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Writing Process Blog Tour

Posted on 24 May 2014 (0)

Earlier this month, on the National Writers Union book forum, I wrote that that all blog tours seemed to be expensive scams. I was mistaken: Sue Katz author of Lillian’s Last Affair, available on Amazon, responded that she was participating in a writer-organized Writing Process Blog Tour that is no scam; nor does it involve money.

A week later, Leslie Brunetta, who’d been invited by Katz to post on this tour (Katz also invited prolific writer/editor/publisher, Ken Wachsberger) and Adina Schecter to join the tour.

I of course agreed: Leslie’s quirky, essays inspire me, especially the way they spin philosophical and scientific insights together via metaphors that charm and clarify. One essay led to a book, Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging and Mating, co-authored by spider scientist Catherine L. Craig (Yale University Press).

So what am I working on?

I’m struggling right now to convey my experiences with and thoughts about anti-Semitic stereotypes. It will be the final piece for my third booklet of essays. I started the series started with What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2009) and then What Was I Thinking: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism (2012). They’re distributed by the racial justice book publisher, . www.cddbooks.com.Crandall Dostie and Douglass Books

Why do I write what I do?

Because I’m white. Because racism is a white problem. Because I grew up never talking about it, and not until the 1980s did I act to counter it.

My essay topics come out of the issues raised in the workshop I took and now co-lead in Cambridge (MA) called “White People Challenging Racism: Moving From Talk to Action.” The course galvanized me to action in every sphere of my life. It also made me look back at my life as a white person (“Growing Up Oblivious”), and explore my failures of mind, heart and deed, with angst laced with humor and, hopefully, insight.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

My essays ponder more than probe. When a question nags at me, I write to resolve it. One essay is about “aha” moments, when I’ve caught myself stereotyping. Another admits to misreading my mother’s attitudes toward eugenics, race and foster care. A third tackles the question: why read slave narratives? Others are about anti-racist jargon, nosy questions, and the power of a stare. One asks a question I continue to struggle with: as I listen intensely to others’ experiences, how can I stay honest to my own, although possibly flawed, understanding of reality?

I’m inspired by writers like Lois Mark Stalvey, who back in 1970 wrote The Education of a WASP, and more recently by Peggy McIntosh (Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack); Mab Segrest, (Memoir of a Race Traitor); Tim Wise (White Like Me), and Bernestine Singley (When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories); and most recently, by Debby Irving (Waking Up White) and Lee Mun Wah (Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say & Whites Won’t Ask About Racism).

How does my writing process work?

My ideas most often come to me in the midst of everyday life: as I drive in traffic that’s going 20 mph over the speed limit, as I race around a court with my racquet, pursing a ball, or as I stare into space at a noisy café. I jot down my idea fragments, and when enough snippets accumulate around a particular topic, like iron filings to a magnet, I freewrite. Then quickly, before my penciled scribbles become unintelligible, I type out my gangly sentences, ironing them out as I go. Then I revise. But since, in my view, cut-and-paste editing doesn’t give an essay a chance to “regrow” and deepen, I try to type each draft from the start. I never know how an essay will end: I write to find out.

Now, I hand off this blog tour to two writers I want you to know about:

Lisa Braxton is a kindred essay writer. I met her at a Meet the Agent event that my National Writers Union Boston Chapter co-sponsored with the Women’s National Book Association, and saw that she writes the kind of relationship essays worthy of The New York Times’ Modern Love column. We swapped essays via email and liked our mutual no-nonsense feedback. We’ve continued to run our essays past each other, and offer submission ideas. You can read some of her essays and short stories at www.lisabraxton.org. On her blog, she shares writer’s life experiences (with embedded advice), from planning a book party, to being part of a book club, to holding a book signing, to promoting your work, to the importance having a writing space of your own. Thanks to Lisa, I’ve learned about the indie bookstore, Frugal Books in Roxbury.

