Repost: “The Perils of the Perfect Past. The New Past, According to Social Media”

Loving this post by Daphne Strassmann

Like most people these days, I willingly deposit bits of myself online every day, through shopping, commenting on friends’ photos, posting pithy quips, and engaging in my newly found hobby of reviewing recent purchases. Isolated, these activities are disconnected material; woven together, they make me part of a new, vast community of casual storytellers. Despite their careless, seemingly ephemeral character, however, these stories have a new flavor of permanence, and material has never been so easily accessible to writers. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram remind us and our followers where and how we have been, all the while creating parallel universes through our daily posts. The vast and specific nature of our online information has the capacity to behave as a spontaneous external hard drive to our own memories. We can have—increasingly, can’t escape having—instant access to our past, seemingly bypassing the natural remembering process. Our hippocampus, it seems, can live on the web.

Of course, future accessibility to the information we etch online, especially on social media, will vary depending upon who does the archiving. Yet as data storage becomes less expensive, the capacity capabilities grow and so does the amount of information held online. After all, in order to serve our needs, the web must have infallible and non-perishable memory.

Certainly, this trove of online information will be a tantalizing and highly useful resource for future biographers and narrative nonfiction writers. And yet, for the memoirist, a source of indelible online information could be problematic.

Digital omnipresence shortens and stunts the distance to remembering—the crucial engine for memoir. Molded in the narrative nonfiction writer’s hands, memory creates stories and feeds a compulsion to reflect on, understand, and validate personal experiences. The organic experience of remembering is still enveloped in mystery. Memoirists have a soft spot for that mystery, but we should concede that digital content will make the past, in some ways, less mysterious.

Some, like Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, see the infallible memory of the web as a big problem: “Because of digital technology, society’s ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.” Alas, memoir informed by perfect memory would, I fear, lose its sensory appeal. Web memories might alter the memoirist’s process, not only by providing infallible instant memory but also by usurping our own natural recollection processes.

Mayer-Schönberger also argues that that our online interactions make us feel watched and that, even if we are not in fact under surveillance, the sensation of being watched leads us to self-censor. In fact, writers online are often being watched—or, at least, seen—by readers. This, too, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, social media, in particular, can help writers find a wider audience—that “platform” publishers are always talking about. Ideally, this audience will be invested in the work—but it could also be dissonant from it. For better and worse, the web arms us with accidental connections.

Of course, if you’re writing about your contemporaries, odds are good they’re hanging around online, too, and maybe also watching you. Those characters—who in an earlier time might have been lost to us—travel across oceans and different decades to engage passively with our own recollections. They can disagree with our memories, question them, and, over time, even change them. They are unwelcome guests on e-mail, Facebook, or through the dream-like images of Instagram. We know what our college roommates, from thirty years ago, ate for breakfast this morning, and it can be difficult to gain distance from a character when she is still right there, hoping you’ll “like” her handmade inspirational posters. These people, our characters, are persistently with us—and not just in our memories.

And, of course, they all have their versions of stories. That’s always been true, but now the bar for commenting has been lowered significantly. That story you’re telling about your halcyon days can become distorted or commandeered—tainted, even—as it passes through what we might call “the Facebook fact-check.”

As it happens, I have some experience with this. I have an unpublished cultural memoir set in the Dominican Republic and Texas, concerning events that happened in the 1970s and ’80s. In it, I piece together, much in the way my memory works, vignettes that touch on both the traumatic and the mundane. In great detail, I describe my aunt’s palpable grief—she went from catatonic to howling in pain—on the afternoon we learned that my father had died piloting an air force plane. I mention how an uncharacteristically blonde, blue-eyed Dominican classmate derided some earrings my mother had brought back from a trip to Venezuela. If I had published this book in the early days of the web, and especially before Facebook, and if, through a freak act of nature, a copy made it back to the Dominican Republic, someone might have quibbled about the narrative, recognized him- or herself in the story and related to or separated themselves from it. Maybe I would have received an e-mail or two with pointed questions: “Hey, did I really hurt your feelings when I said your earrings should be worn only by classless maids?” Or “Why would you write about your aunt crying like that?” By contrast, that same interaction on Facebook or any other social media platform would be instantaneous and, for me, a huge distraction from my work. The mirror social media holds up to my work, so far, has intimidated me enough to keep me from publishing. Not because I have startling revelations that cast people in my life negatively, but because in my writer’s mind, my past has its own past. I can’t get lost in the reverie of recalling that past when so much of it is so present every time I update my Facebook status.

