dolls

When our first-born daughter was four, she asked me why she was the only one at her nat-5-yearspreschool who didn’t have a white mother.

I don’t exactly recall my answer to Natalie’s question, posed to me over twenty-five years ago. I’m sure I made some attempt at explaining that my heritage – Filipino and Mexican – made up part of who she was. The other part came from her dad, who is white. Our daughters have my dark eyes and dark hair, but Natalie has my husband’s skin tone and Ana has mine.

I was reminded of Natalie’s question recently at work when I helped organize and host the fourth in a series of literary readings intended to spark discussion of race and racism. I work for King County, which through its Equity and Social Justice Initiative encouraged employees to submit proposals that would help advance the goals of ESJ in or out of the workplace. The team I’m on was funded to produce four events as part of the ESJ training available to employees. The format consisted of two local poets presenting their work followed by a facilitated discussion on race and racism. Poets featured earlier this year were Quenton Baker and Casandra Lopez, Troy Osaki and Hamda Yusuf, and Anis Gisele and Shin Yu Pai.

In our last event, Kiana Davis and Djenanway Se-Gahon, two extremely poised and dandk2articulate young women, presented work that referenced a defining moment in childhood for them.

Kiana described how when she was four she wanted a doll, but could find none on the store shelf that looked like her. It made her believe that little brown girls were invisible. “We learn what’s beautiful and what’s ugly as we grow up,” she said.

When Djenanway was in kindergarten, her teacher singled her and two other children out for special attention by dandkasking the children with “melanin in their skin” to sit in the center of the carpet as a prelude to their celebration of Martin Luther King. Djenanway said that over the years she’s had to learn to dissociate the words different and discomfort because they had been so fused in that kindergarten moment.

When Natalie first observed that she was different from her peers for not having a white mother, I’m sure that I tried to respond in a way that assumed she was asking out of curiosity and not shame or discomfort. I wanted to set the tone for similar experiences she was bound to have in the future.

I knew my children’s experience would be different from mine. Where I grew up, I saw brown and black people in my neighborhood every day. Even so, I didn’t escape childhood without wishing I’d been born blonde and blue-eyed. As Kiana said, “We learn what’s beautiful and what’s ugly as we grow up.”

In elementary school, when Natalie’s friends realized that darker-skinned Ana was her sister, they wondered if Ana had been adopted. Another time, when a classmate of Natalie’s saw me, she asked Natalie if I was the family’s nanny. Such was the experience of these students when it came to people of color.

When my husband and I bought our house in North Seattle in 1984, only sixteen years had passed since the racial restrictive covenants in place in my neighborhood had finally been outlawed. Thirty years later, it’s still rare for me to see more than a few people of color where I live. Change takes time, especially if access to housing and other rights have been historically restricted through social institutions.

The ESJ Literary Project at work gives me hope that change does happen. Bringing writers of color into the workplace to share their stories has people listening, thinking, admitting confusion and discomfort, and asking questions. “What do I do?” asked an audience participant who confessed to feeling helpless.

Kiana and Djenanway offered these actions: Go to the Reparations website. Be an ally. To get started on the latter in Seattle, try going here.

Ferns

The Whiteley Center is a retreat for scholarly and creative activities at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. “It is a phrontistery – a space for study and thinking,” says the website. And it’s a space for writing, I would add, which I did plenty of during my recent week there with two members of my writing group, Allison Green and Jennifer Munro.

I was lucky to be was assigned a cottage near the water. It was the one that offered the most privacy. My view though the wall of windows consisted of trees, ferns, and the harbor. After my morning bike ride, it was easy to stay in my cottage until dinner. I had everything I needed. I could and did stay in my smelly workout clothes all day, showering just before dinner.

Table deskAt breakfast, I set up my laptop on the little dining table in front of the sweeping view. I slid open the glass door to the deck and I could hear insects buzz and birds call and anchored boats rock with the waves. I looked up often to see the ferry sail in and out of the harbor. Deer, ubiquitous but magical, ambled through the grass and ferns.

At lunchtime I made myself a salad and ate it on the deck. In the afternoons, I took my laptop onto the porch to sun myself while I worked. I took breaks to read. I had brought Sayantani Dasgupta’s wonderful book of essays Fire Girl and Jonathan Evison’s lively novel This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! There was often a brief nap in the afternoon. In the evenings, I switched on the fireplace and KPLU jazz.  Throughout the day I would pause in whatever I was doing and just contemplate my luck to be in that space and in the world.

