It’s a pile-on of abuse – children torn from their parents at the border, women’s reproductive rights incrementally eroded, health care revoked, environmental protections stripped away. It’s violence upon people (mostly black and brown), country, and planet that is built upon or supported by the daily lies that pour forth from the rumpled lips of the self-involved know-nothing occupying the White House. We suffer outrage overload, we slump from news fatigue, and we carry on. We go to work, we work out, prepare meals, watch Netflix, and go to bed, hoping, dreaming that something somehow will return us to normalcy – you know, the regular levels of racism, sexism, and disregard for the land.

A friend recently posted on Facebook of her own sense of hopelessness about the devastation to the country and the wreckage to the soul. She asked how others cope. Self-care through spiritual practices, humor, and kindness, some responded. Practical steps such as registering voters, and non-political activism such as teaching kids to read or helping people displaced by disaster, others said.

And then there’s art. And belief in the future. The two came together for me recently.

grid-image-largeEarlier this month, I attended the Inside Out In-Residence Showcase in which the four Town Hall artists-in-residence reflected on the events they had curated over the last six months. Photographer Peter DiCampo’s events emphasized the power of the everyday. For one of his event’s, graphic artist Erik Molano invited notable locals to reflect on a neighborhood’s past and discuss how to shape its future. Writer and educator Jordan Alam’s work revolved around the body’s physical memories. Poet and cross-media artist Shin Yu Pai’s approach to her events are summed up beautifully in her own words:

I believe in the power of the arts to facilitate sense-making and dialogue and to inspire radical empathy…to reveal forgotten or buried narratives that illuminate what it is to be human together.

One of Shin Yu’s events featured writer Kathleen Alcala speaking on “History is an Act of the Imagination,” which took place on April 13. After her talk, I joined Kathleen onstage to have a conversation with her about, among other things, the past and present, the living and dead, and faith and science, and how they coexist.

Ana BC CanadaIn keeping with this theme, we had planned to open a letter to the future my daughter Ana had written in 1999 when she was ten years old. Earlier this year, my husband and I were preparing to sell our house, which we had lived in for thirty-four years. We had nearly emptied it of our belongings when Ana emailed me asking me to rescue something she had hidden in the stairs, certain that the buyer of the house would strip and rebuild and the thing she had hidden would be demolished. She said she had put it there in the hopes that the next child who lived in the house would find it. I lifted the tread of the step and found a cookie tin, which contained, among other artifacts, her letter to the future, sealed with a stamp and with instructions not to open it until the year 3010. (Ana granted me permission to open the letter ahead of 3010.)

We ran out of time at Kathleen’s event so the letter to the future remained sealed. Shin Yu invited me to open the letter during her recap of her residency at the artists-in-residence showcase on June 7.

It was in the context and spirit of the residency themes – art and social justice, art and the power of the everyday, and art and our humanness – that I read my daughter’s letter to the future. Ana’s consent to my unsealing the letter and reading it out loud came with the caveat that should it contain anything too personal or embarrassing, I was to stop reading. I agreed, though I was sure that the words of a ten-year-old girl could be nothing but sincere and true.

letterThe letter to the future turned out to have been written on a ready-made form from a kit. It consisted of Ana’s responses to three prompts. Here’s what we learned that evening:

• The best things in her life are her family and her cats (she mentioned all of us, including the cats, by name).
• Her personal goals for the future are to be a soccer player, a singer, or an actress because they are all very important things.
• Her wishes for the future of the world are for “people to stop ‘puluting’ the planet and for people to stop killing, hating, and hurting.”

Ana is 28 years old now. She is not a soccer player, singer, or actress. She’s applying her strength and creativity in other ways. With a master’s degree in regional development and environmental policy, she is pursuing a research project in the Amazon basin in Ecuador to assist the local communities in developing a disaster preparedness plan. Among her friends is a doctor from the Dominican Republic who spends half his time in the jungle serving indigenous populations. She is helping Ecuadorian friends conduct interviews in a Kitchwa community for an animated book of oral legends. She’s writing an article on cultural appropriation for a local magazine for which she also does translation.

Ana Natalie Oly PeninsulaWhen my daughters were little, I had only a few ambitions for them. I wanted them to be educated. I wanted them to be good people. I wanted them to happy. They’re both educated and they’re both good people. The happiness part is trickier. Here’s what I think is true though. Happiness isn’t guaranteed, but you can’t even hope to be happy unless you’re a good person.

