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Monday
Aug182014

A Stop on the Virtual Blog Tour

It's been awhile! But I've been busy working on a new manuscript (a bit more below) and keeping my head above water. Some months are simply like that. And so I'm very grateful for the invitation that came my way from my former grad school colleague and wonderful writer Rashaan Alexis Meneses to join a blog tour in progress. 

Via Rashaan's site, and with a nod to the writer who tagged her, Barbara Jane Reyes, here's what a blog tour entails:

The “virtual blog tour” is an excellent, friendly way for writers, artists, and other creative folks to bring attention to their own work as well as that of others. It begins with an invitation from another artist or writer. Then in your blog you acknowledge the person who invited you, answer four given questions about your work and your process, and then invite three other people to participate. These people then do the same thing, referring their blog readers to the blogs of three more people, and so on. It’s a wonderful sort of “pyramid scheme” that’s beneficial for everyone: the artists and writers as well as the readers of their blogs. We can follow links from blog to blog and then we can all learn about different kinds of creative process and also find new writers and artists we may not have known about before.

So! First to introduce Rashaan. Rashaan is my blogging inspiration and the founder of Ruelle Electrique, an online literary salon. Her imagination is vast--global, in fact, and she's got all sorts of projects in the works, from analyzing Elizabethan transculturation to a manuscript about Filipino cruise ship workers, the latter one that I've been lucky enough to catch glimpses of in progres. And one of the best parts of our literary friendship has been watching her work find its place in the world. Most recently, her short story "The Others Are Strangers," appeared in the winter 2014 issue of the journal New Letters. Inspired by her recent residency in Scotland, this piece continues her project of exploring her truly global imagination. It's well worth a read.

From "The Others Are Strangers":

Despite all these dates that floated in his head, a constellation of facts with no clear order, Ewan could remember but a faint memory long, long ago, of himself, Callum, Mum, and Dad there at that rickety kitchen table, the same humming refrigerator knocking noise into their Friday dinner, as Dad kept shadow-boxing, showing Ewan how to throw a punch. Was it what Callum said or his father’s reaction that made all four practically spit out their food in hysteria? It was a belly-holding kind of laugh, a giggle fever going round and round the table in fits. Ewan didn’t know the kitchen light could get so bright. He hadn’t seen cheeks so red from humor. Now he wanted that ache more than anything. A feel-good, stomach-stitched ache that pinched his cheeks and made him almost tear up. 

And as for the questions for me...

1. What are you currently working on?

Mainly, a currently-untitled novel about a girl who spends the entirity of World War I deep in the Canadian woods with her parents, and what happens when she comes back out again. I've been obsessed with the interwar period for a long time, and this character, and how she handles her dislocation from the major event of her generation, is proving to be a fascinating way into this world. Plus, there are Russian fairy tales and long, dark winters and possibly somewhat supernatural books. As there often are.

I do have some short pieces in the works, which is unusual for me, but I'm going with it. I'm also continuing my quest, though it can feel a touch Quixotic, to find a home for my first novel, A Ghost at the Edge of the Sea, in this climate-changing ecosystem of publishing.

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

I find that my work skews global, that I'm inspired by dislocation of all kinds, and that the reality we know tends to bleed into the supernatural, often without my conscious intent. If there's a ghost in my work, she's likely an actual ghost. Mainstream literary fiction so often tends towards realism, though that's changing a bit, but I've never been one for the quiet moment of revelation on a benign suburban evening type of story, as a writer or as a reader. It feels hubristic for me to say that I'm the only one doing this, or even that it sets my work apart--A Tale for the Time Being is, after all, one of my favorite books I've read this year, in which Ozeki delivers a gorgeous supernatural and persistently global tale of coming to terms with dislocation.  I hope to add to the growing body of work in this spirit.

3. Why do you write/create what you do?

One could say that the dislocation fascination comes from near-constant moves, especially as a child. One could also point to various English degrees, etc. But really, I've been telling stories, and writing them down, since I could hold a pencil. It's simply innate to my own being. It feels as necessary as exercise when it comes to clearing my head and finding some sort of internal peace. So I try to do it as well, and as often, as possible.

