Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, October 29, 2010

Death of What Book?

I'm just back from a couple Stranger Here Below events. At the first, at the wonderful Busboys and Poets bookstore and cafe in Washington, DC on Monday night, I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Shireen Dodson, author of The Mother-Daughter Book Club, and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel Wench. What smart, interesting, and funny women! (That's Dolen with me in the photo below.) I loved talking about writing, books, history, and daughters (among other things) with them. And what wonderful women were there in the audience as well. Thanks to Emily Sachs, and to the Women's National Book Association, for sponsoring this great evening.

Then on Tuesday night I got to share a fantastic dinner at the Parkside American Grille in Harleysville, PA with a wonderfully noisy group of thirty women, from five different book groups--all of whom had read either In Hovering Flight or Stranger Here Below. Kind of a writer's dream-come-true. They came with smart and thoughtful questions, and a couple even came with beautifully crafted work (a basket, a table runner, a shawl) from Pleasant Hill and Berea. I'm so grateful to Shelly, Sue, and Stephanie from the fine independent bookstore, Harleysville Books, for arranging this evening. And I highly recommend a trip to Harleysville--to shop at Harleysville Books and then enjoy a meal at the Parkside American Grill.

Evenings like these remind me of how valuable books have been, and how valuable they still are. They bring us together in meaningful ways, through the shared experience of reading, and then trying, together, to understand their particular magic. For a while now there's been a lot of talk about the death of the book--talk that can get to me at times, frankly, and make me wonder about my plans to keep writing (and teaching) books. But evenings like Monday and Tuesday remind me of why I want to keep on doing it, and make me think that the rumors of that particular death have been greatly exaggerated.

Simple Heroes

Driving to Lansdale, PA on Monday morning, en route to a train to Philadelphia and then Washington, I heard a fascinating interview on WHYY's Radio Times. The guest that morning was Danielle McGuire, a historian who was to speak at Temple University Monday afternoon, and the topic of the interview was McGuire's new book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

The book sounds fascinating (and I'll be heading to my local independent bookstore soon to order it). A big part of my fascination with the story of John Fee's founding of Berea College (the fascination that led me to write Stranger Here Below) is rooted in a desire for a more complete, and more nuanced, understanding of American history--the kind of understanding that's nourished by books like McGuire's. We need, for instance, a clearer sense of who someone like Rosa Parks was--not just a polite and weary seamstress, but a genuine and committed political activist.

Apparently McGuire's book emerged, at least in part, from a similar desire--to right the record, so to speak: to tell the real story of Parks's serious work for civil rights. In learning more about what Rosa Parks did, though, she also learned some disturbing stories, many of them untold (at least outside the circles of the victims' own families), of sexual violence directed at African-American women during the civil rights era. During her interview McGuires spoke at some length about one particular victim, Recy Taylor--a woman who, as a 24-year-old wife and mother in rural Abbeville, Alabama, was abducted and gang-raped by a group of white men in 1944. Despite the threat that she'd be killed if she said a word, Recy Taylor reported what happened, and one of the people who spoke to her and advocated on her behalf was Rosa Parks. But in spite of the efforts of Parks and the NAACP, countless letters and petitions, and even the eventual support of the state's governor, Taylor's case was dismissed by not one but
two all-white, all-male juries. You can read more about this heartbreaking case at Danielle McGuire's blog, and in a recent AP story by Errin Haines.

As Haines points out in her article, and as McGuire stressed in her Radio Times interview on Monday, there is no statute of limitations for rape cases in Alabama. Recy Taylor is still alive. Apparently some of her attackers are as well. It seems that, at the very least, an apology to Recy Taylor and her family is in order.

Something that McGuire said during her interview has stuck with me. Why, interviewer Marty Moss-Coane, asked her, do we seem to need to simplify a figure like Rosa Parks--to change her from what she was, a committed activist, into a quiet and unassuming seamstress on a bus who was finally just too tired to give up her seat? "I think we like our heroes simple," McGuire said in response.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, about our need for simple heroes and simple villains. I do think this is part of the reason that books like To Kill a Mockingbird and, more recently, Kathryn Stockett's The Help are so incredibly popular with white readers. Here are white characters--simple, uncomplicated heroes like Atticus Finch and Stockett's Skeeter--who do what many of us white folks want desperately to believe we would do as well: the right thing. Ultimately, we want to believe that we'd be capable of "speaking the truth to power," as the Quakers say. Characters who do that are the kinds of uncomplicated heroes we like to read about because they're who we like to imagine ourselves being.

But of course racism is both more sinister and more mundane (as in habitual, customary, day-to-day) than it often appears in novels. And heroes (and also villains), like all of us, are complicated. None if us, and none of it, is simple.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

And on Tuesday, Oct. 26--Harleysville Books!

I forgot to mention Harleysville (PA) Books owner Shelly Plumb's fantastic plan for Tuesday, October 26: a Stranger Here Below book club dinner event at the Parkside American Grill in Harleysville, PA at 7:00 PM. I think there's still time to sign up if you're interested. I'm really looking forward to connecting with readers of the book this way--and to what sounds like a great dinner!
Just want to mention that I was in Washington last weekend for a reading at the marvelous Politics & Prose, which is as bustling and filled with book and music lovers as ever, despite the emptiness that has come with Carla Cohen's passing. Heartfelt thanks to Mark and Barbara for making me feel so welcome. And how wonderful it was to see my former student Emily Goodman, and her friend Anthony, another Moravian College alum, who came down from Philadelphia to spend that beautiful Saturday in Washington.

You can't go to Politics and Prose and not spend money, by the way--but as we always say in our house, money spent on books is fine. Jim, Anna, and I all came home well-supplied.

I'm looking forward to being back in Washington this Monday night, for a panel discussion with novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez, moderated by Shireen Dodson, at Busboys and Poets. Besides reading about hyperbolic space (see last blog post), I'm having a great time reading Perkins-Valdez's novel Wench and Dodson's inspiring The Mother-Daughter Book Club. Both books are reminding me why, even in the midst of the ongoing doom-and-gloom about the death of books as we know them, I want to keep writing, and reading.

Crochet Coral Reefs in Washington, DC

I've cheered up some since my last blog post, and a big part of the reason
--strange as this sounds, even to me--is that I've been reading a book called A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space. It's by Margaret Wertheim, a science writer who, along with her sister Christine Wertheim, an artist, founded the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles, an organization "dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics, and the technical arts," according to its web site.

I found out about the IFF through a show called the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. When my friend Juli Wilson-Black mentioned this show, I'll admit I was less than enthusiastic. Crocheted coral reefs? It sounded like a kind of joke to me. But I had some time to fill after buying tickets for the Museum's IMAX movie on South Africa's Wild Coast for my daughter and her friend, and so I decided to take a quick look.

It was magical--and pretty hard to describe. I've included a photo here, but this doesn't do the show justice. I noticed that everyone who walked into the Museum's Sant Ocean Hall to see the exhibit immediately began smiling, and photographing. That Sunday afternoon (a week ago), the show had just recently gone up, and I overheard at least two women who had contributed crocheted work pointing out what they'd done. I tried to understand what it was about these fabulous crocheted sea creatures that made me so happy, and I recalled a time, in tenth grade geometry, when I stood at the chalkboard to do some sort of problem, which I guess must have had something to do with comprehending the idea of non-Euclidean space; for some reason, I grasped it for a moment that morning, and I had the most exhilarating sense--for just that moment--of falling into the chalkboard.

To quote from Margaret Wertheim's book:

"We have built a world of rectilinearity.

The rooms we inhabit, they skyscrapers we work in, the grid-like arrangements of our streets and the freeways we cruise on our daily commute speak to us in straight lines.

Yet outside our boxes the natural world teems with swooping, curling and crenellated forms, from the fluted surfaces of lettuces and fungi, to the frilled skirts of nudibranches and the animal undulations of sea slugs and anemonies."

(I don't even know what nudibranches are, but I desperately want to see their "frilled skirts" now, if only to be able to have a picture in my head when I repeat that fantastic phrase over and over to myself)

I'm convinced that it was that same swooping (another fantastic word to borrow from Wertheim) sense of falling off the straight-line grid of my days, already as a high school tenth grader, that came back to me last Sunday in Washington, when I walked into that gallery space, and like everyone else there, felt an uncontrollable urge to smile. And the accompanying notes from Margaret Wertheim, on the ways in which coral reefs display features of hyperbolic space (the whole project is rooted in the work of a mathematician named Daina Taimina, who, "having spent her childhood steeped in feminine handicrafts," came up with the idea of using crochet to allow her students to tactilely experience hyperbolic space) only added to my pleasure.

There have been and will be more exhibits of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef throughout the world. I urge you to try to see one if you can. Even if you hated high school geometry.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Video Trailer and Playlist for STRANGER HERE BELOW

Two exciting new features online this week--first, a video trailer for Stranger Here Below, created by the wonderful Libby Jordan at Unbridled Books. And second, a playlist to accompany the book, included as part of the Largehearted Boy's "Book Notes."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Original Sin

I wouldn’t have described Stranger Here Below as being “about Original Sin -- whatever it is that made us awful to begin with,” as Carolyn See does in her recent Washington Post review of the novel. I’m not a subscriber to the doctrine of original sin, at least in the Calvinist sense that I’m familiar with. But lately I’m feeling like there is something about our origins as a nation (“we” being us in the U.S. here) that’s pretty, well, sinful. We’re a nation whose founding and growth required the blood and broken backs of countless people--native peoples who were already here and African slaves on our own shores, our own soldiers and soldiers and civilians all over the world through wars that have swelled our own economy.

