Chance Encounters

Chance Encounters

So many of us dream of travelling, writing, and sharing our amazing experiences, but Colorado-based journalist, editor, and producer Janna Graber has done more than just dream. In addition to writing for publications such as Redbook, Reader’s Digest, The Chicago Tribune, etc., in the interests of travel and gaining invaluable life experiences, she’s gone dog-sledding, saddled up for excitement and riding at some of Colorado’s dude ranches, and even toured my ownOntario Wine Country to sample our finest wines in the Niagara Valley! But for Janna, it’s more than just the travel that drives her; it’s the personal connections she makes with people all over the globe that resonate most deeply with her. Now, she’s written a book, Chance Encounters: Travel Tales From Around the World (World Traveler Press, 2014) that focuses on experiences and personal connections she and other globe trotters have enjoyed. To learn a little more about this fascinating woman, her newest book, and what inspires her, read on.

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Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure

Q: Tell us, Janna, how did you get the idea for the book?

A: In my travels, I often crossed paths with extraordinary people — people who lived in situations different from my own, but who touched me in some way. Some of those encounters enriched my journey, inspired me or even changed my way of thinking. I knew other travelers experienced this as well, so I decided to create a book that would celebrate these unique and incredible travel encounters.

Q: How many authors were featured in the book?

ANineteen top international travel writers were featured in the book.

Q: How were pieces selected?

A: We received hundreds of submissions from writers around the globe and selected 23 final stories. I looked for well-written pieces that followed the writer’s internal journey, as well as his/her external experience. Each story in the book provides a you-are-there feeling, allowing the armchair traveler to experience a unique part of the world from the writer’s perspective. The stories are all very different from each other, which makes reading the book so enjoyable. 

Q: What are some of your own stories that were included?

A: “My Friend, the Enemy” was actually the story that inspired the idea for the book. In 1987 while on a short student trip to East Germany, I met a young East German student who reached out in friendship, even though it was dangerous for him to do so. After I left, we had to write in secret through this grandma. It’s been 25 years now since the Berlin Wall fell, and we have been close friends ever since — simply because we crossed paths long ago.

Another story of mine, “The Parisian Angel” tells how a young French woman helped me after I had been robbed in Paris. She reached out to me when I needed it most, and helped to restore my faith in Paris.

Q: Tell us about some of the other tales in the book.

A: Christina Hamlett writes of a treasured encounter in Hawaii that she has never forgotten. Kimberley Lovato’s tale of an elevator ride with a courageous woman in Paris packs deep emotions into a matter of minutes, from recollections of childhood memories to profound realizations of life.

Nithin Coca’s conversation with a taxi driver in Dubai leaves an impression that he won’t forget, and during a hike with a young monk in Bhutan, Shilpa Gupta learns a lesson not about Buddhism, but about herself.

Cece Romanyshyn is moved by the strength of three young Kenyan sisters who are faced with a heart-wrenching local custom, and Rob Woodburn marvels at the resourcefulness of two young men from Malawi in their quest for a decent pair of shoes.

These are just a few examples. The book is packed with incredible tales of chance travel encounters that touched or changed someone’s life.

Q: Travel writing isn’t something most people just jump into. What is your background?

A: I began my journalism career covering women’s news for Chicago Tribune, Redbook, McCall’s and other publications. When the Columbine tragedy happened in my own backyard, it was very difficult for me to write about. These were my neighbors, and I couldn’t help but feel their sorrow. After that, I decided to turn my energies to covering positive stories of travel and the strength of the human spirit.

After 9/11, travel writing changed. I was told that Americans weren’t interested in international travel. But I knew that wasn’t true. In 2003, I started GoWorldTravel.com, an online magazine devoted entirely to world travel. We work with travel writers around the world covering stories in more than 90 countries. I’ve been covering travel ever since.

Q: When you travel, you do much more than visit resorts and tourist attractions; you learn about the native cultures and people of the places you visit. What is the most interesting fact you discovered about a place, people, or thing on your travels?

A: What I’ve learned is that people are more alike than they are different. Yes, I may have a different home or lifestyle than a mom living in Shanghai, but deep down we are still mothers who hope for the best in our children. I always find so much in common with those I meet on my travels – and that provides a genuine connection that cultural differences can’t erase.

Q: Most of us choose to travel the paved roads, but you go off-road all the time. Can you share with us your most funny, or difficult, travel situation?

A: I love small towns and rural and rugged landscape. Some of my favorite travel experiences have been snorkeling with belugas near the Arctic Circle in the 800-person town of Churchill, Minnesota, and going on safari in the Outback on an Aboriginal Reserve at the northern tip of Australia. The people who live in these kinds of rugged environments fascinate me, and I enjoy being around them.

Q: What inspires you to write and travel, Janna?

A: I’m always curious and eager to learn about new places, people, and cultures. Travel allows me to step out of my comfort zone, broaden my view, and experience new things.

Q: Although travel writing looks exciting and glamorous, I’m sure many, many times it isn’t. What advice would you give to writers who would like to learn more about or get involved in travel writing?

A: Ten years ago, it was possible to make a passable living with travel writing, but the media world has changed. Fewer print publications cover travel, and online writing just doesn’t pay as much. Nowadays, travel writing is a good second career. You have to pursue it for the passion, not the money. It helps to have another source of income while you do that.

Q: How do you choose the places to visit and write about?

A: Since I went to university in Vienna, I feel at home in Europe. European destinations continuously draw me. I’m also in love with Australia, so travel there whenever I can. Generally though, I simply look for opportunities to travel and experience new things. I’m open to almost any place where travel is safe.

Q: Is there someplace you haven’t been to yet that you are determined to go to? If so, why?

A: I’d like to go on safari in Tanzania and Botswana; Mongolia is also on my wish list. I’ve never been to any of these places, but have read other writers who have inspired me to put them on my Bucket List. 

Q: What book projects are you working on next?

A: My next book in the series, called “Adventures of a Lifetime: Travel Tales from Around the World”, is also now available. Like the name says, the book includes 24 incredible travel stories from some 20 top travel writers.

My own story in the book is called “Filling in the Holes”. It’s about searching for family roots in Latvia that were tragically lost during war. It was an incredible adventure. Latvia is an undiscovered treasure.

In mid-2015 I’ll start work on an anthology devoted solely to women’s travel stories. I’m really looking forward to that one.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today, Janna. I, and I’m sure many of our readers, are looking forward to reading Chance Encounters: Travel Tales from Around the World, and your future works as well.

LINKS

Amazon link to Chance Encounters: Travel Tales from Around the World
http://www.amazon.com/Chance-Encounters-Travel-Tales-Around/dp/0990878600/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420764694&sr=8-1

Amazon link to Adventures of a Lifetime: Travel Tales from Around the Worldhttp://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Lifetime-Travel-Around-Traveler-ebook/dp/B00R5NJZQA/ref=dp_kinw_strp_exp_8_1

World Traveler Press: www.worldtravelerpress.com

Go World Travel Magazine: www.goworldtravel.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Go.World.Travel

Twitter: https://twitter.com/GoWorldMagazine

Website: http://jannagraber.com/

 

 

 

 

 

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Godless

Jeff_Rasley

Stretch your limits and shake up your boundaries! No one does this more or better than writer, philanthropist, mountaineer, husband, and father than Jeff Rasley. Having written and published his eighth non-fiction book, Godless, Jeff goes deep into the discussion of humanity, and what it means to be a believer and non-believer of any religious or political doctrine. As a man who has travelled the world, trekked mountains, and swam with whales, Jeff encourages us to examine our lives and where we’re going. It’s a pleasure to interview this intrepid spirit and share some of his thoughts to the questions posed. Welcome Jeff!

Interviewer: Debbie McClure

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Q     How did your early life as a child, then as a lawyer, prepare you to undertake life-altering global and spiritual explorations?