Terry Farish writes fiction for adults, young adults, and children. Her most recent book, The Good Braider, is written in free verse and in the voice of a Sudanese girl, but reads like a dramatic novel. Terry, who is white, has a long-term relationship with the Sudanese community in Portland (ME), and bases her story on their oral histories. “The Sudanese don’t talk about trauma, but I was a witness to it, and wrote this girl’s story as a way to honor her life.” She also produced a bilingual folktale, The Story of a Pumpkin, with Nepali-speaking refugees from Bhutan, and her next book will be a picture book about a Dominican family. Her blog www.terryfarish.com shows her commitment to community. On it, she invites students to write “the next chapter” to The Good Braider. She recommends other writers of “verse novels.” She also writes for the social justice and children’s literature blog, www.thepiratetree.com.

Speaking of community, participating in the Writing Process Blog Tour has made me feel part of a community of writers willing to share what, why and how we write, in the spirit of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” I now pass that pleasure on to Lisa and to Terry.

My 2nd booklet on race-related essays is out

Posted on 23 October 2012 (262)

My 2nd booklet of personal essays, What Was I Thinking? Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism is just out and available from my distributor. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books sells it for $8.95 at www.cddbooks.com. In them, I re-examine my high school textbook; view (and misjudge) my mother’s racial views, and learn how to show cultural respect. I also struggle to “see” institutional racism, rebel against the current “bloodlines” craze, and reconcile myself to anti-racist jargon. A final chapter gives capsule reviews of 18 new books that I recommend to anyone concerned about racial justice. And if you missed my first booklet, What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2010), it’s also available at www.cddbooks.com. [...]

Lillian’s Last Affair – book review

Posted on 25 May 2014 (0)

The characters in Sue Katz’ Lillian’s Last Affair and Other Stories, may be 65+ in age, but after reading these six stories (www.suekatz.com), you’ll never again assume that you know what a “little old lady” is thinking or doing. These fictional characters face challenges anyone may encounter, from gold-digging lotharios to neighbors who block shared hallways, plus challenges that mostly come with age: ingrown toenails, chemo, widowhood, arthritis, Meals on Wheels, and grandchildren you’re expected to devote yourself to, but which one character sees “small people trying to climb up and colonize her.” Katz’s characters are also always aware of class: from how easy it can be for a rich woman to divorce a boring husband, to sympathy for the tough job of a driver given a lousy van to transport seniors. These women aren’t simple-minded: as one says, “Life never gives you a chance to feel one pure emotion at a time.” One character’s annoyance at her partner’s habits vies with distaste or her own petty irritation. They may say “please” but think fuck you” when those in power patronize or ignore them. They value honesty (“there was plenty of chatter, mind you, just no candor”) and are not above engaging in power games. They also often encounter unexpected lust: one gets “shivery and hot” at a mere pat on the hand. Being from a generation that rarely talk about experiences involving their “privates,” they can be surprised by who and what turns them on. The six stories manage to cover a variety of sexual proclivities, and the sexual scenes are wonderfully elliptical (“he zeroed straight to the most sensitive crevices”) Sue Katz, as a seniors dance and exercise teacher, knows what seniors are capable of, and lets it all hang out in these six delicious stories.

Misremembering Dr. King

Posted on 18 May 2014 (0)

Jennifer J. Yanco’s Misremembering Dr. King – Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is out from Indiana University Press. Don’t be scared off by her academic publisher: Yanco writes in clear, non-jargon language how “we” (she includes herself) so easily forget Dr. King’s core beliefs. It’s easy for us, she says, to remember Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience, which justice movements have used ever since. But it’s harder to remember [...]

