Without the existence of small presses, it’s pretty certain I would not have two published books and another forthcoming to my name.

Small presses, some of which release only a few books each year, are run with limited resources by small, dedicated staffs. Many were established to publish books that have been overlooked (or underlooked? not given a look at all?) by the big presses. Many specifically state their intent to publish diverse books. Overlooked and diverse are not just coincidentally linked. They are often the same thing.

There’s a pervasive and very wrong, not to mention insulting, view that being a small press author means you’re not good enough to be published by the big ones.

Erika T. Wurth, a writer who is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee, is the author of several highly praised books of fiction and poetry. In response to the Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, in which writers of color revealed the paltry sums they were paid by their presses to contrast them to the sums paid to white writers. Wurth, whose books are from small presses, tweeted, “For all these straight, white, dudes going, well! Publishing hasn’t paid me shit! Let me tell you what folks have been telling me for years, when I’ve complained about the same thing: maybe you’re a bad writer?”

ErikaWurth

But here’s another more likely maybe: The big presses are not good enough at recognizing good work, even great work, because they can’t see past their white bias to appreciate stories outside of their own experience. That topic resulted in Twitter threads generated by writers Jenny Bhatt and Maaza Mengiste.

In a recent article in Entropy called “Floorboards and Gatekeepers,” writer Rosalie Morales Kearns who is also the founder of Shade Mountain Press, related both the thrill and disquiet at finding Kirsten Imani Kasai’s The House of Erzulie in her submissions pile.

“It was exhilarating to read such an unforgettable novel, but I was also gripped by a dismaying sense of isolation: No one else knows about this book, and I want everyone to read it.”

“A much more pragmatic question kept nagging at me too: Why the author was sending this brilliant work to an unknown, untried press with barely the hint of a track record. Why the gatekeepers—literary agents, editors at publishing houses—had turned her down.”

“And of course we can’t talk about gatekeeping in literature without talking about whiteness. Those keepers of standards, so lofty and mysterious as they hand down their momentous judgments—you will be published, you will not—are overwhelmingly white.”

Read the full article.

Breaching and dismantling  those gates to publishing can be helped by pressure from readers such as through the #Blackpublishingpower effort currently trending on Twitter. It recommends readers buy two books by Black writers during the week June 14 to June 20. I ordered The House of Erzulie from Shade Mountain Press and The Through by A. Rafael Johnson from Jaded Ibis Press, which Kirkus reviews calls “an intricate and often beautiful magical realist treatment of the South.”

I suggest readers consider these other two as well: Mulberry by Paulette Boudreaux and As a River by Sion Dayson. I read and loved them both and am honored to be on the same press lists.

Mulberry by Paulette Boudreaux was released in 2015 by Carolina Wren Press (now Blair Publishing) a year ahead of my book Hola and Goodbye. Mulberry won the press’s inaugural Lee Smith Novel Prize. Set in the segregated towns of rural Mississippi in the early 1960’s, it’s the absorbing and vibrantly told story of a young girl suddenly thrust with the responsibility of caring for her three younger brothers, while her mother takes their baby sister to a distant hospital for treatment and her father grapples with the psychological wounds of combat. Vivid characters and a powerful sense of place put the reader deep inside the story.

As a River by Sion Dayson was released September 2019 by Jaded Ibis Press, a year ahead of my book Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories which will be released this September. In Dayson’s novel, which is set in rural Georgia, Greer Michaels returns to his hometown to care for his dying mother ten years after a trauma-induced departure. The narrative switches back and forth in time, mainly between the years 1961 and 1977. This book is quietly enthralling, its prose, characters and setting beautifully rendered, the events of two time periods woven together to produce a deeply moving ending.

When you choose books such as the ones mentioned here, you’re supporting black voices and small presses. And you can always search on the Internet for other black writers or ask your favorite independent bookseller for recommendations.

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For the second time, the publication of a book of mine coincides with a presidential election year. Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories will be published this fall, five weeks ahead of election day.Front-Cover-final-b

While fall is a busy time for new books to arrive on the scene, my concern is not that Living Color will become lost in the sea of new books. I mean, it’s quite likely that it will. But there’s always the possibility of that brief glint in whatever minor spotlight I might manage to stumble into, which I will savor with gratitude. But what if I don’t even get that?

What if my book and its charming protagonist Angie Rubio are swept away by the terror that you-know-who will be elected to another term?

Four years ago, many of us were incredulous at the outcome of that election. Dazed and confused, we were terrified by the specter of catastrophe and ruin. Everything we feared and more came to pass, and the worst is yet to come unless we start 2021 with real leadership and real governance, which means a genuine caring for the citizens of this country and a commitment to its ideals of justice and equality. It’s a major clean-up job, folks.

Miscolta_HolaGoodbye_jkt_Picado_REV2_COMP (1)On election day 2016, I was finishing up a series of book promotion events in the Raleigh-Durham area for my second book of fiction Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories. It’s a collection of stories about overcoming loss, loneliness, and lack of belonging. The characters are three generations of a family, the first of which emigrates from Mexico. You know the place. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Words that should’ve disqualified the candidate who spoke them instead launched him on his merry, racist way to the presidency.

During my hotel stay in Raleigh, I noticed what I always notice in hotels – that most of the housekeeping and food service staff were people of color. It so happened that my hotel was to be the site of the Republican election returns party. I checked out of my room in the early afternoon, exchanging looks with the African American woman at the desk, and then waited in the lobby until my shuttle was to leave for the airport. I watched the Latino, South Asian, and African American staff set up the ballroom for the event. I watched the white Republicans in suits and cocktail dresses begin to gather to oversee the setup. I watched the TV screens announce early election projections. I left, silently hoping their preparations would be for naught.

