Archive for June, 2009

30 June, 2009

Who defines America?

underbellyIt’s been a couple of weeks since I got back from Chicago, but the conversation which I wanted to write about then is still on my mind and will be for a while. There was a bottle of wine and a group of writers discussing the matter of America, what could be better or less controversial? So I was a little bemused when one of our group uttered that infamous holler of ignorance, love it or leave it. Who, the writer demanded to know, has the right to come here and expect that “we” (Americans, albeit foreign born or recent descendants of the foreign born), know all about them? Be sensitive to them? What gives them the right to tell “us” what “our” country should look like, be and do? They should be grateful, the writer continued – it was a little difficult to thunder given the volume of other Friday evening conversations at an open air venue – and not come here and just “expect things.”

Which made me muse aloud – okay, I admit, it was a sharper than musing – about the right people feel to dictate who among us gets to define America. Earlier in the day I had listened to Deepak Unnikrishnan (there’s a bio here and a review of his book, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacuphere) speak persuasively deepakabout the obligation he feels to his classified-as-Indian parents, to write and speak of their work and the work of multitudes of non-nationals to build and sustain Abu Dhabi. Two years ago, NYU created NYU Abu Dhabi amidst a clamor of support and dissent, the latter for all the wrong reasons. There was nothing new about yet another part of Abu Dhabi society (in this case education) being fortified by foreigners, that was, after all, the way the society is set up. What is wrong is what has always been wrong: the way in which Abu Dhabians perceive, and therefore devalue, those foreign nationals no matter their status. Whether one lectures on Aristotle or swills the toilets, a foreigner is simply a hired hand with no say in the ephemeral yet intensely meaningful civic life of the city they call home.

Thirty five years into their tenure, Deepak’s parents are not considered natives, nor will their life’s work give them the right to stay should they lose their jobs. Appalling, isn’t it? And yet, how different is an America where its citizens express those same biases? Is it no more than an Abu Dhabi, then, on a grander scale, with greater freedom? Or isn’t it the case that every immigrant here, no matter their legal status or newness, their degrees or lack thereof, their 401(k) plans or their intimacy with the soil in which they grow the strawberries for our tables while they are sprayed with pesticides from above, whose labor and starry eyes and acquisitions and tastes create the texture of this country, has an equal right to define it?

Recently I came across this clip of the spoken-word artist, YaliniDream, who performed at my friend, Charles Rice Gonzalez’ space, the Bronx Academy for Art & Dance (BAAD). This is Marian Yalini Thambynayagam, who is a second-generation Sri Lankan American. “I am not entertained by your confusion” she says in this particular piece, responding to the people who, like my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this post, don’t know where she is from, don’t care and don’t think they should.

Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen Vol. II: YaliniDream from Jennifer Hobdy on Vimeo.

Listening to her was certainly difficult for me, a natural-born Sri Lankan with a strong sense of my country of birth, and a different perspective and sensitivity to the work she is performing. While there is deep yearning articulated by her speaking of the one tear that a Sri Lankan immigrant tries to catch in his or her hand just so she or he can taste the salt-soaked oceans of their past, knowing the terrifying complexities that abound for those still on that small island and being familiar with the self-indulgent fantasies of those of us within the diaspora, place a barrier between us that I find it difficult to cross. But there is great rage and anguish in her performance and she is a very gifted. Moreover, the entire piece articulates what might actually run through the mind of your average immigrant/from-somewhere-else/multiply-affiliated/tourist in response to a poorly placed question. manishaAnd aren’t those hidden thunderbolts precisely what drive us newcomers to say this is my country too? I will write my story, sing my song, speak my language, vote my politics, articulate my rage until I am no longer foreign to you?

