Archive for the ‘All Things Literary’ Category

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.

3 July, 2014

One Book to Rule Them All

I’m over at AWP Writer talking about one of my all-time favorite writers, Jamaica Kincaid, and her work. You can read the full piece here. Below, an excerpt:

“Authors are notoriously relentless for culling the gems from the minutiae of their lives. There is a reason why the t-shirt embroidered with these words, careful, or you’ll end up in my novel, generates such awkward laughter. We all do it. Yet See Now Then is not simply a recounting of the entanglement, disappointment, betrayal, and quiescence that are the four corners of the institution of marriage, though it does that with great facility. I read it as a brilliant unpicking of the intricate tapestry of time, the time that it takes to get from one place to another, from being single and full of promise to being discarded and ridiculed, and all the dances in-between: the sultry samba of innocence, the salsa tempo of dreams, the slow tango of motherhood, the quickstep of parenthood, and the graceful sway of bowing off a stage from which one has been effectively, if impolitely, excused. It is about marriage, and it is about everything else.”

22 June, 2014

What is Love?

I’m over at NPR.org talking about one of my favorite books, Alessandro Barrico’s Silk. You can read the full piece here. Below, an excerpt:

Silk

“Baricco has set down a story enshrined in the acceptance that nothing will change, there can be no reversal, no comfort in the certainty that the wish made will one day be fulfilled. In reading the book again, I came to understand that I had been so preoccupied with where I was that I was blind to the journeys I could take with my mind. If bliss can be found in the mere existence of another reality, a country or a lover, distance eventually becomes immaterial.”

12 June, 2014

Books, Reviews, and all that Jazz

A friend sent this bit of the New York Times along to me yesterday, with the note, “how long have I had this now?” She had clipped it at my request, and not got around to sending it.

NYT

As I looked at the books on this list, I realized for the first time that Colum McCann (Transatlantic), and I made it on the same day with our books. I had been gifted that book before we did a panel together at the Brooklyn Book Festival and I was the book is signed both by the friend who gave it to me and Colum (something that the latter found a bit bemusing – how many writers have to sign a pre-signed book?)

Oh wow! I went looking for a link to the festival event that we did and came across this post from Greenlight Books which mentions our panel, and goes on to say where they heard about it – in the New Yorker! So what if I don’t have my fiction in there yet? That’s my name. In The New Yorker, people!!!

The Brooklyn Book Festival takes place this Sunday in Borough Hall Plaza, with dozens of free literary panels, workshops, and children’s events throughout the neighborhood. To name just a few: Hilton Als and the philosophers Alexander Nehamas and Simon Critchley will discuss the notion of beauty in the new opera “Anna Nicole”; Pete Hamill, Adelle Waldman, and Adrian Tomine will compare their literary depictions of Brooklyn; the Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman, the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon, and the Irish writer Colum McCann will discuss political conflict in fiction; and Jennifer Gilmore, Claire Messud, and Jamaica Kincaid will consider the role of motherhood in their latest novels. (Here is a full list of events.) Also taking place this weekend, Friday through Sunday, is the NY Art Book Fair at MOMA PS1.

Anyway, I loved meeting him and talking about our work on stage and after, about politics and the things that truly matter. And this clipping here – it reminded me of the high points we forget as we careen madly seeking the next milestone. I remember being so thrilled that I woke up at some ungodly hour in order to ambush the grocery store and buy 20 pounds worth of the NYT when the review itself came out. And then I left one copy lying around the house hoping someone would notice. Suffice to say, there wasn’t much notice – except of the “what’s for breakfast?” kind of notice that I wasn’t courting and certainly was not expecting on this biggest of all big days since I began writing.

Yet, no matter the reception on the domestic front, it was a magnificent moment and one I don’t for a moment take for granted, nor assume will ever be repeated. It reminds me of a feeling that came over me one early August morning in Maine as I got ready to head out to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Maine = pre-book deals, by the way. I remember feeling an immense sense of astonishment and gratitude thinking about myself, a girl who had come all the way from my small island country, without an aspiration in the world except to somehow do something worthwhile with my life though what that worthwhilian accomplishment would be was still a mystery. And how in that time I had somehow worked at two of the best organizatios in the U.S., The Institute for Policy Studies, and the American Friends Service Committee, and had also miraculously been invited to return to that campus in Ripton where so many brilliant American authors had first read their poetry and prose.

There’s a popular song, “Bubbly” – I can always come up with a popular song to go with my sentiments – talks about a feeling that starts in my toes/makes me crinkle my nose etc. That’s the feeling I get when I get to thinking about these things. They make me say, not that I deserved it, but that I was very fortunate. Somehow the people and events around me aligned right for these things to happen. Being at Yaddo is something I think about in this way, and being given the opportunity to converse with Jamaica Kincaid. Having a press that I admired for so long, Graywolf Press, publish my work, is another. As is having Julie Barer, someone I’d hoped might be interested in my writing, become both an agent and a kind and nurturing spirit in my life. And what about all the places I’ve been asked to come to, the people I’ve had the immense priviledge of meeting? What about that first publication of a personal essay, or the most recent, another personal essay? What about each small poem and bit of prose? What of all the deep and soul-sustaining friendships that have formed and thrived over these years?

So many things in this writing life of mine that have brought me such joy in such deep and immeasurable ways…There’s a vast world of generosity and beauty and real happiness that I’ve been asked to step into. How easy to forget.

It seemed important to note that gratitude in some way, to truly think about the fact that while we look to the end of a journey, we also climb and descend many peaks. Now is a good place to be, when I remember to be there.

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.

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.

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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