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Crossing Over aims to capture what all writers do: we cross over into territory both familiar and unknown.

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A Bucket, A Light, A Drop of Help — Puerto Rico Part 2

While it has been gratifying to have friends shower us for praise about our vacation-volunteering in Puerto Rico, it is also embarrassing.  What we are doing is a mere drop in an ocean of need, nothing compared to the river of help that so many others are offering.  And lest I give the wrong impression, Puerto Rico is full up with vacation pleasures: soaking up the sun; white wine in the evening on the patio while reading; jumping in the warm waves; playing volleyball on the beach.  Today I had a yoga session by the infinity pool with a lovely woman who gave me a bracelet and told me her story of Hurricane Maria (more later).  We are given far more than we give here.

On one evening we take an Uber to Old San Juan, to eat at a popular pizza place: up steep tiled stairs, dark wood tables with light green embroidered cloth under glass.  This is old-fashioned, colonial San Juan: simple food, sangria.  After we amble down the narrow streets, shocked at how quiet and deserted the town is; so many shops shuttered up, the upper floors completely dark.  We had visited Old San Juan when the children were young, and I remember anxiously driving our rental car in tight lanes of traffic, not sure where we would park.  Now the square with statues of the Three Kings is utterly empty.  Then the tourist shops blazed with light and dangling souvenirs; now the shop where we had once bought a wooden guitar for Sasha has already closed.  At one store filled with items from Bali, India, Mexico, the British owner tells me that one of the problems for store owners is the big hotels such as the Sheraton have been taken over by FEMA and companies.  “These guys don’t help businesses.  They come and eat and drink and then go back to their hotels and watch TV.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

We do, though, chance upon a delightful and lively place: Choco Bar, which sells famous Cortes chocolate.  Apparently Puerto Ricans eat chocolate with everything, and especially love to dip slices of cheese until they are gooey.  The walls are adorned with the history of cacao and chocolate in the New World, and as well, a video about a school the business created after Hurricane Maria, which emphasizes the arts and expression.

The next day we meet up with Padre Ricky Genera, who is leading various relief efforts.  He drives up in his small white car, hearty and welcoming and warm.  First we stop to convene in a parking lot with another group from Trinity High School in Lexington, KY, who have raised funds for delivering a very simple water filter, and relatives of our friend Ronnie, who have assembled bags of food, sanitary items, dog food, and toys. We drive in a procession, hazard lights on, to indicate that we are on a mission.

As we head out of the city toward the mountains, he narrates what he can about Maria and the impact.  “The eye of the hurricane kept moving around,” he explains.  “It sounded like a monster.” He explains how he fixed a well near his mother’s house, so it could be used by about a 120 neighbors.  “But it was the elderly who suffered the most, they were so weak,” he said, his voice full.  “So many people died but they couldn’t get out.  They buried their dead in the backyard.”

We pass battered buildings with blue tarps for roofs, surreal hillsides of skeletal trees, now sprouting green tumorous tufts. In a long low valley that empties to the hazy sea lies a delta of ragged gray coconut palms—exactly where the hurricane hit when it reached land.  Nearby are oil refinery tanks, one of them folded down like a dented child’s tambourine.  On the side of a roadside traffic circle there’s a stand selling ‘inverters’–a small machine that allows one to use a car’s motor energy for running refrigerators and other appliances in the house.  I am struck by the fact that though we pass a few army trucks with potable water, we don’t see many active trucks or reconstruction efforts.  Last I’ve read about 60 percent of the island has electricity.

Then we are climbing up the steep roads of Guano, where the small houses hug the roadside.  Here there is no electricity.  We stop at another priest’s home and clamber out on to the spotless tiled patio.  There, the rest of our group gathers, lugging white buckets and a water filter kit that is to be shared among the neighbors.  They are eager and happy to hear the instructions and I’m struck that despite the devastation around us, how well-dressed everyone is—one of the women wears a pair of new pressed jeans.  We climb further up the mountain side, pausing at a damaged home with a tattered Puerto Rican flag flying from the roof.

We give out bags of food and sanitary supplies, bottles of water, ridged washboards, and little solar lamps.  An elderly woman sits on one porch, a walker beside her.  After the hurricane she slipped and broke several bones and had to be operated on and yet here she sits, smiling beatifically.  Further up the road, we give toys to a small family—when I hand a stuffed animal and book to a girl, her face blossoms open.  I notice that despite the tattered shape of the houses, many cars are spotless and well-kept; a shiny Mini-Cooper slides past us at one point.  “Cars are everything to them, as it’s what they rely on.” Ricky laughs, “They treat their cars better than their wives.”

Now we go down toward the sea, to Barrio Camino Nuevo, a tiny enclave of fishermen, their houses perched right by the sea.  This is where Maria first crashed into the island.  It is a small cul de sac, rotting furniture piled up on the side, carapaces of houses with gaping windows opening right to the sea.  Some have been completely abandoned.  Others have collapsed into the sea.  Some of the fishermen have received FEMA aid to rebuild; others are waiting or have simply left.  Here we make our way across the mud, tapping on makeshift doors, delivering our bags.  Eduardo, his face reddened, waves to us, explaining his dog has been hit by a car.  The dog eventually limps out from under a house, and we see it has an open wound on one leg, showing to the bone.  The kids with us are horrified.  After many phone calls, the dog is loaded onto the back of the pickup truck, to be taken to a vet at a nearby resort.

And yet, in this strange contrast of pleasure and distress, we end the day at the mall to get haircuts.  Here the crowds are teeming, shopping, enjoying the magic show on the first floor.  The mall has everything—from Tiffany to JC Penny—and it’s decked out for the holidays.  The morning after our volunteering I do yoga in front of the pool and the instructor tells me her story of staying in her mother’s tiny house, and how the hurricane felt like air pressure in a plane, but in one’s whole body.  At one point, she tried to reach her sons in another room but the winds were so strong she could not push open the door.  Outside trees uprooted and fell over her roof, the base and roots forming a protective barrier.  She says to me, “All this happens for a reason,” a phrase I will hear again.  “We Puerto Ricans have an almost pathological need to be happy.”  And it’s true.  I’m astonished at the smiles, which seem sincere; the sunny greetings of Buenos Dias, every morning, from everyone. 

