25 March, 2014

Jen Percy Examines the Aftermath of War

Over at the Huffington Post interviewing Jen Percy on her research for her book, Demon Camp (Scribner). Her account of Caleb Daniels and his battle with PTSD, has been optioned by Paramount. . You can read the full interview here. Below, an excerpt.

RF: You met Caleb Daniels, the main character in this work, in 2008, when he had transformed from being a soldier trained and off at war to being a civilian un-trained at coming home, and you were an MFA student at Iowa. How difficult was it to build a sense of trust in him that you would be able to tell a story that was true to his experience?

JP: With Caleb the trust was immediate because that’s how he lives his life: by fate and intuition. He thought our lives intersected so that I could tell his story. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been faced with that question directly from a subject. Either they talk to you or they don’t. Caleb’s idea of himself is different than the way others perceive him. Which is true of all of us. But, for example, he told me he thought he was like Achilles from the Iliad taking revenge for the death of Patroclus (who we can understand as his best friend Kip Jacoby). But Caleb didn’t say the Iliad or Achilles, he said the movie Troy and the actor Brad Pitt that plays Achilles. So in many ways, there was his narrative of himself and there were my observations of him making sense of himself, and then there were my interpretations of these narratives. I think those layers need to be there for the reader. The “I” is always in the way, but we need to step back and let subjects do the talking as well. The tension between these layers is interesting. They are like the tectonic plates of nonfiction writing. When they collide, the earth cleaves, and something deeper is revealed.

21 March, 2014

On Influence

I’m over at AWP writing on influence. Check out the cool graphic they’ve added. The girth of my avatar in particular! Below, an excerpt. You can read the full piece here.

To acknowledge an influence is no loss of face, surely; the elemental bones of every story have been told before. To acknowledge is not to say that we are lacking in inspiration, but, rather, to take our place among the writers who have come before and to note that we might, in turn, be of use to those who will follow. Writing is the process of stating and creating human history—the things that preoccupy us in this milieu, the homelands yearned for, the future for which we might yearn. Story is also a distraction from those mindings, a way of leaving behind concerns, hence the popularity of fantasy and science fiction, or the way that tales of far away lands are most often read by those who have never left home.

24 February, 2014

Roger Reeves

I’m over at the Huffington Post, talking with Roger Reeves, whose new collection, King Me (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), has just been released. You can read the full interview here. Below, an excerpt:

King Me is, indeed, deeply connected to the roots of human conflict and love. It is an intense, transcendental experience to read this work, a collection whose wisdom grows until, its final lines: “Then, let us hold each other toward heaven/ and forget that we were once made of flesh/ that this is the fall our gods refuse to clean with fire or water.” Those words are a convocational plea, one that begs the reader to return to the beginning. And begin again.

18 December, 2013

Bourbon & (Mothers) Milk?

I am over at American Short Fiction today, talking about my favorite good/bad mothers in fiction alongside a group of excellent folk like Xhenet Aliu, Alexi Zentner, Eugene Cross, Shann Ray, and J. Capó Crucet You can read the whole piece here. Below, an excerpt (this one from Xhenet):

When I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” of course I find myself oppressed by the mother’s admonitions and lessons. Of course I want to pluck the broom from that poor girl’s hands. Of course I want to insist that sluttery isn’t in the swing of a hip but in the eyes of those who are terrified of sex and any form that reminds them of their own fear. Of course I resent the overbearing, unnamed but monstrously present mother—and yet I find myself wondering, secretly, if the mother believes she’s actually doing something right, and if that counts for anything. I wonder if the mother thinks that doling out a little bit of pain will spare her daughter from a well of it. Even if the mother is wrong—about how best to armor a daughter, about where the biggest hurts spring from—I can’t help but find a teeny sliver of tenderness in there, the kind of maternal hardness that’s like an autoimmune response: a natural defense in functional, small doses, and painful, even fatal, when unrelenting.

