Home As Heart and Hearth

Home jpegHOME AS HEART, AND HEARTH: STORIES AND IDEAS was a discussion on what exactly makes a home—how it’s built, how it’s found, and how it’s sustained – which was created and nurtured by BETH KEPHART, this year’s Beltran Teaching Award winner. On March 1, 6 PM, at the Kelly Writers House, on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Beth led us (that would be, according to the official blurb, “beloved Young Adult novelist A.S. KING, New York Times contributing writer and Young Adult novelist MARGO RABB, and National Book Circle Critics Finalist RAHNA REIKO RIZZUTO”) in a conversation about home and writing.  It was an amazing evening, which Beth extended in time and community by creating a commemorative volume of “home”-inspired work made by guests, Penn students, alumni and faculty, as well as a wonderful audio presentation of the work, which can be found here.  It’s 100% worth your 15 minutes of time, and will leave you inspired and refreshed. I invite you to listen.

 

A Tale For All Times and Beings

Ruth Ozeki is a critically-acclaimed filmmaker and novelist, and a Zen Buddhist priest. Her first two novels, the Kiriyama Prize winner My Year of Meats and American Book Award winner All Over Creation, have been translated into eleven languages and published in fourteen countries, and her documentary and dramatic independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been shown on PBS and at the Sundance Film Festival. I had been waiting for a decade for Ruth’s next book and was thrilled to be able to interview her about her just-released novel, A Tale for the Time Being. Here, Ruth talks about being a writer (and a thinker) in the world first, and how that writer and her preoccupations end up on the page.

In A Tale for the Time Being, you have created a fast-paced and deeply moving story that is also an impressive balancing act: the novel weaves together a Japanese school girl, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese kamikazes of World War II, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch…among other things. Novels about issues are hardly new for you; you took on the meat industry in My Year of Meats and genetically engineered produce in All Over Creation. Do you think of yourself as an activist? How do you thread your concern with environmental and political issues into your work?

Ruth Ozeki: I always start with the voice and the character, and the issues are secondary…no, tertiary…actually, I don’t think about the issues at all, and I’m always surprised when others do. When I wrote My Year of Meats, I remember going into my first marketing meeting and Viking team was really happy because there were so many issues in the book that would generate marketing angles, and I was like…huh? Issues? What issues? I didn’t get it.

To me, the so-called issues are just things that I’m interested in, or thinking about, when I’m writing, which then find their way into the books. I look at writing as a vehicle for working out questions or problems. Writing fiction is my way of thinking. It’s very concrete. What do I think about the meat industry? What do I think about commercially sponsored media? What do I think about genetically modified crops? How do I feel about the bully culture we live in, about suicide bombers, about the 2011 tsunami and meltdown at Fukushima?

The novel provides the excuse and the container for researching and investigating these questions, but this is going on in the background. In the foreground is the character, or characters. Usually I will “hear” them, first. A young girl, who announces herself, “Hi. My name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.” And then I work from there.

Writing a novel is a way of acting out, on the page, a series of very concrete what if? propositions. What if a TV producer found herself in an ethically compromised position on a feedlot? What if a group of environmental activists decided to make a potato farmer in Idaho a poster child for their cause? What if a diary washed up on my shoreline?

So I’m not an activist. I am not trying to convince anyone to believe anything or to think in certain ways or, god forbid, to teach anyone anything. What do I know? I’m just sharing the way I think about things.

It’s been close to a decade since your last novel was published. Tell me about the vision and re-envisioning process that went into this book.  

Ruth Ozeki: I can date Nao’s voice back to the fall of 2006. That’s when I first heard her, and that’s when I wrote down those first lines. But I can also trace a lot of what wound up in the book to earlier times. I’d been haunted by the diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots ever since I first started reading them in 2001. And, too, my interest in human-computer interface design started back in 2005, when I was the Katzenstein Artist-in-Residence at MIT.

This novel emerged very slowly. I knew from the first that one of the protagonists was a young girl, Nao, who is writing a diary. I knew that Nao was speaking across time and that she needed a reader. My first impulse was to put myself in the novel, but then I rejected this idea because it felt too self-conscious, metafictional and annoyingly PoMo, so I set about auditioning other readers for Nao. I went through four or five Readers, each one worse than the next. Some were female, most were male, one was some kind of amorphous, ageless, unformed smear of a character, neither male nor female, who lived in a library.

