The Endurance of the Raven

This year Raven Chronicles, the literary journal based in Seattle that publishes work reflective of the cultural diversity of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, turns twenty-three. To mark this milestone, there will be a panel at the 2014 AWP Conference February 26-March 1 held this year in Seattle at the Washington State Convention Center. The panel will consist of Raven contributors Anna Balint, Matt Briggs, Carletta Carrington Wilson, and me. Kathleen Alcalá, who along with Phoebe Bosché helped found the journal, will moderate. In addition to moderating the panel on Thursday, February 27, Kathleen will be honored that evening by Con Tinta, a Chicano/Latino Writers’ Collective.

Kathleen answered a few questions about the history and mission of Raven Chronicles.

1. What was the inspiration for starting the magazine and how did you go about it?

In 1990 or so, Phoebe Bosché, Phil Red Eagle and I were each asked to guest edit different issues of the Seattle Arts Commission newsletter. I remember that Phil and I collaborated. We said, “Why do multicultural issues of a newsletter have to be something occasional and ‘special’? After all, we are multi-culti all the time. Let’s find a barn and put on a show!” So Phil introduced me to Phoebe, who had worked on Skyviews, a poetry publication.

2. Have there been any major changes in the mission or philosophy of the magazine over the years?

The initial description was “The Raven Chronicles—a magazine of multicultural art, literature, and the spoken word.” At some point, mc was dropped as being too obvious. But it took a long time for us to establish that it was for people to speak from and about their own backgrounds, as opposed to people returning from their visits overseas and writing stories from the POV of other ethnicities and cultures. We sought out people with interesting stories and interviewed them, if we had to, like Vi Hilbert, Alfredo Arreguín, and Isaac Maimon. There are stories all around us, and people just waiting to share them.

But the word “Chronicles” was important, too, as media was just starting to move online, and we thought the shape and format might adapt to that as well. As a result, Raven has had an online presence as well as its print form for many years. The next issue will incorporate sound as part of the chronicle.

3. What have you been most proud of about the magazine?

We have been the first to publish a number of writers who went on to fame and fortune, or at least the publication of full-length books. We also pay a bit, and many contributors write back to say that it is the first time they have been paid for their work. It is important to working class people to be able to show others that writing is real work, and should be compensated. Mostly, I’m proud of the range and quality of the work we have published, and the very accessible format. Many of these voices would never have been heard outside of Raven.

4. Publishing a magazine is hard work. What has kept it and you going for 23 years?

I give 99 percent of the credit to Phoebe, who has been managing editor for many years. Phil left to pursue other projects at least ten years ago. He is now involved in the Canoe Journey, an ongoing reclamation of heritage by NW Native American groups. I consider that a part of the Raven Chronicles, too, in its own way. We have a group of writers who serve as the board, and a higher profile advisory board. In a way, it functions as a collective, but Phoebe writes the grants and is diligent about proofing and copy editing.

We decided early on that we would not continue to publish if the magazine could not be a top-notch endeavor—no cheap paper or shoddy work. We have been fortunate to use art by the best of the best artists in the NW and beyond. The text and art have always been complementary, and Phoebe’s partner, Scott Martin, has contributed much skill over the years as a graphic artist and designer.

5. What changes do you see for the future for Raven Chronicles?

I think Phoebe and Scott are finally getting tired. It is an amazing amount of work. It might be time for Raven to take another form. Maybe a cupcake shop, or an advice column for lonely hearts. Seriously, we hope the next generation is ready to step in and produce the next series of chronicles. It has been a privilege to work with so many writers and artists over the years.

Posted in On Publishing, On Writing, People

Melancholy, Wonder, and Other Moments of Deep Feeling—Three Books to Immerse Yourself In

Like many of you, I have stacks of to-read books. Often, I’m reading more than one at a time. When I finish one, I might remember to add it to my Goodreads list. Once in a while, I feel organized enough to jot down a few thoughts about a book or three—such as these I recently read. I also contacted each author and asked a single question about her book or her writing in general. Each came back with a thoughtful, beautifully articulated response.

Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapters Books, 2013), stories by Nina McConigley

This is a skillful and perceptive collection of stories. I’d previously read a couple of them when they were first published in journals, but it was a pleasure to read them again. In “Curating Your Life,” McConigley captures my own experience of being a brown American, that otherness or in-between-ness that comes with that weird dichotomy of cultural whiteness (a mostly English-speaking household, and mostly American food, TV, and music) and physical not-whiteness. When that other takes her bits and pieces of cultural ethnicity to “discover her roots” in the homeland of her parents, it’s a whole new side of otherness that is exposed.

Questions of who we are and where we belong are asked by all the characters, whether brown, white, recent immigrant or old-timer, in these stories set mostly in Wyoming. There are characters such as Delia in “Reserve Champion” and Sindu in “Dot and Feather” who try to lay claim to something even if it’s not theirs to own. In “White Wedding,” the narrator learns how to dress her dying mother in a sari, learns the art of folding it when packing it away. The Wyoming landscape—the light, the prairie, the smell of sage—is a subtly compelling presence throughout the collection.

These well-made stories are packaged in a very pretty, well-made book. A treat to hold and read, and keep on your bookshelf.

Here’s the question I asked Nina:

Kevin Wilson, the author of The Family Fang, said this about you: “Like the best writers, she knows the exact moment to let wildness rush into the story and ruin us.” I completely agree with this assessment. Can you talk about how you know that moment?

Here’s Nina’s response:

“It’s funny, but for me, I often write the end of a story first. So, I think about that ‘ruining’ moment. And then I try to go back and earn it. Sometimes, it doesn’t always work, and sometimes the ending, that moment, will change, and I will see a different outcome emerge. But for the most part, I always when thinking about a story, think of the end, what I want the reader to take away, first. It’s just always a puzzle on how to get there. Almost like knowing your destination, but then trying to figure out what route to take.

I realize this might be a backward way to write, but again for me, it weirdly works. I’m always thinking when I am writing—you have to earn that ending!”

