Monday, May 23, 2011

Another Great Writer of Color: Lorraine Lopez and her Gifted Gabaldon Sisters

[This is a review of The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters by Lorraine López that I posted on this blog a while back. I'm bringing it forward into my Books of Interest by Writers of Color series. I will be looking at her newest novel soon also.]

I first met Lorraine López at Con Tinta in Chicago earlier this year at AWP, the national conference of writers and university writing programs. López is one of the organizers of Con Tinta, the annual pachanga of Latino writers and their literary allies from around the country. She is also a veteran of the famous Macondo writing workshop. A professor at Vanderbilt University, López is a charming, soft-spoken woman, whose second book of short stories will be published this fall by BkMk Press at UMKC. [This book, Homicide Survivors' Picnic, was a finalist for the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction, making López the first Latina to become a finalist for that prestigious award.]

López’s first novel, The Gifted Gaboldón Sisters (Grand Central Publishing), raised high expectations since her first short story collection, Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories (Curbstone Press), won the Latino Book Award and other awards, and her young adult novel, Call Me Henri (Curbstone Press), won the Paterson Prize. The Gifted Gaboldón Sisters exceeds those expectations handily. Four young sisters depend on the family’s mysterious and ancient Pueblo servant, Fermina, after their mother’s death. Early in the book, Fermina dies, after promising each girl a gift. Throughout the book, the story of the sisters’ journey to adulthood with the special gifts endowed by Fermina—Bette’s stories, Loretta’s healing, Rita’s cursing, and Sophia’s laughter—alternates with Fermina’s own gripping story of kidnapping and slavery told to a writer long before the girls were born. The two threads come together as the adult sisters, in a time of crisis for each, journey together across the country and into the past to discover who Fermina was and what kind of magic their capricious gifts really came from. López peoples her book with characters so fresh and alive you expect to meet them just around the block. The rich, vivid writing entwines the reader deeply in the lives of the girls, their relatives, and their lovers. Fermina’s story enlightens and interconnects with theirs from the distant past. The book’s theme focuses on the lives of women in the past and present, how the distant past informs their present identities, and how they overcome or make peace with the limitations life hands them. This is a book you will go back to again and again.

[López is one of the most gifted writers of fiction today. She writes from a position of respect and caring for even her most hapless and out-of-control characters, allowing the reader to see through her eyes the possibilities and hope at each one's core.

Her novels are published by a major publisher, and here's the Amazon link. If you'd rather buy Homicide Survivor's Picnic from the small press that published it, here's that link with a video of her reading it, as well. Readers of this blog will know that I always encourage folks to support the small and university presses who publish most of the new writers in this country.]

Back to the usual format of this series on writers of color at the end of the week.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Books of Interest by Writers of Color—Part Three—Lorna Dee Cervantes, Craig Santos Perez, Sherwin Bitsui

This is another in my series of posts on books of interest by writers of color. I am making my way through a long list of great writers. It's also another in my long series of battles with Blogger. This time my photos are working, but my abusive blog-spouse is flailing away at my fonts. Forgive irregularities, please.

Lorna Dee Cervantes, Drive: The First Quartet, New Poems 1980-2005 (Wings Press) Cervantes is considered one of the most important Chicana activist/poets in the last 40 years. Her first book, Emplumada (University of Pittsburgh Press), won the American Book Award, and her second, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (Arte Público Press), won the Patterson Poetry Prize, the Institute of Latin American Writers Poetry Prize, and the Latino Literature Award. She has won much critical acclaim and many other awards, including the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Award, and is anthologized widely. Cervantes’ work is simultaneously accessible and complex, dealing with her own Chicano and Native American heritage and with issues of racism, colonialism, misogyny, violence, oppression, social injustice, and love. Cervantes continues to work in the literary and political communities, founding and editing literary magazines and giving readings and workshops to benefit various community causes. For anyone who wants to read more widely among writers of color, she is a priority, since through her activism, her writing, and her teaching, she has been an influence on many later writers. Here's a link to the small press that published her most recent book. Please patronize these indie presses. Without them, hardly any writers of color would ever make it onto the page.

Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn Publishing) Perez, a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam), is one of the most prolific and influential young poets and critics around. His first book, from unincorporated territory [hacha]( Tinfish Press), with his second, from unincorporated territory [saina], forms part of a larger, ambitious work, an experimental poetry of history and resistance, a redefining of his birthland and the countries that have conquered it and tried to erase all traces of his native culture. Perez’s criticism is also a part of this net of language, historical and ecological research, wordplay, and wit that examines and undermines colonial oppression on Guam and in the world of poetry and literature. He manages the difficult task of being avant garde without being deliberately (or accidentally) abstruse and esoteric. Perez is a serious talent in the younger generation of writers—and he can be laugh-out-loud funny as often as he is passionate and erudite. Here's the link to find his most recent book.

Sherwin Bitsui, Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press) Bitsui is Dine of the Todich'ii'nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl'izilani (Many Goats Clan). He has racked up an amazing number of awards for a young poet with just two books—a Whiting, a Truman Capote, a Witter Bynner, and more. Flood Song, his most recent book, picked up both an American Book Award and a PEN Open Book Award. Bitsui’s work focuses on the tension between the Navajo reservation where he was born and the modern white world where he now lives, on the tension between the natural world of unspoiled places and the man-made urban environment. Bitsui uses elements of surrealism and quite specific sensory details, just as he uses both a supple, flexible English and the Navajo language of his childhood and ongoing heritage. He has already positioned himself as a major talent that is shooting for the top. Here's the link for Flood Song.

I'll be traveling, so I'll take a break from this series until the middle of next week. Then, more fantastic writers of color.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Another Great Writer of Color--Cristina Henriquez

This is a review I wrote of Cristina Henriquez'sThe World in Half earlier. I'm posting it here, as I will others, as part of my series, Books of Interest by Writers of Color.

Cristina Henriquez has won great praise for her short stories and her debut collection, Come Together, Fall Apart. The World in Half is her first novel, and what a stunner of a novel it is!

Henriquez weaves together the poignant stories of a military-wife mother whose infidelity with a Panama
nian local sent her back to the U.S. pregnant, divorced, and disgraced to a hard, self-isolated life and a daughter who is dealing with that mother's early onset Alzheimer's when she discovers a hidden cache of letters from her missing Panamanian father who, rather than abandoning her and her mother, had been abandoned. The daughter, Miraflores, impulsively drops out of college to visit Panama to find her father as her mother disintegrates daily. Miraflores' search in Panama pieces together the story of her parents' love affair, even as she falls in love with the more experienced, if not much older, Danilo, a flower vendor who has taken her and her romantic quest under his wing.

In Panama, it becomes apparent that Mira is searching for herself and her mother as much as for her father. Panama itself becomes a character in this book, for Mira is learning about this unknown country that is as much a part of her heritage as the U.S. is--and she is falling in love with Panama just as she is with Danilo, who has been deserted by his own parents. She feels herself becoming a different person in Panama from the guarded bookworm she has been in the States. In Panama, she is a fuller, braver version of Mira.

As Mira's search for her father reaches a climax, so does her mother's deterioration. She must leave Panama to take up her familial duties once more. The question for the reader is, will she follow in her mother's sad footsteps and leave Danilo and Panama forever behind, as well?

Within this romantic structure, Henriquez deals with some serious issues--the desire of children of mixed heritages to claim both, racial and ethnic discrimination, the sad history of Panama's repeated colonizations, the fears of Alzheimer's engendered in the children of its sufferers, the nature of passionate love so binding that it lasts through years of denial and destroys lives.
At the end, she doesn't tie things up neatly, but neither does she leave the reader in despair for the lives of these people she has led us to care for. Henriquez and her book specialize in the quiet strength, endurance, and occasional rewards of hope, and that hope is her gift to the reader.

This is the debut of a novelist to watch for. I can't wait to read her next book. Check out The World in Half here. And happy reading.

I'll have another brief round-up of three great writers of color tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Report from Malice Domestic--Writers of Color Series Will Resume After This

The view outside my hotel window in Bethesda

Malice Domestic is a conference for writers and readers of traditional mystery novels. Malice Domestic 2011, the 23rd year of the conference was held in Bethesda, Maryland, from April 28-May 1. This was my first year to attend Malice Domestic, but it won't be my last.

I had been keeping a secret from everyone but my closest family and friends. Over a month earlier, I had received a phone call from Toni Plummer, editor at St Martin's Press, to tell me that my mystery novel, Every Secret Thing, had won the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic Award for Traditional First Mystery Novel. It would be presented at this conference.

Although I've read mysteries for many years, I had never attended a mystery writers conference before, so I was what they called "a Malice virgin." I had two friends who were going to be at the conference--Nancy Pickard, whose latest novel was a finalist for the Agatha Award (a very big deal in the mystery world, for my poet friends who may not know), and Sally Goldenbaum, whose newest book in her latest series was being launched at the conference. But Nancy and Sally were arriving over 24 hours after me, as was my editor, so I knew no one as the conference opened.