The ones separating families at the border are not good people. And there is no goodness in  controlling women’s bodies, taking away health care, and endangering our planet and our future by denying science for the sake of profits.

Yes, we’re weary of the onslaught of injustices. Let’s resist, in whatever way we can, the lies. Use art – literature, music, theater, photography, whatever kind of art – to, as Shin Yu Pai says, “inspire radical empathy.” Let’s reveal and further the narratives “that illuminate what it is to be human together.”

 

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You could say I asked for it, that I knew what I was getting into. Still, I went. To the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference. I wrote about it in a previous post. I’d long known about the conference. And I’d long wanted to experience San Miguel de Allende, its picturesque cobblestone streets, its markets, its artesanías. I did love the city.

I did not love the conference. I didn’t hate it either. I got what I expected, what some had warned me about. A very white conference in the heart of Mexico. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I attended some very useful sessions, but there were others that were a reminder of its whiteness, its clueslessness about racism and cultural appropriation.

I sat with the experience for weeks when it occurred to me to return to the conference website. The deadline to apply to be faculty for the next conference was a day away. Having attended a half-dozen sessions at the recent conference, I was convinced that workshops I’d taught at other venues were of the caliber of the San Miguel conference. I submitted my proposal and emphasized my intent to use examples from works by writers of color, noting the lack I’d encountered in my recent experience at the conference.

A couple of weeks ago I received my rejection letter from the conference. A form letter, of course, that lamented the need to turn down so many of the 250 proposals that were submitted for the 70 sessions. They suggested I apply again next year.

I get it. I’ve been rejected many times for many things. My response most often is to shrug it off and move on, or as I was invited to do, to apply again. But there was something about this rejection that I couldn’t so easily shrug away. I decided to write back to the organizers and tell them why I had been compelled to submit a proposal.

I wrote about what it felt like to be one of the few writers of color at an overwhelmingly white conference. I described the unsatisfactory response from the all-white agent/editor panel when I asked what they were doing to increase representation in the publishing industry. I described the racist text one faculty member used to convey an example of humor. I talked about the missed opportunity in the travel writing workshop to discuss colonialist or racist perspectives when white people write about being in countries of brown or black people. I wrote that I had wanted to bring my perspective as a writer of color to the conference. I ended by saying, “Of those proposals that were accepted for the 2019 conference, I’m hoping there were some from writers of color. Otherwise, your conference will continue to be representative only of white writers and white experiences – a white bubble of American privilege in a country of brown people.”

I got a reply the next day, bubbly and breathless in its defense of their desire and efforts to be diverse. She listed all the brown and black people they had featured as keynote speakers over the years. She assured me that the list of general faculty was even more impressive. She described the Spanish-language element of the conference and its Mexican faculty. She expressed regret that “Unfortunately, we receive very few proposals from African American or Asian writers.”

She ended with, “If you know of writers of color whom you can encourage to apply to teach at our Conference, please do encourage them to apply. We need more applications from people of color.”

Could I possibly let this go? I wrote back that their response was lacking because their effort was lacking. I made the following points:

  • The Spanish language aspect of their program taught by Mexican faculty was fundamental for any conference held in Mexico and was separate from the issue of diverse representation of general faculty and participants.
  • A look at their website is evidence of how few faculty of color outside of the Spanish-language program they invite.
  • A genuine effort to diversify their faculty would involve getting to know writing communities of color and actively recruiting their members to teach at their conference.
  • Saying “Unfortunately, we receive very few proposals from African American or Asian writers” is lazy and shows a lack of commitment to true representation.
  •  A commitment would involve a public statement on their website of their intent to increase diversity of both faculty and participants. The statement would include assurance of respect for race, culture, and class so that the racism and microaggressions, which I mentioned in my email but which they failed to acknowledge, would be rarer and would be addressed when brought to their attention.
  • Diversity doesn’t happen by wishing for more applications from African American or Asian American writers. Nor does it happen by asking someone whose application they rejected to do the work for them by asking her to encourage her colleagues of color to apply.

I got no breathless and bubbly response this time. I got no response at all. When conference organizers say they’re working hard to be diverse and you as a person of color who has experienced their conference tells them, “No, you’re not,” and tells them why they’re not, and the conference organizers stop talking to you, well, what else is new?

As for the photos in this post, they’re indicative of the fact that I took hardly any photos at the conference, focusing my camera instead on the sights of interest outside of it.

