Thursday, July 17, 2014

BEYOND Facts: AMOR AND EXILE by Nathaniel Hoffman and Nicole Salgado

As dramas along our borders are once again spotlighted by our media and social networks, books like Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders by Nathaniel Hoffman and Nicole Salgado offer critical insights into the lives of those who are impacted daily by our very complex immigration system.
Described as a mash-up of a work written by a journalist (Hoffman, who writes extensively on immigration and politics) and one of his sources (Salgado, an ecologist, teacher, and artist), Amor and Exile presents an impressive collection of narratives that shed light on how thousands of Americans and their undocumented immigrant loved ones struggle to keep their relationships—and often their families—intact. The fact that many such relationships endure despite what often turns out to be seemingly insurmountable obstacles reveals not only the determination of the people involved, but the depth of the love they have for one another.
In Hoffman’s first chapter, “Love in the Time of Deportation,” Nicole and her husband, Margo, are introduced along with a number of other couples whose relationships cross borders that include (but often aren’t limited to) nationality. Nicole then begins to describe what she and Margo endured through the years that ultimately led to her current exile in Mexico with her husband and daughter, despite the fact that she is an American citizen.
All the stories in this book reveal the stress and struggles faced by loved ones of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Fear of never seeing a spouse or parent seems to be woven into the fabric of many of these families’ lives. As Hoffman puts it, there is a “world within America” that most of us do not know exists, an America with its own system of courts and laws that gives Americans with very personal ties to undocumented immigrants little, if any, guidance. In this world the spouses and children of undocumented immigrants “wait quietly in the shadows, unsure how their country expects them to proceed, stuck in that limbo between love of family and respect for the nation’s laws, torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s right.”
An experienced international traveler and activist who was no stranger to sleeping “on dirt floors, in hammocks and in sleeping bags out in the open,” Nicole admits that after a short time the novelty of life in Mexico quickly began to wear off for her. “But I didn’t want to go home,” she writes, “especially after all we’d done to get here. Especially in light of the fact that Margo couldn’t come back with me.” 
Amor and Exile effectively contributes to the ongoing discussion of U.S. immigration issues while it also reveals how relatedand often very personal and painfuldramas play out across the country, usually far from any border. Its an important read for anyone interested in fully understanding the impact of our country’s immigration policies on everyone involved.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beyond FICTION: Multicultural Picture Books for Mardi Gras from ImNotTheNanny.com

http://www.imnotthenanny.com/2014/02/mardi-gras-picture-books.html#idc-container
Leave it to blogger extraordinaire Thien-Kim to provide a timely list of multicultural children’s books that focus on Mardi Gras and New Orleans. I’m most intrigued by On Mardi Gras Day by Fatima Shaik, which talks about how two children and their African-American community celebrate Mardi Gras. Though out of print, On Mardi Gras is available from third-party sellers on Amazon. Hopefully it’s also in libraries.
 
Other great titles Thien-Kim lists in this fun post:
  • Dinosaur Mardi Gras by Dianne De Las Casas, about the unique music of Louisiana
  • The Greentail Mouse by popular kids’ author Leo Lionni, in which country mice learn about Mardi Gras from a city cousin and put on their own celebration
  • Gaston Goes to Mardi Gras by James Rice, in which Gaston the alligator gives a tour of Mardi Gras in New Orleans
  • Today Is Monday In Louisiana by songwriter Johnette Downing about tasty Louisiana dishes
Scroll through all of Thien-Kim’s multicultural children’s book selections. In January she wrote about Multicultural Children’s Book Day: Celebrating Diversity in Children’s Literature created by Wenjen from Pragmatic Mom and Valarie Budayr from Jump Into a Book/Audrey Press.
 
Thien-Kim encourages her readers to “Check out the full list of fabulous bloggers who are participating so you can learn of new books to help expand your child’s library and world!”
 
Thien-Kim started her fantastic blog, I’m Not The Nanny, “as a way to share the challenges and joys of raising biracial children.” She has plenty of stories about being mistaken for her children’s nanny, an issue many parents of children with mixed-race backgrounds face. As Thien-Kim puts it:
 
“Talking and teaching race to children can be tricky, especially when raising two Hapa children (Vietnamese-American and African-American). I don’t have all the answers (sometimes none at all), but [I] share them on this site because there are many parents of mixed race children who have the same challenges.”
 
