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August 9th has been something special to me for quite a long time. When I was 24, August 9th was the day I arrived in Japan to start my adventure teaching English in a Japanese high school. I spent my first day participating in the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

I was a long way from home, and I spoke to my grandfather that night to try to calm my nerves. He had always been reticent to talk about his experiences in World War 2, but that night, separated by thousands of miles, he talked about his own time in Japan. He arrived there in early September 1945, with orders to help rebuild Yokohama, which like much of Tokyo had been destroyed by US bombing raids. (We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as extraordinarily destructive, but the firebombing of Tokyo destroyed half the city and killed 100,000 people. The firebombing of Yokohama killed 35,000 and left every major building in the city destroyed or damaged.)

Until the war, my grandfather had been a farmer, and for much of the war, he was a radio repairman for Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater. Following Japan’s surrender, he was repurposed again as an engineer and construction supervisor. While I was in Japan, I went to Yokohama, where I was able to visit a grade school and a hospital that dated to 1946, and almost certainly would have been reconstruction projects that he oversaw. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet one of the Japanese people he worked closely with, as he had passed away a few years before.

In Japan, I taught at Nagaoka High School, which was the alma mater of Admiral Yamamoto. While I wasn’t teaching, I wandered the countryside and wrote. I wrote so many things, including first drafts of two different novels. Japan is the place where I swore that if it was possible to write books, sell them, and get paid for the work, I would do whatever I could to get there.

It doesn’t hurt that when you’re snowed in somewhere between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range with only 3 television channels, you have plenty of time for writing. The first winter I was in Niigata Prefecture, it snowed over 40 feet. No, that’s not a typo. Snow fall was really in excess of 480″. It snowed every day for four months, anywhere from a couple inches to dozens of inches.

When I learned that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things would be released on August 9, 2016, I was happy, even though it was too late to share that joy with my grandfather, who was the most bookish adult in my life as a child. That day will always carry the ghosts of those who died in Nagasaki, but it also holds a lot of powerful memories for me, including the bond with my grandfather, and now the day my publishing career was well and truly launched.

On this day I often think of the resiliency of humans, and our capacity to rise above obstacles and limitations. I think of my grandfather, far from his wife and newborn son, charged with a task that he was wholly untrained for. Handed a set of blue prints and assigned a Japanese translator and a crew of men, he helped build schools and hospitals. I think of those men, too, and their families, living in the aftermath of a devastating war. My grandfather was part of an occupying army, and yet those men treated him with respect and invited him into their homes, where he shared the modest wealth of his rations and their hope for a better future.

So many things in life are not easy. There is pain, suffering, disappointment, but there is also joy, success, and the bond we share with other people. I hope we can all remember that today.

Bryn and 3 students standing under a cherry tree

Celebrating the end of winter

(If you’re curious a what good old fashioned Nagaoka snow storm looks like, here‘s some footage from 1963 that’s even worse than what I experienced.)

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I have spent a lot of time this week dreading talking about this, but knowing that I absolutely must talk about the deluge of revelations about sexual assault in the news, including a woman accusing Judge Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was fourteen years old. Having written a book in which a grown man has sexual contact with a fourteen-year-old girl, I don’t get to take a pass on talking about this.

To have this conversation requires me to ask you to accept that I am simultaneously two contradictory things. I am a woman who has been sexually assaulted, as an adult and as a child, but I am also a woman who at the age of thirteen had a loving and consensual relationship that involved sexual contact with a man more than a decade older than me.

I will never argue that relationship wasn’t illegal. Of course it was. He knew better. Hell, I knew better, but thirty years later, I have no regrets. Quite the opposite, I have very fond memories of a relationship in which my consent was respected in a way it has never been since. It was my first sexual experience, and I got exactly what I wanted, and was never pressured into doing things I didn’t want to do. In fact, that relationship taught me about the importance of consent and about my right to refuse anything I didn’t want.

Despite my personal feelings about my relationship, I will never suggest that it shouldn’t have been illegal. There’s a reason I wrote a novel in which the man involved in such a relationship goes to prison. We need age of consent laws to protect young people from predation. While I felt capable of consenting at thirteen, most thirteen year olds are not. We need the laws to be black and white, even as a whole lot of gray exists in the world. We also need to enforce those laws, but for that to happen, we have to listen to victims of sexual assault and believe them. The laws are meaningless if we don’t listen every time.