That evening when we go to Old San Juan for some last gifts, a young woman who sells me a tiny painting affixed with sea glass echoes the same phrase, “All this happens for a reason. ” She adds, “It has changed us.  Rinsed us and made us build again.”  She gives me that brave smile, but I can see the tears that have sprung to her eyes.  The rawness of the past few months is not far from the surface.  I must admit this phrase doesn’t sit right with me, as I do not like the self-blame, the fatalism.  More I’m drawn to their bluntness, especially when they talk of Trump: “Everyone hates him here,” I am told.  “They hate him and when they fly the flag, that’s their defiance.”

Once more the shops in Old San Juan close at six or seven o’clock. When I ask, I’m told that it’s a law because there are no busses running past eight o’clock, so the employees can’t get home.  Old San Juan feels more like a museum, whereas when we take an Uber to Jose Enrique, a super popular restaurant, Plaza de Mercado is hopping.  People are spilling into the streets, sitting in the various restaurants, standing and chatting by the market.  Live music plays in one place, and we have to wait over two hours to be seated for our meal (making one 13-year-old very unhappy).

Back at La Concha droves of tourists coming off cruise ships are arriving, and there is more live music, and parties, often multi-generational: elderly grandparents, carefully dressed, step out of taxis, their adult children, and then grandchildren, some of whom spread their toys on the white lounges.  By the time we check out in the afternoon of December 31st, the lobby is being trussed up for a New Year’s Eve celebration, where private tables can cost $3,000.  Glossy white chairs, sequined and fake white fur pillows, white drapes–they are ringing in the New Year in style.

Happy New Year Puerto Rico–you deserve it all–glamorous parties, good food and music, clean water–and a better year ahead.

Addendum:

Our own volunteering was truly a drop but my hope is I can add some more drops by providing further information of ways to assist Puerto Rico.  One and all should consider vacationing there.  The island is ready, waiting, and grateful for the tourism.

And there are many small grassroots efforts and ways to help from afar or on the ground.  I’ll be offering a list of links and suggestions in my next post.

Note:

Some of these photographs are by Chad L. Waggoner, a world history teacher at Trinity High School, who has been documenting his visits and work in Puerto Rico.  Follow him on Facebook or Instagram at Chad L. Waggoner.

We are Puerto Rico

December, 2017–San Juan, Puerto Rico

Corny as it sounds, as we’re touching down in Puerto Rico, there’s a rainbow arching over the land mass.  I can also see the vegetation has begun to spring back, though it’s hard not to notice the skeletal waste and bare branches.  San Juan itself looks stable but battered and worn.

We’re staying at La Concha—a mod late fifties hotel that makes me feel as if we’ve walked into the casino scenes in Cuba in Godfather II—marble floors, low space age furniture, elongated hexagonal lattices and orange slats over the balconies, a clamshell roof on the restaurant.  The elevator doesn’t work, so we all follow the work men to service area and go up, squeezed behind huge laundry trolleys.  I learn later that the hotel, which sits right on the ocean in Condado, survived the hurricane—they did not even board up the glass windows.  Wind crashed from the ocean and then swirled in circles around the wavy roofs.  Water sloshed down the low marble steps of the lobby but they managed to drag out the sodden rugs, and stayed open the whole time and FEMA workers and administrators are staying here through February.

That evening we walk on the beach, and see block after block of hotels and apartment houses, all stable, surviving, a few swaddled in scaffolding.  And yet most of the windows are dark—Puerto Ricans who have left, the apartments now abandoned.  Occasionally we see a generator hooked up on the street, but by and large the electricity is working in this part of San Juan.  Walgreens and CVS are glaring bright boxes down the block, freshly stocked.

That evening we head out for a meal at Café Tresbe, a hip outdoor place that serves tacos, empadillas, and tamarind-flavored barbecue wings, all out of a repurposed container.  The place is low-key, groovy, and we might be in Austin with the strung lights and music and murals.  Across the way is Sabrina’s, another restaurant with seafood and vegetarian fare. 

Later, when we return to our area, we walk over to the Condado Vanderbilt, an elegant turn-of-the-century hotel that’s been completely redone—a sunken bar area of velvet settees, dark wood, and sleek statues.  But it is utterly empty—the lounge area, the bar, where the staff wait expectantly; the restaurant and the terrace where the ocean pounds below.

The next morning we take an Uber to a nature preserve in Cataño, an industrial area with small homes perched on concrete pillars, huddled in narrow alleys.  We’re here to help out Luis Marrero, of Cara Con Causas, who leads many programs, particularly the nature preserve area. The area, which was once mostly covered in mangroves, was filled in during the industrialization period, when migrant workers came and settled.  It’s unfortunately become something of a dumping ground too, filled with concrete and garbage—I noticed an entire couch sitting in a channel of water as we were driving up.  Luis and his organization use this are not just for reforestation but as an education center for young people and the community.

