Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Conversation with God on Thanksgiving Day


"Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!" 
– Isaak Denison, "Babette's Feast", 1953


So I am thinking, today, of Karen Blixen, the wonderful Danish writer of royal blood who wrote under the pen name of Isaak Dinesen.

I'm thankful, in a season of thanksgiving, for Blixen's work, especially for Winter's Tales. Especially for one tale within this volume entitled, "The Young Man with the Carnation." It's about a young writer--Charlie--who is tormented by the fame his first novel has generated and is paralyzed by the fear that he will never again write anything of significance. He has run amuck at a hotel in Antwerp where he has checked into the wrong room, gotten drunk with a group of sailors and has thrown his second manuscript unceremoniously into the sea.

As a writer I can so relate to this. All of it except maybe the sailors. I especially love the conversation Charlie has with God at the end of the story:

"Who made the ships, Charlie?" he asked. 
"Nay, I know not," said Charlie. "Did you make them?" 
"Yes," said the Lord, "I made the ships on their keels, and all floating things. The moon that sails in the sky, the orbs that swing in the universe, the tides, the generations, the fashions. You make me laugh for I have given you all the world to sail and float in and you have run aground here, in a room of the Queen's Hotel to seek a quarrel." 
"Come," said the Lord again, "I will make a covenant between me and you. I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books." 
"Oh, indeed!" said Charlie. 
"What did you say?" asked the Lord. "Do you want any less than that?" 
"I said nothing," said Charlie. 
"But you are to write the books," said the Lord, "For it is I who want them written. Not the public, not by any means the critics, but ME!" 
"Can I be certain of that?" Charlie asked. 
"Not always," said the Lord. "You will not be certain of it at all times. But I tell you now that it is so. You will have to hold onto that." 
"O good God," said Charlie. 
"Are you going," said the Lord, "to thank me for what I have done for you tonight?" 
"I think," said Charlie,"that we will leave it at what it is, and say no more about it."

Charlie always makes me smile. The creation of art is so rife with self doubt and raw vulnerability that we writers are continually seeking validation.

As children's writers we grow weary, at best, of all the people who think of us as a lesser breed, as though it somehow takes less craft and less dedication and less talent to write books for our youngest readers. I get mad at these people sometimes. I want to holler at them, sometimes, holler right into their red faces. Think about what this says of your feelings for children, book people! We are the ones who creating the readers of books, for crying out loud! Don't patronize!

And then a child comes up to me at a reading and asks if the character of Uncle Joe, in My Name is Not Easy is based on a real person and I sense in his question a deep longing to know, for certain, that the possibility of a person like Uncle Joe exists somewhere in this uncertain world.

And it is enough. I can hold onto this.

As writers writing from the heart of marginalized cultures we often get frustrated, at best, by those who fail to "get" our work, frustrated even by those who give us glowing reviews that somehow manage to miss the point. No! we want to holler. No, that's not it, that's not it at all. Look deeper! Look beyond your assumptions. 

And then a woman comes up to me at church and taps me on the shoulder. My book, she tells me, has healed her. "You are the anointed one," she says.

And it is enough. More than enough.

Anointed. It's so heavy with connotation, this word, so carefully chosen, I sense. There runs through it a deeper meaning which not even my wonderful dictionary of entomology can articulate.

It holds within it all I really need, I think. I will hold onto it.

Okay, I return you now to your regularly scheduled Thanksgiving programming wondering, of course, if anyone ever reads these little missives of mine, fired off at such irregular intervals. Wondering if it even maters.

Okay, yes it matters.

Leave me a note if you are inclined to do so.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The right book at the right time....

In an article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review recently, Terry Eicher talks about a  book from his childhood. He writes:
The best part of sixth grade at Grady Elementary School in Houston, in 1960, was after lunch when Mrs. Wise stood at the front of the classroom and opened a red book and read a few pages aloud...it was a story about yearning, maybe even one that taught yearning. Mrs. Wise always stopped reading at the height of excitement, making a small indentation in the margins with her fingernail to mark the spot. We groaned.
It was a book that touched Eicher so deeply he spent twenty years trying to find it again to read to his own children. It was Giles of the Star. You've probably never heard of it. I hadn't.

But every writer on the planet remembers his or her own Giles of the Star. For some of us, this was the book which compelled us to become children's writers. We remembered the place it held in our hearts and we wanted to be the writer of that book. In our minds there was no title that held greater honor. People accord adult writing a higher status, but we know better. We understand from personal experience the power a children's book has to mark hearts and souls indelibly. We couldn't demean or devalue these books if we tried. We still love reading them.