By end of 2010, I finished a draft I was reasonably happy with, or if not happy, at least I felt I’d gone as far as I could go by myself. I submitted it to my agent and we were getting ready to submit it to my editor when, in March of 2011, the earthquake hit Japan, followed by the tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima. Day after day I watched this disaster unfold. It was absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. Over night, everything had changed. Japan had changed. The world was no longer the same, and a byproduct of this seismic upheaval was that the novel I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I withdrew it.

That May, I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue, with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. What had felt gratuitous and self-conscious five years earlier, now felt necessary. Stepping into the role myself and responding to it seemed to be the only way of acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very very quickly. I started in May and finished in November.

In the novel, the character of Ruth has writer’s block. She is struggling and failing to write a memoir. She is worried about her mind, that she might be losing it. Is any of this true to life?

Ruth Ozeki: Yes, this part of the book is quite true to life. I’d been trying to write this novel for many years and failing, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. At the same time, I thought it might be interesting to write a memoir about taking care of my mother, and about the ways that caretaking had encouraged my spiritual practice and my decision to ordain as a Zen priest.

My mother had Alzheimer’s. For over a decade, I’d been watching the slow deterioration of her mind. I became very conscious of the way the disease works and worried that something similar was happening to me. I was having a terrible time focusing, and there were times when I was afraid I was losing my mind.

You know what it feels like when your arm falls asleep and you try to make a fist but you can’t? That’s how my mind often felt: like a hand that can’t grip. My journals from that time are filled with adjectives like foggy, scattered, distracted, vague, fuzzy, fractured, fragmented. I thought about getting genetic testing, but if I had Alzheimer’s, did I really want to know? Maybe it was menopause, or ADD, or just garden-variety grief and depression.

The loss of mental focus was affecting my writing. I’d write a couple hundred pages and become overwhelmed. I thought I’d lost the capacity to hold complex fictional worlds in my mind. I was pretty sure I’d never finish another novel.

But then, luckily, I went on a writing retreat, where I had limited access to the Internet, and I realized that there was nothing wrong with my mind that three weeks offline and long unscheduled days of writing wouldn’t fix. This was in 2009. I was able to go back to the novel, penetrate the material, and find my way through.

You and I met through Hedgebrook (a writing retreat for women off the coast of Seattle and the hub of a growing community of  “visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.”). Tell me about what retreat – and community – mean to you as a writer.

Ruth Ozeki: Yes, Hedgebrook was my salvation! I’m pretty sure I would not have finished A Tale for the Time Being had it not been for the serendipitous retreat at Hedgebrook. I’ve never been anyplace where I’ve felt so utterly supported as a writer, and this was part of what helped me find my way back to writing novels. So I think Hedgebrook is a miracle, and the community of writers I’ve found there has been miraculous, too. It’s like in bike racing, when you’re cycling in a pack with other riders. When I’m at Hedgebrook, I feel like I’m drafting the energy and momentum of the other writers. Of course, the writing work itself has to be done alone, but the company of other writers reduces the resistance and pulls you along.

I often teach master classes there, but I also had the great fortune to be invited to attend one given by Karen Joy Fowler. She is an astonishing writer and teacher, and if you ever get a chance to take a class with her, you should. This was in May of 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami, after I’d unzipped my manuscript and thrown half of it away. Karen helped me find the courage I needed to begin again. I will always be grateful to her for that.

You are ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest and Buddhist philosophy plays a big role in A Tale for the Time Being. How has becoming a priest influenced your writing? How are your roles as writer and priest related?

Ruth Ozeki: This question is complicated and also very simple. The simple answer is that the two, writer and priest, are the same. I am just one person, just one time being, so how could there be a difference?

My interest in Buddhist philosophy is overtly apparent in A Tale for the Time Being, but I can see the beginning of this inquiry in my first two novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, which are very concerned with the interconnected nature of our lives in the world.

Zen practice has changed the way I write and has helped me continue writing. Part of my struggle was that I’d reached a point as a novelist where I could no longer trust my voice in the world. I felt like my writer’s voice had become wobbly, unreliable and untrustworthy. I suppose it was a crisis of faith. Zen practice provided a philosophical and ethical ground, a trustworthy foundation, for my writing practice. Or to put it another way, it helped me grow a backbone.