Today our aim is to clear out the paths and then later do some planting of the mangroves.  Fallen gray trunks and branches are stretched across the path.  We attack them with shears, an axe, a saw and a chain saw.  But it’s long hard work in the mud and heat.  Rafi, 13, finds it overwhelming.  But we keep at it—snipping, sawing, chopping, raking the ground after, and after a while, we’ve succeeded in clearing one turn in the path.  Then we move on, where more trees have fallen across and we’re at it again.  After several hours, with pauses to drench ourselves in bottled water or munch on bags of plantain chips, we have managed to do some decent clearing.  We’re all exhausted so there’s no chance today of planting.  But Rafi has learned to use a saw and Sasha has let that axe fly (a little too high near his head for this mother) and we’ve also met others who have come to the island to volunteer.  There’s a young woman, Meredith, who has a PhD in organizational science and is here for several weeks, trying to help the various organizations communicate and work with each other better.  We work alongside Raul, originally from Puerto Rico, now getting his masters in accounting at the University of Michigan, and two college students from D.C., who have just come from helping to lay the foundation of a basketball court at a school, about thirty miles away.  One senses a chain of these individual volunteers, throughout the island, learning of needs in an ad-hoc, word-of-mouth way. 

After, we sit with Luis and he tells us more of his efforts.  This area, he explains, is the poorest neighborhood on the island, and highly toxic, since there is an oil refinery nearby.  I had heard that the poverty rate on the island is 40%–he says it’s closer to 50% and 57% of children live below the poverty line; by the age of 20, half of all women have children.  So the cycle of poverty is hard to break.  Thus, his work is not just ecological—he brings in volunteers to meet with the children so they can envision lives beyond this area; they’ve adopted a school where they hope to provide a better education; and he hopes to employ more in the neighborhood in the actual preserve.  I mention that with only one chain saw it’s going to take him forever to clear this mangrove area.  He agrees.  Most of his equipment—shovels, rubber boots, which he keeps stowed in the patio area of another house—were oriented to planting and regrowth.  But the hurricane has changed all that.  So we agree that perhaps one thing we can do is see about raising money to purchase a few chain saws so that the work can be more efficient—and he might be able to employ some locals in the community.

 

 

 

 

 

We return to his house, muscles aching, just as the skies break open again with the warm, pattering showers that are so common.  A young boy comes onto the patio, and after, Luis tells me that his family’s house was completely lost in the hurricane.  Only recently were they given a new home, and Luis was able to get them furniture from a family that has left Puerto Rico.  Down the street, we see a gaping spot where a house once stood—a thin sheet of wood covered in old linoleum is leaned up on the side.  The house next door has no roof, its back portion exposed to the beams.  Further down the alley a house is being rebuilt with fresh concrete steps and paint, but most of the homes have a shaggy, tacked-together quality.  Along the alley wall, one can see a brown running stain—a good two feet where the water reached.

On our way back to the hotel, we take an Uber to  Lote23, yet another hip outdoor eating place of food trucks and refurbished Airstreams.  We have luscious croquettes with dipping sauces, poke bowls, blood sausage and beans and rice, an Asian noodle bowl.  “It’s like we’re in San Francisco,” Rafi says.

Then we spend a few hours at the hotel, resting by the pool, which is much more full with families, a mix of Americans, or those with Puerto Rican roots, squeezing into the hot tub and chatting over glasses of wine.  A few minutes after the boys go back up to the room, I receive a cell call: they’re stuck in the elevator between floor 7 and 8 and the emergency call button isn’t working.  So I rush to the lobby—after many walkie talkie calls the engineer is able to pry open the doors on floor 7 and they hop out.  It’s one of the hazards of staying here right now—the manager explains to me that the elevators do need more maintenance and they are awaiting parts.  One understands and forgives this, along with the items that may not be on a menu, or the traffic light that does not fully function.

That night, since Rafi needs to sleep, we go to eat at a chic restaurant around the corner—Mario Pagan.  It has a sleek, almost Scandinavian look; an aquarium-like window floats in the back, made of repeating Y-shaped branches.  The food is exquisite—a terrine of shaved Brussel sprouts with beets and bacon; crispy pig’s ears (which I can’t bring myself to eat); red snapper over creamed Israeli couscous.  And a dessert of chocolate soufflé sprinkled in sea salt. Later, we stop in at a local and popular Chinese restaurant, which is teeming and loud, for dumplings for Rafi.  And then the lobby is a cacophony of music—a musical group dressed in black suits are playing old favorites—and everyone is dressed up, singing along, dancing.

It seems impossible that just hours ago we were wading in the mud next to one of the poorest (and environmentally polluted) areas on the island.  But what one feels here, in a concentrated version, are all the layers and stark inequalities of this island.  There are times when we could be in any upscale hip city—San Francisco, New York, Mexico City—with the same relaxed sense of style and food.   The balmy weather—gentle breezes that blow in every evening and make it lovely to walk in these canyons of white buildings—seem to soften the damage.  And yet it is a fragile illusion. Puerto Rico exemplifies the state of the world right now, just in distilled and exposed form: shocking poverty alongside comfortable, cosmopolitan ease.  Having just witnessed the voting in of a U.S. tax bill that will only exacerbate our inequality, the island feels uncomfortably familiar.  We are Puerto Rico, too.

9/12: The World We Have Woken To

9/11 is our day of marking, our day of mourning.  At dinner last night, our older son told us about his school’s annual assembly, how affected he was by the grim sequence of images—the smothering dust, the tiny figures plunging to their death.  Every year at his school the president of the student council gives a talk; this year they have come to the waning moments where soon none of those young people will have been alive on that day.  For them it recedes into memorialized history, not entirely lived and felt history.

And yet.  I have always felt that the significance of 9/11 is 9/12 and thereafter, the world we live in now and that our children have inherited.  Sasha was just over a year that bright blue sky day, and I will never forget leaving him with his father at home, biking down the West Side with phone chargers in my back pack, looping to the Red Cross where I’d hoped to donate blood.  Instead there was a momentary stop at the heliport where Pataki and Clinton were just then disembarking to be greeted by Guliani (yes, that kind of bipartisan resolve did exist) and we all cheered as they were whisked into cars, down to the site.  And then there was no need for chargers, no need for blood, just a police barricade, plumes of ashen smoke blotting that perfect sky.  That night, our son snuggled in our carry-on, we joined others at the Sailors and Fallen Soldiers Monument and sang and sang, almost wishing we could never leave each other, this fellowship, on such a painful and numbing day.