The first time I was assaulted as a child, I told exactly one person. That person didn’t believe me. I didn’t tell anyone else. The second time it happened, I didn’t tell anyone, because I had learned that no one would believe me. This has been my experience as an adult, too. People refusing to believe me when I say I wasn’t a victim at thirteen. Police officers explaining to me at nineteen that I hadn’t “really” been raped. The second time I was raped as an adult, the only person I told was a counselor at an abortion clinic. She was literally the first person who believed what I had to say.

I tell you all of this to acknowledge that my personal experiences and the novel I wrote are troubling and problematic. I write these kinds of books, because they reflect my lived experiences.

I tell you all of this to affirm that when someone tells me what has happened to them, my default is always to believe them. I would rather learn later that my faith and compassion were misplaced than fail to offer them in the first place. If we truly want to protect people from sexual harassment and assault, the first step is to believe that these things happen. And they happen without regard for whether the accuser has a “troubled past” and without regard for whether the accused is liked or respected in their field. If we’re tired of people coming forward ten, twenty, thirty years after the fact, we have to make it possible for people to come forward immediately. That starts with listening and believing.

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During the 2000 election, I was living in Florida. A lot of talk was made about Al Gore being the lesser of two evils. Like the Clintons, he was deeply connected with Big Banking, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Guns, and Big Prisons. In short, despite his pro-environment talk, Al Gore was in bed with all the moneyed interests that have worked so hard to turn America into an oligarchy. He was influence and controlled by the same powers controlling Bush.

Looking around at the problems that existed in America in 2000, I decided I didn’t want more of the same. I didn’t want an oligarchy. I didn’t want the kind of welfare reform and “tough on crime” nonsense that was a thin cover for the ongoing oppression of black people in this country. I wanted change, radical change. (The same reason I supported Bernie through the primaries this year. I still want change.)

ralph-nader-buttonI supported Nader, and not just at the voting booth. I campaigned for him. I knocked doors and rang phones for him. He was by no means a perfect candidate, but he was not part of the oligarchy.

On Election Day 2000, I voted for Nader. In Florida. I justified it to myself with the excuse that Gore was the lesser of two evils, and in doing so, I overlooked the fact that a lesser evil is inherently less evil.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is. You vote however your conscience or your pragmatism tells you to vote today, but remember Florida in 2000.

Hindsight, being what it is, how many of us Nader supporters think Gore would have been a worse president than Bush? More than 537 of us?

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radiojornalismoAlmost three months on from the release of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I’ve done quite a few interviews, but yesterday I got to do one where I was finally asked to discuss one of the issues at the heart of the novel. I’ve talked a little about it at live book events, but this one finally gave me the terrifying chance to talk on the record about consent.

If you’re curious, you can listen to the whole interview here or you can read excerpts from it here. (That second link comes with bonus, maximum-80s picture of me at 13.)

One of the things that I talked about in the interview is the fact that our laws are of necessity based on very black and white ideas of right and wrong, but that we have to acknowledge gray areas. We want the issue of underage sex to be so clear cut that no decent person could get involved in it. That’s the way we like to see it in the news, some great maw in the moral foundation. We want to believe that we stand on one side–the right one–and squint toward the other side, the one where pedophiles gather in shadows.

I say that as someone who not only existed in a gray area, but who thrived and was happy in a gray area. When I was a young teenager, I was in a loving relationship with a much older man. That relationship was sexual, it was consenting, and it was secret. Not just while I was in it, but even once I was an adult. Obviously, it was secret at the time, because it was illegal, but why did it continue to be secret long after it was over, and long after I was an adult?

I kept it a secret, because I got tired of having my narrative overruled by well-meaning people who were more comfortable shaming me than believing that I had been capable of consent. Prior to the release of this novel, I had only told a few people about that relationship, and every time was disastrous. One intimate partner, the one who had goaded me into talking about my earliest sexual experiences, told me, “You’re wrong. You were a victim and that man was a pedophile.”

It was devastating to be told that my personal feelings were irrelevant. In many ways, it was as terrible as the time I tried to report a sexual assault and the police sent me home without writing down a word, after they calmly informed me that I hadn’t actually been raped. They weren’t even two sides of the same coin. They were the same side of the coin. I was being silenced and robbed of my narrative agency. You were a victim, you weren’t a victim, you don’t even know what happened to you. Except I did. Of course, I did.

What scares me about all of this is that we continue to treat people this way. We continue to disbelieve what people say about what happened to them. The John Geoghans and the Jerry Sanduskys of the world are made possible, because when the first child came forward to tell someone what had been done to them, they weren’t believed. Either because they were accusing someone in a position of authority, or because their ability to discern what had happened wasn’t respected.

