Write for Buzzfeed!

It’s been a little while since I last posted–but I want you all to know I still think about you and miss your bright faces.

Here’s a new opportunity that popped up on my radar this week–the Buzzfeed Emerging Writers Fellowship. I think there are a number of you who should consider applying (and, of course, using your writing from our class in your application). It could be a great chance to work with some editors and get your work seen by a larger audience–and $12000 would be a nice perk, too.

If the link above isn’t working, the url is here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/saeedjones/buzzfeed-emerging-writers-fellowship#.vnojXP7z2

DCH

Mother Emanuel, 2015

This summer I’ve been teaching a Diversity & Equity section of Honors Writing, and Monday morning I had a difficult time in the class. I didn’t say much to my students about Charleston or those who died there last week. I forgot my computer cords at home. I fumbled to get ideas out. I felt generally out of sorts. And instead of talking with them about the tragedy, I chose to focus on their papers (we’ve been studying the issues in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray). But tomorrow is the last day of the class (it’s a 6 week course), and I feel I have to say something.

mother-emanuel-ame-churchThere are a matrices of issues that have emerged in the wake of the tragedy—from state symbols, to police response, to an archaic and racists southern ethos. It is important to have these discussions, important to weigh our care for each other, and every so often to revisit the way we’ve failed or come up short. I’m pleased to see the evolving (and evolved) attitudes coming forward, and trying to make change. Pulling down the Confederate flag is a good (albeit simple) first step.

But there is a great deal more we all need to do.

This is, in part, why I hope the murderer in this case is not executed. I hope he lives for many more years—imprisoned without hope of parole. I don’t wish this out of compassion or because I have a bone to pick with South Carolina’s system of capital punishment. But I worry that if this boy is executed, many will think the debt has been paid in full, and his crime (and our complicity in it) will be easier to forget.

I have no illusions about rehabilitation. I don’t even know that a person capable of so terrible a crime can ever be recovered. More to the point: I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t even have a name—he lost even his right to that the moment he executed grandmothers and mothers, a whole group of people whose only sin was warmly welcoming him into their house of worship. From now on he is only a crude thing, a tool we’ll keep around for its utility.

But I want him to live—to be a mirror, to remind us of how we failed. To remind us of all the times we didn’t speak up, or laughed (maybe even uncomfortably) alongside a racist, or let a hateful comment or attitude slide. I want him to live a long time—for us. And every time we’re forced to look at him, I want us to remember those he took. I want us to be incapable of forgetting or remaining indifferent to our neighbor’s suffering. And I want us to try to do better by one another.  I need this reminder, too.

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Growing up on the east coast, I visited South Carolina’s beaches as a kid a half dozen times …mostly Myrtle, and mostly with family. But my most lasting impression of the state came many years ago, when I spent a semester at Clemson, near Lake Hartwell in the rural northern half of the state.

It was the late 80s, and Coach Danny Ford still led the football squad, a few years after bringing the school its first national championship. On the basketball court, Elden Campbell and Dale Davis led the Tigers, and the whole community would turn out for games at Death Valley or Littlejohn Coliseum, roaring their approval with every basket or touchdown.

But despite the intense pride the sports teams inspired on Saturday afternoons and game nights, the community was still deeply divided—black businesses and white ones, black parts of town, others where they weren’t welcome. In broad daylight you could walk down College Ave and Tiger Boulevard and see the dividing line. In the University cafeteria, Black students ate in one corner of the dining hall, and the racial division in fraternities and sororities and other social campus groups was unmistakable. If you questioned it, others would shrug and say “That’s just South Carolina.” Everyone understood this.

Indeed, I suspect that every person in Mother Emanuel church on the evening of June 17th knew it, too.

But it is not ok, and we all need to say that more loudly now. Because ignoring the problem, or insisting it doesn’t exist, or believing (as so many do) that America, but for a few isolated events, has outgrown its racially divided history—these attitudes only keep us locked in brutal past that injures us all.

This Friday, at 11 AM, Charleston will lay their beloved Pastor Pinckney to rest. He was, by all accounts, a champion for his community and church—a public figure who regularly stood up for his large Charleston family, whose final act of compassion and generosity and humanity was to welcome a troubled white boy into his bible study group. That fact is probably difficult to fathom—and knowing the outcome, some may even question Rev. Pinckney’s judgement.

