“Waiting for Some Guy…” Toni Morrison Speaking to Cornel West

 

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Angela Radulescu [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

At this moment, when we have just lost the incomparable Toni Morrison, it seems like a good time to revisit this 2004 Democracy Now interview with Cornel West. She speaks about truth and love, the perils of political loyalty, the courage of children in the saga of school integration, and more, much more.

belovedEighteen years after 9-11, we are still waiting for “some guy–the mayor guy, the governor guy….”

We are waiting, in the wake of gun violence that never ends.

In the midst of inequalities so great that they can only be explained by corporate theft.

In anticipation of a planet about to burn up.

Now we have lost a voice that spoke the truth with vibrant clarity.

 

 

“Thus, and thus, and thus! . . . Now all is done, and all is ashes!”

In “Pierre; or, The Ambiguities,” Herman Melville’s weirdly dizzying gothic thriller, we find the disturbed and disturbing Pierre incinerating everything his father left behind. A portrait curls in the flames, as do stacks of letters. “There is no knowing Herman Melville,” Jill Lepore writes in her article in the New Yorker in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth this summer. In part this is because he didn’t want his papers to be preserved, burning his manuscripts and shying away from photographers.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons/ original uploader Chick Bowen at English Wikipedia. Public domain

Moby Dick defeated me for years–I just couldn’t get past the first few pages.  Some books are like that, requiring repeated effort. I did end up reading it many years ago but I have to admit it was work. Despite tripping up on the “idolatrous dotings” of the Egyptians and “the aboriginal whalemen, the ‘Redmen,'” despite being baffled by the endnotes (and that “Sub-Sub Librarian”) I did get glimpses of what all the fuss was about. The vast expanse of the book, like the ocean itself; the ship in peril at the hands of the obsessive captain; all that cetology; all that commentary on the world as the author must have known it, its realities obscure and dim to my 20th century mind; and the other world that was purely about the flaws and blindness to which humans are prey.

Practically ignored in its author’s lifetime, the first American edition of Moby-Dick of 2,915 copies did not sell well at $1.50 and only netted Melville lifetime earnings of $556.37. The rest went up in smoke, literally, in the Harper fire of 1853.

IMG_0699Aside from providing windows into Melville’s life, Lepore’s article reminds me of the value of re-reading and growing into books that we may have chanced upon prematurely in our youth. Re-reading grows the curatorial collection in the mind, a bit like sea-glass getting polished by the ocean’s waves.

Perhaps it’s time to reread Moby Dick. We are now, after all, in the middle of a real-life cetacean Armageddon. Beyond that, we are all playing witness to the actions of deranged captains of the good ship Earth, or perhaps we are, collectively, those captains. Some of us, by default, pick up the pens of sub-sub librarians, taking notes. “Thus and thus and thus,” we write, hoping against hope to escape the ashes.

 

 

Hans Christian Andersen Travelogues and Juvenilia

My son, on a trip to Rome, recently sent me this photo of a house that Hans Christian Andersen lived and wrote in during his year in Italy.

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Image © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

What, I wondered, did he work on there from 1833 to 1834? One of his travelogues? It turns out it was his autobiographical novel, The Improvisatore, and the trip was sponsored by ad usus publicos, a Danish public fund set up in 1765 and used in the 1800s mainly to support literature, art and the sciences. In other words, this was a residency!  Many writers will relate to this experience, this life lived two centuries ago. We may rail against the norms and practices of times past, and we should, but we are also connected to writers who went before us.

9781554983247-1_0When my picture book, The Girl of the Wish Garden, was published, one of the storylines of my life as a reader and writer seemed to come full circle. As an 8-year-old in India in the 60’s, I’d been captivated by

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Copenhagen, sculpture of The Little Mermaid (Den lille Havfrue) by Edvard Eriksen. Photo © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Andersen stories, a gift from an aunt who had visited England and bought a copy for me. The Little Mermaid made me cry. I have a visceral memory of a delicious surrendering to an emotional state. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that words on a page could do that to a person.

So when I found out that an unknown Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was discovered in 2012, that, too, felt inevitable and logical. It was probably written between 1822 and 1826, and shows that whatever else he write, the fairy tale genre came bubbling up for him quite early in his life. Excerpt from the Guardian article:

The story tells of a little candle, dirtied by life and misunderstood, which eventually finds happiness after a tinder box sees the good at its heart and lights it. “The Tallow Candle had found its right place in life – and shown that it was a real candle, and went on to shine for many a year, pleasing itself and the other creations around it,” writes Andersen.

“Pleasing itself and the creations around it.” May we all be as lucky.

Cultural Complexity and Women’s Aspirations in The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

candleandflameBritish Columbia writer Nafiza Azad locates her debut novel, The Candle and the Flame, in Qirat, a land located somewhere on the Silk Road. It’s peopled by royals and commoners, Shayateen who thrive on chaos, Ifrit who seek order, and humans with all their flaws and failings, joys and griefs. Qirat is a place of great beauty but what really drew me into this book is how much its cultures coexist. Deepavali lamps celebrate the Hindu holiday. The Azaan summons Muslims to prayer five times a day–in fact this is probably the best fictional rendering I’ve seen of those recursive calls of the muezzin. Rather than feeling imposed, they take on a kind of temporal force through the story, not to mention that the handsome muezzin turns out to be the love interest in an amusing subplot.

