Taking America Back

In a foreword to We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden, Nic Stone (Dear Martin) writes of her Indian American high school US history teacher, a Mr. Tripathi and how remarkable it was that he, an immigrant, was teaching US History in one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse high schools in the state of Georgia. Yet they never talked about the fact that they were the only two brown-skinned people in that classroom. It wasn’t something you did, back then.

IMG_3372.jpgWe Are Not Yet Equal is all about talking plainly of what has remained unmentionable for too many years. It’s a YA adaptation of Emory University professor Carol Anderson’s White Rage in which she laid out the patterns of advancement and retreat from ideals of equality and away from the deep injustices of centuries of slavery.

The Anderson and Bolden adaptation employs historical narrative to shed light on the measures taken for generations by white people, from assaults upon progressive policy to the most utterly absurd legal contortions, to keep Black resolve from succeeding and Black aspirations from being realized. The book pulls no punches—accounts of Mary Turner’s 1918 lynching in Georgia and Ossian Sweet’s 1925 ordeal when trying to move into a white neighborhood in Detroit (and his subsequent suicide in 1960) are just a couple of examples. They’re unflinching in both their clarity and their compassion toward the victims of these crimes.

Some young readers may be shocked to learn that Mississippi didn’t ratify the 13th amendment until 2013. That narratives of white innocence were rampant in the Nixon election campaign! That lack of equal access to education held back American technological advancement. And so much more.

The book ends on the fringes of the present time with Dylan Roof’s murder of nine black people in Emmanuel AME Church and Donald Trump’s 2015 electoral promise to “take America back.” It urges us to imagine a different future, one that really looks forward, takes the opportunity to defuse white rage.

 

 

Highlights 2020 Workshops

IMG_2108Just the other day, I was thinking fondly of the Highlights workshop I led in Honesdale, PA, with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Sean Petrie, all of  two years ago!

This year, the Highlights Foundation’s offering yet another terrific roundup of workshops, retreats, and symposiums for writers across genres, forms, and experience levels.A handy filtering tool has been added to the site to help you sort through the list and find the one that’s right for you.

Here are just a few examples:

Be sure to make time to walk in the woods as well.

You Are Welcome Here

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At the entrance to the High Line in New York City stands this sign. It warmed my heart, but it also made me sad to think that such a welcome even needed to be put into words.

The line is also a hashtag used by a higher education initiative designed to make international students feel welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

allarewelcome.jpgFinally, it’s the theme of Alexandra Penfold‘s picture book, All Are Welcome, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman.

It’s just too bad that the attitude of welcoming the stranger, a message that ought to be the norm, has suddenly become practically radical!

 

Behold the Semi-colon

semicolonI have always thought of the semi-colon as the adverb of punctuation. The semi-colon is much misunderstood, mistaken for an indulgence, something tacked on to a sentence; often seen as a frill, a bad writing habit, something to be sought out in search-and-destroy revisions on a work in progress. Some argue it is easily replaceable by the comma or the period, depending on how much breath you want to give a reader. Like adverbs, it’s often disparaged as a writerly self-indulgence. So I’m grateful to Katherine Hauth for sending me the link to a PW article by Cecelia Watson: homage to a punctuation mark for which I’ve always had a sneaking fondness.

And now I know why. I loved the historical references in Watson’s article, but that wasn’t all. The little asides on germs and racehorses were nice enough, but no, they weren’t the compelling part for me; it was the gendered criticism of the little squiggle I’m partial to that got me.

Snippet:

Criticisms of the semicolon—and there have been many—are often couched in peculiarly gendered terms. Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Kurt Vonnegut avoided them, with the latter describing them as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”

Ha! Really, Kurt Vonnegut? I’m getting hold of Watson’s book as soon as I can, for some immersive semi-colon therapy.

Lunch with Plummie

P.G. Wodehouse invited the New Yorker to lunch on October 15, 1960.

