Archive for the ‘A Disobedient Girl’ Category

12 February, 2010

The Dutch, The British & The Galle International Literary Festival

I keep being pressed to write about the Galle International Literary Festival at which I was a guest. Some of the requests have been the result of simple interest in my impressions as both native and visitor, others have been somewhat hostile. 22356_286179927125_647787125_3900085_8356772_nI have never been an either with us or against us kind of person; frankly I think that embodying extremism of any sort dilutes and otherwise sullies creative work and I would be hard pressed to identify any writer whom I admire that is guilty of it. It has taken a while for me to reflect on the festival partly because I was in London right after the festival and have only just returned, and partly because my thoughts are complicated by a variety of conflicting sentiments which encompass both my respect for the work that is done to make it possible – and the individuals who do that work – the depth of talent among those attending both as guests and as audience and my sense that everything that we do is a work in progress and therefore could stand to be transformed so long as the transformation is advocated for in a way that leaves intact, whenever possible, the self-worth of the people responsible.

When my novel appeared in its Dutch translation, my publisher asked me to write a note to accompany its release which referred to our shared history. After ranting in the privacy of my home, I sat down and wrote a note that mentioned the fact that many Dutch public works as well as the tombstones of the old Dutch lighthouseverendahGovernors are preserved in Colombo and that the journey of one of the chief protagonists begins in Matara where the Dutch fort, Van Eck, still remains. I tempered my sense of outrage with the request that, at some level, was asking me to celebrate the colonization of Sri Lanka by the Dutch, with my understanding that my modern day publisher may (a) have been unaware of the extent of her country’s involvement in Sri Lanka and (b) was not, herself, responsible for the doings of her compatriots and (c) did not intend to cause me any distress but, rather, was trying to personalize the publication of a book that was being released alongside hundreds of others, and therefore give it a little more heft. That is the nuance that tempers the black and the white.

At a festival that offered such a range of skill, expertise and intellect, I was disappointed that I was unable to attend several of the conversations signingand panels that I would have liked to be at, when the writers featured were excellent and there was much to learn from them. Gillian Slovo, Rana Dasgupta, Amit Varma, Shyam Selvadurai, Michelle de Kretser, Ian Rankin and Sybil Wettasinghe were all people I wanted to spend more time listening to, as they spoke formally, but with whom I did manage to have interesting and fairly lengthy conversations off-scene. Unfortunately, there were many others – Wendy Cope, Iranganie Serasinghe, Artemis Cooper and Michael Frayn among them – whose insights and perspective I missed altogether. My inability to go to all the panels/conversations had little to do with the festival organizers shyammeexcept to the extent that I was also trying to participate in the fringe festival – which showcased, for the most part, the breadth of local talent writing and speaking in English – which then made everything a conscious choice that posed the following question: Am I here for myself? (in which case I must go to all the panels and lectures and conversations taking place on site), or am I here for my fellow Sri Lankans? (in which case I must support them in whatever way I could, but primarily by being attentive to the events that highlighted their work, many of which were off site)

To be a Sri Lankan writer published overseas by the kinds of publishers that I have been fortunate to have, is, to me, both blessing and responsibility. The accomplishment, as I see it, is not mine alone, 22556_303365777125_647787125_3948633_7913511_nit is also that of the country to which I owe my particular world view; that fertile soil, rich in culture and heritage and custom and religion, which grounds me and gives me the right to say, I am a Sri Lankan American writer. I see myself, then, as an outpost of sorts, a vessel that contains all that I have left behind in Sri Lanka, and, also, as a spokesperson for others of my kind. How, then, would it be possible for me to converse and befriend my fellow predominantly foreign-based writers and not give equal attention to the writers who, based as they are in Sri Lanka, do not have access to the publishing world in quite the same way that we do? How would they get critical attention for their work if those of us who are a little further down along the road not only leave no signposts, but forget that there are others making this same journey?