I’m always impressed by a savvy blogger who has successfully built her blog into a business. Thien-Kim has been so successful at this that she spoke at BlogHer ’13 last July in Chicago. She’s also involved in lots of other online ventures. In addition to running From Left to Write, an online book club of more than 90 bloggers, she’s also the Living editor for The DC Moms collaborative blog and a contributor to a number of websites including Parents.com.
 
I’ve read Thien-Kim’s writings elsewhere, but am so glad I finally took the time to look through (and subscribe to) I’m Not the Nanny!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

BEYOND Fiction: CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler...and the Issue of Race in Works by White Writers


I stayed up late last night to finish Julie Kibler’s intricately plotted debut novel, Calling Me Home. On one level, Calling Me Home (due out in paperback in January) tells the story of an elderly white woman who asks her black hair stylist and friend to drive her to a funeral in another state. During the lengthy road trip the main character’s full story is revealed via chapters that bring the reader back to the racism of the early 1940s. Chapters based in the present, meanwhile, reveal struggles the friend faces as a contemporary single mother, as well as incidents that occur as the unlikely pair travel through a series of Southern states.

While the back-and-forth nature of Calling Me Home immediately brought to mind a recent book that jumped from the 1930s to the 1970s and back again—Melanie Benjamin’s bestselling historical novel about the Lindberghs, The Aviator’s Wife, due out in paperback later this month—the fact that Julie Kibler, a white writer, had opted to tackle racism in her fiction reminded me of Susan Straight and her stunning novel, A Million Nightingales. The richly told story of a young slave and all she endures on and beyond a plantation in early 19th-century Louisiana, A Million Nightingales is just one of many books Susan Straight has written that not only feature characters of color but address issues of race head on.

In September 2012 on Slate.com, journalist and author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, Tanner Colby asked the question: Can a White Author Write Black Characters? A white writer who specializes in writing about race, Tanner Colby examined at length the challenges faced by white authors such as Michael Chabon, whose Telegraph Avenue features a cast of black characters, and the long tradition of white writers bringing to life non-white characters. Such a history includes the likes of Melville, Stowe, Twain, Faulkner, and Harper Lee, he noted, though I would have also added Shirley Ann Grau, especially due to her 1964 classic The Keepers of the House.

Uproar in the late ’60s against the publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner seemed to put a hold on this practice. Apparently efforts to promote political correctness lasting into the 1990s discouraged many white authors from even considering entering such an emotionally charged arena as race. Luckily, some white writers insisted on doing just that. While Tanner Colby mentioned Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities as one example, I thought of Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates. Such titles remained few and far between for a while. At the same time, though, books by women featuring male protagonists (some of my favorites: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Lois Lowry’s The Giver,) and books by men featuring female protagonists (some of my favorites: William Haywood Henderson’s Augusta Locke, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web) hardly raised eyebrows when they were published.

As Tanner Colby explained so well: “By the early 1990s, the idea of cultural ownership had metastasized into a fully articulated code of conduct [effectively, among other things] apportioning the right to tell certain stories to certain people.” But, Colby added, this “pushback of cultural ownership went too far. If you convince white people that they’re not qualified to tackle race, if you scare them away from the issue, if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.”

I find it encouraging to see on the market highly successful, internationally published titles such as Calling Me Home and A Million Nightingales by white writers willing to explore the many complex aspects of race, but I hope this is just the beginning. Ultimately all writers should feel free to write about characters of all backgrounds and issues of all types. As a writer and a reader, I consider this to be the job of a writer: to strive to reveal the truths that fuel our world, and our best stories, regardless of where they reside.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Beyond FANTASTIC: My American Meltingpot Blog by Lori Tharps

I’ve been meaning to write about the My American Meltingpot blog written by author LoriTharps since author Carleen Brice mentioned it to me years ago. As soon as I read Lori’s heartfelt post about the movie 12 Years a Slave I knew I couldn’t put this post off any longer.  