15 December, 2013

Why Community Matters for Writers

I’m over at the Association of Writers and Writing Program blog (AWP Writer) writing about community. You can read the whole article here. Below, an excerpt:

Being among other writers, without any specific need for the approval or sign-off of any particular entity (agents, editors, professors, publishers), but rather the celebration of the written word and our love for it, has been the best inspiration for my work. The writers I met there grew exponentially as I placed myself not as a writer with a personal agenda of self-aggrandizement, but a writer among writers. Picture the rocks in a river and you will understand: we rocks (writers), of varying hue, girth, width and striation, tumble the waters (words) differently, but those waters live both upstream and down, they evaporate and come back to earth, they feed the soils and they make things grow and sometimes they come down hard and drown our harvests. The rocks, too, break down, splinter, are dislodged, pushed downstream, and eventually turn to sand and disappear. That river, that riverbed, remains, and there are other mountains that will supply the movement and disturbances required.

26 October, 2013

Honesty


There’s a Billy Joel song that I learned to sing when I was home in Sri Lanka and when I began to write this, the lyrics came back to me. It’s a song about people in relationships, I suppose, but it could be said that this quality, honesty, is what we seek from anybody we meet.

Lies are good enough, useful feeding the imagination. Santa and the Tooth Fairy are special beings in my life, pieces of magic that I hope never disappear. Still, what I value most from anybody it seems is that they tell me exactly what is on their mind. Airbrushing has never appealed to me; more than once I’ve pointed out to people who are yet to meet me that I will attempt to look like my author picture but that I’m likely to fail!

Enter Mom. I first met Mark’s mother when I was a freshman in college. When we walked in the front door at 185 West Norwalk Road, CT 06850 (funny how I’ve never forgotten that address, particularly the zip code), Mark got a real embrace and warm greetings before his mother turned around to say hello to me. I remember thinking she is more committed to making sure he knows she loves him, than she is to making me, a stranger, feel welcome. It was the first of many cultural differences that would rise up to create distance between us. (Burgers for dinner? Where was the full-out spread that one would produce for first-time guests?)


And yet, this is also what I have come to love the most about her. She is always who she is. What she says is truly what she means, and she is always right. I’ve been furious at her for asking me the difficult questions (why, instead of complaining about having to move to the middle of Maine in deference to Mark’s desire to work there, won’t I find a job I like?), but I have grown to understand the wisdom behind her words. The best piece of advice I ever received about marriage came from her. I was describing a moment during the early days of my relationship with Mark, an altercation with a student worker at the library, where I felt he had not defended me even though I was in the wrong (ish). She said, pay attention to those things for they will be the things you will come back to repeatedly over the years ahead.

Her words have reminded me also to remember myself, who I am. Upon returning from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for the first time, looking at my photographs, listening to my euphoric tales of my time there, she asked me what it was about the conference and that place that made me so utterly happy. That person you are in such a place – a place that makes you happy – is the person you are, she said, because happiness comes from being affirmed for being most truly ourselves.

I recall that during a visit from her to the apartment we shared in sin one summer while I was still in college and Mark had graduated, I happened to be reading a book that I had picked up off a bargain table titled Men Who Are Good for You and Men Who Are Bad for You: How to Tell the Difference by a Dr. Suzanna Hoffman. I kept looking for Mark among the three (yes, I think there were only three), good ones, but he wasn’t to be found. There were elements of him in each of them, but no one composite “good” label could be applied to the guy I was dating. Mom looked through the book very quickly, dog-earned one of them and handed it back to me saying she had found him. I opened the page to read about “The Secret Manipulator: The One Everybody Loves But Who Somehow Always Gets His Way.” It wasn’t so much a condemnation of the less worthy aspects of her own son, but a reminder that being less than perfect does not make us less deserving of being loved.

I am always inclined to see people as children, to identify in the faces of adults, traces of the child they once were, those qualities that remain long after we are suddenly colonized – often against our will – by the expectations of Real Life. But it stands to particular reason that over the years when we’ve gone through tough times, the person I think about most often is Mark’s mother. When he is beyond being lovable I see him through her eyes. Mom’s son, I think. How much she loves him, how much good she wishes for him, and, despite all shortcomings (all of which she recognizes and has pointed out), how much she must hope that I will be kind, forgiving, and see my way through the difficulties and back to love.

