New Publication: “Testimonial”

Thanks to Jennifer Niesslein at Full Grown People for publishing my essay, “Testimonial.” This online journal is full of great essays about the “sometimes glorious, sometimes messy, stuff that comes with adulthood.”

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My Oregon Trail


Green Lake Heron in Winter

Most every morning on sabbatical for the last three months, I’ve crawled out of bed after Arline has left for work. I’ve put on my sweatpants, ground coffee, and set up the iPad on the dining room table to read the news (confession: Facebook news first, newspapers second). After coffee and oatmeal, I slide my slippers over to the computer to read or write or do research. At lunchtime, I stop to check email and get some exercise. Then I’m back to the project.

It’s relatively quiet here in the co-op where we live, although city workers are often blasting leaf blowers at the bike lanes by 7:30 in the morning. Children come from the day care down the street many afternoons to play in the park. Tethered to each other by hands and string, they shriek and laugh down the path on the way to the playground. Sometimes a door opens and closes in the hallway, and footsteps cross the floor above me.

Mostly, these sounds are comforting backdrop to work that has been far from comforting. I’ve been reading U.S. history I never knew and writing about white privilege. One of my first questions was about my great grandparents, who homesteaded in Montana in the early twentieth century. Whose land were they occupying? I wondered. Turned out it had belonged to the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation. This led me to a memoir by Alma Hogan Snell, who grew up learning the stories and skills of her grandmother, Pretty Shield, and to a book of Apsáalooke history by Joseph Medicine Crow.

This example set the pattern: I would start with an ancestor and use that person’s time and experiences to launch my research. I used to make a family tree, and one of the first surprises was that a set of great great grandparents had taken the Oregon Trail. I read a history of white-Indian relations along the trail and diaries by women emigrants. The recently published Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States gave a broader context. Along the way, I found the story of George Bush, a black man who took the Oregon Trail with his white wife, and, denied the ability to settle in Oregon because of racist exclusion laws, turned north and settled with friends and family in what was then the Washington Territory and is now Thurston County. Even then, he had to get a special provision from the government to own the land he was homesteading because noncitizens couldn’t homestead, and African Americans weren’t citizens.

Bush’s white friend, Michael T. Simmons, helped Bush get approval to own his plot. He was one of many whites I found in my research who were sympathetic to people of color and who actively challenged racist laws and policies. Many more whites actively engaged in racist behavior, like William Boeing, founder of our famous aircraft company, who had an explicit whites-only hiring policy until World War II and who included a covenant for his housing development in Shoreline that excluded people of color, unless they were domestics working for whites.

I kept wondering, as I read: Where did my relatives lie between these poles – just and unjust, racist and anti-racist? My Oregon Trail ancestors were following in the literal footsteps of hundreds of thousands who had walked westward before them. Did they think about the damage the migration was doing to Indian communities? Did they see their complicity in reducing independent Indian nations to colonized subjects of the U.S. government?

What I was really asking was this: How complicit am I? What is my Oregon Trail?

The days have grown shorter and gloomier since my sabbatical began in September. Something inside me is gloomier, too, facing this history and the realization that there is so much more I still don’t know. At the same time, the work has kindled an urgent need to act. I just read a book on the Japanese American community in Seattle before World War II. The author quotes Aki Kurose, famous for her teaching and activism, on her community in what is now called the International District, the only area in which Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and African Americans were allowed to live when she was a girl in the 1920s and 30s: “My dad loved to bake, so every Friday evening he’d make jellyroll and then all the neighbors would come in to have jellyroll and we’d just have a good time, listening to music and just being social….And the neighborhood was very diverse. And there were many Jews and a Chinese family, and several black families, and we went in and out of each other’s homes all the time.”

As I read about this family sharing jellyroll with their neighbors, I felt the dread of what was coming: in another decade, Kurose and her parents would be imprisoned. What, I thought, did white people do to stop imprisonment then? What more can I do to stop the injustices now?

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A week ago, I browsed a used bookstore at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Artist Pablo Helguera had hauled shelves, armchairs, table lamps, rugs, and thousands of pounds of old books into the gallery space. Called “Librería Donceles,” the installation conjures the experience of wandering through a used bookstore, but because all the books are in Spanish, it felt for me both familiar and strange.

