Where Are You From?

os
Thank you, Christy, for this frame! Photo is the cherry blossoms at 113 Old Boston Post Road.

The veterans writing group had the following prompt: Where are you from? When people ask that question how do you answer? With the name of a town? Your state of origin? Where you live now? Does it depend on whether you are near your home or in a foreign country? Has the answer changed since your days in the service?

Minus the military service portion, here’s my answer.

Old Saybrook. Connecticut. New England. Near New York. I give one of those answers depending on who is asking and where I am. Any place in Connecticut and pretty much most of the Northeast, I’ll say Old Saybrook, and people nod. Even though it’s small, circa 10,000 people, it’s a stop on Amtrak between Boston and NYC and several exits on I-95. Outside the state, I’ll go with the next three answers on a widening geographic area. “Near New York” works in Europe, though it’s likely to bring questions such as, “Oh, do you know my cousin, friend, etc. who lives in New York?” Americans aren’t the only ones with a vague sense of geography and population.

There’s a variation on “Old Saybrook,” which is to omit the Old, something that anyone lived in town before 1947 said. That was the year Deep River became a separate town. Those of us who heard it still say it, though now it yields a puzzled look, followed by “Isn’t it Old Saybrook?” I sigh and say yes.

When I was younger “Where are you from?” often was code for “What race are you?” My unhelpful answer was Old Saybrook. And people would say,  “Where are you really from?” And I would say, “I was born there, and so was my mother.”

Even though I lived for fifteen years in Philadelphia and have lived in Deep River, briefly in Chester, then in Cromwell, and Middletown, I’m still from Saybrook – or Old Saybrook, if you prefer.

What I’m Reading Now

division

Another in the series. Yesterday’s post made reference to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division. I’ve been savoring it for some days now as I read a bit each day. I don’t want the story of City (né Citoyen) to end as he travels from 1964, 1985, or 2013.

Our fourteen-year-old protagonist precipitates a firestorm when he launches a tirade during a televised version of “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence.” He and his antagonist appear as the two African Americans in a multi-racial contest, a dumbed-down spelling bee. City gets the word “niggardly.” Pandemonium ensues.

The opening sets an outrageous tone as his tormentor describes City as the “White Homeless Fat Homosexual,” to which City replies he is not white, not homeless, and not homosexual.

Lines like that appear throughout. Among my favorite, City says a minister’s voice “sounded like burning Bubble Wrap was all up in his throat.”

There’s a huge element of magical realism as City tunnels from one decade to the next, clutching one of several copies of the book Long Division, which has no author and features a boy named City.

With humor and insight and outrage, Kiese serves up a memorable cast of supporting characters. City thinks his grandmother, Mama Lara, a fixture in Melahatchie, Mississippi, “a little on the shady side.” His girlfriend Shalaya Crump smells like she “must have been swimming in a sea of cube steak gravy.” Then there’s the mysterious Baize Shephard who may or may not have disappeared.

I wish the One Book program had chosen Long Division instead of the derivative Ready Player One.  Kiese’s characters, multiple plots, and writing are so far superior.

American Voice Notes

weekend

Here’s an extended version my contribution at the Writers’ Weekend panel on the American Voice. What I said was much shorter and less coherent. Please forgive any typos. I’m on my second twelve-plus hour day.

The American voice is the voice of the outsider – Twain observing slavery, also tramping abroad with a non-European sensibility.

Everyone here is “from away” except for Native Americans, and they have become the ultimate outsiders. Louise Erdrich, Ojibwe families who struggle; Sherman Alexie, outcasts in Reservation Blues – Robert Johnson and the Spokane Indian Big Mom – plus those misfits in the band.

The New World provided the rest of us stories about people outside society in some way – black, female, poor. Nick Carraway who aspires to be wealthy and sophisticated. Herzog who doesn’t want to be much of anything – certainly not Jewish.

From writers who transplanted themselves out of their native space. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Ann Petry.