So I would say that my Zen practice and my writing practice are the same, but of course, in practical terms, the roles of writer and priest are very different. For one thing, I do not wear Zen robes when I write. I wear a black turtleneck sweater and a pair of overalls. And I sit at a desk in front of a computer, rather than on a cushion in front of a blank wall. And when thoughts arise, I write them down rather than letting them go.

A Tale for the Time Being will be released on March 12th. Ruth will be reading in New York at the NYU Bookstore on March 12th at 6:00 pm and again on April 1 at 7:00 pm at Book Court in Brooklyn. In between she will be reading in sixteen cities, maybe in a bookstore near you! To find her, stop by her website, ozekiland.

This Day, in Infamy and History

Today is a day that was supposed to live in infamy.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. response, kicked off a chain of events – including the internment and the atomic bombings – that still reverberate today.

What do we know? President Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor an “unprovoked and dastardly attack” by a nation we were at peace with. Months after declaring war, Roosevelt deemed it “militarily necessary” to give the Secretary of War the power to control large segments of the country, and strip people of their citizenship, liberty and property (via Executive Order 9066), which resulted in the imprisonment of 120,000 American citizens and their Japanese immigrant parents. Three and a half years later, President Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, calling the bomb “marvelous,” and “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.” He threatened the complete and rapid obliteration of Japan and promised “a new era” of atomic energy.

What if it was also common knowledge that before Pearl Harbor the US had imposed economic sanctions on Japan, frozen Japanese assets, and broken the Japanese diplomatic code? That two weeks before the attack, the Secretary of War (him again) wrote in his diary of efforts “to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves”?  Would we still believe that acts of war have no provocation?

What if schools taught these truths about the internment: that there was no evidence of spying, that it was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” for which the US government apologized, and that the Japanese Americans who volunteered to serve the US army out of the internment camps were some of the most decorated US soldiers in military history? Would we still have politicians today pointing to it as an example to emulate today?

What if the public knew that Japan had been trying to surrender for months before we bombed them to “save lives”? What if our government have not squelched the images of the devastation, or the very unmarvelous truth about radiation sickness – would we have detonated more than 2000 nuclear bombs since then? Would we be more aware of the fact that 75% of our nuclear power plants in the United States are leaking? That, four years after the disaster in Fukushima, Japan is still dumping tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, and it is now detectable in the water of the US coast?

History, as we have famously been reminded, is written by the victors, and alternate narratives are too often dismissed as conspiracy theories or beside-the-facts. My point in this history lesson is that we do know much more than the safe, comfortable sound bites that we choose to hang onto. We have actual images, diaries, records, declassified documents that prove that reality is more complicated that we allow it to be.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel reminds us of this truth: ”the world did know and remained silent.”

How does a writer “break the silence” when the facts are readily available, just ignored?

For me, this infamous anniversary is a reminder of how we choose not to hear, not to see, not to know, and most of all, not to learn from our mistakes. It is not a lack of information that hampers us, but a plethora that paralyzes us. As a result, we tend to come up with simplistic responses, and, at the same time, throw up our hands in despair at the complexity of the situation. We block each other out, refuse to listen; we let ourselves be led away from common ground. Silence, rhetoric, despair – all different ways to come up with the same response: nothing.

To police brutality. Gun violence. Racism. Environmental degradation and climate change. Redlining, redistricting, resegregating, restricting the vote. Limiting access to women’s reproductive healthcare. Closing our borders to refugees. The list goes on and on.

What do we do, as writers?

I don’t know. Do you?

At the Goddard MFAW residency in January, Douglas A. Martin and I are going to be initiating a discussion on resistance. We’ll see where it goes: What do we resist? How can we resist? How do we as writers take the information we have and shape an understanding? How do we change the narrative once and for all?

In the comments below, I invite you to share a “silence” that we know. Maybe if we each focus on just one, we can begin to understand the narratives that are spun to confuse and obfuscate; the falsehoods and tangents that encourage complacence. We can find ways to “interfere” rather than become “accomplices”:

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” (Elie Wiesel)

*reposted from the Goddard MFAW blog: thewriterintheworld.com

Don’t Write?! (Your Best Writing Tip)

I’ve been thinking a lot about being a writer in this world. Not about the need to raise our diverse voices, or to break down the barriers that keep too many of us silent; not about the role of writers to expand our collective understanding of what it means to be human. I’ve been thinking about the opposite: about how our current culture is strangling art, and how we are letting it.

