Meet Bijan Stephen and Alanna Okun.
For those not in the know, Alanna and Bijan are a pretty big deal. Alanna is a senior editor at BuzzFeed; she has appeared on The TODAY Show, Good Morning, America!, The Katie Couric Show, NBC’s Nightly News, and NPR; her writing has appeared in Billfold, Architizer, and Side B, et cetera. Bijan is an associate editor at The New Republic; his work has appeared in The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, N+1, VICE, and The New Inquiry; he’s a writer for Rusty Foster’s cult TinyLetter Today in Tabs (subscribe, for real tho), and also happens to be Ta-Nehisi Coates’s twitter-son.
Bijan and Alanna are friends, and they came up with the idea of co-creating and hosting a reading series over drinks one night. All they needed was a location, a PA system, and a bunch of their friends to come read.
Alanna brought the idea up to her landlord. Her landlord knew a woman named Jill, who had a boutique clothing store / bar / art gallery / event space called Jill Lindsey. Alanna’s landlord also had a PA system, which he was more than willing to lend to Alanna.Alanna and Bijan roped in a plethora of writerly friends. And just like that, “I Did My Best” reading series was born.
The theme of the evening was “making homes,” and Isaac Fitzgerald (BuzzFeed Books editor, author of Pen & Ink) read first. He read an essay about why he moved to New York City and the circumstances leading up to this decision. Long story short, Isaac moved to New York because he was tired of drinking tequila in the morning and he knew a guy he could deal cocaine for, and he moved after achieving minor literary fame with an essay about getting pegged by a girl wearing a strap-on. Riveting stuff.
Aude White read next. She described herself as a “mutt,” and claimed: “well-meaning trolls question who I am.” Aude was born in New York City, lives in New York City, and plans on dying in New York City, “assuming it’s not under water by then.” God bless her for that one.
Cue Jazmine Hughes (associate editor at The New York Times Magazine, work in The New Yorker and everywhere else). She told us about her five sisters, and opened up about the hardships of inter-sibling rivalries and family strife, intense, cutting facets of life that made for a rewarding reading. Jazmine is also the champion of this brilliant fucking thing, which every editor in the Western Hemisphere should use (and if they don’t, look what happens).
Bijan closed out the first half of the reading. He’s a black dude from Tyler, Texas, which is, believe it or not, pretty stressful. He lived up to his place on the TNR masthead, referencing the work of Eileen Miles and Frank O’Hara, and delivering some crushing lines (“when you write things down, you can control how you feel”). He also admitted that he lost his virginity under the light of a menorah, which, contrary to popular belief, is true, and not lifted from a Wes Anderson film.
Alanna kicked things off after an intermission, speaking about her propensity for serial monogamy and how her apartment is her soul. Facts: she is a master quesadilla chef, is “built for togetherness,” and feels as though she is constantly “darting in and out of tiny futures.”
Amber Gordon, the founder of Femsplain, came next. Hers was a detailed chronology of her life growing up, which was riddled with tragedies any one of which would have defined the majority of people in the audience. Her mother was in and out of jail, her father was abusive — Amber confronted us with a whirlwind of trauma illustrating exactly how resilient and powerful one person can be. I can’t imagine the immense courage it took to present such memories and experiences to strangers.
The next reader, Kelly Stout, is the A-Issue Editor at The New Yorker. She was also the funniest reader of the night. She adopted the style of an introspective Blake Lively and satirized her life with Blake’s conviction and serenity in a manner that would make Geoff Dyer proud. After doing a bit of informal polling, I’m almost sure the phrase “a tote bag full of tote bags” might be The Great Brooklyn-Literary Tweet.
Ashley Cassandra Ford (contributing editor at LitHub, work in The Guardian, BuzzFeed and more) closed out the event with a moving essay about her brother’s struggle with his sexual identity. Ford’s beautifully crafted scenes stunned the audience — her brother stealing their mother’s clothes, her brother’s livid jealousy at Ashley’s body when she hit puberty, his glee when looking at his reflection in the mirror while wearing a dress and high heels. Ashley’s reading brought the strands of humor and trauma and tragedy of the evening’s fare back to the notion of making a home, of being at home, not only in one’s environment but with one’s identity.
Each of the evening’s readers contributed to the foundation of a home. That home, the “I Did My Best” Reading Series, showcased some of the best up-and-coming literary talent New York City has to offer. The series will return in July.