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.

 

A Hedge? A Customs Hedge?

So Trump wants his beautiful wall, right, and at once time he said he wanted to make Mexico pay for it?

IMG_2382.JPGAs with so many follies of history, it turns out that particular strategy’s been tried before. The Brits built a wall of sorts in India, back in the days of the East India Company. And they intended to make the Indians pay for it.

It wasn’t exactly a wall, all the way. It was a hedge–well, sort of.

A Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men… It would have stretched from London to Constantinople… it consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes.

A hedge? A Customs hedge? Turns out this was all about the infamous Salt Tax. On a whim, writer Roy Moxham, stumbling upon a reference to the hedge, decided to go look for it in India.

Now needles and haystacks are as nothing compared to the task of finding anything at all in India. The country of my birth, if I say so myself, specializes in obfuscation, delays, disappearing mirages, bureaucratic stumbling blocks, and other kinds of phenomena in the nearly-there-but-oh-no-look-out! category.

The Great Hedge of India combines Moxham’s historical quest with his journey on the ground. It’s full of marvelous information like the history of the tax on salt, which the East India Company quietly appropriated from local royal traditions and began to impose, in defiance of orders from London. The amount of salt used by an Indian family, it seems, was the subject of fierce argument, as was the question of whether Indian cattle or sheep needed salt. It’s an improbable story, well told, with little digressions into such things as the body’s need for salt and what is likely to have happened to people who were deprived of it.

The hedge itself was abandoned in 1879. If finding it on the ground seems an impossible task, consider also that Moxham had never used a map or a compass to go on a really long walk before. India is not the most salubrious setting to exercise such beginning skills. Moxham’s book alternately amuses and enlightens. The quixotic travel chapters detail the hospitality and kindness of friends and strangers alike, painting a heartwarming picture of rural India.

If Trump had any sense at all, he’d see the futility of this wall project. Unfortunately, he is no better equipped with either common sense or compassion than were the greedy and ruthless in the Company’s higher ranks, or their poorly paid, corrupt subordinates.

 

A Clear Sign

KohinoorThe lies contained in conventional historical narrative sometimes carry a peculiar, irrational sting.

Take the Koh-i-noor Diamond, currently part of the British crown jewels. A Smithsonian article by Lorraine Boissoneault examines its history and reviews a book about it, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by historians Anita Anand and William Dalrymple.

I had to read this book, because I remember seeing the thing itself, in an exhibit at the Tower of London back in the 1980’s. And I remember how seeing it made me feel a little ill. It was part of a whole lot of purloined goods. Instinctively, I knew that everything in the interpretive text was a lie. I knew that, even though I hadn’t quite formed the words to say so at the time.

“A gift from the people of India?” You’re kidding me! It was nothing of the sort. It had been taken off the hands of a ten-year old prince, sole heir to a kingdom in India–along with the rest of the kingdom, naturally. Ten years old. We don’t know how things would have turned out if he’d been allowed to grow into his ancestral role. He wasn’t exactly a gentlemanly role-model or anything like that. For now he lies buried in England. But he was just a child, and all of Empire was aligned against him.

Anand and Dalrymple take readers through the dramatic, poisoned history of the diamond, which can as well be read as a history of the subcontinent itself. The Kohinoor played, they say, a cameo role in that history, elusive and not as sparkling as you might think. Everyone wants it, the East India Company included. And here’s the thing, of all the kings and merchants, soldiers and courtiers who coveted it over the centuries, no one’s hands are really clean. As for the thing itself, it ends up cut down to half its size, around Queen Victoria’s neck.

The book leaves us with the question: what do we do with these stolen artifacts from the colonial era? What should we do with them in the real world and in our minds? Let’s be real. The likelihood of the diamond’s return to the land of the riverbed that gave it up is nonexistent. Still, the book makes us probe the questions related to that possibility: To whom might one return the diamond, since the king who last owned it was deposed and is now dead and the kingdom itself no longer exists?