IMG_20180219_071452

As my husband and I were finishing up weeks of sorting, recycling, and tossing many of our possessions and packing what was left, and the old house was nearly empty and we were days away from leaving a life of blown fuses, roof leaks, the chill from a broken furnace, and other woes of an infirm abode, I got an email from our younger daughter in Ecuador.

I left a tin box under the bottom stair when I was a kid thinking the next kid would find it. But given the high probability the next owner will be taking a wrecking ball to the house, maybe you should collect it before selling.

So, we lifted the tread of the bottom stair and there it was: A Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Cookies tin. I hadn’t known about this liftable tread in all the thirty-four years I went up and down those stairs to wake up, scold, placate, or say goodnight to our daughters. I didn’t think twice about the hollow sound of that bottom step. It was just one of those idiosyncrasies of an old house whose seams were slowly separating. Of course, it was one of those things a not quite ten-year-old would know about.

I opened the tin and atop an assortment of artifacts –  a jumble of Canadian and American coins, a little pewter case with yet more coins, and photos of the family and our cats – there was this:

IMG_20180416_194520

It stirred nostalgia and delight for that ten-year-old girl. Ache for that lost innocence. And a kind of sacredness toward this act that was meant to connect a ten-year-old girl to another child far into the future. A future when my ten-year-old would herself be long gone if the letter lasted into the year 3010. But when we rescued the tin from oblivion, from possible destruction by a sledge hammer or even heavy machinery in 2018, we also removed it from the realm of the future. The future is now, nineteen years after Ana hid the cookie tin under the stair.

It seemed too unceremonious to unseal the letter to the future there in our nearly empty house. It deserved preamble, witnesses other than ourselves, a communal appreciation.

Kathleen Alcalá suggested I open it at the Town Hall Inside Out event at which she was to deliver a talk on “History as an Act of the Imagination,” after which I would join her onstage to interview her. My daughter consented to this venue for unsealing the letter to the future. It seemed to fit with the theme of the evening – researching the past, connecting it to the present, and helping us to imagine the future.

We added it to the program, even publicly announced it on social media. We had a plan. But there is always the possibility that things will not go as calculated. The conversation takes a turn, the timing is off, the cue does not materialize, and the moment is lost. All of that happened. The evening was a success without it.

The disappointment at not opening the letter was fleeting. When I thought about it, I concluded that for whatever reason, that evening was not the time and place for finding out what Ana wrote to the future.

The future had not yet arrived. And that was fine with me.

Ana bridge2

Many years ago, I left my laptop open and my younger daughter read the story I happened to be working on. She asked, “Why did you make me a boy in that story.”

“It’s not about you,” I answered.

Another time she asked why I killed her off in a story. It’s not about you, I said again.

But one time I wanted to fictionalize a true incident involving her and a dead rat. She was reluctant, but she agreed and signed over permission for me to write about the rat incident, but only once. Recently, as I was purging old files, I came across that contract.Ana's rat story note

The story is still unpublished. It needs work, but I haven’t had time to revise it. It has sat dormant for years. But it might never have been written in the first place.

A few years after I’d started writing, I considered giving it up. Not forever. Just until I could retire from my job, which at the time seemed like forever.

I was in my early forties, in the decade which my doctor at the time described as the worst in a woman’s life. I worked full-time. My husband was starting his business. Our children, though still young, would reach puberty right about the time I became perimenopausal.

Prior to having children, we had bought a sad house that we thought we could fix, but money, time, and patience were always in short supply. We lived in a house that we could never love. Things broke. Sometimes they were fixed or replaced. Sometimes not. We did what we could.

Life was stressful. Overwhelming. And yet I wanted to write. But. Life was stressful. And overwhelming. The thought of setting aside writing until the kids were grown and I qualified for Medicare added to the stress. I feared that the thing that drove me to write – the sense that something was missing in my life – would come back and settle on my chest or stomach or throat, someplace that would make it hard for me to breathe.

It was my father who convinced me not to give up writing. My father who was already dead – who died eight months after I enrolled in my first fiction writing class back in 1992 – came to me in a dream. Keep going, he said. Don’t stop.

So, I kept going.

And now it’s 2018. In April, I’ll complete my thirtieth year at my job. In June, I’ll turn 65. In December, I’ll retire. We are selling the house. We have gradually emptied it of its contents, so it echoes when we walk and there’s a loneliness in its bare walls. I am only a little sad for it.

Soon I will have more time to write and we will live in a different place and I will finish the rat story.

