Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning from Your Characters

When last we met, we were at the Frederick Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library (see prior entry), and I was holding hands with Millicent while looking deeply into her richly detailed face. Shortly before this moment, I had done a reading and Q&A with the group who had gathered that afternoon, followed by a book signing. C, the branch manager, had put her granddaughter (maybe 12-13 years old?)  in charge of the book sales and money collection. When the selling and signing were finished (but before that moment with Millicent), C came over to do a tally of books sold and money collected. And she discovered that one book was missing. Now here was what the scene looked like: C was standing on one side of me as I sat at the signing table, and the granddaughter was standing on the other side of me. What had only moment ago been a celebratory scene turned serious. C became stern.
     "When I give you a job to do," she said to her granddaughter, "I expect you to take it seriously." The granddaughter looked chastened, sorry, but did not say anything.  
     I felt uncomfortable sitting between them (no one likes to be scolded), and besides, I had a whole bunch of books in the trunk of the car, so it would have been very easy for me to make up the missing book. I felt tempted to make it light, say something like, "Oh, don't worry. It's not a big deal." But then I remembered the scene in my book where Harry (the main character) is in the midst of his (somewhat ill-fated) bicycle giveaway. In particular I was thinking of him trying to give a bike to a little girl who really wants the bike, but her grandmother does not like the situation (free handouts to the underprivileged, is how she might have been thinking of it), and she tells her granddaughter she cannot have the bicycle. Harry tries to joke with her, make light of it, get her to loosen up, and overall, the exchange does not go well, and I'm not sure whether Harry ever understood why. When I wrote that scene, I'm not sure I even fully understood why. 
     But at that moment, in the library, I kept my mouth shut. I realized (learning from Harry's mistake) that C had a lesson she wanted to teach her granddaughter, and it was not my business to intervene. Who am I to say what lessons that young girl needs to learn for her life, what challenges she will face, and who she may need to answer to? So I didn't say anything.
When all that was finished, I went to talk to Millicent.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Millicent and me

For a long time, I've been wanting to write more about my visit to the Frederick Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library. It was March, a cold day, and the whole thing felt very uncertain. (1) A water-main break had occurred at the library in December, and it had been closed to the public ever since. The staff felt certain that they would open in time for my appearance, but it was also true that when I had first called to check in with them about the day, no one at the branch library had heard of me or had any idea I was coming. (2) The branch was on Grand River, which at first had seemed like the coolest thing (because of the name of my book), but once I realized where it was actually located (deep, deep into Detroit, in an area that many would see as troubled, to use the best word I can think of), I was a bit trepidatious. Nevertheless, I set out from Ann Arbor with my husband and two good friends (Liz and Alesia). When we arrived and figured out where to park (they had a security officer outside, perhaps watching for us), they were open for business, they knew just who I was, and they welcomed me warmly. Here's what the branch looks like, though the day we were there, it was overcast.
The woman who was the head of the library was there, as was her granddaughter (maybe 12-13 years old) and several of her granddaughter's friends. The branch manager (let's call her C) mentioned that she still had to put on her makeup, which prompted my husband to report that Liz (the friend who had come with us) is a professional makeup artist, and then it worked around to Liz agreeing to do C's makeup, and the granddaughter and her friends went to watch, and they all had a grand time, while I met some of the other people who were gathered to hear about my book.
     For a long time, I had been hoping for a larger African-American audience for one of my book events, but now that it was happening, I was a little scared. What would they think of me--a white, middle-class Jewish woman--trying to inhabit the minds and souls and voices of "their" people, meaning the African American characters in my book?
     The answer is that they were very receptive and very open to listening and talking and exchanging. I will report some specifics in a future post. Here, I want to mention that one group who came (the library staff actually took a van to go pick these people up and bring them) consisted of women who are visually impaired and belong to a book group at the library (the branch has a large collection of materials for the blind). One of these people was Millicent, and she sat in the front row. Millicent had a lot to say about the ideas in the book, and she is the kind of person who one cannot fail to notice. Here she is in all her amazingness:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kyrgyz Eyes

