Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sinking nails into the edge of the boat

My husband is watching this fishing show on TV where the guy has put nails around the edge of his boat to hold the different fishing lines. Apparently the nails keep the lines separate, keep them from getting tangled. My husband is impressed with this idea.

I've probably got it wrong, but it makes me think about writing. Writing is like fishing, after all. You drop in a hook, jiggle it around a bit. Let it sit. Come back to check, jiggle it some more. And yet some more. And, if you're lucky, pretty soon you'll be fighting the legendary big one.

You will be relentless, tough, focused---maybe even graceful---engaged in this dance with this fish.

Me? I'm with the guy on the fishing show. I like to have a bunch of story lines out at once. I'm not sure it would be a smart idea to secure them with nails though. Some of these story fish are very skittish. They only come when you pretend you're not interested, when you act like you're looking the other way, thinking of somethings else, ignoring them. If you turn to look too quickly, too soon, they disappear into the deep water, or dart off into the rocky part by the shore where you lose lures trying to catch them. You can't nail them down.

Actually, maybe it would be good to sink those nails into the writing boat. Then you could turn your back and feign disinterest. Which means I have driven this metaphor into a dangerously shallow water because what, exactly, is the craft equivalent for writers to "sinking nails into the edge of the boat?"

And the bigger question: why am I comparing writing to fishing? I don't even like to fish although I never admitted this to my big brother, Dave, who left us a little over a year ago. Dave used to take me out in the boat with him and basically plant fish on the end of my line.

Somewhere an old high school boyfriend has a photo of me as a five year old, holding a pike as tall as my little self. The one Dave always bragged about. I never did get that photo back.

Hey, maybe I was good at fishing and maybe this means I should be good at story fishing. Okay, it's a long shot. And if I am going to continue with this frivolity, I will have to go through the whole story equivalent of cleaning the fish and cooking it in a way that will make even non fish lovers say, "hey, this is good!"

Okay. I'd say that's the sound of the buzzer:  Time's up. Back to work.

Oh. But wait. It really is amazing how one can struggle and struggle with something and then, with just one little change in the way you hold the rod, you are able, suddenly, to land the fish. Okay, never mind. That's silly. It's probably not even true about fishing. But it is true about writing and I have had some of those experiences this very week so I am happy.

For real now.  Gone . . .

. . . fishing.

(Sorry. Couldn't help myself.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Addendum to Arizona

CNN blogged about it. I had to quit reading the comments. Some where just too hateful. Some of these uber-Americans need to take a look at American history and acknowledge it for what it is. There are some great and inspirational things in our history, but the basis of our claims are, well, pretty shaky.

Two students of mine--adult teachers--were chatting before class a while back. They were talking about immigration and expressing the, "they should all just go back to Mexico" perspective. I smiled at them and said, "I bet you two are grateful that they didn't think that way about your great grandparents."

One looked at me shocked. "Mine immigrated legally," he said, highly offended.

"Legal according to whose law?" I asked.

It is not a matter of debate. When our great grandparents immigrated "legally," there were a bunch of people, who had already claimed this land as theirs, standing on the shore, watching. No, not a bunch of people--there were nations of peoples.

Do people really have to be reminded of this, over and over? Would it even make any difference if they were? Sadly, it would not.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

American Apartheid?

A friend of mine--Jana Harcharek, Director of Iñupiat Education for the North Slope Borough School District--sent me a link about the affront to education that's taking place in Arizona:

American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL): Teaching critical thinking in Arizona: NOT ALLOWED

"This makes me especially grateful for the work we are doing with the Iñupiaq Learning Framework," Jana wrote. Me too. I'm president of the North Slope Borough School District Board of Education and I'm proud to say that unlike the school district in Arizona, which is shutting down its Mexican American Studies Program, we are not only teaching Iñupiaq Studies, we are creating a framework that will make "Iñupiaq studies" an integral part of academics on all levels. Unlike Tucson, Arizona, which is apparently afraid to teach alternative versions of history, we are actively creating materials that tell history from an Iñupiaq perspective.

