13 May, 2015

The Charlie who “Threw Me Back”

Ten years ago, when I didn’t know narrative from Narrative Magazine​, I sat at a dining table with Dimitri Kasaan, and another writer whose repute and influence was beyond my small understanding at the time. It was early and in my memory we were the only ones there. He was talking about writing, good and bad, Bread Loaf, Charlieand the experiences had, over a long career of teaching, with how best to help students along. Listening to this, I was seized by a sense of horror. What if I was guilty of producing bad (creative) writing? I knew my non-fiction/journalism had a purpose, and that the writing was good, but that did not necessarily translate into an ability to write good fiction after all. Hair stylists aren’t all versed in hair coloring, and a conductor may not always be brilliant at playing an instrument. But here before me was a man who sounded like he could tell the difference. A thoughtful man, who hadn’t made it his business to condemn the aspiring, willy-nilly, but was in full possession of the skills of discernment.

I don’t even know if we’d been properly introduced, and perhaps it is a testament to the absolute innocence with which I had set foot in that exalted place, but the words burst forth from me: Please, would you read a few pages of my work and tell me if I should just give up? I remember that he looked a little startled, but I pressed on. I would take your words to heart. I don’t mind if you said it was terrible, it would save me a great deal of time. I’d like to know. Perhaps it was the absolute earnestness of the request, perhaps he could tell I really did mean all that, but he agreed.

I ran away to the computer center and printed out the beginning to the first novel I ever wrote, and got the pages to him. We bumped into each other later that day at lunch, and he told me it was powerful work. Those words – they could have meant powerfully bad work, I suppose, but I took it to mean the opposite. Or if not the opposite, then at least work that was worth doing, or that there was something there that was important enough to be written down. It wasn’t a waste of paper or a waste of me.

I think so often about that moment. I can see it in detail. I can hear the noise of the writers around me, gathering after workshop for lunch, the constant clatter of food service, the voices pitched toward and away from each other, and the hum of excitement and energy that pervades the campus hovering above it all. Most of all I see him, this gracious human being who had no obligation at all to have read the work of someone he had only just met, someone so clearly out of her league in the conversations about creative writing. I see that moment in movement and sound, but also as a still photograph that is both the before and the after. If I had not felt that grace, would I have continued to write? Even after that “powerful” work went on to languish in the house, unpublished save for the shortest excerpt imaginable from a 487 page tome? Or would I have petered out, a memorable summer fading in time?

I can’t say. There were other people at Bread Loaf who nurtured me and held me up. Others who believed in me, and encouraged me, including Lynn Freed, my teacher – now mentor, and dear friend – who introduced me to Jill Bialosky (who later sent the entire 487 page tome back with the kindest of notes).

I only know that I can trace the thin red line at the feet of that particular writer, beyond which waited all the writing that I have done since. Charlie3Someone who knew nothing about me, and had no reason to pay me the slightest heed, did. And it made all the difference. I kept on writing, and reading, and eventually publishing, and teaching, and doing a few good things in the world, all of which were invariably touched by that one conversation, those few pages, that one large-hearted human being. Over the years we’ve seen each other under other circumstances, in other cities, among other people: repeatedly at Bread Loaf, dancing in his white shirt in the old barn and in a tuxedo at the Cipriani Wall Street (#108 in that first batch of images) in quiet, over dinners and drinks and good conversations. I have had the deep privilege of having him in the audience when I read from my second novel both where it all began, at bread Loaf, and in his hometown of Minneapolis. Somewhere at the center of every meeting however is that snapshot from the past which made all those other gatherings possible, and which I can never forget.

Thank you and Happy Birthday to you, Charlie – from your very own starfish.

6 May, 2015

What Is Courage?

I read a tweet yesterday that kind of broke my heart a little. Someone I know and like said they did not believe in boycotts because they had “fought too hard to be included.” The person in question was referring to the PEN controversy. My own feelings about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and therefore my reasons for taking a side on this issue, are covered elsewhere.

But I’ve been thinking about that statement since. What does it mean to “be included?” By whom? To what purpose, and to what end?