Gravitational pull
I hadn’t been to Mexico since 1976 when I attended a summer session in Guadalajara after completing an undergraduate degree in zoology. I signed up for Mexican History and Intermediate Spanish but spent most of the time hanging out with a Chicana from L.A. We had spotted each other the first day across the patio and immediately headed toward one another. Call it a gravitational pull.

Three birds with one conference
IMG_20180213_091615_174I never meant for so much time to pass before returning to Mexico, but thirty-two years can pass in a bat of an eye out of hell. Speaking of an eye, I had had mine on the San Miguel Writers Conference for a while, mostly because it was in San Miguel de Allende, known for its picturesque streets, vividly colored buildings, and significance in the war of independence from Spain. It was a place for inspiration, and I was all in for that. I wanted a three-fer with this conference: learn new things about writing, explore a beautiful city, and write.

Frida, a pink bedstead, and mangoes
IMG_20180212_165427I rented a small room with a kitchen less than a ten-minute walk from the conference hotel. The only drawback was the lack of natural light which lent a slight mustiness to the air. But the Frida Kahlo portrait on the wall above the pink iron bedstead and the ripe mangoes I kept in a bowl on the counter freshened the space. Each morning, I ate a mango, bade Frida adios, and headed off to the conference.

What I learned – the good
The session on scene mechanics was a good reminder to me to turn my exposition-heavy first draft of a new novel into real-time events. The overview class of the different movements of modernism in art and literature gave me new ways to experiment with my writing, and the flash prose class provided masterful examples to study.

A panel on writing and activism featured the journalist Felipe Restrepo Pombo, whose first teacher was Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Art is a political act by nature, he said. The act of writing is an act of empathy. Politics and empathy are evident in his introduction to The Sorrows of Mexico, a collection of reportage by seven Mexican journalists on such issues as the drug cartels, teenage prostitution, and the disappearance of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa.

What I learned – the bad
I had hoped to get more from the travel writing class, but the best nugget was dropped in the first minute of the session when the instructor shared the fascinating finding that the brain is most active when one is wandering around an unfamiliar city. A good thing to know for those of us negotiating the  streets of San Miguel for the first time. Also a good thing to know that would’ve been worth mentioning is how travel writing is different from other types of essay writing. Otherwise, why call the session travel writing? And this too: How does one avoid being patronizing, colonialist, or racist when writing about another country and culture? A most appropriate perspective given that overwhelmingly the session participants were white Americans in Mexico.

What I learned – the ugly
I attended the agent panel because sometime in the near future, I will be seeking an agent for my new novels (I have two in the works). I took few notes because I was fidgety and distracted by a glaring omission in the makeup of the panel, one I’m sure was evident to few others in the room. It was an all-white panel. Of course, they were speaking to a mostly white audience. Nevertheless, I pointed out the exclusion of writers of color. Whenever people are challenged on a point about race and diversity, they get defensive and focus on the wrong thing – like saying everyone gets rejections or that white writers featuring protagonists of color in their work are having a hard time getting published too.

I went to the class on humor writing, hoping to find some comic relief. Also, because I occasionally teach a class called “Dissolving or deepening tension with humor,” I wanted to see what I could learn from someone else’s class. What I learned is that two people will approach the same subject differently. Whereas, the instructor of this class used examples from P.G. Wodehouse and Dave Barry, mine come from work by Lorrie Moore and Antonya Nelson. A gender difference, yes. But also a difference in terms of where the focus is on the spectrum of humor – the one-liner at one end and conceptual humor arising from incongruous behaviors at the other end. I’m all for the one-liner – as long as it doesn’t offend.

But here’s an example of humor the instructor used from a Bill Bryson book:

And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years, haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?

Am I alone in thinking that this is racist? Am I alone in thinking that using this as an example will encourage others in the room to follow it and perpetuate racist humor? Should I have mentioned this in class or brought it up with the instructor privately later? Probably. But this class followed the agent panel where I had stood up in front of fifty or sixty people and pointed out the lack of diversity in the room that was reflective of the publishing industry in general. So, yeah, I was done with that for the day.

After lunch
IMG_20180213_120346I left the conference after lunch each day and walked around the city, browsed the markets, peeked inside shops. Three of the eight evenings I enjoyed dinner with friends. The other evenings, before writing in my windowless room under Frida’s gaze, I made dinner in my little kitchen, or I found a quiet little place to eat alone and watch the foot and car traffic pass by.

Ex-pats
There are a lot of Americans in San Miguel, which is to say, white Americans. They buy homes and retire there. The women wear Mexican scarves and blouses to blend in with their surroundings. The men unironically wear t-shirts that say Make America Mexico Again.