A   My family encouraged curiosity and intellectual exploration and that has been as aspect of my identity since childhood. Practicing law demands rigorous questioning about facts and evidence. So, both of these influences influenced me to have open eyes and open mind to different and new ideas and spiritual growth.

Q   Who has been your greatest life coach or mentor, and why?

A   Many teachers, professors, coaches, pastors, and friends have had influence on me, and friendships developed with my Nepalese sirdars have been inspiring. But, I can’t name one as being the greatest. The constant love, forgiveness, and understanding of my parents and wife have been more important to me than anything I’ve gained from other people.

Q   What inspires and drives you?

A   I want to take good care of myself, live life as an adventure, and offer what I can to others who ask for and need my assistance. I want to enjoy life and affect the world with pragmatic philanthropy.

Q   Some would say climbing a mountain is the ultimate physical manifestation of spiritual seeking. What did you discover about yourself during your first and subsequent climbs in Nepal?

A   That I could endure a lot of pain even to the point of being barely conscious. There are moments in mountaineering when your body, mind, and will are in sync or flow, which is beautiful. When you are able to stop, look around and savour the view, it’s movingly beautiful. But, most of the time actually climbing is hard slogging, putting one foot in front of the other while trying to maintain steady breathing, and maintaining a focus on staying balanced.

Q   You’ve written eight books now, each dealing with issues of self-discovery, philanthropy, and seeking. What drives you to delve so deeply into yourself and our current societal beliefs, then write about them?

A   The admonition of Socrates, to “know thy self”, is, I think the first step on the path of seeking wisdom. We are our own interpreters of reality, so we need to be self aware of how we filter information through our subjective experience. Then, we can participate in family, community, and the world more intentionally and productively. I discovered during adolescence that it turned me on to figure out how, and then to implement, ways to improve communal relations, to help people get along better. So, I’ve tried to do that in various ways from my own local communities to international philanthropic development projects.

Q   Clearly travel plays a large role in your life, but why?

A   I grew up in a small city which didn’t have much cultural diversity. Whenever my family did a driving trip, it thrilled me. So, when I was 18 I walked to the edge of town, stuck out my thumb and hitch-hiked across the country. It was a wonderful experience of meeting people utterly unlike those I knew. And, I loved seeing different parts of the country both urban and rural areas. It lit a fire in me that still burns. (I’m leaving in a few days for another cross-country driving trip with my wife out to CA.) Every trip, whether it’s just a weekend of outback camping, cultural tour of a city, or solo-kayaking Pacific islands, is an opportunity to learn and grow, so long as it’s understood as an adventure.

Q   Can you share with us a particularly amusing or scary story about your mountain climbing?

A   How about an ocean story, instead? This is excerpted from Islands in My Dreams:

Fifteen times we approached the mother and calf when they surfaced, and then we jumped in the water and swam as fast as we could toward them. Each time they sounded before we reached the whales. The boat captain gave us one last chance as he was low on fuel and it was time for us to get back on the slower boat to be taken back to Neiafu.

The three of us dove in with fins kicking as hard and fast as we could. Anjo told us splashing bothers whales, so we kicked with our fins below the surface and didn’t stroke with our arms to minimize splashing.

The mother and calf didn’t dive this time. They swam just below the surface staying about twenty yards ahead of us. Tashio, the Japanese guy, tired from the fifteen times we had already swam after the whales, gave up the chase after about fifty yards. Kevin, the Floridian, broke off after one hundred yards. I kept kicking. After another fifty yards of pursuit, the whales stopped.

The mother let me swim up beside her, but kept her baby on her other side away from me. I swam up beside her huge eye, turned on my side and looked through my snorkel mask into her eye, which was as big as my head. She looked back at me. Our eyes locked. Time stopped. It was if we were looking into each other’s souls.

She rolled and nudged her calf with her flipper to encourage the calf to swim over to me. The baby whale swam up to me, swam under me, then circled around me, and let me caress its tail. It was surprisingly smooth to my touch. The calf returned to its mother’s side.

They began to swim off slowly. I swam with them for about one hundred yards, but then another whale-watching boat approached. The mother gave one great flick of her tail and they vanished deep into the dark water below me.

I stroked back to the speedboat and clambered up the ladder and dropped over the gunwale. I could barely stand. My legs were vibrating and shaking. Electric current (or adrenaline) was coursing through me from the thrill and power of the encounter.

For a few moments, the otherness separating the mother whale and me had vanished. We looked into each other’s eyes and saw trust and acceptance, instead of fear and danger. She trusted me to caress her baby. I trusted that she would not crush me like a minnow with her gigantic tail.

I can still see her awesome eye in my mind’s eye. And I remember how she trusted me with her calf. It would be a good thing for our finite planet if humans could see the soul of all other species, especially the endangered ones.

Q   What does your family think of your travels, books, philanthropy, and growing ideologies?

A   That it’s all pretty cool.

Q   You say that your wife encouraged you to go “climb a mountain”, so clearly she supported that first climb, but does she ever travel or climb with you?

A   We travel regularly together, and used to do hiking and camping trips. But she has MS and is medically restricted from strenuous physical activity.

Q   On returning home to the United States after your various travels, you must be met with many conflicting emotions regarding (global) economic waste and excess. What else do you struggle with in your integration back into your everyday home life, and how do you deal with your emotional conflicts?

A   I’m really not bothered by the vast discrepancies in material wealth anymore. I was the first few times I experienced “third world” poverty. It felt very weird coming home, caring for our kids, going to the office, and just living my life which was so different from that of the people I had been around in Nepal, India, and other “exotic” places. But the other cultures I’ve spent time with are more wealthy than ours in other ways. I’d like to bring back to the US the emotional and spiritual maturity I have found in Nepal (which it the poorest country outside of Africa). What I still wonder and sort of worry about is whether my own efforts at infrastructure development in Nepal are actually helping or hurting the villages I’ve worked with. But, we do the best we can, and then, “so it goes” (per my fellow Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut).

Q   People often feel helpless to “do something significant” to improve our world or find meaning to their lives. What suggestions would you give to others perhaps not so adventurous as yourself?

A   Consider deeply what you care about. When you understand what you truly value, then guide your life in a way which promotes the values you care most about.

Q   Your recent book, Godless, is a very provocative title and offers what others may consider controversial insight into religious doctrines and dogma. Have you received any negative feedback or misunderstanding regarding it, and if so, what would you want to clarify for potential readers?

A   “Godless” is explained in the book on several levels. One of the points it makes is that making gods out of religious doctrines or political ideologies has caused much harm throughout human history. Believers tend to divide humanity into us and them, believers and nonbelievers. But what you personally believe or don’t believe probably won’t harm other people so long as you value tolerance. Unfortunately, religious and political zealots tend not to value tolerance and many are led by unscrupulous leaders to treat nonbelievers as less than human. The book makes the case that we would be better off to ditch the whole God-thing and admit we really don’t know whether God exists, or, to think that everything and every moment is sacred.

Q   What’s next for you, Jeff?

A   After finishing writing a book, I take several months to try to promote the book, as I’m doing now. And, the last thing I want to think about is writing another one. Eventually another seed will germinate. In the meantime, I run the Basa Village Foundation, serve on 5 nonprofit boards, teach a class on philanthropy at Butler University, and organize trekking and mountaineering expeditions.

Q   Where can our readers discover more about you, your philanthropic work, and your books?

A   My website has all that info: www.jeffreyrasley.com

Amazon Author page is http://www.amazon.com/Jeff-Rasley/e/B004Q3D6B2

Other social media sites are :

https://www.linkedin.com/pub/jeff-rasley/12/984/619

http://www.pinterest.com/pinner362436

https://twitter.com/jeffrasley

https://plus.google.com/u/0/104731913652844816663

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4114763.Jeffrey_Rasley

https://www.facebook.com/JeffRasleyAndMidsummerBooks

 

 

 

You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?