4. How does your writing/creative process work?

During the year I lived in Stockholm and didn't work full time, I could have probably given a better, or more detailed, answer. But now that the day job has returned and my life continues to fill with various additional mammals who need to be exercised and fed, it's a bit more catch-as-catch-can. However, for the first time in a long time, my day job is not academic. While I miss teaching a great deal, I've found that the current routine does allow for more persistent progress. My current goal is five hundred words five days a week. It's not something I've tried before, but it's working for me. Five hundred words, for me, is easy enough that I'll sit down, even if time is short, even if the time and place is less than ideal, and bang them out. And usually, I end up with more than five hundred.

Right now, that very pragmatic answer is the most honest, and since I'm focusing on producing a new manuscript, it's also proven effective. But if we step away from numbers, this project is always in the back of my mind, percolating, and I'm very aware of that, often tossing ideas or images into my subconscious to see what comes back out. As a college writing professor once told me, don't make the mistake as a writer of forgetting to live, or you'll run out of material. And when the stars align, I absolutely love to sit down at my desk, which is covered with bits and pieces of inspiration, light a candle, and get to work.

And now, for more writers! I've chosen these four not only because they inspire me as writers, but because they inspire me with their blog presence, for one reason or another. I won't tell all the reasons--you should check out their work yourself--so without further ado, the introductions:

Mary Volmer is the author of the novel Crown of Dust. She was the recipient of a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to the University of Wales, and a Chester Aaron and an Agnes Butler Scholarship in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College, California. Mary has also been awarded fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Her essays and non-fiction have appeared in various places, including Mutha Magazine, Women's Basketball Magazine, and NPR's "this i believe series." Her most recent short fiction will appear in The Farallon Review in the fall (2014). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is happily at work on her second book.

Allison Landa is a Berkeley, CA-based writer of fiction and memoir. She earned an MFA in creative writing at St. Mary's College of California and has held residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Playa Summer Lake, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and The Julia and David White Artist's Colony. Her memoir, BEARDED LADY, is represented by Naomi Davis of Inklings Literary Agency. Visit her at www.allisonlanda.com.

Kim Golden is an expat American writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her latest novel, Maybe Baby, is a finalist for the 2014 Readers' Favorite Book Awards. Find out more about Kim and her writing at http://kim-golden.com.

Ron Pavellas has written essays, poetry, memoirs, and short stories since 1993, and is currently focused on a novel set in the future. Since 2007, Ron has published several blogs, the main one,The Pavellas Perspective, containing articles on geopolitics, government, history, and world affairs. A Few Words is devoted to creative writing. In all, his blogs have received over 250,000 views. He has self-published three books of short writings, available for view at this site. Several of Ron’s poems have been published by local poetry groups in California, and one on the website of Contemporary Haibun OnlineRon has given readings of his poetry in the Southern San Francisco Bay Area and in Stockholm. His other interests include appreciation of symphonic and chamber music. He writes articles on music in Making Musical Memories. He has been a member of the Stockholm writers Group since 2007.

Check them out!

Thursday
Jun122014

What Killing Tenure Won't Address

When I'm not writing fiction, I work in education. I also live in California, I hope to have children, and I plan to send said kids to public school. Thus the recent court decision Vergara v. California, in which teacher tenure was ruled unconstitutional, cuts close to the bone. I'll say right here up front that I'm not a labor scholar, but I am operating under the assumption that the goal is a quality education for all students, especially for those who are least likely to get it via any other means, and for me, this means quality state schools. As my writing here is often at least a little personal, I'm going to take advantage of the blog format, skip the numbers and source research for now, and go straight to my gut-level response: this is not going to be good, not for students, and not for teachers.

