Meet the Editorial Board: Nicola Koh

For twenty years, Water~Stone Review has been a collaborative passion project of students, faculty, and staff. While it is a staff member who holds the position of managing editor (Meghan Maloney-Vinz), and esteemed faculty (Katrina Vandenberg, Patricia Weaver Francisco, and Sheila O’Connor) who serve each issue as section editors, it is our current MFA (creative writing) students who work as invaluable editorial board members and graduate assistants. Led by the faculty editors in a semester-long course, our editorial board members learn the art of careful consideration and in doing so curate the beautiful writing in our journal each year.

In this series of blog posts we introduce you to some of our incredible and accomplished student editors. In this post we meet Nicola Koh.

What genre and volume did you work on?Nicola Koh

Fiction, Volume 19

Where are you in the MFA and what is your primary project?

Finishing in Dec 2017 and working on a short story collection with Sheila O’Connor.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids MI for my BA and took a ridiculous amount of credits, then went to the seminary across the pond (Calvin Theological Seminary—literarily across a pond), where I got two Masters degrees despite losing my faith.

Because I’m on a student visa, my job opportunities have been limited to part-time stints and internships, such as working as a grant writing intern with Tubman (Minnesota’s largest provider of services for victims of domestic violence), a Supplemental Instructor at Normandale Community College, an editorial intern at Graywolf Press, the associate poetry editor for Vol. 3 of Runestone Literary Journal, and one of the instructors for the Introduction to Creative Writing course this Spring here at Hamline.

I’ve had work in all genres published or forthcoming with Southwest ReviewWord RiotHermeneutic Chaos Literary JournalSweet: A Literary Confection, and A-Minor Magazine.

What drew you to be a student editor with Water~Stone Review?

I’ve been interested in editing for a while now. Both because I enjoy helping others realize their visions and also because I find editing makes me a better writer. Water~Stone offered something for both those sides of me, editor and writer.

What did you learn while on the editorial board that surprised you?

My biggest takeaways were:

  1. (Outside of screening) pieces that caught fire with a few board members seemed to have a better shot than maybe pieces that pleased everyone on a simpler level.  
  2. The student boards gives so much time to the submissions. Because it’s a learning experience, I think we’re allowed more time to really think about the pieces than at bigger journals.  
  3. Shorter wins out—– even when the guidelines allow for really long work, it just gets exhausting to go through a 8000 worder and the shorter piece can feel a lot less daunting. Like it or not, that can impact a first read.  

Do you think that your aesthetic was well represented in the issue of Water~Stone Review that you worked on? Why?

Yes. Sheila worked hard to make sure everybody’s voices were at least somewhat represented.

How do you think literary journals affect the writing world? 

It’s difficult to say. It used to be that literary journals were the teeth cutting place for new writers and even established writers wanting to try wacky things, or a different genre. But as more and more established writers have to shop stories around to get new book deals, some tiers of the literary journal have become almost impossible for new writers to break into. [I think] the general infiltration from all these big writers seems to be leading to an unfortunate conservatism.

What other literary journals do you admire?

Ruminate Magazine is a journal I worked on back in undergrad and have read for a few times and I like the work they produce and how they manage themselves. I also like BrevityBlack Warrior ReviewApogee, and Prairie Schooner.

What are you reading right now?

The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen.


How do you think that being a student editor for Water~Stone Review helped you in your writing/editing journey?

It made me a lot more apathetic toward rejection and also helped me see ways of improving my own writing.

Are you doing something literary that you would like to share?

Apart from thesis, I’m working on a fictional self-portrait where I am a glitch in a computer program.

Who is your least favorite historical figure?

Pseudo Paul (author of Ephesian, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy in the Christian Bible). Oh, and Ronald Reagan. Screw him.


Nicola Koh is a trans-androgynous, Malaysian Eurasian, depressed writer and Tetris demi-god. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Word Riot, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and A-Minor Magazine. When not studying (MFA ’17), writing, reading ,Tetrising, or procrastinating, they cuddle with their animals (Anya the dog and Magic the cat) and go to various art things. More about Nicola can be found at

From the Fiction Editor

Brief note from the managing editor: 

For this week’s blog post, we feature Shelia O’Connor’s thoughts on 2016 WSR Fiction Prize winner, Saba Waheed’s piece “World Cup”. Ms. Waheed will be joining us on Friday for our Annual Reading and Reception. We hope you can be with us to hear Saba and other contributors for what is always a very special event on our calendar. See Facebook event.

