Next year Goddard College will offer a new MFA scholarship in partnership with PEN Center USA. The recipient of this $10,000 award will be selected from applicants who have previously been PEN USA Emerging Voices fellows. The scholarship is intended to encourage this remarkably talented, diverse, and deserving group of writers to take the “next step” toward a professional writing career by earning their MFAs at Goddard.
Now in its nineteenth year, PEN USA’s Emerging Voices Fellowship is an 8-month literary mentorship program that has “graduated” more than 120 fellows with the help of dozens of volunteer mentors who themselves are professional writers.
One of the early EV fellows was a young actor and social activist named Noel Alumit, whose mentor, Aimee Liu, now teaches in Goddard’s MFA program in Creative Writing at Port Townsend. Recently, Noel and Aimee got together to share their recollections of that mentorship and its effect on Noel’s subsequent writing life.
AL: Noel, how did you wind up applying for an EV fellowship?
NA: I was in the class of 1998, only the third year that EV had been in existence. I had been taking classes at the Gay and Lesbian Center that were specifically for LGBT writers of color, and I’d heard from writer friends that this fellowship was a program for “underserved” writers. I thought I’d give it a shot–it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
AL: What do you remember as the highs and lows of the fellowship?
NA: Well, working with you was certainly a high. What EV did was validate my voice. Indeed, EV and PEN Center USA West helped me believe that a voice like mine–queer, immigrant, Filipino–was exactly what the world needed. I was emboldened by that. A low of the mentorship was that it was only six months long. However, this scholarship is most inspiring. EV still has benefits all of these years later.
AL: Would you consider getting an MFA?
NA: Yes. I already have a BFA. However, I was fresh out of high school when I went for that degree. At middle-age, I’d be curious to see how I’d function getting an MFA. What entices me is the fact that it’s a low-residency program and I like the true focus on writing. My third novel is taking me awhile to write–nearly nine years now. So the idea of focusing and finishing something in two years is also quite appealing to me.
AL: But writing is just one facet of your life. You’ve also worked as an LGBT health advocate. You yourself are a mentor in that capacity, no?
NA: When I was doing LGBT work, I was helping people come out of the closet or feel comfortable with themselves. We talked about all-encompassing life issues. When I was mentoring other gay guys to feel okay being gay, they felt they had no voice at all.
In my own writing mentorship, I had to be brought to a place where I felt my voice was meaningful. I’m grateful to the late Ayofemi Folayan, a black lesbian, who created writing spaces for someone like me to feel comfortable in my place in the world. And I’m grateful to you because when I showed you my writing, you didn’t think it was dumb or useless.
AL: On the contrary! It was a delight and a privilege to mentor you, Noel, and so exciting to watch your work bloom. Just four years after the fellowship your first novel, Letters to Montgomery Clift, was published and started winning awards! I was so proud of you!
NA: My book party in 2002 at Skylight Books in Los Angeles was one of the happiest days of my life. I knew I could become an actor, but becoming a writer required a particular kind of skill and know-how. Even though I’m 47 and have won a mid-career award, I still feel like I’m new to this. I feel I have a lot to learn. Don’t you feel that?
AL: Absolutely! I learn new skills and tricks from just about every book I read. And I love getting back in the classroom as a student. It’s so liberating! That said, every new project fills me with doubt. Which brings me to your second novel, Talking to the Moon, as well as your latest project — a Masters in Divinity. How do you see all these puzzle pieces working together?
NA: My Divinity degree is meant to be used to help people directly. This path is certainly connected to my writing. In both my novels, there were spiritual elements. My father was dying when I wrote my second book, and in a way, the writing helped me with the grieving process. Recently, I contributed a chapter to a book for Buddhist clergy or Buddhist lay people who may encounter difficult spiritual situations: how does a Buddhist deal with domestic violence? How does a Buddhist deal with alcoholics? I contributed a chapter on dealing with AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. It was good to have my Buddhism and social service background and writing life come together like that. It was a moment where I felt justified for my existence in the world, so I’m looking forward to what this path will bring next.
AL: Noel, I salute you! Thank you for all you do and write and create. I’m thankful to Emerging Voices for bringing us together. Can’t wait to see where this journey takes us in years to come!