Sunday, January 29, 2017

How to #ActNow

I’ve heard lots of great advice in the past week on how to help out in these troubling times. Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve heard mentioned lately. Feel free to copy and paste and add your favorite local/national/world organizations to the list. #ActNow

Gives you contacts and scripts so calling your representatives in Congress is quick and easy.
#ActNow: Subscribe and make the calls.

Your Daily Action
Texts you daily with reminder to call your reps and a suggested issue to cover.
#ActNow: Text DAILY to 228466. You’ll receive a phone number; enter zip code to be connected.

#ActNow: Subscribe, sign petitions, participate in campaigns, donate. (for the young ’uns. But “old people” can help, too.)

Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.
#ActNow: Join mailing list, read the guide, follow provided tips on how to make sure your voice is heard, join a group, donate.

Recommended Denver-area group: Indivisible Front Range Resistance

Also in Denver:
#ActNow: Volunteer for programs such as the First Friends program (which helps new refugee families settle in Denver), donate.

#ActNow: Volunteer to help hand out food and clothing to the homeless, participate in other great programs to help those in need, donate.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why I Didn't March Yesterday

Here in Denver, more than 100,000 people marched yesterday, and I was not one of them. Not because I hadn’t heard about the march. I’d been hearing about this event for weeks and knew a number of women who planned to march on January 21, many with family members and other friends. I knew similar marches were scheduled across the country, and I knew people who were planning to attend them as well, some even traveling to Washington, D.C., to make sure they were part of what promised to be a historic event.

But I held back for reasons I thought made sense at the time. My biggest concern was that I didn’t think I’d know why I was marching. Civil Rights activists had very specific reasons to march – and did so despite the fact they risked very real threats that could land them not only in jail but in the hospital or even the morgue. Yet they marched, and often suffered for it, and forced changes in our country’s laws that would make a huge difference for generations to come.

But I held back. What, exactly, was this march supposed to accomplish? What difference would it make? Was this just a show of force to try to make a vague point while marchers poked fun at a new administration they didn’t support?

Yesterday, my questions were answered by the photos and videos that flooded Facebook and most media outlets. Whatever their individual reasons were for marching, yesterday’s marchers as a whole made a very succinct point about the power of the people. The marches they attended effectively alerted politicians that the people are now paying attention, and the people are no longer going to sit back and just hope things work out according to their wishes. Instead, the people are going to voice their opposition when policymakers plan to pass laws that go against what the people – whose tax dollars pay for those policymakers’ salaries and benefits packages – believe is right.

The good news for Americans of all backgrounds and political bents is that this message applies to all of us. Regardless of what you think about the current administration or the 1.5 million people who marched yesterday across the country and around the world, I hope you take this message to heart.

You have a voice that deserves to be heard. Whether you’re raising a sign in a march or calling or writing to a politician you suspect has never cared about your opinion, you have the right to voice it. Now is the time to acknowledge this message and act on it. Plug in your zip code on and click through on each name that shows up to get a phone number and address. Click through to the listed website to see if an email address is posted. Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the days ahead when pending legislation crops up that you want your representative to vote for or against.

You have a voice that deserves to be heard. Let this message ring true for you. While Americans may be divided on many issues, on this point we must stand strong. We the people have too much at stake to be complacent any longer – for any reason.

While I admit to feeling hopeless and being very complacent since the election, I now have hope that my actions can make a difference, and I’m grateful to everyone who marched yesterday for giving hope to so many of us who could not – or chose not to – join you on what turned out indeed to be a truly historic day.

Please know we heard your message loud and clear, and many of us have taken it to heart. More importantly, we will do everything we can to act on it.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Beyond FACTS: Muhammad Ali’s Mixed-Race Family

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali was known for a lot of things—his world titles, his dynamic personality, his fast-talking poetic jabs, his long fight with Parkinson’s disease. And while most know about his once outspoken support of Black Nationalism, his refusal to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, his multiple marriages and many children (two sons and seven daughters), few seemed to pay much attention when the older, subdued Muhammad Ali traveled to Ireland in September 2009 to visit the reputed hometown of his white great-grandfather.
Ali learned about his great-grandfather Abe Grady in 2002, when genealogists reported that in the 1860s Grady had lived in Kentucky, married a freed slave, and raised a mixed-race family that eventually resulted in the birth of a granddaughter named Odessa Lee Grady…Ali’s mother.
While some in Ennis insist Abe Grady never actually lived in the town, it’s generally accepted he did hail from the Irish county that includes Ennis. Regardless of the details, during his 2009 trip Mohammad Ali embraced his Irish heritage while the people of Ennis embraced him as one of their own.
And during the same trip another Irishman, Michael Joyce of Chicago—a lawyer known during his own boxing days as “Irish Mike Joyce”—proposed to Mohammad Ali’s daughter, Jamillah, in the nearby town of Ballina.
Joyce, whose grandmother hails from Ireland, had planned the surprise proposal and arranged for a custom ring to be made for the occasion by an Irish jeweler. The couple married in May 2010.
Jamillah, one of Ali’s identical twin daughters, at the time worked in the Secretary of State’s office in Chicago and had two daughters, a young teen named Nadia and a preteen named Amira. She and Joyce have known each other for a while; Joyce, a long-time promoter of young boxers, owns and operates The Celtic Boxing Club, an organization in which Muhammad Ali is also involved.
Seems boxing, a touch of the Irish, and a willingness to cross racial boundaries for the sake of love runs in the Ali family—despite the late patriarch’s once very blunt—and, most would argue, accurate—portrayals of the evils of white power, or his eventual suggestion that whites and blacks would be best off separate but equal, living “together without infringing on each other.” Cultivated and promoted during the upheavals of the late 1960s an early 1970s, such points of view were apparently reconsidered by Ali through the years until they were dismissed entirely, it seems. Other members of the Ali clan who claim a mixed-race heritage include beloved grandsons Biaggio Ali Walsh and his younger brother, Nico, whose mother is Rasheda Ali-Walsh.
As Muhammad Ali himself put it in his 2004 book, Soul of a Butterfly, “Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart.”
Photo © Getty Images