From the fiction editor:

Every few years, Water~Stone Review hosts its annual fiction contest, a call for anonymous manuscripts with the winner selected by an outside judge. For me, securing the judge is nearly as exciting as the early screening of manuscripts, mostly because it means an esteemed writer whose work I’ve long admired will be making one of the most anticipated editorial decisions of that year, and I am as eager as the writers to learn what the decision will be.

This year our judge, Nami Mun, selected “World Cup” by Saba Waheed, the story of Adeena and Bilal, and their awkward, whiskey-infused reunion. But like the best short fiction, “World Cup” is about so much more, including love and loss, family and tradition. Rich in subtext, with pitch-perfect dialogue and well-drawn characters, “World Cup” is the work of a serious writer to watch. Out of the more than sixty manuscripts we received, I am delighted this powerful story won.

As Nami Mun so eloquently wrote of “World Cup”: “When I finished reading ‘World Cup,’ I immediately wanted to read it again. I wanted to see how the writer, in only a few pages, got me to think about Kate Chopin, Grace Paley, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Essentially, the story had me thinking: How can a person be when a personhood is filled with so many beings? Or to recycle a bit of Sartre: this story of sharp dialogue and artful compression reminds us that the ‘others’—with all of their silent and not-so silent judgments—have given us the means (possibly the only means) for how we judge ourselves.

“In ‘World Cup’ hell isn’t other people. Hell is realizing that there is no escaping aunts or parents or a nation of expectations; that it’s nil-nil, no matter how one keeps score. I could go on about ‘World Cup’ and its merits, but I think that’s my point. A good story never ends. A good story, in the right reader’s mind, can only expand.”

Read it once, then read it again. And again. And then, pass it on.

Sheila O’Connor

Surfacing for Fall

While the inevitable scroll of first day school photos are infiltrating my Facebook feed, I am a woman still straddling the gap between these seasons. One child already well into her first month of a year-round middle school and a barnacle of a boy attached to my every move while we wait for his year to start.

Much of the hard work of making this year’s journal behind me, the nervousness of the printing and launch yet ahead. Movement in this gap is slow. It is navigating a season of anticipation while maintaining a semblance of daily structure for which there is no guiding force.

Pretending it’s still summer but with a newly imposed 4 o’clock punch in to be back for help with homework, emails from the office, and home-cooked meals—the time clock has reversed.

And then there is the packing up to do—the cleaning up from summer. The closing of the cabin or cottage on the lake, the bike rack reattached and loaded, the family dog bathed and dried before the drive back to the city… all of which is actual, and a metaphor of course. There is so much work in the reemergence.

So most of my day, these long weird days in the gap between summer and fall, is spent thinking of the work behind me and the work ahead. Of a summer filled with lake water and family and of the fast fall rush of Water~Stone and office hours spent at a desk other than my kitchen counter.

It is something like destiny that this happens each autumn.

That a new school photo is shared, a new tooth showing in her once gapped smile—that a new journal, our nineteenth, will emerge from the summer like a new and full breath after full submersion in a small, rocky lake—this too is inevitable and comforting. The surfacing is what sustains us.

Special thanks to our WSR summer crew: Anne Kelley Conklin, our trusty copy editor, Dylan Cole, studio manager at MCAD’s DesignWorks, Joe Letchford, our student designer this year, and Danielle Bylund, our production and social media assistant who has kept the ship afloat while the rest of us abandon it for the sweet relief of inflatables on tethered lines. Additional summer support generously comes from Christine Rousu, Ruthie Nelson, and Jenniey Tallman who are our lifeguards and watch for fresh water sharks and storms on the horizon. Thank you. Everyone.

Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop

wsr summer writing workshop, northfield mn

At the center of Buntrock Commons on St. Olaf College, there is a memorial. It is a lovely wood tower with a huge wind chime. It is a magnificent structure made all the more meaningful by what it represents. The memorial is for the students that pass on while attending St. Olaf before they can graduate. It anchors the campus and makes one feel gratitude for life and the privilege of being able to learn.

That was the theme of this year’s Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop, gratitude. Every student I spoke with was so pleased to be writing and learning with people who were as passionate as they were about the craft. Everyone was in a genre cohort that they work closely with for the week. The visiting faculty was incredibly impressive and also surprisingly warm. For a student embarking on a career filled with rejection letters, the workshop is a place where writers can feel a sense of community and place.