There's an inclination in this valley to approach all problems in life from an engineering mindset, as one might expect. Problem is, this often translates not into a laser-like focus on the most stunningly broken parts of a system but into a laser-like focus on a specific part of the system with absolutely no ability or inclination to consider how it functions in the larger whole. There are huge and entrenched socio-historical-political realities that impact our education system at all levels, and a single part of how teachers are compensated can't possibly do justic to the complicated reality.

We all know there are horrible teachers out there. We also know that many of them tend to accumulate at the bottom of the system--that is, the school districts in which the least amount of teachers ultimately choose to work. We also know that these districts tend to be the ones with the greatest population of traditionally underserved students of all kinds--of black and brown students, of low-income students, of students from families without a strong history of education, of ELD students who have to work double-time to learn the language and the material, etc.

Tenure isn't why these teachers end up in these particular places, and while it does make it more difficult to get rid of them, I don't believe that simply killing it is going to have any positive impact on student success rate. I can see why someone might fixate on it--after all, if you're used to an office-and-boardroom environment, just the idea of keeping an employee around who doesn't contribute to the bottom line can induce nausea.

But here's the thing: kids aren't anyone's bottom line, or at least they shouldn't be. And I can think of many other things that have a greater influence on why poor teachers end up coming to struggling districts--and end up staying--than tenure.

 

  • FUNDING AND TEACHER PAY. Pay in these districts is usually bad. The way we fund our education system here makes absolutely no sense to me, unless you assume that the goal is to keep poor students and their families intergenerationally poor. Fund based on property tax? Threaten to kill funding if schools can't get their most vulnerable students to care about filling in bubbles? Threaten to close the entire school, often one of the few safe places in a neighborhood (not to mention a reliable source of food), gut the staff (many, if not most, of whom have been forming solid relationships with the student body), and create more chaos in the lives of the students, all in the name of "improving" their education? Right. Those things will work. In the meantime, salaries will remain low, even when compared to neighboring, but slightly wealthier, districts without the same kinds of needs. So a good teacher who needs to support his or her family can very easily be forced out simply based on economic realities. I've seen it happen. Right now, tenure is often the only part of the compensation package that's worth much of anything.
  • JOB SECURITY. This isn't just tenure, though tenure is a huge part of it. Teachers in these districts (which are the most inclined to be hit hard by economic downturns) are vulnerable, even if they do manage to stick around. Their pensions can be hit. Their medical benefits can be cut, or shrunk down until they apply only to the district employee, not his or her family (see: leaving based on personal economic reality and the need to support a family). Last hired first fired takes tenure into account, sure, but if your entire school is liable to be taken over and the staff either dumped or required to reinterview for their jobs, it doesn't mean much. That's hardly an environment that's going to attract skilled teachers.
  • SELECTING FOR MARTYRS. Don't get me wrong--I remember seeing the trailor for Dangerous Minds in the theater when I was in high school myself, and I was mildly impressed, though I didn't actually go watch it. But when Freedom Writers came out, I was a little more skeptical about the whole great-white-hope teacher-as-savior-in-urban (read: black)-school trope. So not only are teachers intended to get in there and "save" their students, they're expected to work extra jobs in order to buy the kids books. They're expected to neglect their own personal lives in order to complete a superhuman task (Waiting for Superman spells it out right there in the title). Basically, it's not a job--it's a calling, it's a passion, and that often means that when teachers do things like, you know, ask for pay and professional respect, along with working conditions that might allow them to stay at a school for twenty years without being chewed up and spit out, people are shocked. And then, all too frequently, angry. Because that's not how we talk about teachers--they're either martyrs or leeches. Models like that of Teach for America don't help either. Throwing underprepared college grads, no matter how innately talented, into the most difficult classrooms in the country is not a model for success. No, it's a model for burnout on the part of the teachers, incredibly high turnover (which means a loss of campus and district investment in training), and even more disrupted relationships for students for whom school is often one of few stable places in their lives.