I had been following this story on Debbie Reese's blog before Jana emailed me and I was, and am, shocked. Sherman Alexie referred to it as American Apartheid. I think that pretty well sums it up.

Aside from the obvious racism, aside from the fact that the powers that be in Arizona didn't care that the program was creating academic success among its Latino students, aside from the fact that this is the kind of thing that is gutting our educational system and sapping us of our strengths--aside from all of this, I am deeply disturbed about what it says about us as a country. This is not a version of America we can be proud of. This is not the land of the free; it's the land of the oppressors and the oppressed. This is a group of people who hold the balance of power saying, "our story is the right story and all other stories will be suppressed." Whatever ugly things students in that program may have been learning about American history, these things have just been validated.

It is such a serious affront to the truths we claim to hold as self-evident that it should be front page news, nationwide. Sadly, it is not.

I know this is a buzz phrase, but honestly, it makes me think of Nazi Germany.

Which in turn makes me think of my friend Ellen Levine's book Darkness over Denmark about the Danish resistance during World War II.

And in thinking of Ellen's book makes me want to share this, from the book's wonderful introduction:
Something unusual happened in Denmark during World War II: Hitler's plans to kill the Danish Jews failed. Like many American Jews, I grew up hearing stories of how Denmark saved its Jews. That Denmark chose to protect its Jews was an astonishing and extraordinary act. What happened, and why did it happen in Denmark and nowhere else?
Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century English political philosopher and member of Parliament, wrote, "The one condition necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I believe that this is the essence of this story. Evil did not triumph in Denmark because most Danes simply refused to allow it.
 There were "good people" in countries throughout Europe who helped Jews during the Nazi period. But many more, when faced with the arrest and murder of their Jewish neighbors, said, "What could we do?" For Danes, one additional word made all the difference: "What else could we do?"
This is how I feel about the oppression happening in Arizona. One of the students, in fact, said that watching them box up those books and remove them from classrooms--which they did in the middle of class--was like looking at what had happened in Nazi Germany. We can't all just say, oh well, Arizona's a long way off and it's only one school district, only a small group of students, only one program.

No, I don't know what to do about it, either;  I'm just a writer. But as they say, the pen is mightier than the sword. And it must be true, too. Those people down there in Arizona appear to be mighty afraid of a few words in a few books. They must see those books as truly dangerous. Those books must be subversive. They are literally tearing books out of the hands of students. They are actually monitoring classrooms to make sure teachers don't secretly continue teaching those books. Those books must truly be powerful.

We must keep writing, we must keep reading and we must keep teaching those books.

In fact I'm going to put a few of them on the syllabus of the class I teach at Ilisagvik College. We're a tribal college and the Tucson Unified School District can't touch us.*

I'm also ordering a few more of those books for myself. Matt de la Pena's Mexican White Boy is about a boy negotiating the line between being Mexican and being white--This could be the story of my own kids, negotiating the line between being white and being Iñupiaq. It's time I read it....

That's what I'm doing. It's a start. What are the rest of you doing?

***Added 1/24: The decision to shut down the MAS program and pull books from classrooms has it's roots in the Arizona state legislature, which threatened to pull a significant amount of money from the district if Tuscon did not comply to their reading of the law.  What would I have done? In our district 75% of our budget goes to personnel. If we faced that kind of cut, we would have to make serious cuts to our teaching staff. I would challenge the state's interpretation of the law and seek an injunction.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On being where one belongs

I liked Melinda Moustakis' National Book Award behind the scenes advice, especially the second bit of advice:  
Find the Alaskans—they’re a friendly bunch. 
This is true. When you're traveling in the lower '48 or beyond and you run into an Alaskan it's like running into an old friend. Actually, when an Alaskan runs into another Alaskan on the road a lot of times they are old friends, or at least old acquaintances or most certainly  people who are acquainted with or somehow related to mutual old friends.

So it was great running into Melinda at the award ceremony. She was recognized by the National Book Foundation as one of the promising 5 under 35 writers and she was born in Fairbanks. I was from Barrow, was a finalist for the Foundation's National Book Award and had once lived in Fairbanks. Small world!!! We instantly had a lot to talk about. She was absolutely the only other writer in the whole room of hundreds who could relate to an experience I'd had two days earlier at a reading. I'd read a section from My Name is Not Easy that gets to the core of some fairly powerful feelings--powerful for me anyway. When I finished the reading, one young woman raised her hand.