Blood Orange (Willow Books, 2013), poems by Angela Narciso Torres

Torres’s poems in this collection deal with the elusive and the ephemeral—fleeting moments of connection that are shared and repeated among generations of a family. She describes the difficulty of letting go in “Lucky,” and the necessity of letting go in “Elegy with Roller Skates.” And then there is the impossibility of hanging on in “Thursday, After Dinner at L’amie Donia: …starting/ at the beginning doesn’t help me to remember.

In “Waiting for my Father,” a girl reflects on her place in the larger world and also her place in her father’s world as she waits for him to finish his work in a hospital lab that houses among other things, specimens of a human fetus and a microscope that reveals a hidden and complex universe of life, illness, and death.

Torres’s language is clean and fluid, the better to make her images shimmer.

In the three short poems from “Postcards from Bohol,” Torres animates postcard perfect images that poke a hole in your heart with a simple, telling movement such as when “small crabs/fine-pencil disappearing tracks” or when a starfish is abandoned by the tide “we huddle around him/our cheeks flushed with twilight.”

Here’s the question I asked Angela:

Those beautiful and sad fleeting moments between then and now, before and after—those moments that will never come again—how much are they influenced by your having lived in two countries, experienced two cultures?

Here’s Angela’s response:

“I was born in Brooklyn during the years my parents were medical residents there, then was moved back to Manila shortly after, as an infant. My older siblings brought home memories of a life in Brooklyn that I only knew through photographs or from stories my family told. So there’s a whole chapter of our family life that I can only claim by what I’ve heard. We spoke English at home and learned Tagalog in school, though my parents and extended family spoke in the native tongue to teach other. In retrospect, these disconnects (both my not having experienced the years in Brooklyn before my birth, and grappling with two languages in navigating my world) could in part explain why I grew up feeling “on the fringe of things” even in my Manila home of 23 years. I was an observer, looking in from the outside.

“Over the years I’ve found this observer stance to be very useful, as a writer. Moving to America for graduate studies as a young adult and eventually to settle only served to reinforce that stance. Among other things, it afforded me the long perspective—that backward glance that paradoxically considers more closely what was left behind. Not just the landscape, but the people, relationships, entire stages of my development. Poetry became a way to capture and preserve the sensory experiences, the moments of deep feeling, the beauty and brokenness of that lost world. As one poet said, as humans, we love what is like us—what is fragile, breakable, and will be lost. Poetry allowed me to recreate my narrative history, filling in the gaps where memory failed.

“When I started writing poetry in earnest as an adult, I was also a mother of young children. Watching them move swiftly through the ages and stages sharpened further that sense of transience, and hence, the urgency to record. Poetry provided a space where I could circumscribe a shifting sense of self and world. Writing was a way to craft, understand, and circumscribe an identity that included all the worlds I inhabited (inner and outer, homeland and adopted land, past and present). It was a pathway toward that larger world in which we come to understand what it means to be human.”

Long Way Through Ruin (Blue Begonia Press, 2013), poems by Kathryn Hunt

In Hunt’s collection, the natural world is ever present—in a well-tended garden, a spider web on the porch, the wind and dry hills of Wyoming, the trees and rain of the Pacific Northwest. In the interstices of nature, which is sometimes indifferent, sometimes a solace, lie the sorrows and losses and joys of the human heart which Hunt exposes in powerfully subtle ways.

In one of my favorite poems in the book, “My Mother and I Drive the Oregon Coast, 1976,” mother and daughter exchange caretaking gestures:

I buttoned the top button
of her sweater,

she pulled down the bill
of my cap,

At first glance, these gestures seem simple enough, but as I read these lines, something bubbles up through the language that makes me see the “buttoning up” as a closing off and the “pulling down” as a covering up or inhibiting. Later in the poem, this sensation of a beautiful and painful opposition is confirmed when the words fury and love appear in the same line.

These poems of the complexity of family and the mysteries of landscape make you see and hear and taste. They make you hurt and they make you glad to be alive.

Here’s the question I asked Kathryn:

Your bio begins with this: Kathryn Hunt lives in Port Townsend, Washington on the coast of the Salish Sea. There’s something poetic in that line. How does living where you live create the psychological and emotional space for you to make your art?

Here’s Kathryn’s response:

“Douglas firs, these great expanses of water, the cold wind, my garden: They call me from my usual preoccupations and worries to return to this world, with all of its melancholy and wonder, and to meet whatever is offered, whatever is right there. That can happen anywhere, of course—on a city street, putting a child to bed, on a mountain trail—but living near the sea, for me, and having my hands in the soil, and living amid a hundred shades of green, has somehow nourished me and my work, though I’d be hard-pressed to say just how. Perhaps this place may allow me to enter the world in some way that satisfies a deep yearning for intimacy and enables me to hold and consider questions about the existence of the sacred in this appalling and gorgeous world of ours, if only because I often fall asleep to the fevered calls of coyotes and wake with the gray haze of the coast tangled in my dreams.”

Now that these books have moved off my to-read list, they are officially on my highly-recommend list. Lose (and find) yourself in language and story in these authors’ exploration of self and the world.

Posted in On Writing, People

Thanks to Places and People in 2013

It was a fun year for me. I saw old friends and met new ones. I learned new things. I got older and, if not wiser, maybe more reflective. Here are my thanks to some of the people and places that made the year memorable.

San Francisco – April

Thanks to Heyday Books for including my essay, first published in Kartika Review in 2012, in New California Writing, Kartika Review 2013. It gave me a reason to visit San Francisco to participate in the book launch reading at the California Historical Society. I had the pleasure of spending some time with writer and activist Elaine Elinson before the reading. After the reading, I had Thai food with the marvelous Marianne Villanueva. She’s funny and smart, and conversations with her will make your head spin, so adroit is her mind. I also got to see my friend, the innovative writer Anne Germanacos, whose second book Tribute comes out next spring. We walked the Presidio and then ate at a Turkish restaurant. Yes, delicious food—Turkish, Thai, and organic and locally grown California cuisine at The Plant—was one of the highlights of my trip. Here’s a post about that trip.

Indianola, Washington – May

Thanks to the book group in Indianola who read my novel and invited me to speak at their meeting on a beautiful May afternoon—a gorgeous day for a ferry ride and a drive on roads bounded by woods. I enjoyed these smart, lovely readers ranging in age from 66 to 92, each with her own wonderful story to tell. I wrote about my trip to Indianola here.