Gravitational pull redux
A friend has rechristened the city San Miguel de América because of the ubiquity of the expats, which is why when I spotted a group of young, brown American men in front of 28061751_10159906829100363_3149448228190315555_ome as I walked to my casita one afternoon, it was like seeing family. I greeted them, pointed them to the centro and headed on my way. The next day, I was delighted to run into them at the mercado and we greeted each other again. The day after that a friend drove me to the hot springs. I was relaxing in one of the pools, my face to the sun and my eyes closed, when I heard someone say, “Hey, that’s her.” It was the young men again. This time we exchanged names and chatted and hung out because some invisible force was bringing us together. Like the gravitational pull that led me and the L.A. Chicana to each other in Guadalajara in 1976.

Ambiance
On my last afternoon there, a Sunday, I found a space on a bench between two solitary Mexican men in the main plaza. They wore cowboy boots and hats. Their faces were weathered, their mustaches showing gray. The one on my right drank a Corona. Each nodded to me as I sat down. Mariachi music reached us from a nearby café, church bells pealed. Strolling gente left bits of conversation fluttering in their wake. In our individual and shared solitude, the caballeros and I watched life in San Miguel de Allende.IMG_20180218_160008

 

We’re downsizing. We’re cramming books, clothes, and kitchen paraphernalia into boxes and bags for multiple trips to Goodwill. Ruthless and unsentimental has been my modus operandi. But then I came to the file cabinet.

I blithely tossed reams of paper into the recycling bin – mostly early drafts of stories. I did feel a pang at chucking those self-conscious, overly written, and earnest bits of narrative. As for the other filed-away relics, it’s been hard to sort out what to keep and what to toss. Ruthless and unsentimental doesn’t work for the miscellaneous chunks of my life stuffed in these hanging folders. TOSS or KEEP is practically an existential dilemma. What would you do with these?

Parenting articles like this one that remind you of your ineptness or cluelessness: Fresh Warnings on the Perils of Piercing – Did I read this before or after younger daughter snuck out to get her navel pierced at age 14? TOSS?

Notes from family meetings 1994, samples from Agenda Item 3 – Issues: When going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, no need to wake up your parents; don’t hit, kick, or punch people; don’t forget to flush the toilet; change your underwear; take a bath at least twice a week. KEEP

Pet rat respiratory treatment bill, followed by pet rat euthanasia bill 2003. (RIP Tiffani, sister of Biffani who preceded her in death, the first of the sibling rats to succumb to lung infection.) KEEP TOSS KEEP

A story by daughter Ana written when she was five that started like this: Once upon a time there was a mother chicken. She stepped on her eggs and two chicks came out and there was a storm and they got hit by lightning and they died. KEEP

The list of questions I asked Jane Hamilton when I interviewed her for Talking Fiction on KCMU public radio in 1995 when she was on tour for A Map of the World. KEEP

Color illustration of frog anatomy from the Lionel Toy Corporation dissection kit I received for Christmas when I was eleven. How had I kept this all these years? TOSS KEEP

A graduate school paper I wrote in 1979 called “Dialectal Variation and the Ethnocentric Bias,” which opens like this: Political and economic power has been the determinant of language dominance and status in almost any given situation involving colonizer and colonized. Indigenous cultures frequently were relegated to an inferior state and in their subservient role as a colonized people began to question the value of their own language, the most overt reflector of cultural ideas. I listed the Philippines as an example. The professor gave me an A+, called it a magnificent paper, said I should try to get it published. I never did try. It seemed a farfetched idea – me published. KEEP

Daily daycare report for daughter Natalie when she was three: Natalie heard Anthony and Jonathan talk about what they wanted to be when they grow up (astronaut and fireman) and she said she wanted to be Ernie when she grows up. – As in Bert and Ernie. I love that she wanted to be a Muppet. KEEP KEEP KEEP

A note signed by my husband and children congratulating me on my first ever literary grant award – $7500 from the Seattle Arts Commission in 1997, a heaping serving of support and confidence. KEEP

A copy of a letter I wrote to my father soon after his cancer diagnosis in June 1992 that included these words: Even though you’re my father, there’s lots I don’t know about you. KEEP

Things I jotted down from a Sherman Alexie poetry workshop that reads like a poem:
Have no self-consciousness, no ceremony when you write
Don’t have agendas
Think line by line
Don’t be afraid to destroy your poems over and over again
Be in the business of remodeling  KEEP

I recently spent eight days in the Philippines. That’s eight days out of 64 years of my life. I’ve made a list of over a dozen topics I want to write about. Is it arrogantly absurd that the topics number more than the days I was there? How do I swoop in and out of a country and expect anything I write to have depth or meaning? Will I conjure things that don’t exist? Will my desire for connection slurry into wishful thinking?