You’ve been reading, surely, about authors’ declining income, about our paltry sales figures (even for prize winners). You’ve quite likely read suggestions on the Internet for “making a living” as a writer. But when money “makes” our very lives; when money is the measure of our worth, we are living in Opposite Land. And in Opposite Land, where art equals product, equals sales, equals giving some ill-defined readership what “they” are presumed to want, it can sometimes feel impossible to begin to get words onto a page.

How do we write in this climate of efficiency, productivity and bestseller lists? One way is to embrace opposition, and contradiction, in our writing spaces. If you are looking for a new approach, or some inspiration to energize your writing in a corporate world, here are a few suggestions:

Don’t write: At least, don’t start with the blank page on your computer screen. You’ll find yourself counting pages, or words, and disparaging the quality of your delicate first draft. Instead, grab a journal, and start writing by hand. Try out voices, descriptions; rough out a scene. Cross out, draw arrows, and keep going; messiness can be very freeing. Jot down notes and ideas for later. Record your questions without stopping for the answers. If you brainstorm your way into a dead end, let it be. Your brain is pondering the problem in the background; the answer might sneak up on you in time! You are building pressure in that journal, and when it is bursting with ideas, your blank computer screen will be irresistible. Don’t forget: your journal is waiting for you whenever you want to come back to play.

Don’t edit: Once you are writing, let it flow. If one path peters out, jump to something that feels urgent. Be prepared to be surprised, and to follow those surprises, but try to resist the urge to go back to fix what you have. If the writing is going well, it will keep shifting and changing. You won’t know what each element of the story is supposed to do until you get to the end of the first draft. Revising, and especially polishing, parts of your manuscript too early can be detrimental because you run the risk of making something read so well that it’s hard to see that you are supposed to cut it, or move it, or reassign it to a different character. If that urge to revise is coming from the need to have a product and pages to show for your time: resist!

WritingTip_10-2015

Don’t isolate yourself: You know the atmosphere you write best in; maybe it’s a wild, quiet garden, or a room with no windows, or a crowded café. But regardless of what you need to do to empty yourself out onto the page, don’t forget to fill yourself back up. Populate your life with books, movies, music, other people; get outside. Exercise your ability to recognize patterns and see how your concerns echo other people’s stories, and the world around you. Plugging yourself into your community will give you energy, and remind you that your writing is meaningful to others.

Don’t focus on success: Which is, of course, what I have been saying all along. With each book I have written (and I am playing with my fourth), I have had to teach myself how to write all over again. The judgment and expectation that come from having or wanting success are the best ingredients for writer’s block. Creativity requires a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to fail, combined with the courage – stubbornness even – to keep learning and playing and trying something new. In our product-driven world, writing, and living, are both processes. Trust the process, and the product will come.

Want more? I am excited to announce a new week-long writing retreat called Pele’s Fire: Write to the Core on the Big Island of Hawaii next April. Pele’s Fire is a perfect place to embrace your contradiction, get your creativity flowing, find community, and get some targeted feedback on your manuscript. There will also be plenty of opportunities for movement, including yoga and a special series of integrated Nia classes, and a trip to the nearby (currently active) volcano. Take a look at pelesfire.com, but hurry! Admission is rolling, and closes December 31st, or when full.

 

Try Something New

We’ve all been there: stuck. The pages seem flat; we don’t know what comes next.  And what’s worse, writing is a lonely business, so there’s no team, or department, not even any customers to get ideas from. Before a lack of inspiration becomes full-blown writers block, and even after it does, how can we get out of our own way and back to writing? Here are three tips that work for me:

Try on a new voice: If you are a writer, you have books on your shelves. Probably a full library’s worth, but definitely at least a few that you love.  These will be books that have transported you to new worlds again and again.  Authors you trust.  Pick up your favorite.  Ask yourself, “If fill-in-the-blank-author was writing my book, how would she go about it?” And then – on a blank sheet of paper, with your favorite pen – try rewriting your story, chapter, poem, opening scene, in the same way as the book that you have in your hands does.

