Archive for May, 2013

14 May, 2013

Pub Date II

A long time ago, it seems, I wrote a post here called ‘On Publication,’ during pub-week for A Disobedient Girl. I just re-read that this morning. Funny how clarity of thought about some particular things comes to each of us when it is necessary to have it. I realize, looking back, that this is still how I feel about publication. If there is a difference, then it is that I am even more aware that the life of a book is not so much about the book but about the people who surround it – those who bring it forth, those who receive it, those who hand it to readers, and the readers who give it their time.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading in my “home” town of Philadelphia, among many friends and family, most of whom had played some role in the making of this book, either by taking care of all the rest of my life while I went missing for weeks at a time to write, or by turning a blind eye to the state of sleep-deprived, deadline-driven misery that I require in order to finish anything of worth, that glassy eyed look that comes when I realize that the world is beautiful and the days are sunny and oh dear god I cannot move, I must sit, sit, sit, and read and write and read and write and doesn’t anybody care?! Oh! Why doesn’t anybody care?! Yes, those people were there, dressed up, taking pictures, asking questions and making me feel good.

There will be many things to write about, many images to share, along the way. But for now I’m going to share a few photographs from the time along the way, a visual reminder that the glossy dust jacket and the nicely bound book had its own story before it got there.

In my room where I sat for eight hours each day with breaks for lunch, chocolate tea from David’s, and a solitary walk, and wrote the first draft of the book.

The grove I stumbled upon on the day of my arrival, and where I went to spend the first anniversary of my mother’s death, which also was the day I finished that draft. The flowers I placed on that grave, which belonged to a mother who lost everything and still found a way to make such an enduring gift to artists, lasted a long time in the upstate NY Fall cold, and many of my new-found friends would tell me how they were doing long after I had gone. On that particular day, I read this poem in memory of my mother, a poem given to me by the poet who made it:

Spell to Be Said Upon Departure
by Jane Hirshfield

What had come here to do
having finished,
shelves of the water lie flat.

Copper the leaves of the doorsill,
yellow and falling.
Scarlet the bird that is singing.

Vanished the labor, here walls are.
Completed the asking.
Loosing the birds there is water.

Having eaten the pears.
Having eaten
the black figs, the white figs. Eaten the apples.

Table be strewn.
Table be strewn with stems,
table with peelings of grapefruit and pleasure.

Table be strewn with pleasure,
what was here to be done having finished.

Editing in a different space. I would write notes to myself in the night after all the work was done and I was in reading mode, and then paste them on the desk so I could cross things off as I went. I’d work all day with a break for lunch and a quiet, solitary walk (except for a post-dinner walk which often included the lovely Cathy Chung, in which case we’d be fleeing cows and shrieking with laughter.

There is always time to kiss the horses on a walk.

More editing. Work all day, with a break for lunch and solitary mostly walk but sometimes run sojourn. Quaker quiet before meals. And watching the night-blooming primrose flower, in real time, sitting on the bench silently with others at the Quaker retreat where I was staying.

Final edits. Such desperation. Such angst. Such panic. Really? You want me to put this into the hands of a mail carrier? You don’t want me to scan and mail? I’m impressed the mail-carrier did not care that I looked like an un-washed, un-rested, bug-eyed lunatic in my shabby lounge-about clothes and boots with no socks. Oh, and that the precious words made it from here to Minneapolis.

Which is to say, I went through a great many changes that paralled the changes being made to this thing of beauty, and some aspects of those things made their way into the language and direction of this book. I would have loved to have been able to sign one of these in gift to my mother, but also know that losing her was folded into this creation, the way that everything we experience transforms everything we experience after.

People often asked me – after the first novel – how my book was doing. Whenever I heard that question, I would think of my friends, the ones who were brilliant and talented, but had no publisher yet, the ones who were not as gifted but who did have their work out, published, and everybody in between. In such a world, how does one judge how well a book is doing? In such a world, I celebrate the absolute miracle of seeing the stories that came to me without my going in search of them, that got written through so much else in my life, that found welcome in the heart of an agent and an editor I respect deeply, and was then made, with the assistance of many hands more accomplished than mine, into what they are now, these books.

How well is my book doing? My book is doing great!

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12 May, 2013

A Letter From My Mother

In her book, Autobiography of My Mother (Plume 1997), Jamaica Kincaid writes that witnessing the unfolding of a life from birth onward is the essence of love: “no life is complete, no life is really whole, without this invisible current, which is in many ways a definition of love.” It being mother’s day, I am immersed in thoughts both of what life is now and what life has been before and, as always, it is a day on which I reflect on a year past. I came across these lines from my brother, lines I’m taking from a post he wrote about New Year in Sri Lanka.

