As a Writer, Who are My People?

Novelist Ayad Akhtar, interviewed in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers, was asked about being expected, as a Pakistani writer, to speak for “his people.” He replied that for him, it’s a mixed bag of all his experiences, including being Pakistani.

I think it has to be that way for all of us. We are not just any one thing. Any one box would leave a lot out.

I think of myself as representing the working class, people who come from families of construction workers, janitors, retail employees, etc., people who didn’t go to college, or if they did, it was community college or a state university. Princeton? Yale? Not in our wildest dreams. Fraternities? Too busy working. Trips to Europe? I didn’t even go to Girl Scout camp.

Our family didn’t fly to Hawaii; we went trailer camping at Seacliff or Donner Lake. We didn’t go to the opera or the ballet; we went to CB “coffee breaks” with barbecue, country music, and raffles of CB radio gear. My dad only wore a suit to weddings and funerals. He drank beer, not martinis. But he was a VIP to me.

Suddenly I remember a song, “Working Class Blues,” that I wrote when I was editor of the Saratoga News back in California and found myself hanging out with a whole different class of people, people who owned million-dollar houses when a million dollars meant something. I remember thinking none of my shoes were good enough.

The chorus: “We’re working class, just ordinary folks./We’ll never be rich, but we’re not exactly broke./We’re salt of the earth, and if nothing else is true,/look out snobs ‘cause there’s more of us than you.”

Simply put, if I lived at Downton Abbey, I’d be downstairs with the workers, not upstairs with the lords and ladies. And I’m cool with that.

I also represent people of a certain age with certain memories and experiences: The Beatles, Vietnam, wearing pantyhose and mini-skirts to high school, typewriters, phones attached to the wall, TV antennas on the roof. My first car was a blue VW bug, for which I paid $500, earned tutoring and giving guitar lessons. My parents did not give me a car for graduation; they gave me a sewing machine because girls were expected to be housewives and do lots of needlework.

Then there’s the ethnic part. I’m half Portuguese, on my mother’s side. On the other side, I’ve got some Spanish, Mexican, Basque, German, and a smidge of Scottish. A recent article in the Portuguese-American Journal cited a New York Times article that referred to Portuguese Americans as non-white. Really? That’s a surprise to me. I always thought we were Caucasian.

When writing my book Stories Never Told: Portuguese Women in California, many of my interviewees told of being harassed for being black or brown when they knew they were as white as any of their harassers. Were they wrong? Does it matter? If you add my Portuguese and Latin influences, can I accurately call myself a “person of color?” That’s fine, but what about the rest of me? Am I “mixed-ish” like on the TV show? Does it matter? If you go back far enough in history, we’re all a mixture.

Setting DNA aside, I’m a typical California blend of the various nationalities that settled there. I have black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. So what? That’s just genetics. Sure, we tossed around some Portuguese and Spanish words at my house, but I never attended a Portuguese event until I decided to write my book about Portuguese women. Three generations in, my experiences were vastly different from those of recent immigrants.

So who are my people? Working class, part Hispanic, baby boomer women who never had children or grandchildren; widows; people who live alone; left-handed, ice tea-drinking, Honda-driving, guitar-playing, dog-loving, poem-writing, left-leaning, Netflix-watching Oregonians who came from California.

What one person can speak for all that? We are all mixed bags of histories, ethnicities, experiences, and feelings. I’m going to just write, and if it speaks for “my people,” whoever they are, I’m glad. I suppose if I get famous enough, the critics will decide who “my people” are. And they’ll probably get it wrong.

What do you think? Who are “your people?” Do you worry about representing them in whatever you do?

Distracted Catholic confesses via poems

Cover-Front-WidowPiano(web) 2Happy new Year! That greeting falls a little flat this week in view of events in the Middle East and the wildfires in Australia. The parties are over, and the weather is wet, windy and dark. Bleh, right? What’s left to look forward to?

I have something: a new book! The Widow at the Piano is another poetry chapbook, following fast on the heels of Gravel Road Ahead, which came out in October. The two are quite different. Gravel Road Ahead follows my Alzheimer’s journey with my late husband. Readers say they have found it comforting and inspiring.