Mother regarded her writing more in the tradition of Dickens than any of her contemporary black writers. She came as a stranger to Harlem, where she set The Street. We watch as Lutie Johnson struggles to become a member of the middle class. Mother saw the poverty and racism of Harlem intimately when she wrote for the Amsterdam News and The People’s Voice. She also lived in the environment with the rotten meat and produce in the shops, the exorbitant prices for shoddy apartments, complete segregation of the black residents.

No European could have written The Street or The Narrows.

Some of her terrific outsiders:

  • the “fierce and warlike” Layne family in “The New Mirror” – named Crunch in The Narrows;
  • pretty much everyone in The Street;
  • Johnny Roane and the servants in Country Place;
  • the piano player and Aunt Frank in “Miss Muriel”;
  • the entire family in “The New Mirror”;
  • the dead patriarch in “Dora Dean”;
  • the migrants and the peace marchers in “The Migraine Workers”;
  • Louella Brown;
  • the protagonists in “Like a Winding Sheet” (Johnson), “The Witness” (Charles Woodruff), “In Darkness and Confusion” (William Jones), “Doby’s Gone” (Sue Johnson.)

This outsider status is related to race and racial tension.

What about before Twain? Melville had people from all over, explored the world, used dialect, etc. vs. those derivative of Britain: Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, etc.

Twain ushered in the twentieth century and changed the approach to fiction. He wrote about slavery, the South. He prepared the way for Faulkner, Maya Angelou. Faulkner embodies it with his outcasts.

More recent example: Gone Girl. (Gillian Flynn) – the consummate insider becomes outsider when his wife disappears and he’s suspected of murder.

American fiction writers over the years have relied on current events and recent history. It will be interesting to see what comes of this political season.

Mother’s works where characters shaped/were shaped by current events and recent history.

  • The Street – Harlem in WWII
  • The Narrows – a murder in Hawaii in the 1930s
  • Country Place, the 1938 hurricane in Connecticut
  • “In Darkness and Confusion” – 1943 Harlem riots
  • “The Moses Project” – our Incarceration Nation had a need for electronic monitoring bracelets – designed at Harvard by social psychology students in the 1960s.

Current events are intimately tied to rapid changes in the culture. Contemporary authors feature dystopia and disaffected characters. Reasons? Proliferation of tech gadgets, widening gap between groups of people (The Harder They Come), loss of “tribe” that Sebastian Junger writes about, greater emphasis on youth culture. Now we have California (Edan Lepucki), outsider protagonists in a world in which people must struggle for the barest necessities and confront the worst in themselves and others.

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline, published 2011) dystopia to the Nth degree – Matrix style with tech gadgets in which the people become players and pawns in a video game where the stakes are survival. The tribe becomes crucial. Is this literature?

My favorite contemporary example is the loss of tribe from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old. The antagonist describes City, the protagonist, as “White, Homeless, Fat Homosexual.” to which City replies, “I am not white, homeless, or homosexual.” There are many such passages in Kiese Laymon’s brilliant first novel Long Division.

The American “voice” is not a single voice. traditional New England drawing room –

  • Hawthorne, Alcott
  • slow drawl of southern cruelty – Faulkner, Welty, John Kennedy Toole
  • western twang of open spaces – McMurtry
  • the road – Kerouac, dosPassos, Steinbeck

Mother’s novel Country Place is European in sensibility and setting – small New England town, etc. but the violence of the hurricane is an American phenomenon. So it’s the sense of place that in part determines the “voice,” which brings us back to Louise Erdrich who thinks this key.

Conclusion: I know less about this topic now than when I started.

More Travel

fog

Some day, most of it spent driving. First a 20+ mile round-trip for the NYT to Rite Aid, which was closed at 8 a.m. Then across the street to Hannaford’s where the paper looked pancake thin until the cashier pointed to a huge pile next to and said, “I didn’t realize they went together.” The Arts and Leisure section had three parts, in four sections. That two were devoted to live theater warmed my heart.

