of internalized sexism and internalized homophobia.

 

ROOM:  Lastly, what are you most looking forward to? (It can be writing related or not, or if there is another Growing Room event you are wanting to go to, feel free to mention that!)

KM: I look forward to participating in the Youth Reading and volunteering in Growing Room. I would very much like to go to “The Heart of It: A Reading About Family” but unfortunately can’t make it. On the side, I’ve been working on a chapbook manuscript on family and culture, and how that ties to my Chinese-Canadian roots as a diasporic individual.

RM: Firstly, I’m thrilled to be sharing my work at the youth reading and I look forward to meeting my fellow writers and staff members that are involved in Room Magazine. Not surprisingly, I am also excited to be attending the Growing Room Tarot Salon event on March 15th to support the local spiritual community. On a more personal note, in regards to my journey as a writer, I am most looking forward to completing my first novel. It has been a whirlwind of an experience and I’m so excited to eventually share it with the world.

GG: I am planning on exploring the rest of the festival, there are a few authors I’m very interested in meeting. Through the reading experience I kind of want to examine myself, I want to know how people feel about my writing, how I feel about my writing, and how writing feels about me. This is a step towards personal reconciliation for me.

NS and ESB: We are most looking forward to being a part of a festival that provides a platform for marginalized voices. We hope to connect and forge long-lasting bonds with other creative individuals through our performance. As young artists, we value initiatives that aid to assert young people’s perspectives and messages of change. Through our attendance, we hope to learn from other lived experiences so as to affect a greater difference within our community. In future, we look forward to seeing more festivals that foster youth creativity. We are beyond thrilled to be featured performers at the Growing Room Youth Reading.

 

You can join the young talents at our annual Youth Reading event pre-Growing Room Festival on March 9 at Massy Books!

Kathy Mak is an emerging writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She writes poetry and creative nonfiction. Visit her website: http://kathymak.weebly.com/

Raquel Milosavljevic is from Vancouver, BC and recently graduated from Simon Fraser University. She writes poetry and fiction and is currently working on her first novel. 

Golsa Golestaneh is a young woman of colour, a former refugee and current political science student at SFU who loves using her lived experiences in her writing and education.

Neko Smart is the current City of Victoria Youth Poet Laureate. Poetry as a means of creative expression enables her to process the world through the lens of her anxiety disorder.

Elliot Scott-Bigsby is a Victoria-based poet who uses poetry as a means of connecting difficulties in life with art. 

 

Isabella Wang is the author of On Forgetting a Language (Baseline Press 2019) and Pebble Swing (Nightwood Editions 2021). She is the assistant editor for Room 42.4.

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