Read This Memoir on Understanding Whiteness

Posted on 28 February 2014 (55)

If you’ve been enlightened by Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, or intrigued by my white privilege-related essays, do read Debby Irving’s memoir, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, just out in 2014. The book’s cover is of a happy little girl at dinner, surrounded by silver, crystal, and gauzy curtains. The word WHITE stretches across the width of the book’s cover; the subtitle makes clear that although race isn’t real, biologically, the stories we tell ourselves about “race” result in powerful and damaging realities. Irving looks back at incidents in her life from age five on, as a way to understand her own race and class privileges, of which she was unaware until well into her 40s. When she did learn about race and class privilege, she didn’t do so entirely on her own. Throughout her memoir, she acknowledges the range of people she learned from, and profiles each in the mentor section of her website, www.debbyirving.com. She’s frank about her stereotyped thoughts; even as an adult she catches herself feeling mistrustful of her new chiropractor when she sees that he is a person of color. She examines her racial and class privilege in every area of her life but also learns that, since “nearly all of my thoughts are born of the culture in which racism is embedded,” it makes no sense to wallow in guilt. Irving manages to be witty about her own shortcomings, including missteps in speaking up against another’s racism: “I got all puffy and angry like I thought an anti-racist activist should.” As for class privilege, she learns most from her husband Bruce: his “talking to the nuns” story is particularly both funny and apt. She’s a great story teller, writing as if she’s talking directly to you. Her metaphors are as illuminating as Peggy McIntosh’s image of an invisible backpack full of unearned privileges, which white people carry wherever they go. Irving compares her years-long avoidance of authentic interaction with people of color to the electrical fencing systems people use to “zap” their dogs to train them to stay in the yard. “For decades the racially charged Zap sent me scampering back to my comfort zone. Rather than examining the source of the social tension I felt around people of color, I retreated to my social comfort zone – other white people.” I couldn’t put her book down because her stories made me think about similar incidents in my life. She ends each chapter with questions, in effect, asking the reader: “I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours.”

Why Read Slave Narratives?

Posted on 01 October 2013 (329)

I bring an array of books to the People Challenging Racism class I co-lead, offering to loan them during the semester. These books include memoirs by formerly enslaved men and women. But that none of the students – young, old, white or of color – asks to borrow any of these personal accounts of bondage.

I understand their reluctance: I wouldn’t have either, until recently. Yes, I’d read about slavery. But I’d never considered going to the source: the wide range of slave narratives available both in books and online.

My avoidance dates back decades, to the Roots mini-series. I couldn’t watch more than the initial show, so appalled was I by the graphic scenes of whippings, and by a horrific punishment I could never have imagined: metal grills clamped over slaves’ faces that allowed them to neither talk nor eat.

I had also turned away from accounts of the Holocaust. In both cases, I feared that they’d be solely about bondsmen and bondswomen stripped of dignity, agency, and humanity.

My change of heart and mind started with a plaque I noticed in front of a house in my neighborhood in Cambridge (MA). Installed as part of my city’s new African American Heritage Trail, it marked the home of Harriett Jacobs, who, more than 150 years ago, self-published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, a memoir of her enslavement, escape, and life as an emancipated woman.

As a fellow writer, I was intrigued. So I put my qualms aside, and read Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, and then a dozen other books penned by men and women who had endured bondage.

I found that yes, they describe the horror of forced labor, rape, hunger, thirst, 16-hour workdays, illiteracy, and brutality. But they’re also a testament to endurance and resistance.

Jacobs wrote about being sexually harassed by her owner, a common oppression that was rarely acknowledged. It caused her to flee, hiding in the nearby home of her emancipated grandmother. For seven years, she stayed in its attic crawl space, watching her children at play, and writing decoy letters to be conveyed to New York City and re-mailed back South so that her master would think she’d reached a free state. She eventually did escape by boat to the North, although her owners continued to pursue her.

The wives of slave owners come off little better than their husbands in these “fugitive slave” memoirs. Jacobs was regularly beaten by her master’s wife, who blamed her simply for being the object of her husband’s lust. Wives often insisted that children born of such unions be sold to far away plantations. Many would use imagined infractions as an excuse to whip any slave their husbands forced into sex.

