The ashes of a phoenix: A ballad of poor email communication

The phoenix. A mythical bird said to rebirth itself through fire. From the ashes of its previous self, comes new life. 

By the time Thursday evening came, all I had were ashes. I spent four days tending a fire only for it to burn me in the end.

My journey with this phoenix started on Sunday, Feb. 28.

I was going to write a story about the college’s National Book Awards celebration. 

I have never been a big fan of reading, or books for that matter (the 2018 National Book Award winner for fiction, “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez, is propping up my laptop as I write this story). But the thought of writing about the National Book Awards had me excitedly unmuting myself in a Zoom call. 

I would have to be the one that showed the whole Concordia community the glorious return of the National Book Awards. Everyone has sacrificed so much to be safe during the pandemic. I would be the one to give them the good news of something ̶ anything! ̶ returning to normal.

Last year’s National Book Awards celebration at Concordia was canceled because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. This year, it returned in a blaze of glory! 

This would be the story of a phoenix rising from the ashes; a once canceled celebration now triumphantly returning. 

After some investigation, I emailed Scott Olsen from the English department that night.

Tending this wonderful flame would take time and care, and I only had until Friday to submit my story. Each email I had to send was more time my story spent burning up, and less time spent in its blaze of glory. No matter though, I had the whole week ahead of me.

Olsen told me that Laura Probst was a good place to start. She is the co-director of the National Book Awards committee at Concordia. 

On Monday, she emailed me the contact information for the agents of the authors coming to this year’s National Book Awards at Concordia. 

I would finally have some logs of substance to throw on the fire, not just small sticks of information.

I sent emails to the agents after this email exchange with Probst. 

A few minutes after I emailed the various agents, my computer made the telltale sound of an email notification. The four-tone sound got my hopes up that one of the agents eagerly responded. 

I opened Outlook and saw a message from Anna Elling, one of the agents for both Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. 

Jamieson, illustrator of several graphic novels, and Mohamed, founder of a refugee advocacy nonprofit, collaborated to create the graphic novel “When Stars Are Scattered.” This graphic novel tells the true story of Mohamed and his nonverbal brother throughout their 15 years in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. 

Since leaving Kenya, Mohamed started a nonprofit and co-authored a book that was a National Book Awards finalist. 

Mohamed is a phoenix.

“Thank you for your email! I am on vacation Monday, March 1st until Friday, March 5th. I will respond to your query as soon as I return.” said the email. 

Whoosh! One source up in flames.

Well, at least it was only 4 p.m. on Monday and I had plenty of days to go before submitting my story. This would not be the straw that broke the camel’s back, it would be kindling to feed the flame. 

The next email I got was on Tuesday. Elyse Marshall, the other agent for Jamieson and Mohamed, was happy to pass along my availability and set up an interview.

That was the last I heard from Marshall. 

Later that day, Alysyn Reinhardt, agent for David Treuer, emailed me back asking about my availability.

Treuer is an Ojibwe Native American from the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota. He was a finalist for a National Book Awards last year, but he came this year since last year’s celebration was canceled. 

Treuer is a phoenix.  

After receiving my availability, Reinhardt told me that Treuer had to turn down the opportunity because his “bandwidth is super thin at the moment.”

Whoosh! There goes another source.

It was still only Tuesday. My eyes were too clouded by the flames to realize they were burning me, not birthing a mythical bird. 

On Wednesday, I met with Probst to talk about the National Book Awards at Concordia. She told me about the various events the college would be hosting with the authors. She told me about the many nuances of deciding which National Book Awards finalist to bring to Concordia, one criterion being a local connection.

Earlier that day, Hemme Froslie told me that the authors of the graphic novel were partnering with a local middle school. This partnership was sparked by the fact that two staff members at the middle school lived at the same refugee camp Mohamed lived at.

I could not have asked for a better reporting angle even if I wanted to. An ocean away, but connected through this shared experience. I could talk to these two staff members. I could talk to school administrators about making this experience possible. 

Even if I had nothing from the authors, this was a whole forest of fuel for my story.

I asked Probst about the middle school partnership. She confirmed what Hemme Froslie said, and nothing more. She said not to dig further because it was not directly related to the National Book Awards. 

This was not a whoosh of flame. This was the pitiful fizzling out of the few embers I had left.

By the time Thursday evening came, all I had were ashes. No mythical bird bursting from the flames, just an empty page stained by the ashes of what could have been.

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