Former art director Britt Gudas recalls being on duty at the Workshop
December 15, 2021
Editor’s Note: As the Asian American Writers’ Workshop celebrates its 30th anniversary, we invited current and former editors, writers, community members, and workers to make new meaning from the Workshop’s archive. Together, they have awakened AAWW’s print anthologies and journals, returned to the physical spaces of the Workshop starting from our basement location on St. Mark’s, and given shape to the stories from within AAWW that circulate like rumors, drawing writers back again and again. In revisiting the Workshop’s history, we hope for insight into the ever-changing landscape of Asian diasporic literature and politics and inspiration to guide us forward in our next 30 years. Read more in our AAWW at 30 notebook here.
“Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.”
One day I was institutionless, and the next I was institutioned. It was 2014.
It started quietly. The elephant statue in the window by the door: it’s…unattractive. We have to remove it. It’s not like this is an episode of Restoration Home or anything. It’s just that we always get caught in a bit of object paralysis. Maybe we could toss it out? Elegantly simple: tossing it out. But maybe we should figure out its origin? Who gave it to us? A Friend of the Workshop? Don’t spend the day on it. Is there some sort of list of the Friends of the Workshop we could cross-reference? Why is that a weird question? There’s no “material” list? (We never removed it.)
Then, the computers of the ’90s in the middle of the hall. They have records that can only be dealt with in a particular legal way, so smashing them in a parking lot with bats is out. No, not even if the bats really smash the hard drive. The materiality of the bats doesn’t matter, great observation. It’s not like metal on metal is more effective on a CPU, certainly. Hold on, this isn’t a bat thing. This is a law thing. We can’t throw them in the river. What are these ideas? Can someone please (!) relentlessly problem-solve this? Someone assign someone else to relentlessly problem-solve this. We must! (We didn’t.)
Then, replacing the old chairs. We nearly totaled a Jetta in the Ikea parking lot from the momentum of 750 pounds of chair on a shitty dolly—rolling, ever more quickly, ever more quickly, rapturously, completely unattended, down a ramp, watched by two screaming art New Yorkers (the worst kind). But the car was narrowly missed. A misguided bolster to our self-esteem. Ha ha, we shakily high five, fate must have intervened yet again. You wear so many hats at a nonprofit.
Then, the white wine scheme. We must buy only white wine! Only white! Never red! Do you know why? (Interns listening politely) Red wine stains the wall-to-wall carpet and, I don’t want to risk sounding hyperbolic, but it looks like a country murder crime scene investigation at a bowling alley. Get white wine: a Friend of the Workshop gave us this tip! Because the guests will see the stains! (The guests had already seen the stains.) Okay, here’s 200 dollars in small bills in a crumpled envelope, it’s not weird. Can someone go to Trader Joes? Someone assign someone to go to Trader Joes. I can’t do it because I found the envelope. Thank you, it’s a number ten. (Cut to red wine teeth at the next day’s board meeting.)
It’s writing prompt day on Twitter. These freshly crafted prompts offer the followers a sense of community, as well as telegraph our core values. “Write your autobiography as if your parents were writing it! 😀” “Goddamn, y’all’s prompts scare the shit out of me,” someone tweets.
Oh shit. Now the most inebriated author at the event, who’s been in every. single. picture. is about to give his opening remarks. No! He’s slamming the remarks! He’s slamming! What’s a fail-safe that can mitigate the consequences of poetry? Quick, what’s staff protocol for an extempore slam? Only Jessica Hagedorn can save us, as she stands peremptorily to thank everyone for coming. Important new org memorandum: put Jessica Hagedorn on every panel.
Finally! They’re ripping up the old carpet and turning it into a wood floor. It’s starting to look a bit like a basketball court, but half the staff owns “Mr. Triple Double” shirts, so it’s extremely on brand. There’s general excitement. Red wine is back, baby! (It never left.)
Now it’s summer, and we’re at JACK’S 99¢ buying bags and bags of hand fans. We will finally solve this guest overheating issue. Definitively! This is the way! It’s so cute AND fun. Who could possibly resist the impish charm of the Workshop? He ha. ✿
The fans have all been lost, and TaskRabbit has been opened. Can you cut away at structural beams?? We’re not architects. The TaskRabbit Cowboy is cutting into the beams to accommodate the world’s sharpest ceiling fans. We’re hiding, afraid (of decapitation, though we mustn’t say it aloud). We’re googling the tensile strengths of different fasteners. Surely this will come up in a future job interview? Project management experience?? At full fan speed, the room is a completely overwhelming wind tunnel. Can our PA handle the new air pressure? We’ve only really stress tested it by singing a Warped Tour compilation on it. The Workshop is like a golf course on an exoplanet: always the same goals, but extremely dynamic environmental conditions. At least the fans can blow the white (red) wine dry on the new basketball court.
The van comes to transport the ’90s computers. An intern does a skateboard trick on the street for our social media. “What does this have to do with reading?” someone writes. Absolutely everything, social media user. Do you know how books are made? It goes, Johannes Gutenberg —> EventBrite —> Tony Hawk’s Underground: Pro —> you. I’m certain that all other literary orgs run exactly this way. In literature, ollieing the rental van is the platonic definition of a transferable skill.
Okay, now we’re starting a podcast! I volunteer to draw the green couch for the cover art. To draw the couch is to better understand the Workshop. The Workshop is secretly listed as a wedding venue. As I draw, I wonder where the couch would go during a wedding. It’s a really green couch. Would the wedding…be moderated? I draw.