But I choose to see it as a testament to the quality of his character, his faith, and his deep commitment to bettering his community.  The doors of the church are still open. Only days after the murders, Bishop Adam Richardson Jr. led Mother Emanuel in a reaffirmation of this AME church motto. This also seems to me an amazing act of faith and courage. But we must do our part, too—to ensure that this goodwill is matched on our end, to guarantee that we are worthy of it, and to safeguard the bonds that connect us to one another, so they are never threatened in this way ever again.

The AME church has set up a fund to help pay for family expenses (these, I feel certain, will be significant). Contribution to assist with burial costs and other related expenses can be directed to:

“Mother Emanuel Hope Fund”

Seventh Episcopal District

110 Pisgah Church Road

Columbia, SC 29203

For further information contact Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, Bishop of Urban and Ecumenical Affairs and Chair of the Social Action Commission of the AME Church at Reginald.jackson132@verizon.net, or you can go to the Website of the African Methodist Episcopal church at http://www.ame-church.com/

DH

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Undergraduate No-Fee Contest

Students! The Sandy River Review (published through Alice James Books–a great literary press!) is running a no-fee (that means FREE!) contest for undergraduate writing! Nonfiction is one of the categories and I think a number of you should submit (contest deadline is July 15th). Winner receives $100 and all will be considered for publication! For more details, visit the link here. Undergraduate No-Fee Contest.

Mother’s Day, 2015

In Mexico, where my mom’s family originated before they moved just north of the Rio Grande three generations back, May 10th is always Mother’s Day. Middle of the week, second Friday of the month—it doesn’t matter, wherever it falls, Dia de las Madres is always on the same day. Once every few years (the last time was 2009) the Mexican holiday corresponds with ours in the US, and then towns across south Texas—like Laredo and El Paso and Brownsville, where I was born—are filled with happy celebrants.

It’s happened on a handful of occasions in my lifetime—today marks the seventh, but even when we celebrate on different days, the holiday is generally the same in both countries, broadly speaking. Moms, or at least the need to celebrate them, is universal it seems. There are handmade gifts prepared by children, school plays and special meals—but in Mexico, where the patron saint is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the celebration takes on a distinctly religious air.

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When I was little, my mother loved to tell me the story of Juan Diego, the poor Indian farmer, walking amid the thorns and cactus thistle growing out of the dirt on Tepeyac hill. It was important to her that he was a humble, brown skinned, farmhand—a person like her grandfather who helped raise her. And it was important that he spoke in the indigenous Náhuatl, rather than in the conquistador’s tongue. The first account of Diego’s miraculous encounter is the 16th century El Nican Mopohua, the work of a minor politician, who composed it in the native language.

Were it not for Juan Diego, my mother would say, we might think Catholicism was meant only for kings and knights and courtly ladies. But here was a peasant receiving the blessed mother—and in the story, the virgin also appears brown-skinned. She asks Diego to visit the Bishopric in the big city, and petition to have a church dedicated to her on the spot. Diego is uncertain, but he does as he’s told (you don’t second guess the holy mother) and predictably the Bishop laughs and throws him out. He returns to the virgin who instructs him to collect desert flowers from the hill in his tilma, a traditional Indian cloak, and take them back to the Bishop as proof.

The Basilica that houses the sacred cloak of Juan Diego sits a little less than an hour north of the capitol city, and on May 10th its wide plaza is packed with families, children in their church best, grandmothers in traditional huipils, and men of all ages in their finest guayaberas. In the summer of 1999, I taught for six weeks in Mexico, and visited the Basilica, watching pilgrims who’d made the long trek to Guadalupe step up to a continuously moving walkway that had been installed to manage the crowds that flock to the church each year. As I stood toward the back of the cavernous nave, hundreds of visitors (maybe more) knelt on the conveyor belt and rode left-to-right, looking up at Juan Diego’s resplendent apron, which hangs fifty feet up a golden wall, behind the front-most altar.

I imagine many of them said a private prayer as they went. And I remember thinking, too, mother would love this. Not just the history, the culture and church—but the simple human ritual. The vendors in the plaza outside, hawking little toys and steamed corn on sticks and hunks of pineapple dusted with bright orange cayenne. The smell of cinnamon and sugar and pepper, and the bougainvillea pouring over the stone walls in bright clumps, pink and peach petals blowing into the street. She’d love the boys and girls running about, brandishing churros like swords. And she would love the language and the music and the crowds—many of them simple folk like Diego, colorfully dressed, who’d travelled to this hill to catch a brief glimpse of the mother.

The first time Mother’s Day fell on May 10th in my lifetime was the day I was born. Mother liked to say that this made it our special day, the day she became a mother. I, on the other hand, liked to offer it as proof of my impeccable timing—especially useful when I was a day or two late for anniversaries and holidays, or with birthday cards. As some of you already know, my mother passed away last summer after suffering a massive stroke. The loss was unexpected and immediate; she was there one moment, gone the next. Today I turn forty-five, the first time I’ve celebrated the day without her.