You CAme Here To Die

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Visit Facebook any day of the week and you’ll see no shortage of political divisiveness, rants about corrupt government, and frustrations that American life as we know it continues to go from bad to worse. Is it any wonder that when people stay away from the ballot box on Election Day, it’s usually because there are either no candidates they feel they can trust or they’re convinced that their votes won’t make even an angstrom of difference?

During the turbulent 1960s, a young white California coed seized an opportunity to step up for something she believed in and embarked on a bold mission to register black voters in the Deep South, a decision that put her face-to-face with staggering poverty, rampant illiteracy, and the Ku Klux Klan. In her moving memoir about the Civil Rights Movement – You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You? – author Sherie Labedis paints a compelling picture of an era that is only a scant 50 years in the rearview mirror but which still resonates today.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: A lot of the best writers often declare that they were voracious readers growing up. Was this the case with you?

A: I had two passions growing up. One was riding my horse and the other was reading. My students often don’t like to read, but it’s the best way to flights of fantasy and trips to foreign lands. In high school I took a class called Advanced Reading. We had to read books from a list colleges would expect us to know and we kept a journal of our responses. My favorite author was/is John Steinbeck. My father used to play in Zane Grey’s backyard and he wrote about the West, so he was a usual companion. I also enjoyed the breadth and detail in books by Tolstoy.

Q: What/who are you reading now?

A: My husband and I are reading The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber aloud to one another. I have just finished Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, book two in his Century Trilogy. South Carolina: A History by Walter Edgar helps me understand the “whys” of my book. I am just beginning Carol Ruth Silver’s Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison.

Q: Was the craft of writing something that came easily to you when you were a student at Ponderosa (coincidentally, our shared alma mater)?

A: I was a very successful English student. I loved the little creative writing I did. However, I couldn’t get the knack of writing essays and reports until I started teaching.

Q: What did you imagine yourself doing as a career after graduation and who or what was the strongest influence in shaping that dream?

A: I didn’t know “what I wanted to be.” Cowboy was high on my list and I had great math skills. I needed more information on what the possibilities were. You and I went to a small high school with limited offerings. I transferred to the University of California Berkeley. Their schedule of classes filled a book. I didn’t even know what many of the words meant. I’d found the place to discover what the possibilities were.

Q: Where did your passion for civil rights begin and what led you to volunteer?

A: I blame an English teacher and my book is dedicated to him. Television brought all the pain and suffering of the Civil Rights Movement into our living room. My English and social studies teachers considered it their responsibility to get us to pay attention. Bruce Harvey, the Advanced Reading English teacher asked the class what we were willing to die for. It was a rhetorical question for most of the students. Not for me. I wanted to know. When I arrived at UC Berkeley, I was quite aware that the answer to that question was part of the possibilities I would consider.

Two events moved me. One was in 1964 and, in the world of civil rights, it was called Freedom Summer. Black civil rights organizations recruited white college students to go to the Deep South to register black voters. Mississippi and Alabama had made it absolutely obvious that they would not allow integration and that they didn’t mind terrorizing and killing blacks to keep it from happening. Civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) thought that if white college students were beaten and killed on television, racists might back down. This was a miscalculation. Three voter registration workers, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, disappeared in Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman were white and Chaney was black. It was forty-five days before their bodies were found, killed by the Ku Klux Klan. How could that happen in my country?

The second event was the Selma March in March of 1965. Six hundred blacks, men, women, children and old folks determined to march from Selma, Alabama, fifty-four miles to the statehouse steps in Montgomery to get down on their knees to pray for the right to vote. They never got out of Selma. They were stopped by a wall of police on horseback, carrying clubs, guns, and tear-gas. The beatings were so severe and so widespread the day is known as Bloody Sunday. Something in me snapped. I was now eighteen and when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at colleges asking for volunteers for a second Freedom Summer, I signed up with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Q: You were only eighteen, white middle-class and educated when you arrived in Pineville, South Carolina. You write that you were simultaneously horrified and overwhelmed. Why?

A: My parents were struggling to be middle class. Even so, I had a horse. We could come and go as we pleased. We had food, a warm home and, even though my mom made most of my clothes, we had all the clothes we needed. We had medical care. My dad had a car and, although it was an old clunker, my mom had one, too. When I was accepted to Berkeley my mom had to get a job at the post office to pay my way. We didn’t get what we wanted when we wanted it – sometimes we never got “it.”

The black world of South Carolina was the opposite of what I had known. In Charleston I learned that black people didn’t have health care when I met a woman dying with a rotting leg that could be smelled for blocks. Flies flew around a sore full of pus and her leg ballooned below it. I was sure “someone” in the black community would do something. I was told to report the problem to the church and they would do the best they could.

People were starving, barefoot, overworked and illiterate. They had mules and wagons, not cars. Most had no electricity or telephone in their tumbledown cabins, some of which had existed during slavery. Plumbing was outside including the pump for water. They were controlled by the white power structure and the Ku Klux Klan. We were there to help them register and vote because until they did, nothing would change.

Q: Knowing that three volunteers had been murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964, how did your family react to your wanting to leave a sheltered upbringing in Northern California and immerse yourself in the thick of poverty, racism, illiteracy and Ku Klux Klan violence?

A: Remember the adage, “You reap what you sow.” I’m afraid that is where they found themselves. They taught us to do what we thought was right. If we believed it, we had to commit to it. They had no idea where that philosophy would lead. They didn’t preach at my brother and me, they modeled the behavior for us. So, when I showed up and said I was going south, they were in a hard place. They were afraid. They were angry. They gulped and backed me up.

Q: Speaking of the KKK, what sort of tactics did they employ to try to encourage you and your fellow volunteers to leave?

A: The most frightening situations involved fire at the elementary school and the church where we had our mass meetings. They did drive-bys. They shot into our parking lot. One night several pickups pulled up and turned their lights on high and just sat there while we cringed inside the office. I was driven off the road and there were miscellaneous beatings and arrests.

Q: Looking back, what was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome as the veritable stranger in a strange land?

A: I was one of three white volunteers from the Bay Area. Our job was to get blacks to register to vote regardless of the consequences and one of those consequences might be death. Other possible consequences included losing one’s job, being taken off the food subsidy list and there was always the Klan. So here I was at eighteen going door by door trying to get these folks to believe me and trust that what I was telling them was the truth. “Trust and believe.” Now why would black Americans – they were called “colored” then – not trust white people? Two hundred and fifty years of history was part of it. A second reason was that most of them had never been “touching” close to white people before. Theirs was a world where they had to step off the sidewalk or cross the street if a white person walked toward them. Third, every rule of southern culture was supported by violence and retribution.

We were aliens. We came from 3000 miles away. We had different ideas, manners and language. Language was a major problem. The people of Pineville, where I spent most of the summer, had a Geechee or Gullah accent. The Gullah People, who came from the west coast of Africa, live on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Theirs is the most complete and oldest “African” language in the United States. I expected to hear a southern accent, not an African dialect and it was very difficult to understand. We, on the other hand, spoke collegeese – long sentences made up of big words about things that were largely unimportant to them. Stated simply, we wanted them to risk their lives on something that probably couldn’t happen and they didn’t trust us, didn’t like us, were afraid of us and couldn’t talk to us.

Q: What is something about the Civil Rights Movement that most people don’t know?

A: One thing is that it was made up of “common” people. Local black teenagers – high school students – did most of the work for our project. We didn’t have a Martin Luther King, Jr. Newspaper men weren’t hanging around to watch what happened. No photographers caught the flames when our church was burned to the ground. We were just folks who thought change was necessary and we were willing to work until that change happened.