Whidbey Island – May, June, and August

I visited beautiful Whidbey Island several times this year thanks to Hedgebrook-related events. In late May, I attended Vortext, the annual weekend salon for women writers, and wrote about those three days of inspiration, camaraderie, and creativity here.

In June I read at Anchor Books with Hedgebook sister Allison Green who writes killer essays, including those on her blog.

Thanks to a Hedgebrook alumna residency in August, I added a couple of new chapters to the draft of my new novel. And a week later at the Hedgebrook reunion, I reveled in the company of Hedgebrook alumnae from over the past twenty-five years, including newfound friend Thelma de Castro, founder of San Diego Playwrights. I wrote about the Hedgebrook reunion and all of its radical wonder here.

Phinney Neighborhood Center – June

It was a gorgeous summer in Seattle, and I turned sixty at the beginning of it on June 21. I had a party with entertainment by marvelous magician (and writer) Maritess Zurbano and passionate singer/activist Jacqui Larrainzar. We danced, we hula hooped, we laughed. Thanks to all who celebrated with me.

Taos – July

Thanks to the Taos Summer Writers Conference for a great week of workshops, readings and excursions. In the mornings after yoga or a run, I boarded a conference shuttle to see the local sights such as Taos Pueblo, the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Afternoons were spent in a workshop led by the wonderful Robert Boswell. For a week that nicely balances the serious pursuit of writing and an appreciation of the local history and landscape, go to this conference. Here’s more about that trip.

San Diego – October

Thanks to Jennifer Derilo and Henry Aronson who invited me to read and be part of a panel at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA and also to read and teach a workshop at the San Diego FilAmFest. It was such a pleasure and honor to read with Lysley Tenorio (whose book Monstress I loved), the exquisite M. Evelina Galang, and two very cool writers from Sacramento, Jen Palmares Meadows and Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga. And thanks to my family in National City for always taking care of me so well when I’m in town. Here’s a post about that trip.

Port Townsend – November

Thanks to Bill Mawhinney for inviting me and Jennifer D. Munro to read at the Northwind Art Gallery in beautiful Port Townsend in November. We had the best room with the best view at the Waterstreet Hotel. We had dinner with the charming Erica Bauermeister. We browsed and bought at the three bookstores in town and were especially delighted with The Writer’s Workshoppe and owner Anna Quinn. Go there!

And, finally, thanks to my husband, James Cameron, for being so supportive year-round and devoting such an incredible amount of time to our family and especially our daughters day in and day out so that I can devote my time to writing. He deserves a great vacation!

Best wishes to all for a wonderful new year.

Posted in Events, People, Places

The story arc gone awry: Entertainment Tonight’s feature on eating disorders

Our daughter Natalie is in recovery from an eating disorder. It’s a disorder that comes with a stigma and provokes a prurient curiosity, especially in terms of its most stereotypical physical manifestation—the aberrantly thin body, which, by the way, is not a symptom of all eating disorders.

After wrestling for years with this pernicious beast, which has its complex origins in biology, emotional factors, and social influences, Natalie has arrived at a place of self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-love that enables her to envision a future for herself. She is determined never again to live that joyless existence when she was sometimes numb to emotion, sometimes crushed by titanic feelings. She is ready to share her story in the hope of helping some of the one in five women who struggle with this illness.

Which is why when asked to participate in an interview on the subject of eating disorders by Entertainment Tonight, she agreed. She was one of two former residents of a live-in treatment facility invited to share her story. Just a few things to keep in mind about story: It has an arc. Its purpose is to show the movement of character from stage to stage, to show change. Transformation.
The interviewer spent a couple of hours with Natalie and her friend, Madigan, who, because they are in the recovery stage, wanted to focus on that part of their story, which can be helpful, revelatory and inspiring. The illness stage is not any of those things, except in a bizarre and toxic way, offering a tutorial in disordered eating behaviors to those teetering at the eating disorder abyss or already lost in that darkness. During the hours spent with the interviewer, Natalie declined to talk about behaviors she practiced while ill.

When the show asked for “before” photos of them, that is, photos with their illness on display, Natalie declined this request as well. Instead she sent a photo of her graduation from the treatment facility, showing her happy and triumphant. She also sent a photo of herself as a participant in the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) walk to raise awareness and funds. Later, one of the show’s staff remarked on how well-adjusted and healthy Natalie and Madigan seemed. They seemed that way because they are. Apparently, recovery is not the part of the story that sells. ET went back to the treatment center to find another client to interview.

What eventually aired was a three-part series. In the first, stock images of skeletal women fill the screen to deliver the requisite shock. There’s more manufactured spectacle as ET host Rocsi Diaz describes the treatment center in the Malibu hills as a place of “luxury,” making it seem like a resort or spa. It’s spacious and comfortable, but not luxurious. A good, effective treatment center is hard to find. Regardless of the location of the facility, it’s expensive to treat eating disorders. It’s health-insurance hell. Ask my husband who has spent countless hours on the phone and online with insurance companies, health providers, and even attorneys. The tragedy is that insurance often cuts out before a client is ready to be discharged, sending her into a spiral of relapse, eventual readmission to a treatment facility, and another premature discharge when the insurance coverage is severed yet again.

Diaz interviews a sixteen-year-old client of the facility who describes her disordered behaviors, unwittingly providing eating-disordered viewers with new behaviors to emulate. In the second part of the series, Diaz reveals her own eating-disordered past, and for several minutes she and the sixteen-year-old compare notes on the behaviors they practiced—more fodder for those viewers struggling with their own eating disorders.

Finally, in the third part of the series, the several hours of video shot about recovery are reduced to mere seconds on screen. Of all the conversation recorded during the interview session, the show chose to highlight Natalie’s comment about her transition from anorexia to bulimia. So much for story arc. While the illness is certainly part of the narrative, overcoming the illness is what makes the story. Arriving on the other side of illness is what gives the story completion and the listener or viewer of the story a sense of satisfaction.