My Iraqi shuttle driver and I discussed our worries and our hopes. On the airplane, I crossed my fingers. In Seattle on the Uber ride home, my Iranian driver and I listened in glum silence to the news on the radio. When I got home, the TV was on. My husband and I just looked at each other and shook our heads, unable to say a word.

imageMy book launch party in Seattle was a few days later. Everyone was still reeling with the surrealness of an incompetent, lying, narcissistic racist as the next president. I had hired activist and musician Jacque Larrainzar and her band to provide music at the event. They had prepared three traditional Mexican songs to honor the land left behind by the immigrants in Hola and Goodbye. Here’s a video of the group singing “Mexico Lindo y Querido.”

I asked Jacque if she could add a song to open the event. Something inspiring that could galvanize us and give hope. She chose to drum and sing “El Pueblo Unido,” widely used in resistance movements around the world. The song originated in 1973 in protest against the Chilean dictator Pinochet. It’s a stirring song, poetic and inspirational, confident in its proclamation that the people will win and that a better life will come.

El pueblo va a triunfar.
Será mejor
La vida que vendrá

I don’t have video of Jacque performing this song, but here’s the Chilean group Inti-Illimani giving a rousing rendition.

This fall, it’s possible I won’t have a book party if COVID-19 is still determining when and how we can gather. I’m ready to resign myself to those circumstances. What I can’t resign myself to is the release of my book being followed weeks later by the reelection of the incompetent, lying, narcissistic racist who cares nothing for the lives of well, anyone – even Angie Rubio.

While Angie Rubio is fictional, she’s also very real in what and who she represents. In Living Color, Angie Rubio learns what it is to be brown through all the subtle ways she is told she is less than, or not as good as. Yet, Angie is a girl of resilience, only temporarily fazed by the taunts and affronts of others as well as her own self-inflicted mortifications. Sometimes defeated, but never destroyed, she carries on. There is hope in her to move forward in life, to be someone honorable to herself and to others.

Sharma Shields, a writer whom I deeply admire, wrote these beautiful words about Living Color:

It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love with a character as deeply as I fell for Living Color’s Angie Rubio. Donna Miscolta writes gorgeous, luminous sentences, at turns funny and heartbreaking, searing and wise, and—through the observations of one smart, shy, awesome young girl—she deftly exposes the casual and systemic racism of the 1960s and 70s. This is fiction at its very best: intimate, universal, historical, and relevant as hell to our current era. Angie Rubio is my new favorite protagonist; prepare for her to steal your heart.

This is my hope – that Angie will steal the hearts of readers, that she will remind them of our humanness, of our failings and of our generosity, and that all of us, even ordinary, everyday Americans like Angie, have lives to live, feelings to be respected, and dreams to follow.

When your grandson’s birth is preceded by eleven days of street protests in the heart of Quito, does the smell of tear gas penetrate the womb, do the whir of helicopters and the boom of explosions echo inside the uterine wall, does all of it presage more disruptive events in his life?

Ilio’s was not the natural homebirth his mother and her mid-wife and doula had so thoroughly discussed and planned. Given the chaotic prelude to his birth, maybe the unexpected should’ve been expected. The important thing was that Ilio was born a healthy baby. Sizeable, too. Grandote, marveled the hospital staff. Perfect, beamed Ana and Daniel.

At just a few months old, Ilio was issued both an Ecuadorian and a U.S passport. His passport photo captured the neckless, flat-cheeked look produced when the subject is lying on his back. The unflattering lighting flattened even more the unfocused newborn gaze. If they cared, even babies might have reason to complain about unbecoming passport photos. Double for those who are citizens of two countries.

The next step was to secure a visa interview for Daniel. Interviews were scheduled the first week of each month in the coastal city of Guayaquil. It was mid-February and the coronavirus still seemed somewhat remote, on the farthest of horizons, or so went the wishful thinking. The March dates seemed too soon to prepare for, so Ana scheduled for April 9, with the idea that the three of them would be heading to the States sometime in May.

In mid-March, it became clear that Ana and Daniel’s timetable for leaving Ecuador was going off the rails due to the spreading pandemic. Daniel’s medical exam, which was a requirement prior to his visa interview, was postponed. A few days later came the embassy notice that visa interviews were being cancelled. Soon there were announcements of impending efforts to repatriate Americans.

Because Ana had accepted a job in Sacramento and was awaiting background check clearance, Ana and Daniel decided that Ana and Ilio should leave for the United States, with Daniel to follow once he obtained his visa. Ana and Ilio’s departure and, consequently, the heartbreak of family separation hinged on obtaining two things:

  • A notarized salida de pais to affirm Daniel’s permission for his infant son to leave the country without him
  • A flight out of Ecuador

The first had to happen immediately because without it, they couldn’t take advantage of the second, which was also of urgent concern. Flights out of the country, already scarce, would soon be halted indefinitely.

As it happened, the flight was secured first. The first flights Ana received notification of from the embassy were chartered planes out of Guayaquil, a 200-mile-drive from where they lived in Quito. But wait, there’s more! Restrictions on the road required a travel permit, and because the province was closed due to the severity of the coronavirus outbreak there, travelers could not be guaranteed entry. Hard pass on that opportunity.

A few days later, we saw that United was scheduling some flights out of Quito the week of March 23. We called United and were told that the last flight out was Wednesday, March 25 at 12:35 am. We booked it for Ana, which meant she would have to be at the airport before 7 pm on Tuesday so as not to be in violation of the newly imposed toque de queda or curfew.

