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An Oral History of Page Turner

The salty snacks, unlikely yarns, and auspicious readings at this year’s AAWW food and books festival

Marginalia | Page Turner, events, fall 2013
October 22, 2013

On Saturday, October 5, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop rolled on over to Brooklyn to host Page Turner, the AAWW Food and Books Festival. Nearly 100 writers and artists shared the mic across two venues and five spaces, tearing it up with everything from a marathon poetry reading that kicked off with an ode to the Chinatown Fair arcade, to conversations about why writing about food is harder than writing about sex, the lives of 19th-century Chinese American laborers, the lost histories of immigration to the U.S., and much more. The roughly 2,000 readers and fans who showed up got hands-on lessons in filling and folding dumplings, composing a 100-foot-long poem, writing a graphic novel, and designing a pair of butterfly wings.

With so much going on in one day, we set out to chronicle Page Turner in the words of those who made the day a success—the volunteers, interns, and staff who moved mountains, and many books, to put on such an action-packed festival, and the writers, artists, and activists who graced us with their presence and their work.

Photo by Anna Sian
Photo by Anna Sian

Author of World Famous Love Acts
I stepped across the street to get a quick bite at the Ocean View Diner (?!). While the Atlantic was nowhere to be seen as I looked out the window, I watched Page Turner folk scurry from Roulette to the YWCA and the reverse, often meeting in the middle with a hug and quick catch-up. Turns out the view was much better than what was promised.

Marjorie Liu. Photo by
Marjorie Liu. Photo by Lauren Hermele

Fall 2013 AAWW intern
Marjorie Liu, lawyer-turned-prolific-author of urban-fantasy romances and comics, gave writers advice that has stuck in my head for days: “You can talk about voice and plot and character development all you want, but if you don’t finish your writing, none of that matters; just finish it.”

Photo courtesy Mark Nowak
Photo courtesy Mark Nowak

Author of Coal Mountain Elementary and Shut Up Shut Down and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Manhattanville College
The loveliest of many wonderful moments at the “Make-A-Poem” booth was watching a father and his young daughter work on the creative process together. At first the girl—who was maybe 8 or 9 years old—didn’t want anything to do with making a poem on our 100-foot roll of paper. But slowly, by gently coaxing her with the simplest of questions asked in the most endearing ways—Do you think I should write the first word with green or orange? Should I spell “ta dah” with an “H” or without an “H”?—this father soon had his reticent daughter co-creating one of our favorite poems of the day. When the poem was finished, the daughter confidently said, “This poem needs a cloud around it,” and, grabbing a sky blue Sharpie, put the finishing touch on her poem.

Author of Haywire and winner of this year’s Member’s Choice Award
I was totally surprised (and very pleased) to win the Members’ Choice Award for my book Haywire. One thing I forgot to say was that I’m grateful for the support of my family. My wife and daughter have understood when I needed to get away to The Writers’ Room to do my work. Parenthood comes first, but I’ve always found some time to write. I’ve also been lucky to find a community, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, where I feel I belong.

2012-2013 Open City Fellow
Count on the workshop to convert me into a food-writing fan: Monique Truong moved me to tears with her ode to a roadside BBQ restaurant. I thought: Is this really happening? Over BBQ? But such is the magic of Monique Truong’s writing.

Author of The Celestials
I, of course, could list among my memories the intelligence and grace of my fellow panelists, the quality of the questions from the audience, the admiration I had for the whole day. But I think the memory that will remain the longest is:  the tyrannosaurs on Brian Leung’s socks. Unforgettable.

Author of The City of Devi
The highlight for me was a long conversation with two young Bohra Muslim conference attendees. We chatted about everything from religious beliefs to community pressure to writing about one’s experience—they were very generous and honest in giving me an understanding of their world.

Author of People Are Tiny in Paintings of China
At the Kundiman Poetry Booth I wrote poems for two people in love, two people who wanted a poem for their future loves, and for a young actor who said she had trouble with the idea of vulnerability. I loved the way the room was set up with one long table down the middle and everyone filling out tiny booklets in advance to let us know what they wanted their poem to be about: it kept looking like people at a passport office.

At the Kundiman poetry booth. Photo by Lauren Hermele
At the Kundiman poetry booth. Photo by Lauren Hermele

Fall 2013 AAWW intern
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s voice, with the pauses in between her words, and their drawn-out syllables, made me feel like I was languidly walking across a field, above which a tornado was silently forming, taking shape—her voice—hurdling my way with such veracity that all I could possibly do was stand idle in awe and let it take me away.

Program Director at AAWW
Alexander Chee read my Tarot cards and made me cry. I’m not saying about what.

2012-2013 Open City Fellow
The thought that the subjects of both Gaiutra Bahadur’s and Vivek Bald’s work might have been sailing out of Calcutta at the same time changed my sense of time.

Author of Coolie Woman
I remember Raquel Cepeda’s devastating reading about an immigrant woman throwing herself from a rooftop. I remember talking with Vivek Bald, before the panel, about how transgressive British colonial officials seemed to find lascars—Indian seamen who figure in both our books. And I remember the young Guyanese woman who came up to me afterwards to say thank you for writing this book.

The crotch notch. Photo by Jeanne Tao
The crotch notch. Photo by Jeanne Tao

Art editor at Gigantic and creator of Accidental Chinese Hipsters
I was very happy when someone asked for a “crotch notch” from my food vending machine performance. I made a tree crotch by carving a “v” shape into a small cucumber, and then I skewered a piece of corn flavored gummy candy on a tooth pick and stuck it in the “v”, and doused the whole thing in hot sauce. His main concern was how spicy it was!