Don’t worry.  I’m not telling you to steal someone else’s ideas, nor am I saying your voice and ideas aren’t good enough.  But in mimicking someone else’s opening incident, or point of view, or attention to description, or pacing, you will see your own choices and habits more clearly. And something new might – no, it will – occur to you.  Even if you don’t “use” those pages (and you probably won’t), a new point of view will give you a glimpse of something in your story that you hadn’t noticed before, much like walking into a different room in your house will.

Try on a new move: And speaking of walking, when you are stuck in your head, don’t forget you have a body. Take a walk, do some yoga, dance…whatever your favorite activity is, take the time to quiet that editing, worrying voice in your head, relax, and let your subconscious rise to the surface.  Although it seems counterintuitive, our best ideas and realizations often come when we are not busy thinking.

More than that, using your body can remind you that all of your characters, and your readers, have five senses. Giving yourself a chance to focus on sensation can help more than just your descriptions. You might tap into your characters’ motivations, and get some insight into where their dangerous impulses or unexpected kindnesses come from.

Try on a new space: If the dishes in the kitchen sink are beckoning you out of your office, or the couple at the next table is disrupting the vibe in the café, try a new space. This could be as simple as an hour of writing in the park under a tree. Being in nature can remind you of the many layers of experience (those senses again) you have to call on. Blocking out time to go on retreat is another way to call your muse.

I am a latecomer to writing retreats.  My first one, several years ago, was at Hedgebrook, an amazing space for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington.  What I have found is that a good retreat will give you quiet space to write and community; inspiration and new vantage points from which to enter your work. Permission is key: making the choice to set aside time and a place to write (especially if you take several days and have to travel to do so) can shift the energy around your project and help you enter it. This is how it works for me: when I am on retreat and unplugged from my usual world, I find that I can do so much more because I have nothing else to do, which liberates me to try anything. To play. And the friendships that began at writing retreats have often followed me home.

Happy writing!

 

Something Else NewPele’s Fire: Write to the Core, everything you ever wanted in a writing retreat set in a Hawaiian jungle oasis. Find out more at pelesfire.com.

 

The Gifts of Retreat

fingerless gloves tightIt’s 94 degrees in Brooklyn, and I am writing in a pair of blue cashmere fingerless gloves. They are a gift from a dear friend – crafted from recycled goodness, and sent from Canada. They are also a shared talisman that connects me to my tribe: a group of women who inspire me, recognize me, support me, and challenge me. Women writers.

We found each other in retreat. At Hedgebrook, an oasis for women writers on Whidbey Island, famous for its radical hospitality. Hedgebrook is the only retreat I have ever been to, though, as I write this, I am poised to announce a new, week-long retreat in Hawaii that will combine three of the ingredients that Hedgebrook uses to create magic: place, space and community. It’s hard to imagine that, once, I was a writer who thought, because I have my own office at home and time to write, a retreat wouldn’t offer me anything I didn’t already have.

So how wrong was I?

Place first. A retreat is surely always beautiful. A setting that makes you want to breathe in deep, go for walks, listen to the birds (or frogs, owls, or the rain on the leaves). A place that awakens your senses, that reminds you to be in your body and use it when you write. Where you find a new rhythm that allows you to feel your too-familiar ones, which is to say to see yourself and your work with new eyes. A great retreat will also encourage you to stay inside and get lost in the other realm you created. To be in both worlds at the same time.

puna districtLet’s talk about that getting lost, because that is key too: more than no cell phones; an abundance of delicious food you didn’t have to prepare; no one asking you where the scissors are or if we are out of toilet paper (and jeez, it was just a simple question!). Quiet time at a retreat means that there is nothing else to do for quite a while. You’ve given yourself the gift of time, you’ve likely traveled far, and what I have found for myself is: the space that opens up for me changes my relationship to my work. Whereas at home I am much more likely to be thinking about product – how much have I accomplished? Can I fix this? Is it finished? And if it isn’t, can’t I wash the dishes instead? – when I am in retreat, I am able to look beneath the surface of the work and break it open, because, why not? I have the time. I can always go back to my earlier draft. The quiet writing time of a retreat, for me, has been a time when I can play, explore, take a risk, step off the path. And I have been able to tap into the heart of something, unseen, shifting, necessary. Something that, honestly, when I was home, even in the quiet of my own lovely writing room, I didn’t know was there.