And yet, perhaps there’s hope. I take heart in knowing that although social media supplies us with instant memory on steroids, the content itself can be ephemeral. The moment a corporate institution goes down, so does the content and so do your memories. Our data could be one hack or natural disaster or bankruptcy away from exposure or deletion. In many ways, the steady storytelling we’re imprinting on the web is no different than jotting an idea on the back of a napkin and misplacing it.

And perhaps that’s for the best. We shouldn’t rely too heavily on external digital memory. The noisy interactions on social media distract at every level, and the illusion of perfect recall is a siren’s call. It’s hard to resist since it’s omnipresent in daily life, and so usable, but even the most assiduous curation of interactions on social media has a cost. If our postings on social media and the web keep giving us perfect recall, then the story is authored for us; we become transcribers rather than storytellers. As writers, we delight in that moment when memory becomes story. We need to forget in order to engage in the essence of remembering.

– See more at: https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/perils-perfect-memory#comment-45317

A simile a day could keep boredom away…

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I just finished reading Mary Karr’s memoir Lit.  This is the third of the three phase memoirs that pretty much revolve around the fallout from her childhood traumas. Lit details the events of Karr’s life as a young woman, wife, mother, and writer who for many years battled alcoholism and the demons of her past. It also develops into a story about how the author unexpectedly gains a deeper self-awareness and faith in a higher power. It begins with an open letter to her son as part apology and part explanation for what she feels she cost him. Yet, I believe all three books are loosely dedicated to her mother who often appears as nemesis or heroine in her memoirs. Karr’s mother also battled alcoholism but is sober for most of this last installment.

What works in this memoir is what works in all of three of Karr’s memoirs. She has the ability to write a tragedy like a shameless comedian, and her writing voice is generous with metaphor and simile. This keeps the reader entertained while she has to relay necessary information. Background sections of memoir could get stale, but Karr avoids this with the use of figurative language. Her Texas colloquialisms also add texture to her rich and colorful prose. For example, when she realizes she has to check herself into a hospital to avoid suicide, she writes, “It’s a relief to place myself before the staff person on duty, asking him to call my doctor because   I’m fixing to off myself.”

After finishing the book, I went back to re-read the first fifty pages and counted over a dozen similes. My favorites: “My head pitches back like a Pez dispenser.” “The suds swirled down my torso like chrysanthemums in a Japanese wood-block painting,” and “Mother’s yellow station wagon slid like a Monopoly icon.”
Karr also has a gift for telling a story in a way that is entertaining for the reader even though the subject matter is gravely serious. This is not to say that she makes light of the seriousness of her experiences. It is just to say that she is able to inject humor at just the right moments in her narrative to stay true to how she was taught to communicate and move in the world. Language was how she learned to cope with dysfunction.

A great memoir should make readers think, feel, understand, and relate on one level or another. I think Karr’s animated comparisons allow the reader to get closer to her and her past in a way a simple straight forward retelling couldn’t.  She takes you on a wild trip down her memory lane, and her style of writing makes it worth the while.