But what can you expect from a show that breathlessly heralds the Victoria’s Secret runway show, that delights in catching starlets without make-up, that assesses with a cold lens how long it takes for a celebrity to shed her post-pregnancy weight.

Even if this attempt at raising awareness of eating disorders didn’t go as Natalie had hoped, at least she has no regrets about how she conducted herself in the interview. She has learned a few things about the power of the editing room though.

For a long time, Natalie’s illness was a family secret. It was important that she have the time, space and privacy to work on recovery. With the ET segment, she has completely outed herself. I think there must be a certain liberation in that—claiming her self. Her life.

She’s tough and intelligent. She’s learned that life is full of obstacles, but that they can be overcome. She’s learned that that’s what makes the story, that the ending is transformative, and it can be beautiful.

Posted in People

Unsung Hero

Recently, I combined a visit to National City where I grew up and where my mother and older sister still live with an appearance at the FilAm Fest in San Diego to teach a workshop and participate in a reading. My workshop was titled “Homegrown Heroes—Writing Fiction from the Family Album.” It was created to reflect the festival theme of Unsung Heroes—community and family members who make a difference in our lives often without recognition. Like my father.

In the workshop, we talked about how writers often base their fictional characters on real people, how in order to give our characters realistic and believable ways of behaving in our stories, we need to observe real people. In my own novel, the main character is a Filipino man who left his homeland by enlisting in the United States Navy after World War II and earning American citizenship. Like my father.

It’s been twenty years since my father died. Had he lived, he would’ve been in his eighties. His October 14 birthday makes him a Libra, the typical characteristics of which include diplomatic and urbane, romantic and charming, easygoing and sociable, and idealistic and peaceable. The darker traits include indecisive and changeable, gullible and easily influenced, and flirtatious and self-indulgent.

Really, I knew my father hardly at all. Still, I’m pretty sure that he fit few of the above traits, though easygoing and peaceable are more or less apt. He was a quiet, more often than not reasonable man who avoided or tried to diffuse conflict.

I saw him as shy, often awkward in social situations, and rather closed off emotionally. He expressed his opinions in a dogmatic fashion and while he seemed pretty entrenched in his own opinions, he didn’t flare into anger over political discussions. What he couldn’t express readily was affection. Sometimes it would be a pat on the head or the shoulder that was too forceful and felt punishing rather than tender and friendly the way it was more likely meant. A hug was a rough clasping between his sinewy arms.

What I observed and what I think I knew about my father, of course, is different from what others around him observed and knew about him. I moved 1,200 miles away when I was in my twenties. I visited once a year, if that. I used to write letters home. They were long and carefully crafted. I learned later that Dad really liked the letters, found them lively and humorous.

My father never knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s because I myself didn’t really know until I was thirty-nine. I took my first writing class nine months before he died. I don’t remember telling him about my writing classes or my desire to be a writer. I began writing what would eventually become When the de la Cruz Family Danced while waiting for a flight out of Seattle to attend his funeral.

I made a daily commitment to writing despite an already crowded schedule. There came a time, though, when beset by the obligations of family and job, I felt pressure to suspend my writing until sometime in the future when life was less complicated—when the kids were grown or I was retired from my job, both of which seemed eons away. I stopped writing for a while, but that only superficially eased our jumbled family life. I was restless and more than a bit resentful. My father appeared to me in a dream and told me to keep writing. The dream was no doubt triggered by my own needs and desire. And yet, I believe my father spoke to me.

Were he alive today, he would’ve liked that I had the opportunity at FilAm Fest to read with Lysley Tenorio, whose stories in collection Monstress were described as “impeccably constructed” and “refreshingly off-kilter” by the New York Times Book Review. He would’ve liked that I read with the accomplished M. Evelina Galang whose fourth book Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery is described by Edwidge Danticat as “a beautifully told, and at times, heartbreaking coming of age and coming to America story.”

He would’ve liked that I read with young up-and-coming writers Jen Palmares Meadows and Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga. And of course, there’s Jennifer Derilo, the charming dynamo who when not teaching her classes at Southwestern College, reading and selecting non-fiction submissions to Kartika Review, or organizing literary events, she is working on a memoir which juxtaposes her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma with her grandfather’s survival of the Bataan Death March.

He would’ve liked all of it. Maybe we would’ve talked about his past, his boyhood in the Philippines, his early years in America, his dreams for himself. I lack a lot of knowledge about my father. I do know that he made a difference in my life.

On the last night of my stay at my mother’s house, I dreamed about my father. I was turning a key, unlocking something, freeing my father from some sort of confinement. When he hugged me, there was no stiffness or awkwardness, just tenderness the way he’d always intended.

Posted in People

The Radical Wonder of Hedgebrook

This year Hedgebrook, the writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island, celebrates 25 years of nurturing women writers. It’s the year of the alumnae, with former residents returning for one or two-week stays to reconnect with the place, the staff, and each other. And they come to write. Because that’s what happens at Hedgebrook. The farmhouse library is filled with the published works of Hedgebrook writers with room on the shelves for the books yet to come.

Last month, I attended two days of the three-day reunion weekend, which brought alums from across the country together for talks, workshops, informal gatherings and, of course, the delicious Hedgebrook food. The conversation unfurled and flourished, much like the plants in the Hedgebrook garden, the source of a good portion of those freshly prepared and beautifully presented Hedgebrook meals. By the way, many of those favorite meals can be yours by ordering the Hedgebrook Cookbook (She Writes Press, September 2013).

Women Founding Things

Part of the magic of Hedgebrook is the story of its founding by Nancy Nordhoff. When asked how the idea for Hedgebrook arose, Nancy said the land suggested it. While walking the land she had recently purchased, it told her to build a place to nurture women and their voices. That place consists of six gracefully crafted cottages mindfully situated amid forest, meadow and ponds. Nancy has often been asked how she knew what a writer wanted in a cottage. Her reply: “You just needed to be a woman to know.” She said there was a selfish aspect to creating Hedgebrook. By nurturing others, she says, she has nurtured herself.

Kamy Wicoff, founder of She Writes, started a salon with mentor Diane Middlebrook to give women a place to share and promote their writing. She Writes is the online version of that salon and is based on the values of generosity, abundance and opportunities to give.