Most of the people I knew were not nonviolent. I was in a farming community. Men carried rifles because they were hunters and because they wanted to protect their families. If we took kids to a demonstration, we frisked them first to be sure they “seemed” nonviolent.

Recently I met a black woman who was part of The Movement in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early sixties. She was interested in my book, because she didn’t know there were white people involved in The Movement. Freedom Summer recruitment was about 1000 whites. Our Second Freedom Summer recruitment was about 400. Whites were part of the Freedom Rides, but most of the demonstrations were carried out by blacks. However, whites did take part.

Q: Tell us about some of Pineville’s bright spots that reinforced your commitment to the causes you believed in.

A: Let me refer you to your “Share your favorite scene from the book” later in thisinterview.Mrs. Crawford made a conscious decision to trust me with her life. Each time someone got on the bus to go to the courthouse they trusted us. That’s incredibly heady for an eighteen-year-old considering what the dangers were. This is my best example of “connecting” with local folks. It just took months to get to this point.

Q: If you were newly graduated today, where would you go to make a difference?

A: Register and vote. Pay attention to the issues. If you want to “go” somewhere, there are still a Peace Corps and a Teacher Corps. Many churches have projects helping the poor and disadvantaged here and abroad

Q: What inspired you to write You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?

A: I have a South Carolina family I will describe in another question. We’ve been family since 1965. In 2000 I took my husband Joe down to meet them. He made a video of the family reunion our visit engendered. Later that year I was going to have lunch with a dear friend. I wanted to give her a special gift, so I took the video and shared it with her. “You have to write a book about this,” she said. She edited every word. The book went its own way as books will and it is not about the Sarah Butler family, but it definitely started with them.

Q: What’s the story behind the title you gave your book?

A: Let me share an excerpt from my book.

Monday, June 14, 1965

“You came here to die, didn’t you.” It isn’t a question. It’s a challenge from a scrawny Negroteenager in faded bib overalls. His bare chest glistens in the hot Georgia sunshine. He reeks of body odor and my stomach lurches as I look up at his black eyes, then down to his unshod feet in the grass.

I’m standing on the sidewalk at Morris Brown, a Negro college in Atlanta. The Civil Rights Movement is front-page news across the United States. As an eighteen-year-old, white, female voter-registration volunteer from California, I’d expected to be applauded upon arrival for a week of voter-registration training. Instead of a welcoming committee and pep rally, only this young man’s almost angry dare welcomes me.

“I’m talkin’ to you,” he snaps. I force myself to meet his eyes. “If you didn’t come here to die, it’s time you git back into that car and head back to New York, Chicago or wherever you come from.”

Q: Share your favorite scene from the book.

A: Canvassing I met a lady named Rebecca Crawford. She lived alone in a little cabin. She told me she had registered, but she hadn’t. I tried to convince her to go to the courthouse with us – to help other folks register. She said she would, but I was sure she wouldn’t. When the bus pulled out of the parking lot going to the courthouse, she was walking up the road to catch it. Once on the bus she told me she had never registered and that she could neither read nor write. I told her all she had to do was write her name. She tried, but the bus ride was too short. I promised to “Come and learn me how to write so I cain regster next time.” My favorite scene is about that day.

The road is just as long and as hot as before. Far ahead, I can see someone moving toward me. I recognize the straw hat first, then a basket on her arm and finally that beaming, delighted face.

“It’s you!” She sets her basket down in the middle of the road and raises her arms to heaven as if in thanks. I shake her hand and smile back into her eyes.

Before I can say anything, she says, “Chile, Ah bin wonderin’ where you was. Sunday Ah prayed that you come an’ learn me how to write.”

I explain I have been busy trying to get other folks to register.

“When Ah gots up this mornin’ Ah was feeling something extra good was gon’ happen today. Ah clean my house real good. Ah felt so gran’ I come on down the road. Ah saw you an’ Ah knew what that good was. Look what Ah can do.”

She bends down and picks up a stick. With a steady head she writes Rebecca slowly and deliberately in the sand.

Note: I remembered this story “purely.” I’d written it down in my journal in shorthand, but I’d never forgotten Mrs. Crawford. (I actually wrote to her until she died and I still write to her daughter.) This was the first story I published. It was the lead story in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul and it is part of You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You.

Q: Were there any surprise rewards that came to you from penning your experiences for publication?

A: There were delightful rewards. The first came before the book was even written. I was at the release weekend for Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul. There were three days of book events.  We read our stories at dinner one night. After I read mine, a black lady came up to me with tears running down her face. She took both of my hands and said, “You were talking about my mother and grandmother, my aunts and all of my relatives. You made me see them in a way I never have before and I am so proud.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

I wanted to see if other folks remembered each event as I did. So, I interviewed everyone I could find who had been involved that summer. What a marvelous experience that was. I did the interviews in person and my husband videotaped each one. Why marvelous? I hadn’t seen most of them in over forty years. We’d been “in the trenches” together and seeing them was a powerful experience.

People come to my book-signings and tell me their stories about how they dealt with discrimination in the 60s. There was much more going on than we thought.

Q: Some voter rights volunteers served, went home, and lost touch with the communities in which they had worked. Fifty years later, what is your relationship with people in Pineville, South Carolina?

A: I have mentioned Sarah Butler’s family before. I met her canvassing. She was already a voter, but she wanted me to talk to her husband. She was in her sixties and she was so sweet to me. She was the place I would go when I was just a scared kid. I desegregated a black college in Columbia, SC. At Thanksgiving and Christmas my dorm closed and I had nowhere to go. So, I went to Sarah’s. We wrote and talked on the phone until she died. On her deathbed she told her daughter Lottie that I was a good one, meaning white. She said that Lottie should keep me, that we were sisters. And, Lottie and I have acted on that request. Lottie turns 93 in September and I will be at her birthday party as I try to be each year. I am Aunt Sherie to two generations of Butler descendents. I have other relationships in the community as well. I have been blessed!

Q: What were some of the difficulties you encountered in getting the book “out there?”

A: I had just begun the book when a book agent told me that the Civil Rights Movement was over and that no one would care about what I had to say. I couldn’t get an agent. I couldn’t get a publisher, so I published myself. I am not a marketer, but I am doing the best that I can. As my southern sister Lottie would say, I’m waiting on the Lord to show me the way while I plug along.

Q: What would you say is the book’s strongest takeaway message for readers?

A: VOTE! Get involved. There are problems that need to be solved. We can’t trust that someone else will solve them for us.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m writing about my family. I come from a bunch of characters and they all told stories.

You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You is not a finished project. Making it a household word – or at least a schoolhouse word – is an enormous endeavor.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: I have a webpage at sherielabedis.com. On the webpage you can find information about the book, about me, teaching resources, discussion questions for book clubs and my blog.

 

The Palaver Tree

Wendy Unsworth

Africa . . . a place many consider an exotic destination filled with hot weather, beautiful plains and an abundance of wildlife. But if you’re a widowed school teacher ready for a fresh start, the African continent might not be the destination you thought it was. In Wendy Unsworth’s mysterious novel, The Palaver Tree, readers follow main character Ellie Hathaway to a small village where danger lurks, as well as a man who might not be the leader he claims to be.

Interviewer: Christy Campbell

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Tell us how long you’ve been writing.

‘Always’ is the answer that I usually give to this question. It’s quite correct. I have been writing things down, poems, stories and diaries for almost as long as I have been able to write! I wrote two novels many years ago but it is the third, The Palaver Tree, that I finally published in 2012.

How did the ideas for your novels come about?

The idea for The Palaver Tree came together from two personal interests. I lived in Central Africa for thirteen years, in Nairobi, Kenya and Ndola, Zambia. The experience of being immersed into that part of the world has had a huge influence on many aspects of my life. I wanted to incorporate some of those experiences into my first novel. I combined this with a deep and ongoing interest in how ordinary people react, adapt and triumph when faced with very extraordinary circumstances. This is what I am interested in exploring in my novels. I am constantly amazed by news stories and biographies about such people and like to create characters and challenge them!

