Archive for the ‘News’ Category

21 December, 2009

Facebook Etiquette for Authors

I’m over at the amazing Huffington Post Books blog, talking about the dos and do nots for writers while on Facebook. Why? Because a gazillion of us use Facebook and because nearly half that number use it as the sole means of promoting ourselves and our books. It felt right to get the ground rules right. Here’s an excerpt:

“‘Tis the season when people who have things to sell – be they Chop-Yer-Own-Fir Farms or Independent booksellers or, indeed, authors – have to give their wares an extra push. I know. But after the zillionth status update in the course of three months about one book or another streaming onto my screen via Facebook’s live news feed, I realized that we were all descending, en masse, into a vast swamp of self-promotion that is just not becoming of the writerly class. So, with the blessings of a few good people who happen to be authors, I have come up with ten-step pathway to grace for writers. Here goes:

Rule #4. Don’t join Facebook because you’ve heard it is a Good Way To Promote Your Book. It is a good way to promote your book, but it is primarily a – say it with me – Tool for Networking. That’s right. It’s a bar. It’s a soirée, it’s a gigantic party, it’s a flat out junket, but it is not Ebay, it is not Etsy, it is not LastMinuteDeals, it is”

You can read the full article over on the blog site. And do comment. The discussion over on Facebook is wonderful, and the personal emails and messages are even better, but it’s okay to let it all out.

13 November, 2009

Remembering My Mother

There are things for which we are never prepared. Childbirth is one of them. The loss of a mother is another. It has been said that, as human beings, there are only three or so significant decisions that we make: whom we marry, whether or not to have children, brynmawrfeb2808-022where we choose to work and live; each of these decisions narrows the world a little further, concentrating our attention on the work involved in succeeding at any of this. But the death of a mother, I have discovered, unravels those decisions and the accompanying work. It has set me adrift in a place where nothing at all makes sense, where there are no anchors or guarantees, where even the statement, “you are going to be taller than me,” uttered to a daughter at the bus stop this morning, comes with a shadow sentence which tells me, even if I don’t say it aloud, that I can make no promises: of the return of the bus, of the greeting at the door, of years in which she might grow into a height that exceeds my own.

In an article titled ‘Estrangement,’ in a summer 2008 issue of AARP, the writer, Jamaica Kinkaid articulates her attempt to come to terms with the fact that she stopped speaking to her mother three years before her death. Her effort, however, is not full of regret, but incomprehension that she misses her mother, incomprehension that she does not wish to be buried next to her and, also, does not know if she wishes that her own children be buried beside her someday. She ends with the words, “I do not know, I do not know.”

My life is filled with a similar unknowing. My mother was, as her favorite student described her during his heartfelt and perfect eulogy, difficult. And it was the difficulties that my brothers and I, as adults, responded to, not her ease. I learned to dismiss every concern she brought up, about my brothers, their wives, her grandchildren, me, my life, my father, and her health. Her own regrets and sorrow brynmawrdec07-052were so deep that I feared that I, too, would fall into that bottomless well and never come up for air, or that my affirmation of those sentiments might seal her forever in that tomb of despair. Had I been listening harder, perhaps, I might have heard the mothering behind what she said, might have assumed, rather, the role that she wanted of me, of a gentle and caring child, of the never-grown-up companion I had once been, of being again the girl whose goal in life had been to wear her clothes and do what she did for a living, teaching literature and Greek & Roman Civilization to armies of devoted boys.

Instead I was the opposite of her. I prided myself in taking no shit from anybody. I was flamboyant where she was conservative, boisterous where she was quiet, and forswore the undying affection of school boys and replaced it with the fickle attention of grown men. brynmawrfeb2808-006I frolicked in the man’s world that had circumscribed her life and I laughed when she spoke of devotion, consistency and simplicity, never letting on that in act though not in word, I was all those things. Whereas she had waited, as refined women of her time did, to have their appearance or clothes or work admired by other people, I paid myself compliments. I wrote about politics when all she cared about was the pride felt in seeing her childrens’ bylines. Somewhere during all those shenanigans I recall seeing both delight and fear in my mother’s eyes. november2007-027She seemed to both love the cloak of freedom that I had flung so seemingly easily around myself, and feared for my life. I was not a good woman, I was not a good wife. Somewhere down the line, my husband was bound to leave me. Somewhere down the line, I would need something besides flair and flourish and did I have those other, inner resources? I did, I do, but I was not going to let her see those aspects of myself that were so similar to the strengths she possessed. All I would say in response to her “he might leave you,” was, “and if he did I won’t spend my life running after some man who doesn’t want me.”