Alumnae Relations Director, Liz Engleman was inspired by Hedgebrook to found the Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, a creative retreat center for artists in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Her number one piece of advice is “go in blindly, otherwise you won’t do it.” She also advises women to embrace their successes.

Their stories encouraged alums to share projects they founded as a result of their Hedgebrook residency. Among them are writers conferences, reading series, poetry presses, and a playwrights group. Nancy Nordhoff called these accomplishments the Hedgebrook ripple effect. Women who have experienced the gift of Hedgebrook carry the spirit of nurturing women’s voices into their communities.

Being Radical

Executive Director Amy Wheeler uses the term radical hospitality to describe what Hedgebrook offers to women writers. Nurturing is a radical and healing act. Where there is nurturing there must be receptivity, she says. Women have to learn to receive the gift of Hedgebrook where residents are not expected to carry their plates to the sink after dinner. All that is asked of them is that they be the best writers they can be and that they honor the cottage that houses them and the land it sits on.

Brooke Warner of She Writes Press talked about the worthiness crisis that many women experience. She urged us to walk on the radical edge, that is to say, even when the conditions (right time, right place, right financial situation, right frame of mind, etc.) we have set for success are not met, we must nevertheless enter that space and still believe that we can succeed.

Listening to the Land

The Hedgebrook staff—the directors and managers, the gardener, the chef, the housekeeper—spoke of their ties to the place. They each have a connection to the writers, whether it’s coordinating the logistics of their arrival and departure, orienting them to their surroundings, tending the garden and the grounds, preparing the delectable meals, or cleaning the cottages in preparation for each new resident. All of the work they do facilitates the writer’s integration with the land. At Hedgebrook, we all end up listening to the land.

Curating Our Own Museums

Hannah Tinti gave a lively and enthralling presentation on “cabinets of wonder,” little containers of objects—a rock, a ribbon, a leaf—that we randomly collect and put in a box. She says we are unconsciously drawn to the keys that will unlock our own stories. We need to be open to coming across those keys. We can do this by grounding ourselves in the natural world. Put stuff in your container, she told us. “We are the curators of our own museums.”

Shaping the conversation during the reunion weekend were the themes of nurture, empower, and advocate. One leads to the next which leads to the next, so that, infused with the radical wonder of Hedgebrook, we are all advocates of women’s voices out in the world.

Posted in Events, On Writing, People

Taos Magic

Most summers I attend a writers conference. I want to be inspired by other writers, meet new people, and learn from an established writer whose work I admire and who has a reputation for being a good teacher. This summer I especially wanted an atmosphere that was serious, but not intense, a vibe that was relaxing, but without late-night revelry, and a size that was not overwhelmingly large, but not excessively cozy. I also wanted a place I’d never visited and a schedule that allowed time to see the local sights. The Taos Summer Writers Conference was the perfect fit. Plus, it came with magic.

The Place

The week-long conference, which took place this year July 13 to 20, followed by weekend workshops, is held at the Sagebrush Inn, whose southwestern style buildings are home to a collection of Native American arts. The inn and conference center are located about three miles south of the downtown historic district, which was originally a fortified plaza built by the Spanish.

Taos is in north-central New Mexico at an elevation of 6,969 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The town is close to Taos Pueblo, the Native American village and tribe from which it takes its name. The name Taos derives from the native language meaning “place of red willows.”

The sky is an exuberant color, sometimes a flat blue, other times richly animated with clouds. The air is dry and pungent. It made me think of that Carlos Fuentes title Where the Air is Clear. The air, according to some, hums due to “secret experiments in Los Alamos, top-secret military flight activity, electromagnetic vibrations emitted by Taos Mountain, or low-flying alien spacecraft.” Or maybe, it’s just plain magic.

The People

Sharon Oard Warner and her staff have created a well-run conference with a welcoming environment. I didn’t meet her during the week, but only glimpsed her as she did all the things one must do to make a conference operate smoothly. I failed to thank her in person or even in an email for the wonderful week I had. Perhaps, this public post will compensate in part.

Conference participants were friendly, interesting, and passionate about writing. Meals, excursions, and book browsing offered possibilities for meeting people outside of my workshop. Among them were the retired psychiatrist and his wife, a former high school counselor, whose Scottish accents were a delight to the ear; the French language and culture professor from Granada, Spain who is madly in love with Taos; the retired University of New Mexico academic who each day was gorgeous in a huipil and large, brilliantly-colored, dangling earrings; and the former mathematics professor turned tree farmer and writer.

At the end of the conference, on the shuttle from Taos to Santa Fe where I would spend the weekend before heading home, I discovered I was sitting next to Malcolm Collier, grandson of John Collier, a social reformer, Native American advocate, and friend of arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. Malcolm’s parents, John Collier, Jr. and Mary Collier, were early practitioners of the use of photography in ethnographic studies. I sat next to a bit of history. More Taos magic.

The Sights

The conference provided twice daily shuttles to points of interest, which I took advantage of four out of the five days. Mid-week, I opted to stay in my room and write, though I missed out on the downtown art museums, including the Harwood, which was hosting Hopper Curates, an exhibit of work by selected artists collected by Dennis Hopper, actor, former hippie, Taos resident in the ‘70s, and himself a painter and photographer.

I did visit Taos Pueblo whose adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years; the D. H. Lawrence Ranch in the San Cristobal Mountains where Georgia O’Keeffe painted the famous Lawrence Tree, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House where a docent gave a fascinating account of Mabel’s life; and San Francisco de Asis church, made famous in the art of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. I touched the walls of each of these structures where surely magic resided.

The Treats

Breakfast was complimentary at the Sagebrush Inn and was served by an attentive staff. Also complimentary were morning yoga classes provided by the conference.

The charming bookseller-writers from Moby Dickens Bookstore, David Perez and Veronica Golos, brought a great selection of books from which to browse and buy. David conducted a round-table discussion about bookstores and bookselling and then offered up some advance reader copies of recently and soon-to-be released books. I got my hands on The Assembler of Parts by Raoul Wientzen and Long Division by Kiese Laymon.