My second novel, Beneathwood, grew in my mind as I was finishing The Palaver Tree. I became curious about a minor character in that novel who was seen in her small village as rather a busybody and a gossip. I sensed that these opinions were possibly unfair, that something very sad had happened in her past… and that her secret was about to catch up with her! Beneathwood is almost ready for publication and I am now also working on a third novel in the Berriwood Series.

 Is it difficult to write in two very different genres?

I don’t think so, in fact, for me, I think it works writing in two genres because they are so different. I have a children’s series that is so far removed from my adult novels, that they really do give me a ‘rest’ as I switch between them! When I have been writing one type of book and need to distance myself from the manuscript for a while, I always look forward to getting reacquainted with the other genre!

Where do your characters originate from?

In my Berriwood Series, all the protagonists are (or will be) the inhabitants of a fictional Cornish village. I have lived in a Cornish village myself so I suppose some ideas came from there though I will hasten to add that no characters were based on any actual person! I had the idea for my children’s main character, Kellie Culpepper, a long time ago and wrote some notes about her. She and her crackpot family had formed quite fully in my mind before I began the writing process.

How do you feel about the premise that characters can take on a life of their own?

They do, at least for me. A character starts off usually as just a first name and a few rough details about their looks and present life within the book. Later come past life, family, motivations and expectations. Very often a character will pull me up sharply and remind me that they would never do or say a certain thing and then I re – read and revise until we are both satisfied! I imagine many authors have similar experiences and I can’t really envisage getting to know a character sufficiently if it was always a one sided conversation!

Do you already know how the story will end when you start writing?

Er…. Not exactly, but I have a good idea. At the end of The Palaver Tree there was something I knew had to happen but it was only as I got close to the end of the first draft that I knew how!

What have you learned since publishing your first book?

That if you are like me and didn’t do your homework, writing a first book takes place in a blissful state of ignorance! There is no burden of thoughts about how to launch the book, how to get reviews and get noticed, which websites you should have a presence on or if you should blog.
Of course, this is not at all clever from a marketing standpoint but it does make the creation of that first book a pure writing experience and that, in itself, is something to savor.

How do you feel about the way self-publishing has taken such a bite out of traditional publishing?

Marvelous. Great. And such an opportunity for new authors. Like many Indies I attempted the traditional route and it was so disappointing to realize how hard it would be to get anyone to ever read the full manuscript, let alone comment on it. Self-publishing has given new authors (and some already traditionally published) the chance to break out and ask readers themselves if they like their work. Now it is the responsibility of Indies to make their work the best that it can be and then shout about it!

Does your writing affect your choice of reading?

Not much. I do read more in the genres that I write, simply because I like them, but I also read quite a range of other genres. If the synopsis grabs me I will download to my kindle but I never download just because a book is cheap or free. Everything that goes on to my device is something I intend to read.

What projects are you working on now?

I am editing my second novel in the Berriwood series. In this story, ‘Beneathwood‘, the house that gives the book its name, has been inherited by Gordon Carroll and his wife Beryl. There is a lot of work to be done but Gordon takes on the renovation as a retirement project. The Carroll’s daughter, Olivia is opposed to her parents keeping the house. She always hated the place and even more so after finding batty old Auntie Edith dead in there. When the Carroll’s finally do move in things immediately start to go wrong and Olivia is convinced that the house is to blame! The third Berriwood novel is outlined with a working title of The Quiet Hours.

I am also working on the draft of the third book in the Come-alive Cottage series for children. I don’t have a title yet but in this story Aunt Kitty (the witch who is also sometimes a cat) goes missing and Kellie Culpepper must come to the rescue again!

Who is your literary hero if you had to feature one in your next novel?

One of my favorite characters has to be Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’. His transformation from the most formidable miser to jolly philanthropist is amazing! I don’t think I could ever feature him, though.

I maybe could feature Paul Sheldon, the writer in ‘Misery‘ by Stephen King. Paul is unfortunate enough to crash his car on a remote road in heavy snow but that is only the beginning of his problems. His rescuer, Annie Wilkes, is more dangerous than any snowstorm! Paul is such a resilient character that I am sure I could find a place for him.

Where can readers learn more about you?

Please read a little more about me on Amazon. http://amzn.to/1e4jxbO and Goodreads. http://bit.ly/1b0q3gQ

My books can be found here:

The Palaver Tree
http://amzn.to/1aSro9o
http://bit.ly/1boQBFv

Kellie at Come-alive Cottage
http://amzn.to/1cbq7KA
http://bit.ly/1aV2fb1

Danger at Come-alive Cottage
http://amzn.to/1aEIXMI
http://bit.ly/1b4lpvn

 

Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon: A Memoir of China

Dancing Dragon

“Twenty years from now,” wrote Mark Twain, “you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Ramona McKean, author of Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon: A Memoir of China, did exactly that when she heeded the message of an inner voice that suggested her life’s calling might be found thousands of miles from her Canadian home. It’s a must-read for women over 40 who want to be inspired, to find their purpose and, ultimately, to make a difference.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: In 2004, you fulfilled a longstanding dream of living and working abroad. Why did you happen to choose China?

A: In the midst of despair in early 2004, I knew I needed to do something radically different with my life but didn’t know what. That changed the day I heard an inner voice tell me straight out I was going to China. That’s how I happened to choose China. I trusted the voice and had a feeling China would play a very significant role in my life.

Q: How much did you know about your destination prior to going there?

I was moderately up-to-date with current events and moderately knowledgeable with the basics of 20th Century Chinese history. Before leaving Canada I made a point of researching Harbin, the northern city where I’d be teaching. I also talked to many people who’d been to China. Of course, no amount of book learning and conversing could adequately measure up to my experiencing China first hand.

Q: What were your initial impressions of the country in 2004 and of its people when you first arrived?

A: Fascinating and exciting! The energy was different; I could almost hear the crackling of aliveness combined with a sense of urgency. Demolition and construction seemed simultaneous, they happened so quickly. A colleague quipped: “What’s the national bird of China?” Answer: “The crane.” Cranes outlined the skyline whichever way I looked.

The people I encountered were usually reserved until I smiled. I often got huge smiles back. Sometimes people were curious about my nationality. Occasionally, when they learned “Canadian,” they’d bow and say “Bai Qiu En” (sounds a bit like bye-chee’yo-enn). It means Bethune. I felt deeply touched. Dr. Norman Bethune was a Canadian doctor who helped the Chinese during war time. All middle school students read the essay Mao wrote about the “selfless Canadian hero.”

I worked at the Harbin University of Science and Technology, teaching English to first year students. I quickly discovered they were far less sophisticated than my senior high school students in Canada. Their prompt cleaning of the blackboards at the end of class took me off guard. It was something they just did. Right from the start, I also noticed respect, appreciation and good-naturedness. They were a lot of fun.

Too many smokers! At my university, smoke billowed from offices into the hallway, taking me back to previous times in Canada. Too many drivers were bold and audacious, and almost nobody used seatbelts. (Often there were no seatbelts.) As a pedestrian, I had to be extra mindful.

The Chinese food was amazing and inexpensive. Western fast food joints—MacDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC—charged much higher prices. I went into those establishments for one reason only: their Western toilets, hot water and soap. I still needed my own tissue. In restaurants and everywhere else in China, tipping was illegal.

These are just a few initial impressions. My prequel will be full of my impressions and experiences. Please bear in mind that China is a rapidly developing country. What I’ve said above may be different now.

Q: What was the hardest – and, conversely, the easiest – thing to adjust to in your conscious decision to make a major lifestyle change?

A: The hardest thing before leaving Canada was managing my emotions. I felt thoroughly overwhelmed and also extremely excited with such a radical choice. The easiest part was my complete and utter knowing that going to China was singularly the right thing for me to do.

