Ridiculous Riches

This summer I was invited to participate in a great writer-artist collaboration.

Signs-of-Life-2018For the past 14 years, Facèré Gallery in Seattle presents Signs of Life, a combined contemporary jewelry art exhibition and literary journal featuring the work of nine jewelry artists and nine published writers, culminating in an exhibit and a publication celebrating both literary and jewelry arts.  Each writer is given an image of a piece of work by one of the jewelers, and asked to respond with a piece of short fiction, poem or essay. The only restriction is that the writer not write about jewelry.

I was so happy to be included and pleased to be able to share my short fiction story here with you (PDF link), inspired by our Northwest landscape and jeweler Melinda Risk, whose beautiful work you can explore more of here.

This year’s full list of  jewelry artists include Jenine Bressner, Daniel DiCaprio, Kirk Lang, Maia Leppo, Tara Locklear, Megan McGaffigan, Kranitzky & Overstreet, Melinda Risk, and Liaung-Chung Yen. Writers include Claudia J. Bach, Ellen Wade Beals, Stuart Greenman, Holly J. Hughes, Matthew Nienow, Roz Ray, Molly Thornton, and John Mark Tucker and yours truly. The full publication is available from Facèré Gallery.

Reprinted with permission of Facèré Gallery.

 

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The Stories that Remain

The island of Ortygia is both the symbolic and literal heart of Siracusa (Syracuse), the largest city on the eastern coast of Sicily. The streets are rich in medieval and Baroque palaces, one of the most light-filled piazzas in Italy and equally poetic wrought iron balconies bright with flowers and linen fluttering in the wind.

And water.

Ortygia is a small enough island that almost every turn opens out onto views of the Ionian sea, and the few enclosed narrow lanes that do exist seem to compensate. One of the city’s two main piazze features the Fonte Artusa (Arthusa Fountain), depicting the nymph Aretusa who, when pursued by the river god Alpheus, took refuge on the island of Ortygia and hid by changing into a spring. Though surrounded by the sea, the island’s drinking fountains built into walls run with fresh water.

Ortygia’s second public gathering place, Piazza d’Archimede (Archimedes Piazza), tells the story of the famous geometrician Archimedes who was born in Siracusa in 287 BC. Archimedes was so absent-minded that he would frequently forget to eat, drink and bathe. His servants needed to drag him to his bath, and it was there where he discovered his principle: any body immersed in water loses weight equivalent to the water it displaces. So delighted by this discovery, he jumped out of the bath and ran naked through the streets of Ortygia shouting “Eureka!” (I have it!)

Archimedes was also instrumental in defending Siracusa against the Romans by setting fire to the enemy fleet by focusing the sun’s rays with a system of mirrors and lenses. His concentration was so great that when the Romans succeeded in entering the town anyway by surprise, he didn’t hear them and a soldier ran him through with his sword.

Words

Words are on my mind. That might not seem surprising coming from a writer, but this time the concept feels broader than usual.

I’m traveling in Italy, partly for pleasure but mostly to participate in Bread Loaf in Sicily—a writing program that takes place in the far northwest town of Erice. Travel to any country where you’re not a native speaker can’t help but get you thinking about words, and these past days that I’ve spent in Palermo and Siracusa have heightened that sensitivity.

When we speak our native tongue, it’s so easy to take for granted that we can make ourselves understood—well, at least if we’re not discussing politics these days or other controversial topics. But even with a rudimentary working knowledge of another language, that baseline pretty much disappears. My Italian is improving, yet my most productive and satisfying conversations seem to occur with the small children of the owners of albergos where I’m staying.

At breakfast, I listen jealously as my hotel hostess seamlessly shifts from Italian to English to German to French. I think about so many writers who have written in more than one language—to someone in the midst of linguistic struggles, an unimaginable prospect. I think about my own Polish grandfather and the many U.S. immigrants who must make a new life with a new language—a necessary undertaking rather than an avocation.

And yet there’s something so alluring and powerful about words I cannot read. The posters, graffiti, even the shop and restaurant signage. Maybe it’s my background as a visual designer that lets me look at these as something intangible and beyond meaning. Something absolute, which lifts the burden of significance and allows me to simply enjoy their secret beauty.

Picture Book Doubleheader

What is it about second grade? Ask friends and family for a special or important memory they can recall from childhood, and very often you’ll hear a story from around the time of second grade. Perhaps in first grade, kids are still navigating the transition from kindergarten, and by third grade, they’re all grown up. In second grade, our social character traits are beginning to blossom and the sting of failure, fears and flaws feels somehow magnified.

Deborah Hopkinson has written a gorgeous little paean to second grade in her new picture book, A Letter to My Teacher, with pictures by Nancy Carpenter (Schwartz & Wade, April 4, 2017), told eponymously by an unnamed little girl navigating the start of second grade.

Heartbreakingly, she always expects the worst. Will her teacher scold her for stomping into school in the first day with muddy boots, stumbling over words when reading out loud, or wandering away from the group on a field trip? Instead, as we hope and delight in, her teacher is patient, supportive and always encouraging, if sometimes “exasperated,” which delightfully leads our little heroine to search for the word in the dictionary—a true teaching moment.