I pick up books for no good reason; reason follows inevitably from the reading. And so, while re-reading the book, Half & Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial+Bicultural, I came across the following observation by Bharati Mukherjee:

In cities like San Francisco, where immigrants from Central America and South America jostle elbows with refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, I’ve eavesdropped on thickly accented, enthusiastically conducted conversation “drive-through diagnostics” and “bun management” between people wearing fast-food-company logos on their shirt pockets. I want to think that in our multicultural United States, immigrants like them will play the stabilizing role that pride and history deny the major players.

The point is not to adopt the mainstream American’s easy ironies nor the expatriate’s self-protective contempt for the “vulgarity” of immigration. The point is to stay resilient and compassionate in the face of change.

Ah, at last, a happy balance where there is neither disgust at the people who “don’t understand” nor anger at those who long to be understood. Perhaps among the new, younger, truly multinational, Americans – like the President himself – there will be a recognition that patriotism is as patriotism does, and the same goes for citizenship. The country, any country, belongs to those who live in it, work within its borders, and help keep its many wheels turning.

24 June, 2009

Waking Early

wakingearlyOkay, so this was supposed to be about conversations in Chicago about politics, but there’s time for that. I wanted to share this link that a friend posted on FB about the ‘Ten Benefits of Rising Early & How To Do It.’ which is written by author, Leo Babauto. Here’s #1:

Greet the day. I love being able to get up, and greet a wonderful new day. I suggest creating a morning ritual that includes saying thanks for your blessings. I’m inspired by the Dalai Lama, who said, ” Everyday, think as you wake up, ‘today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.’

Okay, so just for the record I’m not turning into (horrors!) a wishy-washing, touchy-feely, new-agey…..anything else?…..bore. Which is not to say that Leo is one. Leo has accomplished incredible things by simplifying life. I am far from that place yet, though I think some changes are afoot inside my head. But this post spoke to me because I wake up sometime after 5.30 now in order to get to therapy by 6.45 am. I wake up early because I decided to bike it there instead of driving. I chose the time of day and mode of transport because (a) I didn’t want to “wait for radiation” all day long as if it were the most important appointment of my day, and (b) because I wanted to do something healthy and right for myself and the world to counter the fact that I was going in to treat something that was “wrong” with me.

I am a night owl who now loves waking early. It is peaceful and lovely all along my drive which is only two or so blocks from Philly most of the way. I am moving slow enough to hear the birds, feel the air, admire the flowers planted around the many-roomed homes along the way – instead of cursing at their stop signs like I used to do. I make eye contact with other early risers, joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers. I sing as I go because those down hills make the songs burst forth. I’m not listening to recorded music in the car, it is just whatever comes to mind. At first I would sit back down on the bike when I saw other people, thinking they’d be concerned by a full grown woman standing up on the pedals, but now I don’t care what they think, I feel the world is big enough for their inhibitions, if such there be, and my lack of them.

There are moments when I wonder if this is “right” for me as I huff and puff my bottom up hills and/or am drenched by insensitive motorists on the main road, or worse, seek refuge like a child on pavements barely wide enough for cats let alone a bike and me atop). But what could have been a ritual that reminded me only of the impossible fragility of life and the way its end walks a heartbeat away from the conduct of our days, I am happy for the morning that has broken, and for the ability to bear witness to its coming.

Leaving a warm bed for that? Sure, it’s worth it.

19 June, 2009

Desi Writers Reflected in the Bean

chicagobeanIt’s been a week since I’ve been back from Chicago where I experienced a range of emotions. I got to be intensely frustrated, for instance, by having to look for a table as though we were trying to birth Jesus in a manger, and then having to wait an hour for no more than a pizza. I go to be bemused by my own interest in photographing my fellow-diners and myself as we were reflected in Anish Kapoor’s “bean” – more reverently named ‘Cloud Gate,’ – the giant polished steel-plated sculpture in Millennium Park that is like solid liquid mercury if such a thing is possible. I got to experience the happy oddness of being on a panel on politics which consisted of no less than four Sri Lankan (born in/affiliated) authors. More on that in another post, perhaps.