Such lessons aren’t imparted by people who are afraid of looking reality, even grim reality, head on. Sure, it might be her >180 IQ or her Mensa membership that allows her to be who she is, but I prefer to think that she is gifted with emotional intelligence, the kind that operates without filters. The only kind that allows for the filters that should be used in the aftermath: to see what is so we can figure out what can be.

Ours isn’t a rosy relationship. More than once I have got under her skin with my demands for re-arranging the seating around the Thanksgiving table, my refusal to stop talking about Palestine, or bringing completely random people to her house and expecting her to put them up, and so on. And I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over being referred to as “the tiger by the tail,” with regard to her son, or her not-so-subtle alluding to the idea that I might run off with the Latin/Ballroom dancer, or start cavorting overmuch with too many big-name male writers, but I can honestly say that I love her deeply for who she is, and that among the compliments I’ve received from her son, the one I treasure the most is that I was someone he thought his mother would really like. And the addendum: she is very smart and very hard to please, but you, unlike the other girlfriends who were intimidated by her, can stand your own ground.

Happy birthday to the long cool woman in a black dress!

13 October, 2013

My Mother’s Sweet Death

Some days I forget the exact day on which I lost my mother. Some days I remember that we lose and find people when they are alive, and some days I can forgive myself for having lost her so often and for not finding her when she was still here. Other days I am aware of her here, ever present, never lost. And almost every day I can find my mother in the words written by my brother in the newspapers back home, in articles that affirm her gifts and absence by demonstrating how she lives on in his own world view.

Over these past years I have written about my mother in different ways. The first year, so full of grief, the second so full of reconciliation, the third, wordlessly but for what I posted on Facebook. I have written of the poetry she brought to me, the way she raised me, and the way her wisdom found me in words I needed to hear on the very day I needed to hear them.

My mother exists in a physical way among my belongings here in this study where I write.

- In the one complete cross-stitch tapestry I made in my life, a gift to her that she never hung up.

- In the framed picture of her above my bookcase where she sits, one of only two female teachers at the top boys’ school in Sri Lanka, young and soldiering on.

- In the photograph of her that sits behind my desk beside which I have placed a photograph of me as a very young child, something to remind me that, though I tormented myself with concern for her, my lapses were rooted in the fact that I was the child, not she. In the twisted gold metal flower that one of my daughters, the artistic one, made, resting delicately against her photograph in homage to the mother she was, in the twisted gold metal heart made by the same daughter resting equally delicately against that photograph of me in acknowledgement of the fact that she, too, deserved to be loved.

- In the tissue-bag that contains the many cards and the book of condolences written by those who came to her funeral among which is this note from a sister-in-law with whom she wasn’t always on the best of terms, but whom she cared for as she cared for everybody, giving the best of herself: Thank you very much Indrani Akka, for teaching me to sing songs and also teaching me to dance the cha-cha and waltz. We had a great time at Kandana those days. May you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.

- In the package I discovered just a few weeks ago, the last one I had addressed to her, still addressed to her, a gift of a book of poems, Eruipedes’ MEDEA (Oxford University Press, 2006) translated by Michael Collier that he had signed for her that year at Bread Loaf. I had chosen this as a gift from someone I love unabashedly for someone who did not always understand the shape of my love for her, this mother who taught both poetry and Greek literature. In it, he writes: For Ru’s mother, with gratitude for the gift of your wonderful daughter. I hope one day to meet you. I read those words and I think about the fact that she never heard those words of praise for me, but Michael had met my mother in me, for a great part of the strength and resilience and warmth I have came directly from her.