"What's a snow machine?"

This is a snow machine, okay? In Alaska, snow machines have replaced dog teams as the accepted mode of transport in the roadless wilds. In terms of the scene I was reading, understanding this was critical. And yet the audience at Books of Wonder in NYC didn't know what a snow machine was.  

Maybe it's like, a snow blower, they thought. I had just read what was supposed to be an emotionally charged scene in which the Inupiaq narrator is mourning the loss of a way of life. The presence of the snow machine is significant and yet it's significance was lost on the audience I was reading to. They were imagining the uncle and the long lost brother roaring around on a snow blower. It wasn't actually supposed to be a humorous scene but Melinda and I had a good laugh over it.

In Whale Snow, when I compared snowflakes to cotton grass the editorial staff at the Charlesbridge office in Boston envisioned sheets or maybe t-shirts, fluttering from the sky. But that's another story.

Cotton Grass
(My granddaughter, in the upper right hand corner of this blog is holding a bouquet of it.)

So I'm an Alaskan writer. My stories and images come from the Arctic. So deeply is this embedded in me that I generally don't think of how singular the imagery is until I find myself reading my work, far from home, in a place where these images, and the world they come from, simply don't exist.

How did this happen, I wonder sometimes. How did I become an arctic writer writing of things alien to much of the world?

I came north in 1974, fresh out of college, looking for adventure. (I know, I know, this makes me really old but forget about this for a minute. It really doesn't matter.) I traveled the Alcan highway, which was not then a highway, not by any stretch of the imagination and I rode in the back of a windowless van. By the end of that trip I thought maybe I knew exactly what it felt like to cross the country in a covered wagon.

Yes, like every other white person who came to Alaska in those days, I felt like a pioneer.

When I arrived in Fairbanks, it was springtime and it really was forty below (you don't know Johnny Horton, either? Okay, never mind.) The pipeline was in full boom and Fairbanks was wild. I lived in a log cabin heated by a 55 gallon drum laid sideways to make a wood stove. The lighting system was powered by kerosine and I traveled by dog team. I worked at a log cabin Greek restaurant where one of the Greek brothers who owned the joint threw knives at the wall if we didn't pick up our orders fast enough. (Hey, maybe he was related to Melinda! I should have asked.) The patrons were rough and tumble pipeline workers on R&R who dropped hundred dollar tips like kleenex. Every night after we closed down, we had Greek feasts replete with the best mousaka you ever tasted, washed down with wine.

I had a lot of adventures in Alaska in those days, some amazing and some, to paraphrase Doug Swieteck in Okay for Now, well, some are just none of your business.

And then I went north and lived with the Eskimos.

Hey that's a great book title, don't you think?  . . . And Then I Went North to Live With the Eskimos. Actually, it was the Inupiat I went north to live with and from day one, their way of looking at the world just made sense to me.  

For a long time, though, a part of me clung to the little shred of an idea that someday I would "go home." Or at least continue on in my travels.

Then one day, something strange happened.  As my plane was landing in Barrow after a long trip, I looked out the window at the wide open tundra, red and gold and full of twisty rivers. I got off the plane, with ducks and geese flying overhead in wavering v's and went inside the terminal, where people were hugging me and saying welcome home! And I realized, suddenly, that  I really was home, in every sense of the word. It's funny how this works.

Maybe I'll write a book about it someday.

We don't think of it much, but a place and its people, its landscape and its images--these become a part of one. I remember reading Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas' poem "Snø og Grandskoq" when I was 21 and a Norwegian-American living in Norway. I recognized, in a very personal way, its impetus. I grew up in country like the country Vesaas writes of. I loved and still love this country. I knew the feeling. Here's the translated version: 

Snow and Spruce Forest  

Talk about what home is--
snow and spruce forest
is home.

