Category Archives: Setting Place Roots

Writing Life: Celebrating My “Irish” by Writing

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I was woken this St. Patrick’s Day morning by the most Irish of my sons studying me in my jammies and challenging, “Are you wearing green?”

Slice of Life Challenge - TwoWritingTeachers.com

Slice of Life Challenge – TwoWritingTeachers.com

My family is not fully Irish — one grandfather is Finnish, a grandmother French, another grandfather English. It’s one grandmother alone who feeds my Irish roots. Her family was Irish as they come. I can’t say that without image coming to mind of any of her wiry-haired brothers with his head tipped back to laugh.

Yet I never felt so Irish until my sons were born. I inadvertently tipped their focus toward their Irish roots when I name my oldest son Liam — less in Irish obsession than in the fact I liked the name (it is actually nod to my Finnish grandfather, William).

His younger brother, Blake, however, is the true throwback.  I’ve never met a more Irish person than my youngest son, whose looks and mannerisms perfectly replicate Irish ancestors so long dead he could not be mimicking, and it was Blake (who slept in green shorts) who challenged my commitment to St. Patrick’s Day this morning.

My sons get the double-dose, as my mother-in-law was full Irish, complete with her dark humor. I cracked up over the tweet from Weinstein Books publicity director, Kathleen Schmidt, below, because it so much represents the “catching up” conversations we have with my mother-in-law each visit home:

Not only does my mother-in-law catch you up on family news by cataloguing the latest illnesses and disasters (in the most dramatic stage whisper, as if she were nearly — nearly — too shocked to tell you), but she is an avid lover of murder fiction.

She was never so pleased with a trip to visit us in Florida than the night we ended up trapped on South Beach, in Miami, because the FBI had the island cordoned off while they chased Gianni Versace’s killer. We had given her the perfect mystery-lover’s outing as we walked past the still-stained sidewalk in front of Versace’s house and inadvertently walked through the live taping of America’s Most Wanted, on our way to take her to a salsa-dancing club, where the blue-lit helicopter footage of the chase was being broadcast over the bar.

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Still, my boys’ and my own Irish identity reached its peak after a family trip to the ole sod in 2006.

The trip planted a seed that later grew into a novella and then a novel draft, which is the novel I have been working on the past 2 years and often write about here (click for all posts on Wake or on novel revision).

The picture of my son on the lawn of an Irish country house, at the top, epitomizes a certain essence of the internal motivation in the novel. While early drafts focused on the love story between Carinne and the paramilitary man she met in Ireland, development of her character and the story have made it clear that it is the need of her son to find his father that becomes the inciting incident for her to unravel all the mysteries in the book. Where she has been paralyzed to act on her own motivation, she is made brave enough to do for her son.

What’s interesting to me, as my boys and I celebrate being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, is the backwards connections we have to Ireland now. For the deeply passionate connection we feel, my own inspiration is often in reverse to our factual roots.

In tracing family roots, we traveled to the south, although the Cooleys are from north of Dublin. My son poses in front of a country house, although our family left behind roots as humble as a mud-floored cottage. In Kerry, where the Irish Troubles didn’t reach, I first felt the dark spark of my paramilitary character, Michael Roonan, on the shadowy, cool bed of a room in the garden wing of a English peerage hunting lodge. As much as the violence of the north was absent, the dark shadows of the surrounding forest seemed to speak of something in hiding, and Roonan was vivid in my mind from one sleepless night as if he leaned against the wall impatiently waiting for me to write.

But writing is like that. And our Irish love of story is like that: craving surprise, darkness, even shock.

I celebrate this St. Patrick’s day by making the most of the week I have off for spring break by writing. My characters have been speaking loudly to me since the first hour I left work on Friday. I’ve written each of the last few days. I’ve copied new material from the last months into the existing draft (I’m well up to a 6th or 8th draft by now).  I’m due for another print-and-read-through, expecting much from early drafts will be deleted now, and there will be big challenges in weaving together the reveal moments of various threads of the internal and external conflicts.  Lots to do.

But I think I’ll start with the promise to my son: I’ll go don green.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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How About You?