The final piece, which Goddard MFA faculty member and colleague Nicky Morris pointed to in a recent blog post, is community. Other writers. It’s a little counterintuitive that one would be going off into the woods to have conversations, but other writers – peers, mentors, students – are the source of the true gifts of retreat: inspiration and encouragement that continue long after you leave. They are the ones who – on that day when you decided to take a risk and rewrite your manuscript in the first person plural – serendipitously have the perfect story, “We,” and four other book recommendations that find their way magically into your email inbox. Or, on a long walk with a new friend, you might confide your current struggle – that you are writing your third book, say, and yet with every one it seems like you have to teach yourself to write all over again – and you find out that she has exactly the same experience, and she’s on book number eight. If your retreat also includes workshops, the support you get from your community will be more directly focused on your creations, rather than the writing life: a prompt to try, a comment about an aspect of your work that is really haunting, or a suggestion for finding a way to rethink something that isn’t working. Maybe you will be the student who finds a flash of inspiration from the first writing prompt and ignores everything else in the workshop because you are lost in your own world, writing. Maybe you will be the one who reads a brand new piece at the final evening open mike and brings everyone to tears. Maybe you will leave with a journal full of new ideas, beginnings, and go-to exercises for when you are home and stuck.

Hedgebrook "Do not disturb" sign.
Hedgebrook “Do not disturb” sign.

I know you will leave with life-long friends. I have, every time. From my last retreat, which began with Vortext, I gained a new sisterhood, as well as great enthusiasm for the writers who attended, some of whom (and I know this because I worked with them, heard them read, ate with them) you will be reading someday. I also left with a pair of red fingerless gloves (my winter pair!) handknit by one of the writers who attended. I have other gifts and talismans too – from homemade jelly to a carved ivory mermaid, crystal balls, a book, a four leaf clover, a pencil so elegant I am afraid to write with it, plastic earrings that (I kid you not) say “Compost Queen,” a ginger lollipop (no, I ate that); the list, as already crazy-long as it is, goes on.   These gifts are evidence of the magic that happens in retreat, and reminders that we are in this together; they are my motivation to help create another space for writers in the world. Even now that I am home again, I know I am not alone. They – you – are out there too

Writing tips…

While writing a recent response letter to one of my students, I found myself offering her advice that was also meant for me:

“Setting the scene, locating your character, revealing her motivations…that’s all discovery material just for you, the writer. Once you have discovered, then you can begin. When you are writing your drafts, start with emotion, put your character into turmoil, and add the action. Feel the difference?”

For me, the best part of teaching is remembering that we are all always learning, remembering, and beginning again.  Happy writing!

Writing Race Realities

(reposted from The Writer in the World, the blog for the Goddard College MFA in Creative Writing Program.)

Last week, I was invited to talk to a class at City College in New York. Someone asked me about structure; specifically what I thought of the fact that none of the books on their syllabus, including my memoir, had a traditional structure. It wasn’t until that moment – when I learned that the class I was visiting was called Reading/Writing the Asian American Diaspora – that I considered that my own obsession with fractured structures might be more than individual taste. I am writing from the margins, about otherness, about race. How could I do that with one voice?

One voice is representation. One voice could be all there is. It is only through a multitude of voices that we can get a truer picture of who we are.

This is not a problem faced by those writing about a mainstream, dominant culture. It is essential, though, for those whose stories have been erased, or defined falsely; whose histories have been rewritten. For me, as a half-Japanese American (Hapa) woman from Hawaii, my subjects are secrets, missing inheritance, and erasure because these are part of my family legacy. I write to discover. And the artist in me creates my structures so that my readers will experience that as I do.

internment photo

My first novel, Why She Left Us, was inspired by my discovery that my Japanese American infant mother and her family were interned behind barbed wire in a camp in the middle of America during Word War II. I quit my job and traveled through time, across the country, to a place of tumult and shame, where people were treated like criminals and stripped of their citizenship, possessions and dignity because they looked (physically, in the way we choose to differentiate people) like the enemy. I found a history of racial discrimination and hatred that had been stripped out of our America-is-the-good-guy narrative, that was not spoken of in families. My answer to “Who am I?” was incomplete until I listened: to the many former internees who shared their stories with me, their secrets, a passing window into their lives.

