Friday, April 20, 2018

Thank you!

Shortly after I finished Biking Uphill, I had lunch with friends who were concerned about illegal immigration. I found myself wanting to say, "But I know someone who's been through this and she…" Then I realized I was thinking about Antonia and that her story had touched me so deeply I almost forgot it was fiction. This is the power of Arleen Williams' writing. She's a born story-teller.
Susan Knox, author of Financial Basics: A Money-Management Guide for Students

Sometimes a good review is just what the “writing doctor” ordered. I remember first reading the above review. Tears filled my eyes. I felt like a writer, like I’d touched a reader’s heart, like I’d accomplished something important. Readers’ reviews can do that for a writer, for this writer. They can encourage and vindicate. Many thanks to all of you who take the time to post your thoughts.

Biking Uphill is on sale this weekend for only $0.99. If you haven’t read it, now is a great time to download your copy. Just click here!

Friday, April 13, 2018

This Weekend Only ...

I sit at my writing desk and gaze at the bleeding hearts in the garden outside my window. Is spring in your part of the world as unpredictable as it is in mine? Do you need a new book on you Kindle to fill the indoors hours?

Running Secrets is a great rainy day read. Haven't read it yet? Now's the time! On sale this weekend for only $0.99, you might want to load it on your Kindle. Just click here.

Chris is bent on self-destruction until Gemi, an Ethiopian home healthcare provider, and Jake, a paramedic, enter her life. They help Chris confront her difficult past and regain a passion for living. In the process, Chris and Gemi forge an unconventional friendship that bridges cultural, racial and age differences. Their friendship spurs Gemi to question restrictive traditions dictating her immigrant life, and Chris to probe family secrets. Together the women learn that racial identity is a choice, self-expression is a right, and family is a personal construct.

The interconnecting portraits of The Alki Trilogy give voice to the plight of the newest immigrants to the Pacific Northwest. The Alki Trilogy also includes Biking Uphill and Walking Home.

Friday, April 6, 2018

What Bulawayo Taught Me

I pride myself in understanding the immigrant and refugee experience, in knowing the challenges of mastering the English language and adapting to life in the United States. I’ve spent over three decades honing my skills as an ESL instructor. Yet, I was recently brought to my knees by the work of NoViolet Bulawayo, convinced that I am a professional fraud, ignorant of the depths of despair faced by countless immigrants in our country.

Shortly after Trump’s inexcusable comment on January 11, 2018 about countries around the globe, using a word that would land a schoolchild in detention, I came across an article at the online magazine Electric Lit titled 11 Incredible Books by Writers from ‘Shithole’ Countries.

After printing the article, I logged into my Seattle Public Library account and put holds on every book on the list except one, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I’d already devoured.

In the last few months, I’ve read most of the books on the list. Novels, memoirs, and poetry collections that sang with passion and fury. Books that made me laugh and cry, that made me think and re-evaluate what I thought I knew.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel forced me to examine the depth of my understanding of the students who sit in my ESL classroom each day, of the immigrants we see on our streets in cities and small towns across America. We Need New Names accomplished that feat with absolute clarity and brutal truth. She follows the life of a girl named Darling from her childhood in Zimbabawe through young adulthood in the Midwest, where she lives with an aunt.
There is so much in this novel it is hard to choose what to share. Four scenes, or perhaps themes, took my breath away: one dealing with language learning, another with food consumption, a third with legality, and finally one about home and the responsibility of immigrants to their home country and the loved ones left behind.

I am a language instructor at a large, urban community college. Each quarter I face students from a dozen or more different nations. I view this as a learning opportunity not only for them, but also for me – even after thirty years at the college. And yet, I was stunned by Bulawayo’s descriptions of the challenges of learning the English language.