Will I simplify? Objectify? Distort? Will my privilege cause me to sentimentalize or condescend? Will my memories fade over time or will they concretize into a stilted moment without context?

At night I lie awake, brain waves spiking with thoughts of how oceans separate families, how war and economic oppression drive migration, how colonization obliterates, enriches, and confounds cultures. How a Spanish galleon connected the two lands of my heritage – the Philippines and Mexico. How that most succulent and luscious of fruits – the mango – made its way from Manila to Acapulco and when I slide its sweet pulp in my mouth, slurp its juices off the pit and pull its threads from my teeth and swallow, I am eating my own history.

How social media can make an ocean a little less wide and deep, and a history more accessible. How it enabled members of a family to reconnect after years of being lost to each other.

How.

This summer I’m going to one of my favorite places – the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. I’ve signed up for a workshop on writing flash non-fiction – the perfect fit for my flash Philippines sojourn. I will write myriad little flashes from my blink-of-an-eye experience.

In the meantime, here are some photos – static moments of being that hold glimmers of stories that I will someday write.

Here’s the sign that greeted me at the Manila airport. I apologized inwardly for having taken so long to get there.

MabuhayHere are day and night time views of Manila from the condo we rented for a few days in Malate. We looked out the balcony first thing each morning and last thing at night. We could hear the traffic of this pulsing, nerve-wracking, electrifying, and fascinating city all the way from the 50th floor.

Here I am with my daughter Natalie, an excellent travel companion. I’ve already posted elsewhere the good pictures of us together, so here’s one on the volcano island in the middle of Taal Lake. A goat appears to be coming out of my ass. I am a mythical creature in a spirit land. With Natalie

Here’s the precious gift my sweet cousin Malou gave me. This pen belonged to her mother, my father’s sister, the sibling who survived the longest of the children of my Filipino grandparents, Rosendo Miscolta and Donata Tiongkiao. I never got to meet Tita Melia. She passed away a month before my visit. Malou had my name engraved on the pen and now a triangle is etched on my heart. My father did crossword puzzles. I learned that Melia did too, maybe with this pen. And guess who does the NYT crossword every day? Hint: Me.

Pen

Here’s me riding in a jeepney in Las Piñas as James Lazarra, a proud Las Piñero, tells me about the history of his (and my father’s) hometown.

In Jeepney

Tionquiao, also spelled Tiongkiao, is a common name in Las Piñas. On my father’s side, I am a Miscolta and a Tiongkiao.  If you’re a Tiongkiao, your origins lie in Las Piñas, James Lazarra says.

Tionquiao

Here’s me on what seems to be a duck ramp. I scooted down to scoop some seawater into a small vial. The next time I’m in San Diego, CA, I will sprinkle Las Piñas water on my father’s grave. I also scraped some soil from the plant bed at the entrance to the jeepney company. I will sprinkle this Philippine soil on his grave as well.

Water sample

These are views from James Lazarra’s office just above Plaza Quezon and Padre Diego Cera Street in Las Piñas. My father and grandfather walked these streets.

And here I am gazing at the street below. Thanks to Natalie for capturing this moment —  more than a glimmer,  more than a flash. On the brink of forever.

Looking at street

 

“Like reading a soap opera script,” opines sacintl, a user name that faintly suggests the word “succinct,” in keeping with her six-word review of my story collection Hola and Goodbye. Sort of like Hemingway’s six-word story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn) – tragic and sad, but without the tenderness.

Untitled

We are advised not to read our Amazon reviews. After all, a writer’s job is to write, and a reader’s is to read and have opinions. And some of those opinions may dismiss your 350-page story collection in six words.

The best strategy is for the writer to dismiss the dismissive review and move on, to not obsess over it, to give it as much thought as the reviewer likely did to our work.

So, I will say that it was curiosity, not obsession that drove me to click on sacintl’s name to see what else she had reviewed. (I say “she” because, well, call it a hunch.)

sacintl also reviewed Dingo Medium Rawhide Bones, rewarding it four stars and an exclamation mark: “Dog loves it!” Ah, if only her dog had reviewed my book.