Eicher started his story by talking about an article on childhood books he'd read.  In this article, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust recalls the joy of discovering a long lost childhood favorite in a used bookstore.

Sweet

But what really caught my attention was what Faust said about re-reading Huckleberry Finn, a book she hadn't read since high school:
I was astonished to find how much of what I had been teaching and studying about race and slavery in American history was already there in a book published in 1884.
Such is the power of young people's literature and the lifelong impression it leaves behind.

What? You didn't think of Huckleberry Finn as young adult literature? Think again.

Eichner's memories of Giles of the Star made me remember a magical star book from my own childhood. It was given to me by the couple who lived next door. They were childless and had adopted me as their surrogate child. He was an artist and she was a dancer and I was a solitary child with imaginary friends so real family members still remember their names. Dowdy and Gwee-Gwee--he painted a mural of them on his stairwell wall and she gave me enchanted gifts--a chinese rag doll that had a blue shirt with frog buttons, a slender porcelain vase wreathed in paper thin flowers . . . and books, they always gave me books. On my seventh birthday it was a handsome volume published by Hatchard & Co. London, entitled The Daughters of the Stars, a story which transported me to another world, another universe.  It began like this:
Midway, upon the extreme edge of a great continent, there lies a huge forest. In it are more varieties of plants and trees than it is possible to imagine, more strange creatures and beings than the greatest scientist has yet been able to study or explain.....
The illustrations, by Edmund Dulac, were magical to a seven-year old girl-child.


I've always remembered one scene in this book where the mother and daughter find a silver dish of raspberry ice, buried in a cloud. Imagine traveling through a starlit sky bound for adventure, stopping only to nestle into a cloud and eat raspberry ice...

This memory somehow became entangled with memories of my grandmother Meg--we always called her Meg--who used to play a bedtime game with me.

What color is your cloud? Meg would ask.

We always tried to outdo one another in picking unusual colors for the clouds we were going to ride to sleep on. Pigeon Berry. Butterscotch. And one time--I was especially proud of this one--Merthiolate. 

(Yes, I'm dating myself. Merthiolate was a mercury-containing germ-killer that came in a small brown glass bottle with a clear glass applicator attached its lid. Maybe you remember it, too. Applied to a skinned knee it had a wonderful pinkish tinged orange color that seemed nearly neon, the same color you sometimes see on teenaged hair these days...and once in a blue moon, on clouds.)

When my oldest granddaughter began talking, I remembered Meg's game one night as we lay in bed after reading a story. But the game had changed. What flavor is the ice in your cloud? I found myself asking her.

I had strong, creative women in my life, women who raised me to believe I was bound for greatness, women who compelled me to raise the children in my life the same way.

Recently, I read the forward to The Daughters of the Stars for the first time:
Readers of fairy tales and other romantic fiction will have noticed before this that the Mothers of the heroines are seldom featured. One would imagine that the effort of producing a female child destined to adventure was too much for the average Queen or Princess, since, if she has not already expired before the story opens, she usually manages to to pass away before its close.... Thus it will be seen that, from the first page to the last, Astrella is never permitted the slightest excuse for decease...Which is surely not unreasonable, inasmuch as the death-rate of actual Mothers does not appear to be alarming; and we could name more than one beside whom our fictitious lady is but a delicate shadow.   
This book was written in 1939, but I read it in the late fifties and rode it into the sixties. I think it colored how I've raised my children.

Because this is the truth. Children's books have made us who we are. Their words and images and worldviews live within us and continue to inform our responses to life in ways we may only begin to suspect as we grow older.

I think about this as a school board member, the one who always talks about reading. The one who grows increasingly weary of those who think they can turn children into readers and writers with computerized phonics, scripted reading programs and prescriptive reading standards, the kinds of things that tear a book apart into so many unrecognizable bites of stuff.

You can take the bird apart to see what makes it fly, but it will never fly again.

Some children will become readers despite these things. Many more will be driven away from reading altogether. And we will continue to wonder why our educational system falters and our kids don't read.

All it takes to turn a child into a reader, writer and lifelong thinker is the right book at the right time. All it takes is a a teacher who loves to read and models it in her classroom, an adult who gives the gift of a good book, a library with one good librarian....


Monday, April 1, 2013

Writing Across Cultures

This is a topic I have thought a great deal about throughout my writing career. I'm even teaching a class on it starting this week at writers.com.

