Hearken: A Reading at Manhattan Inn

1. Grace MacNair, Jullian Woods, and Lily Strozier Smith. Grace is a doula and she and Jullian are supposed to be on a date. Thankfully, Lily is a really cute third wheel. 2. This is how it really was in there. All the other photos in this post have artificial color added.

I was worried the G train would make me late for the inaugural reading of Hearken, a new series at Greenpoint’s Manhattan Inn brought to the lit world by John McElwee, the face and brain of KGB’s nonfiction series. So I drove. Driving made me late, too. As my road rage and I entered the bar, I gave it an anxious once-over, expecting that things might already be under way. Then a strange thing happened.

Waitress: Can I help you?

Me: Hi, I’m looking for the reading.

Waitress: Of course. Table for one?

Me: I’m sorry?

Waitress: Are you with anyone else?

Me (Confused. A table? Should I be with someone else?): … No?

1. Hearken’s host John McElwee gets it going. 2. The James Yeh section.

She walked me through a velvet curtain, into a square room with a baby grand piano dead center and a skylight so unexpected it appeared like a portal to the other side. Not only had the reading not started, but the only clue that it might ever start was a lone microphone tucked into the hip of the piano. Raised tables around the room were occupied by couples and other intimate-looking groups, all imbibing and chatting away. I should have been with someone else. It was romantic as all get out in there. McElwee, who played emcee, told me later that he wanted to get quality north Brooklyn writers together in a quality north Brooklyn space (and he did, of course). He also put together a perfect date night for lit lovers.

1. James Yeh and his beautiful hair read from his novel-in-progress. 2. Kianoosh Hashemzadeh from The New Press and Elizabeth from Penguin. They’re James Yeh fans. Aren’t we all?

After short welcoming words from McElwee, James Yeh started things off with a portion of a story from his forthcoming novel. He’s the founding editor of Gigantic Magazine. He has the most beautiful haircut, and he was wearing suspenders over a t-shirt. Somehow that looked totally right. These are the kinds of magical things that can happen to you when you’re James Yeh. And no wonder he seemed so at home in the place; he used to DJ at Manhattan Inn. “I like to joke that the best and worst nights of my life have happened here,” he said. “It’s kind of true though, not really a joke.”

Yeh’s story-inside-a-novel was set in the south, with the narrator’s parents preparing to move out of the home in which the narrator was raised. I’m not saying that James Yeh’s protagonist is James Yeh, but I am saying that he is a master of writing the halting, article-and-contraction-missing accent that the Asian “mommy” and “daddy” of his piece speak with (my extended family, too). Yeh’s version is so funny that even he choked on a big laugh partway through.

1. The light from above shines on Tobias Carroll. 2. Ceramic designers Johanna Flores and Farrah Sit came for the cocktails and stayed to hear Karolina Waclawiak talk about the libido of 80+ year old women.

Tobias Carroll, managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, gave us a more serious read from his upcoming novel centered on two characters who meet at a punk rock show “and instantly hate each other.” The portion that Carroll read featured an angry fellow — possibly adorned with Fascist tattoos — a mural described in Homeric detail, and a road trip “that was as much about stimulants on the journey as it was about the destination.”

When Carroll stepped away from the mic, McElwee appeared to announce a short break and no sooner had the words fallen from his lips than an unassuming plaid-shirted guy took to the piano and struck up some elaborate ragtime tunes. As if everyone’s dates weren’t going well enough already.

1. Karolina Waclawiak and the libido of 80+ year old women. 2. Look at all this dark-corneredness.

The piano player stayed just long enough for everyone to settle in with another round of drinks. McElwee reappeared to introduce Karolina Waclawiak, who, he said, had the “most topical piece of fiction of the night.” Her debut novel How To Get Into The Twin Palms is about a Polish woman trying to pass as Russian in Los Angeles (and we were of course hunkered down in Brooklyn’s most Polish neighborhood). Outlet readers already know how the novel boldly opens, but Waclawiak also treated the Manhattan Inn crowd to a scene set at a bingo game, where elderly Russian widows gab about sex drives (or li-beee-doh, they repeat, Waclawiak intoning in her gravelly deadpan).

And then — short and sweet — Hearken’s first installment was over. The skylight had darkened and the velvet curtain could barely keep out the rolling roar of a packed bar behind it. As far as first dates go, I think we were all pretty smitten.


— Kai Twanmoh is a sometimes contributor to Electric Dish. You can find her here.

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