Saturday, January 31, 2015

BEYOND FICTION: In Search of Diverse Fiction for Grown-Ups

Thanks to the return of Lisa Kenney Meserve to her blog Eudaemonia, I was inspired earlier this month to try to blog on occasion once again. And thanks to Thien-Kim at, I also learned about the 2015 Diversity Reading Challenge hosted by Pam of fame.

Like WeNeedDiverseBooks led by YA author Ellen Oh, UnconventionalLibrarian focuses on diverse children’s books. Both are spearheading notable efforts in a realm the publishing industry has long neglected, and press coverage on the dearth of diverse titles in the children’s book market has certainly been a testament to such efforts:

Another result: a plethora of book lists featuring diverse titles to share with one’s children, library patrons, students, or other youngsters. Examples include:

A quick search for mainstream (i.e., grown-up) fiction of a diverse nature, however, revealed little more than a few shallow lists. So I conducted an informal survey of my Facebook friends, many of whom recommended their own favorites or pointed me to sites highlighting diverse titles, and put together my own informal and hardly comprehensive collection of titles (or links to pages with long lists) featuring diverse fiction for grown-ups.

First, some of the heavy-hitter novelists often thought of when U.S. readers think of “diverse books”: Alice Walker, Louise Erdrich, Richard Wright, Laura Esquivel, Khaled Hosseini, James Baldwin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jumpa Lahiri, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Amy Tan, Zora Neale Hurston, Laila Lalami, Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Luis Alberto Urrea.

And, holy cow, this list from Navdeep Singh Dhillon recommended by the one and only Minda Honey: First Lines from 39 Novels by People of Color You Missed in 2014.

As if that weren’t enough, Navdeep also followed up with this phenomenal post: First Lines from 9 Standout Short Story Collections by Writers of Color in 2014.

Good gracious, if only I didn’t need to sleep.

I also found a few diverse fiction titles on Denver consultant Karen Ashmore’s GoodReads page, which includes a five-star review of my novel, One Sister’s Song (Thank you, Karen!) and features LOTS of amazing non-fiction. Among the novels Karen lists are these gems:

And now for some serendipity. A few years ago Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey and Children of the Waters, introduced me (in print and in person! Thank you, Carleen!) to Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and executive producer of the amazing annual Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles.

When I spoke at the 2012 Mixed Remixed Festival, Heidi introduced me to Susan Straight, a fabulous writer whose A Million Nightingales is one of my all-time favorites. Funny thing is, wonderful Boulder author Jenny Shank (whose novel The Ringer also has a diverse cast of characters), replied to my FB inquiry with an eclectic list that included Susan Straight’s newest novel, Between Heaven and Here.  

Also in Jenny’s ist:

Thanks once again to Thien Kim (who personally recommends Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo and The Best of All Possible Worlds), a few more intriguing titles came from a Hyphen Magazine list that included the Nina McConigley book noted above as well as:

Finally, in his recently released novel Watch Me Go, Mark Wisniewski serves up an action-packed work of “literate and nuanced daylight noir” (according to a starred Publishers Weekly review) that also includes diverse characters.

Last week when I despaired that I’d never find time to finish this unwieldy but worthy blog post, my procrastination paid off once again when Lori Tharps (author of the novel Substitute Me as well as multiple works of non-fiction) over at My American Meltingpot featured Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues.

If I have to sleep, maybe a speed-reading course is finally in order. And maybe a speed-writing course while I’m at it.

Though I may not blog nearly as often as I used to, the BEYOND Understanding sidebar of resources will always feature a (growing!) number of great books for kids and adults. Here’s to broadening our minds via titles from unique voices that enlighten as well as entertain. Happy reading, kids. 

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
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
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, 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:

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 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


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.”