does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Spanglish Christmas Eve

In a continuation of my series on Puerto Rican culture, I began writing a post to highlight the importance of Christmas Eve for the Spanish-speaking world and Puerto Ricans, in particular. I started by saying, “Christmas Eve is called Noche Buena [Good Night]. At least traditionally, Noche Buena, rather than Christmas day, was the premier celebration among family and friends. In Catholic families, dinner and music were usually followed by attending La Misa de Gallos [Midnight Mass].”

I don’t usually start my posts by talking about an earlier draft. In this case, though, it’s relevant. As soon as I had written the above sentences explaining the significance of Noche Buena, I thought I’d better consult with Puerto Rican friends and family. I got a stunning reality check. Reactions ranged from “... the relative importance of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is now, even in Puerto Rico, not that different ...” to “... the real distinction in Puerto Rico is between rural and urban areas ...” to “...the real difference is between how Catholics and Pentecostals celebrate Christmas Eve ...” to “...what’s up with this Noche Buena stuff? It’s Christmas Eve!” That’s when I realized that, in addressing Puerto Rican culture, I was once again caught in an identity maelstrom.

This is why, when I came across the following poem, Chihuahuas y La Noche Buena, it answered a present need. It showcased, by its use of Spanglish, the cultural reality of predominantly English-speaking individuals with roots in the Spanish-speaking world. While this was written by someone of Mexican-American background, it struck a nerve with this Boricamericana. This last term, by the way, a conflation of Boricua and Americana, is one which apparently I just made up because a Google search produced no results. Like the poem, it illustrates the point that, with cultural boundaries increasingly permeable, one of the results is a hybridized language and experience.

Here's the poem. I apologize to those who don't read Spanish, but translating this seems to defeat the purpose. I'll answer any questions you have, though.

Chihuahuas y La Noche Buena

Adapted by Río Lara-Bellon.

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the casa
Ni un ratón se movía. ¡Caramba! ¿Qué pasa?
Los niños were all tucked away en sus camas,
Some in long underwear, some in pijamas.
While Mamá worked late in her little cocina
El viejo was down at the corner cantina
Living it up with amigos, ¡carajo!
Muy contento y un poco borracho.
While hanging the stockings with mucho cuidado,
In hopes that old Santa would feel obligado
To bring a los niños both buenos y malos,
A nice batch of dulces y otros regalos.
Outside in the yard there arose such a grito
That I jumped to my feet like a frightened cabrito.
I ran to the window y miré afuera
And who in the world do you think that it era?
Santo Nikos in a sleigh and a big red sombrero
Came dashing along like a crazy bombero!
And pulling his sleigh, instead of venados,
Were eight little chihuahuas, approaching volados.
I watched as they came and this quaint little hombre
Was shouting and whistling and calling by nombre:
¡Ay Milo! ¡Ay Tobee! ¡Ay Frida y Sasha!
¡Ay Todo! ¡Ay Pepe! ¡Ay Paco y Nacho!
Then standing erect with hand en su pecho
He flew to the top of our very own techo
With his round little belly like a bowl of jalea
He struggled to squeeze down our old chimenea.
Then huffing and puffing, at last in our sala,
With soot smeared all over his traje de gala,
He filled all the stockings with bonitos regalos
For none of the niños had been muy malos.
Then chuckling aloud, seeming muy contento,
He turned like a flash y voló como el viento.
And I heard him exclaim (¡ay, es la verdad!)

Adaptation Copyright © 1996 by Río Lara-Bellon All Rights Reserved.

I now bid you so long for the remainder of the holiday season. I will be posting again on January 9, 2010. Have a Happy New Year!

Other relevant posts:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Guest Blogger - What Is Good Literature?

One of the unexpected joys of becoming a blogger has been discovering wonderful bloggers from around the world. One of my favorites is A Cuban in London. I so enjoyed his December 6, 2009 post that, with his permission, it is my guest blog post today. Here is what he has to say on the question, What is good literature?

I have never read a novel by Philip Roth. I recently opened the first page of Joyce's 'Ulysses' and closed it again. It can wait. Especially when the introduction runs almost as long as Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'. I have yet to read Don DeLillo's 'Underworld' despite many people's claim that it contains one of the best baseball scenes ever written, and I am a fan of that sport. In my early twenties I opened and closed in succession, without reading, the following 'masterpieces': 'La Casa de los Espíritus', 'Steppenwolf', 'Death in Venice' and 'Cien Años de Soledad' (since then opened, read and closed but not liked).

In the meantime, though, I have devoured almost all of Milan Kundera's novels, become acquainted with and enamoured of Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, delighted in Salman Rushdie's fiction and become a fan of Zadie Smith's novels and essays.

So, when my Literary Judgement Day arrives what will I declare? What will my excuse be for not liking 'Don Quijote de la Mancha'?

I'm only asking because it seems to me that ever since papyrus was first used during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, there has been a need to have a 'must-read' canon to which we, avid bookworms, must kowtow if we want to be accepted in the lap of literature's gods. This attitude, which I shall call 'the dictatorship of the classics' does not take into account human life span, basic needs or cultures. No, the classics' tyrant's only concern is what he/she calls good literature and our incessant pursuit of it.

And what is good literature? By no means I am attempting to replicate Zadie Smith's magnificent fifteen-part essay which I have been uploading on this blog weekly since September and whose latest instalment focused on the 'corrective critic'. But the question of what good literature is has been roaming my mind since many years ago an acquaintance of mine said to me with a frown on his face and a scold in his voice: 'I can't believe you have not read (insert famous novel title here) yet! But you like reading so much, I always see you with a book. You are so eloquent and passionate about literature. I would have thought you already had (novel title again) under your belt.'

Well, for starters I don't wear a belt most of the time. But what most intrigued me and, I confess, annoyed me from my acquaintance's tirade was the surprise on his face that I had not read this 'classic'.

I don't know about your reading habits, my fellow bloggers and readers, but mine are as follows. I have always had a list of books I wish to read out of pure enjoyment, regardless of their literary merits or lack of them thereof. But sometimes, even if I like the author and I am familiar with his/her work, I hesitate before delving into the narrative they offer me. This uncertainty is mainly based on circumstances rather than volition. The will is there, but the spark is missing. The opening sentence is not enough bait for me to swallow the hook. There are exceptions, though. I started twice and put down the same number of times two Toni Morrison's novels: 'Beloved' and 'Jazz'. The third time around I stuck with them - on separate occasions, mind - and I was rewarded with two magnificent literary behemoths, which I am planning to re-read very soon. But my habits, on the whole, remain the same. I am attracted to a book, be it a novel, essay or poetry collection, for its (potential) literary merit rather than its cultural impact. That the two of them coincide oftentimes these days is more down to the fact that I have fine-tuned my search for good books in the last fifteen years and become choosier.