I, myself, was born into a Minnesota Norwegian family, learned Norwegian attending school in Norway, and have lived for the majority of my life within the Inupiaq culture of northern Alaska. I learned both the Norwegian language of my ancestors and the Inupiaq culture I am married into through a powerful immersion process. I wanted, through my writing, to approximate this experience for my readers.

I think of German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser who proposed a new field of inquiry he calls “literary anthropology,” a field which starts, as he describes it, with the question of how “literature—in relation to history or society—reflects something special that neither philosophies of history nor sociological theories are able to capture.”

It's captured through immersion, literary immersion. We readers know all about it. We have craved it, constantly, since discovering that very first book, the one that enfolded us into an unimagined world and kindled a lifelong passion for literary exploration. Within the pages of books, we are able to assume the worldviews of others—to become other. Understanding worldview is at the core of good writing. It's core to understanding culture, as well—culture in the broadest sense of the term.

People sometimes say that I write outside of my own culture or that I write through a borrowed culture. I can't imagine consciously doing any such thing. If you understand the worldview of your characters and write from within that worldview you are not writing outside of anything and you are not borrowing—you are immersing yourself within. Does your own individual perspective on life bleed through? Sure. But you are aware of this and you control it—not as a bad thing, but as a conscious thing.

People want to know what constitutes authentic writing from a cultural perspective. They want to know how to tell whether the books they are reading or writing are authentic to the cultures they represent. A good part of this comes from recognizing your own cultural bias. As Anne Lamodt writes:
“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
In thinking of this over the years, I've come to realize something important. It's actually something that's pretty basic, as well. All writing is about crossing boundaries. Good writers learn how to inhabit the skins of others--even those whose life experiences are very different from their own. So, in a very real sense, the skills you need to successfully write across cultures are the same skills you need to master in order to be a good writer regardless of your subject.

Because let's face it: we live in an increasingly multicultural world and if we are to write within this world, we must learn these skills. How can we possibly write of a world in which all  characters share our own cultural perspective? Jane Austin might have been able to do it from a comfortable perch in her country parlor but we, in today's world, cannot. To do so, we would have to lock ourselves in our writing rooms and never emerge because today's world is everywhere reflective of a multitude of cultural perspectives. And it's not our job to amalgamate these. It's our job, as writers, to mine the gems we find there and let each shine of its own light.

I'll be talking about this a lot over the next eight weeks at writers.com. Join me.

PS. It's August and this class is over now. Great class! I wanted to add a post script, though, because I was recently reminded of a guest post I did on this subject over at Cynstations.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Mixed Thanksgiving Post

It's winter now, cold and getting colder. The sun lingers just below the horizon during the day. It's a time when those of us who are growing older start thinking we maybe are not cut out for all this cold stuff, after all. Maybe, we think, we will go someplace warm, like...Arizona!

But then we remember how the State of Arizona effectively shut down the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson by threatening to withhold a large amount of money from the school district there.

Teaching them about their own history and culture was leading Mexican-American kids to be too much Mexican and not enough American, detractors said. Dangerous stuff. It was also making them smarter, studies showed. That's dangerous, too.

And here we are, in northern Alaska, trying to meld culture into everything we do educationally. We want our kids to be smarter. Watch out world.

Oh never mind. I really just wanted to say Happy Thanksgiving and, for my writer friends, I wanted to share a poem by Louise Erdrich which seems apropos to all the unnecessary stress we put on ourselves in this and other seasons.

And to think of thanksgiving, not associated with any bogus holiday because, really, why do we celebrate, with thanksgiving, an event that either marks the time when the Native American tribes on the east coast tried a temporary truce or a time when they were first subjected to genocide, depending on who's telling the story.

I don't suppose, though, that this is a real reason to quit eating turkey.

I  am thankful for this, from a student at Barrow High School:


Its a poster for My Name is Not Easy. I especially like what she chose as "Significant Quotation":

I was a leader, testing the safety of the frozen world with my own skin.

I am thankful for books and book people and those who test the safety of the world with the skin of their own bright words, left behind, leading the way for those who follow in this frozen and thawing world.






Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Summer of Light and Memory

Summer is gone. There is a light dusting of snow on the tundra and the fall light is with us, full of soft pastels and evening fire. The whales are passing by us, headed south. 

So I am behind on posting of summer, mostly because I was un-wired for a good part of the time. Here are my summer memories to share....