It is no secret that I did not want to leave the city.  It is the place of my birth, my blood connection, my charge and vibe.  I’m an urban girl through and through.  But somehow one year later we encamped to Maplewood, NJ, waking up stunned in an empty house on a quiet street on a hot August morning in 2002.  Our move was not connected to the event—we were not fleeing the city because of the attack.  But we did , in some way, need to rebuild, rethink, remold ourselves.  And I often think I experienced a rebirth as a writer then, one that was directly connected to 9/12.  I was now a writer in the world we have woken up to, the world our children are shaped by: war, terror, counter-terrorism, Islamophobia, fear, immigration panic, security.  Soon after a novel tore out of me, about the crackdown on undocumented immigrants—which became Ask Me No Questions.  At the end of the novel, the sisters’ fate remains unclear, as they are lofted out into that 9/12 world.  In real life, they would probably have become beneficiaries of DACA, which was just so cruelly torn away.

I had thought my story—of an undocumented family in the wake of 9/11—would become a kind of historical document.  Instead, in 2017, under this current administration and divisive mood, we are once again in the same crisis being lived afresh.  The world of 9/12 is not about linear progression.  It is about these same unresolved conflicts erupting again and again.  It is about the submerged re-emerging, with a vengeance.  That is how trauma works.  It is circular, often unresolved, getting worse before–and if–it gets better.  I cannot help but think, that with the attempt at the Muslim ban, the elimination of DACA, the events in Charlottesville, we are now in the descending plunge of the spiral.  When and how we circle up and out again, toward light and resolution—hard to say.  That may be too Pollyanna a vision.  9/12 is here to stay.

But there is one sweeter note to end on, for me, personally, as to what it’s been like to live in 9/12.  The community we so impetuously moved to a year after 9/11—Maplewood—has proved to be a nurturing bath for that newly re-formed writer self.  It is where I have raised my children; amidst the hub bub of family life, I carved out book after book, some out of the anguish and concern and puzzlement at the times we are living through.  Some are just the drive toward curiosity or shadow pockets of history or personal obsession.  Living in a house means there are that many more corners to stack up research books and novels.  I often think our house is one great heaving ship taking in more book cargo, while chucking out others to create better ballast, so we don’t capsize and drown in print.

And that is why, with great pleasure, I tell of receiving the 2018 Maplewood Literary Award, the brainchild of our remarkable library director, Sarah Lester, who also created the Maplewood Ideas Festival.  Fifteen years ago we decamped, we rebuilt, and re-envisioned.    Nearly every day I wake up to this street of porched houses, and children scattering toward school, commuters racing for the midtown direct train. From my desk, just beyond the trees, I glimpse the rooftop of novelist Pamela Erens‘ house, the 2017 award recipient.  It gives me quiet comfort to know she too is facing the page, so nearby.   And solace too for a community that so values art and words and expression, even in the face of our worst darkness.  This is my 9/12.   This is how we begin.

Henri Cartier-Bresson & India

2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the Magnum Photo Agency, founded by photography greats Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, William Vandervirt, and others right after World War II. Legend has it that Magnum was named after the magnum of champagne they drank to celebrate the agency, but with Capa one’s never sure. At the time, the photographers ‘divided’ up the world–Capa was somewhat ‘at large’ and Cartier-Bresson took Asia. The result is on display at the Rubin Museum in a rich show of his images of India at some truly key historic moments. Capa always told Cartier Bresson: “Stop calling yourself an artist. Say you’re a photojournalist.”

Surely these images reflect both: A fusion of exquisite sensitivity and composition, coupled with his keen sense of the historical moment: Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame.

 

DACA, Dreamers

April 26, 2017

Two items caught my attention today: an undocumented Rutgers student, a Dreamer, asked by ICE to interview at their office and report about how much young undocumented immigrants contribute to the NJ economy–$66 million and it is estimated that they could contribute another $27 million if they could get on with their lives, continue to study and work.

DACA Student at Rutgers Interviewed by ICE Officials.

Report: NJ young immigrants pay $66 million in taxes

I actually believe many people are squeamish about defending undocumented immigrants.  It makes them uncomfortable.  Aren’t they criminals? Didn’t they break the law? Many Americans, in fact, may be uneasy with Trump’s demonization of immigrants, but might have trouble openly marching on their behalf.  Might they secretly wonder: It is too much, isn’t it? Could some of what he says be true? Are they ruining our economy? Taking over our cities, our towns? Aren’t they a drag on our resources?

I say this not because I believe these ideas, but because I believe we must bring out of hiding these shadow thoughts in ourselves.  And the only way to do so is to bring the cold, clear nuggets of facts, such as the ones above.  To hear these stories.  These are young people whom we have already invested in; young people who are already contributed; and who have so much more to offer.  Are we willing to lose that gorgeous hope and possibility?  Because of we shut ourselves to what they can be, we shut down what we can be as a nation.  I believe we are more capacious than this; that our republic, so different than others, has room and room again.  Let us not give into the shadows and fears; let us find a way.

 

On Re-reading Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

April 13th, 2017:

Last night I taught Baldwin (which the students loved) and the last lines kept resonating as I drove home: “It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are:in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”

And yet I must confess, that the phrase ‘without rancor’–which is so hard to do–might be also substituted ‘without grief.’ For even as I gained so much strength from Baldwin, I found myself suddenly crying at the latest headline regarding the withholding of Federal funds from Planned Parenthood. The outright cruelty of this move undid me. I was subsumed in grief–for the women whose lives will be affected, poor women, sick women, confused women, determined women. It was a stab to my gut, my own body, a shock.

I only hope in daylight I can muster up the two opposing ideas that Baldwin conjures up for us, his complex light through the tunnel, to see our way into the future.  But right now, my heart heavy, and it requires so much strength to rally forth.