She wouldn’t want me to spend too much time on this—linger on a personal sadness. She’d tell me to find a place in the sun and open air and sit—remember all the things I have to be grateful for.  I console myself knowing that when she went she was happy, dressed in her ‘going out’ clothes, at dinner with family, nursing a glass of wine, surrounded by the people she loved.

But the day is undeniably different now, and I think of my brothers and sisters back home who are celebrating today somberly at her grave site. I think of my children, my nephews and nieces who’d only barely begun to know their Nana. I think of my tia, my mom’s only sister, who flew all night to be with us when mom died.

And all the motherless children on this day, the brokenhearted, the ones for whom Mother’s Day is a time of grieving—and for all those who’ve mothered us through our hurt, our despair, despite never actually having borne us, I think of you, too—maybe most of all. From me and my mom, who loved the simple and strange, the subversive and unexpected, we hope you receive all the heartlove you need today. Abrazos, D.

DCH

When to get Creative in Creative Nonfiction

DaveThis semester, my class read John D’Agata and David Shields–and we discussed the differences between strict journalism and creative approaches to nonfiction. Several wanted to know where the line between fiction and memoir is–and when authors are permitted to get creative with their own nonfiction writing. 

I tend to be flexible in these matters (and anyways have a genetic aversion to dogma). After nearly two decades of schooling under Dominican nuns and Jesuit priests, I still break out in hives at the first whiff of the doctrinaire.

But I remember, too, doing a rather shoddy job of explaining the tangled threads–Lee Gutkind, Gonzo Journalism, Lauren Slater, &c.–to my students.  Alas, had I seen this brilliant post from Dave Gessner (from Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour), I might have avoided the whole mess.  I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion I probably created. 

A Case for Curiosity

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Titus-Maccius-PlautusI’m fond of the Plautus quote (in the original Latin, it goes something like nam curiosus nemo est, quin sit malevolus). I think curiosity is an inestimable human trait, maybe even more precious to me than temerity and courage—and worth twice its weight in wit. And I agree that true curiosity carries with it something dangerous, maybe even threatening (though, humanist that I am, I’d stop short of malicious).

Still, that’s not the reason I’ve chosen to christen this new blog with a quip from some long dead Roman.

This is my first foray into the blogosphere. I’ve never blogged before, and I’ll confess I’m slightly terrified at starting now. I know there are others far better at this sort of regular public writing routine—those who thrive on it—and part of my fear comes of my own sense of inadequacy. I write regularly, daily even, but until this point I haven’t had to lay out my personal scribblings for others before I felt good and ready.

I could wait (I told myself), make it perfect, or at least bring my writing along slowly, until I felt I could defend it if necessary. Something tells me this sort of leisurely pace isn’t part of the blogging universe.

As I write this, it is late April in Utah. There’s still snow in the mountains, and a few hearty skiers brave the final runs, but winter is otherwise on the wane. The weather is warming, daylight stretches later into the evening hours, and where I teach, tomorrow marks the last day of the spring semester.

What’s brought me to this blog (and to the Plautus quote which crowns it) are my students. I’ve just finished leading a creative nonfiction workshop at the university, and I don’t want it to end. I’m charmed that at least a few of my students feel the same. In fact, this blog is their idea (at least, to some degree), and its aim is to serve—for as long as it lasts—the students who’ve inspired it.

Over the last sixteen weeks these students have demonstrated remarkable openness, good humor, and pluck. Though a number of them were writers before our class, most had never tried their hand at memoir or nonfiction—and, as far as I know, none had ever taken a workshop.

We started the semester together reading Montaigne and Cheryl Strayed (an ungainly pairing, if ever there was one), and I told them, as much as any genre, this one requires imagination and courage. The writer in nonfiction doesn’t have to know everything (Lopate says he knows just enough to annoy the experts), but she should be curious about it. And whatever she discover truly in herself during the course of her inquiry, she must tell it.

Thus, we’ve shared private moments, moved each other to laughter and tears, trusted one other with things we hadn’t even told our families—and grew amazingly (and, I think, amazingly close) in the process. After nearly two decades of teaching, I know experiences like this are rare—not meant to last. Still, we’re gonna give it a shot.

Because we’re never certain what we’ll find, curiosity makes us vulnerable; but in its thirst for knowledge, its tireless searching, it may also make us eternal.

DCH