And economics plays an essential role in that decision. I referred to three elements that 'classics tyrants' overlook when it comes to evaluating a work of art: the length of human life, basic needs and culture. Let's examine each of those aspects separately.

From an early age you will be exposed to a lot of reading material. And bar the small fact that your parents or carers will choose the books they'll read to you when you're little, you will be free most of your teenage, young adult and mature life to pick out which novel or poetry collection you want to read. Assuming that you're not a book reviewer - minority -, your main incentive for reading will be to enjoy the work in front of you. And that's without taking into account the literature you will have to read through your student's years or as part of your job. That means that a novel like 'War and Peace' might not be as appealing as, say, a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The seven volumes that make up 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu' will look like a waste of time and money when you realise that it will not take you as long to read Nadime Gordimer's entire catalogue and still have time to enjoy 'Telling Tales', an excellent compilation of short works by some of the foremost authors nowadays edited by the South African writer; I strongly recommend it. But the classics' dictator will have none of it. To him/her (although it's more 'him' than 'her' if truth be told, so I will start using the masculine from now on), to this person, Proust is the apogee of good literary taste. His is the most beautiful type of literature there is and the fact that not many people can 'get' him is evidence of the critic's own infallible ability to judge what's good and what isn't. Some people call this attitude snobbery. I have a stronger word for it which I won't use because I don't like gratuitous swearing on my blog. My conclusion is, though, life's too short, read what you want without feeling you 'must' digest this or that novel because it's a classic.

Basic needs are better expressed through the current economic downturn, a fine euphemism for a financial crisis if ever I saw one. With unemployment and inflation rising, the time and resources for meandering through aisles of old tomes that call out for our attention are diminishing. The dilemma worrying many people at the moment is how to survive in the midst of this credit crunch and that's why the market is awash with escapist novels and what I call crap lit. This is the type of book that Borders (alas, in receivership now) and Waterstones advertise in their 3 for 2 deals. It's probably why the Katie Prices of this world have supplanted the J. M. Coetzees. And although I also stick my snobbish nose up at the former, this phenomenon has a logical genesis. You think of putting food on the table first and then indulge in your favourite pastime afterwards. But to the classics' inquisitor this shift of loyalties is akin to the original sin, without the snake, mind. My verdict on this aspect is that as much as I love books, I need to look after my family first and foremost, and you can burn me at the stake if you want, Mr Despot.

And so we come to the cultural element which I have left for the end because it's always been a bugbear of mine. So, if you notice an axe being swung it's because I have one to grind.

It's logical that in an English-speaking country most literature will be read in that language. The same goes for Spanish or Chinese. It's not surprising that when people are asked to list their favourite novels or poems, the majority will be works in their own lexicon. It is also reasonable to suppose that we tend to think of many of the books we hold dear as the centre of the universe, what my acquaintance referred to as the 'I-can't-believe-you-haven't-read-that' type of literature. After all, some of us are miniature dictators ourselves.

But when the classics' autocrat gets up on his High Chair to list the 100 Best Novels of all time, or nominate the greatest poem of the 20th century, my ears always prick up and my eyes open wide. I'm usually interested in who makes the cut and who is left out. That's also the moment when my cynicism sets deeper in. Because no matter how broad the scope is, the majority of the works enumerated will be usually European and more specifically in English. And that cuts across the board. Whether you're talking about visual arts, theatre or cinema, the bulk of any 'Best...' list will have at the very least an Anglophone undertone. This is not to detract from the very good art that has been produced in North America and Europe, especially Britain, for many centuries. But it is rather disheartening for anyone who, like me, has been exposed to equally brilliant art from an early age in his/her country of origin, regardless of economic outlook.

My first reaction to Stephen Moss's article on TS Elliot (link above) was to write to The Guardian to let him know the names of five poets from Iberoamerica from whose body of work I could select any poem that could very easily compete with TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' to win the title of 'greatest poem of the 20th century'. They were: Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Julia de Burgos and Mario Benedetti. If you know your Hispanic poetry you will be aware that I did not include any Cuban poets in that list; I did not want to be accused of jingoism. But on second thoughts I decided against writing the letter because it would have been futile. The classics' dictator has two major shortcomings: monoculture and monolanguage. The landscape in which this literary Stalin lives is monochromatic. He doesn't read Alfonsina Storni's 'Voy a Dormir', not because he doesn't like her but because he doesn't know who she was. This authoritarian ignoramus lives in a secluded intellectual island beyond whose shores he will rarely venture. The thought of learning another language in order to delve into a different culture terrifies him. But this deficiency will not stop him from deciding which writers have the qualities that define good literature.

When non-English speaking writers do make it to the aforementioned lists, it is because they are read in translation, with the usual suspects - at least from my neck of the woods - being showered with all kind of compliments: Gabo, Isabel and Borges. This hurts because the plethora of good writers in the Spanish-speaking world who gets left out is mindblowing. Julio Cortázar's 'Rayuela' is a Latin American classic, paving, as it did, the way for other similarly innovative writers such as the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante whose 'Tres Tristes Tigres' I devoured earlier this year and it's shaping up to be my Book of the Year. Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez) drew heavily from another compatriot of mine, late writer Alejo Carpentier, to become the doyen of the so-called 'magical realism' genre, however it was the islander who first coined the phrase 'lo real maravilloso (the wonderful reality)' in the prologue of his trail-blazing novel 'El Reino de Este Mundo'.

And it wouldn't matter really, whether these non-English speaking writers were acknowledged or not by an Anglo-Saxon public, because they have already earned their kudos in Iberoamerica. But since it is the Germanic lexicon in which the worldwide literary market chiefly operates, non-recognition equals to small or zero sales, so it does matter in the end. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra pointed out recently in The Guardian Saturday Review, if you want to be published abroad you have to conform to the stereotypical views many readers have of a particular writer's nation. For Cuban authors, it is 'steamy sex or salsa' or nada at the till. This situation results in a Catch-22 for the writer who has to resort to formulas in order to sustain a living through writing. Which in effect is convenient cannon fodder for the classics' tyrant in order to back up his claim of what he believes to be good literature.

I apologise if I have stepped on some toes today. After all most of the people who visit and comment on this blog are English-speakers. So for the record, this is not a diatribe against the Anglo world or European culture at all - good Lord, probably Nigerian or Jamaican writers are in a similar situation - but against that prejudiced classics' dictator who would like nothing better than lock us up, rebel readers who dare to read for pleasure, in a type of Konzentrationslager, where our hours would be devoted to analysing the symbolism of TS Elliot's second chapter in 'The Waste Land': 'A Game of Chess'. Me? I'm off to read some Girondo.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tales of Wonder by Huston Smith, A Book Review

Two strands thread prominently throughout my writing and this blog: multiculturalism and religion. More than any other person, Huston Smith, the now 90-year-old philosophy professor and religious scholar, has informed my thinking about the intersection of culture and religion. His landmark book, The World’s Religions, has sold almost 3 million copies and is a standard textbook in introductory comparative religion classes. Now, in the twilight of a long life in which he has published more than 15 books, taught at various universities, hosted TV shows, and traveled the world several times over, he has consented at last to tell his unusual and riveting life story in Tales of Wonder.