I got to watch one of my favorite things: a writer (in this case, Romesh Gunasekara), go from his ordinary life as an unassuming, gracious and quiet human being to embodying his art and electrifying his audience. romeshIt was too bad that I had to duck out after his first short story, set on a street in London where two men meet and are transported to the serendipity that might await them in an new life on Sri Lanka’s Northern shores. It was a marvelous picture-in-words of the possibilities people hold on to, whose very non-materialization is as important a part of their hold on us as is the prospect of making dreams come true. Romesh’s latest book is The Match.

I also had the good fortune of having deeply personal conversations with my host, Mridu Sekhar, who had opened her doors to me without ever having met me before; access to her food and room with a spectacular view and her lushly sweet and naughty grandchildren were add-ons. Mridu and I listened to Buddhist chants late into the night, and talked until 2 a.m. about the damage that can be done by kindness, the lasting hold that parents have on their children – she speaking of her father’s death, I of my habit of scolding my own for calling me every day, and about the way strangers meet and lift each other up.

bapsiprettyI have always been drawn to people who are several decades older than I am, particularly women – the more decades, the better! They ease my mind with their words and deeds, making me feel that I am not carrying some monumental burden on my own, that the world is being held up by someone with greater wisdom than I possess. Perhaps that is why my favorite festival moments were with Bapsi Sidhwa, who combines charm and wit and sagacity in a wonderful bouquet. I look forward to re-reading Cracking India now that I have heard it in her voice.

Meeting and listening to Amitava Kumar was also a sheer delight. He is one of those people who can be entertaining without being obnoxious, self-effacing without being condescending, and…there’s a third thing here since all things must come in threes, but I can’t find it. Suffice to say that his reading of The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri accomplished the difficult task of amitavaadmiring a fellow-writer with the kind of clarity that serves as a guidepost to other readers, as well as an insight into his, Amitava’s, world view. I also enjoyed, for obvious reasons, his decision to read his essay on parenting his daughter, Ila. Having said all this, I was also acutely aware that he is not the sort of person to be a boor to an aspiring author, or anybody, really, but that he would not mince his words if he hated what you wrote. Which can be very funny, if it is not your own – bad – work he’s contemplating. Lord, may this not be my lot in life!! Before I go, and on that note, here is a clip of Bapsi speaking about forgiveness in her novels (this is the first youtube video I’ve uploaded!), and although it isn’t complete, it gives you a flavor of what she is like in person:

Overall it was great to meet all the South Asian writers, to share our experiences and grind our various axes. But it is always the conversations that stay on my mind. I’ll post on that soon.

15 June, 2009

Beginning Treatment

flowerI went for my first appointment today. I saw Dr. Weiss, who explained things in terms of crime-scenes and neighborhoods and light-houses emitting stay-away signals. My favorite was her description of my “unforgiving, grudge-holding nerves,” determined to exact revenge. The way I deal with them is up to me, she told me, whether I choose to ignore it, minimize it, dwell on it. Which is not that different from the way we deal with any other sort of trauma or pain. These were the words that came to mind as they prepared me for the coming weeks.

The Planning Stage

A red line
gives me two halves I can see
reflected in the overhead.
A machine that knows me in indecipherable code
accepts me into its heart.
I fling up my arms and become motionless.

The mirror is just a mirror in which I am
my body.

The therapist is a man who says he loves this job.
This job of measurement and accuracy and tattooing landing strips into
naked, named skin.
I wince and try to think of it in terms of laugh lines.

Is it boring? I ask.
Am I still a woman? I don’t ask.
He lays a warm sheet over me, reveals, shrouds, reveals,
I feel his breath on my body.
I read his name-tag in the silence.

They validate my parking ticket;
this is the perq for having to walk through
uncertain doors.

Outside there is no rain.

12 June, 2009

Kriti Festival, Chicago

First of all, I no longer love flying. I hate it. The wings looked like they had been painted in the air by a mathematically inclined seven year old child. They did not look substantial. It did not help that my first seat assignment placed a pilot next to me who looked clammy and said, “I hate doing this.” Give me the road, the train, my own two feet any day!