Meanwhile, the lawyer Ana had contacted about the salida de pais said she couldn’t provide it after all. The Sunday before her scheduled flight, Ana found another lawyer, this one in Cumbaya, a Quito suburb about a 30-minute drive away. Ana and Daniel waited all morning and afternoon for word from that lawyer who was preparing the document. The plan was for Daniel to take a taxi to pick it up and drop it off at a notary. Daniel was then supposed to pick up the notarized paper on Monday, the day before Ana and Ilio would have to be at the airport. Late that afternoon, the lawyer told them the document would be ready in half an hour. Just as Daniel was preparing to leave to pick it up, the lawyer called again and said sorry, no va a pasar. The government had ceased all services and under the estado de excepción, no one was supposed to be working. The system to enter a notarized document was shut down. Even if they were able to have a notarized document in hand, if it hadn’t been entered in the system, it would be worthless. The wild goose in that chase was dead.

Ana posted about her plight on the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page, which responded with a number to call. In the meantime, word came that Ana’s flight had been delayed to 4:30 pm that Wednesday, which gave an extra half day to obtain the salida de pais. They allowed themselves hope. But also resignation, just in case.

On Tuesday, the embassy emailed Ana and asked her to send her and Ilio’s travel documents. She waited all day to hear back and finally that evening they told her a solution with the Ecuadorian government was near. The clock was ticking, as they say in the movies.

On Wednesday morning, Ana received an email from the embassy instructing her to write a letter with the details of her situation, print it, and have Daniel sign it and bring it to the embassy. Ana had no printer and under the estado de excepción, no internet cafes were open where she could print a document. She typed the letter and emailed it to the embassy asking if they could print it for Daniel to sign when he arrived there. Yes, fine, so Daniel went to the embassy only to be denied entry by the guard who told him the embassy was closed. Bewildered and frustrated, Daniel, documentless, went back to the apartment where Ana was putting the last-to-be-packed items in her carry-on.

Ana called the embassy for answers. Send Daniel back to the embassy, they said. Back he went. It was already 11:30 am by this time. They were going to have to leave for the 40-minute-drive to the airport by 12:30. Any later and they would have a hard time finding a taxi because a revised toque de queda took effect that day. Curfew was now 2 pm.

Daniel came back with the document in hand, which meant Ana and Ilio were really going to leave. The three of them were in a taxi and on the road just after 12:30. It was clear that Daniel would have no way of getting a taxi back to the apartment before curfew, so we arranged for a hotel room a short walk from the airport.

After checking her bag and the baby car seat, Ana presented the embassy document to the security officer. We were expecting you, they told her. That should’ve been reassuring. However, the officer told her he had not been cleared to accept the document. They would have to wait. After some deliberation with new officers appearing on the scene, they finally said she could go through, but they first insisted on taking a photo of Ana and Ilio with Daniel, who was on the other side of the security area. Gladly, they posed. A final moment of togetherness, even though the last photo of their family together before their temporary separation would be in the possession of Ecuadorian airport security. Ana and Ilio headed to the gate with forty minutes to spare.

The plane ended up leaving fifteen minutes early. With all passengers boarded and no other flights arriving or departing, there was nothing to wait for. With no queueing on the runway, it was an expeditious take-off.

Ana and Ilio made it to Houston at 9:30 pm where Ana hauled her checked bag, her carry-on, the infant car seat, and 20-pound Ilio onto the tram to the airport hotel. The next morning, she did a reverse haul for a 7:25 am flight to San Francisco and then finally Seattle, arriving on March 26, Ilio’s five-month birthday.   

For the next fourteen days, Ana and Ilio self-quarantined in a nearby Airbnb thanks to the generosity of her friend’s family. We left groceries and diapers on the doorstep. Sometimes we met at the park and sat six feet apart. I had last held Ilio when he was two weeks old, when I had gone to Ecuador to await his birth and to meet Daniel for the first time.

How does a five-month old process the world without one of the two people who have been his world since birth? He hears Daniel’s voice every day on WhatsApp, sees his face on the phone screen. Two out of the five senses must suffice for now.

The news coming out of Ecuador is grim. Bodies are being left in the street in the worst affected city of Guayaquil. Daniel is in Quito, where the confirmed cases and deaths are far lower. Residents are allowed out of their homes to buy groceries on their assigned day of the week and before the 2 pm curfew.

An artist, Daniel passes some of the long hours indoors making cloth toys for Ilio. We all wait for the moment when he can put those toys in his baby’s hands. Kiss his baby’s hands. Smell them.

Twitter is my compulsion during these coronavirus days. I’m a habitual scroller, madly clicking support on all posts about the appalling ineptitude and negligence of Trump, his shameful lies to cover his inaction and shameless self-congratulation for imaginary accomplishments. I retweet in support of authors whose celebrations and tours for their new books have been cancelled. I watch the cute animal and baby videos to pause and breathe and forget for a moment that our lives are in limbo as we wait for the curve to flatten.

This tweet from writer Myriam Gurba sums it up.

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Some of us are better situated than others in terms of the impact of the shutdown, but all of us are susceptible to moments of despondency. Recently, after several sleepless nights and rather trying days, after I’d read all I could read from my stack of books, I poked around Netflix and Hulu in search of something else to distract or soothe or zombify me. It’s hard to know what you’re in the mood for when your needle is stuck at the bottom of the mood scale.

My cursor kept pausing at the documentaries because thrillers, fantasy, romance, comedy, or heavy drama were not going to get it done. What I didn’t realize was that what I really wanted and needed was music. I clicked on Standing in the Shadow of Motown.

I’d always meant to watch this story of the Funk Brothers, the studio musicians who created the Motown sound, but never got around to it. An inexcusable omission, given that I’d grown up on Motown. When we were kids, my sisters and cousins and I would pretend to be Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, the Temptations. We were all the groups. We were all the songs.

So it was the music of the Funk Brothers that lifted me out of my funk. I was bopping in my chair and despite my face droopy with fatigue, I could feel myself smiling, the Funk Brothers as antidote for my blues.