In more ways than one, I was trying to define for my mother a life that I wanted her to live. I wanted her to be more like the person I was playing for her. img_6325 I wanted to rub away the timidity that overcame her whenever she boarded an airplane to America, the kind of thing that would lead airport officials to fling her bags around and deny her compensation for lost luggage and which I could secure on her behalf with no greater skill than a simple steady glare that would leave her full of awe at powers she believed I had; powers she was glad I had, in this strange, unfriendly, place, but whose acquisition she regretted for, as far as she could tell–and she did tell it!–it had exacted the price of tenderness. I wanted to nullify all of her regrets and fears, to drag her into the future where everything was impossibly hard and yet also possible and full of loveliness. I wanted to put make up on her face, I wanted her to wear the beautiful clothes she owned but never put on, falling back constantly on her worn saris, the old skirt, the tattered nightdress.

But I held that tattered nightdress to my face a few weeks ago, and breathed in not what it showed to the world – its faded, overused fabric – but the sweet perfume it had earned for itself and still held. My mother’s life was full of a doing with which brynmawrfeb2808-021mine could never compare. She had no time for the kind of self-creation with which I had become so adept; she was too busy making a living, staving off hopelessness and, more than everything else, helping the people who came looking for her in a ceaseless stream… People who did not care that she wore no make up, that she traveled in buses and scooter-taxis in a country where such travel is perilous even for the young and healthy, that she sometimes opened the door to them with a smile, sometimes – quite often – with a scathing, unfiltered criticism, did not care that her home was an uncertain refuge where sometimes the gate was padlocked, and the phone unanswered and nobody could find her, or that she was awash in eccentricities that lead her to scream for Brand’s Essence of Chicken as though it was a cure certified by the pantheon of multi-origin Gods whom she worshiped, drive her children out of her house “to go live anywhere,” or hang a sign on one of her precious plants img_1912with the following statement: “We are very poor and we have no money for your religious festivities. If you have any money to spare, please leave some here – Happy Vesak, Happy Christmas, Happy Ramazan, Happy Deevali!” That spirit perfumed her clothes, her hair, her life. It did not make everybody admire her, indeed many people–most specially her students–were terrified of incurring her wrath, but it made them love her and unabashedly. It made them write to her and come and visit her carrying the cakes and sweets she was not supposed to eat, willing to forgive her moods. That spirit frayed her clothes, splashed them with mud, ripped at their seams.

Over the course of the two days before she died, my mother had hauled a chair to be mended (so the set could be given to my oldest brother), cleaned her house, given her sister money for an operation, called up all her friends, all her relatives, all her favorite students, and all of our friends, and, of course, secured for herself a bottle of Brand’s Essence of Chicken. img_5226She had given away much of her wardrobe of beautiful, unspoiled saris and dresses, and most of her vast collection of perfumes. Whatever precious jewelry had not already been given away had been robbed. On the day she died, unbeknown to any of us, she was so weak she had to ask the woman who worked for her now and again, to boil water for her and bathe her. On that day, after that bath, she used whatever strength she had left to sit down with one of her students to help her with a college application. She climbed into a car carrying two saris she wanted to give to the servant of the friend who came to pick her up, and spent most of the journey laughing. She suffered a heart attack right as she was trying to field a telephone call from another student’s tennis coach. She left mid-thought, mid-act, mid-goodness.

I can tell myself a variety of things to stave off the grief that I feel. I can say my brothers were there, their wives were there, she was not alone. I can accept what other people say to me, that a mother does not remember the disappointments, but rather the good times. I can say that she knew, she knew, srilanka08-1037that though I did not write and did not call, my inner conversations were always with her, that every time I stood before a crowd, or walked down a street or performed some good work or signed a book, or sang to my daughters, what I felt was her presence, her glad acknowledgement that yes, heaven be praised, he had not left me yet, I was still the most beautiful person in the room, the smartest one, the best, in all things the best. In her absence I will never again be that “best” that she saw whenever she looked at me. In a crowd full of women, in my mother’s eyes, I was always more than any of them. On a shelf full of books, mine was better. My words were articulated more clearly, my clothing was more stylish, my deeds were greater, my husband was perfect, my children flawless. I can tell myself stories but they are as useless as my wearing the cardigan that I had bought for her during her last visit, as futile as my attempt to fill it up with her, to feel her around me.