As I walked around going from one session to another, I was struck also by the fact that this desire to immerse myself in the literary talents and preoccupations of a host country, even when it is my own, is probably shared by the other writers who come to Sri Lanka, in the same way they do when they go to the Jaipur Literature Festival or to the Perth International Arts Festival or the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. For a writer anywhere, there are two things that are manna from heaven: the company of other writers and exposure to new worlds. panelI would hazard a guess that writers like Slovo and Dasgupta and Adebago would be just as interested in listening to and interacting with a multi-ethnic cross section of Sri Lankan writers as well as Sri Lankan culture (a need that the fringe festival addressed whenever possible with panels such as ‘The Literature of Post-War Sri Lanka’ which featured writer and photographer Pradeep Jeganathan, journalist Malinda Seneviratne and former-soldier and writer, David Blacker, as well as the event titled ‘Stories at Sunset’ at the Closenberg Hotel which was organized by local author, Ashok Ferry, alongside the equally commendable offerings of the main festival such as the panels on art, photography and architecture and the drum and dance performances), as they would be in having meaningful conversations with each other. Indeed, such engagement is what gives a festival its particular character and distinguishes it from any other event at which these same writers may have occasion to gather together.

It is always easy to criticize an initiative that is taken by someone else. And it is easy enough to disparage the work of one or the other group of writers within a multi-language system such as ours. sunilaSlings and arrows are easy to unleash, it is the building blocks that take work and separates the slouch from the citizen and neither Sunila Galappatti nor Subha Wijesiriwardena is a slouch, clearly bringing a wealth of experience in theater and writing to their work and giving heart and soul over to managing every last detail of a large festival involving multiple personalities, some of them split! In that regard, I was disappointed by the way in which journalist Rajpal Abeynayake summarily dismissed the entire – albeit recent – canon of writing in English as being garbage. There is garbage. balconysceneWe all know it and we can all manage the delicate art of discussing garbage without throwing it around, in the interest of preserving human dignity. But there is also solidly accomplished writing and, more importantly, there is a serious attempt on the part of those writing in English to both reach their full potential as well as to translate into English those works from the Sinhala and Tamil canon that are translatable. (I admit I came late to this session – again, I was torn between listening to the panel on post-war literature I mentioned above and the one being facilitated by Sunila at a festival venue with Rajpal; both panelists had reached a point of testiness and there was a sort of restive fatigue apparent among the audience as well.)

The criticism that there is insufficient attention given to the work of the host country, the best of which is, probably, written in Sinhala and Tamil, is valid, but is is one that ought to be leveled with the understanding that any initiative is dynamic and changing; srilanka2010-1671the festival has evolved from the first in 2007 to what it is today and will, I am certain, continue to change. I comment on this aspect of the festival, therefore, in full knowledge that this year it has grown to include genres not part of the festival in previous years both in terms of its panels and conversations but also in terms of the off-site events and the cultural and childrens’ programming, and that such changes auger well for other, even more significant adjustments to be made to the makeup of the festival next year. It is true that, as feetDavid Blacker put it in a blog post he wrote last year, this is not a “Sri Lankan literature festival.” However, it is disingenuous to refer to a festival as being “international” if it quite deliberately excludes, for the most part, Sri Lankan writing in translation, particularly when the current trend among all of the publishing giants and anyone worth their salt in the field of international literature is toward translation, an effort to which the organization Words Without Borders has made a mighty contribution as have the various International PEN organizations in the UK, USA and elsewhere. This is the first paragraph of the mission statement for Words Without Borders and it is a far better description of why translation is important than I could manage:

Words without Borders translates, publishes, and promotes the finest contemporary international literature. Our publications and programs open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages. We seek to connect international writers to the general public, to students and educators, and to print and other media and to serve as a primary online location for a global literary conversation.

Literary achievement is never a zero-sum game and the respectful inclusion of each others work ought to be seen as a way of bolstering the foundation of our shared interest in the life of the word, rather than as a way of distracting or otherwise reducing the worth of a single person’s contribution. If it was possible to give Michael Meyler the opportunity to conduct an engaging and illuminating discussion about the well produced trilingual book, Keerthihan’s Kite, is it not possible, also, to present Sri Lankan work in translation using the same audio/visual devices? punchasloIt is entirely conceivable to me that the festival organizers could ask for the help of accomplished bi-lingual writers and translators like Malinda Seneviratne, Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, Thambiaiyah Thevathas and others like them, to handle that particular aspect of the GLF in future years or, at the very least, serve in some sort of advisory capacity to facilitate that conversation. If the festival is, as it has become, the international face of Sri Lanka with regard to its literature, then I do believe that it is obliged to represent the country’s breadth and depth of writing, in all its languages. And that is a responsibility that ought to be embraced as a privilege, not a hardship.