I was four years old then, and had not yet discovered my grandfather’s Herbert Jenkins editions of Plum’s novels. I’d discover them at 10, and chuckle over them for many summers to come. Strange as it may seem, there was much in that Edwardian world to entrance and amuse a kid growing up in India. I, too, had obsessions–not newts, but notebooks and pens and the other stuff of writing. I, too, had aunts. Not masses of them, but they were certainly strange, alien beings to me, the way adults are during the developmental phase of conjecture and bewilderment that we term childhood.

Although I leaped with delight into the Jeeves and Emsworth books, into legends on the golf course and the nutty exploits of Psmith, I would know nothing of Wodehouse’s life, its ups and downs, its errors and regrets, its triumphs and sorrows, until many years later, when I read Robert McCrum’s biography, Wodehouse: A Life. For me, the ex-child who once found something close to pure delight in his books, it matters that Plum’s story is told as clearly and compassionately as it is in this biography. McCrum unravels the charges of Fascism and treachery that tainted Wodehouse’s legacy, the blind spots and flaws that led to his dreadful miscalculations.

He recognizes the sweet melancholy in the books, the importance of their lightness and airiness, the universality of the human connections they delineate. I couldn’t have said so at the time, but all those things resonated for me at 10 and 13 and 15. They resonate still.

Courtesy of WGBH, I came across this talk by McCrum and was delighted to find out that he, like me, had discovered Wodehouse at the age of 10. There was something pleasing about that coincidence.  

When, at 15, I wrote Plum a fan letter, he sent me a typed reply with an ink signature and one of his wife’s return labels bearing their New York address. Plum adored America. (“It’s like being elected to a very good club.”) I can’t help wondering what he’d think of it, if he could see it today. Perhaps our time would remind him of another era when Fascist thinking spread its tentacles through Europe and otherwise well-meaning people did their best to carry on, ignoring what was going on around them.

Memoir and Nonfiction: Dreams and Nightmares

9781250204752_custom-82a0e3effa5978448ac625b9370c95382e915b28-s300-c85.jpgAarti Shahani covers Silicon Valley for NPR News. Her memoir, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, is the story of one immigrant family’s painful journey, spinning out from the Partition of India in 1947 to the present day. Memoirs give us a retrospective look at life, of course, but this one conveys the pain of childhood with a sharp, poignant awareness.  It shines the light as well on the loving tenacity of a daughter trying to make sense of the demons that haunted her father and the aspirations that drove him. We carry our earlier selves within us, Shahani seems to be saying, whether we’re aware of that or not.

In her interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Aarti Shahani talks about dreams, reality, and sheer chance and how all these factors shaped the story of her family. At the very end of the interview, she talks about how, despite the way he’d been treated in the United States, he still wanted to come “home” there to die. Inskeep asks her to talk about why that was., what it was that still made America home. She responds by saying that she never had a chance to ask him. She says the book is in part a plea to Americans to think about what we are doing to the country, and in part a eulogy for her father. She tears up, and at the end, there’s a little snippet of conversation that almost feels like it should be off-mic. Steve Inskeep asks her if she has a tissue, if someone should get her one. She says, in a voice shaking itself into composure with a little laugh, “I have a sleeve. It’s okay.”

 

1426303327.jpgI have a sleeve. Curiously moving words. We have never needed to tell the truth about American nightmares, as much as we do today.

Ten years ago, Ann Bausum’s Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration was a relevant and important book. At the time, it was possible to hope that the stories it contained would not be repeated in our lifetimes. Yet today with a new introduction and afterword, the book is an essential reminder that history has a way of cycling back if we don’t learn its lessons.

 

“I’m not really who you think I am.”

On the plane to Newfoundland I watched Captain Marvel. I’d missed it on the big screen and I must say it was quite wonderful seeing a woman taking charge of saving the world. “Buckle up, folks…”

And Brie Larson came through for me, whether she was kick-boxing or coping with memory flashes. I even found myself being faintly nostalgic for the 1990s! It was nice to check out of reality for a while and sink into a world in which female power prevailed, where you could sort of hand over the problems to a really competent superhero and rest assured that all would be well.

