Book Crush: Woman on the Edge of Time

200px-Woman_on_the_Edge_of_Time_(book_cover)When last read: 2 days ago.

How many times read: At least 10.

What I love best about Marge Piercy’s imagined future: Too many things, but here are a few favorites: Everyone has her or his own cottage to live, create and work in. No more dysfunctional urban centers but instead villages rich with art, sustainable farming, and working government. Explanation: “We abolished cities. They didn’t work.” Universities have been replaced by mentoring. Students approach and request the artist, scholar, leader they wanted to apprentice with. Babies have three “mothers”—men or women—who share in their care. Rationale? Children belong to a community, and the more parents a child has the greater the range of guidance and support. Favorite touch: Factory made dresses for parties have been replaced by “flimsies” or elaborate paper dresses made by an artist in the community. They are good for one or two parties then recycled. I want a flimsy. I want to make flimsies.

The hard part: Connie, the central character, is trapped in a mental hospital in the present time. She can only visit the future in her mind. She’s one of the invisible underclass and dismissed as a negligible Mexican-American. She’s a problem for society, a poor mother, a weight on the state. In her entrapment, Connie’s mind opens to the possible future. The picture she creates is so vivid I want her to slip the bars of injustice and into the space she imagines. We are Connie, and our determination to keep envisioning, to keep writing, to keep hoping is the only way.

When published: 1976. Almost 40 years ago. I’m grateful this was out there while I was growing up and waiting for me to find it. A graduate student friend, Dana Beckelman, told me to Read this book!. She was tall, beautiful and so brilliant that I went out, bought a used copy and read it that night. Worst moment: When I closed the book just before dawn and there was no one in the room to talk to about how my mind had been blown.

When I met the author: Dana was with me. In her famous Texas drawl, Dana said: “Ms. Piercy, do you still espouse the views you put in that novel.” Piercy had a tangled halo of ebony hair and glaring eyes. She looked Dana up and down and said in disgust, “I wrote it, didn’t I?” She scared me, but in good way. I saw the books we write should be like life and death to us or why bother writing them. Even now when I doubt something I’m working on, I will say with a deep snarl: “I wrote it, didn’t I?”

Why I ask my students to read this novel, year after year: Some books you want to leave them with like a mark or talisman. Novels are acts of power when fully inhabited by a good writer, one with heart and a good dose of rage. They are prescient. This story makes my heart hurt with longing: I want this future where women and men live as if our time on earth is a shared process. A true collaboration is risky and beautiful. Fear should be something we share and confront together rather than force on each other. Our greatest obligation is to work toward a day when the ongoing violence enacted in the world we live in is no longer accepted.

A favorite passage:

She imagined herself taking a walk at night under the stars. She imagined herself ambling down a country road and feeling only mild curiosity when she saw three men coming toward her. She imagined hitching a ride with anyone willing to give her a ride. She imagined answering the door without fear, to see if anyone needed help.

From: Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy

Knitting Stories: A conspiracy of beauty

Since finishing my novel, The Divided Daughter, I’ve left my characters to their own devices–at least until I figure out the next step toward publishing it. While my book people are off piecing together clues in China or steering a boat through wild water on Lake Superior, I work on children’s stories, poetry and short fiction. I research my next book!

And I knit.

A new wrap I knit. Wide wingspan with silk. The white lines are made with yarn that belonged to my grandmother.

A new finished piece. Wide wingspan with silk. The white lines are made with yarn that belonged to my grandmother.

Some of my new writing fuses knitting and fairy tales I read at the city library when I was a girl. One of my favorites is “The Six Swans,” a Brothers Grimm tale about a sister who must save her brothers from a spell that turned them into swans. Her task is to make shirts for each before time runs out or they will remain forever as birds. I imagine her knitting day and night. No matter how hard she tries, it won’t be good enough because she can’t finish in time to completely cover her last brother. Five of the brothers escape whole but the last boy will have no choice but to live on with one wing.