What I remember now is not all the things that I did not affirm in my mother, all the things that I wished she hadn’t done or said, but the things she did do. What I remember is that she brought me music, theater, literature, language, a sense of humor, confidence, strength, joy and a model of motherhood that runs in my veins as naturally as my blood. srilanka08-861I remember that she found it funny when I placed 38th in a class of 40 students and asked flippantly if I had failed math too, as we walked hand in hand away from the Convent I attended. What I remember is that when I was expelled from that convent for an array of irreverences but subsequently invited back, my mother – though she screamed at me in private and threatened to cut off my hair which, she said, was the source of all my problems – dismissed the offer from the nuns and enrolled me in a “school more suited to (her) daughter’s spirit, intelligence and interests.” What I remember is that she paid for piano lessons when we did not yet own a piano, swallowing her pride and letting us go next door to practice. I remember her voice pouring song after song into all of us, bringing Ireland, England and America to us through lyrics and melodies and that those songs still take the edge off the acts of governments that were also discussed in the house. I remember that she polished the floors of our house on her hands and knees with coconut refuse and kerosene and now and then with polish, that she planted every blade of grass in the garden and pruned her lawn and hedges with hand-held shears that left blisters img_3580on her piano-playing fingers and that out of the arid earth that surrounded our city home, she could make flowers bloom. I remember that she gave me a girl-only space in a house that held so many permanent and transient visitors, and that it contained a dressing table, a fan, an almirah, a bed, a table, a bookcase, and the silk bedspreads that had once been gifted to her, and that all of these things made my room magical in a time when magic rarely translated into concrete evidence. I remember that she listened to me read, that when I asked her if she was sleeping, the answer even when it took a while for her to say it was, always, a comforting “no, of course I’m not sleeping!” I remember that she encouraged me to wear my hair short and climb our roof and play French Cricket and run faster than the boys and, also, to steal guavas and skip school to attend cricket matches…


And I remember that she spent a teacher’s salary on buying bolts of fabric that she stored in a suitcase, beautiful cloth waiting to be turned into dresses by the best of seamstresses according to designs I sketched in ballpoint pen. I remember that except for there being no compromising on decency and modesty, she put no restrictions on the clothes I chose to put on, literally and metaphorically. She stood by and let me be everything that she was not. I wish I had done the same for her.

23 September, 2009

Update on Sri Lanka

Because of the book tour – and two periods of being pretty sick – I have been unable to keep up with the blog as diligently as I had tried to do before. Also because of these same things I have not been able to stay abreast of everything about which I am concerned – the health care issues here and the IDP issues in Sri Lanka. I’m going to try and redress the latter here with some updated information for those of you who are interested and ask me questions about these things when I am on tour. while the statistics and details below will give you an idea of the work being done through official channels, I want to mention that hundreds of small and large Sri Lankan organizations both in Sri Lanka and worldwide are participating in the reconstruction and reconciliation efforts throughout the island. I have been fortunate to be able to participate – albeit in a modest way – with the efforts of groups in Boston and Texas. As I discovered in the wake of the tsunami, those kinds of person to person initiatives have an extraordinary impact on both the giver and the recipient.

Last week, Lynn Pascoe, UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, highlighted the progress made so far to rebuild Northern Sri Lanka to enable accelerated resettlement of displaced persons. That work includes the following:

Infrastructure, Roads and Transportation Development

Repairs on major highways of the Northern Province are under way. Roads now under renovation include the A9, A32, A 14, A 17, A 34, A 35 AB 19, AB 20 (Jaffna – Point Pedro) and B 229 (Murungan- Silavaturai). Work on access roads to highways and rural villages is also underway.

Health and Water Supply

The renovation of 12 rural health centers and hospitals in Killinochi, Mannar and Vavuniya district is due to be completed by mid-October. The Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition is also planning to renovate the Killinochi base hospital.

Livelihood Development

Approximately 60 lorries of commercial goods and agricultural products were transported to and from Jaffna peninsula on the A9 ( Jaffna – Kandy) highway in August. Repairs to large irrigation systems in the Jaffna district (Thondaman Aru) and the Giant tank (reservoir) and the Agathimuruppu tank in the Mannar district have been completed. Fish production in the Jaffna peninsula has also increased and the harvesting of 1,731 metric tons fish production was reported in July. The production in May was just 774 metric tons.