Once in China, the hardest part of my adjustment was missing my grown-up kids intensely. And Christmas? I could not have predicted how desolate I’d feel being so far from home. The easiest thing was falling in love with China. It happened so naturally that it took about two months for me to clue in. Like the experience of falling in love with a person, my feelings were so deep they often hurt. Being in a serious car accident and having to leave only added to the depth and complexity of my feelings. John Fraser in The Chinese, Portrait of a People expressed exactly how I felt with leaving: “Like many foreigners who went to China and have known the Chinese, a part of me feels in permanent exile.”

Q: You indicate in the opening pages that sometimes an invisible hand directs the course of one’s life.  Do you believe the major events in our personal journeys are predestined or are we still mostly creatures of free will?

A: I lay many long hours in a Canadian hospital bed contemplating that difficult question. I asked myself: “Was falling in love with China and almost dying there a matter of fate, predestination or free will?” My thoughts are not easy to express but I’ll try my best.

First I’ll mention my way of defining the terms. As you can see, I’m throwing fate into the mix. Fate is neutral and impersonal and implies events that are meant to happen. Predestination is used synonymously by some people. To me it differs in that it suggests a plan, not neutral, that’s devised by another, greater power. (That awesome, mysterious force is not male, but I shall call it God.)  Humans have no control with either fate or predestination.

Free will is the opposite, allowing humans the ability to make conscious choices. The key word to note is “conscious.” People can only exercise free will to the extent that they’re conscious. For instance, in my life I’ve too often made choices dictated by unconscious dynamics; that is, by unhealed emotional wounds and habitual responses. To be truly “free,” my will must involve intelligent self-reflection. For the major events, my will must also be accompanied by courage and strength. I’ve found that the more courageous I can be, the stronger I become. Strength I never knew possible comes to me from God.

You asked me if I thought predestination or free will characterized the lives of humans. I have a hard time with the idea of predestination. Maybe the issue is one of consciousness, i.e., the conscious awareness that we are all part of the greater power, God; that in essence, we’re all one. I believe the more we each heal our personal pasts (including what’s been passed down through our families), the freer we are to determine our own direction. I believe that when God sees us constructively use whatever awful stuff life throws our way, “it” says: “Here is one to enter into co-creative partnership with me. Hooray!” When we maintain an open and humble attitude, mindfully attuned with God, a new direction is created together. It’s like a delicate, dynamic dance with the Divine to co-create a destiny.

Especially after the accident, I had an uncanny feeling that China was part of my destiny.  Do you remember I said a voice took me to China? When I was trapped in wreckage I heard the voice again. It used the first person and in a calm, matter of fact way said: “I don’t know what this is all about but I do know it’s part of a bigger picture and it’s a good picture and it involves me and China.” I’m grateful that I somehow had the presence of mind to notice and remember.

Q: According to Amy Tan in Opposite of Fate, a Book of Musings, the best stories often come from the worst experiences. As a stranger in a strange land, you certainly endured one of the worst experiences imaginable – a head-on-collision that nearly proved fatal. Tell us about this nightmare experience and what gave you the strength to survive it.

A: It was Spring Festival time (aka Chinese New Year). A bilingual Chinese friend and I were travelling in a poor rural area in the south, far from where I taught in the north. I realized our driver was sleepy when I saw a bus headed straight at us. We were on the wrong side of the road. The drivers’ trying to avoid each other didn’t work. We collided head-on at a slight angle. In no time I found myself pinned between the crushed front of the van and the right passenger door. Given I had no seatbelt, it’s miraculous I didn’t go through the windshield. My friend, seated behind me, was injured too. We helplessly watched our driver die. It took quite a while for rescuers (private citizens) to show up. The events that followed were unusual and some downright bizarre; I have included them all in my book. My friend’s father, cousin and sister slept on a hospital floor for three nights to take care of me until a 26 year old colleague flew 2200 km from Harbin. He got me released from the hospital and saw me safely back to Canada.

In Canada, I found out the true extent of my injuries: 7 ribs broken, both legs broken and right knee crushed. How I survived crude rescue, two questionable Chinese hospitals and two flights home is beyond me, especially considering my right lung lining was punctured too.

What gave me the strength to survive? Shock in the form of denial helped. I was calm, trusting and present; it didn’t occur to me I might die. The voice helped. It told me goodness was in the works and I’d be able to derive purpose from awfulness. Most of all, it was the love of my Chinese friends and students who with all their hearts told me: Da nan bu si, bi you hou fu, “If a big bad event doesn’t kill you, then you are guaranteed happiness and extraordinary good fortune.” Their love and faith sustained me.

Q. It sounds like the voice provided you with an epiphany. Tell us about how you derived “purpose from awfulness” and in what ways you feel you’re making a difference.

A: “I don’t know what this is all about but I do know it’s part of a bigger picture and it’s a good picture and it involves me and China.”

The voice did not explicitly tell me what my purpose was. Rather, it opened me up to a new world of possibility. I knew it would involve writing. China had made a profound impression on me, both the culture and the people. I wanted to build a narrative bridge of understanding between us and China. That bridge is now built, Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon.

Something that really concerns me is how our Western media deliberately creates fear and misperception about China. As far as I’m concerned, an “us vs. them” mentality is plain bad news. China’s a big country developing fast. What wisdom is there in our casting them as the “enemy”?  The Chinese are people, just like us. Why not choose to get to know them better? The mutual benefits would be enormous!

It’s time for a more balanced and fair picture to be painted. Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon does this and also gives readers plenty to self-reflect upon. It’s a story told honestly from my heart to readers’ hearts.

Just imagine all our children and grandchildren inheriting a more friendship based world! That’s what I stand for, and that’s how I am making a difference.

Q: You mention using your story as a bridge between cultures. Is the bridge on your cover meant to be symbolic of this? Tell us about your book’s striking cover and how you chose your title.

A: Yes, I intend the bridge as a symbol linking East and West. The dragon, which happens to be the most important creature in Chinese folklore, is the national symbol of China. The phoenix is a creature thought to bring goodness. In most Chinese legends the phoenix does not burn like its Western counterpart. In my cover design, the phoenix represents me, finally able to rise from the flames of physical and emotional trauma. In terms of the physical, I required three surgeries and well over a year of rehab to walk normally. As for emotional trauma, I was not able to experience release until the day I launched this book, February 10, 2013, eight years to the day after the accident.

As regards the title, I did not choose it. It’s more apt to say it chose me. I wanted something “perfect” that included the words “dragon” and “dancing.” Try as I might, I couldn’t think of it. Then one afternoon the words “Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon” flashed into my head. I almost fell over in awe. A little later that same day while shopping, I pulled a red top from a clothes rack and was amazed to see its front sequined with a Chinese dragon. It was like God saying: “My dear, I am so with you.”  I leave it to readers to experience how perfectly Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon fits my story.

Q: If the chance presented itself to go back to the country that nearly killed you, would you take it?

A: The chance did not “present itself”; I actually made it happen. I returned to China in 2008 to study Mandarin at a university. I had to overcome a lot of fear to do that. I expect I’ll return yet again when my book is available in China.

Q: Tell us about the development of Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China and the takeaway value you believe it holds for your readership.

A: The dream to write about China started to germinate the day a voice told me I was going to China (early 2004 in Canada). I knew I was in for dramatic change and wanted to capture it. I made a point of writing emails and journals full to the brim with details. That writing provided the treasure trove I drew from later.

For a long time after the accident I wanted to write for publication but couldn’t. Doing so would mean facing trauma. It wasn’t until joining a writers group in early 2010 that I was able to start. I wrote more than half a book, none of which deals with the time period covered in Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon. (That material shall be in my prequel.)