This story will hearten children and sweep adult readers back to recapture a special time in our lives, while reminding us how exciting it can be to teach children and how grateful we all should be to those who choose to do so.

Hopkinson, a prolific author, has a second picture book also being released in early May—

Independence Cake: A Revolutionary Confection Inspired by Amelia Simmons Whose True History is Unfortunately Unknown, illustrated by Giselle Potter also by Schwartz & Wade (May 9, 2017).

Independence Cake features another strong female character, Amelia Simmons, a “plucky patriot”—a little girl not prone to feeling sorry for herself—with creative ideas of her own to honor the birth of the 13 new colonies and George Washington’s visit. What is especially inventive about this tale is how Hopkinson created a story to surround the few known facts about the real Amelia’s life. The scant record shows only that Amelia Simmons, an orphan, very likely made her living as a servant or a cook, and in 1796 published American Cookery, the first cookbook published by an American. There is something quite satisfying in seeing how Hopkinson’s story details bring Amelia back to life.

Hopkinson sprinkles plays on words related to cooking and baking throughout the book that will delight both children and the adults who will surely be reading this story to them repeatedly. Children will love scanning all the activity going on in the background of Potter’s illustrations, whose style mimics the flat perspective of early Colonial art.

Although Hopkinson and Potter might have included some diversity in other characters who might have interacted with Amelia in real life, they offer us this one thin “slice” of time beautifully.

Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for offering me an early read of these titles. For other stops on the Hopkinson Double Blog Tour, please check deborahhopkinson.com

 

 

How Not to Respond to Mistakes

biasFor the third or fourth time over the last year and a half, a children’s or YA title has been the center of a controversial discussion regarding whether or not its publication respects or disregards authentic diverse voices in children’s literature.

The publication of two picture books, A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Scholastic) and A Fine Dessert (Random House) raised serious questions as to how our country’s horrific institutionalized legacy of slavery could be depicted with such lighthearted casualness. (Follow my embedded links for more details on the particular books mentioned.)

Then, less than two weeks after its publication, Scholastic pulled A Birthday Cake from circulation, in a move that was both lauded and questioned. And while A Fine Dessert  is still available on bookstore shelves and in libraries, its author subsequently apologized for her racial insensitivity in a comment post after the blog site “Reading While White” published an essay on the book.

This was followed in July by a frantic internet discussion surrounding the negative tropes evoked by the word “tribe” and illustrations of kids with feathers in their hair playing in trees in There is a Tribe of Kids (Macmillan), a debate well-summarized by Betsy Bird on her Fuse8 blog.

The most recent entry into the fray involves Candlewick Press’s decision to postpone the August release of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s YA novel, When We Was Fierce. Early reviews of the book generated intense pushback from writers and bloggers of color due to what many deemed stereotypical characterizations and the invented dialect the author created, which for many rang false and raised the question why it was even necessary since the novel’s characters were members of a living community.

All of these books received favorable and in some cases, starred, literary reviews in the mainstream media, and I spent a bit of time reading and trying to understand the depth and breath of the discussions swirling around them. I’ve been interested for some time now in supporting diversity in children’s literature, both as an ally and in my own writing. I live in a diverse world and in my books with multiple protagonists, there are characters from diverse backgrounds. Yet as a White writer, who grew up in a position of privilege, I knew that my own inherent biases always needed to be taken into consideration. As I wrote in a recent essay for the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity blog, good intentions mean nothing because intentions are conscious. Biases are unconscious.

Yet as I read through all the blogs and posted comments, I began to noticed two common responses cropping up repeatedly. Interestingly, the writers tended to qualify their remarks, claiming to be supportive of members of marginalized communities and their general objections to the books mentioned. However, their responses, I believe, are just another way that we who are in positions of privilege try, either consciously or unconsciously, to tilt and reframe the complex discussion around supporting diversity in publishing.

Censorship
The first common refrain was the warning call that pulling books off the market because a particular group found them offensive was a form of censorship, and that the power of free speech needed to be defended at all costs. In fact, the situations noted above are not examples of censorship at all. Censorship is the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts or refusing to make the book, movie, speech etc inaccessible to others because of it. The books discussed in these threads are examples of a very different case, where a business decision was made by the publisher to pull or postpone its own book. To be fair, part of the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that since the books were pre-released for reviews, the content had been read by some but was now inaccessible to others.

Tone-Policing
The second common reaction was tone-policing.This was a more worrisome pattern I saw repeated in response to the legitimate hurt generated for many in communities of color by the privileged. The problem with tone-policing is that it’s the ultimate flipping of an issue. It derails the real argument, and shifts the focus of the conversation away from an ill-conceived decision by someone in a position of power and privilege to the respondent and their reaction. It’s a way of not taking responsibility for your own mistakes while at the same time dismissing another person’s objection by framing it as emotional, angry and therefore irrational. Intentionally or not, it also moves the discussion away from the original oppressive behavior and once again, blames the “other” because they aren’t nice enough or polite enough to voice their protests in a way that can be taken seriously.

