Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Marjorie Agosín—Books of Interest by Writers of Color

UPDATE: Marjorie Agosín receives Pura Belpré Award from the American Library Association for I Lived on Butterfly Hill.

This is part of a special #diverselit, #WeNeedDiverseBooks intensive for my regular series of posts, Books of Interest by Writers of Color.

I’ve written before about Marjorie Agosín, her brilliant books of poetry, memoir, essays, and scholarship and her amazing career as a human-rights activist. Her 2014 book, I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Simon & Schuster, 978-1416953449), is her first novel. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of a young girl in Chile with parents allied with the democratic government, who is forced into exile in the United States because of a dictator’s coup and its vicious aftermath. Agosín herself fled to the U.S. with her parents at the same age from Pinochet. Agosín has compressed the length of the dictatorship in her already expansive book, as well as other details—for story purposes and because, as she said in an interview, “I could not bear to make Celeste Marconi endure 17 years of a fierce dictatorship. Three was enough.”  

Probably because of the age of the protagonist, the novel is marketed as a book for older children/young adults, but this luminous, poignant novel actually makes compelling reading for anyone of any age. The charming illustrations by Lee White are paired perfectly with the lyrical prose of Agosín, an award-winning poet, the enchanted life the protagonist lives in Chile before the Pinochet-like dictator, and the mysterious and mystical events of her life on the coast of Maine and back in Valparaiso  after the dictator’s death.  I Lived on Butterfly Hill was published to universal praise, including a starred review from Booklist and a nomination for the Cybil Awards in children’s and young adult literature. It has recently gone into a second printing.

Grandchild of Holocaust refugees, Celeste Marconi is a happy dreamer, who loves her room at the top of her house high on a hill overlooking the harbor where she can make friends with pelicans while her grandmother and her Indigenous nanny take care of all the daily household work. She lives cocooned in the love and protection of friends, neighbors, and family in Valparaiso, Chile—until the time comes when even dreamy Celeste can’t deny the political unrest that is sweeping through the country. Warships fill the harbor. Classmates disappear from school. No one talks about any of the terrible things that are happening. There are just holes in the world as there always were when her grandmother talked about her life in Nazi Germany before she had to flee to Chile. Celeste doesn’t quite know what is happening, but one thing is clear: no one is safe, not anymore.

The country has been taken over by a government that declares artists, protestors, and anyone who helps the needy “subversive” and dangerous. So Celeste’s parents, doctors who help poor people, must go into hiding before they, too, “disappear.” To protect their daughter, they send her to her eccentric aunt on the coast of Maine in the United States. Plunged abruptly into the very different seaside world of Juliette Cove, Celeste has no knowledge of English, of American society and popular culture, of winter or snow, of housework, and has never been lonely in her life—before this. She goes to school, tries to help her aunt around the house, and learns to adjust to life in Maine, even as her heart stays wrapped up in Valparaiso and her family there. This section of the book is one of the most evocative and tender expressions of the experience of the immigrant, especially the child immigrant, who lives in and between two worlds each day and the emotional roller coaster that entails.

Eventually, just as Celeste begins to feel at home in Juliette Cove, the dictator dies of a nasty cold (Agosín’s little joke to get back at the long-lived Pinochet), and Celeste is called back home to a Valparaiso and Chile that she hardly recognizes. Her parents are still gone, perhaps dead, and she wonders if anything can ever be the way it used to be. The magic and mysticism that permeate all levels of Chilean society are important elements of the book, part of the powerful threads of imagery and metaphor that weave throughout, but here they play a major role in the denouement of the book’s bittersweet ending.

Beautiful language, captivating characters, and a gripping story make this rich, ambitious novel a winner for anyone who wants to know what it was like living through the horrors of the Pinochet regime or wants to understand the experience of the exile or immigrant or simply wants to fall into a lush world of fear, loss, hope, and courage and live in that fascinating environment for the duration of a book by a spellbinding storyteller.

To read more about this inspiring author, visit this past post:

And this one:

Usually, I send readers to the small or university presses who have published the writers I discuss in order to support those midwives to #diverselit, but this book of Agosín’s is published by one of the big titans in New York City, so I’ll just give the Amazon link. I’ve also given the ISBN number with the first mention of the title, so you can also order it from your local independent bookstore, which would be even greater. Any way you go about it, get this book. You will thank me after reading it.