Presented as “A Multi-Culti Mix of Identity Politics, Parenting & Pop Culture,” My American Meltingpot was founded by Lori in 2006 on Blogger and moved to its present URL last year. As Lori puts it, My American Meltingpot is “not the cyber host for post-racial supporters of the colorblind, nor do we negate a person’s right to choose… their own identity. No, we appreciate differences and revel in contrasting colors. Culture clashes and cross-pollination is what makes life interesting.”

My American Meltingpot categories range from identity politics to family and parenting, from books to food (or both! Love this post on Denver author AdrianMiller’s great book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time), and from authors (Chimamanda Adichie is one of my favorites, too) to all there is to know about black hair. As co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair, Lori considers herself a hairstorian and embraces her love of the history of hair. Another great reason to feature Lori’s blog right now: an updated edition of Hair Story (with a gorgeous cover) is available for preorder in anticipation of its release in January.

Lori’s books also include her novel, Substitute Me, and her memoir, Kinky Gazpacho, about her travels in Spain as a young woman and how they led her to not only learn a lot about herself, but to meet her husband. And, yes, a movie is in the works!

Lori also happens to be a mom to three kiddos and a journalism professor at Temple University (Go, Owls!) in Philadelphia. My American Meltingpot features great resources such as the Multicultural Familia blog and the website of AP race and ethnicity reporter Jesse Washington, as well as a sample list of recommended titles (all of which I’m adding, along with Lori’s books, to my to-read list).

I’m so glad I finally took the time to get to know (and subscribe to) My American Meltingpot! Thanks, Lori, for continuing to shine a spotlight on all things multi-culti, including the increasingly dynamic mixed-race experience.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Beyond FUN: Camp to Belong

 
My first babysitting job was to watch a newborn for the foster family next door for a dollar an hour in the summer of 1977. I remember the year because I also remember I was eleven. Eleven and very proud to hold that baby—his name was Jimmy—and feel his tiny hand grab hold of my finger as though for dear life. I only watched him for a little while that day, but I’ll never forget him. 
 
Jimmy didn’t stay long at the foster home next door and soon enough there was a new baby in my own home to cuddle and wonder over so I don’t remember missing him. Foster families worked that way, I learned. Some kids stayed a long time and were adopted, but most stayed for a few weeks or months at most.

Two little girls, sisters who’d been abused somehow, arrived when I was a little older, maybe thirteen or fourteen. I remember not wanting to know what had happened to them, and am glad I was never told. One of the girls was named Barbie. When I checked on her after lights out one night when I was babysitting, I opened her bedroom door to hear her talking in her sweet voice, I’m not sure to whom. I asked if she was OK and she gave me a knowing smile in the dimly lit room, and I let her be. I don’t remember seeing Barbie or her sister after that, but I hope at the very least they were able to grow up together.

NBC Nightly News aired a story tonight on the Camp to Belong summer camps for foster children who are separated from their siblings. The siblings are reunited for a week during which they can play together, get to know each other a bit, do some fun summertime stuff together, even give each other birthday presents from a stash of donated gifts. The woman who started these camps (including one in Colorado which actually runs next week) was inspired to do so because she’d grown up separated from her sister. Now there are camps across the U.S. and in Australia.

It’s amazing what one person with a vision can accomplish.

Photo credit: CampToBelong.org

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Beyond FICTION: MIXED ME: A Tale of a Girl who is Both Black and White by Tiffany Catledge

Author Tiffany Catledge recently introduced herself via a Goodreads group on mixed-race literature. Her children’s book, Mixed Me: A Tale of a Girl who is Both Black and White, is a welcome addition to the still-limited list of available titles written specifically for children of mixed-race heritage.

The little girl in Mixed Me addresses a number of potentially hurtful questions and comments some children hear all the time and often don’t understand or know how to answer. Questions such as “What are you?” or “Why don’t you have the same skin color as your mom (or dad)?” are answered cheerfully, with a positive message repeated throughout the text. Colorful illustrations by talented teenager Anissa Riviére add to the book’s appeal for young pre-readers and their parents or caregivers.

Tiffany’s bio on the MixedMe.org site includes insights into her own mixed-race childhood and motherhood. Tiffany approaches it all with a fun sense of humor as well as the divine ability to accept others’ unintended insults with much grace:

“My mom always got the stares from people wondering what her affiliation could be to all these brown-skinned kids—I am one of five. Similar to what I get now raising my own family. I have six kids and my last two are blond and blue eyed! I can’t tell you how many people ask me if I am their nanny!”

I doubt I’d be that cheerful about folks assuming I was my kids’ nanny (though I was asked once if I was watching someone else’s children and managed to let that slide). Thankfully as our world becomes more diverse and more books like Mixed Me are published, such misunderstandings—and questions—will become fewer and farther between.

MIXED ME: A Tale of a Girl who is Both Black and White belongs in book collections for children right alongside classics such as Black, White, Just Right! Kudos on a very special book, Tiffany! 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Beyond FACTS: FIREBIRD by Mark Doty

I recently attended a workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop here in Denver in which poet Mark Doty offered tips on how to “force a focus on the language.” My notes include the following gems:
-What you know and don’t say energizes your work.
-Allow your reader to experience a pressure or other outcome without knowing the reason.
-Figure out the relation of the self with what’s being observed.
-Try framing a bit of memory inside something else, as part of another whole.
-Create your own version of reality, your own subjectivity.
-Putting your best lines up front can shift a work’s emphasis and ending.
-When reaching for closure, set it aside.

Then I read Mark’s 1999 memoir, Firebird, and was struck most by its closing, which completely surprised me as he’d seemed to purposefully stretch beyond potential endings involving his parents and his difficult relationships with them. Because this story is not about them, really; it’s about the boy who survived despite them.
When I first started reading this book I was simply amazed by the gorgeous prose. Soon bizarre school and playtime scenes and outings revealed that this child was very much on his own, and eventually his struggles as a gay preteen and teen were complicated by the many obstacles his troubled family constantly provided. Glimmers of hope arrived via music and art shared and appreciated, found beauty in simple things such as Petula Clark singing “Downtown” on The Ed Sullivan Show, steps made toward a life eventually immersed in art thanks to a few gifted teachers along the way.
Thankfully Mark Doty opted to become a teacher himself and continues to share insightful lessons with his own students...and readers. In Firebird, he offers this nugget: “‘What we remember,’ wrote the poet who was my first teacher of this art, ‘can be changed. What we forget we are always.’” Which, with the opening scene of his memoir, ties back neatly with his workshop advice to “frame a bit of memory inside something else, as part of another whole.”
I also treasure this passage, in which the poet celebrates a gift given to him by his mother, who introduced him to the possibilities of art, and by subsequent teachers, some encountered directly, some from an admiring distance:
“The gift was a faith in the life of art, or, more precisely, a sense that there was a life which was not mine, but to which I was welcome to join myself. A life which was larger than any single person’s, and thus not one to be claimed, but to apprentice oneself to. In the larger, permanent community of makers, you could be someone by being no one, by disappearing into what you made. In that life your hands were turned, temporarily, to what beauty wanted, what spirit—not your spirit, not exactly—desired: to come into being, to be seen.”

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Beyond FUMING: What's Really Behind Racist Reactions to Multiracial Cheerios Ad?


I was pleasantly surprised to read in a friend’s Facebook post last Friday that a new Cheerios ad featured a biracial family. “Seems odd that this should still catch one’s attention in 2013,” my high school buddy wrote, “which is a pretty clear indicator of how far we still have to go.”

I agreed and moved on, completely oblivious to the fact that the ad was not only noticed by a lot of people, but was bombarded by so many hateful, racist comments on its YouTube page that eventually the comments section had to be shut down.

Journalist Mary C. Curtis opened her Friday Washington Post column “Backlash greets Cheerios ad with interracial family” with this line: “Here we go again, with more proof, if anyone needed it, that the post-racial American society some hoped the election of an African American president signified is far from here.”

The thing is, many Americans who are white and don’t interact with people of color probably do need this reminder that racism exists. When the first edition of my novel One Sister’s Song was published in 2002 and I visited with book clubs in primarily white suburban neighborhoods here in Denver, I was confronted by some who insisted racism was a thing of the past. One woman even went so far as to insist I must have exaggerated issues faced by contemporary people of mixed-race heritage in my book. Yes, this was ten years ago and no, my mixed-race family has never been wakened in the middle of the night to a burning cross on the front lawn, but I’m fairly certain racism does still exist. And this widely discussed episode of very public, very racist comments is only one example.