When I returned from Sri Lanka after her funeral in 2009, I brought with me a suitcase full of her papers and journals. I intended to sort through them when I got home, to give her something she had always craved but never received from us: a curiosity about her interiority. But, four years on, I have only opened it once, and that, to pick up one journal from her time as an undergraduate where I read only two entries. One, about visiting home and helping her mother by bathing her youngest sister, and washing and ironing the clothes of another, a second about a visit from my father. Beyond this, I have been unable to go. I look at that suitcase as I open the front door each day, glance sideways imagining its contents, but I have not opened it. I don’t know when I will, though I am glad that somehow “her things,” these paper-based things that she most cherished, are with me. The one thing I returned to Sri Lanka were the letters that my father wrote to her, things he asked to take back with him. I don’t know if he has read them, whether in reading them he has found some insight into the person she was before she became his wife, our mother.

This time when I was home, I came across a few last papers of hers, letters written from her mother and father to her. In their letters I find a girl who felt responsible for the family from which she hailed, a deep love for the entirety of it, including the far extended family, a girl happy in her accomplishments at college, involved in studying English literature, playing tennis, and learning ballroom dance. A gay soul, a spirited, happy person, a person I only saw in glimpses, and usually when we were alone together. Those letters and these, her collection of “little books,” the ones in which she wrote down the innumerable names and phone numbers and, later, email addresses of her hundreds of friends and students, many in Sri Lanka still, most abroad living the lives they thank her for making possible with her teaching, encouragement, affirmation, letters of reference and excuse, and prayers. Among all her writings, these little books tell the story of a life marked by attention to people, to the connections made, the bonds forged and kept unbroken, no matter how long the absences, how infrequent the visits, how great the distances. My mother’s world beyond our home was a web of infinite possibility and connection, a vast tapestry of generosity and love. If we, her children, sometimes failed her, if her expectations of us were too great, our long-ago grievances seem so insignificant in the face of all that she was to so many other children.

My brother, Malinda, wrote a reflection today about a grandmother he met, in memory of my mother. This lady, after spending time with him, had exclaimed that she had found a son. It made me smile to read that, knowing how most older women who meet this particular brother want to keep them for their own as son or grandson. And it made me smile also in remembering my mother, the way in which she flung her arms around the world, taking its daughters, but mostly its sons, for her own. Remembering also that, despite all that is forgivable and all that can only be forgotten, the three names and addresses that don’t appear in these little books were the ones that meant the most to her. Wherever she is, I hope she forgives me for sometimes forgetting that simple truth.

Tomorrow I will plant flowers for her. No alliums among them, this year, but others chosen for similar reasons by her grand-daughters. Because she would like these particular colors, they say, as if she will be here, come Spring, to see the flowers bloom. They are nothing like the flowers she planted in her lifetime, but perhaps she will visit.

But maybe more even than the flowers this time around she might like to know that her grand-daughters remember her sweetness this way, recalling the times that she would state her longing for sweets, disregarding the orders of various doctors, declaring that on her gravestone (a gravestone that she, a Buddhist, would never have), should be inscribed the legend, she died a sweet death. Whether she knew it or not, none of her children, not those thousands, nor us three, ever wished her less when her day came.

30 September, 2013

On Writing Residencies

I’m over at the new AWP blog site talking writing residencies. The full post is here. Below, an excerpt

An increasing number of writers have begun to create their own residencies by partnering with other artists and renting cottages that afford a view or privacy or both, figuring out that it would be easier to do this than to wait in the wings for what may seem like an eternity. Authors Robin Elizabeth Black (If I Loved You I Would Tell You This), and Shannon Cain, (The Necessity of Certain Behaviors), for instance, are coming up on their fifth anniversary of starting the year with a week on the Jersey Shore with a group of other women writers. According to Robin, they have “built a true safe space, and launched more than one book there,” including as it turns out, her forthcoming novel, Life Drawing (Random House, March, 2014), at this off-season-priced retreat. With a cost at one-tenth the price during high season and a hand-picked group of convivial spirits, where the group responsibility is dinner on one night, it is almost as good as an official apply-to-get-in residency.