When I was an adolescent, one of my favorite places was Shorey’s Bookstore in downtown Seattle. As I’ve described in The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, it occupied multiple rooms over several floors of an old building, and the rooms were always hot, the radiators steaming, the windows cracked open to the Seattle rain. Meandering through the stacks, I felt alone and unknown — a good feeling. No one knew exactly where I was and that meant I was free.

I still have some record albums from Shorey’s — one is Ralph McTell’s “You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here”  — and my copy of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America may have come from there as well; the pencilled price of $1.25 on the first page has been crossed out and “1.00” written below.

At Librería Donceles, I scanned the shelves, some of which indicated they held novels or poetry, some of which had funny labels, like “aburridos,” the boring ones, and “Marxism trasnochado,” which seems to mean something like Marxism for sleepless nights. The dim lighting, the jumble of books on shelves and tables, and the sense of rummaging through castoffs in search of one amazing tome made the experience familiar. But I felt off-kilter as well. On many Spanish books, the title on the spine is written in the opposite direction of titles on English books. Perusing a shelf, I had to tilt my head left instead of right to read the spines. My intermediate Spanish helped me understand only about half the titles. I recognized translations of books originally published in English, and sometimes cognates helped; Relaciones Mexicano-Sovieticas on the aburridos shelf is not hard to figure out.

My visit to the bookstore was part of an afternoon event called Books Bridge Our Senses/Los Libros Conectan Nuestros Sentidos. Poets Claudia Castro Luna, Catalina Marie Cantú, and Raúl Sánchez read poems and essays inspired by books. The readings kept me off-kilter as well, reminding me of both connections and disconnections between my experiences and those of the writers on stage. Castro Luna, for example, told the story of her family’s emigration from El Salvador in 1981. Most of what they packed were her father’s books. At that moment in El Salvador, books were dangerous; they attracted the attention of the death squads. Avoiding violence, her father had previously hid his books in the ceiling and buried them in the backyard.

My family, too, had many books, and as we moved from house to house, which we did many times until I was thirteen, we were always packing them up in boxes, unpacking them, and arranging them again on shelves. But we feared no one coming to our door to see what we were reading. We did not need to protect ourselves by hiding them. In fact, my mother told me I could check out any book from the library that I wanted; no books were off limits.

Still, it would not be fair to say that in the United States we are free to read whatever we wish. Parents challenge books assigned in schools, and school districts back them up. At my college, an instructor assigned Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and one student’s parent took a black magic marker and obliterated sentence after sentence. At a systemic level, editors choose not to publish certain books, so we never get a chance to read them. Reviewers are more likely to evaluate books by men than women, so we may not hear about books we would want to read. In that sense, it might be argued that books by women, by people of color, by queer poets like Ginsberg, are dangerous, if by dangerous we mean upsetting our dominant mythologies of whose ideas, stories, and words matter.

At the gallery event, we each got an index card to exchange for one book in the store. I started by perusing the novels, but they looked too hard for me to read. None of the children’s books appealed. Finally, under a table, I found a guide to Panama, Arline’s home country. Here’s me reading the first sentence: The privileged geostrategic something of Panama, the singular relationships of its geology, something, ecology, history, and socioeconomics have made this nation one of the grand crossroads of the world and a vital American center. Not bad, huh?

Arline and I have one of those old library bookcases with glass doors. It holds our most treasured books: old volumes by Tennyson and Longfellow, wrapped in soft leather, that belonged to my grandparents; books of poetry by Guillén and Machado; signed copies of works by our friends; favorite books from our college and graduate school years. Sorted by size to fit the shelves, the titles don’t scan easily. I have to tilt my head right, then left, then right and left again. Nevertheless, our books connect us. Arline gave me García Lorca, and I gave her Martín Espada. We pilgrimaged to Neruda’s house in Isla Negra and to Brautigan’s camp site near Stanley, Idaho. This December we will make a pilgrimage down the Florida coast to honor Zora Neale Hurston.

Books bridge our senses. They do. In the moment of reading, I am living in the world the writer has made on the page, smelling, tasting, hearing what she feels. They can also disturb, sending a rumble of earthquake beneath my understanding of the world. Connection and disconnection; the familiar and the strange; the bridge and the abyss. We sit in that dusty armchair in the corner of Librería Donceles, crack the spine, and wonder where this book will take us.