In 2012 I took coaching sessions with the woman who was to become my publisher, Julie Salisbury (Influence Publishing). She told me I had to start all over again, with the accident. (Gulp, now or never!) I decided to use actual journal entries, conversations, email correspondence, photographs, songs and dream work. I also decided to move back and forth in time and tell my story from a hospital bed. In that way it’s like The English Patient.

Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon is an engaging story. I know because I’ve been accused of keeping people up all night. The writing has a quality of immediacy, such that readers feel they’re right there with me—whether it’s lying on the sub-tropical sands of the “Island of Pianos” or being freed from wreckage with crowbars and carried up and down flights of stairs on a narrow board.

And of course, there is learning about the real China, in a book written by a Westerner who loves and respects the people of China.

Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?

A: I did not try to find a publisher. I saw Julie for coaching before she even owned a publishing company. She was moved and inspired by my story. From there everything flowed, just like it was meant to be.

Q: What do you know now about the publishing business that you didn’t know when you started?

A: The industry is in a process of redefining itself. I knew this when I started but didn’t know just how rapid the changes were. Writers must work diligently on their own promotion. Utilizing the Internet is critical, a task daunting for many. It can also be daunting to know just who to hire. Money plus much time, energy and ingenuity seem to be necessary to meet with success.

Q: Have you been influenced by Chinese literature you have read? If so, in what ways?

A: My sensibilities have been influenced the most by the I Ching, an ancient book woven together with Taoist and Confucian teachings. It has helped me enormously, ever since I encountered it in the late 1980’s.

Twentieth century writers particularly influencing me include: Anchee Min (Red Azalea), Jung Chang (Wild Swans), Xin Ran (The Good Women of China), Amy Tan (Kitchen God’s Wife), Adeline Yen Mah (Watching the Tree), Lisa See (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), Han Suyin (A Mortal Flower) and Jan Wong (Red China Blues). These writers have all provided me with much insight into the lives of Chinese people, especially their own and other women’s. They’ve educated my mind and heart and helped me to understand China’s culture and way of viewing the world.

Q: In light of current global tensions, do you believe a true understanding between Chinese and Westerners will ever come about? If so, what concessions and compromises would be necessary from both sides? 

A: A true understanding between Chinese and Westerners will take effort. I can’t know if it will come about but it’s my dream. I’m willing to do what I can to promote that possibility. For one, we need to recognize that we’re fed a lot of propaganda about China as they are about us. It’s important not to believe everything we hear and read, especially from politicians and mainstream media. They have their agendas which include nothing about heart-level understanding.

Westerners have to stop finger pointing. It does no one any good. China has a lot of problems. Any country with such a huge population developing so fast would have problems. Let’s develop compassion and a desire to build rather than destroy with our attitudes.

We ALL, everywhere, need to get over ourselves and get educated about each other—each other’s culture and different ways of perceiving the world. We need to see our common ground. This education does not have to be unpleasant at all. In fact, it can be fun.  In the West, a great way to start experiencing Chinese culture is through literature, movies, music and food. Have conversations with Chinese people we meet. People in China: Don’t be shy to have conversations with the foreigners in your midst. If language is an issue, smile, be friendly and courteous. Chances are others will respond similarly. Curiosity can be a wonderful attribute. Travel is also awesome. Regular people, perhaps more than politicians, need to lead the way in understanding.  And everyone, please remember: People are not their governments and people everywhere are individually unique. No one is a stereotype.

Q: As of this writing, your book is being considered by three book awards committees. Whether you are short-listed or not, how might being nominated help promote your purpose? 

A: Award nominations and actual awards draw much attention to a book and increase the credibility of the writer. Many readers have already told me how moved and inspired they felt by Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China. When people feel moved and inspired, their hearts and minds open up at least a little more than before. True understanding is then more possible.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Within a year I’d like to have my book translated into Chinese and on the market in Asia. I also want to write my prequel.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: The Dalai Lama said that Western women will save the world—women because of their ability to nurture and respond with their hearts; Western because of their many hard won victories that women elsewhere have yet to experience. I believe it’s not only women who’ll serve as the world’s capable and compassionate “rescuers,” but also men who are not ashamed to own and honour their own gentler qualities.

Though my story may not “save the world,” I recognize its unique potential to promote understanding between us in the West and people in China. It’s a human heart to human heart understanding, the kind that leads to friendliness and good-will. My story reveals how communicating and opening to each other’s goodness can benefit us all.

In closing, I would like to invite people to visit my website, read the first few pages of my book (“Preview”) and listen to some of the music (“Soundtrack”) that helped me fall in love with a nation. http://ramonamckean.com Until then, “Xin xiang shi cheng”: May the dreams of your heart come true.

 

 

A Conversation with James Lawless

James_Lawless

I had the opportunity to interview James Lawless, a poet, literary author, teacher and philosopher. It is fascinating to explore other points of view in this vast literary universe and for those readers who enjoy more textured writing than is commercially available, they may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Lawless.

(I would recommend readers check out his ebooks and read the samples; it’s easy to get a sense of the flavor and rhythms of his work from the first few paragraphs.)

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste

**********

Q: You’ve referred to Finding Penelope as your “wry glance” at the genre of chick lit. Please elaborate.

A: Just as Cervantes’ Don Quixote was a send-up of the proliferation of novels of chivalry of his time, I attempt in Finding Penelope to send up the chick-lit genre and show it for what I believe it is: a fatuous and formulaic comfort read with no claim to art. Part of the development in the character of Penelope is centered on this realisation. She starts off as a romance novelist with her de rigueur happy ending demanded by her readers and her unflappable agent Sheila Flaherty. However, after she endures various vicissitudes, she comes to realise that life is not always happily ever after and she resolves from then on to be true to herself and her writing.

Q: That’s a fascinating approach. As a poet, scholar, short story writer and novelist, you chose to play with form in Finding Penelope, switching tenses frequently. What inspired you to weave your story this way?

A: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are great influences on me particularly in their steam of consciousness techniques. Nineteenth century narrative styles are no longer adequate to address the multimedia and high-tech world of the twenty first century. The weaving in and out of Penelope’s consciousness of past, present and future hope is in keeping with modern living varying from its frenetic texting and emailing to the deeper revelations of the solitary reverie or epiphany as Joyce called it.

Q: How refreshing that you’re bringing that “flavor” back into our present-day literature. What was your writing process for this project?

A: I tried to be disciplined although it didn’t always work. I showed up like a clerk most mornings in my little office, petit bourgeois as Flaubert would say but dreaming subversively — my dreams are my freedom. I am more productive when I go to my cottage in the mountains of West Cork where I have no Internet to distract me. For Finding Penelope I travelled to Spain to do research on the Costas particularly on the expat way of life and on the drug culture and the criminality associated with it. I also consumed a high octane level of chick-lit.

Q: What a range of research! Share with us your affinity with the Spanish culture. What about it speaks to you?

A: When I was in secondary school, an enlightened Christian Brother introduced some of us to Spanish extracurricular studies and it opened up a new and polysemic universe to me. I delighted in learning of a different culture in an Ireland which at the time was rather insular. Spanish of course stretched beyond Europe to the great South American continent with its powerful potential and also to the huge Hispanic population in the USA. I enjoy the literature not only of Spanish writers like Javier Marías but also Borges, Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. So Spanish has huge significance even from its scale and global representation. Having  a second or a third language equips one with extra keys to unlock different ways of seeing the word. Perhaps what I learned most— and this probably helped my story writing— was to try to see the world from the point of view of the other to get a different angle on things. I think that’s beneficial not only artistically but also for our understanding of world peace.

Q: Thank you; as someone with a multicultural heritage, I agree. In your book Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world, you explore how poetry opens up worlds within our present experiences. How do you consider your background as a poet and an author of short stories (which I count as a poetic form) has shaped your life and your writing?