23 September, 2013

Poem for My Brother

Today is my brother’s birthday. It is also a day that was his birthday, since my today is already his tomorrow in Sri Lanka. I wanted to write something about this brother of mine, something that speaks to the intensity of the love I feel for him, the regard I have for him, but mostly the ineffable quality that keeps us looking out for each other from this great distance. It is not something that needs to be mentioned, really, but it is something we both understand is there, like the magic potion concocted by Getafix, or the secret strength of super-heroes. That thing you call upon when you are all out of luck and yet you remain standing, secure in the knowledge that help is near and that you know its source.

I recall a time long ago when I was visiting my brother while he was studying in Boston and I in Maine. A friend of his was telling the story of how he and my brother were together playing tennis at a court near their apartment in Cambridge, and the altercation that unfolded. Apparently, their laughter over a joke they were sharing was (mis)taken to be derision aimed at a White teenager, who decided to fight my brother. My brother is the one whom the piano teacher pitied for the weakness of his fingers. “Yeah, Malinda of course,” she would say, with a little inhale-exhale, dabbing at her powdered nose with one of her innumerable fresh handkerchiefs, “his fingers… he has to practice.” My brother is the one whom I, the younger, could frighten out of his wits simply by leaping out at him from behind fridges and doors. My brother is the one who caught hepatitis, suffered a fractured leg that put him on bed rest for months, who had his forehead cut open, and who was always served milk with Marie biscuits each evening while my other older brother and I were deemed sturdy enough for tea. Perhaps it is in compensation for this perceived fraility of body that my brother grew up to withstand more emotional and spiritual upheaval than the rest of the family combined, weathering imprisonment and loss with an equanmity that the rest of us are yet to match.

But that was yet to come.

On that day, listening to this story, I remember the anger that built up in my own body when his friend answered my question as to what he did for my brother that day, with a “I was scared! I ran.” How could he? I demanded to know. “You ran? You had a tennis raquet in your hand and you ran? I would not have run,” I declared, all 100 pounds of me quaking with rage, ready to go back and find the thug who had threatened my brother. I remember my brother laughing. He said, “X is Sri Lankan, but he grew up here. That’s why he ran.” I just want to say, he was wrong. It has nothing to do with where we grow up, it has to do with love. I may be 8,771 odd miles away from my brother, but I would fight for him any day. Even without a tennis raquet. This poem, not mine, explains why.

For What Binds Us

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

(Jane Hirshfield, “For What Binds Us” from Of Gravity & Angels. Copyright © 1988 by Jane Hirshfield)

28 August, 2013

Rick Simonson: 10 Years Old in 1963

I have been listening to the run up to the celebrations of this day, and of course the speeches made today at the Lincoln Memorial. It is strange that the first time I heard about that memorial, it was through my mother and father speaking to me about Marian Anderson. My mother had heard her sing at the Peradeniya University where they, my parents, were students, a performance broadcast to the standing-outside multitudes via loudspeakers. Neither of them have ever spoken of any other voice with quite the same reverence. Through her recollections, I heard of this voice that had rung over the assembled in a city called Washington DC in a country called America. Much later I learned to sing ‘A Church is Burning,’ as one among our repertoire for an entry to a national festival of ballads. I’d heard of Birmingham, but I didn’t really know what any of this truly meant. It came to me in music that I could sing with heart, but not in history that I could actually see in my heart. It happened before I was born, in a country I wouldn’t really know until I was a college student, and not very well until many years after, when living here had become what I would choose to do, when colour became more complicated than saying someone was “fair” or “dark,” the only words I’d ever used before to describe complexion, when the word “colour” became, by itself, no longer a descriptor but an unwieldly, shape-shifting misnomer.

And so, to today, when I found myself watching and listening, but as a bystander rather than a participant. I know what I have come to know, and witness, and speak out on behalf of, but this is a struggle whose roots go back to a place of origin that I can only glimpse. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this note from a friend, someone who had been “here when,” whose life was transformed by the events of this day, fifty years ago, and by that speech. A speech whose candence and words would have made a deep impact on someone who would dedicate their own life to the celebration of words. It gave me a chance to relive this day as it might have seemed to me if I had been not a still unborn future hyphenated dual citizen, but rather a boy growing up in Nebraska.