But you know what? Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. The mistakes that the publishing industry continues to commit makes people angry. And sometimes, anger is what has to happen in order to bring about real change.

Where’s Your Power?

tumblr_inline_nbagwqCPUh1s70xgvI’m pleased to have been invited to contribute to the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity blog, an initiative of the Children’s Book Council’s commitment to promoting diverse voices in literature for young people. CBC Diversity believes that all children deserve to see their world reflected in the books they read.

You can read my essay, “Where’s Your Power?” on strategies for finding ways to support diversity in children’s lit here.

 

Adventures and Misadventures: Q & A with Yi Shun Lai

So glad today to post a few Q&A’s from an interview I did with Yi Shun Lai, a super special writer and fellow alum of the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. Yi Shun is currently on a book tour for her newly released debut fiction title, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, published by Shade Mountain Press. Shade Mountain’s mission is to publish “literature by women, especially women of color, women with disabilities, women from working-class backgrounds, and lesbian/bisexual/queer women.”

A little background: Marty Wu, the book’s protagonist, is a compulsive reader of advice manuals, who dreams of presenting herself as a poised young advertising professional. Instead she trips over her own feet and blurts out inappropriate comments. The bulk of her brain matter, she decides, consists of gerbils “spinning madly in alternating directions.” After a career meltdown that sends her ricocheting between the stress of New York and the warmth of supportive relatives in Taiwan, she faces one domestic drama after another, including a formidable mother who’s impossible to please, an annoyingly successful and well-adjusted brother, and surprising family secrets that pop up just when she doesn’t want to deal with them.

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Here’s our chat:

Sharon: Marty, your book’s protagonist, tells us her story thru diary entries. Perhaps because of the form and the nature of Marty’s misadventures, there have been the inevitable comparisons to Bridget Jones Diary. Can you tell us why you chose that form and how that influenced your writing of the story?

Yi Shun: It happened in the most organic of fashions and it was by no means an easy or quick route. I messed around with a few different forms: from first person to third to first again, until finally settling into epistolary form. In the end, it was the character herself who demanded it. The voice itself is a key part of what I believe, ultimately, is a re-telling of the American success story. While I was writing, I imagined that the voices of the young women who were the stereotypical “good girls” of any culture would be a lot louder than we were told or imagined. That voice had to speak for itself. Therefore, diary.

Sharon: You were born in Taiwan and raised in American, like Marty. Are there elements of Marty’s story that relate to your own life?

Yi Shun: Oh, sure. Certainly the overarching themes and philosophy of the story relate. And when I was a lot younger, I was convinced that my experiences were unique. Oh, was I wrong. So although the book reflects some of my experiences, it also draws from so much of what I have been told, and witnessed. A book that’s ostensibly about one culture also resonates with others. Writing and reading are beautiful things that way: they presents opportunities to connect with other cultures.

Sharon: How much did Marty’s bi-cultural background play into her personality? Are there parts of her make-up that you see as typically Taiwanese or typically American?

Yi Shun:
 At this stage in her life, Marty would say that who she is comprises much of how she was raised. Her quick tongue, I think, is biologically inherited. But her confusion is entirely a product of her bicultural upbringing. The answer to your question though is, a lot. Marty thinks she’s uniquely damaged because of her bicultural background, so we’ll respect that, even if she’s not unique in this regard, or not even particularly damaged in the grand scheme of things. She’d also say that her bounce-back mentality is stereotypically American, and that her need to please her parental unit is stereotypically Taiwanese. But I think we, as readers, can see that the things she’s struggling with are more human than they are any one particular ethnicity.

Sharon: You do a great job of telling a serious story with humor, which I found particularly important in the scenes between Marty and her critical-bordering-on-abusive mother. Was that a challenge, finding a good balance when you were writing?

Yi Shun: Yes. Someone asked me recently what I’m most proud of in this book. I hadn’t ever thought about it earlier, but now that I’ve had a chance to consider, I think it’s exactly what you posit above: Trying to show everyone a glimpse of what this alternate American experience could be like, while preserving Marty’s voice.

Sharon: This one is for all the writers out there. How long was this idea simmering before you felt was ready to start submitting to agents or editors?

Yi Shun: Oh, gosh, a long, long time. I first started thinking about what it means to be American when I was in college, and started thinking more critically about my experiences—what they meant, and whether or not it was worth it to try and tell this story. But it wasn’t until a long time after that when I started thinking that a novel would be the right way to tell this story. Once I started writing the novel, I think it was a long, cool decade before it got published.

Sharon: Can you share what your working on now?

Yi Shun: With pleasure! I’m working on a novel that involves some time travel: and Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever. I’m pretty excited about this project…but first, there’s marketing, and book promotion, and so many more other readers and writers to meet.

Thanks Yi Shun!
You can learn more about Yi Shun’s life and writing at her website The Good Dirt or on Twitter @gooddirt