Under these perfect circumstances, much can happen in a week at Whiteley.IMG_20160822_074827283_HDR

  • On my first morning of writing, a deer kept a watchful eye on me from the other side of the glass door.
  • I finished the first draft of a novel I had begun last October at Ragdale and made an annotated list of scenes to help me manage the still untidy plot.
  • I learned to identify by sound a red-breasted nuthatch. (Thank you, Jennifer Munro.)
  • I wrote the acknowledgements for my book of short stories coming out in November.
  • I finished an essay solicited by an online journal.

And because this phrontistery is a place for thinking, one morning I began to think of my mother, who died in June, and I made myself cry by navigating to YouTube and playing “Sentimental Journey,” my mother’s favorite song.

When I came home from Whiteley, in my semi-regular Sunday call with my sister in National City, I got the news that the spiritual counselor who was part of my mother’s home hospice team had died in early August, not even two months after my mother died. I probably spent a total of no more than an hour with Henry Rodriquez. As a long-lapsed Catholic, I tend to be detached but polite with church people. But Henry, which is how he introduced himself though I suppose the more proper address was Father, was so kind and unassuming and probably quite used to skeptics like me. Two years apart in age, we were soon chatting like old friends. He was born in the hospital where I volunteered as a candy striper when I was in high school. He’d been a priest at St. Jude, the church I’d been made to go to as a child. He went to Memorial Junior High, the same school my mother had attended.

My sister told him about my forthcoming book and handed him one of the promotional postcards lying around the house. Henry was genuinely delighted and expressed his eagerness to read the book when it was available. Before he left that morning, he gave a blessing to my mother as we stood around her bed. Several days later, when my mother passed, Henry was at the house within the hour to give a final blessing and to comfort our family, which he did with quiet grace. I hugged him hard before he left.

This is what I learned about Henry from his obituary, which appeared prominently in both the San Diego paper and the Los Angeles Times as well as other news outlets: He had a difficult adolescence and dropped out of junior high school for a life on the streets. After a few years, he began volunteering at Sharp Memorial Hospital as an orderly. Encouraged by the nurses, Henry earned his GED, after which the nurses helped pay his college expenses. Henry followed his bachelor’s degree with seminary training. He was ordained a priest in 1986. After graduate studies in Minnesota and Rome, he returned to southeast San Diego, where he became a beloved community figure though his work with the church and the community, and with the police department in his role as volunteer chaplain. And luckily for me and my family, he also became a hospice chaplain.

While I was at Whiteley, as I sat at my little table in that sweet cottage or on the deck outside blissed-out on the view and sun and sea breeze and wonderland deer, I think I knew those moments were not only to be savored. They were to be saved up – to absorb the unexpected punches that life throws one’s way every so often without fail.

So here’s some saved-up Whiteley magic. Rest in peace, Henry Rodriguez.Magic deer

I’ve written about the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference before here and here. I’m doing so again. I’ve attended the conference six out of the last eight years. Three of those years I enrolled in one of the full morning workshops – a daily, intensive two and a half hours of manuscript critique or generative writing. Three other years, including this one, I opted for the residency – a space to write, a meal plan, and the opportunity to attend faculty readings and craft lectures.

IMG_20160723_115728645I shared the week with terrific friends, made new friends, and grinded out a satisfying number of words on my current writing project – enough words and a plot to go with them to claim significant progress.

Because I spent a lot of time in my room writing (and obsessively checking the word tally in the corner of the screen to see how close I was to hitting my daily goal), I only went to a handful of the readings and lectures – an illuminating talk by Pam Houston on dialogue (two agendas fighting for control of a scene); a thoughtful and absorbing talk by Kwame Dawes on “history, poetry and contemporaneity”; a tantalizing preview of Helena Maria Viramontes’s new novel set in 1940s L.A., and a punch-in-the-gut essay by Debra Gwartney that riveted us to our seats until the end when we were on our feet.

Each afternoon, participants could choose from an array of hour-and-a-half workshops on various aspects of craft or the writing life.  Among them were Stories Within Stories (Shawn Vestal), How to Sharpen a Knife (Gary Copeland Lilley), Carnal Knowledge (Melissa Febos), and Who Are You Like in Your Writing Habits? (Susan Landgraf).

Jourdan Keith offered one called Trouble the Waters which was geared toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ writers whose relationship with the natural world and environmental issues is not reflected in the mainstream environmental movement. She invited us to consider the connections between our cultural history, personal life, and environmental concerns.