Had more of the sublime coffee and the most heavenly quiche from the baked goods pro. Then for a run, managed a bit more this time but it was warmer and far more humid. For cool down I read a bit of the paper, which wrapped a page of the Real Estate section into the Business section and a page of the Metro into the main news. Getting less for more since Maine charges tax on newspapers.

For reasons I won’t go into I drove two hours roundtrip through camping country, one or two pretty neighborhoods, and looonnnggg stretches of trees. The cars turned to camper trailers and pickups. The one plus: gas cost $0.12 per/gal less 50 miles away, but still $.10 /gal more than Connecticut, which usually has some of the highest rates in the country.

Returned and sorted through some paperwork then had a delightful dinner with friends, reinforcing what a strong and vibrant community they share.

To end the evening I listened to a Steppenwolf Theater broadcast. Why does the poor state of Maine have much more sophisticated public radio than rich little Connecticut? Read a bit of Jane Austen’s England.

I woke Monday morning to magic. Since this is how I want to remember my stay, I will not recount the hours of rain and fog and bad traffic. So glad I went. So sad to leave.

Further

emma

Saturday began with a productive stint of writing, first time since Ithaca. Having started work at 7 a.m., I felt at liberty to go for a run at 10, first time in ages since the temps and humidity at home had circled 85. The 2.8 miles in 60-degree temps and low humidity went smoothly despite hills. Plus I walked about 3/4 mile more. Considered that good under the circumstances.

Further work and then I ventured out. Took a quick walk around town and found a delightful library, great displays and a children’s department that looked welcoming for adults, though I did not enter. Then on to lunch, recommended by various on-line services. The place seemed to be a dive, but there were two women sitting at the bar so I entered. Everyone nodded and then returned to intense observation of the Red Sox game. They seemed to be ignoring everything else, including their beers.

When my lunch arrived, I felt I had found a gem buried among a pile of rocks. The haddock was just-out-of -the-water fresh and simply prepared with lemon, butter, and a light crust of bread (maybe cracker?) crumbs. Sides were a huge portion of white and wild rice and the best spinach. The chef had wilted the baby leaves in garlic and olive oil. I’m going to try to duplicate it but don’t hold out much hope. Learned afterward that the place had a new chef and was the only place in the area that served decent fish.

GPS sent me down a side road, but after some backing and filling, I reserved a Times at Rite Aid. Then on to my friend’s. The two of us plus two members of her book club had a delightful conversation. Any club that has endured twenty-five years deserves national recognition. They are reading Emma at the moment. Wish I could join the conversation.

Made my way back to the B&B. As I was puttering around, there was this little whine, and I saw a nose, paws, and floppy ears trying to poke under the door. Later met the rest of the utterly charming pooch and her owner. I was so impressed at the breadth and depth of the ties among the residents of this small town.

Unveiling

vet

A mural honoring Vietnam War-era veterans will be unveiled next week.

When: Tuesday September 27 at 6 p.m.

Where: Council Chambers, Middletown City Hall, 245 deKoven Drive

The mural features the work of artist David Schulz who served in Vietnam, accompanied by narratives from a number of veterans, including members of “We Were There,” the veterans’ writing group that meets at Russell Library.

If you cannot attend the unveiling, the mural will remain on permanent display.

 

Road Trip

lake

Blog went on hiatus in part because I took a brief trip to Maine to visit a friend, clear my head, and write.

I was on the road at 9:30.

  • First surprise: There was no traffic at the 91-84 connector, a worrying sign because it might mean impossible traffic ahead. It didn’t. I drove longer than I should have because Massachusetts is the only state with rest stops only on the Pike.
  • Second surprise: D&D has a “flat white” – egg white, cheese, veggies on flatbread. It was greasy and salty but kept hunger at bay until dinner.
  • Third surprise, this one a pleasant shock: I was standing next to the car, wrangling the GPS at a rest stop in Maine when I heard someone call, “Liz, is that you?” It was a fellow hospital volunteer who lives about two miles from me. She and her boyfriend were visiting his family and their friends in Auburn.

