This week’s theme: “balancing writing and work and life” has led me to write:
an abridged autobiography, in books and comics and such
Don’t remember much before 1970, when I was about four. I watched The Bugaloos, the bug rock-n-roll band who lived in the forest and had to outwit an evil witch. I loved them so much I got the official Bugaloos lunch box and matching thermos, to take to pre-school. I spoke more Bengali than English. I remember going to India for a visit and my grandparents telling me stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and my uncle buying me comic books. My life was complete.
In 1975, I lived in West Germany with my family while my dad was on sabbatical. I attended German public school in Bavaria and spent an inordinate amount of time learning to speak Deutsch, and taking care of my baby brother. Not too many English books, so I read a lot of comics then, too. Asterix and Rin Tin Tin. On the weekends, I’d go to a friend’s house and watch children’s TV programming: puppet shows, and once in a while, something imported from the BBC. I returned to the United States the following year, and discovered The Wizard of Oz on TV and at the library.
By the summer of 1980, I’d already run the gamut of schools in small-town North Carolina: for a while I’d attended a Quaker school (“Friends”), and because they didn’t have a formalized classroom plan back then, got proficient in math but nothing else. My parents were aghast that I didn’t know the difference between “witch” and “which” and after Germany, I returned home to find myself enrolled in Catholic school. Nuns, mandatory mass (even for non-Catholics) and a pair of English teachers who caught me up to reading level with: The Once and Future King, Bridge to Terabithia, Earthsea Trilogy, Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time. Great stories but no characters that looked like me. When I matriculated, I was enrolled in public school in Durham. Once again, great English teachers – and I drifted along with likes of The Illustrated Man, Animal Farm, The Crucible.
In 1985, I was finishing my first year as an undergraduate in North Carolina and I was reading anything and everything I could by then: The Accidental Tourist, Love in the Time of Cholera, Dune, The Cider House Rules, The Handmaid’s Tale. I was still reading comics too: Calvin and Hobbes, A Far Side, Shoe.
In 1990, I got married. My beloved father-in-law was a voracious reader too, and I was happy to have a buddy in reading: The Witching Hour, The Buddha of Suburbia, The First Man in Rome, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Hocus Pocus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Clear and Present Danger.
By the time 1995 rolled around, I was in graduate school for the second time. New York. My father-in-law had passed away unexpectedly years before so I had no one to “talk story” with when I went home. Still, I was in an MFA program in New York and the world of books opened to me: Janette Turner Hospital’s The Last Magician, as well as Invisible Cities, The English Patient, The Passion, The Secret History, The Joy Luck Club, Leaving Yuba City, The Book of Light, The Berlin Stories, The Mind-Body Problem, The Liars’ Club, A Fine Balance, The Art Lover, The House on Mango Street. Of course, I had the privilege of studying with Lucille Clifton and was introduced to the works of Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Li-Young Lee, June Jordan, Carolyn Forche, Stanley Kunitz.
In 2000 and in 2005, I can name the handful of “grown-up books” I had a chance to read and re-read: The Interpreter of Maladies, Shy Girl, When the Emperor Was Divine, Persepolis, Beloved, Virgin Suicides, A Small Place. Mostly I was in the worlds created by Sandra Boynton, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, Tomie De Paola, Kate DiCamillo, reading to my newly hatched children. In 2004, I started writing a story about my kids, my beloved dog and about the snooty neighbors in Georgia.
Now, we come to the part of my autobiography where disruption occurs: my house raided at gunpoint in 2010. My husband racially targeted by his former employer in Georgia – and our entire family suffering for years (see joylaskarstory.com for more information). Before the raid, I’d been reading Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours as I worked to finish my ethnic, satirical retelling. After my laptop was confiscated I tried to restart the book, I tried to re-read Woolf and Cunningham but couldn’t finish a sentence. Instead, I sought solace in poetry: Terrance Hayes, Campbell McGrath, Nikki Finney, Natasha Trethewey, Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich. Lucille had died a few months before the raid, so I only had her written words to console me.
In 2015, my husband was newly indicted for crimes he didn’t commit and it would be another sixteen months before a state judge would dismiss all the charges against him, and our family would be free. By this time I was four years into my #artaday project and I was seeking solace by making art. And reading everything I could.
And writing. Every day.
And turning in to a workshop junkie. I had to start over: although all the charges against my husband were dropped, no one has apologized or returned most of our belongings. This includes my laptop.
I read: Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Patricia Smith, Juan Felipe Herrera, Elizabeth Rosner, Craig Santos Perez, Maggie Nelson, Jeanette Winterson, Jesmyn Ward, Claudia Rankine, among so many.
In 2017, Finishing Line Press published two poetry chapbooks. Of mine. Gas & Food, No Lodging in March, and Anastasia Maps in December.
This year, 2018, Counterpoint Press offered to publish a novel I finished in late 2016. It is titled The Atlas of Reds and Blues, and it will be released in February 2019. It emerged from the story I started in 2004, but remade and re-imagined.
There is no balance of writing and living and working.
It’s all life.
It’s all work.
It all goes in to the writing. Think of your life as an Escher drawing: the staircases go everywhere, the birds turn into fish, the hands draw themselves.
Every experience shapes and changes you. Atlas is not the book I thought I’d write, it’s not the book I thought would be my debut novel. Still, I’m so grateful. There is no balance: every time you get an idea or a phrase, take those 15 seconds and write it down or record it somehow. Take those moments of time and make art. Every day, until your notebooks and journals are full. Then sort through your ocean of words and fashion a boat. Set sail.
Don’t wait for an invitation that will never arrive. If you need permission, then you have mine.
Classicbook: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
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