The Widow at the Piano, subtitled Confessions of a Distracted Catholic, is bound to get me in trouble, although early readers have pronounced it smart, sassy, touching and funny. You see, it’s about being Catholic and playing the piano at church. Any time you get into politics, money or religion, folks are bound to get their dander up, and I’m expecting there will be those who don’t love this book.

That scares me, but I don’t think I have ever published anything that is so “me.” In my years in journalism, we could hide behind our allegedly impartial reporting. In my novels, I could say, “That’s not me.” This book is absolutely me, and I’m bound to take criticism personally.  Oh well, that’s what happens when you’re a writer.

I know I’m not a perfect Catholic. This book lays it out there for the world to see, how sometimes when I pray, I wonder if anyone is listening; how sometimes when I look like I’m praying, I’m analyzing the flower arrangements or wondering what the priest is wearing under his vestments; how sometimes I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch when I’m supposed to be thinking about the body and blood of Christ. Distracted! That woman at the piano is the same woman who goes into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea, finds three other things to do and returns to her desk fifteen minutes later without having started the tea.

And yet, it’s a love story, too. God knows, I love doing music at church. As a widow coming to Mass alone, it gives me a place among all those couples and families. The liturgy is magic, and so is the music. I don’t work anymore at the church I wrote about. I’m at another church playing and singing for free and loving it. I’m considerably less distracted. But one of the virtues of the Catholic Church is that the Mass is the same all over the world, so in a way it doesn’t matter which specific parish I’m writing about.

The Widow at the Piano is available for discounted pre-orders now and is scheduled for publication on March 15. If I were you, I’d order a copy just for the gorgeous cover publisher Shawn Aveningo-Sanders of The Poetry Box has selected. It’s piano porn for those of us who love images of musical instruments.

I will be looking for opportunities to do readings and talks as much as possible in the coming months for both the Widow book and Gravel Road Ahead. Contact me at sufalick@gmail.com if you’re interested. I will be at the Author’s Fair being held next Saturday, Jan. 11 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Newport Public Library.

I started writing poetry as a little girl. I remember carrying around a little spiral notebook that fit in my pocket, writing sing-songy rhymes with a fat pencil with a big eraser. My skills have matured a little since then. Although I have published poetry in various journals and won some prizes, it has taken 60 years for my poems to appear in book form. Suddenly I have two poetry books within six months. So exciting.

I was sitting by my father’s hospital bed when I got the email that Finishing Line Press wanted to publish Gravel Road Ahead. “Dad, they want to publish my book,” I said, my head spinning a little with shock and surprise. Very ill and not a literary guy, he probably said something like “Good” and changed the subject, but it was a big deal for me. Dad is gone now, but I am grateful that in a year of tremendous loss, God sent me these two gifts.

And now I offer them to you. Here’s a teaser from The Widow at the Piano:

IF JESUS CAME TO MY DOOR

I’d say, “Excuse the mess”
He would. He might even
share the couch with the pit bull
and rub her balding belly
as she lies on her back, submissive,
which I probably ought to do, too,
but no, I’d be fixing my hair,
putting my laundry away,
offering Him coffee or tea,
and wondering if He was really He
or if I just let a bad guy in,
someone who would rape, rob, kill
or whip out a Kirby vacuum to sell.
But no, the guard dog’s upside down,
wide open to His blessed hands,
and she knows. She knows.

As we pray for peace and safety, I hope my words can offer some comfort or at least a few minutes of distraction. Just don’t forget the tea kettle.

 

 

AWP–where everybody is a writer

Every year, AWP–Association of Writers & Writing programs–holds the biggest writing conference in the country. For the first time since 1998, it was in Oregon, at the Portland Convention Center, so I had to go. Could I afford it? No. Could I afford the time off from work? No. Was my touchy stomach up to the different diet? No. Do my feet have blisters on their blisters? Yes they do. But I don’t care. It was worth every blister, every $20 bill that went flying out, every frou-frou sandwich with ingredients I couldn’t identify, even worth that mouth-burning hot pepper I thought was a crabapple.