The festival kicked off with a rapid fire reading by a host of amazing readers, among whom were V. V. (Sugi) Ganesananthan who read an excerpt involving cadavers and ragging (hazing), from her book Love Marriage, and Deepak Unnikrishnan, who performed a series of shorts among which were the articulation of loathing and disgust toward a spastic pan handler described as being vaguely Shel Silversteinian (poetically speaking, not physically), a brilliantly evocative image, and a dying mother. It was easy to embody, in the listening, those feelings, the kind which are usually relegated to the shadowy recesses of our being. Quite an act.

I also enjoyed hearing Nawaz Ahmed, my friend from Bread Loaf and now headed to the MFA program at Ann Arbor. Nawaz has a sharp, edgy, naked writing voice, both challenging and imploring. I still remember the short story he read in Ripton last year during the wonderful From The Dark Tower reading, and I know that I will enjoy his work in the years to come.

I leave you with two lines from Rachna Vohra, a South Asian poet and spoken word artist, who performed an ode to love which was sweet and refreshing and over the top, kind of like my favorite drink, Faluda, which was evened out by a somber meditation on America’s war on Iraq. I close with two lines from the beginning of that work:

“September days have gone from
autumn leaves to nine elevens.”

And now, fortified by advil, neosporin and enormous bandages, I leave to get back to Stevenson Hall and to the pleasures that await.

11 June, 2009

Chicago bound

kritilogowhiteYuck. I hate leaving home just before I have to. Once I do, I resign myself to the world outside and generally have a whale of a time. I will be in Chicago – if all goes well (this is my version of the Moslem, “Insha’Allah” – if God wishes) – from this afternoon until Sunday, attending Kriti – the South Asian Literary Festival, where I will see some old friends, Nawaz Ahmed, Rishi Reddi, Ashini Desai, Anne Kalayil, and make a boatload of new ones. Check out their page for a list of the amazing line up. There is more information on my Events page regarding panels and readings in which I am involved, and if you are in Chicago, holler! I’ll be checking email pretty regularly.

For a change I’m packing light! Hmmm. Stranger things have happened in this world.

10 June, 2009

Hooray! “Only” Radiation!!

This is a follow up to the post I wrote aboutsrilanka08-1199 what has been going on with me in the past several weeks. Is it possible to be delighted by the prospect of undergoing radiation therapy for every day for 6-7 weeks? Take it from me, it is. I spent the morning dealing with the complications of formatting 26 poems (one for each letter of the alphabet) written by second graders at the wonderful Merion Elementary Schoool – think ‘K’ for Kaput, R for Rap Song for a Rabbi and ‘T’ for Trickle, and you get the idea.

So, good news: no more tumor! I don’t have the report with me and I wouldn’t know how to decipher it if I did, so I’m relying on the euphoria in my surgeon’s words: “it’s the best news possible!” All clear margins, no tumor hiding beneath. In other words, no more surgery for now. I won’t need reconstruction work on my body – i.e. my body will continue to look just as it did before. No uuber-chest, but I couldn’t be more delighted with the way I’ve always looked than I do right now. I feel perfect just as I am.

I got off the phone and set up my next series of appointments (one each on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) at Lankenau Hospital one with my surgeon, with the medical oncologist whom I’ve yet to meet, and one with the radiation oncologist, Marissa Weiss, a lovely and interesting woman who co-authored a book on breast health with her daughter last year. She wrote it while she held down her full time job at Lankenau and her daughter worked full time on the Obama campaign, barely making it for her book tour – the inauguration just wouldn’t take a back seat! Here’s Dr. Weiss’ bio:

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind, the world’s most trafficked online resource for medically-reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

Part of that empowerment was her book, (Random House, 2008), Taking Care of Your Girls: A Breast Health Guide for Teens, Tweens & In-Betweens which is a resource for girls and their mothers. I am buying it and, judging by the people recommending it to me, I’d encourage any other women reading this blog to check it out.

There is something empowering about being able to field and make these telephone calls, getting provider numbers, setting up appointments, making decisions that are within my control. Timetables, for instance, just the mere luxury of saying to myself, “well, that does/does not work for me.” The sheer bliss of being able to plan anything at all. Even to say, do I have time to update all the friends who have come forth to say I love you, before I have to get back in the car and run another errand? It is a treat to entertain the idea of anything being that easy again. I see things a little differently these days; I see that it is a blessing, not a right, to have friends, plans, places to be, things to do, trips to take, chores to leave undone. These days I’m inclined to stay with the little pleasures, like this one, for the letter ‘F’ written by two girls in Mrs. Casey’s class, 2-C. Hooray for little girls everywhere!

We have faith in God
Faith is a belief that no one can take away from you
Faith is what you believe, but cannot see.
Learning faith is hard.
Faith is a woman’s name.

8 June, 2009

The language of cancer

srilanka08-1151I had wanted to write this blog post a while back. But it seems that every new day during the past several weeks has brought with it yet another layer of meaning that, in its development, mirrors the layers of skin, tissue, musculature, nerves, blood vessels and so forth that are beyond my physical reach.

I’ve always subscribed to the “there’s a reason for everything” POV. Perhaps it is the Buddhist philosophy that has guided my life, or the culture of “what is to be done, this is how it is” that underlines life in Sri Lanka. A few months ago, I was cursing because a sprained ligament put an end to my dance classes, but it was that same toe that forced me to consult with a neighbor and find a doctor to call my own in a new town, a year after I’d moved here. And it was that doctor who brushed aside the usual excuses to insist that I get a mammogram.

The world reflects, in its quirky way, the things that are tipsy within us. I had to go back three times before I could get that mammogram. The first time I was a week early. The second time I did not have my paperwork. The third time I was lucky and I had a new friend behind the radiology desk at Lankenau Hospital. I had only had one mammogram before that one, and that several years ago, but some instinct must have told me all was not well; leaving those offices, I found myself rooted to the floor in front of the hospital cafe, gazing at sweet pastries and falling apart because I couldn’t think of a single friend near enough and unemployed enough to be available to have tea and cakes with me! And I think it was on my way back home that I met with the inconsequential accident that I talked about here, in a blog post titled Character.

Through the next week, when mammograms were compared and “the sort of pattern we don’t like” was discovered in dots and dashes that appeared like Morse Code on black film lit up from behind, and a biopsy ordered, I strode through my days full of the kind of humor that I always use to keep unpleasantness at bay, “If God was going to give me breast cancer,” I said, “couldn’t I have been given the mother of all breasts first?!” combined with upbeat equanimity, “well, I figure it’s either nothing or it is very early stage and something can be done about it.” It is also a way of postponing having to face up to difficulties, so much so that it wasn’t until I was standing in a shapeless double-gown (for modesty, apparently), and a radiologist with the unlikely name of Dr. Love, was explaining the procedure to come (stereotactic core-needle biopsy), that I felt like I was going to pass out. The guidelines say that “no significant pain” should be felt. But what exactly does that mean? I have always postponed the big howls because I imagine that the “big” pain is still to come, and I might as well not engage in premature melt downs; usually this means that I never get to have the big reaction because by the time I am well and truly ready to scream, it is all over.

Visiting with my surgeon soon after, I found myself alone in a room with a stack of glossy magazines which contained information about resources for people with cancer and their families. I picked it up and put it down. Nobody had told me I had cancer, and I was not about to acquire its accoutrements until someone did. Yes, said a friend, later that day, you don’t want to own it. But perhaps it was not bravado but hubris, the kind from which most mortals suffer, living with a subconscious belief in our immortality rather than accepting our daily march toward ceasing to exist in this particular life.

