does not describe me fully
it is where to start

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.

Monday, September 14, 2009


No, Grampa is not my grandfather. My grandfathers, who lived in Puerto Rico and whom I rarely met, were not Brahmin Episcopalian ministers fallen on hard times. Nor is Grampa a stand-in for my father, also a minister, albeit Pentecostal. Yet Grampa plays an outsized role in my fiction. In my novel, The Old Prophet’s House, he appears in the title though he is only a secondary character and, what’s more, he’s already dead. In the mysterious fashion in which characters, conflicts, and events sometimes appear in a novelist’s head, Grampa emerged in a story I wanted to tell and, lo, there he was, larger than life, and he never left. Recently, I even wrote a short story, taking place 19 years earlier than the novel, in which Grampa is alive, this time as the protagonist driving the story. I submitted that short story to a literary journal and have no idea whether it will be accepted for publication. We all know what the odds are. I can’t rid myself of the feeling, though, that Grampa still wants to be written about. Since my current work-in-progress novel has nothing to do with the fictional world in which Grampa first appeared, it will be interesting to see what happens. I only know that I have a vague sense that my time with Grampa is not finished.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Why I Write

The following poem by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda describes well the nearly mystical impulse that drives me to write fiction. The Nobel-Prize-winning poet is speaking of the obligation of a poet, but what he describes applies equally well to me. 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 éste 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, September 9, 2009

My Religious Primer

Reared in the Pentecostal religion, I was presented with two choices. The first, the only road to Salvation, required that I adhere to the precepts of a Bible-centered strict religious denomination. The second, considered to be the road to Perdition, was the worldly way, which included everything else, including non-Pentecostal Christianity.

I chose a third path, one which honored all religious traditions. In my view, religions often begin as an individual or group attempt to make sense of a complex cosmos. Except when they resort to violence and excessive proselytizing, I deeply respect the attempt of most religions to seek coherence and order in a world that intrinsically may be incoherent and chaotic.

Over the years, I have studied many religions, often joining them as a fellow celebrant, sometimes for extended periods of time. Given the "overdose" of churching in my youth, though, after any prolonged exposure, I start to suffer from wanderlust. As a consequence, I don’t “belong” to any religion, but can walk into a synagogue, church, mosque, shrine or ashram and feel at home, even if for just a little while.

It is not surprising, then, that in my fiction, I spend a lot of time in churches, with characters who embrace, characters who flee from, but always characters who try to make sense of religion and spirituality in their lives. In this, they reflect my own life's journey. Hence, the title for this blog: Pilgrim Soul.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Multicultural Primer

I went to a unique high school about evenly split among Blacks, Latinos, and Anglos. I counted among my classmates the children of steelworkers, mostly, but also the children of teachers, business owners, and doctors. Located in heavily industrialized East Chicago, Indiana, it would prove to be an environment of easy multicultural and multiracial mixing later rarely experienced to the same degree. As I posted on our high school alumnae website, it wasn’t a diversity utopia but it came close:

“I’m half way between the utopian-we-all-got-along folks and the let’s-keep-it-real-EC-wasn’t-color-blind folks. It was both. After I graduated, I soon found out that the functional EC mix of cultures and races was not replicated anywhere in the adult world I then entered. But, let’s not forget the period in history we’re talking about. It was a time in which a black man as President and a Puerto Rican woman as a Supreme Court Justice were unthinkable. It was a time when my family got turned down for a rental apartment because we were Puerto Rican. That said, for its time, EC was a culturally and racially harmonious place, perhaps unique even today. Back then, I did suffer ethnic slurs and slights, absolutely, but I also experienced the natural, happy mingling of people from different backgrounds. I look at the makeup of our student government officers, for example, and still marvel that at the time I and others thought that mix was nothing special. EC was an exceptional place that facilitated a multicultural and multiracial ease which I have aimed to recreate in my life since. Perhaps the fact that I found out after I moved away that this ease was not widely shared outside of EC explains why achieving reconciliation among different cultures and religions is the focus of my fiction.”

In my novels and short stories, I never give up hope that reconciliation is possible. Even in the least promising of situations, my fictional characters always seem to find an opening to reconciliation, however small.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"... and one man loved the pilgrim soul in you ..."

When I first read the phrase Pilgrim Soul in William Butler Yeats’ poem, "When You Are Old," something in me said, Yes! That phrase seemed to capture my life’s journey and the journey of so many of my fictional characters. It had a spiritual resonance, and perhaps I was simply remembering that pilgrimages have a long religious tradition. The phrase also spoke, though, of the special journeys of a nonreligious nature that people embark on to seek essential truths about their lives.

What I find interesting about the phrase Pilgrim Soul is how often it appears in other blogs, whether in the web address, the title, the profile or in a post. I didn’t become aware of this until after I had Googled “blogs” and “pilgrim soul” and, in the close to 12,000 search results, discovered vastly different meanings for this phrase in the various blogs.

One woman suggested that the poem “When You Are Old” referred to “…a woman in a transitional phase …menopause…” Pilgrim Soul. In another blog, a 28-year-old woman is on a quest to “…helping protect the environment…” The Pilgrim Souls. In still another blog, a man who is a poet and English professor describes himself as a Pilgrim Soul in the About Me section. A Last Confession.

Then there were the blogs that talked about Yeats’ long pursuit of his beloved Maud Gonne and how “When You Are Old” was a love poem to her. What is clear is that this poem has great resonance for many, even as each of us gleans vastly different meaning from the poet’s words.

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

William Butler Yeats