Normality Elusive In Fraught Times–Muslim Teenagers after Orlando

An article in the NY Times today about how the Orlando killings are again snatching away a sense of normality for Muslim teens during Ramadan, a time that should be reflective and celebratory.

Last year, during Ramadan, I spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Queens and Brooklyn for my new novel Watched.  And what I was so struck by–and what is lost in these polarizing times where Islam is equated with frightening headlines–is the way in which Islam, observance, is part of the fabric of life, a rhythm for one’s days.  I watched families hurry to pick up last groceries, stroll and linger on streets before and after prayers,  crowd around tables under the pale wash of florescent restaurant light for the Iftar, the evening meal.  Little children cupped in father’s arms; a man and his wife, their robes blazing white in the dark, rushed off a bus, across a busy avenue.  By one tiny mosque, where the women prayed, jammed next to one another in a narrow basement, prayers voiced in through speakers, little children set off tiny bang-snaps outside, annoying the adults who also forgave them.  It was such a New York, a Brooklyn scene: how many children have been doing that for generations on borough pavements?

Take a look at the beautiful slide show that captures some of this.

Kara Walker & The Real Sugar Links

On Kara Walker’s A Subtlety is a marvelous, yet maddening installation at the old Domino Sugar Factory.  Here’s why:

When I stepped inside the vast Domino Sugar Factory for the opening of Kara Walker’s installation, A Subtlety, I nearly wept.  For over a century, the iconic Domino Sugar Factory, which shut its doors a decade ago, has loomed on the Brooklyn waterfront, an enigmatic, forgotten carapace.  Now, with Walker’s sculpture, it is not just the doors of the factory that have reopened–we have also flung open our shared history of sugar.  It is a history I know well, for my own family traveled from northern India as indentured workers to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  My great-grandfather gave away his share of land in Uttar Pradesh to his two older brothers and set off to seek a new life in British Guiana, which rivaled Jamaica and Cuba as one of the largest sugar producers in the world. Continue reading

Lisa Jalowetz Aronson: The Door Opens

Lisa with Peter Lindenfeld at a show of Lore Lindenfeld’s work

I first met my future mother-in-law in 1996, when my boyfriend at the time, Marc Aronson, brought me to Westchester, where he was giving a talk on Edith Wharton to his mother’s book reading group, which was reading House of Mirth.  Marc and I had met many times over the years–I an all-in-black aspiring novelist, he an editor at Henry Holt–mostly at the home of Shashi and Minu Tharoor.  On one fateful occasion, we sat perched on a sofa and were soon immersed in  a conversation about Edith Wharton and Henry James.  Marc had recently finished his dissertation on William Crary Brownell, who edited both authors.  (I am a James fan; he a Wharton, and we still have not resolved the issue) At the time, I think Marc was surprised that he was talking to someone who not only knew all the works, but even cared!

What followed was a very Jamesian or Whartonesque courtship–take your pick–a long date at the Metropolitan Museum, where we both had wandered as children and now shared our favorite rooms, literary readings, strolls and high and low meals talking books in our beloved New York City; proffered and refused gifts and many, many conversations, heady and otherwise.  Over the course of that time, he mentioned his parents a few times–once at an Israeli restaurant in the East Village he said something about his parents ‘working in the theater.’  Then one evening, standing at the bar at Gramercy Tavern, after an event at the National Arts Club, he began to explain his fascination with Brownell, how he was drawn to figures who are on the borderline or cusp of cultural change, since of course, that was who his father, the set designer Boris Aronson, was.  At that moment, I thought to myself, “I will never be bored with this man.  I will always want to hear what he has to say,” and simply put–fell in love.

Shortly thereafter we rented a car and made our way up to Westchester, where I met his elegant, snowy-haired mother and her fellow book group.  Marc gave his talk and then we followed Lisa back to her home, across the river, in Nyack.  At the time, Lisa was about 75 years old, and she drove like a speed demon, swerving around the winding roads.  As we stepped up to the door, he paused, and said with a sigh, “Welcome to my family.  Welcome to the avant-garde.”

The door swung open. Continue reading

We’re Ready for Immigration Reform: A Novelist’s Perspective

A new Op-Ed in the Huffington Post:

With the bipartisan proposal on immigration just announced, and President Obama’s speech on reform delivered recently, we’re all braced for the polarizing winds of anger to rage.

But that’s not what I’ve found. For several years, I have been talking about illegal immigrants, all over the country. Every time I finish my talk, I wait for a blast of hostility.

It never comes.

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When Do You Write: Guest Post at Anjali Enjeti’s Website

Nowadays I write when the saws aren’t whining downstairs or one of my boys isn’t tumbling into my study, complaining about his odious brother.  Seriously, right now—living through a kitchen renovation during the summer, my prime writing time—has been a huge challenge.  It’s discombobulated my otherwise pretty disciplined rhythm, which I established in graduate school years ago.  At that time, I felt so guilty about leaving a ‘real’ job, and living on the tiny scholarship, I felt I had to be at it, every morning.  I lived in a tiny studio, worked at the kitchen table and listened to the family next door in a gorgeous Victorian back down their driveway every morning, going off to the ‘real world’.  I remember feeling terribly deprived, sure I would never have such a life, and yet pure, Spartan.

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Mrs. Dalloway Then and Now

This appeared in the Patch:

When I was in college, I took a course taught by an erudite British poet and critic, Jon Stallworthy, who came to class in nubby wool sweaters, and assigned us to write an essay on “Why Mrs. Dalloway is a masterpiece.”