In this scene, Darling’s aunt is on the phone trying to order a bra from Victoria Secret. The conversation does not go well. When it ends, Bulawayo describes her aunt’s behavior in this way:

I know that she will turn on the lights as she descends the creaking stairway, that she will take small measured steps like there is something down there that she dreads, that when she gets to the bottom, she will stand in front of the mirror that covers one wall and look at her reflection. I know that she won’t be looking at her thinness but at her mouth. I know that she will stand there and start the conversation all over and say out loud, in careful English, all the things that she meant to say, that she should have said to the girl on the phone but did not because she could not find the words at the time. I know that in front of that mirror, Aunt Fostalina will articulate, that the English will come alive on her tongue and she will spit it like it’s burning her mouth, like it’s poison, like it’s the only language she has ever known. (p. 200)

And here, I had to put the book aside, to think, breathe, remember the many, many, many times I have reminded my students to speak in English. Even during break time.

Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back down. (p. 242)

Health is often a theme in my classes each quarter. Over the years, I have witnessed seemingly healthy and svelte new arrivals put on weight, often excessive weight, after a period of time in the United States. I have attributed this unfortunate situation to dietary changes and the consumption of too much cheap, fast food. Bulawayo shows me another interpretation:

…At McDonald’s we devoured Big Macs and wolfed down fries and guzzled supersized Cokes. At Burger King we worshipped Whoppers. At KFC we mauled bucket chicken.  We went to Chinese buffets and ate all we could inhale—fried rice, chicken, beef, shrimp, and as for the things whose names we could not read, we simply pointed and said, We want that.

We ate like pigs, like wolves, like dignitaries; we ate like vultures, like stray dogs, like monsters; we ate like kings. We ate for all our past hunger, for our parents and brothers and sisters and relatives and friends who were still back there. We uttered their names between mouthfuls, conjured up their hungry faces and chapped lips—eating for those who could not be with us to eat for themselves. And when we were full we carried our dense bodies with the dignity of elephants—of only our country could see us in America, see us eat like kings in a land that was not ours. (p. 241)

Legal status is a devastating concern plaguing far too many immigrants in our country. Every quarter is see the strain, I feel the pain. Every quarter students mysteriously disappear. Sometimes I’ll get a whisper: ICE. Most times I do not. Here is Bulawayo’s description of what it means to be undocumented in America:

When they debated what to do with illegals, we stopped breathing, stopped laughing, stopped everything, and listened. We heard: exporting America, broken borders, war on the middle class, invasion, deportation, illegals, illegals, illegals. We bit our tongues till we tasted blood, sat tensely on one butt check, afraid to sit on both because how can you sit properly when you don’t know about your tomorrow?

And because we were illegal and afraid to be discovered we mostly kept to ourselves, stuck to our kind and shied away from those who were not like us. We did not know what they would think of us, what they would do about us. We did not want their wrath, we did not want their curiosity, we did not want any attention. We did not meet stares and we avoided gazes. We hid our real names, gave false ones when asked. We built mountains between us and them, we dug rivers, we planted thorns—we had paid so much to be in America and we did not want to lose it all. (p. 244)

Another theme We Need New Names addresses is the weight of responsibility immigrants carry toward those they left behind and the homeland they love, as well as the anger and expectations of those left behind. The endless stream of money sent by Western Union, the packages of food and clothing are never enough. Here, Darling is skyping from the U.S. with a childhood friend in Zimbabawe:

Just tell me one thing. What are you doing not in your country right now? Why did you run off to America, Darling Nonkululeko Nkala, huh? Why did you just leave? If it’s your country, you have to love it to live in it and not leave it. You have to fight for it no matter what, to make it right. Tell me, do you abandon your house because it’s burning, do you expect the flames to turn into water and put themselves out? You left it, Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?

My head is buzzing. I throw the computer, and when I realize what I’ve done, it is sailing toward the wall. I gasp as it connects to the mask, cover my ears when they both crash to the floor. I don’t look to check the damage, I just get out of my room like the air has been sucked. (p. 288-289)

My head is also buzzing with the endless insults and gutter talk of the man we call president of this nation of immigrants. The world is small and getting smaller. The deeper our understanding and appreciation of the diversity of those who inhabit it, the better we are able to cherish our shared home. The brilliant works of international authors help us do just that.