I’m intrigued, as usual, by the possible deep-down reasons behind the flare-up. What about this seemingly innocuous ad pushed the buttons of those who reacted so negatively? Is it the fact that the father in this family is black? Would the backlash have been as vitriolic if the father was white and the mother black? Is it the fact that some still consider it selfish of mixed-race couples to have children because such children are supposedly condemned to difficult lives? I addressed this once-very-common argument against mixed-race marriages (and evidence that it holds no water) in an October 2005 post “Beyond FACTS: Debunking Multiracial Myths.”

I still believe, as I wrote back then, that “challenges faced by children in mixed-race families ought to be considered opportunities for discussion and awareness rather than dreaded as difficult and unfortunate obstacles,” but years later many also still believe a child in a mixed-race family is going to face unfair disadvantages as he or she grows up.

I say anyone who grows up to spew racist comments—online and elsewhere and for whatever reason—is at a far greater disadvantage.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Beyond FINISHED: In an Upstate New York State of Mind

How fitting that I found myself reading an essay about upstate New York (“Let Me Tell You What It Means” by author Brock Clarke in a gem of an anthology Why We’re Here: New York Essayists on Living Upstate from Colgate University Press) while waiting in car line at my kids’ school today, a Denver day graced by what my husband and I call “Syracuse weather.” As a slate sky hung overhead and icy snow pelted everything in its path I found comfort in the images, lamentations, and wonder presented by another writer who’d experienced, and at some point longed to escape, the charms and challenges of upstate New York.

Twenty-five years after I drove off to Connecticut with all my worldly possessions packed into my 1988 Ford Escort hatchback, upstate New York remains “home” in the sense that my parents still reside in the house in which I grew up and many of my friends and siblings and their families remain in the area. And while this should makes sense, in many ways it doesn’t. It seems I’m among those who leave upstate New York only to eventually come to realize they’ll never really leave it behind.

When I met Mary Karr—author of The Liars’ Club and subsequent memoirs who now lives in Syracuse and is a professor at my alma mater, Syracuse University—at a Lighthouse Writers Workshop event last year I exclaimed I was from Syracuse and gushed that I loved my hometown. Fact is, there’s not a lot to love about Syracuse, and Mary Karr knew that. She gave me a puzzled look and said “Yes, it’s a sweet city,” but I knew she was just being polite; Syracuse has come a long way but it’s never been “sweet.” Read Syracuse native Joe Amato’s Once An Engineer and you’ll understand what I mean.

Syracuse is also primarily gray all winter long and humid and sticky and buggy in the summer. But its springs are lush and green and its falls stunning, especially when you head to nearby lakes, state parks, and small towns. I’d always known growing up in a close suburb of Syracuse that something special lay just around the corner, a feeling enhanced when my mom occasionally drove my sisters and me around town “to look at houses.” When I could drive I’d go on excursions of my own in my parent’s lumbering station wagon or a friend’s borrowed car, driving to places I’d heard of but never seen as though they were exotic ports of call, either disappointed to find them run-down or surprised when I came upon a curve of rolling, wooded hills or some other unexpected, breathtaking view.

None of that surprising beauty was familiar to me back then, and yet it belongs to me now as I say, proudly, that I’m from upstate New York. As Brock Clarke writes, “This is what it also means to be from upstate New York: to move somewhere else…and then pretend…the place you’ve left isn’t still inside you wherever you go.”

I have no doubt upstate New York lives inside me and will remain with me wherever I go. I set my first novel, One Sister’s Song, as well as some of my short stories in its environs, and images from my hometown reside in my poetry and in the backdrops of my dreams. And every spring I still pine to return to upstate New York with my kids as I do every summer to enjoy not only the region’s natural riches but a mini-reunion with my extended family, to see the smiles and hear the voices and laughter that are as familiar to me as a spring snowstorm…and never fail to remind me who I am, and where I’m from.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Beyond FRIENDS: CHEAP CABERNET: A FRIENDSHIP by Cathie Beck


Colorado author and journalist Cathie Beck recently met with a lunch group I organize of local women authors, editors, and other talented literary types. Her discussion involved how she promoted her self-published memoir, Cheap Cabernet: A Friendship, so effectively online—and followed that up with immediate outreach to agents and publishers—that the book quickly got the attention of a top agent and was sold to a major house.