Stunning poetry by keynote author Natasha Trethaway on the opening night of the conference was followed on subsequent evenings by faculty readings. I didn’t make all of them, but I didn’t miss one of my favorite writers, Antonya Nelson, who I was happy to learn has a new book coming in spring 2014. It was great to hear Seattle’s own Priscilla Long read from one of her Science Frictions essays. I could completely relate to Demetria Martinez’s piece and was moved by Joy Harjo’s reading and singing. Magic.

The Workshop

I signed up for Robert Boswell’s advanced fiction workshop. We had a great group—smart, interesting writers who gave thoughtful comments on the work submitted for discussion. Boz, as he is known, is a superb teacher who is insightful and generous with his knowledge. First of all, here are some of Boswell’s must reads:

Billy Budd by Herman Melville
“A Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson
“Friend of My Youth” by Alice Munro
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“In the Gloaming” by Alice Elliott Dark
“Labor Day” by Alice Munro
“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri
“The Progress of Love” by Alice Munro.

Here are some nuggets from the workshop:

  • Write for the next draft, not for the New Yorker.
  • Resist the desire for completion. Hold onto the story. Layer in something more. Make the world more tactile and visceral.
  • Details have to grow out of the story, not be imposed on it.
  • Humor has to serve the story, has to have some dark underpinning. Otherwise the result will be “cute.”
  • Interrogate all your words and sentences.
  • Make gestures meaningful.
  • Dialogue is expensive—use it economically.
  • A novel needs a couple of kinds of conflict. There’s an overriding arc, but you can’t depend on it to drive every chapter. There needs to be a surface tension in each chapter. Ask, what’s driving me through this chapter? What’s driving me into the next chapter?
  • Narrative shape is what makes a series of events a story. Something of consequence has to happen.

And here’s the last bit of magic from my week in Taos:

  • A scene is magic. Create it by locating the reader in the scene to create urgency. The reading speeds up, but time slows down.

Robert Boswell’s new novel Tumbledown has been receiving high praise. Seattleites, Boz will be reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on September 17. See you there.

Posted in Events, People, Places

Laid bare on Facebook: Affirmation of self, revelation of character

I never intended for my Facebook page to be the site of a highly personal revelation. Nor did I ever intend to use my blog for such purposes. But since an incident on Facebook in early July, I have been kept awake at night with anger and have broken down in tears in front of people I barely know. With the permission of the person who has the most at stake, I am recounting this incident, what led up to it, and what it reveals to me about character.

First of all, here are some ways I use Facebook: I wish my friends happy birthday; I support the news about their books and other publications; I watch funny videos; I post updates about my writing, books I’m reading, my bus commute on the infamous route 358, or places I happen to be visiting. Sometimes, I express my views on social and political issues.

All of these often invite some degree of interaction—by which I mean “likes” and encouraging comments—even the posts on controversial matters. I post my views not to start a fight with anyone, but as a way of airing my rage, disbelief, or approval over a particular topic with the expectation that only those of a similar mind will respond. Until recently, that has been the case.

Facebook friends know where I stand on issues. I know where many of them stand, and some stand in full opposition to me. I notice their posts, but I don’t engage. It’s too easy for things to spill over into outright warfare and that’s not how I want to use Facebook. Though I might feel hostile to their beliefs, I don’t want to feel hostile toward them. Maybe that sounds naïve or unrealistic. What I try to remember is that people are more than their beliefs on a particular issue. One of my Facebook friends is a conservative Republican. I know his views do not coincide with mine. What I also know about him is that his interests are photography and wildlife, and he has a deep regard for the natural world. I like and appreciate these things about him. More importantly, I appreciate that he has never written rude comments on my wall in response to issues I post about, the content of which must surely at times aggravate him. Unfortunately, not everyone can resist the urge to clash or bash or even bully on Facebook.

Back in early 2012, a young relative of mine, a second cousin in his late twenties, responded to my post about a Komen official resigning over the organization’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood. He wrote: I respect the convictions of both women. Standing up for one’s beliefs is important. I, for one, stand with the Komen Organization’s decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

I responded: Yes, I know where you stand and I appreciate your respectful comment. Hope you’re well.

We went on to exchange a few pleasantries. That was that. Or so I thought.

In early June of this year, I posted a link to this article about the proposed legislation advanced by an all-male, all-Republican congressional panel which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. I sided with the two Democrats who in the article “objected to the fact that all of the lawmakers debating the abortion bill are men and that none are doctors.” My cousin took exception to this, arguing that the same sense of right and wrong that drove men to pass laws against rape is the same impulse that drives their efforts to keep women from having abortions. My cousin equated abortion of a fetus with a mother killing her toddler. “…I can’t think of anything more selfish or unnatural than a woman killing her own child,” he wrote.

This thread became quite lengthy with two other friends joining my argument that a woman has the right to choose whether and when to have a baby, that women have always had and will continue to seek and have abortions, and that safe and affordable access to abortion is critical to women’s reproductive health, not to mention their lives. The relevance of his reference to rape eluded us.

Twice I pointed out that, given our strongly held opposing views, it was pointless for us to debate this issue, my underlying message being “stop writing on my Facebook wall.”

Later that month I posted a link to an article about Rick Perry who suggested that Texas state senator Wendy Davis’s experiences as a teen mother should have taught her to become, like him, a staunch opponent of abortion. (Wendy Davis is the Texas legislator who filibustered against the bill that would restrict abortion access for women in that state.)

My cousin again, despite my previous statements about the futility of our debating this issue, offered this unsolicited remark: This is the epitome of our culture. We want to be able to do what we want without consequences. Needless to say, there ensued another lengthy thread to which several of my friends contributed, all of them challenging my cousin’s implication that abortion happens willy-nilly without a woman’s deep deliberation of the options and how each will affect her life.

In early July, I posted an article called “How I Lost Faith in the Pro-Life Movement.” It was an intelligent and thoughtfully written piece by a young woman who actually considered studies by the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, and other medical and science-based groups about abortion. I couldn’t help it. I tagged my cousin.

Interestingly, there was no response.

But a week later he posted an article on my wall called “Unborn Babies Feel Pain and They Dream,” based on a grossly misquoted science article. He accompanied it with the charge that a woman’s uterus is her own until she becomes pregnant, at which point, presumably, it belongs to others (God, the state, him?) to make a decision for her.