Once I got off the highway, I followed empty two-lane roads through farm country, near the occasional lake. I arrived at the Air B&B on time. My hostess Margaret is a delight. She hails from St. Simons Island, and I made a note to look for the Old Saybrook connection. I know Mother said O.S. summer folk included a family who lived there.

The place is gorgeous. The above is the view from the patio of the “pond,” which is actually a lake, divided into two sections. The later pic of the full moon reflecting off the water did not turn out as well.

I visited with my friend who lives in the next town over for an hour or so and then made my way to the local general store where they sell homemade baked goods, along with pasta, toothpaste, etc. as well as beer and wine. I got a Greek salad that was supposed to be mixed greens but was nearly all spinach, along with some odd creamy dressing. Also picked up a delicious loaf of bread.

Spent a relaxing, quiet evening answering emails and reading. Watched Hair Spray and got a good night’s sleep.

Please Join Us!

weekend

The Mark Twain House is hosting a Writers Weekend beginning September 23. It’s the fifth time around and promises to offer breadth and depth — and lots of opportunities for networking.

The details appear here.

I’ll be on a panel on Sunday, September 25 on The American Voice.

Looking forward to seeing you all.

What I’m Reading Now

42nd

Another in the series and another in the effort to come up with something coherent to say about the “American voice” in literature. Marching down David Bowie’s Top 100 list, I came to The 42nd Parallel. John Dos Passos won accolades for the trilogy USA of which 42nd Parallel is the first volume.

Since it was published in 1930 I was surprised to see the use of stream of consciousness. The new media of newsreels and the “camera eye” insert world events into the lives of the characters. Very high tech for the era.

These people are in the throes of early female autonomy, economic disaster, and other upheavals. Dos Passos has a socialist bent but creates memorable characters, no matter how noble or venal. I kept thinking how sad it was that we’re still fighting many of the same battles more than eight-five years later.

The early sections made me wonder how much Dos Passos had influenced John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939. Although the themes differ, it feels as though Steinbeck had Mac (Fainy McCreary) and his fellow wanderers sitting on his shoulder as he wrote the story of Tom Joad and family.

Two notes:

  • Mac’s story begins in Middletown, Connecticut, interesting since Dos Passos sojourned in monocromatic Wallingford but placed his character in the larger multi-ethnic town nearby.
  • I found where my mother got the technique she used in The Narrows where she ran words together: “fullgrown, fullblown, … delicatelyshaped, moistlooking, thirstylooking.” Dos Passos did it first, though her renderings serve up more poetry.

On Structure

structure

So thinking about writing structure, what is the best way to visualize it? This train of thought arose because of a revisit to John McPhee’s “Structure.

Impressive: he had the luxury of spending two weeks lying on a picnic table to visualize a single article.

The most helpful parts of the article are the diagrams in which in he illustrates the organizational methods and hence his writing process. Of course the structure in each fits the subject matter: “A Roomful of Hovings,” about the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, resembles a stroll through a room at the museum with signposts on the wall.

The map for “Travels in Georgia” resembles either a coiled snake or a snail, appropriate for an essay about his trip in around the state. Perfect for the subject matter.

The one that continues to puzzle is “A Fleet of One.” (He never mentions the title in the essay on structure.) It’s the account of a cross-country trip in a big rig. McPhee provides a geographic map captioned “Truck Stops Generally” with little red dots in Georgia, Tennessee/Kentucky, Wyoming, and Oregon.

The structure map includes “OWL,” “SP SD TTS.” McPhee explains the former as “Oregon Washington Lead” and SP, etc., as “Snoqualmie Pass to Tacoma Truck Stop” as the ending. In other words, he began and ended the narrative in the same place. I assume he placed the ending notation next to the opening because of geographical proximity. Or maybe not. I was Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole – running fast just to stay in place. I still haven’t figured what some of those other words and abbreviations mean. “Bioperse” does not appear in the text. Why do four abbreviations have “+” next to them, while the others don’t? Plus it’s not clear how this structure suits the narrative.

Despite the mysteries, or maybe because of them, I find this article inspiring and worth re-reading.