I had wanted to come at the very beginning because the conference was opening with a session called Malice 101, designed to introduce newbies like me to the conference and help us find our way around and figure out what to do. (I will be suggesting this to my AWP board member friends for that conference. Let's end the pain and panic on the faces of all those grad students when they first walk in on day one.)

The experience reminded me of the days when I didn't know anyone in the literary community and would sit back in corners. People who know me will laugh at this, but it happens to be true. I am extremely shy in new situations with people I don't know. Once I know someone and have the scene scoped out somewhat, I can get a little flamboyant, it's true, but initially I revert to the shy schoolgirl who was always younger than the others and usually brand-new, as well--not to mention wearing hand-me-downs, etc.

So there I sat, a freshwater poetry fish out of my depths in the mystery ocean. But not for long, because the community of mystery writers is incredibly warm and welcoming. Monica Ferris, a writer whose works I've long loved, spent at least an hour early on sitting with me, talking to me, and giving me wonderful advice. She took me into sessions with her and introduced me to people. Others were also tremendously kind. I began to enjoy the conference and the really useful and sometimes funny sessions it offered.

Late Friday, my editor, Toni Plummer, arrived from New York and took me to dinner. We discussed possible edits for Every Secret Thing and the next book in the series, which I'm in the middle of writing--and all the other things that novelists dream of discussing with their editors, usually unrealistically. But I was to learn that St. Martin's seems to operate the way we all still dream that publishers and editors operate.

Past St. Martin's/Malice Domestic winners gather in the lobby bar with editor Toni Plummer to toast the memory of legendary St. Martin's editor Ruth Cavin, who founded the contest.

On Saturday, after a full day of events and sessions, it was time for the awards banquet. But first, Toni had gathered past winners of this award in the lobby bar for a toast to the memory of the recently deceased Ruth Cavin, the doyenne of mystery editors. I had never met this legendary editor, but I'd read articles she'd written for various handbooks and anthologies on what made good mystery novels.

At this, the other authors, some of whom are pictured above, were again so welcoming and encouraging (not to mention terrifically funny). Robin Hathaway, Elizabeth Duncan, Meredith Cole, Joelle Charbonneau, Tracy Kiely, Maggie Barbieri, and many others were kind and encouraging. And at this tribute gathering, I met for the first time my publisher, Andy Martin.

Now, I am used to publishers. I happen to be married to one, and I've worked for and with a number of others. Literary publishers. Publishers of small presses or university presses. Small potatoes in terms of press runs and profits. Most of them are in it for the love of the work and are pretty loose. This guy was one of the big NY trade publishers, and in the lit/poetry scene, we have our stereotypes of them. Big business sharks. And Andy certainly looked the part of big NY publishing executive. I start digging back into my memory to my Women's Center days when I used to do fundraising among the CEOS of national corps that have their homes in KC (a larger number than people outside KC would imagine--think Hallmark, H&R Block, and you're only beginning). I knew how to talk with a big executive. Sure, I was rusty, but I could manage, surely?

Was I in for a big surprise!

Here I am with Toni right after the awards banquet.

Down to the awards banquet, and here is where I discover how wickedly funny all these writers are. Especially a writer who sat near me all evening, Carolyn Haines. Andy is sitting across the table from me, and I'm relieved. Only wait--this guy is cracking jokes right and left. He's... he's... a lot of fun. How did that happen? Halfway through the rather long event, he moves everyone around to sit with other people, and he sits next to me. Before I know it, we're giving each other a hard time. Could have been Bob Stewart of New Letters, who's been my friend for over 25 years, or a number of other lit publishers I know and love.

I won't even go into the after-event party. Poets think they know how to party. We closed out the hotel restaurant bar. Enough to say that St. Martin's writers, editors, and staff really know how to have fun--and leading the way was the publisher of this major, profitable imprint of a huge publishing empire.

One thing I had heard over and over from writers through the whole conference was that St. Martin's had the best editors, treated their writers well, and really liked and respected writers. Got to say from everything I've seen and experienced, it's all true. So this poet/novelist feels like a cat who's fallen into a big vat of fresh cream. I think I'm really going to like being a St. Martin's Minotaur author.

Back to my series on writers of color next post. All of you in the lands of flooding and tornadoes, please stay safe and dry.