Among the workshops on the essay taught by Sayantani Dasgupta was Your Life in Parts: Writing the Segmented Essay which helped me discover the glimmerings of a piece I want to write about crossword puzzles, language, sibling love and rivalry, and the surprising things that connect us to our parents. (Sayantani opened the conference with a reading from her TWO (!) new books of essays.)

Aside from my writing and the occasional faculty lecture or reading, I indulged in some extracurriculars. Pie and Whiskey Night was one of them. Poet, essayist, and pie maker IMG_20160723_232010Kate Lebo, whose writing is as delicious as her pies, recruited writers from her afternoon class on writing personal essays about food. Together they created eight gorgeous fruit pies – cherry, peach, and blueberry lemon, to name a few. I had my heart set on the blackberry mint pie. Because I am often near the front of any food line, I was able to secure my desired and very delicious sliver (eight pies divided among 100 or so people meant sliver-sized servings).

I also spent time biking the hilly streets of the town, walking on the beach or in the woods, or just staring out my window at the piles of clouds in the morning that often gave way to blue skies in the afternoon and a sharp breeze in the early evening, not to mention the full moon shimmering on the waters of Admiralty Inlet.

Then there was the wildlife. Claudia Castro Luna stared down a snake on the trail; Catalina Cantu twice watched otters and naked people emerge from the surf; and Jourdan, who was camping in the woods, awoke to birds each morning. We all saw deer everywhere.

Again this year, the Tribal Canoe Journey landing coincided with the conference. The canoe journey is an inter-tribal gathering of Northwest indigenous nations. Each year, a different nation hosts other nations that journey from coastal communities of Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington with designated landings along the way. This year the Nisqually Tribe hosts the Paddle to Nisqually 2016. The trip can take up to a month.

The canoes landed at Fort Worden beach on the last full day of the conference. From my room on the bluff facing the water, I could hear the drumming and singing through the night. In the early morning, many of us watched the canoers depart for their next landing. It was a reminder that though we walked the beaches now, and attended craft lectures and readings in a historic fort in a seaport town known for its Victorian architecture, this land was once indigenous land and the canoe was the mode of transportation on its surrounding waters.IMG_20160724_060523540

Today is my birthday. I started it off by getting on an early flight back to Seattle after spending the last twelve days in National City, CA, where I grew up and where my mother began her dying on June 8. I arrived the next day when she was released from the hospital for home hospice care. I stayed in the house with my older sister. My two other sisters came by often from their homes several miles away. My brother drove down nearly every day from Orange County.

Over the next four and a half days, we fed her pudding when she wanted it, gave her juice and water first from a straw and later from a sippy cup, repositioned her in her bed every so often, and administered morphine as necessary. She was often talkative during the first few days – by turns nostalgic, scolding, and self-examining – but on the fourth evening, we knew she was nearing the end. All five of us were there to say goodbye. She lasted until the next afternoon. Three of us were at her side. We buried her yesterday next to our father.

During my week and a half stay, I often sat in the front yard, which had undergone multiple transformations over the years. When we first moved in, the house was new and the yard was bare. My father planted a lawn where we played catch and badminton. After my father died, my mother had the lawn dug up and replaced with a pattern of decorative rocks. She dotted the new landscape with containers of plants, a low-maintenance garden that needed no mowing. Soon a gazebo was added. Later, when the rocks threatened to topple my increasingly fragile mother as she watered her plants, the rocks were removed and the perimeter of the yard was bricked over. A polyhedron slab of cement was laid in the center and the gazebo reinstalled on top of it.

Over the years my mother had collected yard art, which she placed in every available space until ducks bumped up against squirrels, a puppy regarded the Virgin Mary, and gnomes intruded upon cherubs on a swing or one of the several St. Francis figures. Tropical birds hung from the gazebo, deer rested in the foliage, and a nearly life-size ceramic boy knelt with a frog in his hand. Not long ago, the boy was accidentally knocked to the ground by someone, breaking his arm in two pieces which still lie at his side. Maybe my mother found it too hard to part with the damaged boy, or maybe she didn’t have the energy to remove him. Or maybe his continued presence was an unconscious aesthetic choice.

As my mother was dying and in the days after, I often sat in the gazebo watching the life in the old neighborhood – the ice cream truck that played “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” in the middle of June, the animal control officer trying to wrangle two strays, the picnickers in the park across the street whose boom boxes blasted for blocks.