Intrigued by Cathie’s story, I bought a signed copy of Cheap Cabernet. Usually I add new titles to my growing pile of books to read, but the glimpse I’d gotten of Cathie’s complex history and comments shared by others in the group who’d read her book prompted me to dive right in. I’m so glad I did.

Cathie insists she comes from the wrong side of the tracks in every possible sense. Her brief but highly memorable stories of her parents’ dysfunctional ways and their impact on every member of their family bring to mind the searing images of Mary Karr’s childhood memoir, The Liars’ Club. Both of these petite authors armed themselves early on with quick wit and a tendency to swear a blue streak when riled. And both write as though their survival depends on it. Considering their incredibly painful upbringings and the challenges they’ve faced through the years, that may very well be the case.

While Cheap Cabernet does indeed celebrate a unique friendship, it also illuminates singular lives in which neglect, desperation, and despair are somehow overcome by the dogged determination, unapologetic moxie, and wild laughter that can make life worth living…even (or especially) when it becomes too brutal to bear.

When Cathie meets Boulder artist and Bronx native Denise Katz, both their lives are at crossroads and the need to share their separate journeys with someone as unique and outgoing and borderline lawless as the other compel them to become fast friends. Various forms of mania ensue, from unplanned road trips and run-ins to a Jamaican vacation gone very wrong and a side trip to Cuba that almost proves disastrous. Denise’s multiple sclerosis is on such an unpredictable course that Cathie finds herself on the kind of emotional rollercoaster ride she thought—after a lifetime of poverty, abandonment, and emotional battles—she’d finally left behind.

But the physical and mental toll of an illness with debilitating symptoms that a decade ago lacked mitigating treatments eventually would take its toll. Somehow both women come to terms, in their own unique ways, with the myriad demands of their complicated lives and reconcile themselves to their individual, yet completely intertwined fates.

How Cathie Beck captured all that, and much more, in one book is nothing short of remarkable. How she fought to not only get Cheap Cabernet in print but to get it some of the attention it so deserves is another amazing story altogether.

“No one should have to face multiple sclerosis alone,” Cathie notes in an afterword that includes details, resources, and a note regarding the fact that a portion of all proceeds from sales of Cheap Cabernet go directly to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, “including the family members and loved ones of someone who has been diagnosed with MS.” Considering Cathie’s difficult past, Denise’s cruel “treatment” when her illness led to severe depression, and Cathie’s continuing struggles with rheumatoid arthritis and related insurance and medical nightmares, Cheap Cabernet stands as a testament to the fact that no one should have to face any serious illness alone.

While Cathie knocked herself out to help a friend in need and admits she got beat up a bit along the way, she also continues to marvel that miracles do happen, that “people come into our lives, and sometimes, if we’re terribly lucky, we get the chance to love them.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beyond FACES: USA TODAY “Changing Faces” Article

At a recent birthday lunch with nine chatty sixth-grade girls I pretended not to overhear the following conversation:

“My brother does the funniest Asian accent.”

“Asian accent? Tell me what an Asian accent is.”

“Uhhh.”

“Really, what’s an Asian accent? I want to know.”

Funny thing was, both these girls were of Asian descent, though most people would say only one “looked” Asian with straight dark hair, olive skin, and dark eyes. She was the one who asked her blue-eyed, light-haired friend what an “Asian” accent was supposed to sound like. Everyone involved seemed relieved when the subject was abruptly dropped.

In another recent instance involving two other sixth-graders a tall, fair-skinned, dark-haired girl (my youngest, whose paternal grandfather was black) confronted a petite white friend who’d called someone’s comical attempt at a “country accent” a “black accent.”

“Really?” my daughter challenged with a smile. “You’re going there with the white racial girl? Really?”

