Meet more judges for the #2019BerlinWritingPrize. Today we talked to writer May-Lan Tan about Berlin, writing to a theme, and community. May-Lan Tan studied fine art at Goldsmiths and works as a ghostwriter. She’s the author of the story collection Things to Make and Break (shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award) and the chapbook Girly. Her stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, the Atlas Review, the Reader, and Areté. She lives in Berlin. You can follow her on twitter at @amanlyant
How did you come to be involved in this year’s Berlin Writing Prize?
I met the Reader Berlin’s marvelous Program Manager Traci Kim at an event she organized for the novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. I love what Traci, Victoria Gosling, and the rest of the Reader team are doing to support writers in Berlin, so I’m happy to be included in the panel.
What brought you to Berlin?
I moved to Berlin because I wanted to learn to speak German.
The Reader Berlin is a platform for English-language writers in Berlin, many of whom are working towards getting their first piece published in a journal or finishing a book. Can you name one particular thing or the things that helped you on your journey?
Being friends with writers I respect and admire. Even when we’re not talking about books or writing, we sustain each other just by caring about the same things. Seeing how my friends embody their work, and watching their ideas grow into books or other realities alongside this indescribable life we share is what keeps me present and engaged in the process. Every writer needs to have this, and that’s why I appreciate everything the Reader does to nurture Berlin’s writing community.
This year’s theme is The Circus. What does that mean to you?
To me, the circus represents any situation or condition in which the outlier has dignity and purpose and finally belongs. It’s a place where unusual qualities are valued, protected, celebrated.
How would you approach writing on a theme?
I might think of it as a magnifying glass training a sunbeam—a way to tighten or adjust the focus on my current obsessions. Or, as sunlight bouncing off a mirror—a license to depart from my usual territory and be a different kind of writer.
Finally, what are your major turn-ons and turn-offs as a reader? What will be getting the thumbs up or thumbs down from you during the judging process?
I get excited about a lot of different kinds of writing. I like confident, playful work that can be felt upon the body.
The Circus is offering the winner of the 2019 Berlin Writing Prize a one-month residency in one of our luxury apartments in the heart of the city. As a Berlin writer yourself, what do you feel Berlin has to offer the winner?
Berlin is a city of ideas. Wherever you look, someone’s dreams are coming to life. There’s something about the scale of the city, too, that makes me brave in my work. I need to be surrounded by water. We have so many lakes.
Have you ever done a writing residency? If so, how did you benefit from it?
I spent a month at Milkwood Artist Residence in Czech Republic and a month at Polli Talu Arts Centre in Estonia almost back to back one summer. At the time I was fitting my writing practice around waitressing shifts and temp work and struggling to finish my first book. Having almost a whole summer to read and write allowed me to get a lot of work done very quickly, but the most important thing I took from those experiences was to learn how to make my everyday life into a writing residency.