I sat there in the company of my mother’s garden statues, dusty and faded, chipped or broken, and her plants – the geraniums, hibiscus, and bougainvillea blooming with fierce disregard for the hot sun and recent mild neglect. I confess I had not been an admirer of her garden accessories, thinking them a bit tacky and rather graceless.

Then I started taking pictures and what I saw made my heart twinge for my mother and this garden that was her creation and sanctuary. While my pictures don’t come anywhere near the photographs of William Eggleston, I understand what Eudora Welty said about his images of apparently ordinary and banal things of everyday life:

The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree… They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!

Whatever my mother’s taste in yard art, it reflected her faith and compassion, her fondness for the whimsical, her reverence for the holy, her love of animals – all of these things and more, side by side, creating seemingly incongruous tableaux that upon closer inspection made all the sense in the world.

Today on my birthday, I traveled back to Seattle knowing that the next time I go to National City, my mother will not be there. But those garden statues she assembled like so many friends in her yard, now my sister’s yard, will still be there to welcome me.

Ducks and deer

When I was growing up in National City, California, I often thought about moving away some day. I knew I would. I just didn’t know where I would go or how I would get there. In 1977, eight months after I graduated from San Diego State, my cousin had just driven in from Texas and was heading back to his home in Oregon. “Come with me,” he said. “I can get you a job.” He might’ve been joking, but I packed a suitcase and got in his car. Within three months I had made my way to Seattle, my home ever since. These days, I try to visit National City once a year to see family. While I’m there, amid all the changes that have occurred – the freeway, the strip malls, the beautiful new library that replaced the little one-story brick building of my childhood – I think about that awkward, timorous, goofy-looking girl I was. Someone too busy being self-conscious about her lack of grace that she never fully engaged with the world around her. I didn’t know that there were people in my vicinity that were developing as artists, activists, and humanists. Only as an adult have I come in contact with a few of them, brushed briefly against their greatness. I drop their names below.

 

Artist Cecilia Alvarez

Cecilia was born in National City at Paradise Valley Hospital, the hospital where I was a candy striper as a teenager. Cecilia and I are just a few years apart. She grew up on both sides of the border, while I grew up in National City. However, we both attended San Diego CeciliaState. That’s where she was told by faculty that “because she was a Mexican-American woman, her work would never be considered fine art.” Cecilia’s response is partially summarized in Wikipedia:

Alvarez’s painting Las Cuatas Diego has been featured in books and exhibitions around the world. Alvarez has also illustrated the bilingual children’s book Antonio’s Card authored by Rigoberto González. Her work is collected by the Mexican Fine Arts Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and by the Kaiser Foundation.

Cecilia moved to Seattle in 1975, two years before I did. We lived no more than six miles apart for decades before we finally met. But I’ve known of her work for a while. It’s gorgeous and powerful and full of energy, depicting themes of feminism, culture and community, and a deep concern for the earth.

 

Poet Juan Felipe Herrera

The current U.S. Poet Laureate graduated from San Diego High School in 1967, about eight miles from Sweetwater High where I graduated in 1971. He ran the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park during the time I was working at the nearby Natural History Museum.

In 1979 he was working on his second book in Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. I was a graduate student at UW at the time and spent many hours studying in Suzzallo, perhaps even walking past Herrera on occasion.

I had the pleasure of meeting Herrera recently at the University of Washington Friends of Juan Felipe Herrera and methe Library Literary Voices event where he was the keynote speaker. After he spoke and read from his work, including poems about Seattle artists Alfredo Arreguín and Fulgencio Lazo, he took questions from the audience. When asked what inspired him about today’s young Latinos, he said approvingly, “They’re very bold.” I have to believe that their boldness is very much inspired by people like Juan Felipe Herrera, the son of migrant workers, graduate of UCLA, Stanford and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, author of dozens of books, and lifelong activist for migrant and indigenous rights.

 

Artist Lupita Shahbazi

Lupita lives in Chula Vista, CA, National City’s neighbor to the south. But she once lived in IMG_3446National City and attended Sweetwater High five years behind me. I met Lupita several years ago after tracking her down on the Internet. I had discerned her signature on a print my sister had bought at a local art fair and given to me. The print was of a painting titled Dos Niñas and featured two girls sitting side by side on a bench, their ankles tucked demurely behind one another. They’re holding hands, eyes forward, their expressions solemn with fear, perhaps, or sadness, but also a determination to overcome or persevere against any harm that looms. They’re awash in blue light which colors their faces and their bare arms and legs. Their hands clasped around each other signals a strength, a commitment, but also a realization that one day their hands must let go of each other. I kept the print propped on my desk. It’s an image that seemed to embody the stories I had written and gathered into a collection that came to be titled Hola and Goodbye. My publisher has designed a beautiful cover for the book, which I love. But I will always see a connection between Dos Niñas and many of the stories in my collection.