It began on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, traveling eastward from the northernmost point of land on the North American continent, to the Chip River and then southward--inland--to the Ikpikpuk River, the place of big cliffs in the foothills of the Brooks Range.


The one thing that stands out about this trip (aside from the fact that I intentionally left my laptop behind and went an unprecedented eight days without it) was the light. We traveled all night, some nights, but it wasn't dark. The sky around us, bigger than life, was translucent. Luminous. There is nothing in the world quite like the 24-hour light of an Arctic summer night deep in the country.   Absolutely nothing. That kind of light has it's own flavor as though the air itself is made different by its presence.

We flew up the river in our new river boat, the sides of the cliffs sprouting with red and purple flowers and the waters were alive with geese and goslings. As they saw the boat approach, the niglik--the adult geese--would run flapping along the top of the water in front of us, fleeing--or perhaps trying to divert us--and the goslings, the nigilingnaurat, would dive in unison, butts up,  as though they had been drilled in the procedure.

And the caribou. They were there by the hundreds along the shores of the Arctic ocean, escaping the mosquitoes and crossing the river, up inland,  migrating.

It was a breath-taking journey.

The great thing about a river boat is that it can fly through shallow water where other boats get stuck. The bad thing is that when it gets stuck, it really gets stuck.

When we got stuck, it took seven hours, all night, for the four of us--my husband, myself, our son and our daughter's fiance, to push us out. And trust me, my husband and I are fairly past the prime of our brawniness. In fact my husband has had serious health issues and yet was up on the bow of the boat, dancing, even after five hours of being stuck. (Don't tell him I told you that.) 

He was so happy to be back inland, the place that feeds his soul.

It was 7 am. by the time we broke free. We should have stopped for the night but we didn't. A milky fog drifted along the water making the world seem magical. It hard to see, but we kept going...and we got stuck again. As tired as we were, it looked hopeless. 

"When are we going to go for help?" my son asked. At that exact moment it really did look like without help we would be there forever.

My husband, who still had his humor about him, laughed and told him to quit being silly. In this country, you help yourself or  you perish. We did not perish. We made it all the way to our cabin, where a bear had preceded us. One of the hunters we ran into said something about those grizzlies that tickled me: "you know, you can look into one of their dens and it's so neat it looks like they have maid service, but when they get inside your cabin they leave it totally trashed." Our cabin was totally trashed. The pots were all punctured by huge teeth and the floor was covered with rotting caribou fur as though a bear had dragged an animal, or several, into the cabin and eaten everything but the fur. The mattress appeared to have been slept in by something big and wet and smelly and bear-shaped. We still have a lot of work to do there.

It was the longest I've been separated from my computer in something like 18 years.  I also lost my cellphone along the way. It was a silly thing to bring in the first place. We were way beyond the world of cell service but it helped me keep track of the time and date, when I felt the need to know, which in that timeless world, I rapidly quit needing to know...

From the tundra of Alaska we went to northern Minnesota, the place of my childhood. My oldest brother Dave passed away on Septemeber 28, 2010. His wife of 47 years, my red-headed Swedish sister, Barb, followed him six months later. 

How fast our lives fly by. I remember well, the autumn day nearly fifty years ago when they got married and waved goodbye, smiling, from their little car. They spent their honeymoon in northern Minnesota duck hunting. Now they are both gone.



They never had children and so left me their cabin on an island in the lake, the lake just south of the Canadian border, the lake where they spent their honeymoon, a lake I know well. 

I spent every summer of my childhood there.


It is a place of enduring beauty, a place that somehow doesn't seem to have changed all that much since those lazy summer days of my childhood, when Mom and I stayed there alone, painting and reading and dreaming.


It's a place where one steps out the door to a world of water, Norway pines and northern skies...

A small island where one falls asleep to the sound water lapping against rocks and wakes to birch trees shaking their leaves outside the bedroom window.   

It's the world I grew up in. It has electricity now, but only very limited cell service. I got a lot of writing done there, a lot of big picture thinking about my current work in process, a work which was in a huge knot when I arrived--a wonderful, totally hopeless mess of scenes and odd events and things which I, as the writer, was surprised about, delighted with, but which ultimately left me feeling helpless. What did it all mean? Where was it going? Who knew? Not me.

Okay, so I still don't know entirely, but I am a whole lot closer now.

My brother had a wood burning hot tub on the side of the island facing the sunrise. I stoked it with wood at night and took hot tubs when the sky was red with sunrise and not a soul was around to see this 60 year old woman, floating in the cold northern waters, looking up at the pines and listening to loons.