If we have an original sin, surely it’s greed.

And I’m filled with despair to be living at a time and place where corporations thrive while working people lose their livelihoods--and then wealthy backers fuel so-called “populist” movements, like the Tea Party groups, that drive a wedge between poor and working-class whites and people of color. I thought we were done with this. Naive, I know--but didn’t we all feel a rising hope that things were going to change only two years ago?

Recently a friend posted a link on Facebook, to a blog written by a friend of hers. It was an eloquent and disturbing piece on the horrible instances of racism that appear online today (posted by Tea Party “fringe groups” maybe, but Tea Party followers nonetheless). Maybe you’ve seen some of these visuals (ropes, the Obamas’ faces transformed to look ape-like, references to feces); I’d managed to protect myself from most of them. I considered linking that blog post here, but I just can’t do it. These things are soul-crushing. Seeing them was like seeing the images in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America for the first time, back when I went to an exhibit of these photographs at the New York Historical Society in the early days of working on Stranger Here Below. With those lynching photographs, there’s the comfort of telling yourself “that was then.” But those images included in that blog post are out there, making their way around the internet, now.

And I still say it’s all rooted in greed. Writing about Reconstruction and its failures and the rise of the Jim Crow era back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, C. Vann Woodward pointed to the fact that the Jim Crow laws came in on a tide of American imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, when Southern “leaders of the white-supremacy movement thoroughly grasped and expounded the implication of the new imperialism for their domestic policies”:

At the very time that imperialism was sweeping the country, the doctrine of racism reached a crest of acceptability and popularity among respectable scholarly and intellectual circles. At home and abroad biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, as well as journalists and novelists, gave support to the doctrine that races were discrete entities and that the “Anglo-Saxon” or “Caucasian” was the superior of them all. It was not that Southern politicians needed any support from learned circles to sustain their own doctrines, but they found that such intellectual endorsement of their racist theories facilitated acceptance of their views and policies. (The Strange Career of Jim Crow, pages 73-74)

In other words, there were plenty of endorsements--of racism--from wealthy Northerners. After all, there was still more money to be made by justifying the ongoing exploitation of other races.

And so we’ve come to a time and place--and a political climate--in which the most profound thing a candidate has to offer is a cut in your taxes. Your immediate economic gain (well, if you’re reading this, probably not yours, but you know what I mean). In my own state of Pennsylvania, the Republican leadership of the state senate is stubbornly refusing to consider a severance tax on natural gas companies that want to blast wells into the shale lying below large portions of the state (and jeopardize the drinking water of people here, and in New York and New Jersey as well). God forbid we tax anyone. Not even Exxon Mobil. (And please don’t tell me they’ll go elsewhere to do their drilling; they’re already doing that, they want more, and they’ve got boundless resources--and boundless lobbying connections--to make it happen here.)

Two nights ago I heard environmental thinker and activist Vandana Shiva speak at Moravian College here in Bethlehem. Some of her remarks were just heartbreaking. Hunger today is “structured and permanent,” she said; of the billion people who are starving, 500 million are growers of food. Indigenous farmers are being robbed of the ability to grow their own food by what Shiva terms the “eco-imperialism” of corporate agriculture--factory farming on a global scale. We are making the most basic factors of our livelihood into commodities; we’ve done it with fuel forever, we’re doing it now with food, water, air.

And in the meantime, a powerful elite is at the helm of most of our news outlets, feeding people so-called news from the likes of people like Glenn Beck. Who has claimed to be carrying on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I couldn’t make something like this up if I tried. (Why write fiction, more than one writer has asked in recent years, when reality is so very strange?)

In the U.S., greed and the prospect of economic gain for a powerful few continue to drive a ruthless wedge between black and white. And capitalism on a global scale is raping the planet and squandering its resources, including its people.

That’s what I call Original Sin.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Recent Travels, Sad News

I’m just back from a brief trip to Kentucky and Indiana, which included two book events and some nice time visiting with family members. On Thursday I had a wonderful dinner with one of my all-time favorite college professors, Jon Smith, from Hanover College, along with his wife Stephanie. We met at a restaurant in the lovely Crescent Hill section of Louisville, and Stephanie informed me that I should be pleased that we were NOT sitting on one of the restaurant’s banquettes. (There’s an interesting story involving the University of Louisville basketball coach and that restaurant--but I think you have to understand the significance of basketball in that part of the country to appreciate it.) A few doors down from the restaurant, on Frankfort Avenue, is a fine independent bookstore, Carmichael’s Books, and I had a great time reading from and talking about the writing of Stranger Here Below there. In the audience were two more of my all-time favorite college professors from Hanover: Jim Ferguson and Ruth Turner.