 

Writer Luis Urrea

Ten years ago for my birthday my mother gave me The Hummingbird’s Daughter, still one of my favorite books. Two years later in 2008, I met Luis Urrea at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. We compared notes on growing up in and near National City – cruising Highland Avenue, hanging out in Kimball Park, attending catechism class at St, Mary’s.  Is it even necessary to say that his trajectory from border life to award-winning, widely loved poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and Latino Literature Hall of Fame member (in short, “literary badass,” according to NPR), is inspiring? How can you not have respect for National City?

A couple of his stories in The Water Museum take place in or near National City. One has the city name in its title, “The National City Reparation Society.”  The other is “The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery.” Read the whole collection for its range of style, subject, and setting.

Luis was on faculty last summer at the Port Townsend Writers Conference. Being on campus while he was there was a treat. He’s a natural storyteller both on the page and at the podium. His readings are electrifying, and his craft lectures are delivered in an effortless, conversational tone, with an unexpected punch or two. What’s better than listening to Luis Urrea? Doing so with good friends.Luis and friends

 

I have a book coming out in this year. So do a number of my friends here in Seattle and little beyond. I’m excited about reading their books. Here are a few.

Kathleen Alcala 

The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island is due out this fall from University of Washington Press.

Kathleen Alcalá set out to re-examine her relationship with food at the most local level. Remembering her parents, Mexican immigrants who grew up during the Depression, and the memory of planting, growing, and harvesting fresh food with them as a child, she decided to explore the history of the Pacific Northwest island she calls home.

This is Kathleen’s sixth book. She has also authored three novels, a collection of short stories, and a collection of essays. She lives on Bainbridge Island.

 

solace_reducedLaurie Blauner

The Solace of Monsters won the Leapfrog Press fiction contest in 2015 and will be out in September.

Here’s praise from Helen Phillips, author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat:

The Solace of Monsters is courageous and innovative and mesmerizing, Frankenstein for a new age. Laurie Blauner never shies away from the grotesque, or from the beautiful.

Laurie, who lives in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, is a prolific writer. She’s had five books of poetry and four previous works of fiction published. I’ve read several of her novels. I think Phillips’s words – innovative and mesmerizing – about The Solace of Monsters can apply to these other works as well. And that’s not all. Laurie is also a painter!

 

Jeannine Hall Gailey

Field Guide to the End of the World is the winner of the 2015 Moon City Poetry Award and will be published in September.

Matthea Harvey, author of Modern Life, says this about the book:

Gailey allies herself with the mutants of the world—from zombie stripper clones to teen girl vampires—but unlike them, she is haunted by the possibility of the world and the self coming to an end.

Jeannine is one of my favorite poets in a city teeming with talented poets. This is Jeannine’s sixth book.

 

Sam Ligon

Wonderland—Stories from Lost Horse Press and Among the Dead and the Dreaming – A Novel from Leapfrog Press were both released this month. An abundance of riches.

Here’s what Steve Almond says about Wonderland:Wonderland-Cover-JPEG-1-674x1024

Sam Ligon has mastered the art of capturing the sweet derangement of love. His characters are drunk with desire and reckless in all the right ways, and his prose is incandescent, absurd, wickedly funny and, in the end, achingly true.

Northwest literary icon Jess Walter says this about Among the Dead and the Dreaming:

A wildly original love story, a ghost story, a tense and suspenseful story in which the wickedly talented Ligon channels voices—of the lost, the longing, and the damned.

Sam is the editor of Willow Springs and teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. He’s the artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference where I’ve taken some of his workshops. He’s a terrific teacher.

 

Maria Victoria

La Casa De Los Secretos will be published this summer by Planeta in Mexico.