Education: Displaced Children Take Entrance Exams

Of the Northern Province’s 1,011 schools, 575 are now open and repairs are underway in damaged schools. The Ministry of Education reports that the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advance Level examinations (University entrance examinations) were held at 10 special examination centers in Vavuniya for 1,263 displaced candidates who are presently housed in IDP welfare villages. Among them were 166 ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) child soldiers. The Zonal Education Office in Vavuniya successfully held grade five scholarship examinations for 5,465 children living in welfare villages and in the transitional camps in Cheddikulam. The Zonal Office and non-government organizations operating in Vavuniya district provided stationery for the children who sat for the exams.


The Ministry of Power and Energy has initiated a program to restore the power supply in the Killinochi, Vavuniya and Mullaithivu districts. Power in the Killinochi town area, Oddusudan, Mankulam, Nedunkerni, Pallimudoi and almost all areas in Mannar district has been restored.

Monetary and Material Assistance

The Government of Sri Lanka will provide returning displaced families with $220, galvanized roofing sheets, six months of free dry rations, kitchen utensils and equipment required for daily living needs to the equivalent to US $ 35-$40, as well as agricultural seed and equipment and fishing supplies for coastal communities.

Rehabilitation of former Child Soldiers

Sri Lanka has implemented a comprehensive rehabilitation program for rescued child soldiers. The government has established two Children’s Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centers (PARC) in Ambepussa, Kegalle (Central Sri Lanka) and Poonthottam Cooperative training School in Vavuniya Facilities for education and catch-up education, vocational training, recreational activities and special educational programs are also available. The centers feature telephone and meeting facilities that allow former child-soldiers to meet with parents, immediate family members and close relatives. Food and lodging for visiting family members are provided by the centers in collaboration with the UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The government continues to work closely with UNICEF on pending cases of underage recruitment.


Initial surveys of Northern Sri Lanka suggest that there are as many as 1.5 million LTTE landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) over an area of 402 square kilometers. Sri Lanka has now purchased 10 de-mining machines from Slovakia and Croatia for $5 million. The machines can clear 5,000 square meters of land in a day, compared to 10 square meters for each human de-mining technician. The machines should significantly increase the pace of de-mining, leading to more rapid IDP resettlement. Seven nations are aiding Sri Lanka with de-mining: the U.S., UK, Denmark, India, Norway, Japan and Australia. At the end of August, a total of 445,370,401square meters have been cleared of mines and UXOs. The government of Sri Lanka has so far spent $64 million on de-mining operations.

Displaced Persons by Welfare Center
The number of IDPs housed in welfare village region:
Vavuniya District Relief Villages 224,394
Others in Vavuniya (schools, education facilities and elder care) 15,812
Vengala Chettikulam DS Division Welfare Centers 21,665
Jaffna District Welfare Centers 10,853
Trincomalee District Welfare Centers 6,842

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


and minds


and words




and silences




of your tribe.


And you hold on


until you have to let go.




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.


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.

9 August, 2009

I’m Leaving in a Mini-Van

The mini-van is actually a clapped out jalopy. When I take her into the local Firestone place down the street for inspection she is tucked way in the back. Parked, I kid thee not, next to the dumpster. People who are car-proud usually keep them sticker-free. Here are some photographs of the crazy stickers on the back of mine.


Anyway, I’m leaving in this Mini-Van today and heading out to the place in America where, I hope, when I am dead, my ashes will be scattered: Bread Loaf in Ripton, VT. This is where, for the past five years, I have had the enormous good fortune of attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. It is the first place where I ever sat in a workshop – which ended up resulting in the beginnings of my first novel. It is the place where I grew most into the parts of myself that I love, in my writing as well as in my personal life. The place where I felt completely at home and affirmed for the best iterations of my personality and where whatever was dark could be laid to rest. I will try to blog from there but I cannot promise to do so; there is an inviolable trust among its participants that I am not willing to break. But perhaps I will be able to write about the impact of a reading, a lecture or provide a guest post from a friend or two that will communicate what it means to be there.

Bread Loaf is unique for the fact that it is a conference where writers come to be around other writers rather than to write. Of course people come to Bread Loaf hoping to meet agents, make connections, and get their books published – I certainly did – but sooner rather than later, this desire is replaced by the realization that the best thing that can happen to a writer is to fall freshly in love with the art-form. img_1077The campus is situated on a loaf-shaped mountain in the village of Ripton, inaccessible by cell-phone – unless one chooses to go and perch upon a particularly craggy rock in the significantly tall grass, but why would you? There are pay-phones of the variety that is hardly ever seen anywhere these days, and phones linked by a network in small cottages which ring with a sound that most people in high school now would never have heard in their lives. Few Bread Loafers use the phones, in the end. There is wireless access in some spaces, and people will send the occasional email home, but there is very little time or, indeed, desire, to communicate with the world outside Bread Loaf.

