All posts by Alison Minami

Sinkholes Everywhere

By Alison Minami

I’m writing a play about a town–really a family–but also a town that is hit with a giant sinkhole. The play moves around a lot in time–pre-sinkhole and post-sinkhole. It also dives right down into the hole itself.

I went down the rabbithole of sinkholes on Youtube. Some of the sinkholes are gargantuan. We’re talking three to four hundred feet deep and sixty feet wide. Sometimes they are born out of avarice, a willful ignorance of science that puts profit above all else. Sometimes they are due to poor infrastructure and engineering or slow undetected leaks of water or sewage that collapses soluble sediment. There is evidence that floods and storms related to climate change are linked to more and more of these holes. Other internet videos include a man walking down a busy Brooklyn Street when one of his legs falls right through the cement crosswalk. A Florida man sleeps in bed when the earth opens up beneath him and swallows him whole; His body is never recovered. These holes seem futuristic and apocalyptic, but in fact they’ve been happening for a while now.

I can watch these videos on a loop. For me, it’s riveting! Sinkholes are a physical manifestation of all our demons and our fears. Why a hole? It’s like any other calamity…one day you’re here, the next you’re not. One day you know everything, and the next, you know nothing. The earth is supposed to represent the most sure and steady thing for us. What does it mean when people describe others as grounded? Or salt of the earth? And what does it mean to be at ground zero or hit rock bottom? There is so much metaphor in a giant gaping hole. I think of inconsolable grief, trauma, regret, unbearable shame, addiction, guilt, dreams deferred, dreams dead. I think of a terrifying abyss, fear of the unknown, depths of despair, Dante’s inferno, yes hell. Once you start with the metaphors (and the puns), you can’t stop. We’re all in the fucking hole in one way or another, doesn’t matter what it is for you—a divorce, a death, a freaking worldwide pandemic. We’ve all been down it; we’ve all had the choice to climb out or stay in.

 And isn’t it funny, that a hole is a piercing, a wound, an intolerable emptiness? And the same word with a different spelling Whole means exactly its opposite. To heal is to make whole, to piece together the essentials is to make whole, to be complete is to make whole. What’s that fancy Brene Brown terminology of being whole-hearted? How do we live whole-heartedly in a world with sinkholes everywhere? I don’t have an answer, but I’m here for the excavation.

Meet Tamadhur Al-Aqeel

By Alison Minami

Tamadhur Al-Aqeel has been writing plays for over a decade. She started out in an acting program at Boston University, where the Dean of her theater department snickered that she’d only get stereotypical roles as a maid or a prostitute. This problem of representation followed her when she transferred to Cal Arts, and finally to Cal State Long Beach, where she settled on a major in Journalism. Like many artists of color, Tamadhur realized that writing for the stage was the best way to create better roles for women like herself.  That was the nineties, and still, change has been slow to come.

Tamadhur has been a member of the Company of Angels Playwrights’ Group for nearly a decade and now serves as one of its co-leaders, volunteering to organize and schedule logistics. The group has evolved over time, having begun as an incubator for the theater’s 10-minute short play festival. Today it is an application-only, year-long play development program, with the aim of assisting writers to complete full-length pieces that culminate in professionally staged readings. She was also recently a member of the Vagrancy Theater’s professional playwrights’ group in 2020.

Tamadhur–“rhymes with bother” she says to help people with the pronunciation–was named after her father’s favorite Egyptian poet. She speaks fondly of her Kuwaiti-born father, a trained educator and a natural with young children, and recalls one of her early memories of him telling stories, using his hands as puppet-like figures around a tambourine, the proverbial campfire or theater in the round.

As an Arab-American female artist who is also a mom of two, Tamadhur has faced her fair share of challenges. In the early days, she co-wrote and independently produced a successful play that was a feminist take on Scheherazade, the narrator of the classic Middle Eastern tale One Thousand and One Nights. The piece incorporated shadow puppetry and began Tamadhur’s training and interest in the art form. Unfortunately, she was also in an intimate relationship with her co-writer and when that didn’t work out, he attempted to discredit her contribution. “Never sleep with your writing partner” she quips. The line is funny, but not the anecdote. It reflects a common problem of the patriarchy, desiring to punish women by usurping them of their creative power and due credit.

Post 9-11, like so many Americans of Middle Eastern descent, Tamadhur experienced increased scrutiny, which naturally led to increased paranoia. Her mail would arrive opened, and the airport security checks started and have never let up. To this day, whenever she travels with her family, they must factor in the time that it will take for security to put her through the humiliating rigmarole of patting her down, grabbing her crotch and breasts, and going through her things. Even at a young age, Tamadhur’s daughters would ask, “Why is it always you mom?”  This kind of racism has naturally informed her writing.

