Monday, November 9, 2009

Maxine Hong Kingston

This year, Maxine Hong Kingston was the keynote speaker at Montgomery County Community College's Writers Conference. Addressing a group of aspiring writers, Kingston was very generous as she described her life as a writer and how each of her books came into being. There is so much to say about her talk and her writing that in this blog I will focus on her first book. (Perhaps as I continue to read her work, I'll blog more on Kingston.)

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts was published in 1976 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. Having now read it, I understand why Dr. Halbert said in his introduction that Kingston was one of his "literary heros."

Kingston says she was always a storyteller as she was raised by a mother who was perpetually "talking story" and a father who sang classical Chinese poetry. In college however the storytelling stopped as she learned critical thinking and how to write essay. So that when she began to write she chose the essay form.

Writers, she believes, have to break through a door to find a place where they are free to tell all their secrets. She cited two other authors who subscribe to this. Alice Walker who begins The Color Purple with Celie writing "You better not never tell nobody but God." and Toni Morrison who begins The Bluest Eye with "Quiet as it's kept." Then, they both go through that door. In writing Woman Warrior, Kingston does the same. She begins:
"You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born."
Her aunt committed adultery while her husband was "out on the road" in America and became pregnant. The villagers ransacked her house when she went into labor. Her family threw her out. She gave birth outside and alone. Then she did the only thing left to her. Kingston covers several scenarios as to how her aunt found herself in this condition - rape, incest, loneliness, desire, maybe even love. Each believable. The outcome is always the same.

And why did her mother decide to finally reveal this story to her young daughter?
"Don't let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. You wouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful."
What an introduction to sexuality!

In Woman Warrior, Kingston doesn't follow any rules. It is a memoir but most of it isn't about her. It's far from complete. It's not chronological. Dates and facts aren't documented. For one section, she switches from first person narration to third. She can do that, because she's brilliant. We listen her as she pieces together the stories she's heard and overheard throughout her childhood in an attempt to figure out what is real. She follows her imagination to go into the past and recreate stories that are beautiful, poetic.

In the end, she gives us her truth as best she can understand it. But she also gives us Chinese history, mythology, superstitions, culture, and food.

I couldn't find a website for Kingston, but you can find her on Red Room.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lise Funderburg

On October 17, I participated in Philadelphia Stories' Push-to-Publish Writers Conference at Rosemont College. I highly recommend this conference for anyone who is not just interested in writing, but also interested in finding an audience for his/her writing. Despite the cold wet weather, there was a strong turnout for the day's events, which included speed dating with editors and agents, and panels on placing short stories, creative non-fiction, children's fiction, utilizing Web 2.0 and more.

This year as the keynote speaker, Lise Funderburg delivered her Five Point Plan for Publishing (or her "Self Delusional Techniques.")
  1. The Lotto Motto - You've got to get in it to win it. Basically, do your research and submit your work.
  2. It's Only Postage - Send your work out. She endorses multiple simultaneous submissions.
  3. One Bad Apple Doesn't Spoil the Barrel (of Submissions). Just because one magazine or publisher passes on your work, doesn't mean you should give up.
  4. Embrace the Petty - Rejection is inevitable. You may experience the 5 steps of grief. For Funderburg, one step is Zappos.
  5. Man Up/Woman Up - After 30 rejections, you may want to rethink and revise your work. If you get helpful criticism from an editor, use it.
  6. Bonus Point - Fake it 'til you make it.
Funderburg gave solid advice with lots of humor, a necessity to withstand the rejection that goes along with being a writer. She's very down-to-earth and likable (plus she knits!)

At the end of her talk, she read from her memoir Pig Candy - Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home. It is the story of a her relationship with her father as he returns to his hometown in rural Georgia and faces his mortality. Her love for her father is tangible in the beauty and care she takes with her words; but, one gets the sense that this is a complicated relationship. Funderburg mentioned that she often finds herself writing about food and this excerpt is no exception:
Down South, spring has advanced. Pear trees are in full bloom, naturalized daffodils stripe the just-greening pastures with yellow, and deep red camellias dot walkways and yards, sentries at every door. Sweaters need to be kept nearby but not on, windows are cranked open to ensure a cross breeze. We make good time from the airport to the farm, just over an hour, and Dad and I don't bother to unpack before we turn our attention to the two items on our agenda: roasting a pig and getting him some chemo.

First, the pig. In January, my father read a newspaper article that chronicled the author's experiment with cooking a seventy-pound pig in a Cuban-American-designed roasting box called La Caja China: a simple plywood cart lined with metal and designed to suspend coals above rather than below the meat. The outcome, sweet and savory, succulent and crisp, earned the paradoxical moniker "pig candy."
Funderburg's language is so lush I can smell the southern spring blossoming, and I can definitely smell that delicious pig. Yum!