The thing is, consent isn’t black or white. It’s a long procession of gray areas. A child doesn’t magically become capable of consent when they reach the birthday the legislature in their state has deemed gives them the power of consent. (The fact that it varies by geographical location should be a hint that it’s not as tidy a process as we’d like.)

If you tell me that I was incapable of consenting at 13, then you’re also telling me that I was incapable of refusing consent. The message there is that a 13-year-old’s body doesn’t even belong to them, but to their parents, to the state, to the church.

People become capable of consent, when we teach them what it means to consent, and when their consent is respected. When we actually listen when a child says yes or no, we empower and protect them.

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Last week, there was a bit of a dust up about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on social media. I did my best to stay out of it, but having stayed out of it, I’d like to address the issue very briefly here and without naming names.

It’s okay to hate my book. Not every book is for everybody.

If you read my book and you hate it, that’s fine. We’re square, you and me. I brought myself to the book. You brought yourself to the book. Perhaps we’re just not compatible. That’s cool.

If you choose not to read my book, because of things you have heard about it, that’s okay, too. I often give books a pass if they sound like something I wouldn’t want to read.

If you choose not to read my book, but then publicly express your hatred for it and for anyone who enjoyed it, understand that your hatred is coming from a place of ignorance. Are you comfortable with being that person? Someone who hates something out of ignorance? Someone who judges people without knowing who they are or what they’ve been through?

On a nearly daily basis, I am called upon by strangers to defend All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. And if they were merely asking me to defend my book, I might not be so troubled, but this morning, I have yet another email that asks, “Why would you write a book like this?”

I suspect that the real question is Why do you exist? Within that question about my existence, there are these questions: Why did you choose to have a drug dealer as your father? Why did you experience things that make me uncomfortable? Why do you think you have a right to tell stories that reflect your life? Why don’t you shut up?

The answer is simple. I won’t shut up, because if people like you have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what you’ve experienced, people like me have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what we’ve experienced. I’m going to keep doing that.

night-sky-for-custom-book-plates

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Sometimes when I’m talking about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I have a hard time trying to get across the point that there are worse things that can happen to a girl raised around drug addicts. For a lot of readers, Wavy’s life seems utterly horrific, as is her relationship with what one person described as a “drug-dealing bike thug with a violent, hair-trigger temper.” Even as I wrote Wavy’s story, though, I was carrying in the back of my mind the knowledge that things could have been so much worse for her. As bad as Wavy’s parents are, there are far worse monsters out there.

Victoria-MartensToday, the morning news contained a visceral reminder of that. Here is the story of Victoria Martens. Drugged, raped, and murdered by her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s cousin. This is real life, not fiction, and it illustrates the absolute most horrific thing that can happen to a child when the adults in her life are drug addicts who have lost touch with reality, decency, and respect for human life.

And while the news doesn’t mention it, these people are drug addicts. Casual users of drugs pop pills or snort coke, like they’ve seen in the movies. Casual drug users don’t keep the necessary equipment to inject a 10-year-old girl with meth so that their boyfriends can rape her on her birthday. (I have no interest in parsing the details of who did the injecting, raping, murdering. If her mother was there for it and could have intervened, she as good as did it all herself.)

So while I will be the first person to acknowledge that Wavy’s relationship with Kellen is neither ideal nor desirable for a young girl, I also tend to look at it from the slant of other little girls’ tragedies. I wish every girl in this situation could simply get out of it and go to a safe home to live with responsible, loving adults. Failing that–and as a society, we are failing that–I wish all the girls in this situation had at least one person to provide them with unconditional love and protection. I wish the Wavies of the world could always have a Kellen in some form or another, but so often they don’t.

Love and peace to you, Victoria.

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The only thing I do with the kind of commitment and zeal I have for writing is home projects. That ranges from repainting all my kitchen cabinets to single-handedly sistering in six sixteen-foot ceiling joists. As with writing, some of my home projects are crazier than others, and some turn out better than others.

Then there are those projects that are borne out of love. Like the ramp I just built for my dog, Josey. About two years ago, Josey had to have surgery to repair a torn ligament in her left knee. I was prepared for the likelihood that she’d need the same surgery on her other knee eventually, and that day has come. The last time she had surgery, which involves four months of restricted activity, including no stairs or jumping, I built a big ramp to surmount my front porch steps. Inside the house, I did something I’d been dreaming of since my divorce: I got rid of the bed that I hated. For the duration of her rehabilitation, we slept on a mattress on the floor, like a pack of dirty hippy dogs.

