I’ll be at the Library in Kane, PA at 7pm on Tuesday, May 19th to talk about Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things. I am looking forward to sharing images from the real Powderhorn Park and discussing the book, writing, publishing, teaching, and whatever else comes up among delightfully bookish people.
Amy Lance, in A Dark Road, has created an engaging teen romance that is deceptively simple on the surface, but has a dark heart. It’s a quick and satisfying read with snappy dialogue and the melodrama of young people in an imperfect world. The moral challenges that break families and friendships are exposed gradually as the bright and promising protagonists, Hadley and McKay, deal with the consequences of McKay’s meth business. Young readers will recognize the culture, language, and day-to-day business of high school. The setting is rural Pennsylvania, not very diverse racially, but the author suggests that economic disparities play a role in drug culture. A lot of chemistry is explained, and the danger inherent in “cooking” methamphetamine creates a menacing backdrop for the budding romance. The effects of McKay’s products on his “customers” are realistically portrayed, but the tone is not preachy, and that’s a good thing. The focus of the narrative is the romance and its potential for tragedy, but it also touches on broader societal issues around meth manufacture and use in rural America.
So, I’m a writer looking at the world from my back door–not the front lawn, the shopping center, or the rarified atmosphere of intellectual movements. I’m just saying: if you are a group of bloggers or agents or social justice activists, for example, frustrated (unto outrage even) with the lack of books being published about or by people of color, why would you limit your reviews and promotional activities to books published only by commercial publishers? Aren’t you saying, as an advocate, that they are the problem? In other words, they may publish “some” but “not enough” of what we think is missing from the bookshelves.
And by refusing to review self-published books for young people, that are by or about people of color, aren’t you perpetuating the “ghettoization” and inferior stereotyping of self-published writers? Some of these self-published books are being used in classrooms already because teachers recognize their value. Thank goodness they are responding to direct marketing from self-published writers, and not waiting for commercial publishers or well-intentioned but self-limiting activists to tell them what to buy and teach. Change is coming, and there is plenty to praise in the promotion of diversity in literature movement. I just wish I could see it from my alley.
The word “alley” brings to mind city neighborhoods and a mix of people living in close community. In Minneapolis I lived in an inner city neighborhood with that kind of alley running behind my house, and it drew me into community activism and politics, and inspired me to write a novel Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things.
Now, I live in Central New York in a little old Cape Cod house set back from the road by majestic sugar maples and a horseshoe driveway. There’s nothing like the alley we had in Minneapolis. Here in suburban Syracuse we have a little saltbox barn, a small lake, and a wetland with a mix of wildlife living as close to my cat as instinct will allow. He will chase anything except maybe the deer.
I work at a community college in Syracuse where I am an English tutor. The Writing Center has become my metaphorical “alley.” We serve a mix of students not unlike an inner city neighborhood, drawing a diverse group of people seeking a better life. I work with students from the rural and urban communities of New York, who have never had to write, or (for whatever reason) have never learned to write an academic essay.
Many students, however,came to Syracuse from all parts of the world seeking refuge from war, persecution, and poverty. They speak English as a second language (ESL) and English classes can be very challenging. Imagine being a student from Vietnam or Bosnia, Nepal or Cuba—being asked to analyze American poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, or to write about social justice themes in the movie “The Grapes of Wrath.” Now, imagine that the English language is as new to you as Spanish One is to an American middle-schooler. Not to make my work sound more heroic than it is, but my job is to help people meet college level writing standards that many native English speakers have trouble meeting. Fortunately, in the process of working with all of these students, I get to hear their stories . . .
I Love My Vacuum Cleaner
She was a 41-year old housewife from Managua, coming to community college in hopes of becoming a social worker. A single mother with three children, she was on her own in America, and the hours she spent in classes were hard for her because they took her away from her family. When her English teacher suggested that she needed to spend some time with a writing tutor, she nodded politely, went into the hallway, and burst into tears. To her, our first session was about as welcome as a root canal. She let me know right away that she was here to “get good English” out of me, the way one squeezes the juice out of a grapefruit.
I took a deep breath, “So, what is the assignment we’re working on here?” I began. She sighed and began absently shuffling papers in her folder.
“Look,” she said at last, “I have to write about an object that has special meaning to me. I have no idea. I am not sentimental,” she declared.
“Well,” I said, “do you have anything from Nicaragua, maybe something from your mother, or your grandmother, a keepsake maybe? A favorite something?”
“No,” she answered without hesitation, “We are not like that.”
I smiled and looked around the room, stumped.
“Okay. No keepsakes,” I mused, “how about something practical? Is there anything that has special meaning just because it’s so darn useful to you as a working mother trying to go back to school?”
Her face lit up, and she looked me in the eye for the first time.
“I love my vacuum cleaner!” she exclaimed, “I really do. It was very expensive, but it’s worth it. It changed my life.”
“Really?” I laughed.
“Oh, yes,” she went one animatedly, “It is very special because of the filter. It’s called HEPA, and I got it because my son’s asthma was so bad. The County helped me get it, and oh, I just love it. Do you think I could write about my vacuum cleaner?”
“It has special meaning to you, doesn’t it? That was the assignment,” I said.
She looked worried, “Most people are writing about a special ring or a book or something like that, but this machine is saving my son’s life. I don’t know what I would do without it. You don’t think it’s funny to write about a vacuum cleaner?”
“What’s wrong with funny? Besides, that’s not all there is to it,” I said.
“Okay, I want to write it,” she said. So, I helped her organize her thoughts and map out the content of the paragraphs, and she went on her way.
A couple of weeks later, a colleague approached me in the hall, waving a paper.
“I love my vacuum cleaner!” she exclaimed.
She told me that the essay had been a real triumph for my student. Her success made me very happy to be doing what I do.
As puns go, Write Up My Alley may call forth a groan or two, but I’m okay with that. The metaphor of “the alley” suggests a point-of-view as well as a physical space. It is not the front we present to the street; nor, the tree-lined boulevard. It’s the back, where we keep the trash cans. It’s where we come and go from back doors, back yards, garages, and driveways. It’s not formal. It’s where we cook out, play with the kids, and curse the old lawn mower within sight and hearing of our neighbors. In the inner city, you may see your alley neighbors more, and know them better than the people who live across the street.
Why do I write “from the alley”? Who wants to write from the enclosed front porch of a suburban McMansion? I don’t have access to one, anyway. I’m a city person, and when I lived in Minneapolis, the alleys of my neighborhood, Powderhorn Park, brought me many friends and stories that have informed and influenced my writing, especially my young adult novel Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things.
For me, the alley is a state-of-mind that is diverse, informal, inclusive, multicultural, edgy, family-friendly, artsy, organic and green. From here you can observe the back end of the cycle of life: trash, garbage cans, dumpsters, litter and defunct appliances. It’s where scrap metal and junk go to die in the city–out of sight and out of mind except to those who live in the neighborhood. It may be littered with abandoned cars and the viscera of cars: old tires, hubcaps, drive trains, and mufflers, but there it goes through cycles of renewal with each new generation or new wave of immigrants. City kids navigate the alleys like river systems, and scavenge in them like archaeologists. And out of the alley comes the raw material of junk art and political expression that sometimes erupts on to front lawns and dances down the street and into the park with a neighborhood parade.