Perhaps a clear sign by the museum case is an option, a sign that does not disingenuously gloss over the historical facts. Three decades ago, when I came to set my tourist’s eyes on the fat, glassy gem, and felt a sudden pang at being lied to, I think a clear sign would have gone a long way for me.

 

The Viewer and the Story

A million thanks to The Wandering Wanderlusters for leading me to a few of the brilliant and bizarre sculptures scattered around Prague. By far the most moving was the memorial to the victims of communism by Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek and architects Jan Kerel and Zdeněk Holzel.

First of all, it was hard to find. The map was, well, difficult to read, as great swathes of it had been ripped off:


Once you find it, though, the installation strides into the mind and will not leave. And in that way it is like a good novel.


The character comes toward you out of his past and into your present. Walk up the sloping steps and you experience just enough discomfort to worry about falling yet just enough momentum  to keep going.


When you reach the top (caution: plot spoiler!) you find something you cannot see at the outset. 


Most people who see this never climb up. They will never feel the great dashing wave of sadness and humility that comes over you at the revelation at the summit of the installation. The ending in this case is worth the work, many times over. 

And as in a good novel, the ending prompts you to return to the beginning, to think about the journey.  Is this a single figure in many stages of brokenness, or is the whole thing perhaps symbolic of retelling and of healing? You glimpse the meaning of the bronze strip that runs along the centre of the memorial, showing estimated numbers of those impacted by communism. 

While we gazed up, an elderly man walked haltingly up alongside the installation. He took pictures with an air of reverence. As he made his way back down I stepped forward, thinking I’d offer a hand if he needed it. He saw the movement and smiled, made it down on his own.  Another smile, a muttered “Hezký den!” and he left, turning back to take more pictures. 

He seemed of the generation of the figures in the installation. Like the turning head of the stainless steel Kafka, his presence brought the past into the here and now. Oddly, it lent a little hope. 

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson on Fictionalizing Family History

One of the titles I discussed in my January VCFA lecture on historical fiction is a book I grew to know vicariously, to my great delight, as its writer navigated the many phases of its growth. No Crystal Stair is an acclaimed novel, a documentary novel, a story on the cusp between fiction and history, real and imagined.

I asked my dear writing colleague and friend Vaunda Micheaux Nelson to reflect on that process for me. Here is our exchange:

[Uma] Talk a little about the research you did –the sheer volume of it and over so much time!  And then about how this turned from nonfiction into the fictionalized blend of fact and imagination that it ended up becoming.

[Vaunda] The process extended over many years and continues, not only formal research but family history.  In brief, I acquired source material from the Schomburg Center in Harlem, Howard University, the Hatch-Billops Collection, newspaper and magazine articles, audio tapes, transcripts, court records, church documents, FBI files, census records, death certificates and other vital statistic sources, and oral histories – interviews with family members and individuals who visited the store and/or knew Lewis.  I traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Newport News, Virginia. When faced with contradictory information, I weighed what I could, and drew reasonable conclusions.

It began as a family history project.  I simply wanted to learn about my uncle and his bookstore and record what I found.  The more I discovered about Lewis’s life and contributions, the more I needed to share his story.  As a writer, I love exploring character.  And what a character Lewis was!  I enjoyed getting to know him through research, trying to figure him out.  Lewis’s life is important historically, but it’s also just a great story.

I write for children, so it was natural for me to want to share Lewis’s story with them, though I believed it would speak to adults as well.  Youth is a time that is heavy with searching, tripping, falling, getting back up, slipping, finding ground, flailing, and finally flying.  Lewis’s journey embodied this, so I suspected it would appeal to teens.  And, as a bibliophile, I was thrilled to share the story of a man who used books as a compass in his search for self.