It made me think about the fight itself – for whom and what do we fight? When we fight for inclusion, is it just for ourselves? I, Ru Freeman, would like to “be included?” Where? At the PEN gala? I have been. I’ve been one of those table hosts, and I enjoyed it. Then, as on many other occasions, PEN2013I’ve thought about where I came from, who I am, how much I enjoy the glamor and jazz of being in such places, but also about the immense loneliness I feel at such moments. The public person, the representative of my kind – South Asian, of colour, the international, the woman, the Sri Lankan – puts on both the ball gown and the star performance. But that same person understands that at all times I am but the face of all those other identities, and all the other people who look like me or talk like me or think like me or share my various parts and orientations. What I do does not impact me alone. And I am far too old and far too wise to believe that the fame of a NY minute is a rule meant only for other people. I’m far too old not to know that when the lights dim, I walk home as myself, a woman of many identities, and many complexities, not Ru Freeman the Table Host at the PEN Gala, circa. 2013.

Knowing these things, I have often advised people who have asked, that in the end what you are left with – what anybody is left with – is their integrity. The table at which I sat included some of New York’s finest philanthropists; I knew their work thanks to my own work in development and fundraising with major donors. The reward for their gift to PEN was being consumed as we talked, and I, good soldier that I am, changed seats through the various courses to make sure that I had a chance to make a pesonal connection with each one, to express – through some combination of charm and intelligence – that I valued their support on behalf of PEN. But I am not only the good soldier. And the glitz of the corporate presentation that year grated on my nerves. (There is a reason why I love the American Friends Service Committee – nobody there looks like they’re rolling out a multi-million dollar initiative for Nike, when they are raising money to help the poor in the most remote parts of Afghanistan). But that was not the place to express my small sentiment of dismay. It would have served no purpose. It could not have helped the people who were struggling under the weight of censorship across America or the world. It would have been a pointless and graceless gesture. And man, was I not enjoying my ballgown and my wine at my first black-tie gala?

But what would I have done if I had been asked to represent PEN during a ceremony that awarded a badge of courage to a group that denigrates most of the population of the world? Whose raison d’etre for being present at the gala was that they had persisted in ridiculing and taunting a marginalized and mostly misunderstood minority? Would this not have been the time to think about those other identities which I embody? If I had ever belonged to any group, of any size, which had been denied the respect and regard and rights accorded to everyone else, which had been brutalized and collectively dismissed at every turn, particularly in America, would not my conscience trouble me enough to stand with those who more closely embody the hardships I may have undergone? The answer would have been clear to me, forget the ballgown and the wine and the little table tents that tell the assembled all about myself and my literary achievements.

So what is belonging and inclusion? And in whose hands do we place the right to include us, and to stand in judgement about our merits?

I’ve been reading a lot of posts and interviews with the writers who chose to sign the letter of dissent – a letter of dissent is like the words penned by judges of the courts; it allows the majority ruling to go forward, but it articulates the reasons why the particular judge/s disagree. It has no teeth with regard to the particular ruling, but it informs the legal arguments yet to be made in other cases. In other words, as an organization like PEN ought to understand better than any other, a letter of dissent permits the freedom of speech and conscience. This particular letter of dissent expressed exactly that, and no more. The vilification of the six table hosts – and therefore the other signatories of whom I am one – permitted by PEN, and articulated in fact by some of PEN’s most recognized names, is the real blow to freedom of speech.

To claim that the award had nothing to do with the denigration of Muslims, while quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali is like saying you aren’t racist but quoting Zimmerman.

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What Ali said could have been said by anybody. That PEN chose to use her as a quotable human being at a gala where they have sworn they were making an award that has nothing to do with Islamaphobia, is nothing short of not just a bucket, but an entire dry oil well full of bovine excrement.

To return to this idea that crawling through the needle to be “included” requires the setting aside of ones conscience, or must silence the voice one possesses and can use to speak for the voiceless and the “unincluded” – a condition with which the freshly “included” must surely be familiar – I quote the writer Conner Habib: “I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list. I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name. I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.” In other words, some writers choose to do what it is not easy to do because they value the tenor of our community more than they value the fleeting moment of “inclusion.”

Habib goes on to make several excellent points in his post about his decision to sign the letter of dissent or, as he puts it, more accurately, disassociation. As does Amitava Kumar, another writer who knows of what he speaks, in this conversation during The Takeaway with John Hockenberry.

Amitava takes on both the matter of PEN mobilizing its surrogates to attack the writers who wish to disassociate themselves from this award, and the matter of choosing to celebrate Charlie Hebdo while ignoring the murder, say, of Pakistani activist, Sabeen Mahmud, among other things. And he asks this question: “Does it take courage to stand up at a glittery gala in NYC and toast Charlie Hebdo? I don’t think it does. So what does it take more courage to stand up for today?”

At the end of the day, I look at the list of (thus far) 204 PEN members who had the courage to add their names to the letter of dissent and I realize how much regard I have for each of them. It is nice to look around and see that some people still choose the walk-on-part in the war over the lead role in a cage.