From the very start
it is ours.
Before anyone has told us
that it is snow and spruce forest,
it has its place in us--
and then it's there
the whole, whole time.

Waist-high drifts
around dark trees
--it's here for us!
Mixed into our own breath.
The whole, whole time,
though no one sees it,
we have snow and spruce forest.

Yes, the hill under the snow,
and tree upon tree
as far as you gaze--
wherever we are
we find ourselves
facing this.

And have in us a promise
about coming home.
Coming home,
going out there,
bending branches,
--and feeling so it flares in you
what it is to be where you belong.

The whole, whole time,
until it's extinguished
in our inland hearts.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why this book and not that one?

I think a lot about this question. Especially when it comes to recognition and awards.

The average reader probably doesn't think much about it, but we writers do. Most people probably assume that the best books rise to the top--the survival of the fittest and all that. But of course it's not that simple. It's not even always true, strictly speaking. I mean, think about it. There are something like 20,000 children's books published a year, give or take a few thousand. No one can possibly read them all. There are a few very influential awards and reviewers. This means that there are a few people, generally well read and respected, who make the decisions about which books deserve stars, awards and recognition. Award committees generally deal with only a very small pool of books--only those that have been nominated or submitted by the publisher, the writer, a librarian...

Some writers are blessed with publishers willing to pull out all stops to make sure their books get noticed and seen in all the right places. Some are not so well favored. Some writers are pros at self promotion and know how to create avid fans on the strength of their personalities alone. Some would rather have root canals.

Laurels go to those books that manage to come to the attention of reviewers and committees through promotion of one sort or another. And yes, awards and recognition are given to well written books, but these must first be books that appeal to the taste of the individuals in positions to give them recognition.  There really is no way around this. Readers understand this, surely. How many times have you read, and been totally unimpressed, by a book that's received multiple kudos? Or adored a book that no one's noticed?

Think about what this means for books of color, if you will.

Where am I going with this? Well for one thing, I think we should all champion the books we love, especially the ones that don't receive as much attention as we think they should receive.

I just read Helen Frost's newest book, Hidden. What a beautiful cover--one that exposes our prejudices in a very subtle way over the course of the book. It's a  compelling story: a  mom goes into a quickstop to pay for gas. There's a gunshot and the little girl in the car dives to the floor, hiding. Someone gets into the car and speeds away. It's not the mom. The girl hiding is Wren. The daughter of the man driving is Darra. The two girls meet, years later at camp... I couldn't put this book down. It's taut and well written and goes to the core of things.  Here's a book able to make kids say, whoa, who knew poetry could make you bite your nails? Frost has even invented a new poetic form, ready made for teachers. Will it find it's way into schools? I don't know. It will fare better than most because of Frost's reputation.

How many good books are out there there with nothing working in their favor, promotionally speaking?

We writers  tend to worry about our books once they're published and out in the public. Our books are like our babies, after all, and we want everyone to love them. Our maternal--or paternal--instincts kick in and we want to protect them and defend them from attack but we can't. We count their stars, proudly. We view every star not given as a death toll. We've been known to spend inordinate amounts of time tracking their travels via Google searches, all of which does little to feed our writing life.

Yes, we're extremely gratified when our books receive recognitions and awards and sell well. But deep down inside, I think we all understand that a lot of what happens is happenstance. Deep down we know it would be better to ignore all of the hoopla, or lack thereof, and just keep following the whisper of the stories given us. Because in the final analysis, that's what it's all about.

Jo Knowles has posted a wonderful post on just this her blog. This resonated with me:

I want to get back to those pre-published writing days when, while in the writing mind, I was truly IN the writing mind. I wasn't thinking about what my agent or editor might think of the sentence I just wrote. I wasn't thinking about reviews. Or sales. Or best-of lists. Or snarky GoodReads.

I was thinking of story. Of character. Of words.

There was a purity to that time and I want to get it back.
Me too! For me, this means a New Year's resolution to severely curtail time on the Internet, to quit worrying about how my published books are doing, to quit taking what readers see or don't see personally--remembering that I cannot control what a reader brings to a book. And most of all, it means returning, fully, to the real work.

I think I'll start now.