The Twice-Born Book:
I wrote my first book because I wanted to read it – Toni Morrison
I’m a voracious reader. I admit it. I started young – one of my favorite books came in to my possession when I turned nine. A friend of the family gave me Anthony B. Lake’s A Pleasury of Witticisms and Word Play. Inside those pages I learned all about anagrams and palindromes, limericks and sonnets. I was hooked, and a poet was born.
I loved reading Nancy Drew mysteries and all the series, such as The Earthsea Trilogy (nowadays it’s called The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin), Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time and Little House in the Big Woods – strong female characters, but none that looked like me. Fast forward a few years, and I was in high school in Durham, North Carolina, and the English teacher passed out copies of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. My largely white English class voted to read aloud the play, and voted, over our English teacher’s objections that I didn’t look the part — to have me read as the antagonist, Abigail. I felt a crackle of electricity run through me as I literally gave voice to this powerful female character.
The next book we read in that class was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I remember my heart being broken by this story, I remember a light bulb turning on inside my head: I could write my own book, with my own characters. People of color. Tackling tough issues like social injustice and racism. One day. Maybe. It was 1983 and I didn’t have the first clue how to write fiction, but I kept writing my poems and I kept reading for pleasure.
In college, I read Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street for the first time. I was moved to tears. This was the guidebook I’d been waiting for, the compression of poetry disguised as broken-glass-sharp prose. I wanted to grow up and write just like her. I also read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, books by Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez — but stopped writing poetry for a time, and concentrated on journalism.
Several years later, in 1994-5, in graduate school for the second time, someone gave me a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and I reread the novel at least a half-dozen times. Once again, beautiful poetry inside of the prose. I read other books, too: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz. My classmates and I reread Cisneros’ debut in a fiction class that focused on women authors and I started to work on my own story, about a pair of Indian-American girls struggling to find a place in America, and what happened when one runs away to avoid an arranged marriage.
I had the great fortune, when I studied in New York, to work with Lucille Clifton for a couple of years. Her teaching and her wisdom remain invaluable, as are her poetry books, especially The Terrible Stories and The Book of Light. Her friendship meant the world to me. I finished the novel I’d started but no one wanted to publish it. I racked up more than seventy rejections, put the book in a drawer and returned to journalism.
After my children were first born, I took to reading at night when they were asleep. I took to writing before sunrise, before they woke up. I started reading a lot more poetry then: it was easier to read poems than to navigate through a lengthy novel, one that I would inevitably have to put down and then restart. I didn’t have time. My nightstand was crowded by the books of Dorianne Laux, Naomi Shihab Nye, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Leaving Yuba City is a book I return to, time and again. As the kids got older, I had a little more breathing room and wrote while they were in school, or when they took naps. Mostly poetry, some short stories. I stalled out on the longer works.
Then, in 2004, my best friend from graduate school, called to tell me about a fellowship to a writing conference in California. She insisted I apply, that I needed to re-connect with my writing life again. I remember telling my BFF that I would brush off the short story I was most proud of, from graduate school, one that still had not found a publication home. It was a satirical commentary about arranged marriages, told from the American-born Indian groom’s point of view. I remember my BFF cutting me off with an emphatic NO. “You have to write something new.”
“I don’t have anything new,” I said. “All I do these days is take care of the kids.”
“Then write about that,” she said.
My children have often been a source of inspiration for me. I’ve written award-winning poems based on their curiosity and their questions which often begin with “WHY does…” So, I followed them around, like the dutiful reporter I once was, for a week or two, eavesdropped and scribbled down everything they said and did. I had pages and pages of notes, and I loved their sass and compassion, their competition and devotion to each other and to playing games.
The 5,000 word short story, Leaving the Dollhouse, that resulted from those notes was top-heavy with little girl anecdotes and sprinkled with a few of the bad acts committed by my snooty neighbors and a few recollections of racism from my childhood, in small town NC. How the times had changed, but the people hadn’t. In 2004, we lived in a predominately white neighborhood and were often criticized by the people on our street. We lived in a county made famous around the world for advocating that a sticker be placed in history textbooks, casting doubt on Darwin and his theory of Evolution – in favor of “intelligent design.”
In the course of expanding the vignettes and adding new chapters, years passed. I discovered Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison and I, The Divine by Rabih Alameddine, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and The Art Lover by Carole Maso. I completely swooned over these books. I found a developmental editor and I began to send her snippets of the story over email. I took breaks in 2008 and 2009, when I wrote and rewrote skeletal versions of an ethnic satire of Mrs. Dalloway for NaNoWriMo. By April 2010, I was six weeks away from a decent draft of the satirical novel, and getting ready to send it out for feedback, and eventually, hopefully, publication.
Then one Monday morning in May 2010, the Georgia state police raided my house at gunpoint and confiscated, among other things, my laptop. My husband had been racially profiled by his (now former) employer – and once he was fired from his job, we were forced to move. Although a state judge dismissed the charges against my husband (for more information, see joylaskarstory.com) two years ago, most of our belongings have yet to be returned. Including my laptop.
Once that developmental editor heard what had happened, she emailed me back my snippets of my story, and I started over, but with inconsistent results. Still, I was buoyed by my classmates’ beautiful books: Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Two years after we left Georgia, Claudia Rankine published Citizen. This book changed my thinking, and granted me permission.
Armed with Citizen and House on Mango Street and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, I started anew and finished the novel. But for the insistence (another i-word) of my friend, I would have never begun this story. But for the injustice meted out by some people in Georgia, I would not have found the contextual glue that made the novel, reimagined, renamed and remade as The Atlas of Reds and Blues, whole. It is at the intersection of poetry and prose, a novel about cultural racism but in the style of a pantoum – ideas repeat but are cast in new light.
Books to consider this week, in addition to the ones I have already mentioned. All “classics:” American Noise by Campbell McGrath, King Me by Roger Reeves, When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, The Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil.