Thursday, June 19, 2014

Books of Interest by Writers of Color—Allison Hedge Coke Edits Another Great Anthology, EFFIGIES II

Allison Hedge Coke is a prolific and acclaimed Indigenous writer who’s been discussed before on this blog.

Her own books of poetry and memoir include the American Book Award winner, Dog Road Woman, popular memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, and two Wordcraft Writer of the Year winners, Off Season City Pipe and Blood Run. Hedge Coke is also known for her fine work in editing series and anthologies of Indigenous writers, most recently and notably SING: Indigenous Poetry of the Americas, which was the first anthology of Indigenous writing from all the Americas.

One of the anthologies Hedge Coke edited in 2009 was Effigies, a strong collection of chapbooks from emerging Alaskan Native and Pacific Islander poets. Now, she has returned with a new collection of chapbooks from five emerging Indigenous poets of the continental United States, Effigies II: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing Mainland North & South United States, 2014, from Salt Publications. Effigies II contains the poems of Lara Mann (Choctaw), Ungelbah Davila (Diné), Kateri Menominee (Anishinaabe), Kristi Leora (Onondaga), and Laura Da’ (Shawnee).

Ann Waldman says of this anthology, “Allison Hedge Coke has done it again, with her keen ear and eye: brought powerful new Native women's voices to our attention. Rigorous, powerful, brave, haunting, spirited.” LeAnne Howe also praises it. “These poems, fresh effigies carved by five young Native women cracked open my heart.  Read them when alone carefully swaddled in a warm blanket, or read them aloud at the kitchen table to all your relations, past and future.  But read them.”

The variety of poetic voices in this anthology is refreshing. These Native women’s voices are a powerful addition to the growing body of robust diversity that is modern, published Indigenous poetry (for the tribes have been voicing poetry for millennia). The poets of Effigies II bring their voices in the whispers, murmurs, fierce shouts, curses, blessings, lullabies, cries of passion, tears, and mourning. The breadth of life is to be found in these spirited offerings.

Although the poets in Effigies II are emerging poets coming into their own, the work in these pages is sure, deft, full of telling detail, rich in evocative imagery, and ringing with the music of language enriched by drawing on multiple heritages and cultures. These poems demand attention—Mann’s bittersweet tales of searching for roots for family and self; Davilah’s explorations of female sexuality, empowerment and exploitation; Menominee’s travels through ancient history and fairy tale with a postmodern sensibility; Leora’s work linking the modern world and its future with its beginnings through geologic process and creation stories; and the poems of Da’, which grieve for the atrocities, betrayals, and losses inflicted on her people.

Hedge Coke’s sure hand as editor can be seen in the ordering and juxtapositions which allow each poet’s work to feed and support that of the others. I highly recommend this collection to all with interest in new Indigenous voices and in a more nuanced approach to the idea of Indigenous writing, as well as to anyone who just loves to read lucid, lyrical, enchanting, and powerful poetry.

As usual, I suggest you order the book from the small press publisher, Salt Publications, which has a whole series of Indigenous books, Earthworks. Small press and university publishers bring most of the diversity in literature to the page. Without them, we would have a tiny handful of very famous writers of color published and no one else. If you value diverse literature, please support the presses that make it possible.

As part of the whole #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, I will devote a month of twice-weekly posts to my long-running Books of Interest by Writers of Color series while recuperating from some surgery mid-July to mid-August (because I'd already planned this and because I just think it's that important, so I'm going to do it anyway). During that month, I may have some extra posts by other writers and critics featuring yet more #diverselit. So stand by for some remarkable writers that you may never have heard of before.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Writing Process

When Jeri Westerson asked me to contribute to a blog project on writing process, I agreed—primarily because I’m a big fan of Jeri as a writer of the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest medieval noir mysteries and as a person. Jeri has given of her time, money, and work to a whole slew of writers organizations, including heading local and regional MWA and SinC chapters at times. She’s also one of the nicest people in crime fiction, which is so surprisingly overstocked with really nice people. (I think they must get all their hostility out in their books, and that’s why they’re so agreeable and kind and generous.) I remember the opening night of my first Bouchercon at my publisher’s party (Jeri and I used to have the same publisher) where I knew no one except my publicist and publisher who were like flowers with all the writer-bees around them. I spent the evening chatting with this stranger, Jeri, who took me under her wing and was acerbically kind to me all evening. (I said she was nice—I never said she wasn’t witty, sarcastic, and adorably snarky.)

Jeri has a new book, Cup of Blood, in her Crispin Guest series coming out July 26th. Books in this series have routinely been finalists for all the big awards in crime fiction and received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and other book critics, so I expect great things of Cup of Blood. Jeri’s also beginning a new urban fantasy series with her forthcoming Booke of the Hidden, which ought to be a suspenseful, exciting book. You’ll find Jeri’s post on writing process and more information about her books and the most fascinating medieval things here.

When I looked at the specific questions of this blog hop, I realized I’d answered some very similar questions for a different blog project about diversity in literature, so here’s the link to that post.  Aside from promoting my new Skeet Bannion mystery, Every Hidden Fear, I’ve been teaching an online class lately that’s prompted me to examine my creative process, so I’ll look at it through that lens. 

One of the first things people ask writers is do they outline their books. Aspiring writers ask if they are pantsers or plotters—do they wing the whole thing or do they outline in detail and follow that outline. I’m a hybrid. I write a loose, general outline for the first several chapters and a more detailed outline for the scene I’m about to write. When I write the first draft, I always end up veering from that outline. After writing, I’ll note the changes in the outline for use in revision. Then I’ll do a loose outline of the next few chapters, write, note changes, and repeat all the way through the first draft.

More important than whether I’m a plotter or a pantser, I am a confirmed reviser. I believe that good writing is rewriting. I make my books the best I can through the process of re-vision, seeing them as they are and as they could be, and then re-writing, making everything I’ve written more concise with more evocative images, more precise and telling details, greater suspense, and more concise and lucid prose.

I believe—and I teach—that there is no one right way to write a book. There’s only the way that works for you—with this book. Because it can and does change from book to book. You might write three good books using this mix of methods and feel you’ve finally learned to write a novel. Then, the fourth just won’t work with those methods, and you’re searching for what works all over again. Neil Gaiman as a young writer with a successful novel told revered sf/f writer Glenn Cook, “I think I’ve finally learned how to write a novel.” Cook replied, “You’ve only learned to write the novel you just wrote.” And Gaiman found that Cook was telling him the truth.

I came to the crime fiction field from the “literary” world, in which I still publish, and I have to shake my head and laugh when people in that field talk blithely to me about “the formula” we genre writers supposedly just fill out like a bureaucratic form. As if! The true formula we follow is much like Beckett’s. Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail harder.

If you’ve been following this blog trail, you’ve read about the ways many different writers work (and if you haven’t been, you can go to Jeri’s blog and track backward through the whole chain of writers). I thought I would ask someone a little different from a novelist to talk about her creative process, a professional storyteller. Written fiction evolved from storytelling, and I believe storytellers have a lot to share with those of us who tell our stories on the page. So I’ve tapped Mary Garrett, writer and storyteller.  Mary shared stories with her high school and junior high students at Francis Howell North High School and now tells stories at festivals, meetings and schools, including the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration, Texas, Timpanogos (Utah), O.O.P.S. (Ohio), and NSN (national) conferences, the St. Louis and St. Charles Storytelling Festivals, the Greater St. Louis Renaissance Faire, and others. You’ll find her blog here

REPLY TO COMMENTS: (Because Blogger.)

Mary, it's interesting to see how similar in many ways the process of writing fiction and storytelling are. Though storytelling seems to remain more fluid. Thanks for the view into the process.

Monday, June 2, 2014

One More Reason Why We Need Diverse Lit

The other day I had a conversation with a very wealthy and well-educated white man. This conversation still bothers me. Probably because it’s a discussion whose main points I’ve had to deal with many times before with other people. Note: this guy was not some ignorant, insensitive racist spouting ethnic slurs.

Still, he didn’t understand what I was talking about because ultimately he was not yet able to stand outside his privilege of white skin, male gender, and inherited wealth. I say, “not yet,” because I refuse to give up hope for him and others I’ve encountered like him, who have genuinely good intentions but can’t get past the blinders of privilege. Earlier conversations with such people have focused around the difficult lives of women living in poverty, the automatic racism encountered over and over by people of color that can leave them justifiably hypersensitive, and similar topics. This conversation centered on books.

This person condemned a wide variety of fiction and poetry by writers of color, in particular Latinas and Latinos, as “just political.” Good writing, according to him, is not “political posturing.” I looked at the list of books we were discussing, which ranged from Rudolfo Anaya and Manuel Muñoz to Luis Alberto Urrea and Helena Maria Viramontes and were among a group of books and authors branded as extreme political agitation by a rightwing school board (which led to our discussion), and I realized from things he said that he’d not read most of them himself and was just parroting the judgments politicians had laid on them (probably without reading them, either). I tried to explain that most of these writers weren’t trying to write political novels or poetry as much as they were simply trying to be true to the lived experience of their lives and the lives of their families and ancestors. He didn’t buy it.

You see, in his experience, everyone is deferential and respectful to him. He has no experience of being deliberately humiliated or seeing his parents deliberately humiliated because of the color of their skin, their accent, their Hispanic last names, and/or their poverty. He has no experience of deliberate, offhanded cruelty directed at him or his family or neighbors for no reason other than because the inflictor can get away with it. He has no experience with living in grinding poverty, seeing his parents (and possibly himself) forced into dangerous, unsafe, and unfair working conditions for the tiniest possible wages.

In his world, such things are unreal. Therefore, they must be made up or vastly exaggerated for political purposes. To him, therefore, any writer who simply writes of her childhood misery working in the fields as a migrant laborer as Helena Maria Viramontes does or of the poverty and casual, racist cruelty encountered as the child of an immigrant as Luis J. Rodriguez does must be dishonestly fabricating in order to inflame the reader’s emotions for political purposes. Writers speak the truth about their lives and the lives of many in their communities, and because the reality they describe is so unacceptable to privileged white Americans, they are told they must be making it all up for radical political purposes.

I know, unfortunately, that this is a common stance, even among some well-meaning people. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the person whose conversation with me began this post believes that poor people of color writing about their lives and history must be inventing out of whole cloth for inflammatory political purposes. I’m not angry with him. I’m sad for him—and others like him. The only way to get past the blinders of privilege is to take a journey way out of their comfort zones, to walk into the world of the disenfranchised (of whom they are afraid). Or they could read the works of the many gifted Latina/o writers, African American writers, Indigenous writers, Asian American writers, and LGBTQ writers and discover the world these writers and their people live in deep underneath that bright surface of the world of American privilege.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks  #diverselit

As I reflected on this experience, author Mona Alvarado Frazier, whose blog can be found at,  invited me to be part of a blog adventure, designed to explore the problems of lack of diversity in published books that was initiated on Twitter under the hashtags #weneeddiversebooks and #diverselit, in which we answer the following questions:

1) What are you working on?

I am currently writing Every Family Doubt, my fourth Skeet Bannion mystery novel—my third, Every Hidden Fear, just published in May—revising a thriller with a Latina protagonist, and getting ready to send out my third book of poetry, Dark Sister.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre? 

My protagonist, Skeet Bannion, is Cherokee, and she lives in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Like a number of modern Indians, she grew up among her tribe and learned some traditional ways, but left in her late teens for education and employment in the urban mainstream world away from her people. She’s encountered prejudice as an Indian and as a woman in the largely white male profession of law enforcement, but she’s succeeded anyway. Now, as a police chief, she’s mentoring a smart, talented Latino whom she relies on, even as she knows that the opportunities she’s opening to him will take him from her to larger arenas where he can climb higher than her small force will allow. There are only a few Latino or Indian authors publishing mysteries at this time.

3) Why do you write what you do? 

People seem to expect novels that deal with Indians to either showcase life on the rez or drunken, violent urban Indians. I wanted to write about the majority of Indians today, who live in cities away from the reservations and traditional places of their people, but who hold down jobs, raise families, take part in their communities, and still try to straddle the two cultures of mainstream American and their own tribe’s traditional ways.

I also wanted to have as diverse a cast in my novels as I have in my own daily life in the Kansas City area. I have wide diversity in my neighbors and friends in ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and sexual preference/gender identity. At the same time, I don’t want to make the book a sermon on diversity, so most of the storylines don’t really have anything to do with diversity. I simply want to make the cast of my books as diverse as the cast of my real life.

4) How does your writing process work? 

I start with the nexus of location/situation/character, and then I focus heavily on character and develop plot out of the interactions and overt and hidden reactions of the characters. I do a lot of thinking, and I try to do most of it on paper since the act of writing thoughts out and developing them on paper leads to deeper and more complex thoughts about the characters and the story. I try to write the first draft quickly without interruptions, but then I revise and revise, trying to make it richer, more complex, and more alive with each revision.

Next week, June 9, 2014, creative nonfiction writer Terra Trevor will post her own experiences and thoughts in this same blog adventure as we look in our many different ways at diversity in literature and the need for diverse books.

Terra Trevor, mixed blood Western Band Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca, is a widely published, essayist, memoirist and nonfiction writer of a diverse body of work, and a contributing author of 10 books. Excerpts from her memoir Pushing up the Sky, A Mother’s Story are in landmark anthologies including Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices On Child Custody and Education, and Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond To War. In addition to writing Terra has worked as a Project Director with American Indian Health Services and has led numerous workshops for the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) Conference on the topics of race and adoption, multi-racial and multi-cultural identification, and racism and white privilege for the transracial adoptive family.
REPLIES TO COMMENTS: (Blogger! What can I say?)

Diana, you bring up two very good topics. For my response to the first one , I'll just offer a link to an earlier blog where I dealt with that issue of writers trying to write about cultures other than their own in depth, basically saying "If you want to do this, take the time and put in the effort to do it right." And also looking at the problem of white writers writing about marginalized people and getting published while writers from those communities cannot get their work published. It's the exploitation problem.

As for the second one--minority writers wanting to write about other lives--I've found it interesting that some reviewers will give white writers a pass on writing about any lives or cultures that they want, but won't with writers of color. I know it's frustrating not only for writers but for visual artists, as well. I have friends who get comments about how can they be really Latino if they have no sombreros or cactuses in their paintings. There is too often a sense that there is only one way to be Latino or Native American or African American or Asian American, and that way usually involves using stereotypes. It's important for writers of color to write the stories of their families and ancestors, giving voice to those who have been allowed no voice for so long, but writers of color also need to be free to write their own stories. Often if a writer from a marginalized community writes his or her own story and didn't grow up in the stereotypical way--sombreros and cactus--it's blasted as "not *whatever label* enough." I have had readers tell me they were disappointed with my books because they wanted something like Tony Hillerman and some other white mystery writers who have Indian protagonists. Because the "sombrero" for Indians is the reservation, even though the majority of Indians in this country live away from the rez in urban areas--and not all as drunks, which seems to be the only other way Indians are portrayed.

And that doesn't even speak to the idea that a writer of color might want to write a story of another culture, especially the mainstream one.

Mona, thank you--and thank you for inviting me into this discussion. I can get as angry as anyone else, but I also can tell the difference between someone of good will, failing in understanding and action, and someone who is filled with hate and the desire to trash people other than himself. They are both problems, but the first are people who will eventually learn, I'd like to believe.

Kay, it is a problem, but not always insurmountable. This guy may well be a lost cause. He's grown up extremely wealthy, and we all know Jesus told us how hard it was for a rich man. But I have known people of privilege with this same problem who, because some of us didn't give up on them, have come to be aware of their own privilege and to be willing to try to learn about people other than themselves without relying on stereotypes. They sometimes fall short in their efforts, but so do I and most people I know. They continue to try when they could just turn their backs and be comfortable among "their own kind." And it's with people like these that the battle's to be won. The ignorant bigots, so full of hate, aren't going to change, and the people who have already made this journey don't need our efforts--we're preaching to the choir there. It's these people with good intentions but privilege blinders where we can make real progress, slow but telling progress.

Mary, I don't consider those folks who use the "they don't work hard enough" and "they're lazy" myths to be well-intentioned. I'm talking about folks who, if nothing else, have a little sense of compassion, but just cannot get past the blinders of privilege because they're not really aware that their privilege is blinding them. But I do agree that books are excellent ways to reach the people I'm talking about and possibly even the ones you're referring to. Studies show us that reading novels stimulates and strengthens empathy--and that's exactly what's missing here.

Debra, yes, I was also appalled at the many conservative media sites that pretty much trashed her, and many people of the same mindset put derogatory comments on articles and posts honoring her poetry and her life. Appalling!

Terra, thank you for spreading the word about this post. I'm glad it provided fruit for discussion on your conference forum. I hoped it would start people thinking and speaking to each other about the need for diverse books. I'm really looking forward to your post about this topic next week!

Reine,  that's like the reason I hate the term "politically correct." It's one of the many clever ways the right wing has renamed good things to make them sound bad to people who don't read widely. I always tell people that "inclusive" is a much more accurate term. If you use terms that offend or shut people out, you're not being inclusive. If you try to include the viewpoints of other genders, classes, religions, cultures in your discussions, you're being inclusive, not political correct. Inclusivity helps us learn, broaden our outlook on the world, fosters communication between people of different backgrounds. An inclusive world, a world that values diversity, is a richer, more complex and exciting world.