Alexis Paige’s Seven Ways of Looking at a Resolution

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I recently read this blog entry by Alexis Paige on Brevity and it got me thinking about my own writing resolutions. I have a memoir I need to finish, some habits I need to form, and some tools I need to sharpen in the toolbox, so I could relate to this writer’s musings about her writing life.  The only thing I must preface this repost with is a side note on her first resolution. She includes an excerpt from another writer who shares her thoughts on blogging that struck a teeny tiny nerve. When you read it, you’ll probably think that I took it too personal, and you’ll be right. Yet, I still want to state my opinion about blogging here, especially if you have ever been met with this conflict yourself.  In my opinion, blogging shouldn’t be about expanding a platform or be seen as creating distractions from more important things. It should be about thinking, writing, and sharing. And, if one writes for the sake of writing, whether anyone reads it or not, then the writer can never arrive at a conflict.   Yet, despite her blog entry leading in with a question on whether or not blogging is a worthwhile endeavor, Paige includes some thoughts that I felt would appeal to writers across genre lines. She is honest and funny, and makes herself vulnerable to the reader like many non-fiction writers do. This makes her reader take what she writes personal. You become invested. Ms. Paige also includes titles of some other great posts from the past year that were published on the site. So, all in all, it’s a good read, and I felt it was worth reposting.

Seven Ways of Looking at a Resolution”  by Alexis Paige

1) I will blog. Or, not.

On Being an Inept Blogger, by Marcia Aldrich, January 13th, 2014:

“I should be finding ways to focus my reading, not further my distractions. So too with my own writing. I have a file cabinet with drafts of essays I haven’t managed to complete, drafts of books I’ve abandoned in boxes that block movement in my study…

“So why take time away from my primary pursuits to write a blog? Wasn’t I going to contribute to the problem, writing more stuff no one has time to read? And yet blogging was one of the crucial elements I was advised to undertake in the service of promoting my book.”

In this post, excerpted on Brevity, and available in full on her Backhand Blog, Marcia Aldrich makes a wonderful case for ambivalence regarding the age-old question: to blog, or not to blog. Aldrich outlines varied bloggerly concerns—from time, topic, and focus; to her own resistance to writing about the act of writing about something (suicide) that was, in the first place, very difficult to write. She says, ultimately, “I’d rather have the book languish on the dustiest shelf in the world emporium of remaindered books if to sell it I had to perform his death over and over. I had done that in writing the book, and it was all I could do.”

This post made clear two things: blog or don’t freaking blog. I didn’t know I was looking for permission on this account until I read about Aldrich’s struggle. She freed me to embrace my digital media ineptitude, or contrariness, or fear, or whatever it is. And so, my friends, I resolve in 2015 to do one or the other, resolutely. Or, maybe I will go back and forth, continuing to agonize (the way I do over the last 10 pounds, as if they matter, if they are the last lbs. on Earth) about the dreaded “platform.” (See how I put it in quotes? That’s because I refuse to acknowledge the writer’s “platform” as “a thing.”) You know what now seems a more doable resolution, one far from the maddening meta-toils of the blogging question? Losing those last 10 pounds.

2) I will do my homework.

Seven Essays I Meet in My Literary Heaven, by Jennifer Niesslein, January 21st, 2014

Look, I love lists, stacks, bullet points, maps, and assignments. Tell me what to do, please. Writing prompts, however, I do not love. It’s okay if you do (I’m not here to hate), but prompts make me think of husky-voiced workshop house-mother types off-gassing incantatory affirmations and possibly Nag Champa incense. Don’t get me wrong, I like Nag Champa: many languid afternoons were spent lolling under its spell. The point is, by way of my own associative rabbit hole, I find writing prompts, well, kinda culty.

But Niesslein’s inspired list of seven essay types with accompanying contemporary examples, from The Essay that Manages to Be Funny, Poignant, and Thought-Provoking All at the Same Time; to The Essay that Illuminates Naked Yearning, provides perfect assignments for the essayist. Not too amorphous, not too prescriptive. So in 2015, I’m going to write one of these from Niesslein’s list. If you’re a resolutions overachiever, you should probably do all seven. Any fewer and no Auld Lang Syne for you next New Year’s.

3) Embrace Rejection!