Born in a remote Chinese village to American Methodist missionaries, Huston Smith learned early about differing cultural and religious points of view. His was the only Caucasian and, originally the only Christian, family in a place which also had followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion. This variety would later serve Smith well as he studied the world’s religions. It would turn out to be critical in his ultimately becoming a follower of the major religions, as well as of the folk and primal ones, all while he " ... never canceled my subscription to Christianity."

After he came to the States for higher education, Smith shed his parents' fundamentalist Methodist tradition and practiced a more secular, social activist version of Christianity. In this, he was influenced by his father-in-law Henry Wieman, the subject of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doctoral thesis. Eventually, under the influence of other western and eastern teachers, Huston Smith came to embrace a mysticism which defines his religious views to this day.

In his introduction to Tales of Wonder, Pico Iyer says, “Professor Smith … created his own field, by not really comparing religions so much as encountering each one in turn and trying to find its burning core as well as its philosophical uniqueness.” Smith then presents his fascinating autobiography in two parts. Part I describes the historical markers of his life. Part II discusses his personal experiences with Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, mysticism, primal religions, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Smith’s amazing life began with a Medieval-like upbringing in China but then went on to his becoming a professor at some of the finest universities in America and being acknowledged internationally as one of our pre-eminent religious communicators. Along the way, he has been on the frontlines of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, danced with Sufis, meditated around the clock for days with his Japanese Zen master, and helped Native Americans gain the legal right to use peyote in their religious rites. Even the Dalai Lama has acknowledged Smith as one of his spiritual teachers.

With such a complex tapestry of experiences and with Smith's first-rate writing skills, his autobiography promised to be fascinating. Tales of Wonder met brilliantly the challenge of describing this unique man. It also satisfied his life-long mission to promote understanding among differing religions. As always, Huston Smith appoaches his religious subjects in a phenomenological way, treating each religion with respect and without judgment. Given how divisive religion has been historically, Smith, in his life and in his writing, may have found the secret to helping us all get along.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why Do I Write? - Part 2

Whenever I take my role as Writer/Author too seriously, I recall what Stephen King says in his book On Writing: It's “… just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Having dethroned the writer as an exalted being, King does not address why some of us choose to be plumbers and others are drawn to, say, writing novels. Of himself, he says only that writing fiction is “… what makes me happy, because it’s what I was made to do.”

Margaret Atwood, in Negotiating with the Dead, dedicates two pages to listing why writers write. The list includes everything from “To record the world as it is …” or to “… produce order out of chaos …” or to “…attract the love of a beautiful woman … man ….” In the end, she concludes that “… any search for a clutch of common motives would prove fruitless ….”

Pablo Neruda in his poem Poet’s Obligation seems to allude to some higher calling. "So, drawn on by my destiny, … through me, freedom and the sea will call in answer to the shrouded heart.”

When asked why I write, I usually respond by saying, I do it because I can’t not write. As described in my post, The Family Business, I seem to be genetically coded for writing.

The tenor of my response changes, though, when I receive a rejection from yet another literary publication or agent. That’s when I scratch my head and wonder why I’m giving so much precious energy to an endeavor that sometimes no one but me sees. At times, I force myself to take a vacation from writing because “I’m not getting anywhere.”

Then I’ll wake up one morning with my fingers itching to get to the keyboard. I will open up a file and soon I will be racing to catch up with whatever is in me that seeks written expression. In the process, I'll feel as fulfilled as I have ever felt about anything.

When that happens, I recall what Stephen King also said when he admonished the writer to find something you are good at and to do it “... until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.”

For me, writing—except when I’m engaged in what seems like the infinity-minus-one draft of a work—is an exceedingly pleasurable experience; indeed, sometimes ecstatic.

My current work-in-progress is a case in point. I now laugh with my characters. I weep with them. As the project progresses, their faces become clearer. I begin to understand their silences, their rages, their hopes, as well as their disappointments. When I reach this point in any fiction project, I know I have to surrender to the process. Stopping feels like a betrayal of my responsibility to these characters.

It may be, then, that I also write to give my characters the expression they would otherwise not have, but for which they hunger, wherever it is they reside when they are not around me. Indeed, once the characters appear in my life, I suffer from a serious case of inquietud, a restlessness that won’t diminish until I give the characters their due.

I’ll end with something else Stephen King said:

“Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

“Drink and be filled up.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why Do I Write? - Part I

I was about to publish my next post on this topic when I realized that a while back, I had addressed it by featuring a Pablo Neruda poem. I am republishing "Poet's Obligation" as Part I of Why Do I Write? I will publish Part II mid next week. This poem applies to more than poetry, which I also write occasionally. Nobel-Prize-winner Neruda captures well the nearly mystical impulse which drives me to write fiction. The English translation is provided first, followed by the original in Spanish.

Poet's Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea this Friday
morning, to whoever is cooped up
in the house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its crown
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the gray cry of seabirds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

Deber del poeta

A quien no escucha el mar en este viernes
por la mañana, a quien adentro de algo,
casa, oficina, fábrica o mujer,
o calle o mina o seco calabozo:
a este yo acudo y sin hablar ni ver
llego y abro la puerta del encierro
y un sin fin se oye vago en la insistencia,
un largo trueno roto se encadena
al peso del planeta y de la espuma,
surgen los ríos roncos del océano,
vibra veloz en su rosal la estrella
y el mar palpíta, muere y continúa.

Así por el destino conducido
debo sin tregua oír y conservar
el lamento marino en mi conciencia,
debo sentir el golpe de agua dura
y recogerlo en una taza eterna
para que donde esté el encarcelado,
donde sufra el castigo del otoño
yo esté presente con una ola errante,
yo circule a través de las ventanas
y al oírme levante la mirada
diciendo: cómo me acercaré al océano?
Y yo transmitiré sin decir nada
los ecos estrellados de la ola,
un quebranto de espuma y arenales,
un susurro de sal que se retira,
el grito gris del ave de la costa.

Y así, por mí, la libertad y el mar
responderán al corazón oscuro.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cultural Identity - Part 2

My friend Mari Carmen grew up in Puerto Rico but now lives both on the island and on the mainland. Given her unique perspective, I asked her to share thoughts about Puerto Rico and its people. She highlighted the following items. The first applies to Puerto Ricans everywhere, but the remaining items apply specifically to island life.