What are you working on today?  Are you celebrating your Irish roots?  Or, how does your own ancestry inspire what you write about?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

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Filed under Inspiration, My Work in Progress, Relentless Wake, Setting Place Roots

October Writing Challenge 2: Reflections on Writing Character & Place

As mentioned in an earlier post, October is host to a couple interesting writing challenges from fellow bloggers.  Today’s post gathers reflections from Days 2-5 of Herding the Dragon’s 30-day challenge.

Visit my other “challenge” posts this month:

October Challenge 1: Submit-O-Rama & Herding the Dragon Fiction challenge

October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation
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Day 2)  How do you come up with names for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)? 

Some time back, we had a stray cat move in and dump a litter of kittens on us. Between that and my sons’ normal pets, I’ve gotten good at naming animals (Lilybird, Twinkle, Wolfie, Coco, Storm, Attaluna…). Same goes for children.  My mother tells me to stick with cats and hamsters, since I could end up with a half dozen kids to use up the names in waiting.  But I don’t always love naming characters.

Workshopping the opening pages of Wake in May, one of the key questions Ann Hood asked was if it was intentional that I kept referring to the two characters in the scene as “the mother” and “the son.”  Yeah, not altogether.  I forgot that I’d never added their names in.  I’d originally written the scene not knowing what I’d call them.  Wake isn’t my only work that was written almost entirely with the characters being called by who they are (the doctor, the man, the boy).

With some manuscripts, I identify a character quickly with the sound of a name. In Breathing Water, the mama was Clara from the first lines that ever came out. Equally, her daughter was undoubtedly Julia. Even more fun, most of the side characters stole names from people in my life as I wrote the story. About the lives of certain Cuban immigrants at a point of powerful emotion over the exodus from the island, I was continually affected by stories of friends around me, eager to share their family’s experience. Haydee was the bailiff in the office of the judge next to mine; Raul was named after a man I admired; Armando after an attorney who fled Cuba in 1957 then ended up in my LSAT class in 1992, finally trying to have his law license made official in the US.

But I’ve not been so quick with naming in other manuscripts.

I’m very picky that names 1) fit and 2) disappear.  I never want them to be a distraction.

Currently, the son in Wake is named Liam after my own son, only because I knew his mother would name him something Irish but I didn’t need the name so Irish it was dancing a jig. That would have been out of character for her. In fact, he’ll probably get renamed.  His mother is Carinne.  For her, I needed a name that was feminine and not common, yet not too fussy, either.  I didn’t want a flawless heroine.  Michael Roonan is the protagonist — a man questionably involved in paramilitary activities in Ireland. His first name was chosen to disappear. In choosing the last name, I’ve done research to be sure that no real person exists with a similar name, to avoid any suggestion he was based on fact.

As for names of places, I have maps of India, Cuba (including airspace maps) and Ireland hanging on my office walls from targeting settings.  In BW, I use the actual names for most places (in Virginia, Miami and Cuba), down to street names and neighborhoods.  The Miami house is based on a real house we used to stay in along the Miami River.  In other stories and novel drafts in the US, India and Ireland, I sometimes use real place names, but just as often use amalgams to invent towns, streets, house/cottage names, estate names, lakes and rivers. These are consistent with real places, but allow me to set scenes in anonymity. I invent names when detachment from reality serves the story, or to avoid appearing to make a statement about an actual place.  In most cases, I’ll follow naming conventions from the area this imaginary story would be set, but I have fun slipping in names from my family history or something odd my sons said to create the name. In another post, I mentioned how the source of the name of Crooked Moon Bay in one story was taken from how my son described the moon one night.

Day 3)  Tell us about one of your first stories/characters. 

I had a short story earn Honorable Mention in the Writers at Work fiction fellowship years ago, that was maybe the second story I’d written. I’d call it cringe-worthy now — I can’t help thinking it was full of cliches I didn’t know were cliche — but I’m still in love with certain lines about the musician that bring about affection I had for a coworker the year I wrote it. The character is a computer tech and hardworking father, but teaches guitar lessons at night. It comes out that he’d once been the real thing: he toured with the Cashmere Junglelords. Now he was picking up odd gigs at the Wild Ginger lounge, swearing each time would be his last night teaching the macarena. It wouldn’t make the list of stories I would include in a collection now, but it had its moments and readily takes me back to that time in my life.

Day 4)  By age, who is your youngest character? Oldest? How about “youngest” and “oldest” in terms of when you created them?