It started as straight biography.  In my early drafts I used quotes by Lewis as chapter headings and envisioned photos as part of the final work.  But at some point in the process, and after feedback from people I respect, I realized that it wasn’t working.  I didn’t feel I’d told Lewis’s story in a way that would move readers to care about this amazing man and understand the significance of what he achieved. Those early attempts lacked the heart I hope I conveyed in the final book.  Also, there were holes and discrepancies in the information about Lewis’s life that I could not resolve.  Sources were contradictory, unclear, unreliable, and the people who might have been able to clarify or fill in the gaps were already in their graves.

I began telling the story of Lewis Michaux through the voices of those who surrounded him — family, friends, associates, and bookstore customers.  Recordings and interviews with Lewis enabled me to replicate his voice.  My husband, Drew, began calling the book “Documentary Fiction,” which seemed a good fit.  I included as much factual information as I could, while filling in the gaps with informed speculation (my best guess) about what might have happened to, or been said about, Lewis.

The new format gave me options and flexibility and allowed me to explore Lewis in a deeper way, to help readers see Lewis’s spirit, his intelligence, his charm, as well as his weaknesses.  I came to know the people around him more intimately.   One of the things I admire about Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems is that she informs readers about George Washington Carver’s brilliance and accomplishments, while capturing the essence of the man, the nature of his spirit and how he touched the lives of others. This was my intent with No Crystal Stair. Sometimes you have to do an awful lot of writing to figure out exactly what it is you have to say.  The project may have taken 15 years, but as I think back on the process, I realize it needed those years.  I  needed those years to become a better writer.  And I made exciting discoveries along the way that led me in unexpected and rewarding directions.

The excitement of acquiring audio tapes and transcripts of interviews with Lewis fueled my energy for the work.  Reading his words and hearing his voice were invaluable to understanding and developing his character.  Also, there’s a short, online clip of his brother, Lightfoot, preaching that is priceless.

Considering the controversial rallies Lewis held outside the store and his close relationship with Malcolm X, I suspected the FBI had files on my uncle.  Receiving a fat packet of FBI files after nine months of waiting was a thrill, and again gave me a happy boost at a time of frustration.

[Uma] Assuming that every book teaches a writer something, what did this book teach you?

[Vaunda] After beginning the new format, I was finding great pleasure in the project. but one day I asked myself — what is this exactly?   Teen biography?  No, I had already crossed the line into invention, and invention spells fiction.  But was it teen fiction?  By page 14, Lewis is an adult.  Where was the teenage protagonist?   Even if I found an editor who liked it, could it pass muster in an acquisitions meeting?  What publisher would buy this book?

I decided it didn’t matter.  I needed to continue the project for my family for myself.  There was much support coming from that direction — including from Lewis himself.  His spirit was there — prodding.  So I forged ahead not caring whether it would find a publishing audience.  I forged ahead because a bit of Lewis’s independent spirit had rubbed off.  In the past, I fancied myself as someone who had the strength to deviate from the norm.  I was, but I had limits.  I still do, but NO CRYSTAL STAIR confirmed the truth of that cliched advice that many give but don’t really believe – “Follow your heart.”  Or as Lewis put it, “Never lose your individuality.”

The project also gave me some things to think about with regard to the complexity of character, both in fiction and real life.   Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey are often skimmed over or neglected by black history programs in schools.  Their ideas and philosophies about the fight for equality were out of the mainstream and, threatening for some.  Malcolm and Garvey were seen as radical, explosive, enigmatic personalities.  Most of the adults in my childhood saw Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement as extreme.  Malcolm X was intimidating.   But there is much to learn from Garvey’s commitment to blacks building their own businesses, creating their own communities, becoming self-sufficient, and uniting globally.  Malcolm’s struggle for human rights “by any means necessary,” his personal evolution, his compelling speeches, and (like Lewis Michaux) his belief in education are powerful, significant, and worthy of study.  Learning about figures like Lewis, Malcolm and Garvey expanded my thinking.  Without alternative perspectives, we are in danger of believing there is only one right way of seeing and being.  It becomes too easy to fall into lock step rather than discover who we really are.