Moxie sophomore that I was, I decided to write a paper on why Mrs. Dalloway was not a masterpiece, and headed straight to the Graduate Library, where I spent hours digging up old reviews in English newspapers, panning Woolf’s novel, and building up my sure-fire case that the novel was ‘second rate’—not on the order of To the Lighthouse, certainly.  I was sure my professor would be impressed by my extraordinary, rebellious performance. Continue reading

Remembering David Foster Wallace (briefly)

This was a piece I wrote for our local Patch in anticipation of an event with biographer D.T. Max:

In 1989, when I was still a novice writer, I spent the summer at Yaddo, the beautiful writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs.  It’s a fairly intimidating and luxurious atmosphere (butterballs served at dinner!) for any new writer still trying to get a handle on a first novel. One feels both anointed and yet hollow, inadequate.

It was there I met—among many other writers—David Foster Wallace.  Already, there was a bit of star aura around David—he was clearly brilliant, and his difficult, opaque and challenging first collection, The Broom of the System, had been published.  Downstairs in the main room of Yaddo’s Victorian house was the mail table—and it was hard not notice the big packages that came for David—from publishers, from Michael Pietsch, his editor at Little, Brown.  Wallace was starting to hum with a true career while many of us were simply in the shadows, figuring out who we were as writers or artists.

 

David was a funny mix of Midwestern earnest, well-brought up, polite, and yet sharply arrogant.  He kept his cards to his chest, though one could still see the whirring, ambitious calculations within.  Evenings, some of us would sit around the screened-in porch for long winding conversations about the state of contemporary fiction, and he would dominate, posing quizzical questions, conducting the conversation as if he were the professor.  (Flustering a few of the more insecure young writers)  I could clearly detect that he was a professor’s son, used to the analytic seminar, even in his slacker trademark bandana around his long hair.  Indeed David was not teaching creative writing as many of us were—he was headed for Harvard to study philosophy.

Over the course of the month, a small group of us hung around quite a bit, shooting pool in town, or joining him as he smoked a lot of pot in his attic room.  I once made the mistake of playing tennis with him—he was a ranked state player in high school—and embarrassing myself not just with the ball, but with some of the intellectual volleys, so shy was I at the time.

Lobbing the ball across the net, he asked me what I thought was the next frontier in fiction.  Since I was actually trying to wean myself of the intellectual pyrotechnics of experimental fiction, I mumbled something about ‘ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ fiction and then felt completely tongue-tied and embarrassed.  Somehow, I managed to say, “You know it’s mostly about writing a story that really hits you.”

He paused on the court.  Something had clicked.  He said quietly, “Yes, there is that.  It’s hard to deliver that emotional knockout that gets you right here—“ He pointed to his chest.  “That is rare.”

David would go on to write Infinite Jest, a book that was a huge achievement; as much a literary opus as it was a massive cultural event.  He also battled with severe and profound depression.  Shortly after he left Yaddo, I’d heard from mutual acquaintances that he’d had a severe crack up, dropped out of Harvard, and was in an institution.  All that pot smoking masked his constant internal struggles with “the black hole with teeth.”

Over the next decades, Wallace moved toward the luminosity of the truly gifted and brilliant, the public.  A cultish fascination grew around his maximalist work.  Though I was not one of those who dared crack open the over a thousand-page-tome, David’s journalism and essays, which appeared on the pages of Harper’s, were among my favorite—funny, erudite, slangy, relaxed, genre-breaking cultural commentary, where his penchant for the extended, hilarious footnote became a genre unto itself.

To my surprise, many, many years later, the author DT Max contacted me in his research for the biography of Wallace, which began with a New Yorker article he wrote about the last days of Wallace’s life before he committed suicide in 2008.  I was surprised, as I was no more than a speck in the huge number of famous figures and dear friends who populated David’s life.  But it speaks to DT’s scrupulous sense of fine research that he reached out to everyone.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a kind book, for it takes up, with compassion and insight, the twin struggles of Wallace, the ambitious literary author and Wallace the person, battling severe depression.

 

Continue reading

What I’m Reading

A few days ago I finished D.T. Max’s Every Story is a Love Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.   The book is both eminently readable, a kind of psychological thriller of one brilliant author’s mind, his ouvre, and ultimate self-destruction.  At the same time, I found myself queasily putting it down for rest stops–perhaps because I knew David very slightly, from Yaddo, and thus his ghost brushed past on the page; perhaps because this was the first time I had read a biography of someone who is a contemporary.  The effect is oddly dizzying, even nauseating (is it nauseated? Wallace was a hard-ass on grammar and nausea was one of his pet peeves).  It’s like being in a Tilt-a-Whirl of one’s own times, lurching a bit too close to one’s cultural moments, veering away as we watch his particular struggles and demise.  In the end, the book is also terribly sad and moving.

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Throughout the summer I’ve been slowly making my way through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, in preparation for our project on Robert Capa and Gerda Taro and the Spanish Civil War.  I’ve never been a great reader of Hemingway–he was most certainly the obligatory guy author for me back in high school, and I’ve never been a fan of minimalism.  Its language constraints irritate me; the dialogue at times seems peevishly forced.  Prior to beginning the novel, I read the two biographies of Martha Gelhorn–the second, which was unauthorized, provides a rather damning portrait of Hemingway the mean and vindictive ex-husband, so I was hardly inclined toward him as an author. Continue reading

First Stop: Barcelona

On August 5th, 2012, Marc, myself and our two boys, Sasha and Rafi flew to Barcelona—exactly 76 years after Capa and Taro when arrived to begin their photo-journey into the Spanish Civil War. Within a few months, Capa would become a world-famous war journalist. Both would reinvent modern photojournalism as we know it today. And in less than a year, the daring Taro would be dead.

We spent nearly three weeks in Spain, tracking, as best we could, some of the key sites and in some cases, visiting some of the exact locales where they shot photographs. Our last research day was in Brunete, where Taro was sideswiped by a swerving tank, and ultimately died in a hospital 30 kilometers away.

In this blog, I’ll be filling you in on our travels, our journey into the story of Capa, Taro, and Chim as we developed this book. Enjoy!

