Recently in on the road Category


Nadirs by recent Nobel-Prize winner Herta Müller arrived in the mail this week, and in between reading Jean Rhys and Gloria Anzaldúa for class (how spoiled am I?), I've become besotted by Müller's dreamy, disturbing tales.  Really weird stuff, beautifully rendered.  Yum.  The University of Nebraska Press has paperbacks in stock.

James and I are headed out this evening on a red-eye to New Orleans to see his parents, who are in their 80s and basically tons of fun in a crusty, Old-World kind of way.  Alas, I'll be lugging along my backpack full of grading and prepping, so I won't be tons of fun:  instead, I'll be the nerd in the corner, working, while everyone's dunking beignets, more's the pity. 

It's odd to be, as so many writers now are, employed by an academic institution.  Writers--according to legend, anyway--tend to be wild iconoclasts, while academics can be very careful and dull--i-dotters and t-crossers, lovers of Robert's Rules of Order and that kind of thing (for all their traditional reputation as sherry-swiggers):  Let's write a memo.  Let's form a committee.  The writer housed within academia is an odd hybrid, a squiggly peg in a very square hole. 

And it's an odd thing:  academia wants writers (or, perhaps more accurately, it wants the revenue that writers generate, given the boom in the popularity of creative writing courses over the last half-century), but it doesn't want to adjust to their wild, hairy ways.

I think it might be simpler if we were warehoused over in fine arts with the dancers and actors and painters and sculptors, rather than in English departments with the scholars.  No one would expect us to show up for boring meetings; they'd assume we were drunk on absinthe or waking up in the wrong beds.  What a relief that would be! (Even if the quiet truth were that we were ensconced at our desks somewhere, listening off into the dreamworld of some new line or fragment or story emerging from the murk. . . .)


Home, Happy, and Ready to Write

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The Gloria Anzaldúa conference was a great experience!  I met some cool people, saw the hypnotic art of Chilean immigrant Liliana Wilson, and got to see Alicia Gaspar de Alba (author of Desert Blood, a novel about the Juárez femicides) and theorist/creative writer Emma Pérez speak. 

It was also a pleasure to give a pedagogical paper on a panel with my great UNL colleagues Amelia Montes and Ariana Vigil.  We talked about ways of teaching Gloria Anzaldúa's book Borderlands/La Frontera:  The New Mestiza, which has been called one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century but which often meets with a difficult reception in the classroom, not only because of its ruptured, mixed-genre surface and incorporation of untranslated Spanish and Nahuatl, but also because it can feel threatening to people who've enjoyed social privileges due to their class, gender, race, or sexual orientation (and that manages to hit most people, one way or another).  Since it pushes every one of those buttons, and students can get defensive in response, it can be kind of challenging to teach.  (At Wabash and here in Nebraska, I have yet to teach a class full of working-class, queer Chicanas.  If I did, they'd probably all weep with joy upon reading it.) 

Our panel was fortunate enough to draw a beautiful audience of professors from institutions all over the country.  During Q&A, they shared strategies and ideas of their own, so it was really cool.

And now I'm back, blessedly back.  I love home, and I'm excited to get to work revising THE DESIRE PROJECTS, the novel I drafted last year.  And I do mean drafted.  I wrote the whole thing, about 360 pages, very quickly, in about two and a half months.  Some of it I still love; some of it's thin.  Honestly, some of it's even cheesy!  Totally cringe-worthy!  But this way, I can see the whole thing.  Now I can go back in and make changes, thicken characters, alter sequences, and so on.  

(This is apparently the way I work.  The whole draft of The Truth Book came out longhand in three quick weeks, at my one-and-only writers' residency, and then sat in a drawer for nine months while I taught, and then I revised it for about four months.  This is probably not the best process for writing a book-length work, LOL, but it's evidently mine.)

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that, long about the winter holidays, my agent (who'd been reading the draft, bless his soul) said I needed more suspense, and so I set myself to reading novels both literary and suspenseful.  I've done that now.  In case you're in the market, Kate Atkinson and John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, were the best authors of literary thrillers that I found, and I recommend their books, which are great beach reads or cozy-up-with-cocoa reads that don't insult your ear.

Having done my homework, I'm ready to dig back in, and with the exceptions of brief teaching stints at the Nebraska Summer Writers' Conference and the Pine Manor MFA residency, the whole summer stretches out, fat with writing time.