I was on my way out the door to make it to an NPR event with Marty Moss-Coane (Radio Times), when my cell phone rang in my hand. It was the good news, bad news call that I both had and hadn’t expected. It was cancer, or DCIS, which is like cancer’s calling card. Or is considered as such until surgery confirms or disproves that prognosis. I got off the phone and kept on going out that door, into the car and down the road to Bryn Mawr College where I was going to meet the host of a radio show I really liked.

I had determined then and there that I was not going to become Ru The Cancer Patient. If appointments there were, those appointments would be kept. The book tour would go on. I would fly to Chicago as planned. I can and would “work around” this hurdle. But determining such things is a lot easier than living them. Although I wrote brave emails to my agent, editors and publicists, not to mention my brothers, I could not escape the fragility that imbued everything and everybody around me. And late at night it was impossible not to be furious that nothing in my life has ever come easy.

Worse, still, was the fact that I appeared to be an individual with a personality and a way of looking at the world that was only apparent to me. I kept visiting hospitals where the vulnerable corporeal me would sit feigning strength and concentration, listening to my body being described in unfamiliar terms. But Ru the writer could not help but pay greater attention to the particularly hilarious language that was being used to do so.

She is a well-developed, well-nourished woman in no apparent distress…

I am not sure why it wasn’t apparent that I was in deep distress, or that frankly, my nourishment leaves much to be desired on most days. And I would not consider myself well-developed – witness the lack of the mother of all breasts!

She presents today with a recent abnormal mammogram. She denies any palpable masses…

But I have not spoken. And I am not living in the third person. I have a name. I am not a condition, or a case.

The DCIS appears to be contained, and has not left the ducts.

I picture dapper malignant cells, with black top hats and canes, sitting on wrought iron benches, tickets tucked into lapels, waiting for the next train to take them out of those ducts and into the rest of my body. I think of titles for short stories. I realize that all of this can be safely filed under Coping. But it is also my life as a writer that allows me to put the same safe distance between my spirit and my physicians as they have created between themselves and my body, all of us using language as our first tool of choice.

The surgery I don’t recall. I do recall the misery of yet another hapless pre-op nurse attempting to pierce my too-thin veins with their low-pressured blood. I have given up apologizing for the way my body carries me through the world with its barely-there affect holding up a high tempered heart. I recall the various barbarisms that are required before being wheeled in, still trying to be humorous, to an operating room where I fixate on the eyes I can see, kind, brown, calm, the voices that, thoughtfully, call me by my name.

I like my surgeon. She is warm, accessible, beautifully pregnant, and appropriately alive. She is not overly calm, nor unnaturally optimistic. She can say the words “survival rate” without making me panic. She can’t however offer me any reassurances that aren’t based on statistics and I am not a person who does well with needles or numbers. 80% of people who go through the stereotactic biopsy come through with a clean bill of health. I, unfortunately, belonged to the 20% that did not. 70% of those who go through surgery do not require additional surgery. Given the ease with which I crept into that previous minority, it is hard to imagine that I would be that lucky. But while I wait to hear, tomorrow, if all goes well, I continue to look for a narrative that can accompany me on the journey.

It is easy to flail at the blights that come into our lives, to say this or that is unfair, from the beetles that infest our roses to the cancers that invade our insides. I have done both those things. But there’s a part of me that realizes that I have no more right to exist than those cells that found in me, a permissible space. We lay down our roads and then curse the deer. We plant our flowers and then curse the insects. We create a lifestyle, and then curse our diseases. I do not know what particular toxin I poured in, or spiritual lack I became comfortable with might have caused my body to become habitable for a type of cell that nothing in my family or medical history or good-girl living could have predicted. Which is not to say that I believe I deserve to be going through this, but only that there is a reason for everything, whether or not I know what that reason might be.