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Barcelona, August, 2012: This is the Barcelona I remember from 1983-84 when I backpacked through–and it isn’t. Still the same frilly-edged art nouveau buildings rising off the grand avenues; still the winding streets in the old quarter; and still good Serrano ham and manchego cheese to be found at all hours.

Yet there is a difference. Gone are the old women washing on the balconies, the clamoring parakeets and teeming plants; gone are the old men and women on Las Ramblas benches, the smokey-eyed gypsy children; the seedy, red light district, the dark mouths of nightclubs, where you walked downstairs and were never quite sure what you would find; gone is the morning wake up when we stayed in the old quarter—a bakery where fat-armed women shoved aluminum trays of quivering flan; the men in their slightly ill-made suits and hair wet down; the shoes thicker, sturdier; so much less polish and high-strung tourist sheen as I had encountered in Florence and Sienna. I could feel, in this city, the sense of the peasant, of the rustic.

At that time—28 years ago—my friend and I were at the edge of their lives, observing. Now it is throngs of tourists driving down Las Ramblas who are the center of the action; now they are flanked by shiny stores, tapas places that seem like remakes of the dark wood dives I drank in and ate before. When we reach Placa de la Catalyuna, I feel as if I’m in Times Square. We’ve stopped off at the official FC Barcelona store, where Sasha understands that I am not spending 100 dollars on a Messie shirt.

But we are here for history, and so we oblige, with Alan Warren, our chipper and cheerful guide who is obsessed with Spanish Civil history, knows it down to his bones, and leads tours throughout the region recreating Orwell’s steps, battles, particular regiments.

He has arrived at our large, atmospheric (and slightly odd) Eixample flat in his floppy khaki hat, his folder of images and notes, and marches us past the elegant art nouveau buildings, shows us the Hotel Majestic, which at the time was taken over by the Republican forces, and where long tables of food were served for free. Now it is swathed in scaffolding; I peek through the revolving doors to see the lobby is completely renovated—sleek marble, barely adorned—and intimidatingly pricey in look.

Another doorway is where deserters from the Nationalist side straggled in, along with recruits from abroad. This is the international surge that brought Capa and Taro to Spain in the early days, along with George Orwell, who would immortalize his time in the classic Homage to Catalonia:

“When the fighting broke out on the 18 July it is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently, was democracy standing up to Fascism.”

Most certainly this is what Capa and Taro felt, back in Paris. Both were refugees from Hungary and Germany respectively; both were Jews who had begun to see the iron hand of anti-Semitism start to choke the political life of their countries. Indeed Capa had already had his run-ins for political activism, as did Taro, which is how they wound up in Paris, mingling among the many artists and emigres who had flocked to the city at this time.

Capa and Taro were also opportunists—in the best sense of the word. They sensed a chance, an opportunity, to make their mark through the growing field of photo journalism. They had met when Taro worked for Maria Eisner, who ran a photo agency, Alliance Photo. Taro helped to groom the scruffy Hungarian so he might better sell his work. Then she too took up the camera. It was only a matter of time before they felt the siren call to Barcelona, to Spain, where already, international volunteers were pouring in to fight Franco.

The Barcelona they would have encountered would have been similar to the city George Orwell described:

“… when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.”

“The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town were crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Certainly, Taro’s photographs during this time capture the revolutionary fervor, the joyous and ordinary ways that residents had taken up arms and were remaking their very city, their society. Taro shot children happily scampering on sandbagged walls, donning anarchist caps like any children playing made-up war games.

She followed Republican militiawomen training on the beach near the city—one of her most iconic a silhouetted woman, crouched, aiming her pistol—a symbol of equality promised women during this halcyon period, a time, as Orwell noted, when people did not address anyone as “Senor or Dona” or even use the formal “Usted.”

My favorites of Taro’s during this period are those of people laughing, relaxing in the August sunshine (Catalonia is indeed hot during those months). In one, a man and a woman lean back in two wicker chairs, heads tilted to one another, exchanging laughter; he casually holds a rifle between them. There’s an easy grace to the photo, men and women as comfortable compadres, as Taro and Capa were themselves.

In August 1936, when Taro and Capa and Orwell arrived in Spain, to join what they saw as the greatest struggle of their generation, they did not yet detect its dangerous and self-destructive undertow, nor did anyone anticipate the terrible destruction that would be unleashed with ariel bombing. (Indeed Barcelona was used as a testing ground for this new technology and the brutal air raids gave way to something called the “Barcelona Effect”—the more a civilian population was bombed, the more they in fact resisted) We pause at the reconstructed Coliseum, which now has a stark black steel memorial in front to memorialize those killed in the dreadful pounding that pummeled these grand streets.

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Yet if anything characterizes the Spanish Civil War, it was the deadly factionalism that would eventually splinter the Left, particularly as the Soviets played a deadly game of suppressing the Anarchists and undermining their hold on the local population.

Less than a year after that optimistic period that Capa and Taro recorded visually, a stand-off between the Communists and Anarchists was taking place: “The word flew round the town that the workers’ buildings were being attacked, armed Anarchists appeared on the streets, work ceased, and fighting broke out immediately.”

Today, we stand in the thronging Placa de Cataluyna to see the Telefonica Building, the tallest building at the time of the Spanish Civil War, a blank modern building that juts up over the teeming plaza.

We press onward, past the fountain where everyone descends after a Barcelona soccer team game (No, we tell the kids, you cannot drink the water), and stand just opposite Café Moka, where Civil Guards were holed up inside. Across the way was the Poliorama, where the P.O.U.M. (the party Orwell fought with and more or less came to support) patrolled on the roof domes.

“I used to sit on the roof marveling at the folly of it all,” Orwell writes. “From the little windows in the observatory you could see for miles around—vista after vista of tall slender buildings, glass domes and fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles; over to eastward the glittering pale blue sea—the first glimpse of the sea that I had had since coming to Spain. And the whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement.”