14 April, 2015

The Omniscient Narrator in On Sal Mal Lane

I was delighted to be sent the link to this wonderful review that focusses on the use of the omniscient voice in On Sal Mal Lane, by Michael Noll, for his “Learning to Write” series. Michael is the brains behind the site, Read to Write Stories. It came exactly as I was preparing a lecture on that particular topic for my students at the Loft Literary Mentor Series in Minneapolis. Here’s the beginning (below), and you can read the whole piece here. It seemed particularly serendipitous that this was posted on my father’s birthday, which also happens to be the date of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, an event which is marked with great import in the novel itself.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. None of than the critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).
Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.

30 January, 2015

Let’s Carpe the $#@! Out of This Diem!

There’s been a spate of articles about who funds our writing, and the glorious writing life (which always includes publication), that might have awaited if only money had not been the object. Most people fall somewhere between Bauer and what, in the American literary world, is apparently considered the hard-knock life.

I am reminded often of the simple wisdom of the ‘Dear Sugar’ colums of yore (now revived in podcasts by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed), when a woman who grew up with an outdoor toilet and student debt she was sure she would be saddled with until the age of 46, dispensed advice to the young, the old, the weary, and the marvelously misguided. Reading the outpouring of agreement with the idea that somehow we have to have cushy lives, wealthy benefactors, trust-funds, or connections in order to succeed as writers, I am reminded most of all of these words from Column #91 The Big Life

I’m a socialist at heart, but when it comes to the actual, individual way we live our lives, I adhere to an entirely pull-oneself-up-by-one’s-bootstraps creed. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

I am, like Cheryl, a socialist at heart. Like her, I’ve always loved pretty things, and the occasional pedicure. Like her, I’ve dreamed huge and wide, batting in a dream world where I’m the center, I’m the queen, I’m the winner. There were books written by me, issues of social-justice solved by me, people brought together by me, and they were always there, those fantasies, firing up my heart and soul. When I decided to try and run a 5K (I am no runner), I called myself “The Legend” and pretended right up to the finish line that I was blazing back from past glory. I pretended even when I actually came one before the last, and that last person was walking. There were witnesses, and they were cheering me on with banners that said “The Legend Strikes Again.” I was not embarassed. What was there to be embarassed by? That I didn’t get a medal? That I didn’t win a prize? I was euphoric! I had run the whole way!

Like Cheryl, I grew up without money. The ticket my parents bought their only daughter to the U.S. was one-way, though they fully expected that I would return. How I would return? They didn’t know, neither did I, but neither they nor I were going to squander the opportunity of a lifetime with a full-scholarship to an American college (when all the universities in Sri Lanka were closed, young people were being murdered, and there was a war going on), by dwelling on the what-ifs and the problems that were still somewhere off in the future. They taught me something with that attitude. They taught me what some brilliant publisher put on their give-away tote-bag during BEA 2014: “Let’s carpe the fuck out of this diem!”

I never attended any event where I thought to put myself down. I never stood in a gathering where I felt less than anybody else. I never let the notion that if I asked for something from someone, anyone!, the answer would be no, stop me from asking. What was the point? There were, and are, surely enough jackasses in the world, fools without a modicum of decency who are ready and willing to do that for me – why do it to myself? You don’t show up for a job interview as a legal aide looking like you need someone to take you on as a client, do you? So why show up to anything looking like you were headed elsewhere and just got lost? Why show up for your life acting like you aren’t a writer, you have nothing to say, and someone ought to feel sorry for you?

Yes, there are vast injustices in the world. Yes, connections matter. Yes, there are MFAs that you and I cannot afford, and a system of education that priviledges the priviledged.
But is there only one narrow and burdened path to living a creative life? Doesn’t it seem just a trifle mad that we think financial security is the path to literary success? Have we forgotten Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Ursula K. Le Guin, and yeah, Cheryl Strayed?

Some of the most successful people in this country did not attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. In fact they barely attended college. Andrew Carnegie dropped out of elementary school, Ansel Adams didn’t finish high school, Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t even bother to attend, and Steve Madden kicked college out the window with, probaby, one of his self-designed shoes. Chances are, even if they had jumped through all the academic hoops, they’d still have gone on to succeed in what they took on, because they weren’t relying on “the proper training,” or waiting for someone to give them permission to do what it was inside them to do.