With the music came story. Of how these musicians came together in Studio A at Hitsville, USA, many having left homes in the South to work in the Detroit auto industry. How they didn’t last long in the factory, because music pulled them off the line. How they went unrecognized for years as studio musicians, while the vocalists for whom they created distinctive beats earned applause and sometimes fame and fortune on tour. How they were left behind when the Motown label moved to Los Angeles in 1972.

As their story and the story of the hits they created unfolded, memories of my childhood and adolescence echoed against the soundtrack. Like this:

Do You Love Me” by The Contours came out in 1962. (A few years later it was covered by the Dave Clark Five. Raise your hand if you remember them.) It was the year I was voted president of my fourth-grade class, the pinnacle of my academic extracurricular achievement. It was also the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when I watched my mother stack tin cans of spam, Vienna sausage, and Boston baked beans for the coming nuclear catastrophe.

Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas came out in 1963, the year I was in fifth grade, the year JKF was assassinated. Teachers cried at their desks and we students cried at ours until we were all sent home early where we cried with our families in front of the TV.

My Girl” by the Temptations came out in 1964. I was editor of our sixth-grade newspaper that never covered the War on Poverty or Bloody Sunday.

Shotgun” by Jr. Walker and the All Stars came out in 1965, the year I entered junior high, when the official tenure of my ugly years began. It was also the year of the Watts Riots. Perspective.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations came out in 1966, the year Reagan was elected governor of California. I remember thinking it weird that an actor would be our governor. Also weird: I went to my first school dance in eighth grade. Not weird: It was my last ever school dance.

Reach Out” by the Four Tops came out in 1967, the year of the summer of love. I was in ninth grade, old enough to see Valley of the Dolls. Did that also make me old enough to watch a South Vietnamese policeman execute a Viet Cong officer on the evening news?

I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye came out in 1968, the year MLK and RFK were assassinated. I entered tenth grade that fall. Nixon was elected president. Sex-Ed was introduced into our curriculum.

Cloud Nine” by the Temptations came out in 1969. Astronauts landed on the moon, the Manson gang murdered, and thousands tripped out at Woodstock. Meanwhile the U.S was secretly bombing Cambodia. I was in eleventh grade thinking that I should be thinking about college but without a clue as to how to get beyond the thinking.

Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations came out in 1970. The Beatles broke up, the Ford Pinto was introduced, the EPA was established, the National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State protesting the U.S. bombings in Cambodia. In the spring of my junior year, my English class took a weekend trip to L.A. to see the Huntington, the Griffith Observatory, the La Brea Tar Pits, and other sights. It was my first overnight trip out of National City.

What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye came out in 1971, a year of massive marches against the Vietnam War. Jim Morrison of The Doors died in a bathtub in Paris. Eighteen-year-olds were given the right to vote. I graduated high school that year. Our senior song was “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters.

How time passes. Suddenly, I’m 66 and a grandmother, the demographic that the Texas lieutenant governor thinks should sacrifice itself to the coronavirus to save the economy, a pitch that generated the fun hashtags #YouFirstDanPatrick and #DanPatricksGrandparentGenocide.

Since we’re back to Twitter, I’ll end with this tweet exchange between writer Tod Goldberg and Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor of Zyzzyva magazine, which expresses what the Funk Brothers music did for me when I was low. It took me back to a turbulent era that was also a time of action and hope. Music connected and lifted us then as it does now.

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My third book of fiction Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories comes out this fall from Jaded Ibis Press and the please-look-at-me part of being a writer has begun. It started with my publisher asking for blurbs on my behalf. It’s a big thing to ask, given that it’s a request for someone’s time. It’s also a request for that person’s name. Two gigantic asks, so I’m hugely grateful for the blurbs that have come in so far.

That first please-look-at-me step of asking for blurbs leads to others like this one: sharing the blurbs to start convincing you months before the book is available that you should put it on your own personal “most anticipated” list.

Ivelisse Rodriguez, the author of Love War Stories, a finalist for the 2019 Pen/Faulkner Award, encapsulated so well my intent for the book.

“We have all been Angie Rubio, voiceless, rejected, but always on the precipice of being more. Throughout this endearing collection, you will become more than a reader, you will become Angie’s champion until the world she inhabits catches up. Miscolta writes with heart for all the brown girls who feel invisible. These stories say with love and sincerity: I see you.”

On the topic of feeling invisible, please don’t let Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories be invisible. Let it be seen the way Angie Rubio becomes seen in the book. For instance, when she is told in the fourth grade that she’s in the dumb class and she stands up to create even a tiny moment of mayhem in rebellion. Or when her white nemesis, cast as Juliet in the school play, taunts Angie with “Don’t forget who the heroine of this play is,” and Angie replies: “She dies in the end.” Or any number of similar acts of defiance that may seem small but in fact are lifesavers. Be a champion for Angie!

Somiah Kamal is the author of two books of fiction, An Isolated Incident and Unmarriageable, both of which have garnered acclaim. Her first sentence is a precise list of the themes of Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories.

“Donna Miscolta has written a captivating short story collection on identity, alienation, belonging and the meaning of friendship and family. Miscolta carefully and delicately layers the moments and memories that go into making a life and a person. Angie Rubio will carve a space in your heart and, long after you’ve turned the last page, you’ll be rooting for her, for all the Angie Rubios out there.”

Who hasn’t felt alienated and friendless? And there it is again, a prediction that Angie will inspire your support, your cheers, your applause. Like when she carries the class play even though she doesn’t have an acting role. Or when she takes the microphone to give a rousing speech about sex. Root for Angie!

Kathleen Alcalá is the author of six, yes six, books, including Spirits of the Ordinary. Her work has garnered awards and high praise. She boils Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories down to its essence.

“Angie Rubio shows us how to survive as a smart girl-of-color in a world gone mad during the 1960s. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be glad the selfie had not yet been invented.”