The issue of festival access has been raised often and, during the Q&A with Rajpal, I was aghast to hear a member of the audience (I was told later that this was Antony Beevor but since I never met the man I cannot confirm that), srilanka2010-170question the government of Sri Lanka for requesting that a festival which is largely private, pay taxes that are due to the country. The issue raised by the individual was that “there is no literary festival in the world that is expected to pay taxes.” Well, the truth is, as always, not quite so simple. Festivals that are free to the public are not taxed. Whenever an event, that involves as much private enterprise srilanka2010-1031as does this particular festival, excludes – because of its fee-charging design – a large portion of the resident population, it must necessarily be treated differently. One way to avoid this is to emulate our closest neighboring festival, Jaipur, and make it entirely free although I realize that this would involve a significant degree of fund-raising to take place prior to the festival. And since I dislike making a criticism without offering some solution, might I suggest that the festival offer the option of named patrons, as is done with regard to so many other ventures involving the arts (the Aukland Writers & Readers Festival operates along these lines) something I would imagine would be just as enticing if not more so, than purchasing tickets to private events? That would also make it possible to offer a choice of the ever-popular literary dining experiences to such individuals while reserving an equal number of seats to be awarded to festival goers by lottery.

(Which, by the way, is not to say that those who have paid the fees thus far ought to be condemned as being “air heads” (as referenced in Yasmine Gooneratne’s article on the festival), quite the contrary; I found most of the Colombo socialites to be well read and more than able to engage in knowledgeable discussions about literature and writing: Sri Lankans, after all, are a highly educated populace and the possession of wealth does not automatically exclude a person from that national character!)

The lasting impression of the festival for me is one of valiant effort – chiefly by its executors and volunteers – and one of learning to distinguish the writer – eminent or fledgling- who srilanka2010-188is willing to immerse themselves in place, moment and literary endeavor from the writer who is simply there to soak up the perquisites of a festival hosted in the near paradisaical setting of Galle, which is very tempting, given its history, location, Lighthouse Hotel, Sun House and everything in between. Mercifully, there were more of the former and, refreshingly, all of the writers from the subcontinent belonged fairly and squarely to that group. It was good to discover that noniseating kottu at an unsavory roadside stall with Amit Varma, downing pittu and katta sambol with Rana Dasgupta, walking to the kite-flying activity on the Galle Fort with Michelle de Kretser and stopping for tea and laveriya at Monis Bakery on the way to Galle with Shyam Selvadurai blended seamlessly with our conversations about our writerly lives, with signing books and holding microphones on stages which elevate us and our accomplishments, often only artificially and almost always only momentarily, from those of others. When human endeavor permits the human being their humanity, that is the true measure of success.

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Note: The two photographs of me used in the first and fourth paragraphs were taken by Sharni Jayawardena

21 January, 2010

The Writing on the Wall for Independents

The week has passed by in a blur as I get ready to leave for Sri Lanka and then to London. Anybody in either place, do come to one or more of the events being planned. Click here for details

Meanwhile, last week, I wrote about Independent Book Stores for the Huffington Post Books blog about. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

“To reach the reading space at the independent book store owned by Mary Cotton and Jaime Clarke, Newtonville Books in Boston, a writer has to pass through a slim corridor accessed by a few steps, and the process puts one in mind of the entire work of writing poetry or fiction; the narrow access-way of anecdote or memory cleaved into the facade of the mind breaching, eventually, and giving way to robust characters and full lives containing singular pathologies. Make it through and one is rewarded by a soft lit showcase of the bookstore’s First Edition Book Club picks which reads like a who’s who of the writing world both established (Dave Eggers, Samantha Hunt, Salman Rushdie, Stacey D’Erasmo, David Sedaris, Julia Alvarez, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, Edward P. Jones, Ha Jin and Lorrie Moore among hundreds of others), and new (Margo Raab, Josh Weil and yours truly). At last check, one could purchase one entire collection of signed First Editions for $10,000. But what is even more thrilling than the presence of those books upon the shelves are the signatures that fill the walls and trim of the waiting room and staircase. Spontaneous witticisms from the pens of Jonathan Lethem (a creature of uncertain origin with the accompanying statement: “Tiger or giant rat, you decide, chronically yours, J. Lethem”) and doodles from Bret Anthony Johnston (a surfboard beside which Amy Hampel issues a dire threat: “Look out Bret, I just read here!”), testify to the deep camaraderie among writers as well as to their humanity.”