The Form Rejection Letter Decoder Thingy, by Brevity’s Sarah Einstein, Feb 10th, 2014,

Sarah Einstein takes the sting out of rejection with her downloadable Cootie Catcher, which offers kind and generous reassurances to the delicate writer: “The piece was beautifully written and the editors feel sure some lucky journal will take it.” Or, “The editors admired the piece but it reminded them of another they published last issue.” See? It’s not you! Really. It’s them! Now go print one off, and put it on your desk next to the Magic Eight Ball. During writing breaks, you can consult the oracles.

4) Don’t reinvent the wheel/ Keep submitting!

Finding A Market For Your Flash Nonfiction, by Chelsea Biondolillo, March 11th, 2014.

I actually started this one in 2014. First, I ripped off her succinct cover letter and saved it in my submissions folder. (It’s an homage, okay?) Then, I took Biondolillo’s exhaustively-researched list and put it up on a bulletin board. I’ve submitted to a good number of these journals already and will round out the list in 2015. Why reinvent the wheel when the Internet (I mean, Chelsea) has already done the work for you? Bonus? You can cross-reference rejection letters with your decoder thingy from resolution #3. And then make ironic DIY wallpaper out of all of the above.

5) Let out the words trapped inside.

On Writing, Survival, and Empowerment, an interview with Brevity’s Kelly Sundberg, by Sarah Einstein, April 16th, 2014.

“I had compulsively searched the internet for stories about domestic violence, but much of it wasn’t recognizable to me. The authors weren’t grappling in the way that I was grappling.”

Perhaps all writers have stories they need to let out, in order to free not only themselves, but to free others from similar experiences, or to free others to make art out of travail. My own, which I have guarded tightly for 13 years, has only recently begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem, my rape? sexual assault? which occurred on a trip to Italy in the summer of 2001. See how language still eludes me? Grappling is the word Sundberg uses to describe the process of writing her domestic abuse story in such a way as to remain faithful to a certain ambiguity. I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? someone said to me in those early days. I didn’t want to call it anything, actually, and so for years I ate it and drank it and drugged it and stuffed it. But stories have their own buoyancy and schedule, and as I said, mine is surfacing. Now is the time for me to let out the words. Sundberg did it, and though she might disagree, she did it bravely. And I can do it, and so can you.

6) Lean on a To-do List

Lightning and the Lightning Bug: A Revision Checklist, by Susan Tiberghien, July 3rd, 2014.

Writing is often unsatisfying. You go away to your cave, for years at a time, and you emerge squinting and grizzled with (if you’re fortunate) some finished work, perhaps even (if you’re really lucky) a bound rectangular object made of paper and ink, filled with pages of said work. See, I made this! you can say. You can finally show the object to people; the work is real. But from most days at the writing factory you return empty-handed. No sales, no widgets. After many days like these, I need to sink into a concrete writing activity. I need some tactility, proof of my own writerly existence. A revision checklist, like Tiberghien’s here, can provide just the structure I need when writing begins to feel like a formless slog. So the next time I find myself on a dry-cereal-eating pajama-wearing-for-days bender, I vow to pull out this revision checklist and my red pen. And you should join me. (Pajamas optional.)

7) Give Yourself Permission

Give Yourself Permission, by Brevity’s Allison K. Williams, November 24th 2014

“You are what you present yourself as. You have a right to define yourself, and project that definition to others. Every time you say what you want to be is what you are, you help move yourself ahead and you let others help you move ahead. Like dressing for the job you want to be hired for.”

Fake it until you make it they say. They say a lot of things, some of them glib, some helpful. But, hey, I’m not above platitudinal assistance. Every year around this time, I get caught up in the clean-slate fervor of the season, searching for a new slogan to take with me into the next. I found 2015’s mantra in Williams’s heartening post, and thus, all year long I will be giving myself permission. To write. To fail. To succeed. To move myself ahead. This phrase, like bits of poetry or jingles or slogans before it, will be the layer of mental nacre I wear into the shiny new year. I’m giving myself permission, for example, to declare the following: I am finishing my first memoir and actively seeking an agent and publication. Just writing that down makes me feel a little taller. What will you do this year to move your writing ahead? What will you give yourself permission to claim in 2015?

__

Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog, where she serves as Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. You can find her at alexispaigewrites.com.

 

A post worth re-posting

The Power of the Adjective

Maybe it’s the grammar teacher in me that can appreciate a well-placed adjective and the omission of useless adverbs. I enjoy reading books by writers who can use specific language to strike just the right tone and create just the right image. Alexandra Fuller is one of these writers. Fuller uses word choice to make her unique memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, even more interesting to read.

Fuller tells the story of growing up in a white farming and ranching family in South Africa during the late seventies and early eighties. Fuller is the observer of the African landscape, her family, and the native African community around her. Her observations are spot-on, especially the ones that appeal to the five senses. She shares hard times, losses, and intimate moments with family members by using just the right words to handle each recollection. There are many beautiful lines in the book that I re-read three or four times to marvel at her seeming ability to describe anything and everything with such precision. What I enjoyed most about this book, however, is Fuller’s use of compound adjectives that display her dexterity with words and her gift for description.

Instead of saying the pale yellow light flickered, she writes, “flickering-yellow light (4).” She remembers as a child she and her sister getting “the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps (6).” She watches her father use his “after-dinner pipe” and observes her mother in a “broken-chicken-neck sleep.” She tells the reader that her mother has “thick, wavy, shoulder-length bottle-auburn hair.” When she arrives back from a trip she is relieved to “climb off the stale-breath, flooding-toilet-smelling plane into Africa’s hot embrace (287).” In one scene she details a visit from missionaries. “The springer spaniels make repeated attempts to fling themselves up on the visitor’s laps, and the missionaries fight them off in an offhand, I’m-not-really-pushing-your-dog-off-my-lap-I-love-dogs-really way (82).” The word play with hyphenated words turned into descriptive adjectives is a feature of her writing that also adds to this writer’s distinct voice.

When I teach adjectives again with my eighth grade grammar students, I will definitely have fun sharing examples from Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight.

My Happy Writing Detour…

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I write creative nonfiction. It’s hard for me not to write nonfiction, unless I’m writing about Rocko Rocket. I finished the final edits on a children’s book called, Rocko’s Big Launch in 2012 while completing my MFA. My dad was dying, writing my craft lecture felt like it was killing me, I was overwhelmed at work, and my asthma had gotten so bad that my lung capacity was at less than 60%. Ultimately, I finished 150 pages of my memoir, my MFA requirements and had a successful kickstarter campaign to self-publish one thousand copies of the children’s book I wrote and my husband illustrated. I attended my MFA graduation ceremony, and my dad died a week later. I had about three more chapters to expand and complete my memoir about the death of my four-year-old daughter, but I couldn’t seem to write them. I still haven’t. I’ve focused on Rocko Rocket instead. Rocko is a boy with a big head full of ideas, big eyes full of dreams, and a big smile full of the happiness I’ve needed to take a break from reflecting on loss.

When writing a picture book, like writing any book, there must be a conflict. With a picture book, however, the main character generally has a problem that can be solved. Rocko’s persistence gets him to his goal. He has a dream that readers can believe he can achieve, and he has a passion that makes his readers want to reach out for something amazing. This kind of book works on not only kids, but also adults.   Kids need to believe that anything is possible for them. Having that belief early on sparks the confidence to set goals and accomplish them. Adults need something that keeps them from focusing on the things that don’t go right in the world. Picture books remind adults of how it felt to be young and expectant of a happy ending.

I wrote the first few drafts of the Rocko Rocket series over eighteen years ago for my oldest daughter who we will be attending her first year of college less than a week from now. Yet, when I revived Rocko’s story and re-wrote it, I did it mostly for me.