Now that I have a new bed, though, I knew I’d need a ramp inside the house. Writing is like this. Sometimes you just *have* to write. Sometimes there’s some unseen force compelling you, and sometimes there’s a clearer motivation. Like the desire to sell a book or be published or make a point. Or somebody giving you sad puppy eyes. Not that my agent gave me sad puppy eyes, but she did send an email inquiring about how the next book was coming.

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If, as a writer, you like to make plans, perhaps you start with an outline. Or a fancy spreadsheet. To build a dog ramp, I started with a few sheets of graph paper, and the measurements that delineated the space I had available for a dog ramp at the foot of my bed.

Graph paper! It's practically engineering.

Graph paper! It’s practically engineering.

Now, the truth is: I’m a pantser. In all things. I can draw as many plans as I like on graph paper. I can make as many outlines as I want when I start a writing project. In the end, though, they will all come to naught. I cannot plan a dog ramp any more than I can plan a novel. They just happen.

My first stop for the dog ramp was the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat myself here: if you’re remodeling a house, ReStore will have everything you need. On a long enough timeline. You may have to show up every Saturday morning for a year to get 42 matching sets of antique copper kitchen cabinet hinges, but eventually, you will. Writing is like this, too. On a long enough timeline, you will figure everything out. Eventually, all your research and your work will pay off, but you have to keep showing up and putting in the effort.

When I went to ReStore on Saturday, with my roughly sketched plans, the playing field changed as soon as I saw this:

Game changing chair

Game changing chair

That is one of about ten solid oak, mid-century reception chairs from either a doctor’s office or the local university. This one had some damage to its back, that’s why I chose him to be sacrificed. More importantly, he was basically identical to the original sketch of what I imagined I’d need as a platform for my dog ramp. Sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, this happens with novels. In the midst of struggling with plot or character, you stumble across something that fits perfectly and requires almost no alterations to work. Maybe you’ve got an old short story with the perfect plot twist or a character that ended up being cut from a different project. Note I didn’t say no alteration, but almost.

Chop and chop, and voila! The damaged back is removed and the ramp platform is complete. It shaved about 3 hours of work off my project. After that, I returned to my sketches and ferreted out the basic math needed to cut and attach my ramp struts. And then I had to revise my math. A few times. And I had to change a few other things. And I had to sleep on it–not the ramp, but my understanding of how it was going to go together. My novel drafts work like this. I find myself rearranging parts, rethinking how characters interact, changing dynamics, settings, and doing an awful lot of just wandering around, thinking.

You’ll notice that the two intermediary legs of my ramp don’t look the same. It’s because a.) I tried out two different methods for attaching the supports, and b.) I had two different kinds of hardware available to me. (That’s what happens with home projects made out of scraps–which most of mine are–and novels, which are almost entirely made of brain scraps.)

In true form for me, I also made the ramp (novel) a lot sturdier than it had to be. It has to hold up under a 60-lb. boxer. I made it strong enough to hold me at more than three times that weight. My first drafts are always way too bulky, because I’d rather include redundancies and details that I don’t really need. It’s easier for me to cut stuff later than to try to add things.

Even in a first draft, even knowing that you’ll have to come back a hundred times to reconsider, rewrite, reassess, you want the first draft to look respectable. After all, it has to be functional, and you want it to look as good as you can get it before you send it to your beta/crit partner/agent/editor. For me, that often means making sure my chapter headings are all squared away. (Oh this hot mess here, where it’s not totally clear whose POV it’s in? Don’t worry about that. I’ll fix that. But see how my chapters are neatly labeled and organized?)

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In the case of the dog ramp, well, the parts don’t exactly match. You’ve got the chair base and the raw 2x4s and the random scraps and the mismatched legs, and the ramp itself built out of discarded kitchen cabinet doors with the hinges still attached, but look! It’s covered in fancy (and on clearance) area rugs!

Luckily for me, I don’t think I’ll need to do a second (or third or fourth or …) draft of the dog ramp. The first draft of the novel, though, that’s just the beginning of the work. I’ve been known to churn out a first draft in a very short time, but after that … It took me three weeks to write the first draft of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but nearly two years to finish revisions.

Speaking of, there’s another giveaway going on at Goodreads.

 

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