So if you take away tenure under the rationale that it will make it easier to get rid of bad teachers in underserved districts, I have news for you: the only reason the bad teachers are there in the first place is because they can be. And it's also because they can't be anywhere else. Try to keep a failing teacher in a well-funding, parent-supported suburban school and see what happens. Tenure doesn't mean teachers can't be fired; it means that it has to follow a union-negotiated process. If a warm body is your standard, a warm body is what you'll get. And don't even get me started on the way this often plays out, where only those teachers who have other sources of family wealth or income can afford not to let compensation become a major issue, not to mention the general trend toward resegregation at schools on all levels. 

Fire all the teachers you want if tenure really does vanish. Go ahead. And congratulate yourself that you're having a real impact on education. Just don't expect highly qualified, compassionate, and dynamic teachers to line up to replace them until you address far more of the broken education system we've all got on our hands. Don't delude yourself into thinking that your impact will make any kind of positive, comprehensive difference.

Tuesday
Jun102014

My Early Summer Break is Over

Well, it wasn't a break, really. It was an intensive seven-week period in which I went through two sets of teaching search committee interviews, obtained a puppy, lost my husband temporarily to a burst of Silicon Valley controlled chaos, and adjusted to getting up before 6am (see: obtained puppy). 

Truth be told, the pre-6am thing is a work in progress. But I'm getting the hang of it.

More to come, and soon, in this space, both linked to The Loyalty of Water and my own musings. In the meantime, have a dog. May your week be this unabashedly joyful.

Wednesday
May142014

For Just a Short Period of Time

A very small group of people began to believe that we were not subject to the greater forces of nature, the planet, the universe. As one of their descendents, I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to let this illusion go, what process we will have to follow, and what we, and our world, might look like at the end of it all.

But I still slip--it's more "the" world than "our" world. We will need a new mythology, a new stack of stories, to help take this all in. I've been wondering if maybe that's where a writer can do her most important work.

More to come on this one. A lot to think about. 

Tuesday
Apr292014

An Interview with Kim Golden, Author of Maybe Baby

Kim Golden has already had a busy year. She released her most recent full novel, Maybe Baby, began her new serial novella Maybe Tonight, and is currently at work on a third book in the series. If you don't usually read women's fiction, now is the time to begin, and Kim is where you want to start. Maybe Baby follows Laney, an American expat in her thirties living in Stockholm with her Swedish boyfriend Niklas. Laney has just realized that she'd like to have a child, and Niklas has just revealed that he's had a vasectomy that he doesn't want to reverse. With that, Laney's off to Copenhagen to check out a sperm bank with some slightly unorthodox methods, which is where she meets Mads.

Think you know what's going to happen? I admit that I did, too--until I started reading. 

What makes Kim's success even more compelling is that she publishes under her own imprint and does the vast majority of the work--which extends well beyond writing the actual book--herself. Kim lives in Stockholm, where she is the love refugee of her husband Tord. You may recognize her and her writing from an earlier post in The Loyalty of Water; read on for a glimpse into her process, imagination, and plans for the future.

Interview edited for clarity. 

Emily: First off, it's been really exciting to see from here how well Maybe Baby has been doing. Did you expect this? And where is it today? What's been the best placement on Amazon?

Kim: No, I didn't expect it at all! I hoped that people would like it, but I was more worried that people would hate the infidelity storyline.

Today it's at #18 on the Kindle Bestsellers List for African-American Women's Fiction. The highest it's been was #8. I think if I do a bit more marketing, it'll be back up again.

Emily: You know, that's not a reaction I ever had...even though I would in real life. Have you run into that before in anything else you've written? 
Or is that something that's often a third rail with readers?

 For me, at least, part of why it didn’t bother me was just how Niklas was drawn. I did feel his pain, but it was also apparent that he had been living his life without making any real effort on behalf of Laney for a long time.

Kim: People who read romance novels often swear by these unwritten rules and one of them is that the hero or heroine must not cheat. But, since Maybe Baby isn't a romance, I didn't care about that rule. There were still some people who bitched about it. With Snowbound, there were readers who completely flipped out about the infidelity there.

Click to read more ...

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