Have all my dreams come true? Hell no! But have I done things that I’ve wanted to do with all my heart, and put my ability to write to the best possible use even when it didn’t involve jacket covers with my name in flowing script and an embossed seal of approval from the powers that be? Damn straight I have. I have a husband whose daily grind lightens my financial load. I don’t take that as an invitation to sit on my arse and wait for the muse to knock on my door. I take it as an invitation to fill up my plate so high I can barely see around it, and give this world and this life that I have, and the people in it, no matter how close or distant, the absolute best of everything that I can possibly give, promise even more, and then kill myself trying. You’ll never hear me whining that I didn’t get this or that grant, or prize, or begrudging the success of some fellow writer. I’ve often “lost” in those big games, but that doesn’t make me a loser. It just makes me someone who is willing to give her all to the game and take it in stride. We’ve all grown up. Let’s move on from days-of-the-week to some real lingerie.

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21 January, 2015

The Jaipur Literary Festival

I’m over at the Huffington Post, with an interview with the redoubtable Willy Darlymple on the Jaipur Literary Festival which began today. Here’s an excerpt. The full interview can be found here.

A few days ago, William Dalrymple, famed architect of the Zee Jaipur Literary Festival which opened today, posted the following status update with a few significant details:

“Over the next six days we will be deploying at Jaipur:
– 240 speakers
– Over 2,000 workers to ready the venue
– Over 500 crew and volunteers
– Authors & Musicians from nearly 60 countries representing 22 languagesJLF2015– well over 2 lakh footfalls of visitors at Diggi Palace over 5 days
– a whole village has been imported to cook 15,000 plus hot meals for authors, press and delegates
– 940 lights will be erected across all venues in the 14-acre site at Diggi Palace
– 8 venues (6 at Diggi Palace, one each at Amer Fort, Hawa Mahal)
– 1,800 rooms plus rooms booked at Jaipur hotels for visiting speakers
– Over 2,30,000 sq ft of cloth used to decorate the Festival site
– Over 1,80,000 decorative hangings will adorn the venue”

It sounds both outrageous and delightful. The fact that several hundreds of those who will be speaking at the festival mingle, and refresh themselves in between sessions in a very small courtyard equipped with one small room for resting, is part of the charm of the world’s most popular literary festival.

I sat in that room – the room where Jhumpa Lahiri might go to speak to an interviewer, where Gloria Steinem might go to powder her nose, and where more than one author goes to lie down for a few minutes in between sessions, and where, surely, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux will exchange a few private words this year – and speak with William Dalrymple. As we conversed, a young man walked in and asked why Dalrymple wants to live in India. “Only Indians ask me that,” Dalrymple quipped, harkening back to the idea that none of us appreciate our own homelands, whose many graces are shrouded by the black curtain of our familiarity. Perhaps it is the more hopeful and forgiving eye of the foreigner that has helped Dalrymple to conceive of a festival like this. There is a palpable energy and excitement at this particular celebration of literature that unfolds among and within the palaces of Rajasthan’s capital city, bolstered by the fluidity of the masses of volunteers who supply everything from a ballpoint pen to a train to the Taj Mahal without ruffle, an equanimity only matched by the even bigger masses flowing through the festival grounds. Between the blur of moderating and speaking on several panels, Dalrymple paused to discuss the thinking behind the creation of what is now the largest entirely free literary festival in the world

8 January, 2015

Je suis et je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo

I had grand plans this morning. I was going to open up my various pieces of writing and send them off to sundry recepients from my agent to editors at journals near and far. Instead I’m sitting here feeling slightly paralyzed by my feelings about the attacks in Paris, and the response that has followed.

I come from a family of gadflies who never seem to shirk from being contrary and annoying the powers that be if such is called for. We have, in whole or part, lost jobs, resigned jobs, taken jobs, been slandered in public fora, incarcerated, and received death threats for our points of view. And we are all writers. While we have cautioned each other to, maybe, “tone it down,” “be careful,” “watch your back,” or “trust nobody,” we have each steadfastly refused to take this advice.

You can imagine, then, that the notion that ten writers and two body-guards could be shot to death during an editorial meeting, does not sit well with someone like me. I do not believe that murdering people, even those whom we consider to be foolish, lacking in judgement, and irrelevant to human progress (people who aren’t dissimilar to Fred Phelps and those within the Westboro Baptist Church), is a fair response to the incitement caused by their use of pen, pencils, and paper.

Last evening, I joined my fellow writers in signing PEN America’s condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. I did so even though I have been dismayed by the refusal of PEN America to make any statement about the conditions forced upon writers in Palestine, as they live under the yoke of occupation. I did so even though I disagreed with one part of the statement because in the end, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that a punishment, or revenge, or any other human response, ought to be equal to the crime or offense.