The conference takes place over ten days and is charged from the get go with a schedule that brings the campus together for no less than four readings and a lecture by its distinguished and relentlessly gracious faculty and fellows each day alongside workshops in poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction, and craft-classes and panels and special talks and social gatherings. Most evenings are also given over to late-night readings by the amazingly talented waiters and staff (to which group I have belonged for the past three years as well as this), its accomplished scholars and fellows (Jhumpa Lahiri was a fellow img_1116 – the year her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection came out), as well as its faculty. Readings in the famous, and famously Spartan, Little Theater, go on until around ten thirty or eleven on many nights. There are also themed readings in the Blue Parlor, handled for the past three years and again this one, by the talented Nina McConigley whose book will undoubtedly be out soon. And there are informal readings arranged by conference participants during the day. And parties, and meals and conference-wide receptions and dances all of which revolve around being with and around and about writers and writing.

If I had to pick the one thing that made the dream possible, it was this one place. There’s a detoxifying atmosphere to Bread Loaf. Being exposed to 200 plus incredible writers at all levels of their career is like taking your seat among the blessed. You get a snapshot of the literary exercise, the journey, from before it img_1345 began to where it will still go, before you existed and after you are gone, and it is both sobering and heady. How can you compare anything to being able to stand and read from your very small contribution to the literary endeavor, in the same place where writers like Robert Frost, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Anne Sexton, William Meredith, May Sarton, Ralph Ellison, Sinclair Lewis, Wallace Stegnar, Carson McCullers, and Edward P. Jones and a hundred others, have stood to read from their work long before they achieved greatness in their chosen field? A plain theater, hard seats, one light on a wooden rostrum and nothing but your words in the air, nothing but people who love words listening.

For me, Bread Loaf = heaven.

30 July, 2009

One Week On

If I delay this post for one more day I fear I will have to make it a photo essay. My love of words is sandwiched by my love of dance and my love of photographs, and the camera has taken over my life this week! There’s a sample gallery below.

The first three photographs, culled from the gazillion I took on that evening, are from the launch party hosted by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Palihakkara, at the Consulate in NY. That was an evening to remember. While none of my Sri Lankan family could be present, they seemed to fill the room in the words of the Ambassador as he recalled his association with them, particularly my father, the poet and public servant, and my brother, the poet, activist and journalist. His pride in the achievements of, as he put it, “a compatriot” (first picture), were only matched by his admiration for the social justice work that they have done and continue to do back home in deed and in word. Standing in a room where those closest to the book, my absolutely amazing agent, Julie Barer and my editor, Emily Bestler (second picture in row) in the same space as the best of my friends (third picture) from my many worlds, my family and my countrymen, I felt as though I was at the sort of auspicious gathering that is arranged before any major event in Sri Lanka. It felt like the perfect place from which to toast both an accomplishment and a contribution, to celebrate what had transpired, what might be, and more than all of it, what was in that moment: good people, good thoughts and grace.

The next nine photographs are from the inaugural public reading at the fancy B&N on 86th & Lexington. My first time in the “green room” which was quite posh and lead directly into the lovely spacious events room that was set up by the staff. It was an amazingly successful reading followed by a Q&A. I had thought that being up on a stage, sitting (there went the high-heeled advantage!), with a microphone positioned before me would be strange, but it felt like the most natural thing in the world. I could have stayed there all night. The questions were fantastic – I think everybody in the audience had one! They were thoughtful, appreciative and respectful. I couldn’t have asked for a better kick-off event. Double the wow-factor, of course, with the huge screens that broadcast both reading and discussion throughout the store (mute) and with sound in the cafe. How extraordinarily new-century – I got the wamth of my group and the PR bang of the broadcast. I think it is a new series that B&N is starting and the event should be up on a website near you soon.

Best of all, of course, was the presence, again, of my editor and her assistant and my agent – I tell you these people never rest, and some of my closest friends all of whom hail back to happy times at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. We took many photographs and collared sweet souls coming down the escalators to check out my book in its prime-time spot right near the entrance. Please see pix. of the guy in a white t-shirt checking out the book for evidence of our doings. He was wonderful and bought if for his wife.