While some may find such conversations awkward and unnecessary, I’m glad to hear kids this age openly challenging each other about stereotypes and the need to realize some can be hurtful…and not everyone is willing to let them slip by without comment.

According to the January 17 USA Weekend article “Changing Faces,” Americans of heritages commonly pegged in the U.S. as “minorities” are becoming increasingly more numerous. “A major transformation” is taking place in American demographics, one expert states, with the U.S. percentage of “non-whites” jumping from 31% to 37% since 2000 and even faster changes in store in the near future. “Among kids,” the article reads, the “white-only” percentage will drop to less than 50% of their U.S. population within the next six years.

I think many of our kids already understand that whether a person “looks” as though he or she comes from a certain heritage matters very little, and anyone you meet might come from a diverse family or have close friends of another race or culture. Remarks that could be considered insulting to members of a certain group could upset just about anyone, then, and are best left unsaid.

As our country’s demographics continue to undergo its current “major transformation,” I hope more Americans follow our kids’ lead and learn to not only mind what they say but to challenge those who sometimes fall back on old, potentially hurtful ways. Luckily in both these recent instances no one was hurt, and all the girls involved (and those around them, most of whom (like me) pretended not to hear what was going on but took it all in…and probably learned a thing or two) kept things calm and moved on. Let’s hope they head into their diverse futures with such important skills intact, for everyone’s sake…including those of us they inspire on a regular basis.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Beyond FUNDRAISING: Helping an Indie Press Publisher-Poet in Need

Journalist, videographer, novelist, essayist, poet, and illustrator Nick Belardes is a busy guy with a big heart whose work has been published to wide acclaim online (including on Twitter, where he published the first literary Twitter novel) and in print.
I met Nick at a Writing Away Retreat in Breckenridge last month. When he read at a retreat reading, I thought immediately of the early short stories of Junot Díaz and the fantastic works in the Latinos in Lotusland anthology edited by La Bloga blogger (and fiction writer and attorney) Daniel Olivas. Nick’s characters are colorful and authentic, their language infused with the complexities of his Latino heritage.

Nick’s first book of poetry, Songs of the Glue Machines, is due to be published by California-based Lummox Press in 2013. In the proud tradition of Philip Levine, Nick’s collection spotlights and honors the working class. His focus: industrial workers in Central Valley factories in California.

Nick is trying to raise funds to help Lummox Press founder and long-time poet RD Armstrong not only cover the publishing costs of Songs of the Glue Machines, but also simply make ends meet. RD struggles with health issues that have plagued him for some time.

“If enough money is raised, we will help him buy a used car,” Nick says. “And if not a car, then something as simple as paying a month’s rent. People need to understand how much RD sacrifices to publish poets like myself. I’m always trying to do something to help the literary community and can’t think of a better cause.”

Help Nick raise the remaining eighty percent of his $2,500 goal for RD and Lummox Press via his ChipIn.org page.  Every little bit helps.

¡Buena suerte, Nick!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beyond FRIENDS: You talking to me?

Just before the start of summer and toward summer’s end this year I experienced two incredibly memorable events: the fifth annual Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival in Los Angeles in June and the September Writing Away Retreat in Breckenridge CO. Both took me away from home and out of my typical routine and introduced me to remarkably creative people from all walks of life. And while I’d suspected my understanding of racial issues would be expanded at the Mixed Roots Festival, I was surprised when the most challenging lesson I learned there came in the form of a question from on high—a question that would trouble me until I was finally able to answer it three months later.

I’d applied to read from my first novel, One Sister’s Song, at the Mixed Roots Festival and was thrilled when I was selected to be one of four literary presenters on the second day of the weekend. After our readings, the four of us were asked questions by Heidi Durrow, a founder of the festival and author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and by members of the audience.

We were seated in the front of a high-tech theater within the Japanese American National Museum in LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. The lights were bright, the seats went practically straight up in front of us, and it was impossible to see audience members past the first ten rows.

From a seat high up and well beyond my vision, a woman’s voice asked me how I respond to racist comments when my husband, who is of mixed-race descent, is not present. I tried to recall if anyone had recently made a racist comment around me, perhaps without knowing that my husband was a person of color, and could not think of a single instance. I could, however, think of comments made to me years ago when my husband and I were dating, comments that had been voiced in ways that were supposed to imply concern for my well-being.