Almost forty years ago, when I took Latin American and Spanish literature classes at the University of Washington, I read novels in Spanish. Of course, I did it with a dictionary at my side. Regretfully, whatever marginal skill in Spanish I had at the time has disappeared over the years. But for those of you with better reading fluency in Spanish, be sure to pick up Maria’s new novel. It is bound to be a winner like her previous novels. This description is from Maria’s website:

Her first novel, Los Hijos Del Mar (I Leave You The Sea, Ediciones B), was a finalist for the Mariposa Award (Best First Novel in Spanish) at the 2006 International Latino Book Awards in Washington, D.C. Her second novel, Más allá de la Justicia (Beyond Justice, Entre Líneas, Libros y Palabras) took third place in Barcelona, Spain, at the prestigious Premio Planeta de Novela book awards (2010), and honorary mention as the Best Novel in Spanish at the New York Latino Book Awards (2012).

Maria is originally from Vera Cruz, Mexico. She moved here as a teenager and now splits her time between Bellevue, WA and Petaluma, CA where her six charming grandchildren live.

And check out the new books from these Seattle7Writers: Sean Beaudoin, Deb Caletti, Jim Lynch, and Kevin O’Brien.

 

Last December, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said he didn’t not know whether he would have supported or opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. When pressed, he said he hated the concept of internment camps. Yet his flimsily veiled as well as his openly racist rhetoric encourage an atmosphere of hate and intolerance that can have no good outcome.

Which is why Lonny Kaneko’s recently released poetry collection Coming Home from Camp and Other Poems is so necessary. The camp in the title refers not to childhood summer camp or some other recreational foray in the wilderness. It was a foray into a different kind of wilderness—one in which American ideals were lost to racism, when the American government rounded up more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry in this country and incarcerated them behind barbed wire in the euphemistically-termed “war relocation centers.” Lonny Kaneko and his parents were sent to Minidoka in Idaho as were most of the Japanese-Americans from the Seattle area.

Last week, Kaneko read from his collection at Arundel Books in Pioneer Square. One of the poems he read was “Drought,” which Kaneko said was a metaphor for the effects of the camp on him.

Continue reading

This February marks the thirtieth anniversary of the People Power Revolution that ended the Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1986. That year, from February 22-25, two million Filipino citizens, joined by political, military, and religious groups, occupied Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Metro Manila. It was a remarkable non-violent revolt in response to the decades of corruption and decadence of a regime that suppressed speech, took over businesses, and embezzled government funds.

It was during the Marcos regime that the Philippine government began shunting off its unemployed from a stagnant economy, most often to the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. When the people forced Marcos from the palace and the country in 1986, little changed under the new democratic leadership for the country’s ruined economy or its practice of sending its workers abroad.

These events and issues form the backdrop of Mia Alvar’s story collection In the Country in which economic inequities and political repressions drive a diaspora of workers and asylum-seekers. In Alvar’s stories, these migrant workers and expats plot their own personal revolts. Sally Rivas in “The Miracle Worker” calls them little mutinies. They’re a repudiation of a role Alvar’s characters are relegated to or have passively assumed. In two stories of Filipinos abroad as foreign workers, Alvar explores the power plays that are, in Sally’s words, meant “to offset some imbalance in the world.”

Sally accepts the job of schooling the disabled daughter of a wealthy Bahrain family, receiving Mrs. Mansour’s gifts while abandoning any pretext of teaching the hopeless child in an attempt to even the scales of power. In her deception, she believes she is making up not only her friend Minnie’s long hours of domestic labor in the Mansour household, but also for her guilt at her own more elevated position as a professional. After her discovery of an even more treacherous little mutiny, Sally grasps where the real power lies, sees that she is after all but a guest worker in a foreign country.

Similarly, in “Shadow Families, the difference between the professional and worker classes in the community of Filipino workers overseas is an imaginary line, easily crossed. In a foreign worker compound in Bahrain, the educated class from the cities welcome the helper class from the provinces to their homes once a week to eat and sing with them. They pray for them. Sometimes they play matchmaker. The helpers know their roles until Baby comes along. Baby, who dyes her hair and wears high heels, refuses to speak Tagalog, eat Filipino food, or sing karaoke. Baby’s indiscretion, her refusal to be bound by a role, results in her ouster from the country, but not before she permanently upsets the community, the members of which had so carefully cultivated a satellite Philippines in a desert country.

The Filipino community in Bahrain eventually disperses to all parts of the United States, and the narrator laments “… we lay awake in single beds, sensing that we’d snipped a cord not just from home but from the law of gravity itself, and if we tumbled off the planet altogether no one, for a while, might know. Now we were all outcasts, of a certain sort, as well.”

Economic necessity or opportunity is not the only reason behind the diaspora of Filipinos in this collection. In two of the last stories, Alvar’s characters grapple with the political tyranny of their homeland. Just as the characters in the above stories exercise deception or self-deception to tolerate ill-fitting or untenable circumstances, so too do these characters.

