Posts Tagged ‘Mary Akers’

30 October, 2014

Winning a Prize…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 March, 2010

Friends in High Places

2006-08-28-020It’s been a while since I’ve been able to talk books. Many things got in the way including travel home to Sri Lanka for the Galle International Literary Festival and to London for the book launch there as well as the more personal difficulties of coping with the various blows of life which I’ve written about before on this blog. The roller coasts on some days, lifts and dumps me on others, sometimes on the hour!

But despite distraction and misfortune, there is one thing that always lifts my spirits, and that is the work, well done, of my fellow writers and friends. It’s been a terrific week for a slate of terrific Bread Loaf writers, so I’m going to dedicate this post to highlighting them. There is Danielle Trussoni, whose book Angelology (Viking, March, 2010) was reviewed in the NYT Book Review on March 3rd by Susann Cokal, (author of Mirabilis and Breath and Bones.) You can read the full review – and it is so well written you should! – but here are the closing lines:

“Sensual and intellectual, “Angelology” is a terrifically clever thriller — more Eco than Brown, without the cloudy sentimentalism of New Age encomiums or Catholic treatises. It makes no apologies for its devices, and none are necessary. How else would it be possible to bring together the angels of the Bible and Apocrypha, the myth of Orpheus, Bulgarian geography, medieval monastics, the Rockefellers, ­Nazis, nuns and musicology? And how splendid that it has happened.”

Danielle’s first book was a memoir, Falling Through the Earth, about her father who spent time as a “tunnel rat,” i.e. searching below ground level for guerrillas during the Vietnam war. That was the one from which she read when I first heard her at Bread Loaf and she was amazing then.

Eugene Cross (my fellow staffer, friend and “baby-bro,” BG), has a story, ‘430,’ out in Freight Stories as well as in Story Quarterly. Here are the opening lines:

“Route 430, a weathered run of highway, twisted through Clymer County like a dark river. Roddy Daniels knew its turns by heart. This was in western New York, where the state made its border with Pennsylvania in a sharp right angle. Roddy had lived here his whole life. Sometimes at night he would drive 430 and close his eyes for short stretches and let the road lead him.”

But that is not all for BG. He also won the 2009 Dzanc Prize which is given to a writer of literary fiction to further their work-in-progress while also being involved in their communities. BG will be setting up and running a series of creative workshops for refugees from Nepal, Sudan and Bhutan, in Erie, Pennsylvania. If you scroll all the way down on this post titled The Lush Life of Bread Loaf, you can actually listen to BG read from his story, ‘Hunters,’ which appeared in Hobart.

Tiphanie Yanique, who shared a few years of work with me at Bread Loaf all of which included blood, sweat and tears as well as writing, has her collection of short stories coming out this month. How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Greywolf Press, March, 2010), has been described by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (author of Sister of my Heart and The Palace of Illusions), thus: “In these powerful, poetic stories set in landscapes real and imagined, Tiphanie Yanique explores beautifully race, family, and the complicated movements of the heart.” You can read the title story here, but here are the opening lines – it also happened to have won the Boston Review Prize in 2006:

“The nuns said that it was pardonable because of depression and stress. But these are words used when we want to forgive a crime but know we cannot. Babalao Chuck said that young Lazaro was covered in his mother’s blood and body. Her red sari redder. The gun in the volunteer’s hands. Five shots in a young mother’s back leaves little room for sympathy. The volunteers at the leper colony were Trinidadian doctors and British journalists and criminals forfeiting time in jail for time among lepers and sometimes smooth-faced men who carried tiny Bibles in their pockets. No one ever told me which kind killed Lazaro’s mother.”

Dolen Perkin-Valdez who pledged a first $100 to an effort by two other writers (Mary Akers and Sara C. Harwell) and myself to establish a writing colony for mothers, had her first novel, Wench, (Amistad, January, 2010) come out to some pretty great reviews including a spot on NPR, a space she shares with another Bread Loaf former-waiter, Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Penguin/Avery, 2009), and Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, forthcoming 2010). Dwayne’s essay in the Washington Post begins this way:

“When I was 16, I pleaded guilty to carjacking a man in a mall parking lot. In 30 minutes, everything can change; that’s what I learned from a wild night with a pistol.