Angie is all about survival in the face of microaggressions, lost opportunities, and closed doors. But do laugh with her. Cry with her. Experience with her the humiliation of being shut down in her attempt to share a civil rights story for Current Events. Share her relief at her surrender to the multiple Catholic school eyes upon her sins. And, yes, be glad that she was never able to record a selfie of the home permanent her aunt inflicted upon her unsuspecting head. Angie survives it all.

Yay for smart girls of color!

Yay for readers who support smart girls of color!

Look for Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories in fall 2020!

I have one firmly defined and achievable resolution, and I have one that is maybe not a resolution after all, but some vague hope. But I’m making a connection between that resolution and that hope, because I’m making a connection between that resolution and everything in my life.

My resolution: To be able to have conversations in Spanish with a decent level of fluency. I want to, as Nacho of NachoTime Spanish says, get out of Intermediate Spanish Purgatory. It’s where I’ve languished for years. But no more.

2020 is the year of thinking and speaking in Spanish for me. I’m practicing every day and trying to speak in Spanish as I go about my daily activities, which is why my resolution connects to everything else happening in my life this year. One of those things is the publication of my new book of fiction, my third. It’s called Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, and I love it and I love Angie Rubio, and I’m hoping whoever reads it will love it and her too.

I’m a small press author with name recognition within a few-miles radius of Elliott Bay Book Company, the epicenter of literary Seattle, a bookstore that is bighearted in its support of local authors. Like any author, I await the arrival of my book in the world with both excitement and an unhealthy dose of anxiety and catastrophizing. Amid all the other books this year, the years before, and the years to come, will anyone find and read my book?

Lately I’ve been seeing the lists on social media. You know the ones? The most anticipated books of 2020 in all its permutations – YA, fiction, writers of color – and the various listers – BuzzFeed, Vogue, Goodreads, Bustle, The Millions, Ms.

How are such lists compiled? How does one’s book get listed?

My book doesn’t come out until fall. We’re still in the cover design and please-blurb-my-book stages. Have I missed the list boat? Has that publicity ship sailed?

My fretting about the lists was somewhat tempered when I came across this tweet on Twitter:

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Somers followed up with this tweet:

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Yes, obvious. But of course, if I were ever to be on a list, I would not complain.

As I said, here’s where the connection to my resolution to learn Spanish well enough to have conversations sin esfuerzo y con fluidez comes in. As I go about my day, everything I do or react to, I try to describe or respond to it in Spanish to train my brain to think in Spanish. For instance, regarding lists, I might say something like this (with a shout-out to Jenny, my Spanish teacher when I was in Quito, who drilled me on the subjective):

Pero, seguramente, si yo estuviera en una lista, no me podría quejar.

Which is to say, But surely if I were on a list, I wouldn’t complain.

The Spanish doesn’t just roll off my tongue, since my brain is still spending a little too much time hunting for the words. But with daily practice, I figure I can accustom both brain and tongue to deliver sentences with an acceptable level of fluency.

So, with the help of various YouTube Spanish teachers, I’m learning phrases and expressions that could be relevant to the highs and lows of having a book come out in the world.

2020-01-14-15.pngFrom Maria, la creadora colombiana of Why Not Spanish? comes this advice for Spanish-language learners, but which is good advice for cualquier cosa:

Lo peor que puedas hacer es comparate con otra persona. No tiene sentido.

The worst thing you can do is compare yourself with another person. It doesn’t make sense. (Highly sensible, no?)

2020-01-14-16-e1579113147528.pngFrom Barcelona, Nacho of NachoTime Spanish advises those of us learning Spanish to write sentences each day.

Escribir sirve para pensar mejor.

Writing helps you think better.
It’s a good reminder of why we write – for our own edification.

2020-01-14-17.pngAlso from Barcelona, Karo and Mauro of Español Automático include these among the actions of those who are successful in learning languages:

Haz tu trabajo.
Poner de tu parte.

Do your work.
Do your part.

Focus on the writing and do what you can to help your press promote your book.

2020-01-14-18.pngFrom mexicanos Beto and Hector on No Hay Tos, I borrow this expression to describe the fact that I have a book coming out from the lovely folks at Jaded Ibis Press:

¡Que chido!

How cool!

 

 

 

 

This past year I read good books and experienced good things. Here are a few of each of them matched up in a semi-random, teeny bit calculated way, introduced by a few lines from the featured book.

From “1989” in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, a deeply perceptive and intelligent collection of essays by Alexander Chee:

35721123._SY475_Everyone is running now and everywhere batons rise. The screams lift out of the street, and in restaurants up and down the block doors are locked and the diners are informed.

In “1989,” Chee writes about the AIDS march in San Francisco and the response of the riot police to the disruption of traffic. It’s a short, powerful essay about his realization that the police were directing their brutality not just at the people who were protesting, but at what they were fighting for – all of this happening in the country he lived in.

I read this essay months before I went to Ecuador, landing during street protests in Quito where students, workers, and indigenous activists were tear-gassed by police and military units. This was not my country, but I sided with the people and their demands for social and economic justice.

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From The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, which won the 2018 National Nook Award for Fiction:

the_friend_newdogRather than write about what you know, you told us, write about what you see. Assume that you know very little and that you’ll never know much until you learn how to see. Keep a notebook to record things that you see, for example when you’re out in the street.

I read this beautiful book on our flight to Spain in May. A woman grieving the death of her lifelong best friend recalls the above advice from him. I’ve never been good about keeping a journal or recording thoughts and observations in a notebook. But during the three weeks we were in Spain, at the end of each day I logged our activities, typing them into my phone, including this incident in Segovia: We arrived at the tiny Casa-Museo Antonio Machado to find it closed during the siesta hours. On the step outside sat two middle-aged men, one of them reciting poetry in beautiful, lilting tones, and the other listening, nodding. I missed out on seeing the museum, but I was grateful to have witnessed that.