AWP was like a massive party where everyone I’ve ever known in my writing life-from Antioch, Fishtrap, the Tucson Festival of Books, Portuguese writers, Nye Beach Writers, Willamette Writers, my Facebook friends, editors who have rejected my work, editors who have accepted my work, and famous writers on whom I have massive writer-girl crushes—were all in one place. I’m not normally comfortable at parties, but I had found my tribe, and I was high on the love—and way too much iced tea.

I was able to walk up to booths and say “I have a story in that issue,” and have the editors say, “Yes! It’s so great to meet you.” To have young writers call me an inspiration. Me? To get a big hug from a grad school classmate I hadn’t seen in 16 years.

I heard there were 12,000 people there. There were more than 700 exhibits with publishers, editors, writers, and college writing programs selling thousands and thousands of books and giving away pens, candy, postcards, poems, and more. There were approximately 500 panel discussions spread over three days, plus all kinds of “offsite” gatherings. It was not possible to do everything, but I’m so pleased about what I did do. I saw my heroes from Creative Nonfiction. I attended a session led by poet Kwame Dawes. I heard readings by Ilya Kaminsky and Tess Gallagher. I saw Oregon poet laureate Kim Stafford in the parking garage and Luis Alberto Urrea wandering around the bookfair. We were all citizens of Writer World, a place where I finally felt at home.

Many of the attendees were so very young, but we older folks were well represented, too. All races and nationalities attended, including men in dresses and girls who dressed like boys. I saw some wild outfits I can’t believe anyone would wear in public. It amused me that everyone put on what they thought looked good. But never mind. We were all obsessed with words.

Unfortunately, one can’t wander around Writer Land forever, living on fast food out of paper containers. After the conference ended Saturday afternoon, I wandered through the exhibit hall. The tables were empty, and workers were busy rolling up the carpet. Where did my people go? It was time to go forth and tell our stories.

I think I did well coming home with only seven new books, a mug and a hat I bought at the Saturday market from a funky old lady named Anita who makes them by hand from scraps of vintage fabric. I spent Saturday morning walking around the Willamette River, which I could see from my room at the Marriott. I had to keep taking pictures because the view kept changing. Sunrise, sunset, boats, birds, bridges, Mt. Hood. Glorious. Exactly the vacation I needed. WordPress is not letting me post photos right now, but I will.

Unfortunately, my buzz was disrupted by worrisome news about my dad, so now I’m on my way to San Jose when I just want to be that writer girl. It sounds like it’s going to be a tough time. Say a prayer, okay?

And buy some books! With so many writers producing so many books, somebody needs to read them.

 

Where everybody knows your name


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Everybody seems to know me around here. If they don’t know me from church, they know me from various writer events or they’ve seen me singing at the annual garden tours or the Toledo street market. They know me from yoga class or the Alzheimer’s support group or the dog park or the grocery store. Maybe I interviewed them for some article for some newspaper, or maybe they took a class I taught at the community college.  They’ve certainly seen my name and picture in the local newspaper. It’s not hard to make that happen. They publish pretty much everything people send in, unlike the papers I used to work for that were more stingy with their ink.
Take yesterday, when I hosted a talk about my new book Childless by Marriage at the South Beach Community Center. Attendance was disappointing, even though the Beavers and Ducks games were over. But this one woman came in, and I exclaimed, “I know you. What’s your name?”
It turns out we know a lot of the same people involved in local music. I have heard her sing and watched her play bells. I’ve read about the antique business she runs with her husband. She knows me from Sacred Heart, from the garden tour, and from the newspaper.
If you want to be anonymous, go live in a big city. In a small town, it’s impossible unless you hide in your house and never do anything. Many of the most active people I know moved to Oregon from California and immediately got involved. We Bay Area transplants just love the way people connect in and around the towns on the Oregon coast.
It’s the way it was when my father was growing up in San Jose. Living on a ranch on Dry Creek Road along the edges of Campbell and Almaden, his family knew everyone around them, and everybody knew the Fagaldes. It’s hard for him now to accept the way things have changed. When he goes out, he’s usually surrounded by strangers, many of them speaking languages other than English. The old-timers are dying off, their ranches turned into housing tracts. It’s a lonely place, even with nearly a million residents. People stand so close together sometimes that they touch and yet they don’t speak or acknowledge each other’s presence. Not here. Thank God.
We’re short on stores and long on rain, but after a while, everybody knows who you are.