does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How The Rediscovery of My Father's Words Led To My Writing Fiction

If I haven’t yet summarized my novel Hidden Warriors, it’s because I’ve been afraid to read it again and find out it might be terrible. This was the first novel I ever wrote, birthed in a time of great upheaval in my life. I had walked away from my career the year before. My marriage had ended. My father died not long after. In retrospect, it's not surprising that I might try something new like writing fiction. How it actually happened though still amazes me.

After my father's death, I began transcribing his poetry, essays, and sermons to distribute them to family and friends. It was challenging work for several reasons. Many of the audio tapes were of abysmal quality. Despite that, his familiar voice still rose above the scratchiness, and I grieved that I would never again hear him speak directly to me. More than once, I almost abandoned the project, convinced I was only prolonging my grieving process.

As if that weren’t already challenging enough, my father’s sermons, essays, and poetry were all in Spanish, no longer my primary language. I found myself rummaging through my father’s huge unabridged dictionary, trying to find words no one used in ordinary language—at least I didn’t recall them—never sure whether I was even searching for the right word, given the awful quality of the tapes.

Several months later, having listened to the final tape and transcribed the last sermon, I sent out the material to family and friends. That was when I realized that, instead of prolonging my grieving process, my transcription project had actually eased my transition into a world where I could no longer pick up the phone to talk to my dad. That was not the only surprise. After my immersion into the Spanish language and my father’s poetry, I woke up one morning with the lines of an unfamiliar poem swirling in my head. I wrote down the poem and, for the next few months, found myself writing poetry in Spanish, something I’d never done before! And, no, I’ve not looked at those poems recently either for the same reason I haven’t dared to reread the last draft of my first novel. I’d rather keep alive the memory of how magical a time writing those poems and that novel was for me.

The period of writing poems in Spanish lasted about half a year. One morning, as surprising as when it first appeared, the impulse to write poetry vanished. Soon after, though, I found myself, again, waking up with material sloshing in my brain that seemed to want to be written down. So I did. That turned out to be the beginning of my novel Hidden Warriors, and, for the first time in my adult life, I felt I was exactly where I should be, writing novels. My writing craft has improved since then, and I have come to appreciate how the hard work of creating a novel involves taking that initial magical moment of inspiration and, through dogged hard work, transforming it into something in which story, characters, dialogue, conflict, and style cohere. I wonder, though, if any of my subsequent novels and short stories would have been written had I not undertaken transcribing my father’s work.

A brief note about Hidden Warriors. A businesswoman on the verge of being named CEO must track down her former husband, a globe-trotting photographer, to find out why she has received a mysterious emerald-like stone. Andrea and Luke Norman then have to confront their unresolved past, a quest that takes them to New Mexico, New York, Chicago, Brazil, and Peru.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rejoice in Hope, a Literary Novel

When Caring Isn't Enough

Businesswoman Sarah Tucker Sánchez, an atheist, can barely stand her sister-in-law, the famous Reverend Regina Sánchez, charismatic founder of a New Age religious denomination. Neither can stand Quique, a devout Pentecostal who is Sarah's father-in-law and Regina’s father.

When Sarah’s husband Elías dies, Sarah, Regina, and Quique are thrust into a prickly intimacy as they struggle to make sense of why Elías, their late husband/brother/son, lied to them, as is evident from a journal he left behind. In it, he said, “It turned out that this journal was the only way that I could figure out how to reconcile the incompatible beliefs of the three most important people in my life without being burned to a cinder in the process.”

Was Elías a winsome innocent who had lived in reaction against his hated fundamentalist upbringing, as his wife Sara believed? Was Elías on the verge of relapsing into alcohol and drug addiction, as his sister Regina feared? Or had Elías returned to the Pentecostal religion, as his father Quique maintains?

At stake is who among them will define Elías for Tito, the son born months after Elías’ untimely death. The stakes are especially high because Tito stands to inherit millions and also because each adult views Elías’ true views as a final judgment on his or her success as a wife, sister or father. How Sarah, Regina, and Quique achieve reconciliation with the true Elías will determine whether each has reason to rejoice in hope.

Once again, I explore in one of my novels the tensions among conflicting religious points of view. To that already volatile mix, Rejoice in Hope, a sequel to The Old Prophet's House, adds the elements of addiction, money, and grief. Sarah, Regina, and Quique are real people whose dogmatically held views must bend to the challenge of learning how to live with each other for the sake of innocent Tito. In so doing, they reprise the challenge faced by an adult world which puts at risk the future of its children while it fights without surcease for rigidly held beliefs. Rejoice in Hope is fundamentally a story about reconciliation.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Sea Will Call, A Short Story Collection

What could be more liberating than to live aboard a boat, able to pick up anchor on a whim? In The Sea Will Call, all the characters have been seduced by the sea, whether it is a Marine Colonel accused of embezzlement, a ten-year-old ace sailor entrusted with his parents’ boat or African-American executives fleeing corporate America. Each protagonist in this linked collection has felt intensely alive as a wave crashes over him at the bow. She has watched from the cockpit as a breeze makes marsh grasses sway lazily. He has ignored the wail of a banshee wind and the pounding of bully waves. After all, this takes place on a boat, where land rules do not apply.

Once at sea, though, these intrepid individuals discover that living aboard a boat is too often like living on land. A woman considers using a windfall to buy a sailboat but feels she’s too old to go cruising and also have the children she wants. When she changes her mind and buys a derelict forty-year-old boat, she discovers her benefactor aunt’s secret life and now wonders if her aunt’s childless fate will also be hers. As the niece and her husband then cruise through the Caribbean, they discover that the magic of being at sea does not protect a young couple they meet who is trying to outrun the wife’s terminal cancer. Fellow cruisers sailing in the Bahamas fear the unknown as potential pirates speed toward them. Linen still has to be washed, but the Dominican laundry man might dry it on bushes that donkeys brush by. A girl who grew up in a Chicago housing project can’t figure out where she belongs as she tracks down her Puerto Rican roots with her wealthy Andover cruising buddies. Drunken husbands escape demanding wives and race dinghies in the middle of the night. A lapsed minister’s daughter searches for an island church and wonders if she can ever escape her childhood religion. Sailors in Grenada give themselves license to moo at cows but fail in their whimsical attempt to convince the cows to respond. A woman can’t save a shiftless crewmember as their boat is tossed around by an Atlantic storm. A sister tracks down her long-lost alcoholic brother to a sailboat in the Florida Keys, but can’t bring herself to confront him. As the cruise wears on, the niece’s husband, now bankrupted by the high cost of cruising, wonders how to redeem himself. Still together, the niece and her husband picnic on a promontory, and she can’t help but notice boys, the age of her foregone children, sailing by on other boats. In the end, the niece and her husband divorce, and she examines the high cost of their decision to go cruising.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why I Wrote The Old Prophet’s House

First, let me describe this literary novel. In it, Charlyn Blake, an aging, but elegant mistress, runs home to St. Mark’s to seek comfort and is appalled to run into Rev. Brian Dolatowski, the son of the man who seduced her as a young girl. She had gone to St. Mark’s only because it was the closest tie she still had to her beloved grandfather, the previous minister and The Old Prophet of the title. Grampa had always been the one person Charlyn sought despite her “fallen” state, but Gampa is now dead. St. Mark’s itself, a formerly affluent church, is a crumbling Gothic structure in a neighborhood sunk into poverty. Charlyn has spent a lifetime trying to forget her seducer, who set the stage for her becoming the perennial Other Woman. Now, Brian threatens to resurrect the guilty ghosts of her past.

What Charlyn doesn’t realize is that the seemingly confident Brian hides his own struggles with his faith and with his fatherless childhood. Even his mystical wife, Rev. Regina Sánchez, who along with Brian is attempting to restore St. Mark’s and the neighborhood, fails to recognize his struggles until almost too late. For his part, Brian is deeply pained that Charlyn is only the latest person to recoil at the mere mention of his reprobate father. As the novel unfolds, Brian compensates for his father’s lifelong absence by trying to rescue a fatherless neighborhood kid. While fearing he is an atheist at heart, he co-founds with his wife a wildly successful religious movement. Charlyn heals the wounds of her childhood seduction by finally facing her past. The Old Prophet, though no longer here, lingers as their conscience and consoler.

Why write about a mistress and, what’s more, to do so in a compassionate way? I am a happily married woman who would be horrified and deeply hurt if my husband had an affair, much less carried on a long-lived relationship with a mistress. For that matter, why write about a minister who deceives his flock by hiding his atheism? I wrote about Charlyn Blake and Brian Dolatowski, though, not to glorify their lifestyles, but to try and understand them. Several themes converged to create the impulse to write The Old Prophet’s House. The first was meeting several women who were long-time mistresses of married men. Each of these women was intelligent, capable, and kind-hearted. Struck by how lovely they all were, I felt I had to write their story somehow. Another theme was that, like Brian, I have had my own struggles in defining my spiritual beliefs and the meaning of faith. Finally, I was deeply moved to write this novel after witnessing a seventy-year-old man weep inconsolably at his long-time mistress’ funeral.

From these experiences, I drew the inspiration for writing about characters who seemingly are undeserving of society’s goodwill, but who actually may be our greatest teachers about tolerance. My fiction frequently focuses on the difficulties inherent in achieving mutual understanding among people holding strong conflicting beliefs, especially religious ones. In The Old Prophet’s House, we are allowed a compassionate glimpse into the life of an elegant but aging mistress, a woman usually reviled. With Brian, to whom parishioners turn for certainty, we come to understand that ministers are human beings first, filled with doubts and personal hurts. How these two parse the meaning of compassion and love provides a greater lesson for a world torn apart by secular, political, and religious strife. The struggles of Charlyn and Brian mirror those of so many who wrestle with defining the elusive meaning of redemption.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash Have in Common With Each Other and With My Novel Choosing Sides

By some measures, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash, and my novel Choosing Sides could not be more different. Achebe’s novel takes place in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s. Rash’s novel is located in the Appalachian region of South Carolina beginning in the early 1950s. Choosing Sides, a story about a devout Puerto Rican immigrant family, takes place in Puerto Rico and Indiana, also beginning in the early 1950s. Despite these fundamental differences, the three novels share the following elements.

They portray the tragic outcome of a clash of cultures. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the arrival of the British colonialists pits existing, functional Ibo customs against the conquerors’ incompatible legal, social, and religious customs. Compromise or assimilation with the British without destruction of the traditional culture is virtually impossible. The same is true in Rash’s One Foot in Eden. The utility company takeover of family-owned farmland, to flood it in order to build a dam, obliterates a long-standing way of life. In Choosing Sides, the young protagonist Angélica can either adhere to her family’s strict fundamentalist Pentecostal religion or join her worldly friends who date, dance, wear makeup, and go to movies. She can’t do both without being either punished or ostracized. The result is that she is lost in the gaps between her two worlds, unable to belong to either one.

As a consequence of the clash in cultures, the contributions and value of the elder generation are compromised. Traditional social structures are vanquished or modified beyond recognition. In Things Fall Apart, the ancestors’ guidance in daily life is lost. A functional tribal leadership and justice system is replaced by an external, foreign governing structure. The oracles for the Ibo Gods lose their power in favor of a Christian clergy advocating for Jesus Christ. The traditional stratification of society into desirables and undesirables is upended in favor of the undesirables when the latter become ready and welcomed disciples of the foreign Christian religion. In One Foot in Eden, an agricultural way of life is replaced by one not tied to the land. Instead of a farm, whether sharecropped or owned, the textile mills become the employers. In the process, the older generation is gelded. In Choosing Sides, Angélica’s Spanish-speaking parents move from rural Puerto Rico to heavily industrialized English-speaking Indiana and lose their status as credible arbiters of the world outside their home and church.

Suicide figures as the only acceptable choice for those who cannot imagine themselves integrating into the new way of life. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, the lead character, cannot accommodate himself to the powerlessness he foresees for himself living under British rule. In One Foot in Eden, the Widow Winchester sets herself on fire rather than move out of her home so the utility company can flood her land. Billy and Amy in effect commit suicide when they plunge into a swiftly moving river from which they have no hope of emerging. In Choosing Sides, given the near impossibility of integrating Angélica’s clashing worlds, the potential is always present for a different kind of suicide, in this case, severe alienation and self-destructive behavior; if not, a tragic loneliness.

The integration of religion into daily life is seamless. In Things Fall Apart, the Gods and their oracles weigh in on every decision from planting to marriage to the survival of infants. In One Foot in Eden, the Christian church is not only the social glue of the community, but it influences attitudes such as the inability to flee punishment for ill deeds. In addition, Ron Rash utilizes extensively Biblical imagery, such as the flood and the crucifixion. In Choosing Sides, the Pentecostal religion governs, among other things, how you dress, what friends you can keep, and what books you can read. Unceasing prayer and devotion weave themselves into the daily lives of Angélica’s committed Pentecostal family, especially after her father becomes a minister.

Exile plays a role in all three novels. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is temporarily exiled to his motherland after he accidentally kills someone. In One Foot in Eden, an entire society of land-based owners and workers is exiled from their traditional way of life. In Choosing Sides, ruinous poverty exiles Angélica’s family from its rain forest cabin to a two-room walkup in bitterly cold Indiana. Then, when she rejects the Pentecostal religion, Angélica in effect exiles herself from both her immediate family and the extended family of the church.

More than one language is in play. Chinua Achebe has referred to his work as a conversation between two languages: the traditional Ibo and the new English. In One Foot in Eden, the traditional Appalachian rural expressions begin to be supplanted by urban language. In Choosing Sides, Angélica must navigate four languages—Spanish, English, religious, and secular.

The cultural clash common to all three novels does not have uplifting consequences. In each, a sense of inevitability drives the tragic outcome. Despite this, all three novels present a glimmer of hope in the end. In Things Fall Apart, it is in the form of the clan’s refusal to take down Okonkwo’s body, signifying that, despite all, they can still cleave to their traditions. In One Foot in Eden, the Sheriff’s likely parenting of Isaac and Isaac’s entry into Clemson open possibilities for a functional future life. In Choosing Sides, Angélica takes down the Revenge sign, indicating an openness to forgiving her mother. Throughout, Angélica draws comfort from her memories of the magical waterfalls near her early rain forest cabin.