For more about Lise Funderburg, visit her website at

Friday, June 19, 2009

Brown and Juska

Last Monday, I read at the Rosemont Writers' Retreat. For a week, writers live in Connelly Hall with its architectural mix of old and new on Rosemont College's bucolic campus. In the mornings, participants write, attend lectures, and/or do yoga. In the afternoons, they workshop. Each day there is a lunch time reading which is free and open to the public, and each evening there are casual faculty readings for the retreat participants. Carla Spataro does a great job of bringing established writers/teachers to lead workshops in short story, poetry, and novel writing. Plus there's yoga. And it's a local oasis. No airfare necessary. You can disappear and devote yourself to the life of letters for a week without going broke.

I was flattered to be in the company of two very talented and accomplished writers who were both leading workshops at the retreat.

Randall Brown is a flash fiction wizard. He read several pieces. He brings an enthusiasm and energy to both his writing and his readings. Before each selection he gave its genesis. His first piece, for instance, came one day when he decided to explore what the internet had to offer in lieu of getting down to writing. After several distractions he came to this last one:
I moved to a name generator that gave me my robot name Supernova Bombedier, my porn star name Hard John Thong, my hip hop name MC Slim Dogg T and then a random one, Morton Bonsey. What happened after that was odd enough to become story worthy.
"Morton Bonsey" appears in Brown's collection called Mad to Live. In it, the author observes the character he has created. Morton becomes independent of his creator; he becomes a better man than his creator. It's intelligent, smart and funny and it is really short. How does he do that? For a long list of Randy's many publications and writerly endeavors, visit his website.

I read an excerpt from the first chapter of When Love Was Clean Underwear, which was published in Philadelphia Stories this month.

Elise Juska was the last reader. She has published three novels and is at work on her fourth. She has also published many short stories. This evening she read the first half of a short story called "The Nice Guy." In this story, a man picks up a lost cell phone. The next morning the owner of the cell phone's mother calls him and convinces him that he should bring the phone to her daughter, a college student. Juska carefully intertwines his past relationship with a girlfriend who came to hate his laidback accommodating ways and his current attempt to do the right thing and hopefully win the girl. Will the nice guy win out in the end? Luckily, the story will be published in the next issue of the American Literary Review so we can find out.

Visit Elise's website for information on her latest novel One for Sorrow, Two for Joy. I picked up a copy after hearing her read and can not wait to delve in.

And mark your calendars for next year's Rosemont Writers' Retreat!

Friday, May 8, 2009


Luckily I arrived early to hear Colson Whitehead at the Central Library. For some reason, we were in Room 108 instead of the Montgomery Auditorium. Many had to stand in the back, but they were glad they stayed.

Whitehead gives an amazing reading. With the hum and pop of a poet, he recites his passages. His voice is silk. As he is writing, he explained, he reads his material over and over again. He must have the whole book memorized.

His latest novel, Sag Harbor, is set in 1985 and is narrated by fifteen- year-old Benji. The first selection was from The Hey Day of Dag chapter. Benji arrives at Sag Harbor for the summer. Whitehead really captures the mentality and the one-upmanship of insults between boys that age. It’s a sport with specific rules and it requires sportsmanship. I admit I was getting a little lost as the narrator began to discuss the complex yet consistent way they addressed each other. Whitehead stopped to assist by giving the audience a visual aid. He looked very professorial in his skinny tie and grey vest over a crisp white shirt as he revealed the first of two charts written in a large sketchpad.

They illustrated that the “trend that summer, insult-wise, was toward grammatical acrobatics, the unlikely collage.” The comments were usually about appearance, using the very visual “in’” verbs. (These charts also appear in the book.)


In’ Verb



Mother Fucker

Angela Davis



George Jefferson



In’ Verb



Mother Fucker

99¢ Gold Chain



Fake Adidas


You can switch them around. For instance, Garanimal-Ass wearin' bitch. Or “ If someone had a birthmark he would be a Gorbachev lookin’ motherfucker.”

While Whitehead reads like a poet, he delivers like a comedian. People in the room were losing it. Whitehead had to wait for the laughter to die down before he could continue.

I’m hoping that there is a Sag Harbor Colorforms Special Edition in the works. Wouldn’t that be great?

The second selection was from the To Prevent Flare-Ups chapter. The big plot point as Whitehead likes to point out is that Benji is getting his first haircut at a barber’s. In the past, his father always cut his hair. Throughout the process, Benji tried not to move, but always did. So, his father had to keep trimming more and more of his ‘Fro. Whitehead is upfront that Sag Harbor is based on his youth. I couldn’t help but notice that his long dreads tied neatly at the base of his neck reached his mid-back.

The first question of the Q&A session was from a young writer who didn’t want to be a post-modern writer. Whitehead’s advice – write the story you are compelled to write. “They’re going to label you want they want in the end. And if they ask you, ‘Are you a post-modernist writer?’ Say, ‘I don’t even know what that word means.’ It works for me.”

I bought a book and waited in line to have Whitehead sign it. I’m a book geek, okay? I asked if he did the audio versions of his books, because I’d consider buying them all. He said he had only done The Colossus of New York; the others were too long and it’s an exhausting process. I can see why it would be. Whitehead is as hard working a reader as he is a writer.

Visit his website at for upcoming events.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I saw Tobias Wolff at Arcadia University last week. He read from his collection of new and selected (previously published) stories, Our Story Begins, which is now out in paperback.    