Please click on this link to read the full article (complete with the actual links!), and do leave your comments on the Huff Po site. I’ve been working on several blog-worthy pieces, but have a tough travel schedule coming up and have not been able to get them up. I do hope to write from home about the Galle Literary Festival and, also, about what happens during the Presidential elections which take place the day after I get there.

5 December, 2009

The Debutante Ball

I am over at The Debutante Ball today, blogging on the topic of ‘Day Jobs,’ which I have contrived to turn into a discussion of the way in which the industry responds to women writers v. male writers. Here’s a clip:

Women writers are rarely profiled with baby on hip and hand upon spoon within tureen of soup on stove. Unless they are writing cookbooks. Men, on the other hand, appear to pop up willy nilly next to stoves, babies and batches of muffins as though they relied on nothing less than full domesticity in order to create the brilliant fictions of their mind. Perhaps they do. Female writers either look glamorous or imposing. Male writers can be handsome, lovable, bashful, quirky, and fully domesticated, an entire smorgasbord of possibilities denied to women. More than one blogger even questioned why this summer’s profile of me the Poets & Writers Debut Fiction Issue did not include my age. Did I have something to hide, she asked. Apparently, if I were as youthful as my publicity photo implies (am I? aren’t I?), why would I not flash my actual age? Presumably, along with my thigh.

Why does age, gender, and marital and maternal status impinge so greatly upon the reception accorded to female writers? Why does it impinge so little upon the status given to a man of equal merit and competence? That is the companion question for all of us women who find ourselves debuting on the rather uneven stage of literary fiction, and one which I hope will cease to be relevant sooner rather than later.

Please visit the site and join in the discussion. And do support Women in Letters & Literary Arts (WILLA) if you don’t already. And if you would like further reading on the topic, check out Francine Prose’s article in Harpers, waaaay back in 1998, Scent of a Woman’s Ink. Classic.

Finally, thank you to the debs for inviting me to write this post – it prompted me to write something new, which is good news for my own blog which I have been unable to update. The idea of the current post not being about my mother was too distressing to contemplate until now. She would certainly have approved of the post that takes the place of my remembrance of her.

30 September, 2009

A Different Kind of Connection

Hi to Wendy Robards who is visiting via a guest post today. Her regular home is at www.caribousmom.com where she hosts a literary blog about books, reviews, reading challenges and other word-wise thoughts. Wendy is in Maine, the place where I wrote my first (bad) book and my novel, A Disobedient Girl, so we share a connection to a place that speaks to both what she talks about in her post today and what I am talking about in my post ‘Thinking Aloud About Time & Space,’ on her site today.

guestpostrufreeman022009-09-26-2The world spins faster these days with social networking, cell phones which can snap instant photos and connect to the Internet even in the middle of nowhere, and digital readers that can store more books than I have room for on my bookcase shelves. We are never unconnected – from friends, family, work. Everything that needs to be done can be done instantly. We pay our bills on line, shoot off emails which arrive at their destination in seconds, and download photos we took only moments before.

And so it occurred to me the other day as I carefully pressed and cut fabric for a new quilt and felt my heart rate slow and a sense of calm steal over me, that one of the reasons my life has felt out of kilter and speeding out of control these days might just be related to how I choose to spend my time. Somehow, in the fast and furious world of instant connection and electronic stimulation we have slipped away from the things that ground us, slow us down, and connect us to simplicity and beauty.

The art of quilt making requires many steps to get to the end result. It starts with selecting fabric, finding pleasing colors that coordinate, and envisioning how they will come together to form a block which then forms a row, which then forms a quilt. At this stage many quilters may sit quietly with a calculator and a piece of graph paper, sketching geometric shapes and planning. Then comes pressing, inhaling the steam from the iron and the warmth of the fabric, smoothing out the wrinkles, setting the fabric on the cutting mat and carefully cutting the pieces which will form the whole.