We open the closet. How has this closet been here this whole time? Yoooo, this is sick! There’s some dead stock original totes in here. In our bacchanalia we dig deeper. Written on a box: computer parts. A moment of silence. There’s computers in here, guys. From what decade? From the ’90s. We close the closet permanently after taking the best mouse pads. I’m using mine now. It’s a promo item for The Net, starring Sandra Bullock. Her driver’s license. Her credit cards. Her bank accounts. Her identity. DELETED.
And then, someone rings the doorbell and asks if they’re allowed to come up. Yes, possible Friend of the Workshop! Get on in here! He arrives and stands near the entry to the library. “I’ve always wanted to see it in person,” he says. “A room full of books by only Asian authors. Right here. Wow.” He’s quiet, we’re quiet. “I’ve watched you guys online. I really can’t believe I’m here.” We stand, not speaking. He’s from the midwest and has traveled to our terrible city to see this sight. All of the strange trinkets on the shelf, the elephant statue, the 200 rechargeable batteries in a bag on the floor, the books. All of this eccentricity. We made it! The room, at first on St. Marks, then at 32nd Street in K-Town, and finally on 27th street.
Not long after this I left to go to grad school.
The Workshop was my first adult job after college. I felt like we were all committed students together, and learning had never felt more substantiated and electrifying than it did in the field.
There’s the public facing institutional memory that figures prominently in grants. Like, did you know many famous authors played SNES at our original location in St. Marks? That this long piece of acrylic that says ASIAN AMERICAN BOOKSELLER was the first sign? There are those more substantialist bonafides and there are our internal-only bonafides, like the google doc we religiously kept of VERY WORKSHOP WORDS.
An institutional memory should be presented upfront, with no hidden components. Recently, I worked at a job where we weren’t even allowed to know our work hours, which was a darksided management strategy to keep us constantly working. But there were broader implications. Because of this, I quickly ascertained that my talent would be as meaningless as though I’d pre-thrown some design options in a trashcan, hoping one might get pulled back out again and partially reified by pretending my boss made it.
Working from the trashcan is the opposite of memory, and the opposite of memory is the opposite of institution. To rewrite this formula, a mindset of saving, whether or not what’s saved gets used, is the foundation of institution. Everything is a ’90s computer in the eyes of institutional memory—not so easily eradicable, decaying naturally, multiplying.
During my tenure, the lows were low. Trump was elected into office. The work can be stark and demanding. It can be profoundly sad and confusing. Being a public servant in a big tent operation dedicated to anti-racism means to pool your own feelings with everyone else’s, which heightens them, and those feelings might be collective grief, or anger, or simply bearing witness to something you hope to understand but can never truly. I desperately wanted to be helpful. I often thought: could a designer meaningfully contribute?
We were never off duty, always on, always on. Always reading. Books, emails, every newspaper. Combing through social media, providing flash responses where needed, constructing theoretical architecture on site, impromptu, exhaustive, observant. You get strong together and you get tired together. When you get tired together you do sheet masks and shoot the shit until you can get back to work. The post office is as good a site as any for a long hug. The whole city is your charge, maybe the country.
When a bomb was placed across from our offices—the bomb was part of our job. To analyze the circumstances of it. To collate police responses and community ones. To reconstruct the narrative into one that felt truer: about entrapment and those who could be exploited, about how political narratives are constructed around bodies, how quickly the machine works. How quickly you have to work to counter it. The veil between work and the world was far thinner. Who would be there when disaster happened? We offered ourselves as front-line academics.
Institutional memory is made by everyone and no one at the same time. It’s a bit alchemical, a bit sentient. When you join the institution, you inflect the institution with your talent, which is that special thing you’re good at, which makes you feel like a person poured into your body. Which makes you experience some ego loss, and some moments at home where you talk to yourself, both from places of embarrassment and pride.
When you leave the institution, your shadow begins working. Because your systems still exist, and will continue to exist, as long as there are people still joining the institution, still recharging the batteries, still standing up in front of a new class of interns with the ASIAN AMERICAN BOOKSELLERS sign. And that’s about as good a legacy as I can claim for myself: that I mattered in the world in a dysfunctional family of academics from 2014-2018.
One of the bullet points on my resume is that Maxine Hong Kingston took home one of my posters. I suspect this missive is as opaque as any job achievement boiled into syrup on a single page. Maybe the bullet point reads a bit like a puzzle, and I’m hoping for that next institution to decode it and appreciate it and everything that it means. The poster went from my fingertips on the mouse into the hands of one of the most famous writers and activists of the 21st century. And it wouldn’t have gotten there had I not loved my coworkers, who loved their talents, who made the event, and called the venue, and prepared moderation, and sent the invitations, and participated in the past of the Workshop, embraced the legacy, and made the space where she could be.
Someone once told me that when you go through a divorce you feel like you’re losing your mind a bit, because the inexpressible, latent half-tasks and memories that comprise the daily flow of a household naturally get allocated to a shared mind space, and when people separate they lose out on problem solving from the group mind cloud. I felt the same way after I left AAWW. I didn’t know where stuff was in my own house, but I knew where the #10 envelopes were on a shelf five miles away. I knew it because that was one of my latent half-tasks, shared with a few others. Due to this, it might be the case that this entire essay is a protracted red herring, because all I can offer you is the partial object that is my memory.
“Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” —Ravel