Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Girls Write Now—A Cause Celebre

This past weekend I went up to New York on the train to give a reading and workshop at Girls Write Now, on the joint invitation of GWN’s Stacy Noble and She Writes’ founder, Kamy Wicoff. It was luxury having all that time to read on the train, going and back—I am reading Susan Minot’s Evening, such a beautiful book—but anyway, the workshop: was wonderful.

Fifty participants—twenty-five high school girls from all over New York and their mentors-- came together on a cold but sunny Saturday afternoon, twenty floors above the Hudson and the mad persisting scramble on Eighth Avenue (I almost ran into a bunch of decidedly-youthful Santas as I emerged from Penn station—apparently it was Santa Con day—Santas (meaning anyone who wants to wear a Santa suit) take the subway in to convene, carol, revel, etc. , although the two girl-Santas smoking outside a store I stopped to ask for directions didn’t quite seem to know where they were—maybe they were visiting) to read, write, and talk about fiction.

Apparently this is a once a month event, with two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. GWN provides a table full of food for participants to nibble on, through all the sessions—and the young and dedicated directors and mentors at GWN stay through the
day to co-ordinate and manage the whole afternoon (on top of having managed the morning session earlier). The agenda looked impressive—between 2:30 and 6, there was going to be craft talks, discussions, paired sharings, writings, critiques, and mini-lectures on story structure, conflict, perspective.

As guest speaker for this afternoon session (the morning’s was Hannah Tinti), I was asked to speak on characters and point of view—two major aspects of fiction in one 45-minute session!—in addition to reading; I was not at all sure I could pull this off. Given the intensity of the focus on fiction though, and the real interest of the girls in becoming writers and better writers and in exploring forms of writing, it turned out to be a very engaged and engaging afternoon.

The girls began by writing of their neighborhoods, and a few of them came up to read their pieces—about trash on the sidewalks, the sounds of trains, people they saw everyday—lovely, lyric bits of contemplation you didn’t want to end. I read parts of a story (
In Another World) from Temporary Lives, opened a conversation on where our characters come from, mentioned the role of conflict and the usual shape of story arcs (to be covered after me), touched on point of view and Rust Hills’ contention that the point of view that works is that of the character who experiences change in the story, and set up an interactive exercise in character discovery. The participation in the exercise was immediate and enthusiastic; interesting answers came out of the focus on character. My favorite was the soft-voiced girl who wondered if our characters could be different parts of our selves (yes so often yes).

I spent a long time afterward talking to the directors, several mentors, and several students who came up to talk or ask more questions on writing characters and point of view. I also looked through all of the news on the wall and browsed through their annual anthologies—an article in the New York Times, a visit from Michelle Obama, a citation for best mentoring-youth non-profit—poems, stories, and essays from teen writers transcribing their experience, feelings, world.

I just want to say what a lovely and meaningful program this is, how genuinely engaged, warm, and enthusiastic all of the GWN’rs I met are—Sarah, Megan, Erin, Stacy, Heather, Marlee, Maria, Maya, Catherine—how focused on their mentees and their welfare the diverse group of mentors are, and how thoughtful and engaged the mentees are. These young women seemed to me very absorbed in their work, self-possessed, self-confident—I love that this program exists to give these New Yorkers a place to come to, to write, to learn, to explore writing, to bounce their ideas off receptive working adults, to receive guidance and counsel. They also get to observe writers at close quarters, to discuss craft with writers, to gain confidence young. It seemed to me a large and lovely thing, to be able to dream of writing young, to write young, and to experience such whole-hearted support young.

Many of the conversations I had with mentors touched on the great What-If question: What if we, our generation/s had had access to such support when we were in our teens, what tragedies in career and profession might have been averted, what heartache elided, what material evidence to display to those families who cannot conceive of a daughter entering the world of writing for profession or livelihood. That we can do this now for our younger sisters is path-breaking—so I applaud everything GWN is doing and hope they can indeed set up shop in every major city in the US.

It’s a great place to go volunteer as mentor if you live in New York, or to support through donations. To read more, see their website: Girls Write Now. The results are tangible: stronger writers, high schoolers who write compelling college essays, who all—with a hundred per cent success rate-- go on to college on the strength of these applications. Mentors spoke too of the strong bonds of friendship formed with mentees, how each in unique ways supported the other.

For me, it was special going up to New York on the heels of my book release—Temporary Lives has just been launched and is online at Amazon and in stores—a way to celebrate stories I wrote mostly in and of a very different place (Madras, India) but stories nevertheless of people whose voices, I believe, needed to be heard, and a rather fitting way to celebrate, with a free workshop and reading for writers just beginning to make their way in the world.

Some days ago, I put out a call on She Writes for donations of my books to GWN, to complement the workshop—it’s not too late; if you would like to support a young writer in her work, and help expand her library, please send a copy of Temporary Lives to GWN, and please let me know.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid

In April of this year, I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see and hear Jamaica Kincaid talk about a painting she loved, in the American Pictures Distinguished Lectures series.

I'd never heard Ms. Kincaid read before, or lecture. I'd read her work, taught her work. Before I saw her, I think I'd had in my mind a picture of a precise, articulate genius whose probing insights and deep ruminations and stringent analyses sedately unravelled out of her in measured, methodical tones. I'm not sure I gave much thought really to the person behind the writer. When you come to know a writer through their words alone, the voice that resonates (in your head as you read) can become a disembodied voice.

Because Jamaica Kincaid's work is so focused on the particular and so lucid in its detail, and her prose often formal in its cadences, her great ease of being, her self-deprecation, her informal address, and her brilliant sense of humor--all of these as much a part of her no doubt as her writing is--came to me as unexpected.

I'm glad I went, for when I started reading Lucy, I could transpose now this new voice, this ebullience, this light-heartedness, this daring, onto the voice of Lucy. This is not to say I needed to conflate the author with the speaker in her novel, but rather that the author gave me a new way to hear and read the speaker in the novel.

Underlying the somber, quite straightforward, often matter-of-fact and rather explicit narrations of Lucy in her evocations of her island home and her candid contrasts with her new life in the US, I felt I could reach to a more accessible and sinuous fluency of narrative. I could hear humor now, an in-held wit, a cool insistence on the intelligence of difference, a tangible confidence, it kept me engrossed and reading.

Lucy seemed to me a difficult and complex and mysterious character. Arriving in New York as an au pair from her island home in the Caribbean, she is not wide-eyed, placid, absorbent. On the contrary she is cool and unflinching in her observations, acute in her insights, hard, even inflexible, in her attitudes. Yet her voice is singular and compelling. Somehow, it was the precise particularity of her vision, her telling of her story as if there was no other story in the world, nothing before, nothing after, merely a spotlight on her own travelling, moving, thinking, living, feeling self, that drew me into the story.

This world she opens up to us, of living with Mariah and Lewis, of taking care of their four children, of taking in the experience of being in America, of witnessing at close hand the peculiarites and eventual desiccations of their marriage, of the urgency of her own various friendships, romances, and sexual affiliations, all of it came to me as extraordinary, new, strange, primarily I think because of that cool, insistent voice with its singular focus on the individuating, transplanted, post-colonial self.

Running like a thread through the weave are the memories of childhood, of friends, her mother--so slight, the latter, in glimpses and snatches, not enough--of beginning sexualities. Yes, that too took me by surprise, how sexually explicit the text is, how candid--had the voice been too ethereal until then? too cerebral?--but in this too Lucy displays her trademark insouciance, her self-possession. She is never lost, never found in another. She is wholly her own person, unflinchingly analytical in the midst of attraction.

All of this steely resolve and resilience, yet through the story we never know why exactly she has chosen to estrange herself so fully from her mother, never opening her letters, never responding. I found this to mark a curious absence in Lucy's character, a place we could not go because she would not, possibly could not create it for us. It delivers a tension, a worrisome question eating away at the reading, surfacing here and there, subsumed often, submerged for whole periods, never discarded entirely.

This obduracy, this refusal, this hinted-at anger, all of this hidden seething which is not offered to us in entirety.

We wait until the end, or near the end, when she learns her father has died, when Mariah comes close to her and holds her hands together and we begin to recieve an inkling of the secret, sorrowing self, when she tells us she was "about to break apart" and that Mariah was "holding (me) together in one piece." Later she tells Mariah about her life with her mother,and that is when we hear it, the essential break in their relationship, the thing that permeated her experience of childhood, the thing that cannot be borne, cannot be overcome, that lies inside her forever like an open wound.

There is her mother, whose turning-away from her came first, there is her father, equally turned toward his new sons at the expense of his daughter, himself the child of terrible betrayals and abandonment, and there is Lucy, whose peculiar intensity and turned-away-ness we begin finally to understand.

The closing chapter of the book, with its powerful renderings of nostalgia and change--the look-back, the inevitable retrospective on the year that has passed, the placidity and the tumult of it, the understanding that these things that have happened are past, that she is in a different place now, psychologically and emotionally, that she needed to break the old continuity, make a new reality for her self, and the missteps as she begins--deciding to share an apartment with her friend Peggy "just when we began to feel the yoke of each other's companionship"--I found this last chapter dazzling: the language mesmeric, the text compelling.

Lucy seems whole now, a person we can touch. Not because she is struggling again to make another new beginning, but because she consents to be open with us, to tell us what she understands of herself--"I had memory, I had anger, I had despair." It becomes a consent too to the hidden, the submerged, the turned-away-from, to accept, lift, enumerate. This new Lucy is more transparent than the old one, less hard, more comprehensible.

As Jamaica Kincaid spoke that afternoon of the Edward Lamson Henry painting in which a young girl is kept in on a day of sunshine, turned inward then to her own contemplations, her own dreams, her own adventures--a turning she implies is liberating, not its intended opposite--she put up photos on the monitor for us to see of her childhood in Antigua, and one of herself as a young woman with friends on a night out in New York. When the child goes out eventually, it is not to the colonized world of the enforcers in education. "This was the way I went out," she said, and it was all she needed to say.

At the end of Lucy,that photo comes to mind--despite all of it, the wounds of childhood, the estrangements, the removals--both the collective, colonial ones and the private depletions--and possibly because of the self's consent to the quest, the struggle, the coming-through--tangible and intact is the singularity of the vividly feeling and thinking self, separate and glamorous.