As those of you who've visited me know, I don't have a separate room of my own to work in; my husband and I share 600 square feet of living space in our apartment in downtown Lincoln.  So in one corner of the living room, my computer is set up on a tiny table.  I sit on the sofa (or in bed in the mornings) and write by hand.  Then, when I've got a solid chunk of pages, I go to my nook and type them in.  It's a little hard to concentrate sometimes, with James passing to and fro, but he respects my cone of silence, LOL, and I learned as a young mother/grad student to write anywhere, any time.  I realized then that if I waited for my surroundings to be perfectly conducive, the writing would never get done.  In contrast to waiting until late at night for your toddler to fall asleep or sitting in an empty corridor on campus between seminars, occupying a whole corner of a sunny living room feels like luxury.

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that, in order to be a writer, a woman would need five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own--but hey, Virginia Woolf had servants all her life, too.  And no children to care and provide for.  Five hundred pounds of independent income a year in Woolf's era works out to be more than $40K today--and by independent income, she meant unearned.  Trust fund.  Inheritance.

Back when I first read A Room of One's Own in grad school, I knew that would never be me.  Yes, it sure would be nice if all artists received that kind of support, but I take much more inspiration from the example of single-mother Meridel Le Sueur, Woolf's contemporary, who would come home from factory work, picket lines, and protest marches to care for her two daughters at night.  In order to stay awake to keep writing once they were asleep, she would dunk her head in cold water.

I love Woolf's work, and I hope for the day when every writer does have leisure and space, but I'm so proud of all the writers who have proved and continue to prove Woolf wrong. 

Let that be you.  Even if you only have twenty minutes, write.  Do it.  Don't make excuses, because they'll become a self-fulfilling prophecy:  If you tell yourself you need pristine or particular conditions, then you will need them. 

Let go of all that.  Do your work.


Heading South!

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This is just a quickie, because I'm packing now for an early morning flight to San Antonio for this great conference held at UTSA Downtown by the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa, whose work I love and have mentioned on here before.  Fantastic scholars from all over the place will be there.  Our panel is about strategies for teaching Borderlands/La Frontera to students who don't share Anzaldúa's sociological standpoint (and thus often tend to approach her work with wary hostility).  The whole conference is dedicated to her work, so I'm looking forward to learning a lot--and also to hanging out in the city where I lived for six years, from 16 to 22, when I was in college and having my son.

I really want to write about the new study just released by the MLA, "Standing Still:  The Associate Professor Survey," which looks at gender in the academy at the associate professor level--why women seem to stall out at that rank, basically, rather than rocketing along to full professor, as men do--because I have a ton of stuff to say, not just about the results but also about the assumptions and norms that inform the study.  But I need to save that for when I get back. 

Big thanks to all my great creative writing and Latina/o Studies students this spring, both here in Lincoln and out in Santa Monica, who worked so hard and accomplished so much.  Summer, with all its creative freedom, beckons gorgeously, but we sure did have a great time!



So Much to Tell You

Gentle readers, I am back, and I had a wonderful time!  The tenth annual Conference on the Americas, "Immigration:  The Art and Politics of Movement," was fantastic.  Grand Valley State University made every effort to involve the local Grand Rapids community, and it was truly a combined effort, which was a pleasure to see.  In addition to scholars from many fields, there were immigration lawyers, activists, and social workers--and children!  A number of local Latino y Latina children had participated in a photography project, and their work was displayed and discussed.  The children themselves spoke about their artistic process, and their families attended, all of which livened up the conference scene considerably. 

The conference opened with an exquisite solo performance of Latin American classical guitar music by Carlos de la Barrera, and closed with a final concert by Pa' lo hondo, an experimental Caribbean music group.  A beautiful painting by Erick Pichardo graced the program and posters, and Erick himself was there with an exhibit of his work.

For me, the blow-away highlight of the conference, though, was getting to meet, hear, and talk with the conference's other keynote speaker, Professor Erik Camayd-Freixas, on whom I now have a serious scholarly and ethical crush.  (The fact that he handed me out of a car like an old-school gentleman didn't hurt, either.)

If you watched the presidential debates on Telemundo, then you already know him; he's a federally certified translator who translated for Obama (he says Obama's actually easy to translate, despite his eloquence, because he's so clear and precise).  Born in Cuba, Erik earned his doctorate at Harvard and now directs the translation and interpretation program at Florida International University's Modern Languages program in Miami. 