"The hospitality and warmth of the Puerto Rican people are absolutely charming, notwithstanding all the irony in the reports of violence and crime, etc. They give you food, even if they have little to eat. I remember being a teacher and going to visit parents of Puerto Rican kids after school, and these were poor kids, but they always had rice and beans and tostones [fried plaintains] to share.

"Christmas in Puerto Rico. The 'asaltos' [the assaults], meaning groups of people who wake you up and then have those 'asaltados' [those assaulted] join the group and go on to the next 'asalto' and wake up the next family all night long until it is time to go to the Misa de Aguinaldo [Carols Mass] at 5:00 AM. Sometimes 50-60 people are in the group.

"Las Máscaras de Hatillo. Right after New Year's, I think, in the town of Hatillo, the people get dressed up with máscaras [masks] and they do travesuras [mischief] all around town dressed in costumes and máscaras that resemble vejigantes but are a little different.

"On the feast of San Sebastián in Old San Juan, they close the old town and they used to parade with his statue. Now it has become more of an arts festival, but it is still a big deal sometime in mid January and the old part of the city becomes a walking mall.

"The elections and political participation. Elections are a big deal, and everyone participates (voter participation is over 80% of those registered). No matter how rich or how poor, everyone has a banner or a decal in their car, their house, their balcony. There is a festive air to the elections, and people take their politics very seriously. It used to be that everyone used to vote on the same Sunday at 3:00 PM in an assigned classroom. If you were not there, the doors would close and you lost the opportunity to vote. Now it is more like the States and you can go any time during the day, so long as you have la tarjeta [voter card]."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cultural Identity - Who is Puerto Rican?

After reading my first Lamento Borincano post, a fellow blogger asked me to discuss what the general population should know about Puerto Rican culture.

I was about to whip up a response when I stopped to ask myself which Puerto Rican culture I would write about. At the moment, just as many Puerto Ricans live away from Puerto Rico as do on that beautiful Caribbean island. Anyone born on the island is automatically a U.S. citizen. Many of us who self identify as Puerto Rican have actually never lived in Puerto Rico. Some, like me, lived there for a time, but have spent the rest of our lives elsewhere. Some of us speak Spanish only. Others English only. Some speak both fluently. Others manage a hybrid Spanglish. Some can comprehend both languages but speak only one. Some, like me while growing up, interacted in an English-speaking world away from home and a Spanish-speaking one at home. To this already rich mix, I can add many permutations. All I have to do is overlay variables like historical time period, urban versus rural, religion, politics, age, socioeconomic class, intermarriage, skin color, and gender. Given that, my first exploration of Puerto Rican culture is necessarily a definitional one. Who is Puerto Rican?

The first thing I can say is, “We are surely a hybrid bunch.” Yet, that is not a satisfying answer. Given our diversity, what leads some of us to self identify as Puerto Rican, particularly if we have never lived there? Are we Puerto Rican because our parents or grandparents were born there and/or we eat Puerto Rican food, celebrate Puerto Rican holidays, enjoy the music and dances, identify with the island's history and the issue of its political status? Conversely, what is it that leads others to identify us as Puerto Rican? Why, for example, was my green-eyed, fair-skinned father denied housing once the landlord realized papi was Puerto Rican?

I end with a promise that I will explore this complex issue in future posts. In the meantime, I really, really, really welcome comments any of you, Puerto Rican and not, have on the question: Who Is Puerto Rican? I thought I knew what it meant to be Puerto Rican until I had to explain it to someone else so I need all the help I can get.

My next post on this subject will share what a friend, who grew up on the island but now lives mostly on the mainland, considered noteworthy about Puerto Rican culture.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Humberto, the Bookworm Hamster, Taught Me

Okay, admit it, who among you was called a bookworm at some point? I’ll raise my hand. When I was a kid, I even used to take a flashlight to bed so I could read under the covers. I still find myself surrounded by books, with their bookmarks at various stages of progress. So when I recently came across the children's book Humberto, the Bookworm Hamster by Mayra Calvani, my interest was piqued. After reading it, I found myself measuring my life against it.

I guess, at heart, I must still be the targeted 4-8-year-old reader. From the start, Mayra Calvani easily drew me into the tale of Humberto the hamster who loves, just loves, books. He turns down invitations from the squirrel, rabbit, and beaver because “I don’t have time. I’m too busy reading.” He reads while he eats, while he exercises on his wheel, even while he brushes his teeth. Rather than play with others, Humberto prefers to have his books transport him to a Paris café, the Egyptian pyramids or Saturn's rings. Then a storm causes disastrous flooding in his neighborhood, and Humberto’s books are about to be swept away. Tempted to focus on rescuing his books, he turns his attention instead to finding food and shelter for his friends. In the process, he learns the true meaning and joy of friendship.

As a self-admitted bookworm, I had expected to find Calvani’s book interesting. What I did not expect was that this beautifully illustrated children’s tale would apply so resoundingly to my current life, particularly my blogging life. Since I began blogging, I have been struck by how much fun it is to write for my blog and also to read other blogs. I can be carried off for hours and, in the meantime, dinner is not prepared, clothes are not washed, my dear husband has not received a hug, and friends and family have not heard from me. Humberto is a powerful reminder that we are social beings in the flesh and not just on the page.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Short Story or How The Family Business Launched Me As a Published Writer

After writing about my family's religious influence, posting this short story seems appropriate. I harbor no illusions that it is New Yorker worthy, but it holds special meaning for me. Not only is it fitting in light of my previous post, but it was also the first of my stories to be published. I can still remember when the editor called to say he wanted to publish it. I burst out laughing and then quickly had to explain that I wasn’t laughing at him, that my laughter was one of sheer joy. I was going to be a published writer!

Reader reactions to this story fascinate me. It is interesting that, of all my stories, this the only one that more than one review wanted to publish. Originally, I had not even intended to submit it for publication. I did so only after, in my critique group, the atheist loved it because it made him laugh and the evangelical Christian asked me to share it with her women's group. I must be doing something right, I thought, if I can engage both ends of the spectrum. Incidentally, my husband swears this is a true story. It is not, though the incident could well have happened, given my family background.

Here is the beginning of the story. You can read the rest of it at my other blog.

This is what happened between the amen and the hallelujah. It was a stormy Sunday morning, not one for venturing out to church, certainly not in a foreign country where we didn't even know where to go. It's not that we were faithful about attending services back home. We went barely once or twice a year, but it became a church morning despite the inclement weather.

The amen came in a thunderclap. I was still in bed, half asleep, not quite awake, when the skies split open and spewed out damnation.

"Amen!" my father would have said.

He was a Pentecostal minister, the kind who breathed fire and then salved the pain by the laying of hands. He was a dancing preacher man. Got up in that pulpit and, Lord, he was gone. Something took him over—I won't say the devil got to him because that's what he was preaching against—but his voice strummed like a bass guitar strutting out a beat or a howling banjo stringing out a scream. It was all jumbled up together and in between came the hush. Like a singer dropping to pianissimo, he pleaded with sinners to come up and fall on their knees….

