Dispatches | February 28, 2020

2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin shares her journey to becoming an audio producer, the lens through which she sees the world, and how TikTok makes her laugh.

The Missouri Review: To start, could you tell us a little about how you came to be an audio producer? Was this something you always thought you wanted to pursue? What drew you to the medium?

Alex Sujong Laughlin: I’ve been in love with radio since I was little — I would sit in my bedroom floor and listen to NPR while I made collages out of garbage. I discovered my first podcast (The Ben Lee Podcast, RIP) when I was in ninth grade, and I listened to its six episodes on repeat on my iPod during gym class that year. Later on, I discovered This American Life (classic gateway), then RadioLab, and that was it for me. I took a little detour in college and post-grad to work in social media, but I always felt like audio was my home base.

TMR: You teach journalism at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, you work at Transmitter Media, you helped to create an alarm clock for Google Alexa, you are very active on social media, and the list goes on, yet, you also find time to write. How do you juggle so much at once and still find time for writing? Do you have any tips for those of us who are also trying to carve time out for our writing?

ASJ: It’s extremely hard!!! I don’t want to understate how hard it is!!! My mentor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, challenged me last year to carve out at least 15 minutes every day to work on my WIP, and once I started doing that, I found I could get so many more words on the page. Still, there are ebbs and flows. I had a massive deadline at work that took up a ton of time and brain space over the last month, so I haven’t made as much time to write as I did in months prior. It’s been important for me to learn to forgive myself for time not spent being “productive.” Sometimes I just need to sleep, and if I don’t do that first, my art will not be good!

TMR: You’ve done a lot of work that explores the concepts of race and identity, including your podcast, “Other: Mixed Race in America.” How do your thoughts on identity factor into your creative pursuits?

ASJ: I’m a mixed race, Korean and white woman who grew up in a middle class military family of divorce with a Korean immigrant mother. That is the only way I have experienced the world, and even though I read and research and interview folks, everything I make is created through that lens. I try to be aware of the blind spots that arise from that, but I also hope to represent the nuances of this particular intersection of identities. I published “Other” three years ago, but I still get emails from people telling me that it was the first time they’d seen themselves represented in media, and that it inspired them to tell their own stories. That is the best response I could have hoped for from that show, and it’s what I aim for with every piece of work I publish.

TMR: Now we’re going to do the thing that all writers do and ask you to tell us about your favorite books. We know you’ve compiled reading lists for your followers in the past; are there essential books/texts that always make your list?  

ASJ: Oh my gosh, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is practically a religious text for me. All of Ruth Ozeki’s work is amazing — I can’t even pick one book. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing turned my brain inside out last summer. I return to Anaïs Nin’s diaries in between other books — I love reading published diaries and hers are gorgeously written. I also have a deep love for all things Carson McCullers – we went to the same high school in South Georgia, and I always felt a kinship with her. I recently read Reflections in a Golden Eye and was tickled by the extremely accurate descriptions the houses I grew up in on Ft. Benning.

TMR: One of our categories that you will be judging in the Miller Audio Prize is humor, and we love that your social media handles (and website!) are “@alexlaughs.” We’ve got to ask: What makes you laugh, and what makes you laugh in a way that makes you want to hear the bit again?

ASJ: I have a really juvenile sense of humor. I feel like 2008-era Tumblr memes and Spongebob Squarepants are the roots of my humor… which is not cool, but I don’t care. TikTok always gets me laughing to tears. My sister and I discovered this video over Christmas break and it BROKE us for two weeks. Why is it called “pants hair”?!? Why is she standing like that in the picture?! I can’t explain it, and I am sorry.

TMR: A hard reality that all writers and artists have to deal with is rejection and you’re doing this incredible thing by collecting those stories @hellorejection. What is one of the most memorable stories about rejection that you’ve collected? Did it change the way you personally think about rejection?

ASJ: I think just seeing the accumulation of all the stories has been really comforting to me. We all know that everyone experiences rejection, but when you’re in the thick of it, it can really feel like you’re the only talentless reject in the world, and that you should probably give up. It’s comforting to see the feelings I’ve had reflected in so many other people across industries and disciplines. It’s a reminder to keep going!

TMR: And of course, as writers ourselves, we want to know if you have any advice for other artists/writers dealing with their own rejection?

ASJ: Just to remember that it’s part of the process, you’re not the only person going through it — and submit your screenshots to @hellorejection 😉

TMR: We couldn’t sign off without asking some questions about the adorable Pangur Bán that we’ve been seeing a lot of on your Instagram page. Can you tell us about his name? When is he at his most adorable?

ASJ: We usually call him Pong or Pongey, but we named him after a cat in an Old Irish poem written by a monk. My partner is in grad school, and we anticipated that the two of them would spend a lot of their days together in the apartment. Here’s an excerpt of the poem translated by Auden:

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are

Alone together, scholar and cat

Each has his own work to do daily;

For you it is hunting, for me study.

Your shining eye watches the wall;

My feeble eye is fixed on a book.

You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;

I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.

Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;

Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

Turns out, cats are little terrors, but Pong definitely has his moments when he crawls into bed while I’m reading and snuggles up with me.

Alex Sujong Laughlin is a journalist and writer who works in multiple mediums. By day, she works at a producer at Transmitter Media, and in her spare time she writes fiction and essays about identity and technology. She teaches interactive journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and collects rejection letters at @hellorejection.

Enter the 2020 Miller Audio Prize on our Contest page here.