That seems the haunted nature of writing, how we work while sleeping and waking on a story that seems life or death yet despite how far we push ourselves or our skills the story has to be released before absolutely perfect. Knitting, I realize, helps me cope with the regret while also moving forward into the next piece. In my hand I can hold one long, reassuring string that seems to tie together all my effort over time. I’m reminded that it’s the actual doing not the idealized vision of a finished piece that yields the most in the end.

For more writers’ thoughts on knitting and writing, I recommend Knitting Yarns, Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood and replete with pieces by knitting authors Barbara Kingsolver, Andre Dubus III, Jane Smiley and many others.

Here’s one of my own knitting poems. It was published in Zyzzyva:

On Reading His Obituary
–Kathlene Postma

Don’t make much of it. The boy
with one wing, the one you could not
have. That was thirty years ago,
when your father was still alive.

You could not knit fast enough
to find a way out. As if time wouldn’t
do you the favor of unraveling
the boards from the walls of the very

room where you waited for the boy
to crash in, feathers flying. There are
all kinds of sad, and pretty much every
one will come for you, by newspaper,

by mail, by way of your mother’s mouth
after she hangs up the phone.
In the book of patterns there are knots
so hard to follow you must put your sticks

aside and read aloud the code, imagine
the yarn seizing hold of itself,
a conspiracy of beauty strong as a rope
to throw to the boy with one hand

who stands down in the yard where you
no longer live. As if he could pull you
out of this life or you could take him
back from the next.

Writing in the Snow

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My favorite writing place at Ragdale.  In my room overlooking the prairie.

My favorite writing place at Ragdale. In my room overlooking the prairie.

I’ve recently returned from a 2 and 1/2 week artist’s residency at the Ragdale Farm near Lake Michigan in Illinois.   During those precious days, while the snow and ice did their work outside, I did mine inside. The quiet of this magnificent place helped me lie a clean path for revising my novel. My characters in China in particular emerged distinct, and I was able to pare around them like a sculptor who finally sees the faces hidden in the grains of a rock she holds in her hand.  

Setting out after a good morning revising and seeing my book come together.

Setting out after a good morning revising and seeing my book come together.

By late afternoon each day, I left my writing sanctuary in the spacious Radale house and wandered the prairie. A storm had swept through prior to my arrival. Temperatures well below zero farenheit turned the world outside sharp and new. For the first time in years, I had to wear winter boots, long underwear, and a down coat.  I loved it.  Camera in hand, I set out thinking about the next chapter, feeling my way through characters who grew up in the frozen north before setting out for to China. Camera in hand, I followed my line of thought and miles of paths at Ragdale that traverse virgin prairie for sometimes two hours each day. It was a thrill, both the journey out and the journey in.

Since returning home, I can see the final pieces of my novel finally snapping together, but I miss the intense caring of the staff at Ragdale and the community of artists I sat down with at dinner each night. The chef, Linda, made us gourmet meals.Before we seized our plates at the buffet, she would describe to us what we would eat. Poetry, it felt like, the lush scents and her voice. We were hungry, all of these dedicated writers and painters, for everything we were given at this fine artists’ colony. We talked in hushed tones or whooped with laughter. We created in sanctuary together, and we were grateful.  

To learn more about applying for your own artist’s residency at Ragdale go to http://www.ragdale.org/residency

 

Taking your child adopted from China back for a visit? Go with a group.

Goofing around together at the orphanage where they lived as babies.

Goofing around together at the orphanage where they lived as babies.

Having taken my daughters back to China a few times now, starting when my oldest daughter was four years old, I have decided the best way to go is in a group with other adoptees and their families, and preferably on a tour with six or more kids.  Here’s why:  Even if traveling in an entourage is not something you are keen about—I am a sworn loner when it comes to international travel—it’s important to first honor who your child is now, and that is typically a young person finding a path to her identity. Sharing that journey to China with kids who share her story is a great way to reinforce that she is not odd or alone in negotiating two countries or growing up in a transracial family with little or no knowledge of her birth family. 