I’d really had enough. Too late, though. The war was on—it lasted about an hour during which 77 comments, many of them quite protracted, were posted. My cousin’s patronizing, lecturing tone was backed by his sister’s cheerleading. Meanwhile, I was getting emails and private messages from people urging me to block my cousin then and there. On the other hand, my husband advocated for letting the “debate” continue, since several other friends had joined the fray, with arguments countering both of my cousins’ rigid ideology and inflammatory rhetoric (which included a refusal to acknowledge the scientific term fetus).

Then one of my daughters posed an important question, one that is raised often in this debate. What happens when a woman is raped? What if a woman committed suicide from the trauma of giving birth to her rapist’s child? My daughter was pointing out the complexity of the issue, which required more than my cousin’s black-and white approach. My cousin responded by belittling her, calling her a liar, accusing her of “shooting from the hip” and declaring his own expert knowledge about suicide and PTSD among women. He derived this authority, he said, as a volunteer at a pregnancy crisis center.

Full of fury, shaking with outrage, I called my daughter on the phone to ask if she was doing okay with the discussion, which was more accurately an online mêlée. Unlike mine, her voice was steady. It was steely. I told her I could delete the whole post. She said no, she wanted to respond. After I hung up, I watched the screen, waiting. Just when I thought she had changed her mind, her post appeared on the screen. This is what she wrote:

I know all about PTSD, it has paralyzed me for the past five years. It has cost my family thousands of dollars and I’ve been in years of treatment, all of which are worth it as I work through my own trauma and heal. I have no shame in what I have experienced and I now know that it is not my fault. If I had had to face this choice you better believe I would have had an abortion. As much as I am sickened by what you are saying, I would never ever hope that you had to feel what I did inside. Nobody deserves that. If a woman decides to go through with the pregnancy stemming from a rape, that is her choice. But it is a choice. Having a baby would have complicated my life so much more, made me more depressed, more suicidal. I know me, I know my experience. People are different and that is why it should be a choice but you are in no position to speak on this matter. I have been diagnosed with severe PTSD, I have been in two residential treatment centers and spent the last year in continuous treatment. Today I started EMDR to start helping with memories. There will always be people like you [male cousin] who have asinine beliefs on something they could never experience. [Female cousin], I hope to God you are never raped. And that if you are, that you are able to make the choice that is right for you, whatever that may be, and without the judgment of anyone else. I am lucky I have loving parents who have done everything they can at whatever the cost to help me heal. I can’t pay attention for too long to your beliefs and others like yours. I get angry, I cry. I start to wish mean things, like for you to experience what so many women in this world have to and then potentially face the stigma of having an abortion along with all the shame that already comes with the rape. I’m done with this conversation. Just reading these threads exhausts me, let alone joining. But the only person who has a voice about the pregnancy of a woman who was raped is the woman who was raped. End of story. I’m tired, I want to go to bed. I have to work tomorrow and I’ve had a week full of therapy. Healing is exhausting. We’re cousins, though I don’t believe we’ve ever met. I don’t know if we ever will. I just need to be a voice for all the other women out there like me. Good night.

My daughter did something she’d never done before. She revealed publicly that she’d been raped. She declared openly that it wasn’t her fault. It was a courageous affirmation of self and a big step toward healing.

What is incomprehensible to me is that neither one of these cousins has reached out to my daughter after having learned that she’d been raped and has been suffering for years from trauma. So wrapped up in their ideology, neither one could say to her, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

Silence. The heartless, soulless response from people who purport to care about life.

As my daughter heals, she will continue to encounter insensitive, bullying, judgmental attitudes. They will hurt. They might send her into relapse or otherwise hinder her progress. Eventually, she will fully recover. My daughter is a survivor. Every day she realizes her strength as a woman, her dignity and worth as a human being.

Posted in People

A Vortext of Words during a Weekend on Whidbey

Impatience, hope, despair, rage, fear, acceptance. Path to self-destruction? Guests at a pity party? No. They are states of mind of the writer and they were lived and witnessed during the course of an uplifting, inspirational three-day writing salon for women called Vortext, held May 31-June 2. Created by Hedgebrook, the writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island, Vortext featured the talent, generosity, and wit of Ruth Ozeki, Dorothy Allison, Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth George, Gail Tsukiyama and Karen Joy Fowler.

Vortext offered keynote talks, craft workshops and panel discussions punctuated by delicious meals, time for writing or reflection, and late afternoon wine and cheese receptions. The setting was the Whidbey Institute at Chinook, located on 70 acres of forest and offering the same sense of tranquility and connection to the natural world that is the hallmark of Hedgebrook. It was in this wooded seclusion that the richly talented faculty offered up succulent morsels for the mind and heart.

“We write out of hope that maybe the world is knowable,” Ruth Ozeki told us on Friday, the opening day of the conference. “Yet, we despair when we feel that we may not after all be capable of knowing it,” she added. We become impatient, she explained. The gentle-voiced Ozeki argued with grace and serenity that impatience is necessary to writing a novel. We want to know the end and impatience drives us there.

Despair is the natural state of the writer, but more so of the woman writer, Dorothy Allison said, lamenting that of all the students over the years that she has nominated for awards, 90 percent of those who won were males.

“Rage is useful when harnessed,” she said in her inimitable way, a raspy elegance to her voice packed with passion and made musical by her southern accent. It’s a voice that can bring you to tears, especially when she ends her talk with words as commanding and inspiring as these: “All of us, alone and together, fighting despair one word, one paragraph, one page at a time.”

On Saturday, Jane Hamilton started off by having us sing in rounds. Because I’m not a singer and am exceedingly self-conscious about participating in impromptu group activities, I sat mute, smiling like an idiot, while those around me made quite a lovely chorus.

The point of the exercise was to simulate what happens when we write. We stick our necks out, we raise our voices. Though I had declined to raise my tuneless voice in song, I did take Jane Hamilton’s point. She also said that writing is “doing our best to see.” I’ve long been a fan of how Jane Hamilton sees. I’ve read all of her books and one of the things I admire about her intelligent novels is the humor lurking in unexpected places. During the weekend, as I listened to her at the podium, in workshop and at meals, the source of that humor became clear: she is delightfully wacky. I’m happy to say I fulfilled one of my goals of that weekend, which was to have my picture taken with Jane Hamilton.

