Friday, February 29, 2008

Less School, More Prison: Coincidence?

My partner Annie teaches in a public school district that is facing a $5 million cut next year.

I teach at a university that is also facing severe cuts; as an adjunct faculty member, I'll likely face a lay-off notice in my mailbox (that may or may not be followed-through on).

And now I see the New York Times is reporting that one in 100 American adults is behind bars.

These prison and jail statistics include the fact that these percentages are incarcerated:

* One in 36 Hispanic adults
* One in 15 black adults
* One in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34
* One in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39
* One in 100 black women

It's truly a sickness that our country spends so much time and money on the back-end of crimes and not nearly enough on the front-end of education.

The abysmal statistics for people of color reflect, in great part, the abysmal inequities of the school systems, as books such as Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities make horrifically clear.

Not to mention that it's much much easier to get little or no jail time for a crime when you've got money and connections--or if you're white. For instance, research shows virtually the same rate of drug use in white populations as black, "yet this proportion is not remotely reflected in the prison population."

And there's also the case of a crime as "lesser" because it's one committed by white or wealthy people (such as the lighter sentencing policies for selling powder vs. crack cocaine).

We need to stop incarcerating non-dangerous offenders. And we need to pour the savings into education.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Literary Day to Remember

We had nice turn-outs at both ZZ Packer events yesterday. ZZ was a joy to interview on stage. She's funny and smart; she makes complex ideas graspable. She has insightful things to say about writing, literature, politics, life.

During the Q&A, she was asked if writers of color have different expectations placed upon them than other writers. She said yes, definitely--that artists who come from marginalized communites have to battle the internal voice that tells them they must somehow be representative (an impossible task), that they must showcase only positive portrayals of their community, and that they must not air its "dirty laundry." They need to silence the voice that says "make us proud" and write whatever they want to write.

This really struck a chord with me because I've written stories about lesbian and gay people that are not particularly complimentary of the individual characters--but that's only because I want to show queer people in all of our human complexities. Ultimately, I believe, we're serving our "marginalized communities" and the broader society better when we do this because we're offering human portrayals. Only complex, human characters will evoke the universal human condition. So the paradox is that the more specific and flawed our characters, the more we are likely to strike a broader chord.

As far as writing advice, ZZ said that writers must write about whatever truly moves them, whatever is meaningful to them--like "the kinds of things you'd write about in your diary; write about that, but make it better!"

In the evening events, ZZ read from the terrific story "The Ant of the Self" (from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere). The story is from the point of view of a teenage boy named Spurgeon, a high school debate champion who bails his father out of jail. Their embattled relationship is played out with the Million Man March as the backdrop.

She also read a few pages from her historical novel-in-progress. She was self-conscious about this, she told us, because it's hard for her to read from work that is not yet finished. The passage was a mind-blower. It takes place during Jubilee, the post-Civil War time when slaves had just been freed. When a now-freed slave named Lazarus tells his former mistress that he and his sister will be leaving the plantation, the woman is upset at their "desertion." She says, "I have always clothed and fed you." Lazaurs replies, "I thought it was the other way around."

The next morning, the woman comes to their cabin and says, "I'm sicking the dogs on you. You have a half-hour head start." So Lazarus and his sister take off, walking all the way to New Orleans, where they have some family members who don't seem thrilled about taking them in.

All I can say is I can't wait to read the whole novel. It's stunning. We were fortunate to be able to hear it. Another (different) excerpt of the novel has been published here by Granta. The title is Buffalo Soldiers, but ZZ has since changed it to The Thousands.


An aside: When you put "maligned synonym" into Google, look what pops up first by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Two Big Events Today

If you're in the Bay Area, we have two free events today featuring ZZ Packer. She's a hot writer and a wonderful person.

She has recently been named one of America's Best Novelists by Granta--quite a feat given that this prize was determined based on the in-process manuscript of her current project, a novel about the Buffalo Soldiers. You can read an excerpt here.

I'll be interviewing her on stage for the 1 p.m. event:

1 p.m.: On-stage conversation
followed by audience Q&A and book-signing
SJSU University Room

7:30 p.m.: A Reading from Packer's in-progress historical novel
followed by audience Q&A and book-signing
SJSU Music Concert Hall

More about ZZ:
ZZ Packer is the author of the short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, a PEN/Faulkner finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Best American Short Stories (2000 and 2004) and have been read on NPR's Selected Shorts.