Finally this book taught me the importance of researching family history while the elders are still alive.  I am left with so many questions that Lewis, my parents and grandparents might have been able to answer.  As Lewis always said you can’t really know yourself unless you know your history and those who came before – the shoulders on which you stand.  With this project, I’ve become an advocate for recording family history, and I encourage the children I encounter uncover for the stories in their own backyards.

 [Uma] What were some obstacles you encountered?

[Vaunda] Many times I felt I was spinning my wheels, getting nowhere, looking for a needle in the wrong haystack.  I had to learn persistence, which sometimes payed off.   But sometimes, I hit a brick wall and had to accept the fact that I may never find resolution.

Lewis sometimes embellished the facts in one venue and then forgot, or didn’t care, that he’d done so — his true age, how long the bookstore actually existed.  These kinds of inconsistencies were frustrating when I was attempting to research and write straight biography.  I wanted to get the facts right.  But once I shifted to documentary fiction and allowed myself the freedom to speculate and imagine, the sense of mystery added intrigue and led me to wonder.  This wondering, I believe, brought me to truths that I might not have discovered otherwise.  However, as someone trying to uncover family history, I wish I had more answers.  My search isn’t over.

[Uma] Revision wasn’t a simple linear process for this book.  Will you talk about the work you did in revising, revisiting the same material over and over again?  How did revision make the book grow?  Change?  Deepen?  How did it surprise you?

 [Vaunda] The shift to the new format was a major but fascinating process.  Creating the voices was challenging, but some of the best writing fun I’ve ever had.  For example, the factual information regarding the incident where Lewis loses his eye went from a paragraph in the straight biography to three voices — Lewis, his brother Norris, and a police officer.  This change enabled me to convey emotion and show aspects of Lewis and Norris unseen in the original.

One of my main revision challenges was organizing the story, deciding who would speak when, and the content of what they might say to move the story forward gave me many hours of brain pain.  At one point in the process, I took the manuscript to the library when it was closed, laid it out on tables page by page, and started shifting — place this before that, that before this — no, no, that before this — or did it work better the other way around?  Initially, I placed a few chapters out of sequence.  Ultimately I decided to work chronologically to avoid disrupting the flow and momentum of the story.

Also, Malcolm is such a powerful and fascinating figure, he could easily have taken over the story.  My editor Andrew Karre and I worked together to keep him in perspective, to include only Malcolm X materials which were relevant to Lewis’s story.  Although there is much I would like young readers to know about Malcolm, I had to keep focus on Lewis’s story.   His brother Lightfoot also is a powerful character whose story could have overshadowed Lewis’s if I’d handled it differently.   I had to keep reminding myself to stay with Lewis.

[Uma] What did Lewis say that you’d want to say to readers?

[Vaunda] Lewis was promoting education, but not just as a means to job success.  He believed in the richness that knowledge can bring to everyday life.  “You have to know something to protect yourself,”  he said.  “Knowledge is power.  You need it every hour. Read a book!”

[Uma] And what do you want to say to writers who wish to write for young people?

[Vaunda] As writers we should never underestimate what kids can handle.  They’re smart and beg to be challenged.  Sometimes we make the mistake of believing young readers can’t deal with subtlety.  But that which is left unsaid is often what gets them thinking beyond the text.  The reading process becomes an interactive one, a give and take, a private affair that adds to a repository of experience they can draw from as they negotiate life.

[Uma] So there you go. Write to stretch the minds of your readers. Thank you, Vaun!

 

Stan Yogi and Laura Atkins on Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

628dd2bfb56cd1d0122408860ee65943Since it was published in January, in a modest print run of 3,000 copies, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up has sold out and gone into reprint. Which is as it should be. I asked Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi to tell me what drew each of them to Fred’s story, tragically relevant as it is to our own times.

Stan: Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. As a young man, Fred defied the government’s World War II orders forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans (including my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) from the west coast into concentration camps only because they looked like the enemy. Fred’s family and community did not support his actions. It took tremendous courage for him to stand up for his rights as an American citizen. 