In Wake, Liam is about four in the opening scene, and appears in other scenes as a toddler. His innocent, clean slate is key to the story’s external conflict colliding with his father’s inner conflict.  For the adults in the story, there is the question whether anyone will make it to be old, which is perhaps fitting in the latent question whether Northern Ireland’s peace will hold.

In Breathing Water, Julia is in her late teens/early twenties at the opening, with memories recurring from when she lost her parents when she was six.  Her mother is in her fifties, with memories going back throughout her childhood in Cuba.  It is an “older” story than Wake, as it hinges on events that occurred in Cuba in the 50s, now coming to light in the 1990s.  It currently has the oldest timeframe of my drafts, but I have bones of a novel set in World War II and another set in 1817.

Generally, I’ve always started out with adult characters — although my interest in young adult fiction may take one work in that direction.

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What about your characters or naming conventions? What ideas do Herding the Dragon’s questions bring to mind for you about your writing?

Leave link to your blog in the comments below, if you join in on the challenge.

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Filed under Inspiration, Novel Writing, Setting Place Roots, Writing Character, Writing Prompt

From my Parenting Blog: Parenting Gets Existential

I’ve never loved candy-stripe carnations as much as these that my sons gave to me to celebrate the end of our school year. (That great vase is a bar glass that makes me crave a trip back to Mama Kwan’s bar in Kill Devil Hills, NC.) c Elissa Field

Because it is summer, and because summer has me of the mind of young children, free for long days of unscheduled abandon, today seemed a good day to share an essay I posted originally on my old parenting blog. As I enjoy long days with my boys, I was reminded of this one day with them that so captures how non-writing days serve as inspiration.

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I was the first one pregnant in our generation, on either side of our family.  From those first weeks of confessing it, I ran the steep hill of all the things I would learn about what it took to parent.  Diapers, pack and plays, how to know if it’s sick.  And then they grow up a little.

You work on which vacuum has large enough bore to suck up Cheerios without clogging, teaching yourself to say sugar! instead of shit, and truisms like “hands are not for hitting.”

Mysteriously, I discovered I absolutely love parenting.

Not the least of which is the way its existential challenges never cease to amaze.

This month’s challenge: answering the question, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

My five-year-old said, “It means ‘an old man’.”

His eight-year-old brother corrected him:  “No, it’s a teenager with long hair…  and funny clothes… and…”  He accurately described Shaggy, from Scooby Do, then faltered, breaking down to ask, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

And here parenting becomes existential – because even in their little boy way, they were grasping at something they could not articulate but could sense.  They got that there was some socio-political, socio-historical implication behind the meaning.  That it signified something they did not understand for there to be a hippie in their cartoon.

I begin to answer, but it’s the ubiquitous sound of one hand clapping.  Any explanation of what a hippie is means nothing without understanding the context of the culture they were rebelling against.  In our current environment where the two long-haired boys on my sons’ baseball teams are the sons of fashionista mamas, not grunge, how can they get what a statement it was for a guy to let his hair and beard grow shaggy in an era where hair didn’t touch one’s collar?  Where men and women still wore hats in public, and my grandmother and even my mother still carried spotless white gloves?   Our kids know hippie images as neon flowers on paper cups and napkins at the party store, or the peace signs in rhinestones on the neighbor’s jeans, without seeing them as re-imagined icons of what was once a radical attempt to move toward a gentler, more natural way of being, at a time of corporatization and war.  How do you explain the experience that I remember intangibly as paper butterflies on my young aunt’s wall, fanning out above her black and white poster of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

In attempting to find simple words to explain it, my understanding grows expansive in memory of history lessons and personal experience growing up in the 70s, touched with hindsight and the newer context of the world we have become since then.  I was not a hippie or flower child or child of hippies; my parents were primly republican.  As a child, I associated hippies with broken bottles on the pavement at our playground.  Yet here I am, forty, riding along in my SUV with little boys rattling about in the back (who are fascinated we did not have to wear seatbelts as kids), and feeling a wan tenderness in memory of avocado kitchen appliances and trying to remember what the whole affection for rainbows was about.

My world becomes larger with children.  Not just because more square-footage is required to be able to move around highchairs and train tables and strewn Legos, but because the whole expanse of the universe is new again in their eyes.

Soil that clearly belongs nowhere but between the roots of the hedges and flowers outside is now meant to be dug up, spread apart, carried about and stored in little containers that just would not have occurred to you as meant for analyzing dirt.  That is, not until you have a playdate with brightly dressed, neat little girls who open the little play kitchen and find it caked with dried spattered mud and your son smiles and explains it to her – proudly pointing out how when he shook the soil in a jar with water, the mulch, peat and sand separated into layers, creating a distinct grey, tan and brown rainbow that he’d just been dying to show someone.  He discovered density, you think with pride, at the same time you apologetically wash away the filth and reassure the little girls that there are clean toys here somewhere.

Life is a mystery.  Full of dark turns and surprises and joys and tragedies and things so beautiful and amazing.  You go on vacation and see a sunset or painting or giant gorge in the earth so startlingly beautiful that you honestly could not have borne seeing it without someone meaningful beside you to touch and say, “Look at that!”

Children find this not only on vacation, but in the mundane, the sagging days of life that might otherwise be only about when to fit in grocery shopping and whether a successful day at work was enough to qualify for bonus and if you will be able to sleep soundly tonight.

“Look!” they say, all the time.  “What is that?  Look!”  They pick out the plainest flower at the market and fall in love.  You find rocks in the bottom of your purse, a wilted  feather left for you beside your bed, stray bits of hardware clanking in your dryer.

And they take what we have known always in our lives – something as irrelevant and silly as a hippie – and hand us a whole cosmos of depth and meaning to wrestle with.

“What is a hippie?” I repeated, ready to say something about how people sometimes choose their clothes to express their feelings about the world, or maybe share something about what it was like to be a child in the 70s, or how the times then were or weren’t like our times now.

But they were laughing at something.

Just at the point they had me thoroughly wrapped up in the riddle of it, the boys moved on.

In the same effortless way they expand our lives with depth and complexity, they model for us simplicity.  My boys decided, simply, that “hippie” will be their favorite new word for anything weird… whether or not they really get what it means.

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Related Posts:

More on finding inspiration when least expected: Writing Life: Today’s Job – Non-writing Days

Reading this summer, including with my boys: Summer Reading List 2012

Another post on challenging conversations with kids: Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Are you a writing parent? Where do you find inspiration or challenge in balancing family with work?

 

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Enjoy your summer day, all!

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Filed under Culture + World, Inspiration, Setting Place Roots, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Chellberg barn, Indiana

A couple years ago, reading to kindergarteners, I had to pause and explain a barn to them. Red building, animals, in the picture in their storybook — they got that. They didn’t know the essence of driving down roads where barns stood on duty behind hundred year old family farmhouses. Didn’t know the gaps of daylight between rough-hewn siding, the smell of hay and manure and sweat, the forbidden dangerous glee of daring to jump from hayloft to floor. Didn’t know what it was to be absent all day, unaccounted for, only coming in for dinner smelling faintly of puppy and horse, hands and face smeared, hay jutting from loosened braids.

There comes a point where things that once had meaning no longer make sense.

We can’t cling to this or mourn it; it just is.

Yet it is a daily part of conversation.  “Ebook or print book?” hashtags debate all over twitter. Do we despise the ability to zap books instantly to our palm, if their existence eradicates the crisp smell of printed pages? Do we eye-roll at students who bypass libraries, assuming anything worth knowing has its own site?

This week I was reminded of another side to this: what of things we wanted gone? Do we bemoan these, as well, once they’ve left us?

Yes, in their own way. Drive out evil, but record it, turn a light on it, that it should not be repeated.

Arundhati Roy turns attention on child molestation, Toni Morrison on abuses against African-Americans, Lisa See on Chinese foot binding, Michael Cunningham on the AIDS epidemic, Jane Austen on gender bias in landholding rights, Jay Asher on suicide. German occupation, 9/11, drug and alcohol abuse, slavery, child neglect, fear of the wild, poverty. Those examples, just from the shelf in front of me, fall short of all literature seeks to record of what we wanted purged.

What is interesting is the feared void that follows such a purge: First the purge, then the teaching — the books, the movies, the retelling — to keep what was purged alive in our minds.

Much like needing to explain a barn, as mother to two young boys, I’ve had this thought close at mind over the past weeks, on heels of the controversy over the headline about Jeremy Lin, so stupidly published as “A Chink in the Armor.”