But he recently made news because he broke the legal interpreters' code of confidentiality after translating for the undocumented workers who were detained after the ICE raid in Postville, Iowa in May, 2008.

The gutsy Professor Camayd-Freixas "wrote that the immigrant defendants whose words he translated, most of them villagers from Guatemala, did not fully understand the criminal charges they were facing or the rights most of them had waived."  You can read the New York Times story and watch a terrific short clip of Erik describing the case here, and the page also lets you link to Erik's fourteen-page report about Postville that went viral and catapulted him into the national spotlight.

In his keynote lecture, Erik described the case, showed an 8-minute video clip of a new documentary about it,  abUSed:  The Postville Raid, which you can watch here, and showed slides of his own journey to Guatemala to follow up with the deported workers, many of whom had become his friends.  He told us about the 56 women tagged with GPS ankle devices, the children still suffering from depression and PTSD (there are twelve-year-olds in Iowa who now wet their pants when helicopters go over), the approximately $15 million it cost ICE to run the operation, and the $250 million/year that the Postville area's economy has lost since the plant collapsed in the wake of the raid. 

He talked bluntly about the way that ICE's budget, which was increased by Congress to fight terrorism, is being used instead to detain and deport undocumented ethnic Mayans, who left their war-torn country where they can earn (if they have jobs) only about $4 a day.  With careful charts and graphs, his lecture followed the money, identifying the privately run detention centers (hello, Halliburton) that rake in taxpayer dollars when undocumented workers are detained for months.

It was just brilliant, and I am filled with admiration for Erik's talent, courage, and intellect.  I'm already thinking about ways to invite him to speak here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln--that is, if he hasn't already been here.  In one of those small-world, six-degrees-of-separation coincidences, it turns out that Erik co-edited the book Primitivism and Identity in Latin America with my UNL colleague in Ethnic Studies, José González.  Who knew?


Today I Am A Small, Beige Thing

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I am loving this photograph by Charles Gullung today. 

I leave tomorrow for the Conference on the Americas in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I'll be delivering my first-ever keynote lecture.  True, I'm excited about and grateful for the opportunity to meet and learn from interesting people--scholars of immigration, primarily, and students in Latino/a studies.   I'm grateful for the chance to share my nascent thoughts about the topic with a captive audience.  :) 

But ambivalence, thy name is Joy.  (What was I thinking when I said yes?  Why did I want to spend my few days of spring break flying to a cold place and sitting in fluorescent-lit rooms?)  I love travel and meeting new people, but I equally love being home and wandering around in my pajamas with unbrushed hair, listening to the sentences that take shape in my inner ear, eating the good dinners that James cooks, and hanging out with him in a completely quiet, delicious, quotidian way. 

"There is nothing like staying at home," wrote Jane Austen, "for real comfort."  If you love home--and the people in your home--then you understand. 

It's always with great reluctance that I pack and leave. 




Hello, all!  I'm happy to be back from a wonderful AWP conference, at which I got to catch up with the lovely Camille Dungy, Meg Kearney, Amina McIntyre, Susan Ito, and Faye Snider, among other luminaries and soon-to-be luminaries.  (I got to sit next to Cornelius Eady at one dinner, and he was much friendlier than he had any need to be.  I love it when people are both insanely talented and also just plain nice.)

Our panel about trauma, memoir, and invention went beautifully, with a packed room and great papers by all.  My favorite was one by Kelly Grey Carlisle about the high cost to the writer of inventing material, which I basically want to get put on a t-shirt and wear around all the time.  She managed to articulate what I could only mutter inchoately to my husband and finally give up on.  As soon as it's published--and I'm sure it will be--I'll link to it on here so you can see the shiny brilliant clarity of her thought.

I also went to a panel called "Women of a Certain Age" (figuring that I'll get there all too soon, and thus might as well be prepared), about writing and publishing after, I don't know, 55?  60?  It was hard to tell; they all looked pretty fresh up there, but maybe it was the glow of the multiple chandeliers.  I'd gone to see my UNL colleague Hilda Raz, who was great, and I came away enchanted by the wry, moving poetry of Linda Pastan, which I had not known before, and fired up by the position paper of Janet Burroway.  Two of the several bracing things she said were these:

In a totalitarian society it's easy to see how writers are silenced.  They are jailed, tortured, killed.  In a capitalist or "free" society it is not easy to see how writers are silenced.  But they are silenced, under the shadow of the slogan, "If it's any good, it will sell."  Such a society promotes celebrity, stardom, schlock, and a great deal of money.  It does no favors for literature.