This time we returned when my oldest daughter was 13 years old and with 12 other girls adopted from her orphanage, ages 6 to 12.  As we drove through the green Chinese countryside or the crowded cities, the girls goofed off together in the back of the bus, made up songs, and waved to startled folks in passing cars. That part was fun, although it could look like a distraction from the real purpose of the trip. The girls seemed at times determined to be unaware of China, they were so absorbed in each other.  I wasn’t the only parent who tried to get her daughter to turn away from the other kids to notice the water buffalos or the height of a mountain.  What it took time for me realize was my daughter was absorbing her birth country in the best way for her:  In quick glimpses at first and from inside the safe nest made up of other girls like her.  Returning to a country you left as a baby, and one you might have mixed feelings about, can be a lot to take in, and some of it hard.   My daughter had to process the minimal amount of information available in her original adoption file which she was able to see on this visit, the inability of our guide to determine the exact location where local police had found her on the day she was taken to the orphanage (so much has already changed in China since then), and the awkward times when people in her Chinese hometown asked her questions she could not usually understand or answer. 

Walking together in a village.

Walking together in a village.

Sharing those moments with the other girls made them bearable, even funny. Eating Oreos in the rain together on the street where some of you were left as babies takes some of the sting out of a painful part of your story and even lets you claim and reframe it in your own way.  Traveling in a group also means you are like other kids in China, who also run in packs (like kids everywhere) when they are out and about.  The girls on our tour flew kites together beside the Yangtze River and were just another loud gathering at table at a McDonalds, one situated not far from the orphanage where they had lived as infants. 

My oldest daughter with the aunties who cared for her as a baby (on both sides of her), the orphanage director who also cared for her, and me, during our visit .

My oldest daughter with the aunties who cared for her as a baby (on both sides of her), the orphanage director who also cared for her, and me during our visit .

Since we’ve returned home to the US, my daughter told me she wants to use her Chinese middle name and is open about her adoption and race when she talks with other people.  I credit this good step in part to the warm welcome she received in China, and that included the one from orphanage staff, who were prepared in advance that 13 of the children they had cared for were returning.  That many girls coming together was a big deal—so big the local media filmed their arrival.  Interestingly enough, the interview she had with a local reporter helped clarify something important for my daughter. In the process of answering the tv crew’s questions, she strengthened her growing sense of self as being a Zhong guo ren—a “Chinese person”– and an American. 

There is no perfect formula to creating a good trip back to China for your child, but for my daughter traveling that road with other kids who share her story was the best way.

If you want to arrange for a group trip back to China, connecting with families who have adopted children from the same orphanage is a great way to start. Many have yahoo email groups. A group can also get better prices on lodging and sights in China. You can lobby for more time at the orphanage too. We asked and were able to celebrate Thanksgiving eating dumplings with the orphanage staff! There are several agencies now offering heritage or adoption tours. Whenever possible try to find one that will bring a group of adoptees from the same orphanage back together rather than children from different orphanages on a larger, more general tour. The shared visit to the place where they lived prior to adoption was meaningful and powerful for the kids in our group.

Book Crush: My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

cover my dreamof you

Where found:  At the Public Library leaning seductively near the door on a shelf with novels selected by the librarians.  My Dream of You must have been mysteriously left there for me.  Proof enough for why we have an absolute need for libraries and bookstores we can walk into: The quiet, serendipitous and crucial find. 

When published:  2001.  Another reason for libraries: Time gets to last longer there.  Books wait for us to catch up with them.