My sister had a kitchen, stocked just the way I would stock it, right down to the spices. I felt her presence there, sometimes, looking for something I knew she would have...come on Barb, were is the cumin? And it would appear. Right there on the shelf in front of me.



 The cabin has it's stone fireplace. It's sixty years old, that fireplace, built by one of Dave's mentors, Carter Wetzel, an old man who lived all alone in the woods and knew its ways like he knew his own mind. We called him a hermit. Dave spent time with him, learning what he knew. He knew hunting and fishing and trapping. He knew where to find diamond willow and how to make furniture from it, how to notch logs and build cabins and stone fireplaces and even--he showed us once--how to make cane strips, the kind you use for chair seats. I was very small, but I remember vividly, the huge white pine, stripped of its bark, and the way he covered it with mud and pounded it down, very systematically, with a mallet, until the strips peeled off, one by one.

Do you see, in the picture below, the white stone in the bottom center? Its quartz.


That's my brother's flag above the mantel, honoring his four years in the Air Force. I couldn't bring my self to rearrange the furniture. I couldn't bring myself to remove the utensil container that says it's "Barb's Kitchen." I couldn't bring myself to remove my brother's camouflage hunting jacket from the coat rack. Maybe I never will.

I am just grateful to be able to reclaim this piece of my life, grateful that I was able to be there this year, just as the trees were changing. I love fall. It's my favorite season. It's been so long since I've seen fall in Minnesota.  Swimming in the chill northern waters one dawn, I heard the sound overhead of geese returning north. It's been over 40 years since I last heard the sound of geese in the skies of northern Minnesota.

I remember, I told George, how the skies would fill with the geese, their calls deep and pervasive, how the sound would always make my heart flutter. No, they no longer do that, George told me. He, too, remembered the geese in the skies of northern Alaska, so numerous they darkened the sun with their numbers. Those numbers of geese are gone, George said, gone in Minnesota as well is in Alaska, gone as much of their habitat is gone to malls and suburbs and parking lots.

How sad to think that that sound now only exists as an echo in our aging memories.


And now, I am returned to the tundra, my front yard russet with fall, the light falling in the chill air, wonderful and life affirming.

Arigaa.



Monday, July 9, 2012

The Conditions for Art


"Great art—or let’s just say more modestly, original art—is never created in the safe middle ground but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. If you want to increase the sum of what it is possible for human beings to say, to know, to understand and therefore, in the end, to be; you actually have to go to the edge and push outwards. Originality is dangerous…and there are powerful sources in many societies, including this one, who don’t want those boundaries to be pushed outwards, who don’t want us to be allowed to think new thoughts, to think dangerous thoughts, to think original thoughts. There are forces in every society, including this one, which push back against the efforts of artists and intellectuals and thinkers to increase those boundaries. And that pushing back can sometimes be dangerous for the artist concerned but if we believe in liberty…. this is the kind of art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution."



Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Celebrating Life's Passages

It's been a month of travel. I was in New York City at the end of May for Book Expo America. It was huge! I signed a lot of books.

The panel discussion I was on at the PEN America Festival is now up! Click here to listen. It was a discussion of children's rights. I spoke of educational rights.  I referred to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people, Article 17:
"Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning."   
This has been eradicated in the Untied States. My point is that when we talk about the rights of children and the horrific violations occurring in many parts of the world, we must not forget to look at ourselves and our own violations.

After New York I went to Dartmouth for the graduation of my daughter, Anna Bergitte Ahgeak Tuuluk Edwardson on June 10.


She is in the middle, above, with some of her NAD (Native Americans at Dartmouth) classmates. The NAD program at Dartmouth is powerful. As I heard one visitor say, it's like a United Nations of Native American nations.  Most of the NADs wore tribal dress for graduation. Anna graduated with a degree in Film and Native American Studies. She wants to teach Iñupiaq. She wore a green atiqluk (Dartmouth colors) and kamipiaq or mukluks, which I am really proud of because they were made by one of our very young Barrow seamstresses, Jerica Aamodt, and they are beautiful! Bearded seal, calf skin and beaver:



The photo doesn't quite do them justice. My camera broke in the middle of graduation.

Fortunately there were plenty of cameras around to record the birth of my granddaughter when I returned to Anchorage. Annabel Rose Nuyaagik Tavialuk Kalayauk. She was born on June 28 at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage and she was born with her eyes wide open.


She is beautiful and very wise, I think.

What else is there? Life is good.