This summer I have had so much fun sharing Rocko’s story with adults and children. It has been inspiring to see how my 48 page story about this little boy can make people smile. It’s been a great summer, and although the best books I’ve read have often brought me to tears, there is nothing wrong with taking a break to read or write something that can put a smile on your face.

 

 

Four Quotes on Love That Can Save Even the Worst Romance Novel

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

 

     The truth is: I’m not a fan of romance novels. My dislike of the genre mostly lies with the fact that the title gives away the plot. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading a book that leaves me with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings. I do. It’s just that before I open a “romance novel,” I know it will be filled with “I love you’s,” and a series of clichés to follow. They meet, they fall in love, they’re happy, and then there is a conflict. The conflict is resolved and they are reunited and live happily ever after, or fate keeps them for living happily after, or one or both of them die.
I’ve learned from reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, however, that no matter how predictable the features of a love story, or any story for that matter, it is the writer that makes the difference. Reading about two people truly in love can be thought-provoking and inspiring, and this can happen if the writer writes about love in the way Jan-Phillip Sendker does.
     Yet, it does help that Sendker works to avoid predictability. His story begins with a daughter who is looking for her father, and on her quest for answers, the daughter and the reader are eventually and unexpectedly led into a romantic love story. She finds answers through a man who is shrouded in mystery. He not only tells her about her father’s past, but he tells her a love story. And since the love story is told through the lens of the past, the reader is able to allow for some of what sounds like legend, so nothing appears overdone. Finally, Senker doesn’t have the characters in the story dialogue about their love. He shows what their love looks like through the specific actions of the characters. If a romance writer could incorporate the following four passages or anything like them into his or her story, he or she would win more hearts and minds.
     Sendker makes the reader consider the power of love early on by avoiding clichés about the things that attract one person to another.
     “I have often wondered what was the source of her beauty, her radiance. It’s not the size of one’s nose, the color of one’s skin, the shape of one’s lips or eyes that make one beautiful or ugly. So what is it? Can you, as a woman, tell me?
I shook my head.
I will tell you: It’s love. Love makes us beautiful. Do you know a single person who loves and is loved, who is loved unconditionally and who, at the same time, is ugly? There’s no need to ponder the question. There is no such person.”
      Questions are posed to the daughter and the reader so there is time for reflection.
     “How can anyone truthfully claim to love someone when they’re not prepared to share everything with that person, including their past?”
      The narrator illustrates how this particular love he speaks of in this story is authentic while elevating it beyond the common physical and mental weakness that makes one out of control to a spiritual experience that strengthens both members.
      “Of course I am not referring to those outburts of passions that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot live without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person ─a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on what we cannot. No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”
      And lastly, he explains how most people lack the understanding of true love and that these two lovers shared an understanding of what most do not.
“We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes as uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signs. We do not understand the language. We accuse. We assert that the other person does not love us. But perhaps he merely loves us in some idiosyncratic way that we fail to recognize.”
      This love story was not just about the two lovers from the past but about love itself. I found that after reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, that there were so many levels to peel back and take away. I was not only left with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings, but by the end, I was also met with surprise and inspiration.