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From “As Luck Would Have It” in Staten Island Stories by Claire Jimenez, an engaging collection I reviewed for Seattle Review of Books:

9781421434162One day Chrissy had the bright idea to reach out to the ghosts. She thought that perhaps we could make peace with them if only we could all just sit down and talk.

I believe in ghosts and I fear seeing strange ones, that is, the ghosts of people I haven’t known. But I welcome the ghosts of beloveds. If not their ghosts, then their living, breathing doubles. One hot Sunday afternoon in February, while I was walking down a nearly empty street in Oaxaca, an elderly woman was walking toward me. There was something familiar about her dress, her shoes, her pace. I prepared to greet her as we neared each other. I can’t remember if I managed to extend a “buenos dias” to her. I don’t even remember if she looked my way or if she was focused on the gently upward slope of the sidewalk ahead of her. But as soon as she passed me, I stopped immediately and whirled around to watch her walk away, resisting the urge to rudely catch up to her for another look at her face, which eerily resembled my long-dead Mexican grandmother.

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From The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks, a smart and enthralling fictional account of the life of composer Eric Satie:

42283234“You a writer?” a man asked, glancing at Philippe’s notebook. The man was wearing a jacket, not a smock, and his collar was gray and crooked. He made a strange tinkling sound as he leaned over the bar, as if he were strung with wind chimes. His nose was a nearly bloody-looking red, and his eyes were already glazed.

Still, Philippe thought this was possibly the best single thing anyone had said to him in his life. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I’m a writer. What are you?

“A drunk,” the barman said, refusing to serve the man the absinthe he’d requested.

This novel, rich in character and setting, includes among its themes art and genius versus art and talent and the ever-constant doubt that accompanies both. The passage above features Phillippe, who comes to Paris from Spain and encounters obstacles in trying to make his name as a poet. Imposter syndrome is real for writers. Even when we feel confident that the work we’ve finished is good and deserving of publication, once we send it out into the world seeking a publisher, we are beset with doubt that anyone will find it worthy. So, it was with gladness and relief that I learned in late May that Jaded Ibis Press will release my third book of fiction Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories in fall 2020.2019-11-26 (3)

 

From Hezada! I Miss You by Erin Pringle (forthcoming March 2020), a beautiful novel about the change, loss, nostalgia, and memory that accompanies a dying circus and the dying village it visits:

Pringle_Hezadel-FrontCover-D7The tumblers run up the street and jump high into the splits. When they land, they raise their arms to applause, then take off again, running, jumping, now twisting too many times to count before they land facing the other side of the street. More applause. They rise up on their toes, arch their backs, and reach as though to touch the sky, defiant at the rain.

Who doesn’t love performers? They are deserving of our applause. Especially improv actors. Last April the multi-faceted Jekeva Phillips invited me to participate in BIbliophilia. My part was easy: I read an excerpt from one of my Angie Rubio stories. Then, in one of the most creative acts I’d ever witnessed, a group of improv actors took over where I left off. After a brief huddle, the actors took the stage and continued my story in spontaneous and incredibly funny, smart, and seamless dialogue and action. Like an ice sculpture that melts or a sand painting that is erased, that performance was a one-time thing – unscripted, unrecorded, never to exist again. I suppose that’s the point of improv – its ephemeral nature, its beauty and power. But how I wish I could’ve wrapped that performance up and taken it home with me to watch again and again.

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From The Body Papers by Grace Talusan, an exquisitely crafted memoir about trauma, identity, and family:

40680094Inside a few cells in my brain, I believe there’s a part of me that still knows Tagalog. I feel pain when I attempt to speak it, as though there is something I want to say desperately that can be expressed only in my first language. But I can’t access words, or that part of me that named the world first in Tagalog. When I hear strangers speaking Filipino languages, I am as drawn to them as kin.

I have a similar response to Spanish, though I have never spoken it fluently. It’s a language that I heard throughout my childhood and one that I feel connected to despite my failure to exit from intermediate purgatory in my speaking level. At least my desire for connection through the English language is met through community with other writers through readings, conferences, and retreats. Among the opportunities I had this year was participating on panels at the Orcas Island Literary Festival and teaching at the Hedgebrook Summer Salon. Both times I had the pleasure of hanging out with writers I admire who are also exceptional human beings.

 

From The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart by R. Zamora Linmark (which I reviewed for Seattle Review of Books), a YA novel about first love, which centers the thoughts, desires, and concerns of gay, trans, and gender-fluid teens:

25488370._SY475_ (1)He closes his eyes. He lies there, very still, and with his shaven head, he looks like a newborn baby who wakes up to greet the world, then returns back to sleep.

These are the protagonist’s observations about the boy he falls in love with. Linmark’s reference to a newborn gives the moment innocence and intimacy because we understand the purity of that moment when a baby wakes up and the tenderness of falling back into slumber. I have a grandson now to remind me of the hope we feel when we behold this innocence. I saw him in the first hours after his birth, sleeping in all his newness. I saw him open his eyes to a world still small to him. Now every time he opens his eyes, his world increases and his awareness of himself in it increases. As he grows, he will always have the support of those who love him to be whoever he wants and needs to be in this world that is big and often beautiful, but not always welcoming.

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When you spend five weeks in a city not your own, sometimes its heartbeat can become yours.

I was a visitor and, in many instances, a tourist in Quito. Not to mention a habitual eavesdropper on a language in which I have yet to gain fluency. Every day I walked

among Ecuatorianos, straining to discern snippets of conversations around me, trying to accustom my ear to a language I’ve heard for much of my life, but which has eluded me like a linguistic sylph. Despite this deficiency and other markers of my foreignness, such as my cargo shorts, I felt at ease and as much at home as an outsider can feel.