Next time, I’ll look at Frances Washburn and her new novel, The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band. Until then, branch out in your reading. Step outside your comfort zone and broaden your capacity for empathy. Read #diverselit.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Erika Wurth—Books of Interest by Writers of Color

This is the first in my restarted blog series in honor of #diverselit and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. For a number of years, I did a regular series of post, Books of Interest by Writers of Color. Last year, just as I was about to do a month’s intensive of that series in honor of the then-new #diverselit movement online, I went into a series of medical emergencies. Now, I’m back with all the authors and books I’d wanted to feature.

I first encountered Erika Wurth’s work in her book of poetry, Indian Trains (West End Press, ISBN 978-0-9753486-7-3), which I found a remarkably moving first book. Poems like “Time to Dance,” “Genocide Fists,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Quarterbreeds Grow Up to be Cowboys,” “You Didn’t Want a Dollar, You Wanted Me,” “Grandma Was a Beat Poet,” “How to Finance an Illusion,” and “Colfax Reservation Television” offer the reader a glimpse into lives full of wreckage, ironic humor, harsh truths, but also holding tenderness and hope. Using sharp imagery, sometimes biting and sometimes lyrical language, and nuggets of story at the heart of her people and herself, she creates a brave, intimate book about the urban mixed-bloods who make up 70 percent of the Indian population.

In “Time to Dance,” she sums up her hopes for her people with “I want our lives to be a fancydance, for every Indian to run straight into the imagination without stopping for a drink first.” In “Mama Don’t Let Your Quarterbreeds Grow Up to be Cowboys,” her lines are like a prophecy for her next great book, her novel Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend:
“They move, their muscles pulling tight, their
arms wearing secrets
Crazyhorse tattoos under their shirts, filled with
spirit, filled
with the knowledge of death, running always
with the horses”

Wurth’s novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 978-1940430430), came out in September 2014. It’s an intense, gritty story of a sixteen-year-old mixed-blood Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee/white girl living in poverty and hopelessness in a violent home on the outskirts of Denver who is determined to get out of that situation. Unfortunately, the ways she chooses—drug dealing and a sexual relationship with a “cool” loser—aren’t going to work to free her from her misery, especially after she becomes pregnant.

Wurth pulls the reader into Margaritte’s life and her surroundings with sharp, haunting images, tough, realistic dialogue, and emotionally troubling situations and conflicts. As Margritte struggles to survive and find a way to escape her fate and actually thrive, the reader despairs and hopes for her. This gripping narrative is raw and realistic, but Wurth always shows compassion for her underdog protagonist and the people surrounding her in the trap of poverty and dysfunction. Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend is serious medicine using visceral language, but for the strong of heart, it is an empathetic, passionate journey.

Wurth is one of the most promising among a bright crop of newer Native writers. Look for much more from her in both poetry and fiction.

Erika T. Wurth is Apache / Chickasaw / Cherokee and was raised on the outskirts of Denver. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and was a writer-in-residence at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Boulevard, Fiction, Pembroke, Florida Review, Stand, Cimarron Review, The Cape Rock, Southern California Review and Drunken Boat.

As usual, I recommend that you buy books from the small presses or university presses that produce them as a way of supporting those necessary midwives of literature. The majority of #diverselit is brought out by these presses, and without them, the only diversity we would have in our literature would be the occasional Sherman Alexie or Louise Erdrich. Much as I love both of those writers, I also know they would be the first to tell you there are many more fine Indigenous writers out there who are published by less well-known presses.

For Indian Trains, visit West End Press at:

For Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, visit Curbside Splendor Publications at:

The next installment in this series will be Marjorie Agosín’s marvelous new YA novel based on her own teen years having to flee the Pinochet regime in Chile.

Friday, January 9, 2015

One More Reason Why We Need #DiverseLit

Since I’m coming back from a year of serious illness and starting a new round of my longstanding series, Books of Interest by Writers of Color, I thought I’d reprise the blog post that I used to begin this new round just before I ended up in multiple surgeries and treatments. That post was never really followed up on because of the surprise of cancer, so I’ll post it again and list some of the authors I’ll be featuring in upcoming weeks.

In future weeks, I’ll be looking at the recent work of Marjorie Agosín, Kim Shuck, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Linda Hogan, Frances Washburn, Gerald Vizenor, Richard Vargas, Allison Hedge Coke, Juliana Aragon Fatula, Erika Wurth, and many more fine writers. I hope you’ll come back to read about the exciting work they are doing. I started this Books of Interest by Writers of Color series as a resource for teachers and librarians who had asked me for help as I made appearances around the country. And the blog post below helps to explain why I think this is more important than ever.

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, Sherman Alexie, 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 communities. 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 or the residual trauma of genocide and racism as Sherman Alexie 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