Marking Time

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

In Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller paints an eclectic collage of her parents’ life in Africa using photos and stories of their experiences, successes, failures and tragedies. All the stories work to reveal the unique personalities of her parents who live as white farmers in different parts of Africa, particularly Zimbabwe when it was ruled by a white minority. They are the last of their breed and are there to see things change despite the violent wars and internal struggles to maintain things as they once were. The story, however, mostly focuses on Fuller’s mother, a colorful and candid character who admits she is not mentally stable.
Besides Fuller’s wit and her vivid storytelling, what works in this book is Fuller’s use of time markers. Fuller is not a linear storyteller, and in writing creative nonfiction, it is sometimes difficult to give readers markers of when certain events actually happened since the writer is dealing with memory and shaping time into meaning instead of into a biography or a historical account. Fuller solves this dilemma by telling specific stories in the order that will achieve her goal which is to show her readers how her parents developed into the people they have become. She does in each chapter by grouping a set of stories with a photo and a date that help to present theme and setting.
The book is divided into three parts, and at the beginning of each chapter in all three parts, she includes a picture with a date and caption. For example, the chapter entitled, “Nicole Huntington Learns to Ride” includes a picture of her Fuller’s mother in Kenya at about age seven or eight in overalls, standing barefoot on the saddle of a white horse. This chapter shares how her mother’s love of horses began. Yet, she doesn’t begin talking about a horse; she begins with a story of a donkey who meets a terrible fate outside her mother’s’ convent school.
The stories jump around weaving in and out of time and place, so the dates beneath the captions beneath the photos help the reader keep track of time and place. When making these shifts in time, it helps to have something to ground the story. The construction of her chapters and inclusion of photos help to do this.
Fuller shares lots of wild and interesting family stories that make up over fifty years and three generations on the continent of Africa. It is easy to get lost in time while reading. Through each chapter, however, the reader is able to navigate the past and the landscape of the continent through the eyes of the Fuller family.

Forty-three Ways to Play with Barbie

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

For over fifty years, the Barbie fashion doll has been put in the hands of millions of little girls and over time, the doll has become a pop icon that has sparked controversy. Barbie is sometimes charged with promoting an unrealistic standard for beauty, but over the years, she has also inspired many creative works. In Denise Duhamel’s collection of poetry entitled, Kinky, the doll is used in parody. What works about this collection besides its obvious cleverness, is that it gives the reader a myriad of vantage points on the same subject. All forty-three poems connect to Barbie, but each takes you in a different direction to contemplate the history, associations, and implications of what was intended to be simply a teenage fashion doll.
The collection is divided into four parts: Lipstick, Powder Blush, Mascara, and Eye shadow, representing all the things needed to keep Barbie’s face and image beautiful. In the first part, there are poems focused mostly on the cultural history of the doll. Duhamel pokes fun at Mattel’s attempt at cultural and ethnic sensitivity. In “Hispanic Barbie”, she writes: “Born in 1980, Hispanic Barbie looks exactly like Black or White Barbie. You can pretend she’s Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, Chilean, or Venezuelan. ..” My favorite poem, “Native American Barbie,” is a one-line poem that acts as a punch line: “There is only one of her left.”
The title poem, “Kinky” begins with Barbie and Ken switching heads in an attempt to “spice-up” their relationship. All the poems are free verse. Some employ dialogue while others employ narration. She uses specific details and word play to bridge the real world to Barbie’s imaginary one. Other titles include: “Anti-Christ Barbie”, “Buddhist Barbie”, “Literary Barbie”, “Barbie’s Molester”, and “Afterlife Barbie.”
In this collection, Duhamel does a comedic critique of society. She uses Barbie to cover topics such as sexism, feminism, racism, war, love, sex, exploitation, and religion. Her cleverness with subject matter and language can lend to deep contemplation and discussion, while other poems are just laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, the truth of her observations can be arresting, especially in poems like, “Manifest Barbie” where you learn:
In the Philippines
Women workers in fashion doll factories
Are given cash incentives
For sterilization

Facts like these are hard to swallow, so Duhamel makes sure to add humor. Satire works here along with every other connection to the doll and her well-known moveable and detachable parts. After reading this book, it will be impossible to look at the Barbie doll the same.
Duhamel, Denise, Kinky. Alexandria Virginia: Orchises Press: 1997.

The End

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Coming to the ending of a piece of writing can be challenging; no matter the subject, genre or word count.  I remember in elementary school every one wrote, “The End” to signal that his or her story was finished.  We learned this from the fairy tale stories we often read or heard. Yet, as I matured as a reader and writer, I noticed that the best books I’ve read always concluded a chapter or the book in a way that made me re-read or reflect for a few minutes. The endings often led to a new connection or a new appreciation of what writers and language could do.