In both those instances, I’d deferred to the (older) ages and (somewhat questionable) intentions of the people speaking to me, said nothing, and moved on. So I answered the woman at the festival by saying I’m the last one to put someone on the spot for saying anything that could be considered offensive, that I choose to assume people mean no harm and opt to get to more comfortable ground as quickly as possible. My answer was lame, but honest. But since that voice from on high posed that question to me, I’ve wondered what I should say the next time someone makes a prejudiced comment of any kind (racist, homophobic, anti-immigration, anti-pick-a-religion, anti-pick-a-region, anti-special needs, the list goes on and on) to me. Perhaps even more importantly, what should I teach my kids to say when they hear such comments?

And then my friend Phyllis came back to town. Phyllis Glazer of Dallas is no push-over, having led a community of small-town Texans in a long complex fight against a nearby toxic-waste treatment facility that caused cancers, birth defects, and other tragic afflictions. When Phyllis got directly involved and took her town’s fight to the national media and to Washington, she received death threats directed not only at her but at her youngest son. Her story is fascinating and she’s attended two Writing Away Retreats this year to get feedback on her memoir manuscript. Meanwhile, she keeps teaching those of us lucky enough to spend any time with her a lesson or two on how to get things done.

While driving Phyllis and others from the Denver airport to Breckenridge on the first day of the retreat, I found myself in the middle of a discussion about racist remarks and how to cope with them. Phyllis was sitting next to me, her red hair in its everyday up-do adorned with purple flowers and feathers, her eyes bright, her make-up perfect. Phyllis, a brain cancer survivor, is a ballroom dancer and carries herself like a queen. She speaks loudly and laughs loudly and when she tells a story commands the attention of everyone in a room…especially when her story involves the first time she was shot at by someone who wanted her dead.

As for those who make racist remarks to her, Phyllis said she tells them “You’re talking to the wrong person.”

Simply put but effective enough to make an important point, and make it clear a conversation has ended. I have a feeling Phyllis has put more than one person in his (or her) place with that remark, and I plan to use it as needed in the future. Hopefully it won’t be needed often but it’s good to be prepared...and to prepare one’s children in case they need some ammunition in the fights they’re forced to face.

Thanks, Phyllis.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Beyond FICTION: THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE by Asa Earl Carter









How ironic that I sought solace today by finally finishing THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE by Forrest Carter. This engaging story allowed me to escape to the mountains of Tennessee at various times over the past month. I’d understood from the back cover that it was autobiographical, a fact that led me to tears earlier this week during one especially heartbreaking scene involving the main character, a boy of Cherokee heritage who lives with his aging grandparents.

Then I finished the book, decided to do a little research about the author, and immediately found this 2007 post on Turtle Talk, the blog for the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law: Indian Frauds: “The Education of Little Tree” and Oprah’s Book Club.

Turns out Forrest Carter was actually “Asa Earl Carter, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and speechwriter for former Alabama governor George Wallace who wrote Wallace’s infamous vow: ‘Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!’” And THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE is a work of complete fiction.

I’d been duped. Still, I’m glad I read THE  EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE before I knew these facts. This is a beautifully written book, despite now-obvious stereotypes I’d read as true depictions of characters’ attributes and actions. 

And I’m thankful I found Turtle Talk and its post on this book. The post’s comments stand as an especially helpful addendum as they debate everything from the complexities of racism to the impact of learning a writer’s intentions to whether a work should be left to stand on its own—or dismissed if it’s revealed to be other than expected. These are complicated issues. But as those of us in Colorado have learned so painfully this difficult summer, life is complicated. What’s important is that we keep talking, and listening, and learning as we strive to understand the world in which we live...even as that world reveals itself to be much more deceptive and disturbing than we want to think.

I’ll opt to take away from the Turtle Talk discussion of THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE true solace from the wise words of one reader:

“I am Cherokee and I did live in the Blue Ridge Mountains at a very young age until I grew into my late teens. KKK or not, Carter did capture the importance and strong ties of family among the Cherokee. It’s how we survived. Forget and forgive. And strive for peace.”