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Family Business

The evangelical ministry was the Mercado-Santiago family "business." My mother and father were both ordained ministers. Two of my mother’s sisters entered the ministry. Another married a minister. My uncle's wife embraced the ministry, one of several in-laws to do so. Some of my cousins are currently ministers. Nothing pleased my parents more than that their church produced more than thirty ordained ministers who went on to lead their own congregations.

Given that, expectations were high that I would also be a minister or at least marry one. To my parents’ disappointment, I neither became a minister nor married one. In fact, I left their religion altogether. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I reveal that I “attended” their denomination's seminary in my early teens. My overprotective mother, averse to leaving me alone with potentially sinful influences, took me along while she attended seminary. As a consequence, I sat in on every single class of Biblical history and hermeneutics, often silently arguing with the professor.

Some might say I am still arguing. Believer or nonbeliever? On a given day, I might fall into either camp. What I am not, repeat not, is a proselytizer. There is no surer way to get my hackles up than to come up against someone who believes I must be Saved. Aware of just how unfathomable the nature of reality might be, I respect anybody’s nonviolent attempt to explain the meaning of existence, be it in spiritual or non-spiritual terms. Just don’t try to convert me.

There was a second family business, the words business, and that one I did join. I already posted How the Rediscovery of My Father’s Words Led to My Writing Fiction. In the course of his long ministry, my father wrote well over a thousand sermons. As relaxation, he also wrote poetry, some of which is still recited in various churches. After he died, we found a worksheet, complete with editing marks, on which he had been composing a poem about the challenges in the life of a minister. That tattered piece of paper, which I have framed, constitutes the sum total of my material inheritance. Then again, that peek into my father’s interior struggles added to the valuable emotional and wisdom inheritance I also received from him. Here’s the first verse. On my other blog, I have posted the full text.

Cuando a tus puertas llegue el desaliento
When discouragement shows up at your door

y la tristeza minar quiera tu vida
and sadness wants to undermine your life

recuerda del Señor, su buen ejemplo
remember the Lord’s good example

cuando la embarcación estaba pereciendo
when the vessel was about to capsize

serenó a la mar embravecida.
He calmed the tumultuous seas.

Rev. Miguel A. Mercado

Oh, I almost forgot. My father’s mother at one time was supposedly a Spiritualist medium. So, having been surrounded by religious leaders and also being a preacher’s kid, are you surprised that I write about people coming to terms with religion and spirituality?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mi Lamento Borincano - Part 2

In a comment to my previous post, A Cuban in London wrote that hearing the song Lamento Borincano “got to my very core …. it expresses pretty much the sentiment that underlines Latin American identity.”

Since his comment, I have not stopped thinking about why this song also seems to reach into my deepest self; unsettling me, sometimes with joy, sometimes with tears. This is a song about a Puerto Rican peasant, a jíbaro (hee′ bah roh), who sets out joyfully for the market with his products, only to find the market desolated, with no buyers because of harsh economic conditions. He wonders what will happen now to his family and to his country.

When I was a child, one of the worse things others could call you was a jíbaro, meaning a country bumpkin. If they then found out your family was also from the rural mountain town Lares, which mine was, you were really in trouble. Never mind that Lares holds an exalted place in Puerto Rican history for being the cradle of its independence movement. The terms jíbaro and Lares somehow conjoined in the image of the Puerto Rican version of the rube; this time, wearing a straw pava hat.

Ironically, the term jíbaro has become iconic as a positive sentimental symbol of "the roots of the modern Puerto Rican people, and symbolizes the strength of traditional values of living simply and properly caring for homeland and family."

This evolution in the public’s perceived worth of the jíbaro is in some ways representative of my own. In the heady days of my business career, it was tempting to be swayed by the trappings of privilege and power. I hope I have since learned the difference between gloss and gold and that, in my novel about Angélica Miranda, I succeeded in portraying her and her humble family with both realism and respect.

Check out The Bronx Latin Jazz All Stars and other artists performing the song Lamento Borincano. If anyone has a good rendition by a female vocalist, please let me know. I prefer one in the música típica tradition rather than in the operatic vein, if you know what I mean.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mi Lamento Borincano or My Puerto Rican Lament

If you have followed the thread of my posts, you know that one of my novels is about a Puerto Rican Pentecostal family which immigrates to the U.S in the 1950s. The protagonist, Angélica, grows up to live a dual existence between her American secular life and her Puerto Rican evangelical life. Though my writing benefitted greatly from my similar background, the novel is not autobiographical. Instead it is a tale told in the spirit of Gabriel García Márquez [“Macondo is not so much as place as it is a state of mind.”].

This is not to say that writing this novel was not an emotional journey for me, particularly so when doing research about 1940s rural Puerto Rico, the staging ground for both my family and Angélica’s. When I write, I often play background music appropriate to the time period or setting. For 1940s rural Puerto Rico, there was no question which song I would choose to inspire me. No matter how often I hear the classic "Lamento Borincano" by the famous Puerto Rican composer of popular songs Rafael Hernández Marín, its opening chords carry me back to a way of life I often heard about as a child, but never knew first hand. It captures the longing I saw in my parents’ eyes for the homeland they left behind. Here is Marc Anthony singing background for images of Puerto Rico in the 1940s.

When I wanted a change, I would shift over to "Preciosa," another famous song by Rafael Hernández Marín; here, too, sung by Marc Anthony, this time at Madison Square Garden.

The longing captured in these songs makes me wonder whether it gets imbedded, even generations removed, in the DNA of those exiled from any homeland, whether it be Africa, Europe or Puerto Rico.

Translation links for: Lamento Borincano , Preciosa

For reasons I can't seem to correct, the comment option is sometimes not showing up on this post. I love reading your comments. If the link does not appear below, please hit: Post a Comment.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For Whom Does the Writer Write?

“For whom does the writer write?
… for … anyone at all …
because the act of reading is just as singular
… as the act of writing.”

Margaret Atwood
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

After my previous post about Dante, I wondered if I had been self indulgent in writing about my personal experience with Dante. Then, thanks to Ann Victor, who had suggested Atwood’s book, I found peace. I am the singular writer that I am. You are the singular reader that you are. Sometimes our respective singularities will resonate. Sometimes they won’t. Thank you all the same for being potential readers willing to receive my letters from the cyber postal carrier.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where in Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell Do My Characters Reside?