1 June, 2009

Bread Loaf Writers

bread-loaf-097I check email religiously throughout the day, but my most fervorful check of all is the first of the morning. Early. And today, instead of the usual culling of pieces of information and shards of news that cut like unswept glass underfoot, I came across the brilliance of three friends, all of whom I’d met over a couple of spirit drenched summers in Ripton, Vermont, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

I’ve never been enrolled in a writing program so unlike many of my friends, I had no automatic community of writers to support me or to look up to other than those whom I found in hardcover. And while I would not undermine the value of those, more silent and more solitary companions, I have to say that discovering the “real live” at Bread Loaf was the antidote to my writerly misery. bread-loaf-087It has been an unmitigated pleasure therefore to see the people who donned an apron and metamorphosed into waiters in the dining halls each morning, noon and night, or helped lug giant trays of baked brie across the lawns at Treman, or even hang up mirrored balls and tap beer, reap the accolades that are reserved for the most honest writers, the ones who dig deep, spare nothing and give us the stories that carry us all forward along the path to distilling human experience into something worth keeping.

Among them – and thank you, gmail, thank you Facebook – I ran into Justin Torres, bread-loaf-140writing about truth and fiction and family, that eternal triumvirate of powers at whose feet we writers supplicate hourly hurling word after word in prayer and curse. Here’s an excerpt:

My parents never lied to us, but damn if they didn’t bullshit us, damn if they didn’t create fiction. My mother mainly relied on guilt, my father used threats, but beyond the guilt, beyond the threats, implicit in all the stories they told us about our betrayals and about the dangerous consequences that awaited us were we not careful—implicit, was the possibility of redemption. My parents were expert at telling two stories simultaneously, one to scare or shame us into subservience, but another was instructive—we listened to find out how we could be saved from our past transgressions, or our punitive futures. In my opinion, good fiction accomplishes this as well, tells the story of our human suffering, and teaches how to do so with charm and grace.

And then, even as I sat there marveling at the way in which Justin had captured not just his life but mine, not simply his brothers and his parents but my brothers and my parents, and both our muses, even as I wanted to linger there, but felt inspired to return to my own writing – but not before I shared his reflection with my father and brothers! – I recognized a second name: Josh Weil. Here is Josh, writing about the trajectory he took to make peace with the tussle between brevity and length, between choking and breathing:

We’ve all been there: a moment when something of such import happens that the space life allows for it seems too small. For me, the time my father told me he had leukemia was like that. The time I came home to an empty apartment and knew my marriage was over was like that. But so were the few seconds—at the end of ten years, of three attempts at novels, of a whole adulthood of trying—when my agent told me that I had finally sold my first book.

I went in search of these friends, to thank them for their work, to share their intelligence with others. And between pauses to write on their walls and tell the world what was “on my mind,” I had the good fortune to stumble upon Reginald Dwayne Betts. The last time I saw Dwayne, he was dancing in the venerable and curiously transformative barn at Bread Loaf. bread-loaf-180It was the end of weeks during which we had worked together, discussed writing, life – including life in prison – relationships, futures. This is an excerpt from Dwayne talking on NPR.

For the first four to six years, no matter where I went, I was the youngest person in the block. If I marked an adolescent shift, it was when somebody younger than me asked me for some advice. That’s when I realized that I was basically growing up in a jail cell. I have all of these memories that have replaced the adolescent markers: I was in a cell below someone who beat a man to death. And I remember guards carrying the dead prisoner on a gurney, the nurses pushing him down the walkway, banging on his chest, trying to revive him. The thing is, what are you gonna do with all the memories you have once you get home? That’s the question posed to all the young people who get sent to prison. Because you will accumulate these memories, and a lot of them won’t be good.

Somewhere in each others’ words, there is resolution for each of them and for me. I realize that I could have read what they have written, or heard them speak, and be adequately moved by their wisdom, even if I had never met them. But to know them as people who find themselves unable to resist the call of the written word, and to have witnessed the camaraderie that comes from experiencing their particular embodiment of that desire at Bread Loaf, this makes all the difference.

I cannot wait to see what beauty this summer will bring.


The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.