I recently finished Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. It is a story about how Schwalbe and his dying mother maintained a book club of two during her visits to the hospital for chemotherapy.  The book is definitely about the power of books and about what happens for readers at the end of them. In fact, each chapter is titled after a title of a book and includes a synopsis, quotes and sometimes a informal review. Yet, the book is mostly about the journey to the end, in this case, the end of the extraordinary life of Schwable’s mother.

I think each writer goes on his or her own journey to the end as well. Writers must make careful choices about what they want to leave behind for their readers. A writer may choose a quote, an anecdote, a strong declarative sentence, or maybe a combination of styles to connect the reader to the story and its characters. Endings should provoke thought or emotion, allow reflections, spark debate, or echo a theme or idea a writer wants to share. For Schwalbe’s book, he consistently uses a reflective strategy for the end of his chapters.  The end of each chapter is an echo of the beginning or to the theme of the book presented. This works to connect the books being presented to the main storyline and allows his readers to reflect on and connect to the experiences of the main “characters” in the memoir.

In his chapter titled, The Uncommon Reader, named after the novella by Adam Bennett, Schwalbe laments that his mother’s grandchildren would miss out on “the massive quantities of love their grandmother would have given them.” At the end of the chapter, however, he reconciles that he could help them learn more about his mother by sharing the books she read and loved. Then they, like her, “could all become readers, and maybe even uncommon ones.” (130)

Just as the end of a life well lived can lead to a combination of sorrow and admiration, the end of a great chapter or book can sometimes lead to a bit of sadness, but it should always lead to satisfaction and admiration for a job well-done.

The End

 

Schwalbe, Will. The End of Your Life Book Club. New York: Vintage Books.2012. Print

 

A Killer Diet

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

After reading Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I felt as though someone had written my story and changed all the names and places.  It is memoir that anyone who has severe food allergies can relate to, but anyone who has ever had a handicap, big or small, will find common ground.  Sandra Beasley, the author of the memoir, takes her reader through the near death experiences she averts as she navigates a life around what might have killed her.  This includes her own birthday cake. Her guests could enjoy it, but they couldn’t even touch young Beasley after they ate it.

Beasley strikes the right balance in this book by revealing the thoughts and feelings she has about her life with allergies without sounding like she is complaining. In a book like this one, tone is key.  She reveals how it feels to basically live in fear while strangers perceive her as being picky.  She also reveals her need to be like everyone else, so she often tried to hide or play down the seriousness of her reactions.   It is hard not to feel sorry for her, however, when you read how seemingly limited her menu is and how her allergies have impacted her relationships and experiences. But Beasley doesn’t want you feel sorry about the fact that she can never carry a purse that won’t accommodate a bottle of Benadryl.  She wants you to laugh.  Yet, she also wants you to know how serious food allergies can be.  She wants you to consider how even taking communion could cost some people their life. The book is well-researched, so she  includes what some churches are doing, or not doing, to address the problem.

“There is little the Church can do except recommend that the person make a “spiritual communion,” says the FAQ answer issued by the USCCB’s Commitee on Divine Worship. “Why? Because the Church believes that it is impossible to consecrate anything except with wheat bread and grape wine” (51).

In her chapter titled, “What Doctors Think,” she includes the current protocol for dealing with food allergies as well as the research behind them. She also includes the names of organizations created to support people with severe food allergies.   Currently, there are thirteen million children who suffer from food allergies. Some of these children will outgrow them, but Beasley wasn’t so lucky. And she is not alone.  The state of Florida just passed a law that requires all public and private schools in Florida to have an EpiPen (a shot of epinephrine)  available for students in order to prevent death from an allergic reaction.

This  book acts as guidebook for allergy sufferers and their family and friends, It works because the the tone is right, her allergy adventure stories are entertaining, and the facts are startling. It is a book worth reading, whether you have allergies or not.

 

Beasley, Sandra. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.