This is the sentence: “The right to satirize, to question, to expose, to mock, even when offensive to some, is a bulwark of a free society.”

I do not pray to the god of the French, and much of America, whose devotees value a “free society” over human decency. I do not support the ALCU because I do not believe that the right to free speech on the part of one person overrides the right to grief and mourning on the part of another. The Westboro Baptist Church is simply wrong. And so is the ACLU for supporting it. The French Republic is founded on the guiding principle of laïcité (“freedom of conscience”), an idea that has seen an effective seperation of church and state. But look at that word, “conscience.” Conscience = a set of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual. As such, our conscience – whether it prompts us to attend church or mosque, or whether it urges us to stay away from such places of worship – defines our religion. France is no less dogmatic about its religion of “free speech” than is Catholicism about the ten commandments, or Islam about its One God.

As I followed coverage last night, I became steadily more unhappy with the American take on the attack, even on the more left-leaning programs, such as the Rachel Maddow Show. Yes, the attack was vile, yes, nobody should be murdered for drawing cartoons, but no, thousands of people of the Muslim faith aren’t religious fundamentalists and zealots for marching in nations around the world, peacefully protesting the denigration of their faith. And no, seriously, no, lampooning your own politicians and dress-designers is not the same as expressing obscenities about someone else’s religion.

We define what is considered criminal based on our own set of ideas, whatever our own culture has taught us to believe. Thousands of Muslims were outraged by the way Charlie Hebdo portrayed their faith and their God, and they were justified in their rage. Thousands in France and abroad were equally outraged by the outrage of the Muslims, and they, too, were justified in their rage. Each had offended the others religion. The protests that followed the satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo in 2012 were an appropriate response. Intelligent people (both Muslim and otherwise), should have taken it further and exerted other pressures (diplomatic, cultural, conomic), in order to mitigate the fallout from the offense, had they felt it necessary to do so. Instead, one side picked up weapons, the other side claimed that “l’Amour plus fort que la haine,” but really practiced the opposite.

It is tasteless to speak ill of the dead, but the anti-Muslim cartoons that made Charlie Hebdo infamous were similarly tasteless. They were designed to harrass, not educate. They were, in essence, cowardly, and masturbatory. No more elegant than men getting off on exposing themselves to children in public playgrounds. They were unnecessary, and made no contribution to civil society, to cultural understanding, or a collective human good. Cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier incurred a great deal of hatred in his four years as Editor-in-Chief. And if he had not been killed so mercilessly, I would still be hard-pressed to imagine those four years as having been lived with genuine purpose. As the saying goes, we are put upon this earth to see each other through, not to see through each other. Charbonnier made it a goal in life to purloin the freedom of the press to report, and misused it to ridicule, malign, and nourish antagonism in a flammable world.

I wish that the response on the part of the French to the bafflement and subsequent anger on the part of so many Muslims, had not been euphoria and condescension. I wish it had simply been an equally forceful ridiculing of an editorial vision that ran counter to creating a better, more peaceful world. I wish that goodwill and decency, not to be equated with censorship, had been considered an option.

I sit here therefore, considering something both complex and simple. I wish for a world that understands that concession wins more ground than mockery. But I also wish that all of those people, including Stéphane Charbonnier had been given the time to do something different with their lives. Because the right to journey through life, to evolve, to realize the potential to do good in the world, is sacred.

No resolution to be had, only thoughts and more thoughts. The pen truly is mightier than the sword. I wish for a better world, one in which people recognize and harness the power of that fact. Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 12.00.46 PM

9 December, 2014

My Friends Are Aight

The people who really know me, know that FB is not the story of my life. Well, it’s not the story of anybody’s life, but it’s been a real long spell of “not-really-my-life,” for me. And yet, it is, in some good solid ways. Despite my very strong and often contrarian points of view, definitively expressed, I was born to celebrate. I get excited about everything, big or small. The small, even more than the big, because the big takes a little time to digest. The big is like a Pacific NorthWest twilight that takes its own sweet time. The small? Effervescent thrill like the ball drop on Times Square. Why note get giddy about it ASAP!? And so a lot of the joy and silliness that I express on FB is also an essential part of these “not-really-my-life” times.

I go to FB to remember that, more often than not, to throw my whispers and shouts into the vast churning vortex of friends and acquaintances, knowing that my words may light someone up in the way that their words often set me ablaze. Today, I came across two posts (well, one is a quote), that settled into the deepest part of my soul. Here they are.