The Eyes of The World: Work-in-Progress

Ongoing updates about our work-in-progress, “The Eyes of the World: A Story of a Man, a Woman, & a Camera”, to be published by Henry Holt for Younger Readers in 2014:

Last summer, while sitting at lunch at the Vermont MFA program, chatting with many veteran children’s book authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Leda Schubert, I was suddenly thunderstruck with inspiration: I knew what my next young adult nonfiction book would be–the story of photographer Robert Capa, the less-known Gerda Taro, and their friend Chim, as they set off to photograph the Spanish Civil War and create modern photojournalism–and war journalism–as we know it today.  Nothing like the company of other authors, bubbling with their own ideas, to set one going.

Indeed, given that this is very much a story of a man and a woman collaborating–as equals, as compadres, as artists–it seemed the perfect next book for Marc and I to write.  We had been casting about for a new idea and had touched on the idea of collaboration–various duets in history that have joined forces to create something they could not do on their own.

The story of Capa and Taro had caught my eye a few years ago when I went to an exhibition at the International Center for Photography–“This is War!”–a huge retrospective of Capa’s work.  I’d always been fascinated with the Magnum photographers, and fell in love with those images from the Spanish Civil War–the molded, strong faces staring up at a sky strafed with war planes; children playing see saw amidst rubbled buildings.  At that exhibition, I became acquainted with Taro’s work, which also shared a smaller exhibition space.  I learned that in fact she and Capa were an artistic team–Capa & Taro–and they had gone off together, as lovers, as friends, as co-conspirators in the aim of telling the world about the Republican cause.  Like so many of their generation, they believed that the Spanish Civil War was the war to stake a claim–that if it was not won–Europe would surely fall to fascism.  (And of course they were right in this regard)  Armed with their new, lightweight Leicas and Rolloflexes, they set off, arriving in Barcelona on August 5th, 1936.  Sadly, Taro would not live more than a year, as she was killed during the Battle of Brunete in July, 1937.  This is one of the reasons her work is not as well known–she died very young, just as she was emerging as a daring and canny photojournalist in her own right. Continue reading

The Real Read: Empathy, What Mr. Franzen Can’t Show to Edith Wharton

So here’s my take on Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton. Continue reading

Guest Blog on Nonfiction Matters

Here’s my guest post on my husband’s blog-column in School Library Journal, “Nonfiction Matters”.

Recently, I’ve been delving into the past. My school past, that is. Yesterday, in one of my periodic organizational fevers, I went to the garage and pulled out a box of old school work from elementary school. My mother had thankfully saved it and I, in turn, have managed to carry the crumbling folders and yellowed pages from address to address, from my studio apartment in Manhattan, to the storage bin in Harlem, and out across the river to our New Jersey home, where we clog up the nooks and crannies of our house with far too much paper and books. The both of us are hoarders of the past, probers of the past, in different ways. And as we’ve raised our two boys here, guiding them through the sometimes bewildering maze of their education, our own past, our own experiences in school–for better or worse–flicker and inform some of our passions.

I have always nurtured a nostalgic, glowing image of my elementary school years—siphoned into gifted classes, taught by ambitious, gifted teachers, I remember those years as extraordinary adventures in reading and learning. I wrote and drew and made projects; reams of paper came home each day. Sometimes I wondered if was misremembering or casting those days with a nostalgic hue. But dragging out those boxes, I knew I wasn’t just romanticizing the past. What I immediately noticed was how many projects and book reports we always did—far more than I’ve seen my son do in his years in elementary school. Continue reading

Balancing the Artistic Inner Life and the Civic Life

Recently, I’ve handed in a new project and am looking up from my desk, blinking, taking care of the masses of errands, responsibilities that always pile up and languish when I’m immersed in a manuscript. Some of these are purely domestic–camp decisions, electricians, curtain rods–which, I will admit, bring me a lot of pleasure when I am feeling lighter, and less burdened with deadlines.

But I’ve also been shooting e-mails to people around what I would call my ‘civic’ life–two groups that impact the community I live in; a blood donor drive; organizing a cohort of parents for potential study abroad programs for our children. This is the part of me that belongs and joins, and I must admit, I have always been highly inconsistent in this regard. I have bursts of intense, almost executive energy, and then I withdraw into the personal cocoon of my own writing and creating.

I think most artists are torn about how much to give to our civic life. In a way, art is a selfish act. You block out the rest of the world, and only what is right in front of you matters. In fact, when I am deep into a project, I am suspicious of any demand on my time, and regard most activities as a dilution of my real calling. As well, since part of what I do is give public talks and readings, that feels like yet another heavy demand–one I enjoy and appreciate–but which can drain me and leave me rattled. I’ve also watched marvelously creative people diffuse themselves needlessly, and never get that manuscript done.

And yet, some part of me craves something of a civic life, and has real ideas about what what needs to be changed. I admire the people who are far more energetic in this regard–those who serve on boards, volunteer, coach teams, join groups. But I could never be that consistent. Is it good enough to swoop in now and then? How do other writers and artists create this balance between their private and public selves?

Kolkata Return: The Heritage Site

Still jet-lagged and bleary from an over-three week trip to India, I did want to make mention of the inauguration of the heritage site at the Kidderpore Docks in Kolkata, honoring the over 1.5 million indentured workers who left India in the 19th and early 20th century.  This was the same place that a number of us visited 3 years ago, and since then, the project has blossomed into a full-fledged site and potential museum.  While I was unable to attend the actual ceremony, thanks to Gautam Chakraborty of the Kolkata Port Trust, I did take a small boat with my husband and boys, up the Hooghly.  We sat huddled under shawls, sipping cha, squinting out at the diminishing gray winter light, trying to imagine the monumental journey these emigrants took.  Not sure if my sons, in between squabbling, quite understood the import of our little voyage, but it was a start. Continue reading

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