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20 writers, one borough: Brooklyn Was Mine debuts

With neighborhoods from Fort Greene to Coney Island feeling the pressure of development in their future, and others like Williamsburg already in the midst of it, comes Brooklyn Was Mine, a collection of stories on Brooklyn, by Brooklyn authors. From essays on one of the last remaining seltzer deliverers in the borough to the preciousness of Brighton Beach, 20 writers expound on the concept of Brooklyn, which, as Philip Lopate notes in his introduction, has become not just a place, but “an idea, a symbol, and a contested one at that.” Of the contributors who examine such themes as history, immigration, neighborhood, public space and loss, six will be on hand to read from their essays at neighborhood bookstores. On January 9, Jennifer Egan, Susan Choi and Darin Strauss will be at the Park Slope Barnes and Noble, and on January 15, Emily Barton, Darcey Steinke and Alexander Styron will be at Cobble Hill's Book Court. As editors at Vogue, Brooklyn Was Mine editors Chris Knutsen and Valerie Steiker are in contact with writers all the time, in particular writers living in Brooklyn, and from those contacts and wealth sprang the anthology. “It was a combination of exploring the neighborhood and thinking about all these writers who we either know or read who live in the neighborhood,” said Steiker, who grew up in Manhattan and currently lives in Brooklyn Heights. Knutsen himself is also very involved with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a community coalition crusading for develop that unites, not divides, Brooklyn, and which is receiving all the proceeds from the sales of the anthology, which writers also came on for no compensation. “The minute we started talking to writers, the response was passionate and immediate,” said Fort Greene resident Knutsen. “We asked everyone to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. The fact that we found twenty writers willing to do this speaks to the number of writers in Brooklyn and their generosity.” Though Brooklyn has always had a strong literary presence of poets, novelists and memoirists, from Walt Whitman to Truman Capote to Norman Mailer, there has been a revival as of late. “I would say in the last ten years we’ve seen some incredible concentrations of new writers, a new generation of writers who are calling Brooklyn home,” said Knutsen. There is also a crop of writers not happy with the development occurring in their home. Several of the writers included in the anthology, including Lopate, Jonathan Lethem, Egan and Robert Sullivan, are also involved with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and many of the writings are in direct response to the changes they're witnessing. In Philip Dray’s essay, “Make a Light,” he notes of Williamsburg, “Today, the area is rapidly losing its working-class, bohemian flavor and becoming a cookie-cutter bedroom community for Manhattan, its sepia past closing like the iris dissolve at the end of a silent film.” Lethem's sardonic “Ruckus Flatbush” takes liberties with names and language to describe a Brooklyn of only his imagining in what he calls a kiss-off to “those who think they can control or define a place like this.” While many of the nonfiction essays like Dray’s and Lethem's react to what is being lost, many are also preservations of memories of Brooklyn today, or Brooklyn as they first came to know it. Katie Roiphe's “A Coney Island State of Mind” recounts a date with her future husband on the famed Cyclone, and the fear the rickety ride instilled in her. Lara Vapnyar's “I Hate Brighton Beach (A Conflicted Love Letter),” is just that, an essay of both admiration and detest for the area called Little Odessa which is nothing more than “vulgar pastiche” of the real thing. The dual opportunity to both write about the borough they love and to react to its changes was something that struck a chord with the writers, said Knutsen. Other writers in the anthology include Rachel Cline, Colin Harrison, Joanna Hershon, Dinaw Mengestu, Elizabeth Gaffney, Lara Vapnyar, Lawrence Osborne, John Burnham Schwartz, Vijay Seshadri and Michael Thomas. While the essays are about Brooklyn, peeling away the layers so that people look at it in a whole new way, the themes of change, both on a city and human scale, are not isolated. They speak to changes occurring in other parts of America and are experiences common to all. “I think a lot of the essays, while the setting is Brooklyn both past and present, there are also themes that run throughout about fatherhood, love, urban change, a broken heart, that speak to the human experience,” said Knutsen. Adds Steiker, “I hope that the book will stand on its own as a literary tribute. The essays are moving and profound and funny. In twenty years they will still speak to people regardless of the community commitment that led it.” While change is something that both editors recognize as inevitable and necessary, it is the scale and speed that is ringing alarms. The Coney Island Roiphe writes with such energy and excitement is one that may only be known to future generations through text and photographs. There is the question of whether or not development fast occurring in neighborhoods like Fort Greene is responsible to the communities who are working and raising their families there through affordable housing and work that further creates, not divides, a sense of community. While Brooklyn Was Mine in its title alone might signify a sense of defeat, it is quite the opposite, as its editors and writers look to bring attention to the need for responsible growth. “I think Brooklyn is getting a national profile through work like this,” said Knutsen. “I don’t think it’ll stop with the book. We hope to get the word out about what’s happening in Brooklyn to a national audience.” On January 9, Jennifer Egan, Susan Choi and Darin Strauss will be reading from their essays in Brooklyn Was Mine at the Park Slope Barnes and Noble (267 7th Avenue) starting at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 718-832-9066. On January 15, Emily Barton, Darcey Steinke and Alexander Styron will be reading at Book Court (163 Court Street), starting at 7 p.m. For more information, call 718-875-3677.

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