The first was from Reginald Dwayne Betts. We met many years ago, all agog about our this and our that, bantering with each other about our work and words, our lives. We were both unpublished writers, whose songs were finally being sung in the light. A light that is particular to Ripton, Vermont, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This is where Cheryl Strayed and I met, too, though she had a first novel out, and I was serving drinks to the fine and the famous and the aspiring, and delighting in all of it. Both of these people have been an essential part of my life, but even more than that, of my engagement with the world. They are real people, the ones who can get giddy about the silly stuff, but who can also hear the “not-really-my-life” life stories.

Here is Dwayne, reminding me of pretty much everything:

Reginald Dwayne Betts
13 hrs ·
Eighteen years ago today I got locked up. You really do have to pick the dates you remember, but I’m ADHD with the numbers though and so every time the clock strikes 12:08 I think about how you can ruin your life on a humble. Anyway I have work to do and a long night but was thinking that eighteen years ago the future was literally as dark as a life sentence. I still remember so many cell partners. I remember the first cell. I remember the second cell. I remember every single solitary cell. I can still see calluses I earned at pull bars with men named, well they had names. I can see this cat’s ankle protruding out of his skin after he moved a little too quick on the basketball court. Sometimes now my folks folks check up on me. And then I realize that my time stopped and theirs kept on. What you walk around with probably defines you more than where you walk. I can’t really pretend to know that yet. But I did alight since that day in December 18 years back. But shit, if you do run into that time machine, let me know. I can’t rightfully say I’d trade it all – but at least I’d go tell that kid that it would turn out fine.

And here is Cheryl, echoing his words:

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28 November, 2014


The last time I had Thanksgiving at home was in 2009, the year my mother passed away. I returned from her funeral and the attendant ceremonies (traditions I wrote about in an essay for Narrative, much later), and realized that there were certain obligations I had kept that I just could not stomach. I think there are times in our lives when the large things – big losses, big loves – put everything else in perspective. This was one of them. To me, losing my mother was equal to having children. Those who could not handle the grief of the former or the joy of the latter were, essentially, diminished in my eyes, not just then but forever after.

Perhaps that is judgemental and unforgiving, but I don’t think so. My avowal to stop supporting the ACLU came when I realized they condone the right of the Westboro Baptist “Church,” to protest at funerals. It’s simple. The right to free speech ends where the right to grief begins. And no manifesto should ever trump that. Similarly, nothing should ever stop a person from reaching out to someone who has suffered a loss, particularly the loss of a mother. And surely, no human being can remain unmoved by the birth of a child. These are the basic instincts that make us human: the ones that makes people run into traffic without a second thought, to save someone else’s kid from getting hit by a car, the ones that makes people stop by a dying person, no matter who they are, so they will not die alone. There is simply no excuse for not being able to lend a hand. “I don’t know what to say,” seems like such an inadequate sentence. If birth and death do not move a person hard enough to step out of what feels “comfortable,” then what does?

Hmm. I am not sure this was what I meant to write. I had meant to write about Thanksgiving, and staying at home…but I’ll keep following this thought.

That Thanksgiving, in 2009, I attempted to cook a turkey because that is what one is supposed to do and oh, I was mightily skilled at doing what was expected of me. I put that damned bird in the oven and went on a walk where I raged and wept, but I came home and rolled nutmeats in cocoa-powder (rum balls for dessert!), and attempted to create a same-but-different Thanksgiving. We gathered around a table, a group that included my father who had left and returned with me after my mother’s funeral, and I served the food on platters that belonged to my grand-mother, my grand-mother-in-law (who had always treated me like family), and my mother, and I said something about that, about those platters belonging to and gifted by the women who had raised and guided me. Then we sat down and ate a bird that tasted like reconstituted cardboard, and stuffing with too much salt, and we pretended all was well with the world.

This year was another year when I decided that I would do what I felt like doing, not what I was supposed to do. Many things have contributed to making it a far easier choice to make. I am older, and I am deeply aware of how close I am to having only one tenuous hold, my father, on the people and histories that make me who I am, that when he is no more, I will float unanchored and lost in a cold country. I am conscious, more than ever before, that the obligations I have kept have been to people who have never seen me for who I am, not loved me for where I’m from, not ever understood me, nor cared to try. I have come to see that I had, like Mr. Flynn in the musical, ‘Chicago,’ created a lot of “razzle-dazzle,” and “flim-flam-flourish,” in order to conceal the reality of the immense and overwhelming loneliness that comes from being far from people who love me, from my parents most of all.