In “Old Girl,” a politician once imprisoned for his opposition to the Philippine government, is now a lecturer living in the “Manilachusetts” section of Boston. His pet name for his wife is Mommy, though she refers to herself as the old girl, a remnant from her schoolgirl days when the nuns prepared their students to be wives and mothers. The old girl manages her husband’s life, supporting him even in his deluded goal of running a marathon, something for which he has no physical or mental temperament. In his exile he has become inept at the smallest things. On the other hand, the old girl’s management skill is portended on her wedding day.

Speaking of omens, in Manila, at the wedding, they released a dove from its gold cage. It thought better of flying away, alighting on the old girl’s head instead. “Loko mo, that’s a good sign, said her father, as the old girl tried to shoo it off, grateful to have a veil and gloves on. “It means power, victory.”

“Just like we thought,” her mother said. “The groom’s going to be President one day.”

“It landed on the bride’s head,” a niece said. “Doesn’t that mean she’ll be President?”

Everyone laughed, and no one harder than the old girl herself—the quiet, simple bride who’d just dropped out of law school for her MRS degree.

Even though the old girl loves her life in Manilachusetts, her husband insists, “I don’t want to be “another sad, ranting, exiled old-timer.” And so they pack their bags, the husband who can no longer deceive himself that giving speeches and pretending to train for a marathon is a life worth living and the wife who can no longer live with the deception that she is merely the old girl. The characters, though never named as such, are fictionalized versions of Corazon and Ninoy Aquino, the latter of whom was assassinated on the tarmac of the Manila airport, the former elected to the presidency in 1986.

The year 1986 is one of the two timeframes in which the final story in the collection unfolds. The other timeframe begins in 1971 and advances through the years of martial law to intersect with the events leading to the ouster of Marcos.

While many of the preceding stories involve characters that have emigrated from the Philippines, the young, strike-leading nurse Milagros makes her stance clear when a young reporter asks whether “given the chance all those nurses would leave City in a heartbeat, for a land of milk and honey? Sidewalks paved with gold or diamonds, depending on whom you ask? The chubby envelopes they could send home?”

Milagros replies, “Your mother gets sick, you don’t leave her for a healthier mother. She’s your mother!”

This leads to a life with Jim Reyes in support of his underground journalistic activities, which she continues after he’s imprisoned by the corrupt, repressive government and for which she pays a spirit-shattering price. The dictator and his wife are never referred to by name, but by the ironic euphemisms Papa and Mama. Euphemisms abound in the country—safe house for prison, disappeared for dead. But finally, the Reyes are done with euphemisms, especially Milagros who surrenders her faith in the country, because it is “still the country that took everything away.”

This last story is easily the most powerful, though each exercises its own muscle in the collection. Whether set in the suburbs of Manila, a small town in the provinces, a foreign workers compound in Bahrain, or the Boston enclave of Manilachusetts, Alvar’s stories deliver insight into the issues of immigration, family, community, and country, of how the past intersects with the present, and how the political is often at the root of our little mutinies. How sometimes those little mutinies can result in a larger revolution. How sometimes that larger revolution just spawns more little mutinies.

It’s been decades since I’ve taken a weekly class with writing assignments. My days are spent at work in a cubicle downtown, my evenings as much as possible on my writing—right after doing the NYT crossword puzzle online. That little celebratory ditty that plays upon correct completion of the puzzle is a nice reward, but also a signal that recess is over and I’d better get to work, which actually means a lot of dithering at the keyboard and a painfully slow stringing together of words on the screen. Maybe I’d get more done if I did take a class after all.

Each quarter I read the Hugo House course offerings and think about which classes I would take if I could spare the time. I linger over the descriptions of certain classes—the ones focused on close reading of the masters or a class outside of my comfort zone such as writing the surreal. But invariably I opt for the one-day class if I opt for any class at all. That way, my time commitment is minimal and there are no assignments to add to a never-ending to-do list.

This time though, I finally signed up for a multi-week class because it was just too irresistible: The You Review of Books taught by Paul Constant and Martin McClellan.
I’d written a couple of reviews for a community paper without really knowing what I was doing. I figured it was time to learn.

I was delighted to find some friends in the class: Theo Nestor whom I’d heard so much about and finally got to meet at a Hedgebrook event late last summer; Martha Kreiner whom I’d run into at several literary events and then two summers ago had the pleasure of being her dorm neighbor at the Port Townsend Writers Conference; Heather Jacobs, editor of Big Fiction, whom I met in a class taught by Michael Byers over a decade ago; and Bonnie Rough whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing through a writers support group.