Why I couldn’t put it down:  I absorbed O’Faolain’s mesmerizing language and her protagonist’s quest:  Kathleen Burke wants to write a historical novel that explores the hostilities between the Irish and English during the Great Irish Famine of the 19th Century.  She draws upon her complicated and troubled life in order to imagine the hard lives of the characters she creating. There’s plenty of conflict inside Kathleen.  Although she’s achieved success as a travel writer, she’s made a slew of hurtful mistakes along the way and feels homeless.  What will be become of her and the book she’s writing?   She’s flying fast toward age 50 and fears a lonely future crippled with regrets. Fortunately, O’Faolain resorts to no simple morality or judgements in this novel. This character’s power resides in her honesty and curiosity.  How dangerous is a woman who follows her own impulses as far as they’ll go and then dares to draw her own conclusions about them?  I read until the early hours several nights in a row.   (And her name is Kathleen.  I liked that, too.) 

What I learned: To be Irish in Ireland or England is to carry a constant reminder of a sharp, aching history of oppression, one that is offset by a cultural pride that can result in incredible art.  Add being female to the equation, then choose a life path that tries to avoid all the entrapments that suffocated the women and men you knew in your childhood.  Then go write a novel that explores your love hate relationship with what made you who you are.   It can be done, brilliantly.  

Why I slept with this book:    It’s fat and hefty for one thing.   In some cultures it could be a pillow.  I wanted to follow it into my dreams. O’ Faolain does not hurry, does not succumb to the “make every second of every page cry out with tension” mantra of contemporary fiction writing.  She turns over events and moments while mining them for revelations.  She soaks up and distills landscape, then hands it to readers on the palm of her hand.  And she brings people together on the page and lets them stumble through their conversations long enough so they can arrive at nuance, love and raw truth.   I breathed better while reading My Dream of You.

A favorite passage:

It struck me suddenly:  I had never looked at my family the way I look at animals.  I have never taken an unhurried look at the people by whom I was formed, wanting nothing but to see clearly, the way I look at animals or birds—appreciating them without having any designs on them.  My family has been the same size and shape in my head since I ran out of Ireland.  Mother? Victim.  Nora and me and Danny and poor little Sean? Neglected victims of her victimhood.  Villian? Father.  Old –style Irish Catholic patriarch; unkind to wife, unloving to children, harsh to young Kathleen when she tried to talk to him.

Then I lifted my head as if I could smell something odd.

What was I being bitter about, nearly thirty years after I’d seen my father last, and when he’d been dead five or six years?  I couldn’t not have changed.  I could not be the same person now that I was when I left home.  It just wasn’t possible. . . And everything that changes is alive all the time.

(From: My Dream of You, by Nuala O’Faolain)

What the Water Does: Live Performance and My Short Story Chapbook

wavesI have out a new, wild short story titled “Fetch.” It’s been published as a chapbook by The Furnace Series. (You can buy it here on Etsy. Hand designed by Corinne Manning.) I’ll perform it at The Furnace, an innovative reading series in Seattle that presents four times a year before a live radio audience. (Corinne and Anca are Seattle based writers and the founders of The Furnace. I’m jazzed they invited me to read!)  If you are in town, come on by and join the party.

Here’s the announcement:

The Furnace Reading Series returns on Thursday, May 16 at 7 pm with fiction writer, poet, essayist and Silk Road Review editor Kathlene Postma. Postma will read her rich, riveting story “Fetch” as Portland-area musicians Cayla Davis and Margaret Schimming weave through the telling a “sound and fury” of instruments and voice.

Set along the crackling, icy shore of Lake Superior, drawing on nautical terminology and their definitions, and featuring a mysterious sea beast, “Fetch” tells the haunting story of a car accident and its aftermath.

Postma’s writing has appeared in Zyzzyva, Los Angeles Review, Willow Springs, and other magazines. She teaches fiction writing and literature at Pacific University. As always, the event is free and open to the public.

Thursday, May 16, 7-8 pm

Hollow Earth Radio performance space

2018 A E. Union St., Seattle, WA 98122

Or listen live online!

More on The Furnace:  One Writer, One Story, Read Until Completion

Book Crush: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

“If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”
–Maria Semple

wheredyougoBernadette

I wasn’t laughing much this week.  I’ve been dog tired and overwhelmed.   It’s partly the Pacific Northwest.  We don’t have torrential winter or spring.  We have a smug wet 24 hours a day.  If you step out of your house blindfolded here you would be hard-pressed to tell whether it’s midnight or noon.  For this lack of excitement we are smugly grateful. I’ve also been carrying around an impossible, eye-crossing To Do list for my job. I’m happy when I misplace it because then I can’t add anything more to it.