Elizabeth George, the admitted queen of time management, lives by a rigid schedule. A fixed, nearly unyielding routine does not mean she is without humor. In fact, Elizabeth George is very funny. She noted that she sometimes schedules an hour in for spontaneity. Her adherence to a daily timetable is the reason for her prodigious output. It also allows her to overcome the fear we all feel in our daily lives, a fear that she says keeps us from being present. Creativity—even if it springs from a well-regulated schedule—is the willingness to be present.

On Sunday Gail Tsukiyama spoke about the tendency to place writers in a box due to their particular identity, whether race, gender or other aspect of self. She advised us to write what we want, not what our readers want, unless, of course, the reader is a nun such as the one who sent Tsukiyama a gently chiding letter, citing the page and paragraph of one of her novels where she wrongly used who instead of whom.

A common trait among the Vortext faculty was a sense of humor. The wryest of the voices belonged to Karen Joy Fowler. Whatever the topic or situation, there would issue from her a sharply observant, epigrammatic, unfailingly funny remark. In her keynote, she instructed us to create a persuasive lie in our writing. While the ways she enumerated to do this were familiar (e.g., establish your authority, keep your stories internally consistent), it was her delivery that charmed and tickled us.

There were a lot of things that made this three-day salon so special—the beautiful venue, the delicious food, the structure of the day that was the perfect mix of group and alone time. But it was the quality of the faculty and their particular bond with one another that infused the weekend with energy, inspiration and a sense of togetherness. The salon ended with the six of them leading us all in singing and dancing to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” I sang along a little, danced a little, sort of, but mostly I watched, took it all in – the exuberant end of a weekend of writing, friendship, and wise words about impatience, hope, despair, rage, and fear. And acceptance. A message we heard over and over that weekend from each of the speakers was that we must accept the writer we are and write the book we must write.

Vortext is one of several ways women writers can experience the radical hospitality of Hedgebrook, which is how executive director Amy Wheeler likes to describe the nurturing support of this unique writing retreat. Check the Hedgebrook website for upcoming master classes with Dani Shapiro and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.

Posted in Events, On Writing, People, Places

When de la Cruz Family Danced Goes to Indianola

It’s been nearly two years since my novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced was published, so more than ever it’s a delight to discover readers, especially when they are practically in your own figurative backyard. Having lived in Seattle for thirty-six years, I’d heard of Indianola, but had only a vague idea of its location—somewhere across Puget Sound.

Recently, I was invited to spend an afternoon with a book club of twenty-two women who live in Indianola and its environs. I don’t have a car, so Nancy, the member who first read my book and recommended it to her book club, offered to pick me up in Winslow at the southern half of Bainbridge Island, a twenty-five minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. (Nancy is the sister of my friend Joni whom I met when our daughters, now 23, were in first grade together. Friends and word of mouth—great ways to have your book find its way to readers.)

Aside from the chance to meet readers of my novel, my trip to Indianola offered a geography and history lesson. It was cool and cloudy, a typical Northwest day. We headed north on the island and crossed the Agate Pass Bridge to the Kitsap Peninsula. Just across the bridge to the left is the Clearwater Casino, a major enterprise of the Suquamish tribe which had fished the rivers and the sound long before the Europeans appeared. The Suquamish people ceded most of their land to the United States in 1855. Kitsap was one of the tribal leaders during those years. Another leader was Sealth for whom Seattle was named. The tribe was able to retain some land, now called the Port Madison Indian Reservation. Here’s a cool fact: In 2011, the Suquamish tribal council voted unanimously to approve same-sex marriage.

We turned right, away from the casino and toward the town of Suquamish, which in fact is not really a town but a CDP, a census designated place—a term used by the census bureau to identify a concentration of population. From Suquamish, we continued north on Miller Bay Road.

During the drive on this road bordered on both sides by woods, sunlight began to make tentative and brief appearances through the trees as Nancy and I talked. It was our first time meeting, but conversation came easily. We had Joni in common and Joni’s daughter Idalina who is on a two-month solo traveling adventure in Southeast Asia. Mixed with the pride Nancy expressed about Idalina’s independence was a wistful envy. “We didn’t have those opportunities when I was a young,” she said. “You either got married or became a teacher.” Nancy got married. Though Nancy and her husband became successful business owners, she wishes she’d had a chance to go to college. Passionate about reading, her interests in books are wide-ranging. Most of all, she loves a good story that takes her places.

I loved that my book was taking me to Indianola to meet Nancy’s book club. We rounded the narrow tip of Miller Bay and drove through the main street of Indianola. Also a CDP, Indianola originally began as a summer community and was a stop for Mosquito Fleet ferries until the 1950s. We arrived soon after in a residential area at the home of the host. Inside, nearly two dozen women were seated in a comfortable living room that looked out on the waters of Port Madison Bay on the west shore of Puget Sound.

Most were white- or gray-haired. I learned they ranged in age from 66 to 92. They were a smart, charming bunch. They asked questions about my novel, how I came to write it and how it came to be published. They asked about the inspiration for the characters and shared their own favorite scenes. Then we talked about other authors whose books we’ve enjoyed: Alexandra Fuller, Lauren Groff, Ben Fountain. I had just finished reading Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, and Nancy had recently put it on her to-read list after watching a television interview with the author. Many of the book club members recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The skies had cleared and the sun had flooded the room. The meeting was coming to a close and there was just enough time for a group photo with some of the members before Nancy had to get me back to the ferry dock for the ride back to Seattle. I felt uplifted by my afternoon in the company of these women who love books and pleased that my novel about a Filipino American family was among them. On the ferry, I sat on the open top deck under a cloudless sky, Mount Rainier in the distance, the Seattle skyline in front of me, Bainbridge and the Kitsap Peninsula behind me where When the de la Cruz Family Danced had a place on the list of books read by the Indianola women’s book club.

Posted in Events, On Writing, People, Places