Of course, life isn’t that simple, and more to the point, the real heroes aren’t from some other galaxy. They’re right here among us. This is the point of the recent We Need Diverse Books story collection edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, The Hero Next Door. VCFA graduate Suma Subramaniam’s story, “Rescue” won the WNDB short story contest and is included in the book, which is a wonderful collection of stories about all kinds of heroes in worlds real and fantastic. Interestingly, in each of the stories, something is revealed about the character of the hero, and sometimes heroism can be seen in more than one person, so the quote from Captain Marvel seems apt: “I’m not really who you think I am.”

I asked Suma a few questions about her story:

HEROcover.jpg[Uma] What resonated for you in the anthology theme of everyday heroes?

[Suma] This theme resonated for me as conflicts and universal challenges unfold across all families regardless of culture. In tough times, ordinary people step in to help and we see great acts of humanity. Some of these people are not necessarily famous, but they do great things when no one’s noticing them – sometimes at a significant personal cost. I have been helped by many such people and pets in my childhood and adult life. My story in The Hero Next Door is written in honor of those people (and pets).

[Uma] Talk about the intersection of family conflict and the role of the dog in your story. Where did that combination come from for you?

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Photo courtesy of Suma Subramaniam

[Suma] The inspiration for “Rescue” came from a couple of stories and news articles I had read about domestic abuse. When I researched the subject, I found very little information on how children navigated family separation and domestic abuse in South Asian families. I knew instantly that I had to write a story about it as seen through the eyes of a child. The idea of having a dog in the story came naturally as I could not imagine Sangeetha’s life without a four-legged friend. Children often feel their whole world has turned upside down when they’re facing separation and domestic abuse.

 

Having lived with several dogs over the years, I have found that dogs bring joy in families and offer a healing path in the gentlest ways. When I immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago, my dog helped me feel less lonely. Dogs have a way of being patient, compassionate, trustworthy, and kind. They teach us valuable life lessons in the short course of their lifetimes that can help children in more ways than one. Sangeetha, therefore, had to have a dog who would be that special friend.

[Uma] Every piece of writing teaches the writer something. What did writing this story teach you?

[Suma] Writing this story taught me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I wrote Rescue to practice writing short fiction without the ultimate goal of publication in mind. Putting out the finished product into the ether led Rescue to the right hands – to people who got the heart of Sangeetha’s story and were excited about championing it.

And I am so glad that happened, Suma. Good luck!

The Hero Next Door includes stories by William Alexander, Joseph Bruchac, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Juana Medina, Ellen Oh, R.J. Palacio, Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ronald L. Smith, Suma Subramaniam, and Rita Williams-Garcia.

 

The “I” and the Eye in Nonfiction

IMG_3200.jpgI am emerging from a journey through a long tunnel. Five years long. A nonfiction tunnel that has involved two gut-and-rewrite revisions, a lot of ruminating on structure, story, the passage of time, and thesis–yes, thesis! Of which I can and will write more later, closer to the book’s publication next year.

What I can say now is that it’s historical nonfiction, sweeping in scope, and I am exhausted from writing it, but in the best way. I have learned more than I could have imagined when the first glimmers of this project showed up on my horizon.

Jan Priddy‘s post on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog sums up the creative part of creative nonfiction tidily. Priddy says:

The creativity is in the telling, not the story.

Which takes me back to Draft 1. It was earnest, packed with facts, burdened and burdensome in its effect. My editor asked me where I was in the draft? Who, me? I needed to be there. Yes. I did. I spent the next year or so trying to find myself in the narrative. I didn’t have to be the expert in the content. That was not my role. What I needed to own was the voice, the viewpoint. In other words, I needed to employ my fiction writer’s soul to find the story in the history I wanted to bring to the page.

Here’s what Jan Priddy says about that:

Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.

And it was. By Version 2, I’d shed quite a few facts, and around 100 pages. By Version 3, I was starting to craft a thesis, a point to it all. I’d learned what it was the work was all about, what I wanted to say that no one else had said before in quite that way. I was figuring out how to bring to the page the electric charge that had wanted me to write this in the first place.