This Thanksgiving, I was able to say, fuck the bloody turkey. I hate turkey, and I’m done eating it. I was able to say I would cook whatever the hell I damn well pleased, and invite the people I wanted to share life with: good friends who take me as I am, who share a multitude of pleasures and interests, but are fully themselves, distinct and different and inaccessible in significant ways, but still always present, with their own flaws and fallibilities, people whose children I absolutely adore. I was happy to receive a loving message from my dearest friend, Charles, who has never once forgotten to send such notes to me on all the important times – the times when we are most likely to forget everyone in the midst of festivities like Thanksgiving and New Years and Mothers Days – and I was happy to send one along to a new friend who has come into my life, to where she was, enjoying Thanksgiving with her love and his family. I was able to hear news of other dear friends moving to the West Coast, to be happy for them, knowing that the ties of friendship will not loosen with distance, in the same way the ties of friendship with those and other good friends did not loosen with our own moves to Maine and back. And though the candles that usually line my dining table burned one of the beautifully penned name-cards, and part of the table-cloth, and the table too, I was still happy. Table cloths, name-cards, tables, who cares in the end? The faces of those who gathered, who they are, and who and what they have been to me and mine, they are what heal and lighten my heart.

Thank God for the families we create, for the ones who find us, and take us into theirs.

p.s. The lamb kicked arse.

30 October, 2014

Winning a Prize…

…is pretty damn awesome, I have to say. And the folk at Rochester University know how to make a girl feel like a queen. I’ve been all over the place but somehow the city of Rochester clung to me in a different way. I was sick, but felt compelled to visit the places that meant something to the women who were escorting me all over the place, I was IMAG2140full but had a nice burning hunger every time a plate of food came into view, and though the dance card feels fit to bursting most days, miraculously I wanted all of the marvelous people I met to become friends for life. And as if that wasn’t a surfeit of gifts, it was great that at least two friends from my life showed up to – well, whatdya know – eat and drink with me, thank you Mary Akers, thank you Jen Grotz. It was the experience of af a lifetime for me, and I loved every second of it, but none more than listening to Katherine Manheimer, deliver this gracious and thoughtful introduction. I have never listened to an introduction with more rapt attention than I did to this one. I can’t give you her voice – which is its own mellifluous miracle – but I can give you her words. And next time you want someone to do the audio of your book, consider this woman. She does voices beautifully.

In her novel On Sal Mal Lane, Ru Freeman has written what may seem a work of contradiction – namely, a novel of political history that centers on a group of children too young to vote or fight. Spanning the four years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war, the book tells the story of the country’s building ethnic tensions even as it focuses its lens on the tiny, day-to-day dramas of the four Herath siblings, aged 7 through 12, who have just moved with their parents to a house on Sal Mal Lane.

The balance Freeman strikes between national politics and the life of this young family is enabled, in part, by her striking choice of narrator: omniscient and highly mobile, this voice can at once present us with the cynical, world-weary perspective of the adult citizens whose malice and self-interest drive Sri Lankan politics, but also the perspective of the child, with its curiosity, its candor, and its emotional chiaroscuro. At first, the omniscient narrator seems a figure we’ve encountered before – in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps, or George Eliot. And yet, the acute insights that this narrator provides into her child subjects ultimately injects the book with a refreshingly modern sensibility. This child’s-eye view of the universe is what provides the novel with its joy and its poignancy, even as it portrays the hard realities of ethnic hatred.

Again and again Freeman’s narrator emphasizes the separate ways in which the adults and the children perceive social and cultural divisions. For example, upon first learning of the arrival of the new family on the block, longtime Sal Mal Lane residents Mr. and Mrs. Silva remark gratefully on the fact that the Heraths do not belong to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority group:

“ ‘At least they are our kind. Far too many Tamils already down this lane…’ […] Mrs. Silva named the Tamil people down the lane, unfurling a finger for each one: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Nadesan, who hardly say a word, those piano people, Mr. and Mrs. Niles and Kala Niles, Old Mrs. Joseph, Tamil by marriage, and her son, Raju, even Jimmy Bolling, grandmother was Tamil, after all, so in that family Jimmy and Francie Bolling, the twins, and that dreadful boy, Sonna, and then the Bin Ahmeds, they are Muslims so they might as well be counted with the Tamils. That makes a total of fifteen Tamils down this one lane!’ She said this as if it were new information, not a count that she took on a weekly basis. She rubbed her fingers together as if shaking off all the Tamil people she had mentioned, and began the next count. ‘And Sinhalese? Until now Mr. and Mrs. Tissera and their son, Ranil, and us. Just seven! Now with the Heraths at least we’ll be thirteen.’ […]
‘It will raise the ratio of good to bad among the children at least’ [added Mr. Silva:] the bad to which he referred were the Bolling children, with whom the Heraths were soon to be acquainted.”