We headed out from there to The Campbell Apartments in Grand Central Station only to be told – unfairly – that Charles could not get in because of his open-toed sandals. Even though I had open-toed heels. I supposed we could have switched? We then filed out looking for the Library Hotel and its good looking bar, Bookmarks Lounge. The journey involved walking through the streets outside the hotel where I came upon the beautiful brass plates which contained quotes from various literary luminaries. It bought to mind the essence of NYC which, to me, involves traipsing endlessly looking for a place that might welcome you, and being surprised and delighted by the gems of discovery that are found in unexpected places. It is obvious which photographs are from the bar, I’m sure.

And lastly (orange dress), the first local reading at the Borders in Wynnewood, PA which was enormously successful in that it sold out of books (Borders, Bryn Mawr was a close second two days later!), and which presented the added hilarity of trying to belt out literary fiction (from a foreign context) over the sound of the ice-incinerator right next to – it seemed – my head! I had my first mango something or the other which was cool and sweet and lovely. And my first casual Q&A which was similarly fresh and energizing. It is such a dream to have people who read ask a writer questions that go beyond the mundane. And such an enormous privilege to be able to offer some answers. The after-party at home was just icing on an already fantastic cake.

Bryn Mawr, later that week, where I read with Josh Weil, Lise Funderberg, Rachel Pastan, Elizabeth Mosier and Jim Zervanos, was similarly illuminating and truly enjoyable. We read to a packed group – people ended up perched on tables at the back! – who sat through readings by six authors most of whom were relatively new. How can you top that outside a writing conference? We had great questions, outstanding book sales and the after-reading drinks next door were not to be missed. It is always such a delight to gather together with writers in the aftermath of such things and to listen as lives are revealed, just a little more, and the real stories are told. I hope the rest of the tour unfolds with these kinds of serendipitous occurrences and receptive audiences. It will, won’t it?

11 July, 2009

Things I Did Not Know

aprilbaird08-019When I first began blogging, I did it every day. I considered it a writing exercise that combined both the business of staying in touch with that of political commentary. A month or so into that I found that I was writing every few days and then once a week. It takes time to find ones stride I guess, and I figured that once a week was not a hideous track record. Then I reached the three week mark in radiation and all of a sudden I discovered fatigue. This wasn’t the fatigue of sickness, the kind where you lie in bed and long for nothing more than Theraflu and swear by Emergen-C, and Samahan, all of which I have done and will, hopefully, resume doing soon. This is the kind of bone-deep weariness that made sitting outside wrapped in a blanket on a cool Maine-like-but-wait-this-is-Philly summer evening, and watching the fireflies come out, too much. This is the kind of tiredness where the world seemed to actually roll by before my eyes like a movie and where I could not muster the energy to open my eyes.

Alas, that meant that I had to put away my bus-tickets and convention pass and skip an event that I had been looking forward to: the South Asian Journalists’ Association convention in NY. I managed, briefly, to regain some enthusiasm upon hearing the voice of my friend and gracious host, Nora Maynard (check out her cocktails here where she writes for Apartment Therapy), enough that I could pick one outfit and eat some lunch and even make a call to a neighbor for a ride to the train station. But that was all I could manage. Instead I gave up the good fight and chalked the words that have bewildered a few visitors since as they stared at them on the flagstones behind the backdoor:

I am a bad girl who did not go to NY : (

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I have fallen short of the 7 day post rule and, also, that even though this kind of exhaustion was not familiar to me and I did not believe the doctors when they told me about it, I am trying to absorb what I can of the world around me, some of which I want to share today.

I usually listen to the conversation around me when I sit in the waiting room along with the other early-morning folk, all of whom now happen to be men. Sometimes they talk to me and I respond, about my bike ride, about a dropped ID card of mine that one of them had found, about the cookies on offer, about how much longer we each have and so forth. Together with them I listened to ongoing coverage of Michael Jackson’s death which overshadowed with such, albeit deserved, tumult, the death from cancer of Farah Fawcett. I listened to news about the suburban swimming pool which rescinded its permission (and returned their payment) to a Philly day camp when the non-“White” kids from the camp showed up to swim. And I listened as one of the men mused aloud to his friend that there had never been a welcome-home parade for the veterans of the Vietnam War.