We need all the writers we can get. . . .  When the 9/11 commission produced its report, its first and overarching conclusion was that the terrorist attacks had occurred because of a--their words--"major failure of imagination."  The neocons in their suits in the Oval office could not imagine that a mission of this magnitude could be carried out by a bunch of bearded guys living in caves.  For a generation and a half now we have stripped our schools of music, drama, art, and all such "soft subjects," so we have not just failed to train our children in reading and writing, we have failed to train their imaginations. 

Go, Janet!  She also talked about how getting older has made her less concerned about being a "good girl" or being liked and/or approved by men.  She's more willing to speak her mind.  Hurray for age!

It was a lovely, fruitful, semi-exhausting conference all around.  Now I'm back and breathlessly playing catch-up.  (Brilliant students everywhere, stop applying to the graduate creative writing program at UNL!  Reading all these  application files is killing me!)

We had a wonderful time in Latina/o Studies today analyzing Junot Diaz's "Edison, New Jersey" (from Drown) and connecting it to census statistics about patterns among the Dominican-American population.  It's a beautiful, subtle, intricately patterned, heartbreaking story, and it was great to hear how different students reacted to it.  (When I asked them what Diaz was doing with the ducks, they looked at me like I'd lost my mind.  English teachers.  They see symbols everywhere, they seemed to be thinking pityingly.)  Some really identified with the working-class narrator, while others sided more with the wealthy homeowners reluctant to leave him and his partner alone in their houses.  Discussion was just starting to get truly lively when the class ended--I only wish we had more than an hour and fifteen minutes!    



I'm getting very excited about the AWP conference in Chicago next week.  If you're a writer and you've never been, you've got to think about going some time.  (Maybe in 2010 in Denver?) 

Imagine 7,000-7,500 enthusiastic, neurotic writers descending upon a few square blocks of a city and eating, drinking, and gabbing for four days.  Imagine a book exhibit as big as your local Target.  Imagine meeting writers you've admired for years.  It's great, overwhelming fun--and then, once you're utterly wrung out, you get the pleasure of going home.

Shameless plug:  The panel I'm on is about memoir, invention, and trauma.  Here's how the clever organizers, Madeline Wiseman and Kelly Gray Carlisle, describe it:

Czeslaw Milosz said, "It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds." Our panel investigates the role of factual accuracy in memoir, why memoirists invent to improve the facts, and the difficulty in telling traumatic memory. What if research reveals conflicting truths? What is the cost of invention to the story? How do the psychological and physiological workings of memory, the act of writing, and the influence of the world outside the writer hinder or enrich the truth?
I was really interested in the neurobiological aspects of trauma, so I did some research.  My paper has actual science in it--shocking!  (I get to say amygdala.)

It's on Thursday, February 12th at noon in the Lake Ontario room in the snazzy Hilton Chicago.  If you're going to be at the conference, drop in and hear us hash this over.  And stick around afterwards to say hello!

Tonight, I'm going to my first kirtan, and I'm excited about that, too.  Over this weekend, I'll be reading and ranking an insane number of graduate application files to UNL's Ph.D. program in creative writing--we got even more apps this year, and they're terrific--and revising a new essay for Fourth Genre, so I'll need all the ojas I can get!

--Oh, almost forgot!  If you will be at AWP and would like a party favor, drop by Fourth Genre's table in the book exhibit:  booth 491 in the NW Hall, lower level.  Apparently (I'm trying not to count my chickens), Fourth Genre has selected my micro-essay "Grip" to feature on their brochure (something like those ones The Sun sends out, I was told), and there'll be a thousand copies available for free.  Woo-hoo!

Happy Valentine's Day!  No gold, chocolate, or conflict diamonds, please.  A nice book will do.

The Hilton Chicago 


Off to Macondo!

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My husband James and I are heading out tomorrow morning for Macondo, the writers' workshop founded by Sandra Cisneros.  (Isn't she pretty in that picture on her website?  And gotta love those boots, too.)