As some of you may know, for many years, I was obsessed with Thomas Mann's novel, The Magic Mountain. One of the unforgettable details of the novel was the obsession of Hans Castorp (the main character) with the elusive Clavdia Chauchat, who Mann describes repeatedly as having Kyrgyz eyes. This is, indeed, one of her defining features. "Kyrgyz eyes" were also a feature of an earlier breathless obsession in Castorp's life--a young boy who had many years before loaned young Hans a pencil on the school playground. So Mann echoes these eyes and these obsessions (even the pencil) throughout the novel. What I would give to have such literary skill . . .
     At any rate, I have never before taken the time to find out what Kyrgyz eyes might look like, until now, when Kyrgyztan is in the news because of ethnic violence between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek peoples. Google tells me that the woman and baby above are Kyrgyz. I have decided that these two at least somewhat represent what a set of Kyrgyz eyes look like, though I of course know that there would be no one standard set of Kyrgyz eyes. Here are some others--not smiling, as I think non-smiling eyes would be more what Mann had in mind.
I won't pretend to know anything about the Kyrgyz or the Uzbek people and their current troubles and conflicts. Commentators and reporters aren't completely clear on the "spark," though they say that it began with a fight between groups of young people from each of the ethnic groups. As is usually the case, political and economic issues lie at the core, and awkward and artificial lines between countries that go back to Stalin. These forces, I believe, are far more significant than actual hate between ethnic groups, but hate and violence are often the result. Followed by displaced people and extensive human misery. It is heartbreaking to see the photos of the people fleeing, children in their arms, all seeking safety and refuge, which will likely not be forthcoming.
     As I've listened to these stories on the news, one question I keep wishing to have answered is, "How can a Kyrgyz tell an Uzbek and vice versa?" Is it skin color, style of dress, neighborhoods they live in, EYES? Can you just tell right away? Here are some people who Google tells me are Uzbek.
I suppose there are some differences around the eyes. But what do you think?
     And just for context, here's where Kyrgyztan is. I see it's northwest of China, so maybe that has something to do with the eyes?

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Diversity of Good (book) News

Dear reader,
I have to take another short break from my real topic (discomforts of diversity, of which so many are mounting up, I won't know where to begin when I get back to them), but I have a collection of developments to report.
     1. University of Michigan's Honors College has chosen my novel--Grand River and Joy--as the summer reading book for incoming freshman. When students arrive on campus in the fall, leading faculty will be discussing the book with them, and in November, I will visit campus during parents' weekend to discuss the book with students and parents. Their theme for the fall semester, and the context for the discussion of my book, is What Makes Life Worth Living?
     2. D. G. Meyers, who writes, A Commonplace Blog, about literature and literary ideas, has posted a very serious review of my novel. It's an honor for an author to have her work taken so seriously.
     3. I have a short essay included in the 10th anniversary issue of a lovely journal called After Hours. Ten years is a long time for a literary journal to hang in there. So congrats to publisher and poet Al DeGenova.
     4. I've recently had a short story published in Superstition Review. Called "On the Promenade Deck," this is my homage to Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a book I read and re-read seven or eight times during my twenties and thirties.
     I think there's something else I'm forgetting, but I'll fill you in as soon as I remember.

Monday, June 7, 2010


This is an image and a view that I particularly loved from my vacation. It's from the Parc Guell in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudi. When it comes to Gaudi, many people go for the colorful, whirling, phantasmagorical mosaics and so forth, and I liked those too, but it was this organic, emerging-from-the-earth, slanted stone stuff that really got to me.
    So, no, I wasn't hanging in that Thai basket pictured in my vacation blog post, but sometimes it felt like it. One of the great pleasures of vacation, I realized this time around, is just hanging--not having to be on any schedule at all, not having to be at any particular place at any particular time, not even having to think about what time it is. And then there is also the great pleasure of following these narrow, crooked paths, not knowing where they will lead.
     I found Barcelona to be an extremely diverse place, and I will talk about that next week (so many images still percolating in my mind), when I've finished plowing through all the work of re-entry and am more fully recovered from the jet lag. Thanks to anyone who continued to check in while I was away.