I lived in the spare bedroom of the apartment of my daughter Ana and her partner Daniel. I was there to await the birth of their baby, my grandson Ilio. In their Spanish-speaking household, I was also a hoverer, an observer, an extranjera. And yet I felt at ease there, too, as if I belonged in a not-belonging kind of way.

I arrived in Quito in what turned out to be the final days of nationwide manifestaciones or demonstrations. Following Daniel’s lead, I banged the lid of a pot from the balcony of the apartment during the caserolazo to protest President Lenin Moreno’s 24-hour curfew. I watched as people left their homes to bang their pots and pans in the streets in defiance of that curfew.

The next night, I witnessed the jubilant celebrations when Moreno conceded to the righteous demands of the people. And the day after, I made my way through throngs of students armed with brooms to sweep up the debris from eleven days of protests as I headed to my first day of Spanish classes.

Spanish came into my U.S. family with my grandmother, who immigrated from Mexico in the years after the Mexican Revolution. Spanish ended in my family with my mother’s generation, which seemed to view it as expendable in their American lives. Spanish had been something I’d heard throughout my childhood but was given to understand that it was not for me to have. And even though I took Spanish classes in junior high and high school, it was with this psychological barrier that Spanish was not part of who I was, that the language wasn’t mine to learn, that it was beyond my reach.

But my two daughters with their agile brains, determination to succeed, and confidence in their abilities have both achieved fluency. They have lived and traveled in Spanish-

speaking countries, communicating deftly in an acquired tongue that is also their heritage. I want to be like them. More than ever, now that Daniel is in our family. And though Ilio will be bilingual, I want to speak to him in both his languages.

Since my recent retirement, I have this year spent two weeks in Mexico, three weeks in Spain, and five weeks in Ecuador, each time making incremental progress in understanding and speaking Spanish. They’re increments that may seem undetectable and maybe even negligible, but I know they exist. Of course, there were all those times when words traveled past me so fast, not a single one registered and I had to stammer apologies through my befuddlement.

The lovely thing about taking Spanish classes in a Spanish-speaking country is learning from a local eager to share her culture. Jenny, a lifelong Quiteña, whose rapid pace of speaking I could miraculously follow, suggested places for me to visit. I did go to the Mercado Santa Clara, but did not try the yahuar locro, which in Spanish is called sangre IMG_20191023_153442 (1)de borrego, which in English is sheep’s blood. I went to the Abya Yala museum, had a private tour in Spanish, and asked to watch the video on how chicha is made, which you can and should watch here to see how hard these women work. Totally worth the six minutes. With Daniel and Ana, I went to see the paintings of Oswaldo Guayasamín in La Capilla del Hombre and tour the house he lived in where we saw his portraits of Mercedes Sosa and other contemporaries. We watched a video of him painting the Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucia, which I recommend you watch, too. Again, totally worth the five and half minutes to watch this master at work.

Ilio arrived at the halfway point in my stay.

After the four days of manifestaciones and two weeks of Spanish classes and sightseeing, my routine shifted. As Ana and Daniel focused on new parenthood and adjusted to new sleep patterns, I embraced a new existence that interspersed errands and meal preparation with walks in the neighborhood and nearby parks (though I later set aside several days for excursions outside of Quito). By this time, the city had become familiar to me: the walk through Parque El Ejido, the grocery shopping I did at Tia’s and SuperMaxi, the little corner markets where I bought eggs and produce, the lavanderia, the almost daily thunderstorm, the best places to hail a taxi (almost anywhere, really). With each passing day, I felt more connected to the apartment, the neighborhood, the city. And each passing day brought me closer to the end of my stay. I could almost hear the soft little rip in my heart.

Whenever I rode in a taxi, the always polite and friendly driver, tipped off by my accent, would ask me where I was from and why I happened to be in Quito. So I told every one of them the story of how Ana had been living in Ecuador and met Daniel, a good and kind man with a brilliant smile, and now they had a baby named Ilio, and I showed them pictures as if this story crisscrossing the city in all these taxis would somehow keep some part of me in Quito.

It’s been a week and a half since my return. With each day that passes, that ache for Quito lessens. But it will never completely go away and I don’t want it to.

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When I was pregnant with my first daughter Natalie in 1986, the Chernobyl reactor exploded and the threat of a nuclear cloud passing over the Pacific Northwest and radiating the six-month old fetus inside me freaked me out. Later, when I was pregnant with Ana in 1989, tanks rolled over Tiananmen Square, scattering protestors, killing some, injuring many, and reminding me that being pregnant is an act of hope in a world that often does its best to squelch it.

Ana, almost thirty now, has been living in Ecuador for nearly two years. Within the past year, she made several trips by canoe into the jungle to conduct a study of two indigenous communities regarding their safety and health priorities. She made her last visit to the MVIMG_20191012_090905jungle in her fourth month of pregnancy and finished a report on her findings in her last trimester. Earlier this month, I flew to Quito to spend five weeks with her and her partner Daniel in order to be present for the birth of their son, due October 26.

The week before I was to leave for Quito, the city shut down. A national strike by transportation workers was called on Wednesday, October 3 in response to the austerity measures imposed by the government as a condition of an IMF loan. A gas subsidy that had been in effect for fifty years was revoked. Indigenous groups, students, and unions joined the transportation workers, barricading roads with rocks and burning tires.

Flights in and out of Quito were cancelled. I checked the news and saw videos of mounted police, tanks (some of which had driven down Ana’s street), and tear-gassed protesters. President Lenin Moreno declared a state of emergency on Thursday and said there was no possibility he would back away from the measures. It was also evident the protesters would not back away either.

I started to worry that my October 9 flight would be cancelled, but I made it into Quito late that night. Ana and Daniel met me at the airport, having hired a car in case taxis were not running. The streets were mostly empty and a little eerie. At one point, a military truck carrying soldiers turned in front of us.