Our Creative Nonfiction visiting faculty this year was Sven Birkerts. His class focused on the memoir and the past. Students were instructed to bring a photograph with them to class, (challenging for some of our more technologically advanced students), and to focus their writing on something about this photograph. Sven is the kind of writer and teacher that wants to focus carefully on a subject to find insight. He used the Flaubert quote; “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” This is a perfect encapsulation of his class. Students were given writing prompts to find the locus of their projects, the place of revelation.

Chinelo Okparanta our visiting Fiction faculty ran her workshop with razor sharp focus. Each student writer had a piece workshopped. Chinelo used classical examples to improve the work by referencing Chekov’s assertion that if there is a gun present in the first act that it must go off by the second. She used this to point to particular places in student’s work where there were “guns” that failed to go off. Using a more contemporary analogy Chinelo referenced Lan Samantha Chang by using her bucket analogy. It is the concept that states that a story has a series of buckets from beginning to end and the author must fill the bucket with information otherwise no matter how the piece ends it will not be complete. This simple analogy can be incredibly helpful for revision. Her guidance to the students was focused on eliminating the unnecessary omissions from the work. After one student’s work was workshopped the other writers were given writing prompts to improve the main character. It was an interesting prompt that Chinelo described as a “gift to the writer.” Having an entire class help you with flushing out a character was truly a gift.

Rebecca Lindenburg ran the poetry cohort and she was universally admired by her students. She ran each class in small workshops. In intimate groups the poets were able to read each other’s work and have casual craft conversations about, at times, sensitive subjects. Rebecca was the best kind of mentor, thoughtful and protective of her students.

And then there was The Contented Cow. A waterfront three-story patio attached to a small Irish pub in the city of Northfield, MN. The students had some wonderful late nights there. If you want details you’ll just have to attend next year and join us.

The Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop was not just about taking classes. It was also about making connections with other writers and constructing a space where we exchanged ideas, talked about challenges, and celebrated each other’s successes. As one student said, it felt like family. Another student described the experience as being uplifting and necessary. We as writers are solitary by virtue of our work and it is necessary for us to collaborate and connect.

Thank you Water~Stone Review Summer Workshop faculty, students, and the lovely Northfield for a week of fun, joy, and gratitude.


Danielle Bylund

Production Assistant

danielle bylund

Danielle Bylund is a writer, graduate student, and graphic designer living in Saint Paul, MN. She is the Production Assistant for Water~Stone Review.

It Could Have Been Fireworks, by Danielle Bylund

storm (1)

Here in Saint Paul, MN we’ve just weathered a storm. On Tuesday, July 5, a fast moving, surprising thunderstorm hit. It changed the blue sky to black and whipped the trees with a vicious wind. My little house is on high ground. We overlook a small, triangular park and because we face north we can watch as the big storms roll in. Through the enormous branches of our old oak tree my partner and I will often sit with our dog, Tula, and see the oncoming weather. On Tuesday, Tula, who is fearless, sat on the screened in porch, mesmerized by the radical changes in the sky from blue to green to orange to black.

By Wednesday the branches had fallen, we lost a bit of siding, but were relatively unscathed. We had seen fallen trees and we had heard stories of the ruined gardens, the close calls, and the electricity still out. We sat on the porch and felt the cool breeze blow through the screens and felt lucky to have the old oak intact. Because of Independence Day, the firecrackers started up in early evening. Because we live in a quiet neighborhood, tucked away in one of the labyrinthine blocks of Saint Paul, the sound had to travel over railroad tracks and parkways to arrive at our porch.

Falcon Heights falls less than three miles from our front door. It falls less than two miles from the Hamline University campus, where the Water~Stone Review makes its home. Wednesday, while I sat with my dog and the love of my life, feeling grateful and safe, Philando Castile, was shot to death in front of the woman who loved him and the child he fathered. He was shot to death by a police officer. I wish I knew which of the sounds that carried across the railroad tracks and parkways to my porch was the gunshot that killed him. I wish that it had some characteristic that could make it discernible from the fireworks that accompany our Independence Day. I wish that I could take that sound and set it apart from all of the other sounds of the day and point to it and say, “Here is the sound. We have isolated it. Now we can fix its cause.” But I can’t because this sound mingles with all of the others: the house finch that calls constantly for a willing mate, the quiet hum of the highway sounding like a great sea of machinery, the record floating sparkling notes to the street, the neighbor’s happy commentary on the grand summer weather, the thud-thud-thud of my terrified and mourning heart. 


Danielle Bylund

Production Assistant

danielle bylund

Danielle Bylund is a writer, graduate student, and graphic designer living in Saint Paul, MN. She is the Production Assistant for Water~Stone Review.

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