In the novel, the land of Qirat has been severed in two, the result of compromises following a terrible attack by the demonic Shayateen. It’s a backstory that feels subtly infused by the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, creating in the process a kind of aspirational mirror of the real world. The female characters are interesting and complex, sometimes pawns in a bigger game, but often engaged in a struggle for agency in their lives and for justice in their world. Fatima is the one we keep our eye on, but they’re all subtly drawn.

I found it interesting that the fractures in this world are not along religious or linguistic lines. Rather, they are rifts caused by the misdeeds of demons and people. Azad’s immaculately crafted prose weaves in the words of many languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi—seamlessly and mercifully bereft of italics.

Read in e-galley.

“A Rough River of Sorts”

It’s the 4th of July.

Time for the tanks to roll through Washington, DC.

Time to spare a moment to reflect upon young Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and little Valeria, father and daughter, drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to get to an America that no longer exists.

The Fascist menace in the White House responded by saying that the Rio Grande is “a rough river of sorts.” Careless words, cruelly tossed out, landing on the ear in a kind of uncanny poetry.

If you think there’s something wrong with this picture, you might add a dying planet, a rise in hate crimes and the new empowerment of white supremacist groups. The SCOTUS endorsement of partisan gerrymandering. The war on science. And more.

This Fourth, we are indeed trapped in the surge of a very rough river.

There is much to overcome.

What does this have to do with children or children’s books, you ask? Everything. What kind of country do we want to leave to the children we write for? What kind of world?

Epistolary Day: The Reading Circus

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From Letter Two, Reader, Come Home

Today I’m replying to Chapter Two of Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home with a letter. Because–well, how else, really?

Dear Maryanne Wolf,

You made me think about a single word in an entirely new way. Tracks.

T-r-a-c-k-s.

You reminded me that reading isn’t hardwired in my brain, that my brain’s “plasticity within limits” is the wondrous principle that has rearranged my circuits to make reading possible. You made me aware of the multiple acts by specialized neurons that release meaning within single letters, combinations of letters, design, prefixes and suffixes and plurals, probability and prediction, context (verb or noun or something else?), and then the next layer still, memory and association and emotional meanings. A kind of “Circuit du Soleil,” you said, thus imprinting that image indelibly.

All this happens in the single moment, when my eye lands upon that word? I felt the same awe that comes to me when I think of the chemical communications of tree roots or the nests of cliff swallows. Who needs miracles? Being alive in the world is miracle enough.

Your choice of word, too, is particularly apt. You could have picked any word. It seems, on the surface, as if any word will do. But this one has connotations that lift me up from the last chapter and transport me into the next, so that Letter Two becomes itself a track upon with my circus train starts to rattle on towards its next destination.

You write:

Anyone who still believes the archaic canard that we use only a tiny portion of our brains hasn’t yet become aware of what we do when we read.

When I revise my words today, I’ll do so with a new respect for the work I’m asking my readers’ brains to do.

Sincerely yours,

Your Reader

The Reading Brain, Kindness, and Contemplation

Proust and the SquidRemember Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s 2007 account of how humans learned to engage in that seemingly unnatural activity we call reading? How the brain was changed by that unprecedented development and is now on the brink of changing yet again?

Here is the follow-up to that book. It’s epistolary in form, consisting of a series of letters to readers.

It’s titled Reader, Come Home.

Speaking for myself, I can’t resist a good invitation. I am now reading a letter a day from Maryanne Wolf to–me!

ReaderComeHomeOr at least that’s how it feels. This line, for example:

To be sure, when I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood.

That was the child me. I have ended up living a life of words, a life built around reading but I sometimes wonder if I have lost the ability to leap into a book and lose myself, the way I did as a child, when the boundaries of the real world just dissolved and I was impervious to all distraction.

Proust and the Squid fascinated me and left me with questions about the young readers I write for and whether reading would be changed by emerging media. Now, more than a decade later, those questions have coalesced into worry, as we find ourselves deeply entrenched in a culture of digital media with all its bells and whistles, quickness and instant bling.

I’m delving right now into the last round of edits on a middle grade nonfiction project that is definitely all about the long haul, about thinking deeply and embracing kindness. That potential reader, 8 or 10 or 12 years old, is never far from my thoughts. For many reasons, this book seems particularly timely.

There’s something about the format of the letter that is at once anachronistic and entirely appropriate to the subject. A letter invites me to pause, to think about a point, to feel in communication with the writer. Wolf cites Rainer Maria Rilke’s kindness in Letters to a Young Poet as a source of inspiration. She writes about Aristotle’s good society with its three lives–knowledge and productivity; entertainment and leisure; and contemplation–and suggests there are three kinds of reading lives as well. She wonders if that third life of contemplation is in danger from the sequestered kind of reading that everyone does nowadays, reading only what we agree with, reading only in easily consumable bites.