“Librería Donceles” is open through January 3.



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Review in LA Review of Books

Jayne Guertin has written a thoughtful review of Ghosts. I spend so much time working by myself at my desk that it’s always a surprise — and an honor — when someone reads my work so carefully. Thanks to Jayne and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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One City: Many Writing Communities

The Space Needle with a Chihuly glass sculpture

At Chihuly Garden and Glass

On Thursday I sat in Third Place Books Ravenna, listening to a strained conversation about racism and publishing. A book has just come out, Seattle City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers, edited by Ryan Boudinot, that is part of a bid for Seattle to be named a “Creative City” by UNESCO.

The book’s jacket copy says “it tells the story of books, reading, writing, and publishing in one of the nation’s most literary cities.” But the story it tells is not one that others recognize as the definitive narrative, and my fellow writing group member, Donna Miscolta, has written a response. Published online the night before the panel discussion, her essay notes the many writers of color left out of the narrative, writers like Octavia Butler, Alan Lau, Peter Bacho, Carlos Bulosan, Nisi Shawl, and August Wilson, who gets a passing reference but not a full essay. She says, “In the end, the failure to acknowledge the existence and work of writers of color fails all readers.” (Donna’s essay joins many others on racism in publishing; see, for example, Mali D. Collins and Daniel José Older.)

The person who put Donna’s essay online was Paul Constant, creator of The Seattle Review of Books and writer of the afterword for the book. He immediately responded with his own post in which he apologized: “I didn’t even notice the whiteness at the time. And I absolutely should have.”

Sitting on the panel at Third Place Books, then, were Boudinot, Constant, and two contributors, Sonora Jha and Lesley Hazleton. They were all aware of the controversy, and so they led with it, acknowledging the issue and promising a conversation. That conversation then unfolded — strained, painful, awkward. I felt myself at times wanting to pitch a softball question just to relieve the panelists of their discomfort; of course, I didn’t. Discomfort is often what it takes for us white people to take action. Our comfort with the status quo is part of the problem.

Where I felt myself getting especially frustrated was when panelists were asked to come up with solutions to the problem of inequitable representation. The main solution suggested was the importance of reaching out to communities of color instead of just accepting whatever comes in over the transom. While this may be a good idea, I was struck by how easily such a solution slides into paternalism, how it suggests that the problem lies with the writers of color who are not assertive or diligent enough to get their work into public view. It fails to acknowledge the ways that white privilege functions.

I have spent years addressing institutional racism as an academic; I have taught for over twenty years at Highline (Community) College, where I’ve been involved in many initiatives to diversify the curriculum and faculty. It’s forced me to try to answer questions like these: How can our faculty still be 80% white, even with a decades-long effort to hire more faculty of color and a perception on the part of some white faculty that applicants of color have an unfair advantage? How can so many of our students, over 70% of whom are people of color, still get an associate’s degree and rarely see people like themselves reflected in readings and films, in the images in their textbooks, in the examples used by instructors in class? Last year, when I had to take over the class of an instructor who was fired, I found myself having to teach with a recently published English composition textbook in which close to 90% of the excerpts of professional writing seemed to be by white people. How is this still happening?

I’ve come to believe that, for white people to be part of the solution instead of the problem, we need to understand implicit bias and structural racism. A blog post can’t possibly explore these topics in the complexity they deserve, but I want to try, at least, to add to the answers that were given Thursday night on how we can avoid inequitable representation.

Psychologists at Harvard University have done extensive research on implicit bias, the subconscious tendency to be biased in favor of characteristics associated with power: whiteness, maleness, wealth, heterosexuality, etc. As we begin any project, it’s useful to remind ourselves that we are inherently biased. It’s not a moral failure; it’s the result of living in this culture. Even people of color can be biased toward whiteness; that phenomenon is called internalized racism.

Structural racism refers to the ways racism is built into our systems, institutions, and culture. In Seattle, people of color were not allowed to purchase houses in certain neighborhoods until the 1960s. Friends of mine bought a house in West Seattle in the mid-1990s; when they received the title, they were shocked to see that it prohibited them from selling the house to blacks and Jews. Of course, this restriction was no longer in force, but it was a reminder that structural racism affects us to this day, with opportunities for writers — bookstores, classes, reading series, etc., like most resources in Seattle, concentrated in the whiter north end.