ZZ was born in Chicago, and raised in Atlanta and Louisville, Kentucky. Although intent on becoming an electrical engineer, she forsook MIT for Yale (and is forever grateful she did). She received her MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where she also held a Jones Lectureship.

ZZ has been a public high school teacher and barmaid (though not at the same time); has worked as an SAT tutor, a purveyor of vegetables and a coffeeshop barrista, where she indeed wished on multiple occasions to be drinking coffee elsewhere.

ZZ currently lives with her husband and two sons in the Bay Area.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Has anyone seen Freeheld: The Laurel Hester Story? I haven't, but apparently it chronicles the fight of a terminally ill New Jersey woman to leave her pension benefits to her lesbian partner. It won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary last night (thanks Joe My God). Netflix doesn't carry it, so I just emailed them a request.

Why are people blowing a gasket over the release of this photo? It's a sad, sad day when trying on the traditional garb of a country doesn't point to your compassion, empathy and cultural expertise but instead at best is mocked as "silly" and at worst is said to imply you might be siding with "the terrorists."

Give me a break. It's an outrage when Muslims are lumped together as terrorists. And it makes me crazy that only a self-proclaimed old-style Christian could have a chance at winning the election. We'll have a woman President and Presidents of many colors (and maybe even a gay President)before we have a President who is Buddhist, Sikh, Pagan, Atheist, Rastafarian, or Agnostic. What's up with the Christian fetish? Why not more open minds, religiously speaking, in this democratic country of ours?

At last: there's some solid national coverage (thanks Collin) of the horrible, homophobic murder of Lawrence King.

Family Values

Two more apparent queer-hate crimes: One involving the beating of a gay man who was eating at a restaurant with his partner and a friend, and the other the murder of a trans teen.
Both occurred in Florida, where as Joe.My.God points out, Floridians can order "Family Values" license plates.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Maureen, ZZ and Karen

I just finished Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan. You might recognize her as the book critic on Fresh Air.

It's about her love affair with books. My favorite quote from the book captures something that is true for me:

"I think, consciously or not, what we readers do each time we open a book is to set off on a search for authenticity. We want to get closer to the heart of things, and sometimes a few sentences contained in an otherwise unexceptional book can crystallize vague feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or, sometimes, profound epiphanies."


Busy week ahead. In addition to the usual whirlwind of teaching and grading, I will be interviewing ZZ Packer on stage on Wednesday. That event is followed by a dinner with our advisory board and some donors, an evening reading featuring ZZ, and a reception. My co-director and I are responsible for all of this. Whew. I just need to remind myself to relax and enjoy it as much as possible since the major work of organizing these events is behind us.

I also have another big thing happening this week that I can't talk about here but will be able to soon.


It's gray. And Monday. Brings to mind this:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Gender Bending, Blending, Rending

Last night, for a friend's birthday, we went to AsiaSF, a club and restaurant that features what they call "gender illusionists."

Yes, the women in this photo are "gender illusionists," but I don't think the men are.

Actually, I take that back. Everyone is a gender illusionist. Cut your hair short and wear a suit, and no matter what's beneath that suit you are a male impressionist.

Last night's adventure is a reminder that "female" and "male" are costumes we wear.

As Gloria Steinem once said, "All women are female impressionists."

I'd add that all people are gender impressionists of one sort or another.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Steinbeck on Writing

I recently finished reading John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, which charts his writing of East of Eden. Every day before he began working on the novel, he wrote a letter to his editor, a kind of warm-up that resulted in his musing about life and writing.

Apparently, he never intended these letters to be a publishable book, but I'm glad we have them. They offer wonderful insights into craft. (Guilty admission: I liked Journal of a Novel better than East of Eden.)

Steinbeck was a real work-horse, writing this massive novel in pencil in less than a year. He was obsessive about having a number of well-sharpened pencils within his reach at all times.

A workhorse, yes--but not a racehorse. He wasn't racing to the finish. In fact, he found if he created deadlines for himself (saying, for instance, the novel would be finished on X date), that threw him off. Instead, he liked to write imagining that he would never be finished. That way he could focus on what was in front of him.

About writing, he says, "True things quite often do not sound true unless they are made to."