The reading brain, she says, is the “canary in our minds. We would be the worst of fools to ignore what it has to teach us.”

Rilke writes in the first of his letters:

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.

Wolf warns us against losing that very ability to “go within.” It’s a skill we’ve spent millennia acquiring. It seems a shame to toss it away now.

Standing Up for the Landscape

The Whanganui River in New Zealand was declared a person in 2017. Here is an article about what that means.

Excerpt:

The great River flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the River, the River is me.”

With these words, the Maori tribes of Whanganui, New Zealand, declare their inseverable connection to their ancestral river. The river rises in the snowfields of a trio of volcanoes in central North Island. The tribes say that a teardrop from the eye of the Sky Father fell at the foot of the tallest of these mountains, lonely Ruapehu, and the river was born.

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View from Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 2018

I knew Ruapehu as the first mountain climbed by Edmund Hillary when he was only 16, when Everest had not yet lodged in his heart and mind as the dream and life’s focus that it would become. I have been fascinated for years with Everest, the Himalayas, and the role of mountains as Earth’s sentinels.

But now the snows of Everest are threatened and the waters of our rivers are polluted beyond recognition.

7483.groundswell-indigenous-knowledge-and-a-call-to-action-for-climate-change.main.b3rw6d6drl.pngIt is past time to turn to Indigenous peoples for help in untangling the horrible mess that colonization, industrialization, commercial farming, dams, fossil fuel extraction, and so-called “forest management” have wreaked upon this planet.

 

Edited by Joe Neidhart and Nicole Neidhart, Groundswell is a collection of stirring and heartfelt essays from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. It highlights Indigenous knowledge for teenaged and adult readers and issues a call to action for climate change.

Perhaps the naming of rivers is a place for non-Indigenous people to recognize that a groundswell is what we need, if we want to stave off ecological disaster in our children’s lifetimes, if not our own.

Sharing Space in Foreshadow

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My VCFA colleague and friend Nova Ren Suma is part of an Internet labor of love, Foreshadow, a project of the heart dedicated to offering “a unique new online venue for young adult short stories, with a commitment to showcasing underrepresented voices, boosting emerging writers, and highlighting the beauty and power of YA fiction.”

Years ago, I worked with a student who wrote short stories all semester long. From her very first packet, I knew I’d struck gold with Rachel Hylton. Rachel was one of those intuitive writers with an unerring instinct for revision. I’d send her long letters detailing all my questions and listing all the points at which I’d wondered where she might be taking me. She’d fix a word or two and the entire story would settle into place, with all my bullet points magically addressed.

I’m more than happy to be sharing space with Rachel Hylton in the current issue of Foreshadow. Her story, Risk, was selected by none other than Laurie Halse Anderson. You have to read it. It is one of those pieces that needs every one of its words to express its essence. You couldn’t sum it up. It’s Kafkaesque in the manner of David Cerny’s sculpture.

Right away we find out–this:

We were there for Marnie Vega long before she became a lobster.

And then there’s this line:

Marnie was different—she wasn’t fake, she was authentic.

That’s Rachel. Each word perfectly laid out, crafted with loving care. Authentic to the bone. I hope some editors are paying attention.

There are two other stories in this issue: Pact by Mark Oshiro, and my story, Affinity.

Thank you, Nova Ren SumaEmily X.R. Pan, managing editor Diane Telgen and all the wonderful writers and editors who help give life to this project.

 

A Child’s-Eye View of History: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

On the day in 1947 that she and her twin brother turn 12, Nisha yearns for her mother: “It was the day we came and you left…” She begins to write a diary each night. In it, she composes letters to her mother, even as the country around her fractures in the historical event known as the Partition of India.

Veera Hiranandani (see my 2012 Process Talk with her) has created a sensitive, watchful child character in Nisha, who embodies the fracturing of the country, because her mother was Muslim and her father and his family are Hindu. It is a month out from the independence days of the two newly created countries, and Nisha’s letters unpack her uncovering of family secrets, the relationships they leave behind and the perilous journey they must undertake to escape a place that is no longer home.
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At another level, the simple, direct first person narrative in these letters delicately probes a young girl’s dawning understanding of how the world works:

I didn’t want the new India. I wanted the old one that was my home.

As well the letters document the events unfolding around Nisha, as she sees how hate can raise its ugly head readily in a place where it didn’t exist before. Or did it? Was it always there, waiting for the machinations of governments and politicians to give it permission to grow? At its most personal, this is a story of a sister and brother fleeing with their doctor father and their unwilling grandmother, facing along the way the hazards of starvation, illness, and frenzied mobs fueled by religious hatred.

History writ small in this way reels us close into itself, with passages like this:

But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.

Here is a fictional rendering of the author’s family history. Its epistolary form makes it intimate and tender. It renders one of the world’s great tragedies accessible to young readers. In the end, this Newbery Honor-winning novel reminds us that love can be present even when it isn’t verbally expressed. It can bind people together. It can give rise to generosity and kindness in the midst of suspicion and hate.