I’m looking forward to getting to know the other writers in the class and their work. For starters, one of our classmates Lisa Gold, researcher and rare book expert, wrote this excellent review on the cheerful children’s book about George Washington’s happy slaves, which Scholastic recently withdrew because the book “may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”

We’re halfway through the six-week class and I’m learning lots, though of course I haven’t really learned it until I’ve applied it and I’m still working on that. The weekly assignments are fun but a challenge to pull off.

Paul and Martin say that “book reviews should be beautiful pieces of writing in response to beautiful pieces of writing.”

They practice what they teach. Here’s a beauty by Paul about Tom Hart’s new graphic novel Rosalie Lightning about the heartbreaking aftermath of his toddler daughter’s unexplainable death.

Here’s one by Martin on The Truth about White People by Lola E. Peters, a clear and thoughtful piece that also offers a challenge to readers that goes beyond reading Peters’s book.

Read these and see what we aspire to in class.

One year quite a few years ago, I committed to reading a book a week, which only amounts to fifty-two books for the year. Nowadays, I’m lucky to reach three books a month. (Don’t check my Goodreads entries because I’m terrible about updating my list.) It’s a sad number given the stack of books on my to-read shelf. But here are my favorite reads this year—five story collections plus two others.

The Border is Burning by Ito Romo—These are very short stories, gritty and stark, about the hard-bitten lives of people along the border between the United States and Mexico. My favorite stories were “Baby Money,” about how a two-headed baby in formaldehyde affects two characters, one on either side of the border; and “El Gato,” in which a woman leaves her man after evidence of his infidelity: cat hairs in his underwear. Cats subsequently factor into the story at cunningly-placed intervals.

People Like Me by Margaret Malone—I had the pleasure of reading with Margaret Malone at Lit Fix in early December. She read an excerpt from the story “The Only One,” told from the point of view of a middle-school girl who is wrestling with such life issues as the grossness of tongues in kissing, her ever-growing boobs, and the dissolution of her family. The character and voice were irresistible, so I bought the book to finish that story and read all the others. Very smart and sharply written, these stories are dark and humorous, sad and hopeful. Despite their flaws, you are drawn to these characters who are mostly girls and young women trying to find their way to being themselves.

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis—This has been called both a novel and a collection of stories. Either way, it’s captivating both for the characters and for Landis’s sharp and vivid scenes. We see Rainey and her friends Tina and Leah navigate their way from their tough-talking, tightrope-walking, limit-testing fifteen-year-old selves to their mid-twenties as they continue to sort through the effects of an adolescence made bewildering and sometimes hostile by the self-absorbed or negligent adults in their lives. Landis has a splendid sense of both the comic and the heartrending.

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken—A favorite author of mine, McCracken delivers her trademark humor, irony, and delightfully odd or troubled characters in these often dark but empathic stories. Here’s an example of her killer language: She looked like the plump-cheeked naughty heroine of a German children’s book who’d just sawed off her own braids with a knife, looking for the next knifeable place. Her expression dared you to teach her a lesson.

The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea—I love how widely these stories range in character, setting, and style, how deftly Urrea moves across borders, both physical and cultural, how he blends the humorous and the tragic. The two-page long “Carnations,” conveys so much in so few lines about grief, loss, and relationships. The much longer “Mountains Without Number” features characters as weathered and rugged as the scenery and intertwines the personal with the historic. And a bonus of the book for me was seeing my home town National City in the title of one of the stories.

These last two aren’t story collections, but they’re part of my favorites list for this year.

The Ghosts Who Travel with Me: A Literary Pilgrimage through Brautigan’s America by Allison Green – As Green travels the route through Idaho Richard Brautigan described in his book Trout Fishing in America, she nimbly braids the stories of her adolescent obsession with Brautigan, her musings on her own Idaho family roots, and her awakenings to feminism and her lesbian identity. The writing is lovely, infused with humor and wise and warm reflection.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey—One of my favorite local poets, Jeannine Hall Gailey combines science, the environment, and feminism in these poems about growing up downwind of the Oak Ridge National Labs. Included in the collection are multiple poems with the title “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter,” but with variations like isotopes of an element or mutations of a gene, each differentiated by a parenthetical tagline such as (the other), (villainess), (medical wonder), (ghost in the machine), and many others.