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, communities of color, women and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice, just like Fred.

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Jana, Mona, and Batool from Fred Korematsu Elementary School in Davis, CA. Young people. Our last best hope. Photo courtesy of Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi.

Laura: I was over the moon when Molly Woodward, the editor at Heyday, asked me to get involved in the book. I was brought on to add my children’s book experience.

I grew up in an activist family and became an activist myself, arrested twice in high school at protests, and working as at Children’s Book Press and as an editor at Lee & Low Books, with a focus on diversity and equity in children’s books. I love that this series highlights people who have fought for their rights, showing the power of individuals, and collective action, to make a difference. 

This couldn’t be more timely. We’ve now presented to over 1,200 kids, with over 1,000 more in the coming few weeks. It’s been inspiring to share Fred’s story with them, but also to talk about standing up and activism more generally. At a school presentation in Davis last week, three girls told us how they raised money at the school after their mosque was vandalized. They were proud to share their efforts, and clearly supported by their teacher and community. It’s an honor to be connected to kids in this way, and I hope that our book helps to inspire more to know that they can also speak up.

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Stan and Laura with Karen Korematsu

One additional note: Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter, founder of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, wrote an op-ed that was published in the New York Times. It’s about her father’s life and legacy and the relevance of that narrative to here and now.

Excerpt:

When President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries, he hurled us back to one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of American history. Executive orders that go after specific groups under the guise of protecting the American people are not only unconstitutional, but morally wrong. My father, and so many other Americans of Japanese descent, were targets of just such an order during World War II.

United States policies already seem to be tilting toward inhumanity, intolerance, xenophobia. Here is a history that deserves to be remembered, if we are to keep from repeating it. Stan and Laura have done a remarkable job in bringing Fred’s story to young readers.

Resistance at Standing Rock 

All story is personal and all story is political. Here is a real life story of resistance playing out in our time, but really, it’s not a new tale.

lastingechoesI am reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s Lasting Echoes, his eloquent compilation of Native voices that carried the story of endurance, suffering, and resistance into the twentieth century and made it accessible to young readers.

Keeping this history alive has always been important. But knowing it and understanding its significance is, sadly, much more relevant today. Instead of taking the road toward healing the planet and communicating with the indigenous people of the continent, we have taken quite a different trajectory.

Meanwhile the protests continue against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

 

 

“History is Not a Spectator Sport”

The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) allows me to access 2,500 items related to the history of South Asians in the United States. The archive gives voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their–our–unique and diverse experiences.

SAADA_sample1

I will confess that I am a history junkie. I could spend my days happily lost in old papers, books, photos. But the SAADA mission is about here and now as much as it is about older times. SAADA-sample2Browsing the archive while searching for materials for a forthcoming book, I came upon an article about the Ghadr Party, an April 1916 portrait photo of Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who won the Newbery Medal in 1928, and a video interview with doctor and deaf community activist Shazia Siddiqi.

One audio or video or print file at a time, the archive seeks ever wider, more inclusive representation of the collective history of South Asians in the US.

Excerpt:

We strive to create a digital collection that reflects the diverse range of experiences of South Asians in the United States, with a particular emphasis on collecting materials on the following topics:
· Pre-1965 immigrants and visitors
· The Bellingham Riots
· South Asian American political involvement and activism
· Professional associations and labor organizations
· Regional and community organizations
· Religious organizations and places of worship
· Community newspapers
· Student organizations
· Prominent South Asian American artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians and intellectuals

It’s an ongoing project, continuing to invite contributions and materials from those of us who are forming history simply by being alive on the earth at this time. And that’s the important thing. Browsing these stories is interesting, but it’s more than that. This archive assumes a view of history that implies we’re all part of it. One of the listed SAADA values reads: “History is not a spectator sport.”

No, indeed. At the very least, even when we’re helpless to counter tides of hate and destruction around us, as participants in the making of our own personal histories, we can be thoughtful in our actions. How we view the past has everything to do with how we choose to live in the present.