These are not the best of times, but surely these are not the worst of times either. Not exactly times of abundance but still times when many small mercies can be remembered and celebrated, across the length and breadth of the land. In the most humble of kitchens there will be a Tamil mother, lighting a lamp, in the humblest breakfast table a Sinhala father would feed his children and they would all, hearts endowed with the fullness of giving offer sweetmeats and plantains to their Muslim, Christian and Burgher neighbors.

Renewal, then, is not about starting with a clean slate after erasing old enmities among family members, but reaffirming solidarities that are ancient, enduring and resistant to the ruptures sought by the intolerant and extreme. It is about the extirpation of poison, from mind and body, community and culture, the water we drink and the earth we rarely walk with the respect it deserves for holding us in all our infirmities and all our vile, human ways.

They reminded me, these lines, of something that has been on my mind a lot, the pain and joy of forgiveness. It is strange that I came across these words today – something that came about because of other things going on in my life each with their own equal magic and unexpectedness – because much of what remained in the wake of my mother’s passing was this wish to forgive and be forgiven.

Not long ago, I picked up a book that my mother had given me seventeen years ago, a book that celebrates motherhood in verse and prose. I was looking for something appropriate to write in a birthday card, to a daughter who was going through a tussle with me. Out of this book slipped a letter that my mother had written to me five years after that, a letter that I had not seen. In it she writes of what she was doing at the time, where I was (asleep after a first coffee and dessert sojourn in the wake of a five month old), and where she was and what she was doing (on the pull-out couch, in low-light no doubt, reading and writing down things she liked). This is always how she began letters – putting me where she was, her frame of mind, her surroundings, and then of course her thoughts going this way and that, often difficult, often tortured, veering between love and despair. But in this note she had pointed me toward a particular passage in this book that she hoped I’d read, an excerpt from the diary of novelist and Bronte biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell:

To my dear little Marianne I shall ‘dedicate’ this book, which, if I should not live to give it to her myself, will I trust be reserved for her as a token of her Mother’s love and extreme anxiety in the formation of her little daughter’s character. If that little daughter should in time become a mother herself, she may take an interest in the experience of another; and at any rate she will perhaps like to become acquainted with her character in its earliest form. I wish that (if ever she sees this), I could give her the slightest idea of the love and the hope that is bound up in her. The love which passeth every earthly love, and the hope that however we may be separated on earth, we may each of us so behave while sojourning here that we may meet again to renew the dear and tender tie of Mother and Daughter.

I could say it was strange that these sentiments were exactly those that I wished to pass on in that difficult moment to my own daughter, these words that acknowledge the fact that this relationship between mother and child will not always be easy – that there will be reason to forgive and be forgiven – but will always contain the divinity of a particularly lasting love. I could say that it was surreal the way they came to me when I needed them in a letter written by my mother before she passed away, and read twelve years after she had set them down. But I’ve come to believe the answer I give to my daughters when they ask me “how did you know?” Because I’m a mother. I’m magic. There is no other explanation for it than that, the way a mother knows in life and in life after life.

8 May, 2013

PEN International & China

I’m over at the Huffington Post with a recap on the PEN report on the ways in which the Chinese government has been suppressing the voices of that country’s writers. You can read it here. Below, an excerpt:

PEN deserves to be recognized for the work the member centers have done to produce this report, for its relentlessness in going to bat for its most far-flung comrades, and for garnering the written support of some of the most celebrated and determinedly political writers, among them Gioconda Belli, Wole Soyinka, and Edwidge Danticat. There is a sense of optimism surrounding the work that PEN does, including this latest initiative on behalf of Chinese writers, that harkens to the greater good that, one hopes, still remains in sight of even the most repressive of governments. The Chinese, as Saul points out, have experienced that good in the past and surely would wish to reclaim it now.

6 May, 2013

Growing Up With Violence

I’m over at Bookslut today, answering questions about reading, writing, influences, as well a this one:

And the family and friends who ushered you into adulthood? Who are they and in what ways do they appear in these pages?

I think I was ushered into adulthood by a character called political violence, more than any one human being. Violence, the kind that unfolds here, obviously, but many other occasions of death and betrayal — of people, of ideals, of political objectives — were the real companions of our lives; they informed our views, they circumscribed our journeys, they dictated our relationships. The anti-government uprisings that were put down in the mid-late 1980s and in which my brothers and their friends were caught, the way we grew afraid of our neighbors informing on us for political expediency, the death threats my father received over the years, the phones that were tapped, and through it all, this drawn-out war in which we were all (every disagreeing political faction), under the threat of suicide bombers from the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organization based in northern Sri Lanka]. You live differently under such circumstances. You learn to expect bad news, to ask the question, “Did anybody die?,” which is really asking, “Did anybody we know die?” because, of course, somebody has died, many people have died, and though we mourn them, we are also instantly grateful not to have to mourn the ones we know well.

There is that sense in these pages, the way in which we are, ordinary people, transformed by the politics, and the politically motivated violence around us.

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.


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