Author Matthew Salesses has come to my attention over the past year for his insight and intelligence, in writings I’ve followed through Twitter. He is someone I can identify with, as a sensitive parent, thinking ahead to the world his daughter will grow up in, but reflecting back, also, on the opportunities and exposure of his childhood. What I learned about him today is his perspective as an Asian American, which he reflects with exceptional candor and sensitivity in his essay, “Different Racisms…the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,” on the Rumpus.

After reading it, I tweeted my appreciation to him.

Seconds later, I couldn’t help adding: “FWIW, if I heard the word chink, an Asian slur would be the hundredth+ meaning I would think of. Dumb? Or just not my thinking?”

Tweets are limited in dimension. Even as I clicked to send this to him, I worried, considering the heart he bravely peeled open in his essay, would he think I was arguing, that I was trying to minimize or dispute the cruel things said?  So I later clarified with him: really, for better or worse, I hadn’t heard someone use “chink” to describe a person since I was in high school.  (Which was, um, not last year.)

In fact, in describing the barn, above, I began to say “chinks of light” come through the planks, an accurate representation of what I meant — but was suddenly disproportionately conscious of the word’s double-meaning, from reading his essay.

It’s not that Matthew’s essay was the first time this has occurred to me.

I spent my early childhood in Detroit, in a mixed race, mixed religion neighborhood. I’ve lived in homogenous, protestant white communities, but at the moment live in a neighborhood where we are the white minority, in race and culture. In Charlotte, North Carolina, I was bussed into the inner city and taught by a teacher who’d marched with Martin Luther King. I crave diversity in my friends and cultural interests, and tend to be a little hyper-sensitive about racism and other forms of bigotry.

But what happens, 20 years into “political correctness,” when we have lived so long shunning slurs?

In the first years, like me avoiding “chink” in describing the barn, we are hypersensitive of the Words We Must Not Say. We know these words. We catch them before they escape lips. We flinch when we hear them said. If we’re good, we roll eyes or even yell when friends try to slip them in as humor. (Equally, we know there are those who savor saying them in badness.)

Now comes the weakness. When do we become like kindergarteners, not knowing a barn?

Even for point of illustrating, I refuse to type a list of slur examples to make the point. I. will. not. type. those. words.

So how do we continue to know them and the impact they have?  How do my sons know I’d skin them alive for saying the n-word if I’ve purged it so fully that such conversation never comes up?

In this, do we reach a point where we don’t remember the words we were to avoid?

Quite fairly, Matthew challenged me. Would I really not think chink was a slur “even if [I] heard it addressed to an Asian person?”

Have I really never heard “chink” said of an Asian? Have I never witnessed an Asian friend feel marginalized? Shine a light on something and you see — or remember — what did not otherwise come readily to mind.  In North Carolina, in the all-white neighborhood where we lived one year, my girlfriend from the Philippines shared her immense pain and rejection over how different her family was from the families around us — no matter that I loved her family and remember her grandmother’s fish and rice (bane of her existence), affectionately, to this day. I went to high school outside of DC, where Asians made up 20-30% of our school (some born in the US, some whose parents were working temporarily in government agencies, a few who spoke little English). I read Matthew’s essay now and remember — in nauseous horror — that a beautiful friend of mine, who all my friends thought very highly of, was nicknamed Chinky. Did she like it? Did she accept it and say nothing? Did we ignore it blindly? Does she avoid being facebook friends now out of long ingrained pain caused by it?

Matthew’s essay raises the point that racism toward Asians is often dismissed as being flattering, as if that made it okay.

There’s another truth. Within the first chapter of the textbook for my education course on Diversity, I read one sentence that struck me as very powerful. Statistics proving bias were not disputed. But surveys reveal that the race(s) and gender favored by the biases do not associate themselves with originating the bias.  In the survey, it was white males saying they don’t think of themselves as wanting to perpetuate stereotypes that held others down, and saw themselves as products of the bias as much as those hurt by it. (I can’t help add that the grass isn’t greener: As a teacher, I’ve witnessed significant prejudice and judgment of white boys from teachers and peers, who blatantly judge them lazy, disruptive, trouble makers, etc. But that’s very different trend.)