Fall 2013 AAWW intern
Listening to Anne Ishii approximate the orgiastic sounds from her smutty comic was probably the hardest I’ve laughed since my friend’s unfortunate incident with a noncompliant jetski, which is to say the Tainted Love panel was excellent.

Writer, and producer of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame: Master of Gay Erotic Manga

I loved that I was asked to prepare something “family friendly” for the Tainted Love panel at the Page Turner Festival, where I’d presumably be talking about hardcore gay erotic manga. How do I make a 10-penis-per-page count book “family friendly”?

One young woman approached me after my brief talk and pointedly asked, “what about lesbian work?” It’s a question I field often, and ask of myself a lot, but her story broke my heart. Having worked for a lesbian-interest publication in Beijing, the woman spoke disconsolately of having her editorial work get regularly shut down by the government. So when she asked about lesbian work, we were asking each other: What price queer Asians? So at the risk of overusing another gay sentiment, and to bring this back to the AAWW’s caveat, the entertainment fiction I produce for a group I’d effectively describe as bondage-savvy gay Asian bears, could still represent the “we are family” ideology for at least this woman. And that made me happy. Friendly, even.

Anne Ishii. Photo by
Anne Ishii. Photo by Anna Sian

Editor of CultureStrike
I’m not sure why I thought cauliflower curry and black bean tamale stew would make good dumpling fillings. Or that I had the expertise to teach people how to wrap their own skins. To be perfectly honest, I stayed up until 3 a.m. Friday night watching some woman do it on YouTube over and over again until the pang in my chest disappeared. But by 2 p.m. on Saturday there was standing-room only as groups of 30-40 at a time watched me—wordlessly—dip my finger in water, run it along the edge of the dusty wrapper, and crease it in probably the least elegant fold I could find on the Internet. And then they did it. And they loved it. And I loved them. I hope I someday get to teach people how to make dumplings for the rest of my life. Then, I will be happy.

At the dumpling making booth. Photo by
At the dumpling making booth. Photo by Ki Ahm

Summer 2013 AAWW intern
After the kegs were delivered, I was so worried that I had done the calculations wrong—the quarter kegs were so small and I didn’t think that it was nearly enough. I ended up running into the kitchen (where they were stored) and ran into James Yeh who was also there. I had just heard him read at The Grind panel so I was excited to see him. But instead of telling him how great his reading was, I frantically said, “Oh hi James! Do you know anything about kegs?” He generously spent some time with me calculating ounces, cups, quarter kegs amounts, and even pulled out his smartphone to help with some of the math.

Writer and founding editor of Gigantic
A few memorable moments: salty snacks from Alison Kuo, unlikely yarns from Stephen Elliott, and auspicious readings from Alexander Chee, which included “making the invisible visible,” “using what sabotages you as energy,” “the final push,” and “beware of overconfidence.” Also seeing beer pong for the first time in years.

Author of Quarantine and winner of the Asian American Literary Award in fiction
I attended several sessions—all amazing—but many of my favorite moments happened in between: conversations in the hallway or on the sidewalk outside, the call to prayer from a local mosque echoing in the background; a chat with a new friend as we gobbled our delicious samplers from the Bombay Sandwich Company; an unexpected reunion with an old friend I hadn’t seen in seven years. And I don’t think anyone in the audience will ever forget Anne Ishii’s inspired reading of sound effects from hardcore gay Japanese manga.


Author of Pier and recipient of the Asian American Literary Award in poetry
Near the end of a conversation with Mei-mei and Nicola after our reading, an old friend from college who had joined us jokingly said she would have asked that real clunker of a question, “Where do your ideas come from?” We laughed, but Mei-mei said she had an answer: “The akashic records.” I’d like to steal that answer.

A poem written by Sally Wen Mao at Page Turner. Photo by Nadia Ahmad.
A poem written by Sally Wen Mao at Page Turner. Photo by Nadia Ahmad.

I was nervous about the remarks I would make when I received my award, so it was a relief to meet and talk with Jennifer Hayashida, one of the judges, who admitted that she hated talking about people’s books in these settings. She would rather just call me up and give me a thumbs up! While I did enjoy her polished remarks on stage, I most appreciated that she told me off stage, “Your book made me want to write.” I think that is the highest praise.

Program Assistant at AAWW
My little brother (Nafees, 9) got a poem written for him at the Kundiman poem booth! It was about a dog.

The excitement of Page Turner—the buzz of comments after panels, the delicious smells, our interns and volunteers running back and forth between the many spaces—created an energy that sustained us throughout the day. And it was contagious: Sometimes, when we greeted guests at the front door and asked if they were looking for a particular panel or workshop, they just said, “No, we were passing by and this event just looked really cool!” I guess our giant “PAGE TURNER” sign out on the sidewalk helped too, until it fell in the wind.

Author of The Ghost Bride
The best was standing quietly in the darkened main space, listening to authors read aloud from their own work.

Photo by

Photo by Lauren Hermele

Fall 2013 AAWW intern
I often thought of art as a secondary reaction to the real work done by lawyers, organizers, and policy-changers. Art can be so esoteric, so non-accessible. But Sonia, one of the facilitators of the butterfly-making workshop, made a simple yet powerful statement about our making the wings: “Remember, this is a form of resistance.” At first, my cynical old self almost smirked in disbelief, but Sonia didn’t have a hint of irony on her face. She just went on to help this young girl put on her wings, as the younger girl looked up at Sonia with a smile. Art is completely necessary to our movements, and I was glad to be reminded of that.