I like this. Often in writing workshops, someone might doubt the sense of authenticity in a story. Then the writer will say, "Well, it really happened!" That's not the point. Obviously we know we are reading fiction. But we want the satisfaction of an authentic experience echoing a larger truth. The point is: was it written in such a way as we believe it?

Steinbeck writes a lot about "refrain"--about returning to a key theme, idea, image. He says refrain is "a recapitulation of intention" and that it is "one of the most valuable of all form methods. Refrain is a return to the known before one flies again upwards. It is a consolation to the reader, a reassurance that the book has not left his understanding."

In this way, music and writing (both prose and poetry) are alike. I like thinking about that. In fact, I like music playing while I write, sometimes--and that may be why.


Speaking of Steinbeck, if you've never been to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, it's definitely worth the trip. One of my favorite things was seeing actual manuscripts written in his tiny, pencilled script. I also was amazed at seeing Rocinante, the actual truck with camper that Steinbeck drove across the country, as he writes about in one of my favorite Steinbeck books, Travels with Charley.

Charley is pictured here, with Steinbeck.

Friday, February 22, 2008

No Obama, Hillary or Colton Berry

Instead of watching the Democratic candidates debate or the first American Idol results, Annie and I went to the San Jose Museum of Art for a reading by David Rakoff.

He lived up to his sassy, bitchy--often outrageous--This American Life reputation by starting out with a juicy piece about becoming an American citizen (he was born in Canada), that involved some incisive cutting-up of Barbara Bush and her son.

He also read an edgy and surprisingly quite moving piece about being a (short, queer) outcast in high school.

During the Q&A he was asked if writing is easy for him. He said, "Have I been very foul-mouthed during this talk?" and the audience, obviously egging him on, said, "No." "Well," he said, "for me writing is like pulling teeth ... out of my dick." Then he shyly grinned and said, "Okay, that's my bluest material for the night."

Speaking of blue, there was a Picasso exhibit--"Etchings of Love and Desire"--at the museum that we perused prior to the Rakoff talk. Whoo-wee was he into genitalia (and not just female) in the last stretch of his life. I thought it was all refreshingly frank--while also being richly expressive. As Picasso said, he didn't paint life but life as he saw it.

I like another Picasso quote displayed on the museum wall: "Art is never chaste. Art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

BLOGGER ALERT: Please Blitz-Post About the Homophobia-Inspired Murder of Lawrence King

When I posted about gay middle-school student Lawrence King's murder in my previous entry, it became abundantly clear that not enough people know about it.

The national media has been all but ignoring this story. Let's get Lawrence as much attention as Matthew Shepard. That kind of attention makes a huge difference in combatting homophobic violence.

The Washington Blade has a good piece about Time magazine's inane article claiming that King's murder is an abberation, that homophobia is not so much a problem in schools anymore, and that "we may never know the real motivations for King's murder." Time misinterprets many of GLSEN's conclusions about homophobia in schools; here's what GLSEN really says.

Never mind that faggot and gay are still the put-downs of choice. Never mind that even with the support of GSA's, it's very hard to be an out queer or gender-bending kid.

Lawrence King was harrassed non-stop at school. The "motivation" is insidious and ubiquitous. Hate and belittling of "difference" are toxins in our society.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In Memory of Lawrence King

Gender non-conformity is punished in our society in so many ways--subtley and overtly.

So is being queer, especially if you deign to flirt with another person. A boy flirting with a girl isn't supposed to be considered a threat--why is a boy flirting with a boy? If you're not into it, just say no thanks.

The recent murder--execution, really--of a 15-year-old middle school student from Oxnard, California, is hitting me hard.

His name was Lawrence (Larry) King. He was such a strong spirit that he continued to dress exactly how he wanted to when going to school. He wore makeup and was an out, gay kid in the face of constant harrassment.

Now that he's dead, some of his classmates are expressing regret.

It's crucial that teachers and other adults discuss these issues with kids. And that we don't ever pathologize gender non-conformity but celebrate the creative expression of others, in whatever form it takes.

I wish I could attend the vigil for Lawrence tonight in San Francisco. I can't, but I will light a candle for him at home.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Progressive in SF

I can't believe I saw Colm Toibin read last night. I can't believe I hadn't realized he'd be there at the Progressive Reading Series at the Makeout Room in San Francisco.