On Friday evening I had a tour of downtown Columbus, Indiana, provided by my cousin Sharon Baldwin. This included a stop in another wonderful independent bookstore, Viewpoint Books, some fine Korean food at Columbus’s Ethnic Expo, and delicious homemade ice cream at the beautifully restored Zaharako’s. Columbus boasts some really wonderful contemporary architecture--and also Sharon’s fantastic book group (Thirty-plus years and still going strong! And I got to meet two more of the members at my talk that evening). I so enjoyed the people I met at the Partners in Education talk I gave that evening in Columbus--some wonderfully outspoken folks with wide-ranging interests, all of them very seriously engaged with their writing. Thanks to Warren Baumgart, of the Columbus Arts Council, for taking over the organizing of this event, after the untimely death of Sharon’s dear friend Joan Pearcy last summer.

Back home late Sunday, and then yesterday the sad news of another untimely death, that of Carla Cohen, founder of Washington’s Politics & Prose. Carla was an early champion of my novel In Hovering Flight, and she invited me to the store two years ago. I am grateful to have known her, and very sad that I won’t see her again this Saturday, when I’ll be back at Politics & Prose.

Friday, October 8, 2010

High Lonesome

I worked on Stranger Here Below for many years. It had different titles, different structures, different emphases. But what was behind it all along, even before its characters became real and insistent for me, was a love of the Kentucky landscapes I’d discovered in researching it. An absolutely pivotal moment for me, when it came time to sit down to the manuscript one more time--to try to make it add up to what it needed to be at last--was sitting in Barbara Napier’s beautiful Snug Hollow B&B in Estill County, Kentucky and watching John Cohen’s film The High Lonesome Sound on my laptop.

Cohen trained as a painter and photographer, though he’s also a long-time musician. His discerning eye is what makes the film so potent, I think—but it’s not just that; it’s both his eye and his ear, of course. The music in the film, particularly Roscoe Holcomb’s playing and singing, is haunting. What Cohen does in that film reminded me of what I felt when I was first working on Stranger Here Below, and what I so want the book to create—a subtle and nuanced sense of a beautiful, humorous, endlessly resilient people, place, and music.

You can see only fragments of The High Lonesome Sound online, but thanks to the terrific Folkstreams web site, you can watch a film by Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld, called Remembering the High Lonesome, in its entirety.



Monday, October 4, 2010

Recent Guest Blog Posts

Want to add a couple links here, to recent guest posts that I've been invited to submit to two terrific book bloggers' sites. Here, thanks to Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog, is my "Bare Necessities" post, recalling books that were important to me during the writing of Stranger Here Below. And here, thanks to Candace at Beth Fish Reads, is my "Writing from the Outside" post, included as part of the Beth Fish Reads Literary Road Trip series.

Shelter from the Storm

This image (of a piece of apparently stranded machinery, in the middle of the rushing Raritan River in Clinton, NJ on Friday evening) just seems like the perfect depiction of last week's rains here in the Northeast. You want business as usual? the elements told us on Thursday and Friday--well, take that.

But we did persevere--with readings and signings at WORD in Brooklyn on Thursday night, and at the Clinton Book Shop on Friday night. Small audiences in both cases, but I still had a lovely time on both evenings. At WORD, I was interviewed by my long-time friend Eva Patton (after a fine French dinner down the street); her questions--particularly about mothers and daughters, and the kinds of things mothers and daughters choose to tell, and not to tell, one another--were insightful and generous. I was relieved (especially since there were former students of mine in the audience) that she steered wide and clear of any humiliations from our shared time at Hanover College in Indiana years ago.

Then on Friday, Jim, Anna, and I had a great time at dinner with our friends Ellen, Jeremy, and Sylvia before the Clinton Book Shop signing. We were at a restaurant right alongside the bridge over the Raritan; it really was an impressive--and kind of scary--sight, watching the high river rush by, so close to the edge of the banks.

Thanks to everyone who braved the elements and came out to these events, and thanks to Stephanie Anderson at WORD, and to Rob Dougherty at the Clinton Book Shop, for hosting me. And speaking of persevering, thanks, too, for your devotion to books, and for carrying on bravely as independent booksellers. It's thankless work sometimes, I know, but both of these warm and welcoming stores, filled from floor to ceiling with books, offer such vital shelter--whether it's raining or not. Please keep on welcoming us all in.