Wolff also spoke about his life as a writer and how it all began.  As a teenager, Wolff saw a picture in Life magazine of Ernest Hemingway with Marlene Dietrich on his arm and thought, "I want to be a writer."  This was back when writers enjoyed the glamorous life, when they were featured in the black and white photographs of Life--Hemingway at his camp desk in Africa,  F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris. Once he began writing, Wolff said, he realized all the hard work these men had had to do before they attained the glamorous life.  

With each of the stories Wolff read, he briefly talked about their origin.  His fictional work is not autobiographical.  He saves that for his memoirs - so far This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army.  Instead he says that "more and more it is the interior life" that he is describing.  An emotion, a decision, revisited in fiction. "Her Dog" captures the regret a man feels as he walks his dead wife's dog.  The dog talks.  As Wolff says, "Anyone who has a dog, knows they talk."  The dog is hard on the man, insisting that he, the dog, treated the wife better than the husband had.  

Next he read "Bullet to the Brain."  A book reviewer is caught in a bank robbery and can't help critiquing the cliched language of the robbers.  The idea for this story began when a friend of Wolff's was telling him what happened when he witnessed a bank robbery.  Wolff was disappointed that what the robbers said was something right out of a TV show.  

If you have a chance to see Wolff, I highly recommend it.  Not only is he one of today's best short story writers, he's funny and has an amazing memory for the words and stories of other authors.
After the reading, a reception was held at the Grey Towers Castle.  Once a private residence, it is now the jewel at the center of Arcadia's beautiful campus.  Take a tour if you're in the neighborhood.

I'm not sure if Wolff is hobnobbing with Hollywood stars, but he certainly is glamorous.

Monday, April 6, 2009


This weekend I attended a reading at the home of the lovely and gracious Leigh Jackson. About twenty of us gathered to see author Susan McCallum-Smith read from her collection, Slipping the Moorings. I had never been to a reading in someone's home before and I have to say I enjoyed the intimacy of sitting in a cozy chair by the fireplace, looking at the greenery outside the casement windows while listening to the author read.

McCallum-Smith is a striking woman, fair with almost white blond hair. She has a Scottish accent, which is delightful. I could listen to her all day. Then again, the primary reason I listen to NPR's Coffee Break Spanish is for the Scottish accents.

But it is not only her accent that makes her readings so enjoyable. She's a good reader. She brings her words to life, she connects with her audience, and she knows how to leave them wanting to read the rest of the story.

On this afternoon, she read excerpts from three stories--"Ploughman's Lunch," "Hell Mend You," and "The End of the Season." Some writers write the same story over and over again. Not so with McCallum-Smith. Her scope is evident in just these three stories. In the first, we meet Tom in London. His wife of over fifty years is leaving him; he stops in an art gallery after having lunch with her to collect himself and to try to convince himself that she'll change her mind. In the second, it's young mother Carol-Anne in a Glasgow police station. Something's happened at the family home. In the third, Mrs. Merrick, a woman in turn-of-the-century New York, receives a guest at an odd hour. It's a young woman.

There is something about having an author's voice in your head as you turn the pages of a book she spent years of her life creating that is very personal. It's as if she's reading just to you.

Now, I must go and find out what happened to Carol-Anne in "Hell Mend You."

Check out McCallum-Smith's website for upcoming events or to order Slipping the Moorings.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Elizabeth McCracken read at Temple University.  Usually, I don't go to see a writer read unless I have read her work or am at least familiar with it.  In this case, I hadn't read or heard much about McCracken's work.  My friend Lynn Rosen, the best read woman in Philadelphia, said I would love her. 

McCracken read a short story told from multiple points of view.  A rather ambitious work to read aloud.  At times, I must admit I was confused about who was speaking and about what exactly was going on, but I was still sucked in.  McCracken made me smile, made me frightened, made me think.  I was completely emotionally enthralled by the end.  

Before McCracken read I teased her that I would buy one of her books if she impressed me.  After the reading, I went to the nearest bookstore and bought The Giant's House.  It's about a boy named  James who is 8'2" at 17.  His growing is out of control, his growing is killing him.  And yet, it is Peggy Cort the librarian narrator who is the freak.  A woman who has trouble making real human connection until she falls in love with James.  Peggy's inner life is so compelling, her thoughts on love, on loneliness, on life are funny and sad.  Here's a taste of Peggy:

. . . I was outside on my park bench, eating some tragic sandwich I'd assembled from odds and ends out of my fridge--sliced apple, some cheese, pickle relish.  Single people eat sadly--they cobble together things left from shopping trips based on dreams of all the meals they'd fix for themselves, all the ways they'd treat themselves to something grand; those dreams, for me, died by the next day and, despite my best hopes, I wanted only canned hash and apples.  Dogged by practicality, I had to use everything I'd bought anyhow.

I ran into McCracken in the lobby as she was rushing to catch a flight home to her children  - a two-month-old and a twenty-month-old.  I must say, as a mother of two, I vividly remember those days and was even more impressed with how smart and witty (and coherent!) she was during the reading and the question and answer session.  

I look forward to reading more of her work.  Check out Elizabeth McCracken's website.