In one of her most recent works “Traffic Report”, written expressly for the Zoom stage, a daughter and father, who is living under a “dictatorship cracking down on dissidents,” exchange Skype calls that are being surveilled. The audience is put in the seat of the spying, uncertain whether the father himself is a dissident and forcing them to consider the morality of surveillance as well as their own complicity.

Tamadhur wonders in a post-pandemic world “Who are audiences going to be?” and “How much can you ask of an audience?” These are great questions for all theaters who struggled, even before the pandemic, to fill their seats. She admits that while quarantine was terrible and Zoom plays were not ideal, the online format made it easier for her to produce her work and to participate in playwriting opportunities such as LAFPI’s Microreads.

Currently, she’s developing a puppet show “Drugs and a Magic Cow” which is a dark adaptation of the fairy tale of Old Mother Hubbard. She is also collaborating with Cold Tofu Improv Group, who will be taking the first two pages of a play she’s written expressly for their group, which they will perform and extend into a complete one-act of improvised theater. That show is virtual on November 18

On Writerly Advice

by Alison Minami

For the longest time, my favorite question during author Q&A panels went something like this: “Can you tell me about your writing process?” or “What is your writing practice?” or “How do you revise your work?” I was always hoping to glean some magic truth, a golden nugget that would suddenly motivate me to be generative, skillful and efficient all at the same time. I would think to myself, these writers have done something I haven’t yet accomplished, they must know something I don’t. 

I am still interested in the answers to these questions, but I have now come to realize–it seems so basic and cliché that I’m embarrassed to confess it here–that one should not hold onto advice, call it wisdom if you like, for longer than its expiration date. What resonates today may not work for tomorrow. And further, two seemingly opposite ideas can both be true at the same time.

Here’s an example: When I heard Cheryl Strayed say she didn’t write everyday, I felt relieved, giving myself a pass for not being a daily writer. She instead created opportunities, funded by organizations or with her own money, to hole up somewhere and write in chunks of time. A while back I took her advice and booked a three night stay in Santa Barbara to finish a draft of a script. Driving back to Los Angeles, I felt euphoric from the marathon writing, and I wondered why I hadn’t done such a thing before. Well, there’s a good reason why. I’m a parent with a parent schedule, and it’s hard to justify the cost of a hotel when you don’t plan on going out and you have a designated workspace in your own apartment. However, there was something psychologically motivating when I went away. I powered through in a way that I never seemed to be able to at my desk, even when I had the allotted time to get the writing done. Cheryl’s advice, it turned out, was sound. But let’s be honest, that was over six months ago. I’m not going to do that every month; I can’t afford it. Then what of all the time in between self-made “writing retreats”? While Cheryl allowed me to be gentler toward myself and to create space for the creative work, I know a younger version of myself might’ve interpreted that positive experience as proof positive that  “I can only write in hotels on long weekends.” I still take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to write everyday to call yourself a writer. But I also see value in cultivating the discipline to write everyday or establishing a writing routine. It’s not anything I’ve ever achieved, but I still strive toward that practice. 

Here’s another example that is less about the writing process and more about the steps to publication or production. In other words, putting yourself out there. Once I read a very compelling argument against paid writing contests. I can’t remember if it was an article, blogpost, or comments section rant, but the author made salient points. We were writers, already strapped for cash, being asked to submit our work to an applicant pool so large and/or nebulous that acceptance was as likely as winning the lottery. For some reason, this author’s screed made sense to me. It was undoubtedly validating a growing sense of resentment at having to go through so much vulnerability and rejection. I don’t blame myself for adopting this stance, I only wish I hadn’t held on to it for so long. Only recently have I started submitting myself to contests, publications, and development opportunities, and it has cost me a lot of money. I have had very slim success–but slim is obviously better than none. 

I am guilty of holding good advice to my chest as if it were my cuddle blanket. I am quick to adopt ideas that alleviate my insecurities or justify my inactions. Often, the advice is revelatory and genuinely useful. Often it has an arresting shimmer when it comes out of the mouth of someone I respect, someone whose work I admire. They must have the answer, they must know THE WAY, I think to myself. But when someone tells you THE WAY to accomplish a goal, it’s important to remember that there are many ways. The fact is that every writer is different and, more importantly, every writer evolves. A writer’s process for one project may be completely different for another. Sometimes you have to throw spaghetti at a wall and see what sticks; other times it is wise to hunker down and focus on the one project eating at your brain and haunting your dreams. It’s smart to look to others for advice, especially those who are doing what you want to do, but re-assessing how that advice aligns with your current philosophies and practices and listening to your own creative pulse is just as important.