Pinning, stitching quarter inch seam allowances, more pressing, the whir of the sewing machine, the fabric sliding beneath one’s fingertips, the joy at watching the colors combine in a unique and simple design…the process unfolds slowly, engaging the visual, auditory and tactile senses.

But you are not done yet. The backing, batting and top must be pinned together with care and then there is more contemplation. How will you quilt this beautiful creation? Straight lines? Flowery whirls? What color thread would be the best? And as the quilting progresses, the piece transforms itself and becomes a multi-dimensional work of art. The binding is hand stitched – tiny, perfect stitches -with the quilt draped over one’s lap.

When it is all done – washed and air dried in the sunlight – the quilt has become part of the quilter with its wrinkles and soft folds, art that warms and comforts and is pleasing to the eye and to the hand. It is this process and final result that stirs within us a sense of peace and beauty, a sense that we are creating something lasting that took time and care, a piece of ourselves that has the power to touch others. Who has not curled beneath a handmade quilt and felt comforted?

Quilt making reminds us of our roots and history. Perhaps it is in our genetic memory, passed on from our ancestors.There are other activities that also ground us, connect us to our environment and senses, and remind us that beauty is sometimes found in the most simple of things: baking bread (combining, kneading, waiting, baking…inhaling the smell of yeast in a warm kitchen), planting a garden (fingers pushing into dirt, the smell of the sun on the earth), and walking in nature (the sound of the wind through the trees, the scurry of animals in the bushes, the song of birds). Sometimes just sitting on a porch after a rainstorm, with the clean smell of damp earth and the occasional drip of water from a tree branch, can bring us to that place of quiet and contemplation.

Technology has carried us in its wake with its cold, fast, instant gratification. The world spins faster these days and we may be forgetting how to slow down. Feeding our souls and finding a place of calm is only a quilt or a loaf of bread or a homegrown tomato away. It is taking our time and enjoying the journey, engaging our senses and remembering our roots.

29 September, 2009

Raising Half & Halfs

I’m over at the Lost in Books site guest posting a few thoughts about raising cross-cultural children in America. There’s an excerpt below. Click this link for the full post and browse Rebecca’s other love, design through the Ruby’s Upcycled Designs site which has a hundred other links to gorgeous treasures made from something old.

“Sri Lankan children are unreservedly indulged from birth to the age of five. Mothers chase after them at lunch, with little balls of rice on spoons or, more usually, in their fingertips, cajoling the beloved to take one more bite of food. Water is warmed for their baths, they are coddled and cuddled and forgiven for all manner of travesties. They throw tantrums which are observed by smiling, sweet-tongue extended family. They are given the best of every luxury that a family is fortunate enough to come by, no matter their social status. At five, though, everything changes. That is when all children go to school; usually to montessori schools. At this point, they are expected to buckle down to the serious business of being not babies but children. Almost overnight, children realize – and appear to do so without too much trauma – that the honeymoon is over. They turn away from parents toward their peers, united by their common predicament. Parents, in turn, bond with those to whom their children are entrusted: teachers.

Sri Lankan children move, therefore, between what are considered two sets of parents, the ones who gave them life and those who teach them how to live. The first songs that children are taught in Sri Lanka are those that describe the respect due to both parents and teachers. And, in true Sri Lankan style, the lyrics are gut-wrenching! It is relatively easy for children to undergo this transformation because there is a universally accepted set of cultural beliefs to buttress the frame within which it takes place: respect for their elders no matter where they are found, the value of education, the importance of religious and cultural observances (Sri Lanka celebrates all four major religions of the world), the worth of hospitality toward guests and loyalty to ones friends.”

contd.

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms

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and minds

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and words

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and silences

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of your tribe.

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And you hold on

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until you have to let go.

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It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.

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As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

14 August, 2009

What the World Looks Like…

…I do not know. The world seems to fall away and whatever concerns I set out with seem to seep out and leave me empty and ready for something better when I drive up the mountain to Bread Loaf. I would like to write about being here, but it is nearly impossible to convey what this particular place in America means to me, so I probably should cease trying. Here’s a recap of what can be communicated a little more easily.