I asked him about that when I came out after my session in the radiation room where I had also learned anew about the masks that people are able to put on when they are undergoing treatment after the removal of brain tumors. “We don’t want to tattoo someone’s face,” the technician told me, “so we put on this substance that conforms to their face and then hardens. We make the mark on that.” I could not get that picture out of mind – the sensation that a part of them was being left behind, lined up on a shelf that catches my eye each morning when I lie down. It made me wonder what of me I leave behind each morning for surely there is something that is lost or shed or forgotten?

I asked the man in the waiting room, an officer at the University of Pennsylvania, about what he had talked about earlier, with awkward words: “I didn’t know that,” I said tentatively, “about the Vietnam War, what you said, about never having had a welcome home parade.” So he explained it to me, this thing that was like a thorn in his side, the fact – as he explained it – that other veterans who have spent “a few months in Iraq” get a welcome, but not them. “They just call us baby killers.” I tried to talk to him about Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, which is what I am reading in full again right now. He didn’t read books about the war, he told me, because he wanted to forget.

It has stayed on my mind. Surely the matter of forgetting the things one has been forced to do comes from the forgiving release of being recognized for having been forced to do them. Even I, a foreigner, an avid political activist, and someone who has written frequently about war, can see that there is a distinction between the soldier and the war. From a small town in Maine I watched as poor families sent their children off wbfpjto war for reasons that had little or nothing to do with believing in the “cause” of the previous administration. I protested the war but recognized the dead, joining the members of a local peace group, Waterville Bridges for Peace & Justice, in a controversial action to commemorate the dead in Iraq when the 2000th American soldier had been felled. And of all wars surely the Vietnam War was the worst where most of the young men who went were sent against their will and better judgment. Those young men are old men now. They sit, like my friend, in hospital waiting rooms or lie among the garbage on the streets of cities like Philadelphia. It is unutterably sad they were never permitted the release that civilians who have known no war can and should give them.

I’ve started to read about this issue and just came across a statement by Michael Leon, a Vietnam veteran who saluted President Obama who, in word if not in deed, honored these veterans whom nobody else had seen fit to mention. I suppose that is a start.

30 June, 2009

Who defines America?

underbellyIt’s been a couple of weeks since I got back from Chicago, but the conversation which I wanted to write about then is still on my mind and will be for a while. There was a bottle of wine and a group of writers discussing the matter of America, what could be better or less controversial? So I was a little bemused when one of our group uttered that infamous holler of ignorance, love it or leave it. Who, the writer demanded to know, has the right to come here and expect that “we” (Americans, albeit foreign born or recent descendants of the foreign born), know all about them? Be sensitive to them? What gives them the right to tell “us” what “our” country should look like, be and do? They should be grateful, the writer continued – it was a little difficult to thunder given the volume of other Friday evening conversations at an open air venue – and not come here and just “expect things.”

Which made me muse aloud – okay, I admit, it was a sharper than musing – about the right people feel to dictate who among us gets to define America. Earlier in the day I had listened to Deepak Unnikrishnan (there’s a bio here and a review of his book, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacuphere) speak persuasively deepakabout the obligation he feels to his classified-as-Indian parents, to write and speak of their work and the work of multitudes of non-nationals to build and sustain Abu Dhabi. Two years ago, NYU created NYU Abu Dhabi amidst a clamor of support and dissent, the latter for all the wrong reasons. There was nothing new about yet another part of Abu Dhabi society (in this case education) being fortified by foreigners, that was, after all, the way the society is set up. What is wrong is what has always been wrong: the way in which Abu Dhabians perceive, and therefore devalue, those foreign nationals no matter their status. Whether one lectures on Aristotle or swills the toilets, a foreigner is simply a hired hand with no say in the ephemeral yet intensely meaningful civic life of the city they call home.

Thirty five years into their tenure, Deepak’s parents are not considered natives, nor will their life’s work give them the right to stay should they lose their jobs. Appalling, isn’t it? And yet, how different is an America where its citizens express those same biases? Is it no more than an Abu Dhabi, then, on a grander scale, with greater freedom? Or isn’t it the case that every immigrant here, no matter their legal status or newness, their degrees or lack thereof, their 401(k) plans or their intimacy with the soil in which they grow the strawberries for our tables while they are sprayed with pesticides from above, whose labor and starry eyes and acquisitions and tastes create the texture of this country, has an equal right to define it?

Recently I came across this clip of the spoken-word artist, YaliniDream, who performed at my friend, Charles Rice Gonzalez’ space, the Bronx Academy for Art & Dance (BAAD). This is Marian Yalini Thambynayagam, who is a second-generation Sri Lankan American. “I am not entertained by your confusion” she says in this particular piece, responding to the people who, like my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this post, don’t know where she is from, don’t care and don’t think they should.

Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen Vol. II: YaliniDream from Jennifer Hobdy on Vimeo.

Listening to her was certainly difficult for me, a natural-born Sri Lankan with a strong sense of my country of birth, and a different perspective and sensitivity to the work she is performing. While there is deep yearning articulated by her speaking of the one tear that a Sri Lankan immigrant tries to catch in his or her hand just so she or he can taste the salt-soaked oceans of their past, knowing the terrifying complexities that abound for those still on that small island and being familiar with the self-indulgent fantasies of those of us within the diaspora, place a barrier between us that I find it difficult to cross. But there is great rage and anguish in her performance and she is a very gifted. Moreover, the entire piece articulates what might actually run through the mind of your average immigrant/from-somewhere-else/multiply-affiliated/tourist in response to a poorly placed question. manishaAnd aren’t those hidden thunderbolts precisely what drive us newcomers to say this is my country too? I will write my story, sing my song, speak my language, vote my politics, articulate my rage until I am no longer foreign to you?

I pick up books for no good reason; reason follows inevitably from the reading. And so, while re-reading the book, Half & Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial+Bicultural, I came across the following observation by Bharati Mukherjee:

In cities like San Francisco, where immigrants from Central America and South America jostle elbows with refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, I’ve eavesdropped on thickly accented, enthusiastically conducted conversation “drive-through diagnostics” and “bun management” between people wearing fast-food-company logos on their shirt pockets. I want to think that in our multicultural United States, immigrants like them will play the stabilizing role that pride and history deny the major players.

The point is not to adopt the mainstream American’s easy ironies nor the expatriate’s self-protective contempt for the “vulgarity” of immigration. The point is to stay resilient and compassionate in the face of change.

Ah, at last, a happy balance where there is neither disgust at the people who “don’t understand” nor anger at those who long to be understood. Perhaps among the new, younger, truly multinational, Americans – like the President himself – there will be a recognition that patriotism is as patriotism does, and the same goes for citizenship. The country, any country, belongs to those who live in it, work within its borders, and help keep its many wheels turning.

28 April, 2009

pigs, not swine!

Well, I don’t know if I have swine flu. Maybe the question is, how would anybody ever escape any viral virulence when all I see are germs – on the train, in the metro, public rest rooms (which I prefer to call public distress room!), and the head-rests of seats anywhere.

The concern for me this morning is this: why is it so difficult to schedule a sick-visit with a physician in this great land of endless prospect and staggering wealth? Back home in Sri Lanka we go to the emergency room when our bleeding heads are in need of twenty-five stitches (or, sometimes, two). “The Emergency” as it is known, is a place to go to when in the throes of a medical emergency induced panic. We rush through red lights to such a place for there is no time to lose. Blood is always in evidence as are stretchers and a general sense of acute urgency. Tears are both audible and visible.

An emergency is defined as “a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action; a condition of need requiring urgent action.” My father, suffering from sudden chest pains, was rushed off to the ICU in an army ambulance summoned by a now dead friend. I was hauled there without much ado as the white hearts on my dress turned red from the blood coming out from a hole at the back of my head. These were emergencies.

Needing to see a doctor because of a sore throat does not constitute an emergency, does it? The last time I was in the E.R. was because I had a sprained ligament in my toe and was unable to see a regular doctor because:

(1) I had decided to change physicians and needed all my documents transferred and
(2) I needed my insurance company to mail me a physical card with the new doctor’s name and phone number on it before I could be seen.

So I drove myself all on a weekday morning to the E.R. and was seen along with the dozens of other individuals with nothing apparently the matter with them that I could see. At the end of the examination complete with x-ray I was given one orthopedic sandal which made perfect sense since I am, as of now, fortunate enough to have two feet. I shuffled home and proceeded to develop a consequential pain in my hip. Insurance probably won’t cover that.

This morning I was told that I could not see a doctor for my clearly-strep throat until late afternoon tomorrow. Upon uttering the words “it is perfectly absurd that I am sick today but can’t see a doctor until tomorrow,” the receptionist asked me what my symptoms were. Suddenly, instantly, there was an availability. I’m in luck – the sick were being seen today after all!

So, do I have swine flu? Or do we simply live in a nation of health-care-industry pigs who are content to make money off a broken system? If I’m on the evening news, you heard it here first. Over and out, this is Ru reporting from the trough.

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

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.