In sacintl’s estimation, Hola and Goodbye falls between Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Hawkins’s book earned one star from sacintl who called it “boring.” Doerr received a respectable three stars. Both Hawkins and Doerr have tens of thousands of reviews so their average rating can absorb the occasional stinting on stars from a succinct, dismissive reader. I, on the other hand have twelve reviews.

If I were to be obsessive about sacintl‘s review, I might offer up this definition of “soap opera” from Wikipedia: A soap opera or soap, is a serial drama on television or radio that examines the lives of many characters, usually focusing on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.

Does Hola and Goodbye examine the lives of many characters? Yes, yes it does.

Does it focus on emotional relationships? Yes!

To the point of melodrama? Noooo, I say.

Again, if I were to be obsessive about sacintl’s review, I might point to the blurbs from Nina McConigley, Lysley Tenorio, and Luis Urrea, or the review in the L.A. Review of Books by Kim Fay, or the inclusion of Hola and Goodbye in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s list of “11 New and Necessary Latino Books to Read.” But no! I refuse to be obsessive.

Back to sacintl’s other reviews, here’s one for Stewart Freeze Dried Treats 21 Oz. Beef Liver: “Dog approves! Great product – my dog loves them! (Four stars)

Maybe it’s a dog vs. cat thing. Amazon says that customers interested in cat supplies gave my book five stars.

So, here’s an idea. If you are a cat lover, please consider reading and reviewing Hola and Goodbye. A few words will suffice. Succinct is nice, sacintl not so much.

 

 

November 1 is the one-year anniversary of the publication of Hola and Goodbye! I’m marking the occasion by matching some favorite photos of events I did over the past year with excerpts from stories in the book.

One of the first events I did was at the North Carolina Writers Network Conference where I sat on a panel called “A Conversation about Culture.” Panel NCW 2

Here are some lines about two people conversing (or not) from the story “Irma the Practical.”

It was a small café, inexpensive and without intimacy. However, the candlelight flattered and the scratchy music from a radio filled the more than occasional silence between them. An agreeable silence, Irma thought and even ventured to say so out loud.
“Yes,” Donald said.
“It’s as if words are not necessary between us.”
Donald nodded, and Irma placed her hand on the table, the easier for him to take it in his own.

 

For my book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company, family and friends traveled from Southern California to celebrate with me.Family

Here’s a line about family from the story, “When Danny Got Married.”

Let’s face it, even at thirteen I knew my family was a hodgepodge of conquered peoples.

 

When I read at the Women’s Museum of San Diego, I got to see San Diego writers Marivi Soliven Blanco and Thelma Virata de Castro.  W Marivi and Thelma2

Here are lines from the story “Fleeing Fat Allen” in which the word “museum” appears.

Henry stands in the middle of the kitchen, popping his knuckles. “Would you mind,” he says, slowly, each word coming with a pop, “staying with Lyla while I run some errands?” He points to her in the adjoining room, and we both look, like visitors at a museum display.

 

At AWP in Washington, D.C., the inimitable and always beautifully dressed Rigoberto Gonzalez stopped by the Latino Caucus table where I was signing books. W Rigoberto

Here are some lines about attempts at dressing beautifully from the story “Natalie Woods’ Fake Puerto Rican Accent.”

Ofelia is buttoning Norma into a ruffled dress just like her own, gifts from Vin who hasn’t an ounce of taste, a trait Lyla fears has been passed onto their daughters. They stand side by side for Lyla’s inspection. She smiles encouragement as she removes the clip-on bows they have affixed to one another’s heads. “What movie are we going to see?” they ask together, grimacing at each other’s unadorned hair.

 

At the Independent Publishers Awards in NYC, I celebrated with other POC winners. IPA WOC

Here are some lines about winning from the story “Strong Girls.”

“I want to fight,” Ofelia said, her broad nose made broader by the flare of her nostrils. “That big oaf Freddy was just the start.” Her eyes burned with anger at the Freddys of the world. “I want to win,” she said.
I didn’t agree with her that Freddy was that big of an oaf, but I realized that I, too, wanted to win, and I pictured myself in a letterman’s jacket, medals pinned at the left breast, a place in the yearbook.

 

At my hometown library in National City, my cousin was a good sport about my stealing his moniker Señor Wonderful for one of my stories. wJohnny

Here are some lines about sports from the story “Lovely Evelina.”