Today I listened to a series of gifted voices, among them Celeste Ng, who also happens to be in my workshop, who read a lively excerpt on being Chinese, Elena Passarello, who read the most well-turned reflection I’ve ever heard on the call of the Cuckoo bird, and James Arthur, who recited three beautifully articulated poems. Earlier this evening I was able to catch my mentor and friend, Lynn Freed’s reading from her new book, The Servants’ Quarters, and the poet Alan Shapiro read an entire series of poems, some of which he had worked on with Tom Sleigh, among which was a brilliant exposition of the robust desires that exist among the long-term, long-suffering married.

The rains came, they cleared, and the evening all-campus reception went on in what is referred to as loaf-light, a particularly benign glow that descends upon the lawn in front of Treman each evening like a gift from some indulgent, literary minded and happy deity.

I haven’t done much writing – or reading – since I got here, for obvious reasons, but I am posting the link to a short piece I did write about what I was reading just before I left for Bread Loaf. It is on Marshal ‘s Zeringe’s blog, Campaign for the American Reader, and you can read it here.

It is 1.11 and I must be off to bed.

21 July, 2009

On Publication

There are people who take the comparison between pets and children very badly; I am one of those curmudgeons. I am quite certain that, similarly, there are many who would consider the launch of a book a sad and inappropriate approximation to childbirth. And yet, as I have discovered, there is something oddly familiar about the sensation of putting a book out into the world, the first of which is amnesia.

Over the last six months, I have managed to forget several things. I have forgotten who I was before The Book began to be read by people over whom I have no control. I have forgotten that no matter how hospitable a world I try to create for The Book, eventually it has to leave my forgiving embrace and grow its own legs and heart and ambivalence. I have forgotten that whatever I put into The Book through hours of writing and revision and fact-checking and editing before it got typeset and bound and dressed up in its finery and posed for its glamor shots, is its essence; the rest belongs to the friends it picks up along the way and the various juries of its peers who remain undefined by age or gender or national origin. I have forgotten that I can only speak of The Book in the language in which I wrote it, and that it has acquired languages I will never speak and, therefore, will move and grow and, perhaps, be crucified by words I will not understand. I have forgotten that before there was The Book, there was me, the writer, and that though the bond we share cannot be severed, we are two separate beings. I have forgotten that after today, July 21st, 2009, The Book and I will look at each other from a safe distance, loving and blaming each other and that we will both be right.

Publish, v.tr, means both to prepare for public distribution and also to bring public attention to (the document issued forth). Publishing therefore, is a strange bedfellow. To see publication as being reflective of success should come naturally to a writer and, objectively, I see that it is. I hand out my post cards, I speak about my book, I answer “I am a writer” when people ask me what I do. But in order to feel that publication is a singular achievement, to seek the attention of the world only to The Book, I would have to commit to defining myself as a writer and become comfortable in giving this aspect of myself primacy in my life. I would have to slough off my many skins and be this one thing: the writer of The Book.

Which makes me think of mothers who are not simply people who create children. They are human beings with interesting or even mundane passions, weird predilections, unspent talents, and reservoirs of energy for things that have nothing to do with the birthing, raising and nurturing of their children. Likewise, I am a woman who is involved in politics, who loves public life and making connections between people who do interesting things for the world, and freelances as a political journalist. I am a woman who is devoted to teaching and performing Latin/ballroom and Middle-Eastern dance, and also to public education. I am a woman who is upset by the fact that the best library of my suburban library system – which is ranked as one of the top twenty in the country – is slated for a $11.1 million renovation while the Philadelphia public libraries are being closed down. I am a woman who wants to make the donation of new books to those city libraries part of the fund-raising efforts of our national blue-ribbon ranked suburban public school system. I am a woman who, upon learning from my fellow patient at Lankenau Cancer Center, that there has never been a welcome-home parade for veterans of the Vietnam War, is wondering how to organize one. I am a woman who is deeply involved in raising three daughters. And I am a woman who writes fiction.

In thinking through and writing this blog post, I have remembered all that I had forgotten, the most important of which is that in writing as in motherhood, life, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, is not lived as a single issue but rather among multiple and often knotty, entangled threads. Today, therefore, I have decided to take a page from mothering. I will assume that blessed mantle and say a few words to The Book: You are not perfect, and I could have done better by you, but I gave all that was possible for me to give. You are not lesser or greater than your future siblings, or any of your friends. You are a part of me, but more than that, you are yourself. Go forth and prosper.

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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