When HH (the handsome husband) handed me this novel after I’d burrowed in under the blankets for the night, I groaned.  The kids were all in bed and there was no chocolate left in the house.  The day was done.  “Go away,” I said to HH.  “Nothing personal.”  I was hoping for sleep and in the morning a chance to stare glumly at a troublesome chapter from my own manuscript. I’d neglected revising for the last week because of that To Do list.  (See above.)

But books are love, and I needed some, so I opened it and read,  “The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question.”    That’s Bee talking, the teenage narrator who spends the entirety of the plot piecing together where her mother, Bernadette, disappeared to and why she left in the first place.  Along the way Maria Semple, the author, brilliantly skewers in broad, hiliarous terms the smugness of Seattle, Microsoft, and middle class “parenting”.  She reminds us—okay me–that if we don’t create we’ll do damage, often to those dearest to us and most certainly to ourselves.  We’ll sink under the jobs we’re glad we have, the ones we write those To Do lists for.

I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette until dawn, slept an hour, then rolled out of bed with an answer to that tricky chapter in my own novel draft.  I love this book.

In Deep with Margaret Atwood

For the last month my students and I have talked in depth about the first two novels in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam Trilogy. Next week we sit down with The Handmaid’s Tale.

Oryx and Crake. The first novel in this brilliantly frustrating trilogy.

Reading this many pages of Atwood in one go has been sobering and enlightening. In the world of post-Apocalyptic horrors Atwood cooly describes, there are survivors, and it’s these characters our conversation keeps circling back to. Robinson Crusoes of the future (the form of the novel never really changes, for all its flexiblity, although now we have Crusoes of more genders and races), we closely follow their every move, gauging for an authentic response, asking if in the similar circumstances we would do the same thing.

Our biggest debate has been over what defines a contemporary hero and if Atwood’s characters make the cut. It seems we embrace the conviction that now more than ever we need leaders, but what are their qualities in a time of manipulated images, pervasive corporate power, lightning fast information, and science gone wild? Who to trust and why? As usual, Atwood is evasive and unwilling to give us a definitive answer.

Even more frustrating: We have to wait until early 2013 for the last book of the MadAddam trilogy to come out. The course will be over by then, but we’re planning to get back together to talk about whether or not we get the ending we hope for and anticipate. I predict more delicious trademark Atwood wordplay and a keen mirror held up to what frightens us about where the future is headed.

Take Your Place at the Table

Charlotte, Emily and Anne as they might have looked while writing.

The Brontë sisters fascinate me. How did one family in the early 19th century produce not one but three influential female writers? There are several carefully researched theories of course, but I’m going to go with the furniture. While Jane Austen was off at the side of the parlor writing secretly on a teeny tiny table and hiding her pages under a blotter when anyone came in, the Brontë sisters worked side by side at their dining room table with their drafts spread out around them.  Yes they were encouraged to be prolific from very young and produced astounding quality work before their early deaths, but the crucial factor for me is the table and how they wrote.  Some of the greatest novels of the 19th century took their initial shape there—Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights,for instance.

What’s the significance of a shared table for writers and creators of any kind?

Huge.

Emily’s sketch of herself and Anne working at the table. From her journal, dated 1837.

I have a fabulous writing group, and once a month we gather at a table much like the Brontë’s.  Like the Brontës, we sit close and spread out our rough drafts. (Unlike the Brontës, we drink wine.)  We stay on topic, we read aloud. We get off topic, and we meander back. We squirm. We talk, we listen. Sometimes we yawn. We laugh all night. We debate. Those hours radically change our perspectives.  Our drafts take on weight, and our confidence in what we are saying grows.  This is the real work, and we are in it.  What matters most, to paraphrase Maurice Sendak, is our table “becomes the world all around.”