This all started because I had to read Dante’s Inferno for a class. As I grumbled through page after page describing Hell in agonizing detail, I asked myself how I could possibly benefit from such torture. A priest might say, “Sin no more!” I—you guessed it—wrote this post instead. In asking you to read this, I may be committing a violent sin against your person, one of the worst sins in Dante’s ranking. If so, I apologize. Here’s the potential upside for the writers among you. Like me, you might glean from Dante insights about character development. I suppose I could have used other criteria such as Catholic Sins and Virtues, Enneagram analysis, etc. but this post is about using Dante to analyze my characters. I’d love to hear about any analytical paradigm you use.

My title question seems to assume that my characters are in Hell. Does this mean I only write about characters with hellish characteristics? Hybrid secularist/spiritual person that I am, I sidestep this issue and state that outside of Heaven and Hell, whether divinely or humanly inspired, we all probably embrace aspects of both. Dante’s Inferno does an interesting job, though, of ranking human foibles or, as he calls them, sins. In so doing, he provides a potentially useful template for evaluating fictional characters and for examining whether as a writer one tends toward one type of character versus another.

First, a brief overview of Dante’s nine circles of Hell. From bad to worse, they are:

Upper Hell. The Self Indulgent
o 1st – Virtuous Pagans
o 2nd – Lustful
o 3rd – Gluttons
o 4th – Hoarders and Spendthrifts
o 5th – Wrathful and Slothful

Lower Hell. Violent and Malicious Sinners
o 6th – Violence toward God – heretics et al.
o 7th – Violence toward self and others – suicides, war makers et al.
o 8th – Malice through “simple” fraud – hypocrites, thieves et al.
o 9th – Malice through “compound” fraud– traitors against kin, country et al.

Interesting patterns emerged from my analysis to determine which Inferno characteristic(s) my fictional characters represented.

· All but two characters embody characteristics representative of more than one circle of Hell.

· Characters in my first novel seem to gravitate toward opposite ends of the spectrum.

· My favorite novel is equally represented in all circles of Hell.

· Among all novels, I have the greatest preponderance in Circles 6-7, Violence against God, self, and others; with Circle 1, Virtuous Pagans, coming in a distant second place. That could mean that the struggle between virtue and violence engages me more than any other, and that violence wins. Or it could simply reflect that my novels deal with spiritual/religious struggles, which may result in violence against God, self and others. In my characters’ efforts to understand and integrate spirituality into their lives, they sometimes engage in self-destructive or aggressive behavior.

· In each of my novels, I have at least one character that tends toward violence and another toward virtue.

· The smallest representation is in Circles 3, gluttons; and 5, wrathful and slothful. Does that reflect a personal predisposition toward ascetism and/or moderation?

· Even though Upper Hell has five circles, it has less representation in my characters than the more hellish Lower Hell which only has four circles. Does that mean that when they’re in Hell, my characters are really in Hell?

It was a surprisingly fascinating exercise to use Dante to analyze my characters. I will not change my novels retrospectively, but I plan to use the Dante test on future writing projects. On this life journey I call a pilgrimage, perhaps that test might even help me personally.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Spirit Possession

Spirit possession figures prominently in two of my novels. In Choosing Sides, the young protagonist Angélica receives the Holy Spirit and, while speaking in tongues, calls a young man to missionary work in México. In Hidden Warriors, Andrea Norman is stunned to discover that her demure best friend, whom she believed to be a secular anthropologist, turns out also to be a priestess of the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion.

I don’t share the belief system of either Pentecostalism or candomblé. As a multicultural writer, though, I feel compelled to honor each in a phenomenological way.

Phenomenology: the philosophical investigation and description of conscious experience in all its varieties without reference to the question of whether what is experienced is objectively real.

Because of my childhood in the Pentecostal church, I had an easier time describing what happens when the Holy Spirit anoints Angélica.

“… she started vibrating as if charged with electricity and then abruptly checked her spin. Standing in place, still trembling, she heard herself utter, “. . . ika bababanda ... samakatabanda ....” Barely aware of the unintelligible syllables spilling out of her, she was more conscious of the unspeakable joy filling her with a lightness she’d never even thought possible before.”

Angélica emerges from that trancelike state only to see a young guitarist pointing to her and saying,

“‘That young girl … has been God’s instrument for calling me to missionary work, aleluya, and … I vow that, within the year, my wife and I will leave for México to carry out His Word.’”

She has no recollection of having issued such a call to missionary work.

In Hidden Warriors, describing being taken over by a deity of the candomblé pantheon posed a greater challenge. In the Pentecostal church, though, I had spoken in tongues, another trance-like spiritual experience. Using that background and extensive research, I created a scene in which atheist Andrea unexpectedly comes upon a ceremony featuring her friend Flora in full possession by an orisha.

“… The drumbeat intensified. Like sweet virgin turned harlot, Flora strutted around the room. Undulating sensuously … her now lurid body strained outrageously against her elegant form‑fitting yellow silk gown. Wherever she went now, they thrust gifts at her—gold bracelets, jewelry, perfume, silks. She acknowledged them haughtily. … Over the thumping drumbeat, I … saw the shadowy responses of those she deigned to honor with her words. Sometimes they twitched in fits. Sometimes they cried. Still others collapsed in place after contact with her. She held a mysterious, terrifying power over those in the room, a power defying all reason…. Who was this woman?”

Flora, too, does not recall later what happened while in trance.

I used to reject categorically the validity of otherworldly phenomena. Now, nudged by the “fantastical” realm of quantum physics and also by personal experiences, I simply accept that I just don’t know. Interestingly, the world’s appetite for the religions described above is, if anything, growing. Harvard religious scholar Harvey Cox considers Pentecostalism to be the world’s fastest growing religion. In some Third World countries, it is already the majority religion. Candomblé is one of several thriving syncretic religions, including Cuban santería and Haitian voodoo, which emerged from the African Diaspora. I might not get much support in certain evangelical circles for saying this, but African religious influences may even have played a role in the early development of Pentecostalism. In a talk about Yoruba religion given to a comparative religion class, I speculated about potential African influences in the early development of the Pentecostal religion.

This is why I love to write fiction. One day, I might be in a U.S. Latino working class church describing a young girl speaking in tongues. The next day, I could be in an Ipanema penthouse describing a wealthy matron overtaken by an African-derived goddess. It’s easier and more fun than getting on an airplane.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Madam And The Courtesan

Recently, Liz Vega introduced me to Mayra Santos-Febres novel, Our Lady of the Night. Set in early-to-mid-twentieth-century Puerto Rico, Nuestra Señora de la Noche tells the story of Isabel La Negra, a legendary madam. Though black, she penetrates the heart of Puerto Rican aristocracy through the men who frequent her brothel. Overcoming the obstacles of color, early poverty, and her profession, she revels in becoming a powerful, independent woman. That power comes at tremendous cost, including giving up sight unseen her son at birth. Honoring a type of woman usually stepped on or ignored in historical accounts, Mayra Santos-Febres’ novel recounts Puerto Rican modern history from the standpoint of:

“… that dark corner of the hidden Whore who pushes out the bastard nation.” [“… ese rincón oculto de la Puta escondida que puja a la nación bastarda.”]

In my own novel The Old Prophet’s House, set in late twentieth-century Chicago, courtesan Charlyn Blake also revels in her independence. A schoolteacher in her regular life, she conceals from her grandfather, a conservative Episcopalian minister, that she is also the kept woman of a wealthy lawyer.

"Her hand fell on the old Bible on the seat next to her. She stroked its worn leather cover, soft like chamois, the repository of Blake family history; its official history, because it sure didn’t include its secrets."

Charlyn has two big secrets. The open secret is Charlyn’s life style which, except for Grampa, everyone knows about, but which no one publicly acknowledges. The greater secret is the son Charlyn gave up at birth. The unrepentant Charlyn tells herself:

"I couldn’t care less about redemption, Grampa. And I still don’t apologize for having been a mistress, only that you might have found out about it. For that matter, I don’t want power, except to control my own life."

Both Isabel la Negra and Charlyn put up a resolute front. In the end, though, each tracks down the son given up at birth, acknowledging the deep tear in their psyche occasioned by that early choice. I wonder if both Santos-Febres and I succumbed to cultural pressure to portray these two characters as failed women, salvageable only through reneging on their original choice to give up a child. Or were we simply acknowledging the reality of what sometimes happens when a mother abandons a child? Did we honor our characters or did we fail them in the end? Would they be grander, more memorable characters if they continue living with impunity? Do they actually live with impunity?

I remind myself that I did not intend to write about every courtesan who gives up a child, only about my fictional character Charlyn Blake. I suspect Mayra Santos-Febres also did not intend to write about every whore or madam in Puerto Rico. The relevant question should be, Did we honor the characters we set out to write? In my case, I won’t know the full verdict until my readers weigh in. As for Santos-Febres, she made me care deeply about her character and also taught me something about Puerto Rican history. Dare I ask more from a novelist?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Whiskey Priest

“He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a name for his kind—whiskey priest … one day [his failings] would choke up … the source of grace … [but] until then he carried on.”

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

John Updike called this novel Graham Greene’s masterpiece. It is the story of an anonymous fugitive priest at a time when Mexico outlawed Catholicism. While he flees the authorities who want him to recant his vocation or be killed, the priest struggles with defining what is nonnegotiable in the clash between personal survival and faith. By his own admission, he is not a worthy individual. He has fought with a dog for meat left on a discarded bone, fathered a bastard child, and used sacramental wine to drink himself into a stupor.

My fiction frequently focuses on people struggling with religious faith, including ministers and priests. Graham Greene has set the bar high for me, exhorting me to shun easy stereotypes and instead depict characters who beyond their title and occupation are human beings first. By portraying authentically the humanity of a whiskey priest, Greene transmuted the priest’s struggle into that of the universal person who asks, How do I achieve redemption given how terribly flawed I am?

It is a dilemma faced by at least two of my characters:

- Bishop Aldo, whose powerful family smoothes his rise in the Peruvian Catholic hierarchy, asks, “What was left of that priest who asked for forgiveness and absolution? Had he been a fluke, never seen before, never to be experienced again? In truth, I was not sure I had ever really been a priest. I may simply have been the vacuous construct of my family’s wish to ensure unbroken access to power.”

- Rev. Brian Dolatowski struggles to understand why, “Try as he might, he just could never ease into Regina’s seemingly effortless spirituality. … All Brian ever felt with any real conviction was abysmal self-doubt. Then how could someone like him purport to be a minister, unless it was to bond with other similarly cynical, flawed people? If so, what was the point? ”

Neither of my characters leaves the priesthood or ministry. Greene’s whiskey priest, acutely self aware of his shortcomings, repeatedly tries to flee his priestly duties. Throughout The Power and the Glory, he finds himself pulled back from the brink of dissolution and despair by the entreaty of the poorest and most unworthy among him — vomit-and-feces-covered fellow prisoners in a crowded prison cell, a gap-toothed treacherous mestizo, a debased policeman. Though he no longer wears priestly garments and is himself guilty of lust, envy, cowardice, ingratitude, and above all pride, desperately poor Indians save him from descent into his baser self when they appeal to him to celebrate mass and the sacrament of confession. While doing so, he sheds his facile descriptions of morality, faith, and God; rediscovering the numinous in the Communion Host.

Perhaps that is why I like to write and read about flawed characters such as these. Despite their human failings and misgivings, they search for The Mystery that underlies existence. In so doing, I suspect they represent many among us.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Cry of Lares – A Short Story

“My father never stopped talking about la plaza de Lares. It had the only two details of Puerto Rican history he thought important. First, there was the church, a colonial Catholic relic anchoring the plaza at one end. Then, in front of it, a monument commemorated El Grito de Lares, an ill‑fated nineteenth‑century insurrection against Spanish rule. I’d never actually seen the plaza. In their faraway Chicago projects, papi and mami never rubbed enough chavos together to take us back to their homeland before they died. Yet here I was, after an overnight sail from the Dominican Republic with three prep school buddies, serving as their guide to Puerto Rico, about which my older sister, Aida, used to say, If that stupid Lares was so frickin nice, why papi and mami leave it then?”

That is the beginning of my short story “The Cry of Lares.” You may read the rest of it at the following link:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Is Multicultural Fiction?

I may be stepping onto a minefield or asking a stupid question, but bear with me as I explain why I’m even bringing this up.

A friend just came back from a New York writers’ conference and reported that publishing professionals told her to avoid labeling her fiction as literary because this honorific is something only the publishing gods and goddesses can bestow. Besides, right now, literary fiction is not selling. On the other hand, a label/genre such as multicultural was considered a good thing.

Well, great for me, I thought. My stuff is multicultural, for sure. Then I got to thinking about what that label really meant and quickly determined that I had some ideas but no hard understanding. So I went to Google, Bing, Ask, Wikipedia, the blogosphere et al., and guess what? I still don’t know.

You might say, “Why the confusion? I recognize multicultural writing when I see it.” Yes, and the U. S. Supreme Court once famously asserted that they could recognize pornography when they saw it.

First of all—writing opportunity, folks!—Wikipedia does not even have pages about either Multicultural Fiction or Multicultural Literature. Is that because the term Multicultural Fiction is strictly an American construct? Searches using Google, Bing, and Ask also brought up no definitive description of multicultural writing. So we’re either in the early stages of a new category in literature or no one understands the category any better than I do. Here are some search results:

- “…we use the term to mean books by and about people of color….” This one seemed intuitively correct at first, but what about Latinos who look just like Swedes?

- “…features authentic cultures, ethnic groups and characters that are new or unfamiliar to the reader….” I loved this one, but who defines what is new and unfamiliar? The person in Ghana or someone in Wisconsin? A straight person who has never met a gay man or the lesbian who spends all her time with lesbians? The black kid from a Chicago ghetto or the white dowager in Palm Beach?

- “Multicultural fiction relates the American experience from minority points of view….”
Even if intended for an American audience, this definition runs afoul of current demographic trends. In the U.S., whites are on their way toward losing clear majority status and the proportion of multi-racial individuals is rising, begging the question of who falls into what category. Of course, in the rest of the world, whites are already in the minority. For these reasons, this definition is not particularly useful, except to the extent it represents an attitude of openness.

-The wonderful blog, The Literary Lab, posted the best genre listing I’ve come across. Guess what? Multicultural was not on it. In the Comments section, the author says she probably should have added it to the list. But, this kind of proves my point. It’s a category we all seem to recognize but can’t completely grasp.

-Amazon sidesteps the issue. “…material which also happens to be culturally inclusive. In addition to 'shining a light' on various communities….”

-Scribd is similar. “For stories and novels that include any ethnicity, culture, and race….”

Okay, enough examples. I probably like best Amazon's definition, except it and Scribd's are so watered down that they tread on meaninglessness. To complicate things further, one can have multicultural literary, multicultural young adult, multicultural … well, you get the picture. Is multicultural even a genre then? If it is, will that designation marginalize certain fiction by ghettoizing it? Is this exclusively a U.S. issue?

So does the term Multicultural Fiction mean anything? What do you think?

Read New York Times article written a month after above post.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reverend Regina Sánchez

A while back, I wrote about my fictional character Grampa and how the octogenarian minister didn’t seem to want to leave. Reverend Regina from The Old Prophet’s House won’t leave either. Indeed, in the sequel Rejoice in Hope, I elevated her from a secondary to a primary character. I suppose a psychologist could have a wonderful time deciphering why, of all the disparate individuals living in my novels and short stories, the two who linger most are both ministers. Mind you, they couldn’t be more different. Grampa is a tradition-bound Episcopalian. Regina, having searched the world for a religion she likes and not finding one, creates a religion with the unlikely pairing of New Age/Buddhist thought and the charismatic practices of her childhood Pentecostal religion.

Perhaps the reason these two ministers remain with me is that they defy facile categorization. Grampa, almost a relic from a Victorian age, enthusiastically joins the 1960’s civil rights movement. Regina, to quote her husband Brian, “is a thundering Biblical prophet on the one hand and gentle New Age seer on the other.” To quote Charlyn Blake, another of my characters, the seriously overweight Regina, “seemed to float up the stairs, as if she were walking on air. Where does she get that grace?”

Perhaps my favorite passage about Regina is Brian's description of her at the piano:

"Regina struck the keys, playing dark, dissonant chords. Charlyn’s surprised gaze flicked back and forth between Regina’s hands and face.

Yes, Regina will surprise you, he could have told Charlyn. She sings like an angel, but watch out. She can also play like a demon.

The fire of her music blazed through the nave like the roar of a dragon. Brian reached the altar and stood by the piano, looking down at his wife. The crushing power of the chords, their potent dissonance—it was as if she were spewing out hellfire and damnation. There were no words, but he could still imagine their searing impact. God is merciful her earlier singing had said. God avenges, this mad, reckless playing seemed to assert. He asked himself, not for the first time, Who is this force of nature I’ve married?"

I honestly don’t know where my characters come from. I’ve never known anyone like Grampa or Reverend Regina. Yet, in the alchemical process that is novel writing, they have appeared in my writing and, yes, in my life. Both have made me reassess my beliefs and assumptions. If the stars in the publishing firmament align themselves appropriately, perhaps someday they will grace the lives of my readers, too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hymns in My Fiction

Since my fiction frequently focuses on characters grappling with religious issues, it is not surprising that hymns show up at odd times. Until I did a global search, however, I had not fully realized how often two particular hymns appeared. “How Great Thou Art” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” appear in three of my novels. The other thing I discovered is that these and other hymns usually appear at pivotal moments in the story, usually when the protagonist confronts the pull of a childhood religion. That longing is best expressed by the following passage from Hidden Warriors. In it, the main character finds herself at a church service after a lifetime’s absence:

“The harmonies were ambrosial. I reveled in them even as I warded off the memories, but it was no use. I could bludgeon my lips into obedient stiffness, but my shallow breaths betrayed me.

"Stop getting so emotional, I thought over and over. It’s unseemly. You don’t want to make a fool of yourself. But the unruly tears still threatened.

"More prayer and songs followed. I barely kept up, carried along in a wave of yearning no amount of self reproach could hold back. This service had been a staple of my life for eighteen years of Sundays. It called now with plaintive, hypnotic voice, and I finally let myself glory in it, even as I reminded myself that I did not belong, that this church or any other one like it could never be a true home for me. I told myself that the songs I was hearing were simply the lullabies of a childhood I now missed and that I had to remain vigilant. They still cloaked a dangerous theology.”

I hope I have treated this common yearning of my characters in sufficiently unique ways. If I haven't, that would be interesting since my characters range in age from childhood to middle age, and they include businesswomen, a courtesan, a photographer, a welder, a few ministers and, yes, some atheists. If I’m lucky enough to get all my novels published some day, maybe some enterprising student will take up as his or her thesis topic the issue of whether I’ve written the same novel multiple times.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Below - A Short Story

"His vomit was the color of the sea--turbid gray with flecks of white. It emptied over the side just ahead of the wave arched high above us. To keep him from tumbling overboard, I grabbed a fistful of his shirt. With my other hand, I gripped the wheelhouse doorjamb. I might be left holding torn cloth when the wave hit. Or he could pull me down with him. I released some of his shirt. It billowed and flapped in the unlucky air swirling around us. He turned his head toward me, his face ashen with contrition. He had lied to us and realized I knew it. "

That's the first paragraph of one of my already published cruising short stories. You may read the rest of it at the following link:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Why I Love Stephen King

I don’t like horror or violence, but I love Stephen King. Why? Because the man can write! What’s more, if I’m stuck or find myself sliding into bad habits, I can pick up his common-sense memoir On Writing and suddenly know what to do. Do I then only love his book on the writing craft? No, I just prefer Stephen King stories like The Green Mile to ones like Carrie. I guess that makes me a non-purist fan. What his novels and short stories have in common, though, is that they’re superbly written. Here are some favorite Stephen King “wisdom teachings” that helped me reduce my Choosing Sides novel from 115k words to 98k words.

· Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

· It’s always about the story.

· If you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own.

· I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless … and, second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

· My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow.

· … starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.

· All novels are really letters aimed at one person … Every novelist has a single ideal reader.

· Editing formula: 2nd Draft = (1st Draft – 10%)

· The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are.