The point of the survey grabbed me because I think the disassociation from responsibility goes further than just those at the top of the hierarchy. Take someone like me. I am a writer, well educated, particularly focused on understanding diverse cultures worldwide. I personally feel no prejudices against races or genders or religions. Know myself, rather, to crave differing perspectives.

Do I then become part of the problem? Because a person like me — a person who wants us all to get along and not re-engage prior offenses — isn’t going to take the preemptive step of saying, “Remind me of all the things I want to avoid doing.” I’m going to assume, just because my heart is in the right place, my words and actions will be without barbs. This isn’t just random theorizing. For years, I’ve called my boys my “monkeys.” I’m a friendly teacher and sometimes nicknames slip out when talking to a student. I came up cold one day, having just called a boy in my class monkey and wondering, “Wait. Is he going to think, ‘Aw, she likes me as much as her son’? Or is that a slur for something?”

Before teaching, I worked years in the courts, where political correctness was all consuming. No Christmas tree without a menorah beside it. No menorah or Christmas tree the year no one could figure out what to do about Kwanza or Ramadan. Race, disability, religion, gender, nationality, native language — we danced to be fair and equal with all, to the point even friends weren’t sure how to talk to one another any more.

But here I am, now dumb in my blindness to what might hurt others, bleached beyond sensitivity, back into dangerous territory.

Working to avoid pitfalls doesn’t mean they are no longer there. The fact we haven’t said a word or heard it lately doesn’t means bigotry isn’t alive and well — in memory or continuing experience.

It is a curious thing to wonder, are we at the point where remedial vocab training is needed? Do I teach my sons the words, the prior hurts, the things done wrong in the past, just to say, “Don’t do that”?

In literature, at least, we have the treatment, if not the cure. I told Matthew I thought his essay important. As happens throughout literature, he shines a light on one experience so that we can’t ignore the hurting that goes on, despite any best intentions.

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Filed under Culture + World, Setting Place Roots, Writing Mother

Photos from India + Bangladesh

photo varanasi ghats india akashOne of the novel projects I’ve had on hold while finishing revisions on the current work-in-progress has the fairytale mix of tragedy blended with magical euphoria that southeast Asia stirs in me.

In writing, we are told to suspend disbelief — to write images, characters, events with such insistence that a reader could not help but follow faithfully, no matter how reality might beg otherwise.

For me, India encapsulates this mantra, as it presents the impossible with the frank challenge of existence: You see me as I am, so I must be possible.

This magical duality — of fairytale beauty contrasting physical world impossibility — is often breathtaking in the photography of GMB Akash of Bangladesh.  Above, fires rise with the paradox of flames growing out of what they devour, as a saddhu skirts the foregrounds of funeral pyres along the ghats at Varanasi.

Below, our real-world brain acknowledges the third-world strife of precariously hung electrical wires, of the stairwell’s switchback between the crowded box of shared living space — yet the glow of color in the dark of night, captured by Akash’s lens become the loveliest of colored lanterns.

India photo Delhi AkashAs with fairytales, Akash’s photography serves as more than entertainment. Many of his most beautifully artistic, even idyllic shots, as the one below, were intended as cautionary tale. Beginning in 2006, Akash began photographing riders on the railways of Bangladesh to bring attention to the risks endured by stowaways, collected in his portfolio, “Nothing to Hold On To.”

Railway Bangladesh photo Akash

Below, one has the sense of a child adventuring in a fantastical world — perhaps Frodo in Lord of the Rings — yet it is the industry of a child foraging amid the rising gulls and mists of the dump.

picture india dump child

Other striking portfolios bring attention to “Vigilantes in Pink” — women of central India who have taken to wearing shocking pink saris in stubborn refusal to live in fear of corruption, violence and other abuses against women.

Womens rights India vigilantes in pink akash

Better than any workshop lecture could, certain photographs, certain places in our world teach me what it means to suspend one’s disbelief. There is magic in the realism of these images, and I applaud GMB Akash’s talents.

Click through for more stunning photography on his site, or read his most recent blog, “God Strangled me with his own hands” for example of another photo-dialogue he has raised for challenged communities.

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Filed under Inspiration, Novel Writing, Setting Place Roots, Writing workshop

Living with Books

Monkeys reading. copyright Elissa Field no repro w-out permission

Monkeys reading. c. Elissa Field

When asked about designing bedrooms, my mother (Connecticut ASID designer, Julianne Stirling) once said that she makes sure to put a little bookcase in every room.