The Brontës were said to get up at times and walk around the table while working out their thoughts. Around and around the table they went, thinking, talking, and spinning words.  Without each other and the table, what are the chances their books would have been published and still read today?

Even now, early in the 21st century, gathering at a table to create is still a radical act for many of us. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg in an oft shared TED talk “Why Are There So Few Women Leaders?” tells women the first key to success is to, “Sit at the table.” Boardroom table or dining room table?  Same difference.  Don’t get stuck thinking your job is to serve others. Don’t take a chair against the wall.  See that chair there in the inner circle? That one is yours.  The table is the great equalizer.

When it came time to publish their books, shocking for their time, the Brontës went with male pseudonyms first.  Back then no respectable woman wrote about passion outside marriage, rage that could destroy but was not judged, or cheeky governesses who wouldn’t be pushed around.  Governesses were usually not permitted to eat at the table with their employers, after all. In their books Emily, Charlotte and Anne protested that status, one they each would have to deal with. They were educated, unmarried women from a family without money, after all.  Where did they likely get their uppity ideas? At their own table.

Casting a Wide Net in China: A Birth Family Search

Jenna Cook and her mom, Margaret Cook

This week Tea Leaf Nation, an intriguing new blog following Chinese netizens, shared the story of a Chinese-American college student, Jenna Cook, who is looking for her birth parents in China.  Her interviews and related posts have gone viral there.

It takes an impressive amount of courage to go so public with a search.  There’s the real possibility of dead ends and bad news.  So far Jenna has found no answers, but she’s not giving up and says she never will.

What Tea Leaf Nation fixates on are the numbers of people in China–in the hundreds of thousands–already avidly following Jenna’s story. It’s often hard for people outside of China to grasp the sheer numbers of people who live there, and how those numbers also complicate an adoptee’s chances of finding her birth parents.  Looking for a lost family is like a quest to find a handful of needles in a hundred haystacks.  Mountainous haystacks, I might add.  But that massive population in Jenna’s case could turn into a source of strength because of the internet.

An interview Jenna gave on Weibo (a microblogging service) inspired over 330,000 posts. Her first tweet drew another 28,000 reposts and a stunning 4,000 comments.    If I could read Chinese, I would have devoured the commentary, I assure you.   Fortunately Tea Leaf nation translates or shares some of the English ones with readers.

One responder, for instance, wanted her to “stop trying to find your birth parents” because they could not match her adoptive mother in kindness or open mindedness. Another commenter said, “A birth mother is not as dear as an adoptive mother.”

As an adoptive mother, I admit feeling warmed by sentiments like these.  But here’s the rub: It’s not a competition, right? (A follow-up article by Tea Leaf nation says for some Chinese parents it might be.)

When I adopted my daughters from China in the early 2000s, there seemed little hope of finding their birth parents. When or how to search was not an issue.  There were no reliable records and no witnesses of their abandonment—at least none easy to find.  Even if a possible family were identified, DNA testing was still too expensive and inaccessible to be realistic except in the high case of a probable match.  Hope then rested on the emerging internet in China and its potential.  And that time has come. Jenna Cook’s search is an example of how it may be a netizens’ community effort that will reunite children and birth families.

So what will I do the day one of my girls asks to look for her people in China? I’ll say yes, of course, because  I am her mother and I support her decisions.  After that I’ll slip off for a few minutes, curl up in a ball and quietly give into panic over what I cannot control, including how she might be hurt by what she discovers or how our family might never be the same.  Then I’ll get up, take a deep breath, and help her take the first step–which will likely begin on the internet.

——————

Jenna is also one of four Chinese-American adoptees featured in the documentary Somewhere Between.  I blog about the award-winning film here.  Tea Leaf Nation’s aim to track the Chinese populace by what develops in web land there is fascinating business.  If you “like” Tea Leaf on Facebook, they will donate to the Rural Education Program, a much needed support system in China.