The last ones left after all the teams of friends had been chosen, Chuck and Warren became friends by default. Warren was in the chess club and science club, and, astoundingly enough, on that most celebrated of clubs at Truman High – the football team. He seldom saw action on the field though, other than stampeding through the goal posts prior to the game as the cheerleaders formed a pom-pom waving, scissor-kicking gauntlet to honor the rush of cleats and testosterone. Warren always told Chuck how exhilarating that was, and Chuck smiled as if in agreement, thinking only of what it might be like to wear a tiny pleated skirt and matching ribbed pullover while turning cartwheels in the cool autumn air.

 

At the International Latino Book Awards in Carson, CA, I had a moment on stage with a plant at a microphone. LatBA with plant

Here are some lines about a plant from the story “Bonita.”

One day she was sent home from work early. It was the day Nestor came home and found her watering the ficus.
“What are you doing?” he asked. There was fear in his face, which made Bonita tremble with her own fear and a glimmer of some awful force inside her.
“The plant,” Nestor said, his hands gesturing accusingly at it, at her, his voice rising with each word,” is not real!”

 

It’s been a fun year and I appreciate the support from family, friends, colleagues, my writing group, and bookstores, libraries, and organizations that have been readers or helped find readers for this book. And of course, much gratitude to Carolina Wren Press.

If you haven’t read Hola and Goodbye yet, please give it a try. If you’ve read it, consider posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads. As Irma says to her vacuum-salesman husband in the story “Irma the Practical,”

“Be forceful,” she told him. “Show that you believe in your product.”
“I am. I do.”

Hola and Goodbye

I’m going to the Philippines in November for the first time. It’s past time. The scenes in my first book When the de la Cruz Family Danced that were set in the Philippines were wholly imagined. They could’ve been based on first-hand experience if four decades ago I’d chosen differently

When I finished college, my father offered to buy me a plane ticket to Manila. I declined.  I had made plans to spend the summer in Mexico learning Spanish. I had saved for months. My mind was made up. My heart was set on Mexico. The Philippines seemed far and foreign, while Mexico was close and more familiar, more accessible and, I confess, more desirable to me at the time.

I’m Filipino and Mexican, and though I often felt I never quite belonged to either community because of being mixed, it was easy to feel a greater affinity to things Mexican. We lived fifteen miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. My grandmother who had emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s spoke only Spanish, so the sounds, if not always the meanings of the words, were familiar to me. Tamales were our celebratory food and menudo made a frequent appearance on Sundays. The background music of my childhood included boleros and mariachi standards mixed in with Motown and the Beatles.

And yet, we were not without Filipino ways. Steamed white rice was a staple at dinner each night and we welcomed pancit and lumpia for special occasions. My mother hired the old Filipino piano teacher who gave lessons to the other Filipino kids in our neighborhood. The lessons ended when it became clear we didn’t have the musical talent of the other Filipino kids.

Dad in the PII seldom heard my father speak Tagalog and he rarely spoke of his life in the Philippines. I know that he wrote regularly to his two sisters in Manila, and in 1970 he finally made his first return trip in over twenty years, probably fairly certain it would be his last. When he died in 1993, so did the connection to the family in the Philippines. None of us – my mother or we children – had ever had any direct communication with my father’s sisters and had only seen a few photos of them. They were strangers to us. And we to them.

When I declined my father’s offer to send me to the Philippines all those years ago, I didn’t think it would take me so long to get there on my own. There was always a reason not to go: money, time, work, family responsibilities. I might’ve delayed further if not for one of my daughters.

James

Photo courtesy of James Lazarra

Natalie traveled there last year soon after a brief trip to Mexico as part of her self-directed, cultural heritage tour. In Millennial fashion, she had used social media to find clues to the whereabouts of our relatives in the Philippines. She found James Lazarra, a local historian in Las Piñas, my father’s hometown. James tracked down my father’s one surviving sister and her family in nearby Muntinlupa, and the first reunion in forty-six years of a U.S. Miscolta and the Miscoltas in the Philippines occurred last December.

This year Natalie was determined to go to Manila again. “Are you coming?” she asked me. I was unable to go last year because my second book had just come out and I had months of events ahead. And even though this year has been busy with travel for book and writing-related events, which meant time off from the day job, I knew I had to go. I needed and wanted to go.

So Natalie will show me the sights – Intramuros, Luneta, the bamboo organ of Las Piñas. We’ll hike the volcano in Tagaytay. And she’ll introduce me to my aunt and cousins in Muntinlupa.

Family (2)

Photo courtesy of Natalie Miscolta-Cameron

 

Photo of Intramuros (top of page) by Natalie Miscolta-Cameron