In my parents’ 230 year-old house off the village green in Fairfield, Connecticut, my boys’ favorite room has African-carved giraffes and a porcelain elephant hiding among the books on a carved case that also features a portrait of my grandparents when they still lived in North Africa at the end of World War II. Monkey prints parody my boys’ personalities as they read in bed. It is a room Kipling or Hemingway might have brought keepsakes home to.

At the back of the house, the girls’ room, where my nieces stay and where I stayed the night before my wedding, is more delicate, its curtains gathered high as if the empire waistlines of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibilities. A copy of Austen is likely tucked among the books held on an antique latticework shelf above the bed.

Long before my mom was an accomplished interior designer, back in the first house I remember, with the 70s lemon yellow shag carpet and turquoise leather chair, there were books in every room. Coffee table books of famous artists, designers and photographers. Picasso, the impressionists. Biographies of dignitaries, inventors, trendsetters. Henry Ford, Marilyn Monroe. And fiction. A leatherbound set of Fitzgerald. Updike. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Moveable Feast, Finca Vigia collected stories. Henry Miller. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And the fodder of avid readers: the bent-spined, inch-thick paperbacks whose pages aged brown by the time it was my turn to read them.

Coveted, to this day, are the found books. The hand-me-downs. There is a threadbare, heavy volume of fairy tales my Grandma Aho read to us from her childhood in Michigan’s upper peninsula, whose line drawings had been painted in watercolors by herself and her sisters as girls. I have pictures of the same girls straddling the shoulders of a draft horse, patting his neck to warn his heavy hooves from stomping cabbages as he navigated the garden. Equally loved: question arose over the holidays as to who last had the dozen original clothbound Nancy Drews, printed in the 30s and 40s, that had been passed from one cousin to another, then down to my cousins and myself.  Less lovely, but equally treasured, were the horse books left by my college-age aunt for me to discover at the cottage we all shared in the summer. Or the James Bonds my brother and I traded, or the military training guides he found in family footlockers. There was the elicit, always denied, hairy-armpit copy of The Joy of Sex that finally disappeared altogether. And there are the Bibles, passed down from the last-living members of various branches of the family, with patchy recording of births and deaths and marriages written inside the covers.

We were a family who lived with books.

I carried this with me as I set up my first houses. In college, novels advanced in a line along the baseboards around the wood floor in my Richmond rowhouse, arranged by country, by year of publication. In Florida, waiting for a hurricane, books were one of three things I protected with plastic bags and packed into a sheltered closet. Along with photographs, the few things I could not bear losing to a storm.

It hadn’t occurred to me this is idiosyncratic. I’d never lived in a house without books and never took time to think of it as unusual — a joy some of us share, in surrounding ourselves with the magical worlds we’ve discovered in those pages, loving the undulating ribbon of color and texture formed by a line of spines.

Coming across interior design photographs of great rooms with books has made me aware of this kindred reality some of us share: living with books. This new column will share some of my favorite Living With Books images, in monthly editions.

Here is the first:

I have always loved a dining room with books.

A dining room with books, featured at www.atticmag.com.

Fabulous photographer chotda (santos) has photographed a number of versions of a hue-spectrumed bookcase, most notably this one below.

I love this picture, by author, photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji, of a bookseller’s stall at Kolkata’s Annual Book Fair.

In this Chicago living room, featured by Architectural Digest, books hold their own against dramatic artwork. As much as I love books, the room’s balance is crucial, as a library should reflect the owner’s pleasure in books, and not feel a weighty burden.

And what about you? I’d love to hear your favorite experiences or memories, living with books.

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Filed under Living With Books, Reading, Setting Place Roots, Writing Life

Elissa Field’s “Still Life with Nixon on the Beach” published by Web Conjunctions

shark elissa field fiction still life on the beachI just had word from Conjunctions editors that my story, Still Life with Nixon on the Beach, which I mentioned in my prior blog (Running on the Grass), has gone live as the featured story at Web Conjunctions  today.