For four days after my arrival in Quito, protests raged from afternoon well into the night. Ana and Daniel’s apartment is just blocks from one of the areas where protesters concentrated their actions – Parque El Arbolito where the Movimiento Indigena had taken refuge in the Casa de la Cultura.

Explosions and helicopters whirring overhead were the soundtrack to Ana’s pregnancy now. At times, tear gas permeated the neighborhood. Daniel, firm in his solidarity with the protesters, touched Ana’s belly with their son inside and declared him a rebelde.

When Moreno imposed a 24-hour curfew on Saturday, October 12, we worried about what would happen if Ana went into labor early, whether her midwife and doula would be able to make it to the apartment. Daniel’s Plan B was that he would run to the nearby park where many medical personnel were volunteering to help injured protesters and fetch a doctor there.

MVIMG_20191013_224213But late Sunday afternoon there was a lull in the protests and Moreno held talks with the indigenous leaders. Later that evening, there were again sounds of explosions, but this time they were fireworks. Soon church bells pealed. Daniel announced, “!El pueblo ganó!” Ana, relieved and exhausted, went to bed. Daniel layered on sweaters and went out, intending to spend the night rejoicing in the Casa de la Cultura. Minutes later, I also went out into the exhilarating night to join the steady stream of neighbors heading to the park to celebrate.

Here’s a good article that explains what the Ecuadorian people were fighting for.

It’s been a week and a half since the protests ended, and we await the baby. MVIMG_20191014_092845

We speculate on when he will come. Before or after the due date? If after, how long after? We wonder what he will look like, expecting him to be born with a full head of hair the way Ana was. We think he will be plump like both his parents were as babies.

Chances are he will be a thoughtful, artistic, compassionate, justice-advocating human being like his parents. He will be raised with a sense of social justice, a love for the natural world, an aversion to waste and consumerism. He will be Ecuadorian and American with Mexican, Filipino, and Scottish roots.

He will be what this world needs more of – a good and kind human being.

Jane Hodges picked me up at 1:30 last Thursday afternoon at my North Seattle apartment to drive me to Mineral, a small community in the foothills of Mount Rainier.

In its Wikipedia entry, Mineral’s amenities are listed as “a post office, two churches, one general store, one tavern, a log lodge (in the National Register of Historic Places), a resort Vacancywith fishing docks and boat/pontoon rentals and two bed and breakfast facilities.” (The log lodge, built in 1906, was the place where I would stay overnight.)

Not included in the Wikipedia entry is the uniquely homey and benignly haunted Mineral School Arts Residency, founded and directed by Seattle writer Jane Hodges. Last summer I was a resident at Mineral School, where I put the finishing touches on my Angie Rubio manuscript and in the ensuing months sent it out to a few places. In May, I accepted an offer of publication from Jaded Ibis Press, whose recent releases include Kingdom of Women by Rosalie Morales Kearns (interviewed here by Rigoberto Gonzalez) and As a River by Sion Dayson whose newly published novel has made it to several “best” and “pick” lists.

As we traveled from the traffic-laden cityscape to the two-lane rural roads, Jane and I talked books. Jane not only reads a lot, she has great recall of what she reads. Her brain is a library.

Sometime after 3:30, after making the turn off Route 7 at Elbe where a Trump 2020 sign Murraylooms big and scary, Jane dropped me off at Mineral Lake Lodge, where Carolyn, a former physician and now lodge proprietor, and Murray the cat greeted me. I was the only guest in the eight-room lodge and was given my choice of themed room. I nearly opted for the Moose Country Room on the top floor because it was the only room with a desk, but realized that if I chose the Birdhouse View Room on the second floor I would have easy access to the sunroom with its dramatic view of Mineral Lake. Teddy Roosevelt is purported to have slept in the sunroom.

After an hour or so in the sunroom alternating reading a book, gaping at the view, and conjuring the spirit of Roosevelt, I walked the narrow country road to Mineral School to join the current residents Samantha Lee, Elise Morris, Dayna Patterson, and Pamela K. Santos for a 6:00 dinner of salmon cakes, broccoli, and black bean salad prepared by chef Val. It was the week of the parent artist residency and I’d been invited to read and also talk a little about how I wrote during my active parenting years.

Birdhouse RoomAfter the 7:30 reading, plum cake dessert, and conversation, I went back to the lodge around 9. I sat in my Birdhouse View Room bed and did the NYT crossword online. Then in preparation for my trip to Ecuador in a few weeks I did some Español en Uso exercises before settling in with a book. It was lights out on the birdhouses sometime after 11.

The next morning, I walked to Mineral School to have breakfast with the residents, after which visual artist and photographer Elise took a few portrait photos of me as she had done with the residents. She explained how to turtle my neck to meet rather than shy away the camera. I also took a selfie with the exuberant Pamela Santos. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter and you might find it there.

Back at the lodge, I chatted briefly with lodge owner Carolyn and learned how a retired Carolynphysician and quilt maker ended up in Mineral as a bed and breakfast lodge owner. Then I had a couple of hours in the sunroom to write and be boggled anew by the view before my time in Mineral was up.

I packed up and walked back to Mineral School where Jane had a yummy sack lunch waiting for me. At noon, Rebecca Peterson, Mineral School working artist, drove me along the scenic backroads of Lewis County to Centralia where I caught the 1:30 Amtrak Cascades back to Seattle.

It was a perfect little overnight adventure that offered a little bit of many of the things I love – scenery- rich drives, walks, and train ride; meeting and hanging out with writers and artists; a stay in a historic lodge; and tasty, well-prepared food. Interspersed in all of it were the always essential moments of solitude to read or write. Thank you, Mineral School, for a lovely 24 hours.