A: I studied Gaelic in university. As an undergraduate, one of the most impactful compliments I received from a lady lecturer was ‘tuigeann sé cad is filíocht ann’— ‘he understands what poetry is’, based on some creative work I had submitted. This encouragement inspired me to delve deeper into poetry. I read poems from anthologies in Irish and Spanish and English and some of the great Russian poets like Pasternak in translation wherever I got a chance: in between meals, stealing moments to read like Francis Copeland did in The Avenue, on a train or a bus, in a bar, in a dentist’s waiting room; when ill or down, poems could pick you up as they opened windows on the world. This poetic affiliation, I would like to feel, sharpens my prose writing.

Q: It certainly invokes a rhythm in your work, from what I’ve read. What do you love the most about poetry?

A: Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry would replace religion in the world. What I like about poetry is that it has no boundaries and the best of it has no agenda; it involves some of the best minds using the best language to attempt to interpret life in an unfettered way in so far as is humanly possible.

Q: Capturing the inexpressible, as many artists endeavor towards. You’re an arts graduate of the University College Dublin and you received your Masters in Communications from Dublin City University. As an author of accessible literary fiction, how has your education assisted you?

A: Some artists and autodidacts believe the university is anathema to creativity. Perhaps there is some truth in this as I remember when starting my first novel Peeling Oranges soon after I had finished my MA thesis (which later with additions became Clearing The Tangled Wood) and found myself with a mass of research information about the old tenements of Dublin and about the Irish and Spanish civil wars—I had all these footnotes and appendices written in jawbreaking, academic jargon. So I soon realised that in order to write fiction I had to unlearn the methodologies which I had employed in academe—that is not to say an academic or non-fiction text is not also creative; it is just that like Clearing the Tangle Wood it has different parameters to a novel or poem. But notwithstanding, the university did help me in at least two ways: it gave me the bottle to finish a project and it taught me how to research, which hopefully I have learned to do now without getting too bogged down now as I attempt to introduce it as seamlessly as possible into fictional narrative.

Q: You’ve also been on the other side, as a teacher; what did you enjoy most as an educator?

A: The act of teaching itself I enjoyed, sharing with people who were open to learning. However, as an artist I felt  hemmed in by the institution. The souls and the institution don’t blend. Teaching is also a great way of articulating and clarifying what you want to say within boundaries of course. The boundaries are the problem, so teaching is not really a free act.

Q: How valuable do you think a university education would be for writers today?

A: East Anglia and other ‘creative writing’ universities are in danger of churning out homogeneous writers and sometimes give the impression rather arrogantly that they are the only ones, the real McCoys of writers. While there are some of these writers I admire such as Ishiguro and McEwen, art is, like dreams by its nature, anarchic and therefore I would be wary of restricting it with rules and regulations.

Q: You touched on this in your blog entry “Creative Writing Schools”. What is your philosophy as a teacher?

A: Similar to my philosophy of life in general which is that life is not what you make it but what you make of it. Opening minds, including one’s own in a mutual process to learn about the world without dogma.

Q: As a fellow reviewer, how do you find your treatment of other stories influences the way you approach your own writing?

A: I grew up believing in the canon of literature and although we have developed interiorly since the time of Dickens and Hardy, we have not improved on their story telling or plot making skills. Indeed I believe the modernists may have discarded that quality and thrown out part of the baby with the bathwater in their attempt sometimes to be ultra-clever. I think writers of today should return to the methodology of Dickens with the benefit of hindsight of course and repair the tear made by the modernists between popular and highbrow fiction. For me the criterion is just good writing illustrating a style and narrative skill with an insight into the human condition. A writer like the undervalued Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road is an example of a modern artist who was able to span both these bridges.

Ironically, I believe the division has done more harm to good novels than to bad, because with the proliferation of mass market popular fiction, the average person (whose ancestors consumed Dickens classlessly) nowadays tends to frown on anything deeper, deeming it snobby writing. So what I look for when I review a book is something to aspire to, something I would have liked to have written myself and maybe to encourage others to consider also. Like the appreciation of good music, the appreciation of good literature is something cultivated.

Q: As someone who has been taught writing in the age of “make it tight” and “massacre all adverbs where possible” it’s interesting to consider that point of view. What are other experiences, places or people who have influenced your work?

A: I think it was Graham Greene who said nothing much happens after twelve. So like many writers, my childhood was my source: my mother reading to me as a child, my aunt’s visits with comics, a long gap in years between me and my siblings, family banter and tales, my father buying me my first diary— these were seminal experiences and later my travels to Europe and America provided many writerly insights. But I suppose the most important experience is a cultivated solitude, a condition and ability I have trained myself to do over the years while simultaneously not turning my back completely on a social life, to maintain a mental balance if such a thing is possible.

Q: I am amazed you could achieve a mental balance while publishing seven books in the space of approximately five years. How did you organize yourself?

A: With discipline, as I say going to the ‘office’ most mornings and the cultivation of solitude and believing most of all that what you are doing has value.

Q: You’ve also published different ways—as an academic, small press, etc. What has been your favorite method of publication?

A: No one in particular. Each publication is a hurdle and sheer hard work to promote.

Q: Marketing is one of the hardest aspects to being a writer nowadays. Your website [http://jameslawless.net/] is nicely put together and you are widely available through social media. What do you find is the best marketing strategy?

A: I manage my own website. I’m only learning how to blog and would like to generate comments. I send my blogs to Facebook which seems to elicit more responses. As regards marketing, I’m prepared to give any media a try as a means to an artistic end. It’s all about being known and valued. The great thing about the Internet is its global dimension— people from all over the world reading or downloading your work in seconds and then just as easily being able to communicate with the author. We are living in exciting times with great artistic possibilities.

Q: Yes, for every difficulty we seem to have great opportunity. What advice would you give to writers just starting out on the path to publication?

A: Ask yourself are you serious about your work; are you prepared to bleed for it, or are you just a dilettante? Is your work really good and original or merely imitative of a million others? Are you an artist with all of what that entails? Do you believe passionately in your art? If that is the case, you persevere, you take the inevitable rejections on the chin—editors are human; they can’t always get it right. Believe in yourself.

Q: Thank you. Your fictional work seems to carry a theme of cross-culture (particularly between Ireland and Spain), politics and threaded with a romantic/poetic atmosphere. What would you say is at the heart of all that you write?

A: What I write about is not what I know but what I want to find out, things that impacted on me: in my education for example being taught through the medium of Irish, the place (or absence as in the case of Derek Foley in Peeling Oranges) of religion or ideology in our lives such as the civil wars in Spain and Ireland; the all consuming monolith of capitalism obsessed me in For Love of Anna; what suburbia (being a product of it ) was about was my preoccupation in The Avenue; and what true writing strives to be in Finding Penelope and so on. A reviewer said the romance in some of my novels tends to be more than a mere love interest, but that it is sometimes strewn with history or politics such as with the extreme nationalist Sinéad in Peeling Oranges; and even Anna in For Love of Anna ,which is considered the most romantic of my novels, is also an acronym for Anarchist of the New Age. As regards the poetic element, I think I have alluded to that already.

Q: Yes, I like how you define your work as “accessible literary fiction.” By the way, what is the latest on The Avenue becoming adapted to film?

A: Still ongoing, under consideration.

Q: Your latest novel, Knowing Women, just released this month. Please tell us more about this project.

A: Knowing Women is about a vulnerable man, Laurence J Benbo, who is wrongly tainted sexually. With all the paedophile cases going on at the moment— and there is no doubt most of them are justifiable—I wondered what if opinion and the law were to get it wrong. Benbo is perceived as a weak character particularly sexually, but he is no paedophile and when he stands accused, how will society judge him in the hue and cry of vindictiveness?

Wow, that’s quite a challenge to take on, but I’m sure your treatment will make for a fascinating read. I wish you all the best and thank you for this interview.