That's Sandra's house, the site of the original Macondo Workshop, below.  Now the workshop has grown so big that it's housed at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. 

I'm excited to be co-teaching a workshop on memoir with the gifted and hilarious Lorraine López, author of the great story collection Soy la Avon Lady, the YA novel Call Me Henri, and the forthcoming novel The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters, which I can't wait to read.  Our masters-level students are knockouts, too:  editors, authors, professors, and award-winning journalists.  It's going to be tons of fun. 

Macondo is terrific:  warm, nourishing, and focused on both writing and on social justice activism.  It's a great place, and I can't wait to reconnect with writer Maribel Sosa, who first suggested Macondo to me.  It's where I've met so many cool people, including writer and Chicana lit scholar Amelia Montes, who brought me here to Nebraska, and Pat Alderete, about whom I've blogged before (here and here). 

James & I'll be driving down from Nebraska and stopping along the way in Oklahoma City and Austin, to see my brother Tony, his wife Cool Julie, and fearless baby Indigo.  I'm so excited. 



Back from Boston!

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I'm just back from a wonderful, whirlwind residency at Pine Manor College in Boston.  It was a joy to see the students and faculty, and I love the readings at night in what used to be a grand old mansion and is now devoted to one of the most diverse women's colleges in the country. 

I got to see my lovely friend (I always think of her as an Arthurian Celtic supermodel in deep cover as a contemporary librarian and mom), the YA author Laura Williams McCaffrey, who writes the blog Here There Be Dragons.  She was reading from her forthcoming new YA novel, which will include panels of an original graphic novel within its text.  (The graphic novel is a book some of the characters are reading, and the two texts are interwoven throughout the novel.  Cool!)

Mike Steinberg, founder of creative nonfiction journal Fourth Genre, read from his lovely, dogged memoir Still Pitching, which I'm now reading.  Thumbs up.  If anyone you know loves baseball, Still Pitching is a no-brainer gift, but even as a clueless non-sports-fan, I'm still really enjoying it.  I'm also reading More Daring Escapes, by poet Steven Huff, who's new to the faculty and who seems like a complete gem.  He also has a weekly radio show, "Fiction in Shorts," on NPR-affiliate stations.  (I understand that you can stream the show, and as soon as I find out how, I'll put up a link.)

I also got to see my beloved Laure-Anne Bosselaar, poet and LaureAnnetini maker extraordinaire, who gave a dazzling reading in that throaty voice of hers.  Her work makes me swoon (and I learned, to my deep un-surprise, that she was taught and mentored by one of my all-time favorite living poets, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who makes me high every time I hear her read).  Laure-Anne not only gave a knockout reading but also made us her famous drink each evening, when the faculty sat out on the porch of the big old house where we stayed and talked writing and life for hours.  It was like writers' summer camp.

Helen Elaine Lee read a beautiful story about an aging couple that made me want to run home and hold my husband.  YA novelist An Na read from her new book, The Fold, and she did all the voices--a hilarious performance.  An adolescent Korean-American girl is offered the "gift" of plastic surgery, which will make her look more "American"--i.e., more white--by removing or reducing the epicanthal fold in her eyelids.  The gorgeous cover is below.

It was a terrific trip, with lots of great reunions with old friends and discoveries of new, especially the three lovely new students in creative nonfiction, who had the kindness (and stamina!) to keep showing up for three-hour workshops each day.  Kerry, Cindy, and Erin:  Thanks!  Great job!  You made the week great.  And my former student Faye did a knockout job introducing my reading.  She was so moving that it was a seriously tough act to follow.  But what an honor to be introduced so warmly.  Thanks, Faye!


Road trip!

Woo-hoo!  My dearly beloved James and I are headed out in the wee hours tomorrow morning for a three-week road trip. 

Our first stop will be in Austin, Texas, to celebrate our nephew Indigo's third birthday.  (Indigo is the irresistibly cute progeny of Tony and Cool Julie from The Truth Book.)  Apparently, his heart's desire is an overnight camp-out with his buddies, so we'll be roughing it with a gaggle of toddlers.

Then we'll head east to stay with James's folks, who live across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans--where I'll be doing research for a new book.  I can't wait.  We finally broke the bank and purchased a digital camera, our first, and I'm excited about putting photographs on the blog.

I'll be posting from the road, so check back!  Take good care, everyone!