Two years later, in July 1998, I was staring onto an empty tier from a cell in solitary confinement. Already serving a nine-year prison term, I had wound up in the hole, too. This meant I was more than wrong. It also meant that I was the last person many would believe deserved what education an open book could offer. “

James Arthur sold his first collection of poetry to Copper Canyon Press. You can get a taste of James’ work with the poem ‘The Death of the Painter’ here in the New Yorker. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Ted Conover, a non-fiction writer among non-fiction writers, had his latest book, The Routes of Man, appear with a terrific review in the NYT. Here’s one reason why, as explained in the NYT review by Vollmann:

“I especially recommend the book’s horrifying fourth chapter, “A War You Can Commute To,” which deals with the Israeli occupation’s interdiction and interruption of Palestinian travel, the retaliatory menaces to which Israeli checkpoint soldiers are subjected and their retaliations in turn upon Palestinian homes. I wish I had the space to consider Conover’s observations, and his reactions to them, with the complexity they deserve. Instead, I will have to settle for quoting from the caption of his aerial photograph of the 60 Road, which carries settlers between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, shooting straight and very high above the S-curves of the local road for Palestinians passing between its pillars: “In much of the West Bank, separate roads carry Israelis and Palestinians. . . . A series of concrete panels on the highway’s left side, near the top, serves to protect Israeli vehicles from projectiles.”

As I read this book, I grew increasingly impressed not only with Conover’s bravery and hardihood, which he underplays, but, more important, with that quality one associates with Steinbeck: heart. Here is a man who cares about people everywhere, not merely that convenient abstraction, humanity, but people in particular — not to mention this American toad and that Peruvian sloth.”

C. Dale Young, physician, poet, editor, blogger, friend, had his story, ‘The Affliction,’ published in Guernica, one of my favorite places to linger online. Danzy Senna (Caucasia, Symptomatic, and the memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night?), joined Porochista Khakpour to jaw about ‘Race and Other Flammable Topics’ in this month’s issue of Poets & Writers where, also, the incredibly talented (and multi-degreed), Jennifer de Leon wrote about the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) conference.

And, also in Poets & Writers, were two of my favorite Bread Loaf poets, Robin Ekiss (a former Stegnar Fellow and a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Award ), and Kiki Petrosino (Fort Red Border from Sarabande Books), profiled in the annual Debut Poets issue. To top it all, Greywolf Press, a gem among independent publishers, announced today that the poet D. A. Powell won the prestigious $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his latest collection, Chronic. That’s the second consecutive year that a Greywolf author has won the award. Talking of awards, the brilliant Justin Torres won a $50,000 United States Artists Award. For a taste of Justin, check out this piece in Granta, ‘Lessons.’ I’m posting the opening lines to this story which I heard him read his waiter year at Bread Loaf.

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

In April I will be reading at Sunday Salon in NYC with Dwayne Betts and three other Bread Loafers including Charles Rice Gonzalez, whose novel Chulito will be out next month – watch for a post on that – and Emily Raboteau (The Professor’s Daughter), and Nina Swamidoss McConigley whose collection of short stories will be out soon.

Also in April, in Colorado,Women in Letters & Literary Arts (WILLA), will go live at the Denver Press Club during AWP, where I will be reading with many of the women mentioned here as well as fellow Loafers, Jennine Capo Crucet (How to Leave Hialeah), Antonya Nelson (Nothing Right, Female Trouble, etc.), Cheryl Strayed (Torch), Kara Candito (Taste of Cherry), and Mary Akers (One Life to Give and Women Up on Blocks).

As I was winding this up I got an email from my agent informing me that she had just sold the rights to my book in Mainland China; an interesting development just as the book comes out in Complex Chinese next month in Taiwan, and as I prepare to head to China myself with the Iowa International Writing Program. As a way of encapsulating what the highs and lows of our lives measure, here is Robin Ekiss’ poem, ‘The Past Is Another Country,’ which first appeared in the New England Review:

The Past is Another Country

I am no longer in love with the sand
that makes the pearl, or anything

grainy that hardens its beauty
by passing through pain.

Bone revisits the porous soil
and presses itself into coal.

Whole colonies of canaries
refuse to return from that mine.

Is there anything yellower
than their dark shaft of regret?

The past is another country,
all its cities are forbidden,

their borders closed to you
on every side, while here God

has many mansions, all too small
to live in. When I inherit his palace,

I’ll take my moat everywhere,
making difficult any crossing.

Addendum: This just in. And it beats everything that has pleased me today. Josh Weil (Rachel, Libby, you guys remember the wild reading and jam after with him at Borders/Rosemont), just won the The American Academy of Arts & Letters Sue Kaufman Prize in First Fiction for the best work of first fiction (novel or short stories) published in 2009 for his collection of novellas, The New Valley. And that’s the wrap.

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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