Each man or woman who owned slaves had a choice to treat them well or harshly. Frederick Douglass learned a few letters of the alphabet from his mistress until her husband told her to stop. Douglass then turned to Baltimore street urchins, trading pieces of bread for lessons and using Tom Sawyer-worthy stratagems. He’d declare: “I can write better than you can” and then copy whatever words they wrote down.

To my surprise, enslaved people not only found ways to educate themselves, they also often boldly fought back against abuse, despite the risk. Douglass, after resisting a severe whipping by a “slave breaker” overseer, bested his oppressor in a two-hour struggle and was never beaten again. The experience, he wrote, “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.”
His memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, is now considered an American classic.

Most slave narratives, I discovered, are not only testaments to resistance, they’re also gripping, even thrilling, accounts of strategically brilliant escapes. Light-skinned Elizabeth Craft disguised herself a white man and traveled by rail with her “slave” – actually, her darker skinned husband. She wrapped her arm in bandages to avoid signing her name, since she could neither read nor write. Henry Brown escaped slavery by arranging to be crated up and shipped, by wagon, railroad, and steamboat, to Philadelphia. His Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, was published in 1949. The next year, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act legalized slave-catching in free states. To escape bounty hunters, he fled to England, where he republished his book and gave hundreds of anti-slavery lectures.

One of the plethora of largely unread slave narratives is sure to be seen, if not read, by mainstream American. Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years A Slave came out as a movie in 2013. Northrop was a free Black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY — educated, employed, and an accomplished violinist – when two white men persuaded him to join them on an entertainment tour and helped him secure papers to certify him as a free black man. Northrup woke one day without those papers, chained in a slave pen, having been drugged and delivered to a slave trader. Northrup’s insistence that he was a free man was met with a flogging that nearly killed him. Sold at an auction block within sight of the White House, he spent the next 12 years abused by a series of plantation owners. His family searched for him fruitlessly: the slave trader had changed his name to “Platt” to deceive anyone trying to find and free him.

The man who finally did free him was a white Southerner who opposed slavery. He helped Northrup send letters to Northerners to confirm his status as a free man, and showed up one day with a sheriff to free him. Reunited with his family, Northrup became a fervent abolitionist, giving talks about his experience throughout the Northeast to gain support for the movement.

Why hadn’t I known about enslaved people’s resistance, or about the thousands of slaves who managed to escape? Why had I absorbed only their victimhood? Back in the 1950s, most textbooks focused on the politics and economics of slavery, ignoring the human cost. I grew up viewing slaves as degraded by their experience ala Gone with the Wind, just as I viewed Jews as compliant when herded into boxcars and gassed in ovens.

Just after reading Northrup’s harrowing tale, I read similarly eye-opening accounts of Holocaust survivors, including A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. Caroline Moorehead documents how ordinary women in concentration camps resisted their captors and devised ways to help each other survive. They made paste that would put color in an ill woman’s face so she wouldn’t be “selected” for execution. They documented the Nazi’s atrocities on stolen paper that they hid in cracks between bunks. One woman, assigned to help with an experiment on the uterus of a Jewish woman, instead drugged her, reported that she was dead, and smuggled her into another camp. Assigned to forced labor in munitions factories, they committed small acts of sabotage, loosening screws, mixing salt into grease, dropping fragile equipment, and burning out motors: “We did all we could to be “intelligently stupid.”

Enslaved people resisted in parallel ways. They “forgot” to put out fires, sabotaged equipment, feigned illness, ran away for weeks — returning only when guaranteed better treatment. Some resorted to mutilating themselves, to suicide, or to killing their children to save them from life in bondage.

Accounts of survivors of both slavery and the Holocaust are testaments to the dignity and agency of people deemed less than human. “Those who were defined by law and custom as less than human literally wrote themselves into human existence,” writes scholar Richard Newman. We need these stories to balance our images of victims with counter images of resilience and resistance. And to know what forms of resistance we, too, are capable of, when humanity requires it in the face of inhumanity.