At 10, Parent-Focused Literary Salon Has Grown Up Nicely | chelseanow.com

At 10, Parent-Focused Literary Salon Has Grown Up Nicely

M. M. De Voe moderates a lively conversation with award-winning novelists Cara Hoffman, Marina Budhos, and Ann Hood. | Photo by D. Suziedelis

BY TRAV S.D. | The old saying notwithstanding, there may be certain circumstances in which it is quite possible to have your cake and eat it, too. That’s the official stance of Pen Parentis, a not-for-profit whose mission is to support writers who’ve chosen to start families — not always the most popular or well-understood path within the arts community. Now celebrating its 10th year, Pen Parentis is marking the occasion this month with a salon showcasing graphic novels by American Book Award winner Victor LaValle, acclaimed novelist Mira Jacob, celebrated nonfiction illustrator Josh Neufeld, and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Darin Strauss.

“People need to understand that parenting is a life choice, not a career choice, whereas writing is a career choice, not a hobby,” said M.M. De Voe, founder and co-host of Pen Parentis. “You can have kids and still make art.”

An award-winning writer and mother of two herself, De Voe founded Pen Parentis in 2009 after conversations with colleagues in which they commiserated about the difficulty of being a parent and a writer at the same time. “Everything is geared toward supporting full-time artists who don’t have children, [e.g.,] things like month-long residencies. There’s almost a stigma that artists with children are not quite as dedicated, an almost institutionalized position that the really serious people were ones who don’t have families.”

To offer parent-authors moral support and encouragement, Pen Parentis presents salons on the second Tuesday of each month, from September through May. The authors read their work and then participate in moderated discussions about how they manage to stay productive while raising a family at the same time.

American Book Award winner Victor LaValle will be reading at the Sept. 11 Pen Parentis salon. | Photo by Teddy Wolff

A crucial, if unofficial, part of the organization’s identity is its Downtown location, at the Andaz Wall Street hotel  (75 Wall St.). Andaz sponsors the salons with in-kind donations of space, snacks, and beverages. De Voe moved to the neighborhood in May of 2001, just months before 9/11. Following the disaster, long-term effort has gone into the revitalization of Downtown, including the arts. The creation of Pen Parentis has been part of that process, receiving grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, among other local supporters. Integration into the community has been key to the group’s success. In addition to the partnership with Andaz (“who actually courted us,” De Voe said with amazement), they’ve benefitted from the pro bono assistance of the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP. “Their office is nearby,” De Voe noted, “and one of their lawyers came to our salons for about six months. She’s not a writer and she’s not a parent. She just enjoyed our events. Through her efforts, Milbank helped us get our not-for-profit status in 2014.”

De Voe is quick to point out that the salons are a group effort. In addition to her co-host and event curator Christina Chiu (who, like De Voe, holds an MFA from Columbia), there are numerous full-time volunteers contributing to such aspects of the effort as tech and communications.

Their collaboration has paid off. Ten years down the line, Pen Parentis has presented close to 300 authors, among them such well-known writers as Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody, Jennifer Probst, Jennifer Belle, and Sarah Langan. The organization prefers to present writers of fiction, according to De Voe, but they have also presented writers of non-fiction, such as Laura Vanderkam and Erin L. Thompson.

“From the beginning we sought out writers who had managed to make work while parenting, who’ve won awards, and gotten published — and talk with them about how they did it,” De Voe said. “It’s often very emotional. We’ve had [participants] cry during the salons. You’re not allowed to talk about this stuff.”

Novelist and Pen Parentis participant John Reed calls it, “a rare and invaluable resource for writers and other creatives who have children. While having children is of course enriching and an essential part of the life experience that writers seek to express, it can also be an obstacle, in terms of networks and finances. Making the arts more sustainable to more people is a familiar mission statement, but Pen Parentis delivers.”

In addition to its salons, Pen Parentis offers writing fellowships, creativity workshops, and is now developing a new database that will list residencies, colony initiatives, and other opportunities for writers that are parent-friendly.

The next Pen Parentis salon will be presented on the second floor of the Andaz Wall Street hotel (75 Wall St., at Water St.) on Tues., Sept. 11, beginning at 7pm and ending at 10pm. The salon is open to the general public for a suggested donation of $10. Supporting Title Members are admitted free, and a limited number of complimentary student and senior tickets are also available (all writers who are parents are eligible to become Title Members). The organizers stress that you do not have to be a parent or writer, but if you are one of the former, please don’t bring your children, as audiences are 21+ only. Reservations are recommended; you may make them at penparentis.org.

“We always fill the house,” De Voe warned. “During hurricanes, maybe half-full.” Spoken with the realism of a parent, and the wit of a writer.

Mira Jacob will be reading at the Sept. 11 Pen Parentis salon. | Courtesy of Mira Jacob