I was there to be part of the Six-Word Memoir slam, which happened half-way through the evening's event, which also featured Vendela Vida, Steve Almond, Michelle Orange and Charles D'Ambrosio.
What a fun, wacky venue. A huge crowd, standing room only.

And what a shock that someone who wrote one of my favorite novels of all time--The Master--was there. (The Master envisions the emotional life of Henry James. There are so many great moments in that book, like James getting into bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes. But it's really not sensationalist; it's a moving, insightful internal journey.)

Toibin read a provocative story from his new collection, Mothers and Sons. I'm sure I'll be buying that book and gobbling it up soon.

How can it be that I didn't even know about the Progressive Reading Series before last week? Upcoming readers include Amy Tan, Justin Chin, Jane Smiley, Pam Houston, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snickett), Po Bronson, Jonathan Franzen, Aimee Bender, David Glen Gold.

The cost to enter the venue ($10-20 sliding scale) supports progressive causes. Last night's focus was No on Proposition 98 and Yes on Proposition 99. If 98 passes in June, rent conrol will be wiped out in California. Toibin talked about how that happened in Dublin, which was devasating especially to the elderly on fixed incomes.

Loved the mix of politics and literature. I will be back.

Friday, February 15, 2008

First Reading, First Censorship

Dustin Brookshire writes here about doing his first public poetry reading--which was censored in the taped version.

He is now in good company. Many of the greatest writers have faced being censored or banned--including Maya Angelou, Gertrude Stein, Gore Vidal, Sylvia Plath... The list goes on and on. (Click here for more.)

Art should challenge us.
Art should question the status quo.
When you're censored or banned, you are doing something right.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ZZ & Smoke Like No Other

ZZ Packer is an endowed professor this semester. I've talked with her a few times in the hallway; she's very approachable, funny and kind. I'll be interviewing her onstage a couple of weeks, so if you have any questions you'd like me to ask her, float them my way.

I'm teaching her story collection right now in my creative writing classes. The more I study these stories, the more I'm impressed with her range, her ability to write from so many different perspectives.


A former student sent the following to me. It's way better than anything I've ever seen on the Grammys or American Idol:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Writing the Ending First?

Walked here today, along Rio del Mar, for a couple of hours. The beach goes on and on and on. There were lots of dogs and walkers and surfers and sun-worshippers enjoying the first sunny-in-the-70s day we've had in forever. (We native Californians are wimps about "cold"--meaning too many days in the 50's.)

Before my walk, I worked on the memoir. Also worked on it for hours yesterday. I wrote the last scene. I've never done that before on a book-length manuscript: writing the ending before getting there. I feel like I'm about two-thirds of the way to that ending. So now it feels like I have a chasm to cross to get there. I like the feeling of knowing I have solid ground to land on.

Do any of you write your endings first?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Should Writing Be Cathartic?

When I asked Alice Sebold about whether or not writing Lucky (her memoir about her brutal rape) was cathartic, she said no--that she had worked through those feelings before writing the book. She said, "I had already done my personal work. Memoirs should serve the people reading them, not the author writing."

Consider that comment in contrast to Robert Frost's famous insight about writing and feeling: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

I've been writing poetry and memoir for the past two years about my parents' illnesses and my father's death. Feeling is essential to me while I write. So is discovery. I can never claim I've worked out my feelings and thoughts in advance of writing--be that memoir, poetry or fiction. (That doesn't mean I write only to serve myself; I almost always imagine myself speaking to others as I write.)

Poet Ellen Bass addresses this as well in a recent online Poets & Writers intervew. I like how she says that her writing comes from something she's "trying to work out." To me, if I already have the thing settled, there's no reason to write about it.

Here's what Ellen says:

P&W: How did your mother’s death affect your writing?

Ellen Bass: Writing poetry for me was one of the primary ways that I grieved. I found that working with the poems was more natural to me than any other outward rituals or ceremonies around her death. I just thought during that whole period how fortunate I was to be a poet. I don’t know what people do who don’t have a way to sit with their experience in a tangible way. . . . Very often a poem comes from something that I’m trying to work out in my own life. Often I’ll write the same poem many times if there's an idea I’m grappling with. I’ll write it over and over in poems that don’t ultimately succeed until finally I have some entry into the poem.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

An Amazing Evening with Ishmael Beah

I had dinner with Ishmael Beah last night, then saw him speak. He was amazing. He's a brilliant, big-hearted young man who at only age 26 has endured so much violence, loss, and suffering.
And the message he brings is: violence and war never solve anything. Rehabilitation of people inured in violence is not only possible but necessary.