So my suggestions to white people for taking a more equitable approach to projects in the Seattle writing community are to ask these questions:

  • Who are the stakeholders and who should be at the planning table? Which voices are louder and which are softer? Do some at the planning table have more power than others, and is that appropriate?
  • What criteria will be used to decide who is included (in the anthology, on the panel, etc.)? When criteria aren’t clarified, biases will go undetected.
  • How are my own point view and personal networks, inevitably impacted by my whiteness, likely to affect this process? How can I tap into other networks? How can I see from other points of view?
  • How are existing structures tending to benefit white people? Assume they are benefiting white people and keep looking at them, trying to figure out how; it’s often hard for us to see structural racism at work because it seems normal to us, but we know it exists because outcomes continue to be racist. Consider policies, access to resources, dominant cultural narratives, the way announcements are worded, where events are held, and so on.

These questions need to be asked at the beginnings of projects, not halfway through when we realize that mostly white voices are being included; such an effort at that point leads to tokenism. Yes, this takes time and energy. But a healthy, deliberate, inclusive, anti-racist process is our best hope for ending with equitable representation.

In fact, no anthology can tell “the story” of literature in Seattle; there are many stories. The question is: which stories are being told?

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A Summer of Readings

Modern Hotel

The Modern Hotel

I read recently from The Ghosts Who Travel with Me at the Modern Hotel in Boise, one of my favorite stops on the book tour. In 2008, when Arline and I began the literary pilgrimage that would inform the book, we stayed at the Modern Hotel, and I fell for its midcentury modern design: hip but relaxed, luxurious but homey. The owner’s grandmother, who opened the first Modern Hotel in Nampa, Idaho, makes a cameo in the book, and I was pleased to share my fondness for the hotel with the locals who get to visit whenever they wish.

After the reading, the owner, Elizabeth Tullis, told me a story about her grandmother. She had asked her grandmother to speak about her life into a tape recorder. When Elizabeth replayed the tape, her grandmother looked startled to hear herself. She said, “How did my life get into that box?” Elizabeth told me she had the same reaction to hearing me read about the Modern Hotel: How did her life get into that box?

How do our lives — messy, complicated, contradictory — get into these boxes that are books? Books are linear, each sentence marching after the last as if it inevitably follows, the bound pages forcing us to read the paragraphs in a certain order. That’s the tension for memoirists: to take the mess of our lives and organize it, but not so tightly that it feels inauthentically sterile. I’ve discovered, reading from the same passages over and over this summer, that I want to keep editing, and so I do; before each reading, I practice, imagining my audience and editing accordingly. Listeners who buy a book will see what’s fixed to the page, but perhaps the revised version will still linger in their ears, a ghost that travels with them.

A book is like a Polaroid taken at a party, stopping the host’s mouth half-open, the laughing eyes half-closed. The book stops sentences at a moment in time, freezes them in position. And like the Polaroid image, which gradually sharpens, the book’s power and the book’s flaws gradually sharpen as the writer reads it out loud again and again, and as readers encounter it. Unlike the unlucky host in that Polaroid, who did not know when to smile, the writer has control over the final version. Still, that control can feel like an illusion. Long after publication, the writer may still see words, phrases, whole sentences she would like to change.

So this is what I’m feeling these days after a summer of talking about the book in interviews, reading reviews, and listening to its sentences emerge from my mouth in front of microphones: a bit startled. How did my life get into this box? By which I mean: How did this particular version of my life get into this box? What does this version say about me? Who is the me that is revealed on the page?

I am many drafts into a new memoir. The sentences are in motion. I will try to appreciate all the possibilities they still represent.





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Interview with Waverly Fitzgerald

Waverly Fitzgerald, a Seattle writer with an impressive list of publications and a popular teacher of writing at Hugo House and other venues, has interviewed me about my publication journey. We spent a lovely week together in 2014, along with two other writers, at a Centrum residency; we are about to go to Port Townsend again for another week. One of my favorite things about writing is being in the company of smart, kind, interesting writers, and Waverly is one of those people.

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