I’ve had the following excerpt on this site, on the page featuring my short stories, for the past months:

At a bar in Crooked Moon Bay, making small talk with a friend who was days away from being married, I watched a woman with long, titian hair lean over a burning candle as she bent close to talk to a friend.  She didn’t know, but in her excitement, her hair fell into the flames.  The friend gestured desperately, trying to stop the girl’s emphatic story.  She finally noticed, her hands rising pragmatically to put out the flaming twists of her hair, squeezing out fire as if wringing out water.  Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

Rereading that excerpt today as I went to post news of the publication, I couldn’t help being reminded of a stream of conversation amongst fellow writers at Poets & Writers’ Speakeasy some months back.

So often, no matter the definition of “fiction,” writers are asked of their work, “Is that character really you?”

Still Life with Nixon on the Beach is an intensely personal story to me — yet also perfect example of why debating fiction vs. autobiography can be so controversial to a writer.

For what it’s worth, I never followed the seasons, island to island.  I never dated anyone named Nixon.  I am not the one who swam from an anchored sailboat to shore, seeing the oversized form of a tiger shark swim beneath her, and the sailor with a parrot sleeping on his shoulder was not this rake.  Yet in the fiber of every detail, this story is still mine.

I do live in the tropics, grew up with my father’s boating history and charter sailed in and out of Charlotte Amalie.  I did in fact lean over a candle once at a bar, my hair catching on fire, and have the band start riffing a song, “To the lovely lady with her hair on fire.”  I did have recurring nightmares about tornados, and also about a man in my house.  I did meet a certain friend in the sleeping porch off my room with a knife up my sleeve.  I did once have a conversation with my father about all the moments in my childhood when I’d needed protection and was startled how little need he felt to load that metaphorical shotgun.  I did find the orange-crayoned letter, I did watch the leather journal being purchased months before it arrived in the mail.  I did find the redemption of a pod of dolphins at twilight, right at the moment I’d lost all faith in my love for someone.

The story reminds me, in fact, of granny square afghans my grandmother used to crochet when I was a child.  She would spin them out like daisies in patchworked colors from odd loose-ends of yarn, only later assembled into the form of a baby’s jacket or blanket for the sofa (which sadly all have been thrown away as tacky remnants of the 70s, which would be oh-so-cool to have now).  So, in the same way, this story is pieced together of collected truths from my childhood through young adulthood, from my first hopes at love through my first disillusionments and my first understanding of real faith in the absence of concrete proof, and is the only existing revelation of an unnerving 6th sense that has too often left me confused if I were knowing things I could not know, or simply imagining things.

It is in that sense autobiographical.

Yet not.

Fiction is still its own invention, its own living truth.  Using details that might be the same granny squares first crocheted, yet assembled to create a new form, pieced together to perhaps make more clear an understanding of the world that was so much less clear when still a mass of untwisted yarns.

An example of how the twisted yarns of a writer’s personal details get woven into a story that is no longer exactly about them, is what got me going on this blog today.  Rereading that excerpt above, I smiled in reminder of where I got name for the bay.  Riding home in the car with my preschool son one night, he looked out the window and said, “Look mom, the moon is crooked!”  In revisions this became, “At a bar in Crooked Moon Bay…”

So, like many of my peer writers, I would say, “No, the life of the main character is not mine.  She is not me.  It is fiction, not autobiography.”  Yet yes, the story is mine.  And I am very proud for it to be live at Conjunctions this month.   I hope you’ll check it out.

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Filed under Seeking Publication, Setting Place Roots, Writing Process & Routine

welcome

Elissa Field is a fiction writer currently living in South Florida, with roots in Michigan, Virginia and Connecticut.   She shares her days with two mad-scientists (ages 6 and 9), and too many animals who invited themselves in and filed permanent address changes with the postmaster despite her protests.

In addition to writing, she teaches and takes on PR projects for private clients.

Ms. Field holds an English and Writing degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, with a background in journalism and intensive concentration in fiction and poetry.  She has been a contributor at Bread Loaf Writers Conference and Iowa Summer Workshops.   She studied with Gregory Donovan, Paule Marshall, David Lavender, Lon Otto and Randall Kenan, among others.  Ms. Field’s first novel, Breathing Water, was a finalist in the Heekin Foundation’s James Fellowship for the novel-in-progress.

Ms. Field is currently at work on a collection of short stories and two novels.

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Filed under Setting Place Roots