He also says we must know deep in our hearts that everyone's life--no matter what circumstances they live in--is as precious as our own.

At dinner, he was funny, quick-wittted and savvy. He talked about how this long, long book tour has been wonderful yet draining. Traveling is especially difficult for him because he holds a "third world" passport from Sierra Leone. He said he's almost always held up for extra examination. I said, "You should just pull out your book!" He said, "Sometimes it comes to that."

He said that to travel to any European country, he has to provide proof of having at least $30,000 in assets or insurance. This way, if he dies there, his "mortal remains" won't have to be taken care of by France or England. Of course, if you're American, you don't have to prove any such thing. Beah quipped that it was hard to relax and enjoy flying to Paris because he kept thinking about his "mortal remains."

He's currently working on a novel. He said his fiction always begins with the names of the characters. Having their names propels the story.

He's more than a writer. He's a visionary who believes in the transformative powers of goodness, love and action.

To get a flavor of him, watch this little clip:

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Leaving the Baby

Tonight I'm going to dinner with Ishmael Beah.

Okay, there will be about 15 other people there, too--but I might actually get to watch him eat from across the table.

Afterward, he's speaking on campus. (For more information, click here.)

I'll update my blog tomorrow to let you know what the event was like. And meeting him.


Just found out that my story, "Leaving the Baby," will appear in Queer Collection: Poetry and Prose 2008.

Here's the first paragraph of the story, a teaser (I hope):

The first time Michelle left the baby alone was unintentional. And brief. She’d forgotten about him for just a few minutes when she went outside to get the mail. Actually, not quite forgotten—but she experienced a moment when her body was her own. Her brain felt as squishy as Sammy’s soft spot, and the cold sun was blinding.

Coming Out as a Barak Obama Convert

I've become an Obama convert.

Katha Politt's great piece in her The Nation blog articulates much of what I feel. She makes a great point about how, on domestic issues, Obama and Hillary are similar. But...

...on foreign policy Obama seems more enlightened, as in less bellicose. Maybe Hillary Clinton's refusal to say her Iraq vote was wrong shows that she has neo-con sympathies; maybe she simply believes that any admission of error would tar her as weak. But we already have a warlike president who refuses to admit making mistakes, and look how that's turned out. The election of Barack Obama would send a signal to the world that the United States is taking a different tack.

She also is helping me to embrace, rather than cynically reject, how Obama makes me feel:

I usually resist words like "hope" and "change." But . . . let's go with the charismatic candidate this time. Let's go with the candidate voters feel some passion about. Let's say goodbye to the Clintons and have some new people make history.

My Republican brother-in-law said he might even vote for Obama. I do think Obama has a better chance of winning a national election--not because Hillary's a woman, but because (warranted or not), she is seen as a divisive figure.

Obama might just bring us back together after the horrible tearing-apart of these past eight years.

I've been doing some searching of Obama's position on queer rights. As an Illinois senator, he sponsored legislation in Illinois that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

And when he was criticized for planning a campaign event with a preacher (Reverend McClurkin) who claims to be a "former homosexual cured by prayer," Obama said:

I strongly believe that African Americans and the gay community must stand together in the fight for equal rights. And so I strongly disagree with Reverend McClurkin’s views and will continue to fight for these rights as president of the United States to ensure that America is a country that spreads tolerance instead of division.

Obama disagreed with McClurkin's views on gay issues; however, instead of silencing McClurkin, Obama added an openly gay minister to the slated events.

I respect that because trying to silence people is not the path toward change. (Ever hear of backlash? It's a result of attempting to shut the door.)

Instead, bring in love and dialogue. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday

No matter what, today is an historical day. No matter what, this is an historical election cycle.

This guy was my choice--and he's no longer in the race (no surprise; I voted to register my ethical support for his convictions).

Now, I'm conflicted--I see strengths and problems in both Clinton and Obama.

Still, look at them. They are the top runners. It's an exciting time.