But this acquaintance takes a form very different from what we might expect, for the Herath children’s attitude reflects nothing of the prejudice and ill-will that has just been on display. Instead, when the children first meet young Dolly and Rose Bolling, their response is one of surprise, then sympathy. Having invited the twin sisters in for cookies, the Heraths are given their first opportunity to view at close range these girls whose deprived background is so unlike their own well-nurtured upbringing. Focusing, in particular, on the girls’ matted hair, seven-year-old Devi Herath suggests they “use some shampoo like Sunsilk Egg Protein.” The twins explain that they do not have any shampoo, and instead use a certain brand of antiseptic soap – when they’re lucky. At this the narrator pauses:

“All the Heraths grew quiet in the face of this information. Not having shampoo was one thing, but to have to use what their mother referred to as laborer’s soap on one’s hair, was out of the realm of imagination. [At that moment …] Devi resolved to give the twins the two special packets of Sunsilk that had come with the bottle her mother had bought for them, which Devi had been saving just for the sheer delight of feeling the soft-bellied pouches between her palms. [For] if she were Rose or Dolly she’d want someone to give her some Sunsilk too. She arranged her [tea-] treats in a circle in her saucer and separated the two halves of [a] chocolate biscuit. She brought it to her mouth to scrape the cream off with her teeth, but Rashmi [her older sister] touched her arm and shook her head no, and Devi obeyed, pasting the biscuit together again and taking a well-mannered bite off one edge.”

Here Devi, the youngest of her siblings – and herself clearly still in the process of mastering the rules of etiquette and cleanliness – is perfectly able to enter the mindset of these wild little girls from down the street. Indeed, because she is still alert to the sensual pleasures of the simplest things – a pillowy packet of shampoo as she palpates it in her hand; the feeling of her teeth slowly shaving a curl of moist frosting from off of its chocolate backing – this child of college-educated teachers is nonetheless able to relate to her awkward, unwashed neighbors: to what she knows will be their exaltation in real shampoo, in smelling sweet, in brushing their hair afterwards to a soft, sleek shine. In this moment it is Devi’s capacity for wonder in the world around her that ensures her continued humanity.

And in this serious, sweeping, and often heart-breaking novel, it is ultimately this glimpse into childhood’s natural sensitivity and emotional honesty that provides us with a sense of hope for the future – provides us with a belief, that, despite the violence that plagues our world, we may still possess some fundamental capacity for fellow-feeling and peaceful co-existence: for, after all, though we may be adults now, we were all children once.

The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, now in its thirty-eighth year, is awarded annually by the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies together with the Department of English. Janet Heidinger Kafka, a graduate of the University, was a young woman just entering a promising career in publishing when she was killed in an automobile accident; in Kafka’s memory, her family, friends, and colleagues established a prize meant to recognize and promote the work of women still at the beginning of their fiction-writing careers. Previous winners have included Ursula K. LeGuin, Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett, and Anne Tyler. It is our honor and great pleasure, then, to extend this award to Ru Freeman. Please join me in welcoming her today.

14 August, 2014

Huffington Post: Rita Zoey Chin

I’m over at Huffington Post talking to Rita Zoey Chin about her exceptionally well-written memoir, Let the Tornado Come. You can read the whole interview here. Below, an excerpt:

Scott Russell Sanders once introduced a reading of his work, A Private History of Awe (FSG, 2006), with a self-deprecating remark that he had sworn he would “never commit memoir.” It was a nod to critics of the genre who hold that one must live a remarkable life, before presuming to recount its vagaries and glories between the covers of a book, though, indeed, what Sanders did was to recount what would be considered a quiet life, with great literary aspect and to lasting spiritual import. Chin’s account of her life, so far from the lower-key evolution of the young boy Sanders was into the adult he became, nonetheless, strikes the same poetic beauty. Let the Tornado Come is not a litany of all that went wrong, but a near euphoric ode to the human spirit that pulls a little girl through each wrong toward a light that makes sense to her and, equally importantly, to each of us. It is one thing to have lived a life worth writing about, but it is a talent to search that undeniably particular life for the moments that can ring true to those who will never know even a second of the darkness that fell so insistently and relentlessly upon her, first as a child, and later as a young adult.

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.