Thinking this morning of how old I was, fifty years ago. I had just turned ten. Getting ready for fifth grade. Mrs Armstrong, Calvert School. A bored, end of summer day on my hands. I had two best friends then – they lived on our street – Bill and Mike. Neither must have been about, so on my own I went into our basement where we had the tv to see what was on. Then it was about three or four channels that gave you what you might get., I don’t know if I tried changing channels, if what I was ran on all three or not, but what I saw was so spellbinding that I found myself riveted – and watched for however many hours I did.

First, this incredible marching, assembling crowd. I had never seen as many people thronging about like this – walking, these signs … I hadn’t been to Washington, DC, but had seen photographs – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, all of that, all usually depicted with these park-like swaths of open grounds around them, that long reflecting pool. Here were all these people. I knew what they were about, what the march was about., There had been so many stories in the news – both on tv, and in the weekly magazines that came to our house – Time, Life (lots of photos), Look (ditto). I knew (then) this was about the South – where slavery had been, where basic rights were denied now.

But that this was a coming together – a demonstration (it must have been a new word to me) in Washington. I was trying to comprehend, I suspect, what this was, what was intended, how it related to what was happening in the South. A demonstration … Commentators must have helped with some of that. The sight of all these people – Negroes, as it was couched then, and white people. So many. With signs which said things that made impressions.

At some point the moving, the marching must have stopped, for a program with speakers was then shown. There wasn’t a lot of moving camera work. I remember a pretty fixed shot close to the speakers’ podium. I then remember various people speaking. This – all in black and white – must have been the first time I remember little white captions, words on the screen saying who people sometimes were. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP seemed to moderate, or at least was there talking a lot. I felt like he was introducing and/or making announcements. There was also Bayard Rustin – I remember the name ‘Bayard’ being unusual and that he was from the porters’ union – one of the most powerful organized groups of Negroes, a labor union of train attendants (I had to figure out what a porter was). There were famous people there, actors – Harry Belafonte. Probably Sidney Poitier and I think, Sammy Davis, Jr. That would have been about it for people I would have known. A James Baldwin would have been lost on me. People who sang there – The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (at age 22,, I would later figure) would have been lost on me.

Whatever I knew of him before – I knew some things – by the time he was done speaking, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not lost on me. Not to go into all of what he said. I doubt I remembered much on the spot. But the long, slow, deliberate pace and weight with which he spoke (he who was only 34). The rising, peak and valley crescendo of talk came at the end, the part that short clips all play, but those really got their soaring, wave-like power from the slow buildup that preceded it. I remember all of that pouring right into me, including that at the end.

And then it must have been over. I must have climbed the stairs out of the dark basement (it was like coming out of a cave), I must have stepped back out into the late afternoon … and resumed whatever was up, seen if Bill or Mike was home yet, heard what our own house’s schedule was like (when Dad would be home, what time dinner, what dinner might be) … I don’t think I felt like I could really talk about what I’d seen, at least not to the places in me it went. Even as I was going about my 10-year-old daily business, something in me felt deeply altered.

How wonderful to think of the way that moments change our lives, particuarly the lives of children. I think about all that this boy would go on to do, the words of relevant people ushered forth, not simply what is deemed famous or fashionable, but what is good and important and life-altering.

Today is a good day to remember these things. To remember, also, that odd-sounding name, Bayard Rustin, opined upon today in the Wall Street Journal, a central figure without whom no march might have taken place, a gay man whose personal life was reviled in public by many who also participated in that march. To place that bit of information next to this other remembrence today: this day on which we mourn a young transgendered woman, Islan Nettles, murdered in Harlem because of her sexual preferences. And to remember what we choose to say and do when we are given the opportunity. A good day to remember exactly which anthem Marian Anderson chose to sing on that long ago day, and why she might have done so.

Here she is.

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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