Next, fold in research to find provenance and get permission to reprint photographs for the project. In that round, I found a whole new way to look at the work. The final manuscript began to coalesce around archival and contemporary photographs, maps, and a single brilliant cartoon. I learned the language of rights and permissions, and I began to learn how photographers on two continents and in two different decades  saw the events of their time and chose to document them.

As Priddy puts it, creative nonfiction “may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond.” I hope my book will do that for readers, as I know that writing it has done for me.

 

Honoring Migrants in a Dangerous Time

Artist Alvaro Enciso has made it his goal to remember and honor the lives of the thousands of migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert, trying to cross into the United States, trying to get to a new life. Every week, Enciso goes out with a group of volunteers from the Tucson Samaritans to place crosses at the exact location where the remains were found.

This is the narrative behind a brief Arizona Public Media documentary, Where Dreams Die. The question is, if we’re to be honest, if it were any of us, if our lives and our children’s lives were at risk, would we care about borders or would we cross them recklessly, wherever we could? And there are other factors at play. With the immediate reality of climate change, there will only be more refugees. They will not care about borders and how can we, in conscience, blame them?

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I wish we lived in a time when we didn’t need to write and publish books for children about these horrors visited upon children. But since we live in this dreadful reality, I’m grateful for books like Diane de Anda‘s beautiful Mango Moon.

There’s a full moon out tonight and Maricela misses her father. He’s been taken away from the family, and he’s facing deportation. The hole in the family and the community is made palpable through simple, text and through Cornelison’s tender illustrations. The book ends on a note of hope that comes, not from reality (real life, alas, is all about detention and razor-wire). Rather it comes  from a child’s imaginings and from the moon, symbolically helping Maricela to hold her Papi  in her heart.

For more children’s books on families crossing at the US-Mexico border, check out this list at Erin Boyle’s Reading My Tea Leaves blog.

 

The Idealized World of Gyo Fujikawa’s Books

The idealization of reality has long been a technique available to children’s writers and illustrators. When the world spins in dangerous directions and you try to remedy that in a book for adults, you run the risk of seeming either disingenuous or naive. But when your audience is still tender and young, sorting that world out, learning to live in it, it seems only fair to right its wrongs on the page, to show what might be. In the end, we may hope, those signposts to the very young can imbue them with the energy to nudge that world in a kinder, better direction.

No one knew this like Gyo Fujikawa. Born in 1908 to Japanese immigrant parents, she studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, today the California Institute of the Arts. She wrote and/or illustrated over 50 picture books. She also designed promotional materials for Disney and six United States postage stamps.

In a New Yorker article, Sarah Larson paints a loving portrait of a beloved children’s author-illustrator for whom freedom became an enduring yet elusive dream.

Excerpt:

In 1941, she was sent to New York, to work in Disney’s studios there; in early 1942, her parents and brother, along with many Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, were sent to internment camps. The Fujikawas were sent to the Santa Anita racetrack, where they lived in horse stalls, and then to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Fujikawa visited them there and found what she described as “barbed wire and a sentry walking around the wall with a bayonet.”

Here is the first book that Fujikawa both wrote and illustrated:Babies.jpg

IMG_3184.jpgThe babies are lovingly drawn, capturing the expressive emotions of the very young–and there’s more.

This little board book exemplifies something that was subtly characteristic of Fujikawa’s art. She didn’t beat you over the head with it, but Gyo Fujikawa was perhaps the very first American illustrator to render a diverse array of children in her books.

Here, she seems to be saying, is an Asian child, a child with ginger hair, a black child. Here they are, all children, doing what children do, being in the world the way all children are.
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Like the best picture books, there’s a huge takeaway from this one that isn’t spelled out in the words. It’s there in the images without explanation and it’s all the more powerful for that lightness of touch.

This is the way the world ought to work, the book seems to be saying with quiet authority. In these pages, this is how it is. So here, toddler whose eyes fall upon these pictures, put that into your heart. Carry it out into the real and precious world you will inhabit.