Splintered truths, disappearances, mysteries: was it any wonder that the structure of my first novel reflected all of these? There was no single “what happened.” There was, and is, a still-shifting, still-surfacing truth.

abomb dome

My memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, also deals with an erasure: the experience of what happened when the first atomic bomb was dropped on people. Again, this history was redacted not only in our textbooks, but also in families, mine included. The survivors’ – the hibakusha’s – stories had been stifled by death, family, time, and repetition, but the facts were censored from the beginning by the U.S. government, which confiscated pictures, film, and restricted journalists’ movements and stories. The very few accounts that are available are representations of scientific achievements, a life-saving victory, a generous American response to rebuild the faces of a handful of long-suffering “maidens.”

These are not the only stories.

Perhaps because I am the child of a mixed race marriage, I feel these stories slipping away, a drop of ink dissolving into water. I write about them, not as a historian or to establish facts, but because we hide what we are ashamed of. And in our sweeping human history of what “we” did to “them,” our most powerful justification is explicitly or implicitly the concept of race.

Race is not biology. It is a social construct that we use to separate. But it is not the only one. We define all sorts of categories, roles and identities (even motherhood!) to separate ourselves from ourselves: to belittle, or reward, or limit, or control. The beauty of Goddard College is that it attracts writers, thinkers, people who are trying to overcome divisiveness by finding common ground in difference. Another way to say this? MFA students come to Goddard because they have something to say – a way of seeing the world that is uniquely theirs and that they want to share. They don’t come to write like someone else, nor do they come to tell a story that has already been told. They are standing in the margins – whether one we already have a reductive label for, or from a line of sight and an experience that is entirely their own – and they are doing it on purpose to shift their readers’ reality. It is the artist’s calling, and her gift, to challenge our assumptions, to rewrite the victors’ history, and to remind us that the destruction that we cause is our choice and the categories we force upon each other are our fiction.

That’s why we write. And, maybe, why some of us in the “Asian American Diaspora” choose a multiplicity of voices and non-traditional narratives to offer a glimpse into what our collective humanity might look like from a different point of view.

For more posts about writing, and to get a look inside the Goddard Creative Writing Program, please visit our blog: thewriterintheworld.com

Looking for a Good Read?

_20150417_095759If you are looking for a great book to put on next semester’s reading list, to propose to your book club, or just to spend the day with, PEN announced the finalists for $150,000 in prizes yesterday. How difficult is it to choose five books out of nearly 200? Very. I know.

The shortlist for the John Kenneth Galbraith award, a $10,000 prize for which I served as a judge, includes Sheri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial”; Danielle Allen’s “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality”“League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru; “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” by Jonathan M. Katz; and “This Changes Everything,” Naomi Klein’s book about climate change.

The Galbraith prize is one of ten to be awarded next month, including awards for fiction, essay writing, science writing, biography, translation, and work by writers of color. Browse all the finalists on the PEN website.

Happy reading!

The Radical Imagination

Post State of the Union, the speech that is still sounding in my mind is one that was given back in November: Ursula Le Guin’s address at the National Book Award ceremony. Yes, she chided us for selling books “like deodorant,” but these are the words that are resonating in me:

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”

We will need writers who can remember freedom.

CommonsenseChilling thought, especially in a country that purports to be founded on freedom. Our America was to be a new world where human rights were declared and held inalienable. And if that world, sadly, has never yet existed; if the gap between what we want to believe we are and how we actually act is huge and filled with death, torture, slavery, incarceration, brutality, poverty, inequity and fear…it is worth remembering that it was a pamphlet that helped spark the American Revolution: words on a page that conveyed a vision of freedom and individual worth so compelling that people gave their lives for it.

Le Guin reminded us that, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” Art, after all, is the manifestation of our radical imagination; our means of sharing our vision of a better world.

Writers: If you remember freedom and do not see it around you, start writing. Write about whatever feels urgent to you. It might be family or fantasy; it might be poetry or a post-apocalyptic dystopian TV show. Your truths will resonate, and you will go on record: contributing your vision, no matter how shrouded in metaphor, how personal, to the formation of our collective future. You are change: good or bad, loud or silent.  Your choice matters.  And if you write because you care and not to be the next best brand of deodorant; if you are fearless in your truths; you can change the world.

Speech excerpts: © 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin