Tag Archives: Writing

Memoir and the Construct of Race

My maternal grandfather loved to tell stories to whoever would listen. His stories were all based in fact and never ventured into the realm of fantasy. He never tried to catch our attention with a bold and unsubstantiated claim. He just told about the past, as he knew it or had heard about it.

So when he told me that we had African ancestry, I believed him. I grew up thinking that my white family was, in fact, “part black. I found this information fascinating. Maybe it was one of the seeds that led to me studying history and race in literature.

Imagine my disappointment when I got my DNA results and found zero African ancestry among my genes. Could Grandpa have been wrong? Could he have lied to me? I think he told the truth as he understood it. My theory: one of his cousins was married to an African-American man for a brief time, and that meant that her ex was now part of our family. Grandpa telling me that we were a “biracial” family of sorts was the greatest gift he ever gave me–even better than his stories and the family’s antique photograph collection. Growing up as a white kid in the sixties, yet thinking you have African ancestry, is a helpful antidote to the effects of racism floating around you in society.

Now think of growing up as a white girl in mid-century America, with a father given to racist expressions, and only learning as an adult that your mother was (legally) a black woman passing as white and keeping the secret from everyone! That is the case for Gail Lukasik who wrote a memoir, White Like Her, about her search for the truth about her mother’s roots.

The woman on the cover of the book is Gail’s mother.

Gail’s story was first showcased on Genealogy Roadshow, and afterwards Gail, a mystery writer, began to write this memoir. The book details the genealogical research she and others did to find Gail’s family’s quintessentially American story. I was fascinated in the story because I am so interested in family history, American history, genealogy, and mysteries. What a great text to introduce to those who do not know the one-drop rule and other stupid laws in the history of Jim Crow.

I did wonder a few times if some people might be put off by the who begat whom, but it’s presented in a very cohesive and interesting way. I’m not sure how the book is structured, although her appearance on the show is the glue for a large portion of the book–and then the final section is about meeting her “new” family members and building a relationship with them. What one comes away from the book with, more than anything, is that race is a construct, not a real thing.

This book reminded me of another book I read over ten years ago. Carol Channing’s memoir Just Lucky I Guess might seem to be as far from the story of introverted Gail Lukasik as possible. But it’s not because very early on in the memoir, Carol lets her readers know that she has biracial heritage. The way she found out was kind of shitty. When she was leaving for college (at the impossibly young age of sixteen) her mother told her that she was “part Negro” because her father was black, born in Georgia. Her mothers says she is telling her now “‘because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a black baby.'” Then she made some statements about the large size of Carol’s eyes and her dance ability that were racist, at least by today’s standards. This happened in 1937.

Although a few readers rob Carol Channing of a star or two in their reviews of her book because the book is uniquely structured, I think the structure follows Carol’s personality. I found it an enormously fascinating and satisfying read. You can’t help but adore Channing after listening to her voice for any length of time. What a warm, witty, sweet, generous person. I had no idea until I read her memoir that her ancestry was biracial. After all, she made her living as a blonde! I wonder how many others don’t know this part of the Carol Channing story. If you want to be charmed, read Just Lucky I Guess.

I’ve been doing little bits of writing almost every day. I had two travel days, and I couldn’t write, but made up for those omissions on the other days. Woot! #amstillwriting A little poetry, a couple of short creative nonfiction pieces.

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My Only Resolution

Ten months ago, we trapped Perry in our backyard. Since that time, I have written about him in 25 blog posts! It’s almost embarrassing that I’ve written about him so much.

But, in for a penny in for a pound, I guess. Here’s another post about Perry :).

He is still kittenish, although large–larger than the other five cats–and loves to play wrestle and energetically engage with these senior kitties that just want to lie around and sleep. He also still needs his daily cuddles with mom. I am constantly getting him away from the other cats. He wants to lie in Kana’s bed with her, but then he gets restless and starts to annoy.

His main targets to annoy are Kana and Felix, the other “big cats.” The three little ones–Pear, Tiger, and Sloopy Anne–are bitchy enough to him that he doesn’t mess with them much.

 

Tiger and Sloopy Anne waiting to hiss at Perry when he passes by

Perry and Kana are true frenemies.

Although the vet had told me she thought it possible that he was part Siamese, I (who have never had a fancy breed cat) didn’t pay much attention to that. But suddenly one day, as if the president of the Cat Fanciers’ Association had snuck up and slapped me upside the head, I realized that Perry has got to be part Maine Coon. After I looked it up and confirmed my brainstorm, I read an article that said that there are lots of Maine Coon mixes in the general cat population. If you wonder what I’m talking about google “blue and white Maine coon cat” and go to images. There you will see a stunning array of Perry’s possible daddies ;).

This explains why Perry looks different from the other cats. His outline is different, and his face is different. My son calls him “cartoon cat,” and my daughter agrees with him. The gardener calls him Curly (from The Three Stooges). I call him rat face and funny face. For all that, he’s gorgeous. The son of the man who installed our new water RO tank said he was a king of cats. His dad called Perry King Tut.

Perry has taken up all my writing time in 2017. I need to get back on track. Maybe he can go with me into my office and we can shut the door so he can’t bother the other cats. Maybe he will settle down into the cat tree and take a snooze while I work on . . . something. This month I need to get cracking because mom will be with us next month. I’ve been trying to imagine her staying with us with our six cats and all the unrest with Perry.

My only New Year’s resolution: write, no matter what and no matter what it is.

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Poetry Ancestry

Last week I went to see three grande dames of literature at Arizona State University: Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, hosted by Natalie Diaz. These are writers whose works I taught to college students for years, but this was the first opportunity I had to hear them talk in person. They were seated on stage in a conversation area–a couch and armchairs. What I hadn’t realized was that they are all graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has long been considered to be the top place to earn an MFA in writing. These women all know each other–and Harjo and Cisneros were friends in grad school. I felt I was eavesdropping on their conversation with each other.

Since these women are all poets, but have published prose as well, I was fascinated to hear what they had to say. Their voices come from disenfranchised groups–Harjo is Native (Muskogee Creek), Cisneros Chicana, and Dove African American–so it’s important to listen carefully and sympathetically in order to hear things from a variety of perspectives. They were also talking about timing, and how timing was very helpful to them in achieving the level of success they have had. You can look them up if you want the deets. In fact, Dove mentioned that when she was a grad student she didn’t know the work of a lot of poets who were mentioned in her classes. She would surreptitiously write down the names so she could find them in the library and read their work. In that way, she was partially self-taught.

I’m leading up to something here.

Of all the wonderful ancedotes and tips I heard that Saturday afternoon, the one that stood out the most to me is one from Harjo. She said she teaches a course about poetry ancestry. It’s studying the genealogy of your poetry writing. You look at the poets who most influenced your own writing. Then you see who influenced them. And go back as far as you can, studying the work that turns up in your research!

I wanted to see where I could go with this, but it will take time. I’ll just start by mentioning some of my poetic influences. Keep in mind this is NOT an exhaustive list by any means.

  • Sylvia Plath: there is no doubt that I found her big mouth and aggressive imagery very liberating
  • Emily Dickinson: her spare and sometimes wry writing appeals to me, but the downside is she keeps herself out of most of her poems, and that is too convenient for me
  • A. R. Ammons: I so admire his oneness with nature and spirit and his very smart use of language
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: his spirituality and fresh imagery speak to my heart
  • Linda Hogan: like Ammons, her oneness with nature and spirit inspires me
  • Adrienne Rich: she broke the ice at the top of the ocean she dove into in Diving into the Wreck
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay: maybe the first poem not written for children that captivated me was Millay’s “Renascence.” When I was a kid, I took an LP record out of the library and listened to her read it over and over and over and over and over again.
  • classic children’s poetry of the 20th century, as well as nursery rhymes: these are what first instilled a love for poetry

Do you notice anything about my little list? Lots of women, not too much diversity (except Hogan who is Native and Rich, a Jewish lesbian). But what else? The poems I read that first inspired my writing were written mainly before 1980 all the way back to Dickinson who was writing before and during the Civil War! Of course, I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry over the years, but poets who first influenced me were not my contemporaries or even those just a little ahead of me. They were considered masters when I read them, except for maybe Hogan.

I’m thinking I need another list of poets whose works next influenced me–people writing after the poets listed above. That might then offer more of a platform for the “family research.”

Do you know who your first influences were for your own writing? Have the type of influences changed over time? For instance, if blogging is your main writing format, who were your first influences?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Interview about Poetry and Genealogy

Jorie at Jorie Loves a Story interviewed me on the topics of genealogy, poetry, and Kin Types. Her questions were so thought-provoking, and I really enjoyed where they took me!

Check it out if you can.


Also, Amazon has 19 reviews up for Kin Types if you’re still on the fence about reading it.

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Memoir Mumblings

There’s a great cartoon by Dan Piraro (Bizarro.com) out that I have decided it’s safer not to have on this post for possible copyright reasons. A woman writer is signing books at a book store. The name of her book is called My Miserable Life. haha, an obvious memoir. Her parents are apologizing to her, saying that if they had known that she was going to be a writer they would have been better parents. Too bad she wasn’t born with a warning for her parents.

Beware: a writer is born. Treat her well!

I find it funny because anybody writing a memoir that involves their childhood is likely to find flaws in their upbringing. Heck, most of us do anyway.

My memoir manuscript (such as it is) is out with beta readers right now. Nervous? Me? Hah, yup!

On the subject of memoir, I just finished Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas, a pseudonym. I gave it a 2 out of 5. I’m a generous rater. If you have read it, what did you think? I felt I was being played. Not totally sure in what way. The obvious goal was to persuade readers that sociopaths are special and are a boon to society. Apparently she is real, an ex-law professor named Jamie Rebecca Lund. Apparently the book (and its creepy admissions) caused her to lose a great gig as a law professor at BYU.

But the creepiness of story and author are not why I gave the book a 2. It’s repetitive and quite dry for very long passages. Copy editing was well done though!

Finally, a memoir needs to have a very trustworthy narrator, and that is where this book could never have worked. By the writer’s admission, sociopaths lie and manipulate. So how could I trust her?

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A New Review Brings Up a Topic for Discussion

Today, a new review of Kin Types was published here at Jorie Loves a Story. 

This review is very cool in how she interprets so many of the poems. She shows a wonderful sense of what each piece is about.

Then at the end, Jorie inserts what is essentially a caveat, what she calls “Fly in the Ointment: Content Note.” She takes exception to my inclusion of a case of animal cruelty and murder in the poem “Once and Now.”

As you might guess, I really “get” her complaint and her sensitivity to harm to animals. Animals mean the world to me (in a literal sense, as well as figurative).

The poet in me, though, felt a need to not turn away from where the poem simply had to go. It’s a poem about war, in this case WWI. And it’s about zenophobia, a fear of foreigners, which showed itself as cruelty to immigrant Germans. That a dog suffers is typical of how war can work. What happens to the animals, both wild and in homes and zoos, when battles are fought?

But it’s not a poem about the dog. The dog is a very real dog who suffered, and the people are real people who suffered, and the dog is also a metaphor. Ok, that’s my “defense.” But I can truly see her point. It’s kind of like Facebook, who wants to go there and see petition requests with photos and comments about animals being harmed? (guilty)

What is YOUR opinion? Should I have left out the dog?

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Review: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

A new review up todayfor Kin Types.

Diary of an Eccentric

Source: Review copy from author

Kin Types is the newest poetry collection by Luanne Castle in which she recreates the stories of her ancestors. (Read the collection’s opening poem, “Advice from My Forebears” and the inspiration for it here.) She draws you in right away with lines similar to what many of us have heard from our elders, like “Quit scowling or your face will freeze that way” (“Advice from My Forebears,” page 2). I soon found myself immersed in the poems about Dutch immigrants who made their way to Michigan and forged a life, often difficult, judging from many of the poems, but hopeful as well in that these lines are written by their descendant.

From a mother who rushes into a house fire (“An Account of a Poor Oil Stove Bought off Dutch Pete”) to the fast-forwarding and rewinding that recounts the ups and downs of a…

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A Sign to Remember

This is my second response to feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir about the “secret life” of objects.

This object is not something I’ve owned for long, carrying from house to house. In fact, I only spotted it in July when we brought my mother home from the hospital.

My mother’s basement has shelves, boxes, and tables overflowing with photo albums and photo boxes. She has little interest in them. They were my father’s treasures. He was the family photographer and tried to hold every memory close to his heart and mind. With him now gone, my mother feels burdened by belongings that she never cherished to begin with. Every time I visit, she encourages me to take as much as I want of our family memories.

Before we flew back to Arizona, I decided to give the photo albums another go-around, taking home as many of the most important photographs as I could pack. I plan to scan them and then email them to other family members. While downstairs, I noticed a metal sign resting on the floor, shoved between two boxes.

This mailbox marker is from the 1960s. My father had it made for his mother’s mailbox when she moved near us from Chicago.

This is how it was attached to the mailbox and what Grandma’s mailbox looked like. If you click on this image, you will discover that there is a company (perhaps) still making these using a machine from the forties. The writer of the article says the company is so old school they don’t even have a website.

Grandma was born in Germany in 1893 and immigrated with her family to Illinois when she was two or three years old. When she was in her early 70s, she decided to leave Chicago for the small town atmosphere of Portage, Michigan, a suburb of Kalamazoo. Dad bought a duplex around the corner from our house, rented out one side, and moved Grandma into the other side. I was ten and could now ride my bike to Grandma’s house.

Not that I liked to visit her. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s true. When Mom or Dad made me pedal down her street the houses all seemed to be watching me.  The nameplate on the mailbox signaled that soon I would be walking in Grandma’s door. I always had either terrified starlings or lake stones in my stomach.

But why? I am not sure, but am trying to figure it out. Grandma was a bit stern, a bit strict, at least more so than my Kalamazoo grandmother who was warm and fun. (Kalamazoo Grandma was 19 years younger than Chicago Grandma). Was it a cultural reflection of Grandma’s semi-German upbringing? I think her father was stern and difficult to know. He might have been domineering and given to punishments. But this is a guess based on my dad’s and uncle’s stories. In old photos, Grandma’s mother looks like a sweetheart–sort of like my maternal grandmother. Was it that I was afraid of my grandmother’s strictness?

If so, that’s odd because my father could be unrelentingly strict. She was an amateur compared with Dad in that way.

I remember Grandma, a talented seamstress and tailor, poking a straight pin in my stomach and warning me that I was getting fat. I wasn’t overweight, although for a period of time my belly protruded a bit. I deeply resented her saying this to me, but she didn’t do it all the time. Would I have held it against her? Maybe, but I think she did it after I already had developed anxiety at visiting her.

Within a year or two, a doctor confirmed that I had “water weight” in my abdomen. Years later I would be diagnosed with lymphedema. Where did I get it? From Grandma who never did get a proper diagnosis. Doctors told her it was caused by congestive heart failure, a disease she developed with age, but the swelling in her legs was visible before she was forty–I can see it in photographs. (I hope you’re seeing the thread here about photographs: they can be important).

Grandma always had a glass bowl of Dum Dum suckers for me to choose from. I didn’t care for those dull little things. Tootsie Pops–or better yet, Slo Pokes–were my lollipops of choice. Did I resent not being offered what I wanted instead of what she wanted to give me? It’s possible that she couldn’t afford Tootsie Pops. The candy was only for us because she couldn’t eat it; she was diabetic. Was I a brat? She seemed to try to make me happy, but her ways were limited and without imagination.

Some of my memories make me wonder if I pitied Grandma. Her age? Her solitary life? Some unexpressed sadness deep within her?

I remember Grandma’s home being so quiet that the clock ticking spooked me like a sudden noise in a horror movie. And still. Every object in the dusty rose living room seemed preternaturally still, the sort of stillness that comes before unexpected movement, as if the contents were waiting for me to leave.

When I left and pedaled as fast as I could down the street, I deeply drew in the outdoor air, thrilled to be headed toward my own street.

Then, all these years later, I saw the heavy metal sign in Mom’s basement and brought it home in my suitcase. The gardener didn’t say anything until I pulled out hammer and picture hangers to hang it on the wall of my study. “You don’t want that there, do you?”  Hahaha, yes, I did, and there it is.

Every day I scan a few of the photos I brought home. The other day I found this one of me kissing Grandma, thanking her for the crocheted afghan she made me for my high school graduation (you can see a bit of the pattern in the photo). Proof that Grandma and I loved each other, even if she made me nervous.

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Magical Bowls

A while ago I warned you that I felt inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir and might write about the “secret life” of objects I hold dear (or in fear). Here’s the first one that I wanted to explore.

I only now have realized that the four snack bowls, speckled like the linoleum floor in my childhood kitchen, are melamine, not plastic. Maybe that’s why they are at least fifty years old and still have their little handles intact, although cracked.

When my parents moved out of their winter condo south of Tucson a few years ago, they decided to get rid of the majority of their furnishings, rather than cart them back to Kalamazoo. They urged us to take what we could of the wall art, furniture, and Dad’s craft pieces. My mom was amused when I grabbed the stack of dull brown bowls. “What do you want those for?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted them.

As long as I could remember, we had eaten Be-Mo potato chips, as well as vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s syrup whipped into milkshake consistency, from those bowls. When Mom kept out our hollowed tree branch bowl of nuts long after Christmas, we filled the snack bowls with smooth pecans and bumpy walnuts that gave way to cracked shell fragments.

The bowls were out at parties, but not for individual snacking. Mom filled them with her homemade Chex Mix and placed them around the living room. Her makeup and bouffant hair were already complete, a frilly half-apron tied around her waist, as she spread out party food, paper plates, and napkins. I placed the spoons and forks in angled lines. Lamplight and low music from the hi-fi set the stage.

As he beamed and told me silly jokes, Dad set up a temporary bar with highball and Old Fashioned glasses, cherries, olives, and a bucket of steaming ice. The anticipation of the party made a team of my parents and me, a protective shield against arguing and my father’s sudden mood changes.

At twelve, I was always hungry; my mother said I had a bottomless pit. When we counted up our daily calories in 7th-grade science class, I averaged 10,000/day. My parents were thin people and not big eaters, so meals were just what we needed for nutrition, no more. To fill up my cranky stomach, I would munch cooking walnuts and chocolate chips from a bowl I’d hidden under my bed.

I wonder today what my mother thought was happening to her baking supplies. And the sugar cubes she kept on hand to serve to company that stayed for coffee. Maybe there were other shortfalls in my life that my mother didn’t notice. In my imagination, as is the way of magical objects, the bowls are always brimming with delicious munchies.

Anybody want to play along and write about the secret life of an object? If so, please post the link in the comments here!

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On another note, you all (that’s the same thing as y’all without me co-opting southern talk, or “you guys” as we used to say in Michigan) know I love family history. You probably know I have a blog called thefamilykalamazoo.com about my family history. Now I have a new–a second–blog about family history. It’s called enteringthepale.com and is about the gardener’s family history from eastern Europe.

I think this new blog, which follows our search for his ancestors, is important work on a very small scale. I am talking about finding and recording the history of Jewish family branches that were either lost or decimated during the Holocaust. In the case of the gardener’s family, we just don’t know yet what happened to anybody or who or where his family was 100, 150, 200 years ago. That’s what I will be writing about on this new blog. I’d love for you to follow. Right now we have about one follower unless you count my twitter followers.

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Guest Post: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

I had the privilege of guest blogging about a poem from Kin Types today.

Diary of an Eccentric

Luanne Castle is my guest today to celebrate the release of her latest poetry collection, Kin Types. She’s here to share a poem from the book and its inspiration. Please give her a warm welcome!

Advice from My Forebears

Always use hot pack canning for your green beans
and test your seals at the end.

Don’t grab a burning oil stove without considering
the consequences.

Don’t get in debt. If you don’t got it, don’t get it.

Make up your mind what church you’ll attend
and go there as often as you can stand.

Be Dutch or you ain’t much.

Get the log out of your own eye so you can get
the speck out of the other’s eye.

We can’t talk about it, but here’s your great-grandma’s
Eastern Star ring so you will have a signal.

Never pick a fight but if someone hits you,
hit them back.

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