Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Today in History

some thoughts on today in history by Ned Stuckey-French, author of The American Essay in the American Century

Today is the 138th (!) birthday of the great American novelist, short story writer and essayist Willa Cather. Here is the opening of A Lost Lady (1923): "Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere. Well known, that is to say, to the railroad aristocracy of the time; men who had to do with the railroad itself, or with one of the “land companies” which were its by-products. In those days it was enough to say of a man that he was “connected with the Burlington.” There were the directors, the general managers, vice-presidents, superintendents, who names we all knew; and their younger brothers were auditors, freight agents, departmental assistants. Everyone “connected” with the Road, even the large cattle- and grain-shippers, had annual passes; they and their families rode about over the line a great deal. There were then two distinct social strata in the prairie States; the homesteaders and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to “develop our great West,” as they used to tell us."

I love the ominousness of "greyer," the way the word begins to hint at decline and at a critique of American exceptionalism; the list of titles and "connectedness" that reminds us of the incorporation of America during the last half of the 19th century; the mixed and souring nostalgia for the railroad without mentioning explicitly that the Road is being replaced by the automobile and Fordism; the ironizing quotation marks and veiled dig at a nepotism that undercuts the meritocratic American Dream; and finally, especially, the subtle shift to a first-person plural in which that disembodied narrative voice is at least partially embodied and placed in an "us" that is talked to and at by that aforementioned ruling class of "connected" corporate managers and land speculators.

The photo is of Cather and her college sweetheart/friend Louis Pound, who would become a noted folklorist and the first woman president of the Modern Language Association.
Before FDR went to Congress to ask for a Declaration of War and brand Dec. 7 "a day which will live in infamy," Eleanor published her daily column: "WASHINGTON, DECEMBER 8, 1941 - I was going out in the hall to say goodbye to our cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Adams, and their children, after luncheon, and, as I stepped out of my room, I knew something had happened. All the secretaries were there, two telephones were in use, the senior military aides were on their way with messages. I said nothing because the words I heard over the telephone were quite sufficient to tell me that, finally, the blow had fallen, and we had been attacked.

Attacked in the Philippines, in Hawaii, and on the ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii. Our people had been killed not suspecting there was an enemy, who attacked in the usual ruthless way which Hitler has prepared us to suspect.

Because our nation has lived up to the rules of civilization, it will probably take us a few days to catch up with our enemy, but no one in this country will doubt the ultimate outcome. None of us can help but regret the choice which Japan has made, but having made it, she has taken on a coalition of enemies she must underestimate unless she believes we have sadly deteriorated since our first ships sailed into her harbor.

The clouds of uncertainty and anxiety have been hanging over us for a long time. Now we know where we are. The work for those who are at home seems to be obvious. First, to do our own job, whatever it is, as well as we can possibly do it. Second, to add to it everything we can do in the way of civilian defense. Now, at last, every community, must go to work to build up protection from attack.

We must build up the best possible community services, so that all of our people may feel secure because they know we are standing together and that whatever problems have to be met will be met by the community and not one lone individual. There is no weakness and insecurity when once this is understood."

Photo - Eleanor visits Pearl Harbor in 1943.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Author Spotlight

By: Sarah Mason, Sales Intern

The Press's December spotlight is author Nancy McCabe, author of Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge: A Journey to My Daughter's Birthplace in China.

What first got you interested in teaching?

I never really set out to be a teacher. I always wanted to be a writer. But I got a teaching assistantship to support myself through my MFA, and I realized what a privilege it is to be able to make a living just sharing what I love with others--words, images, sentences, stories, writing, literature. While many writers feel that teaching and grading papers drains away their energy for writing, when I was young and for many years teaching four sections of freshman composition a semester, I never felt that way; for me, teaching and writing seemed to feed each other. Teaching mostly creative writing and journalism these days, I still find there to be a symbiotic relationship between teaching and writing and gain a lot of inspiration from my students. But it also seems like there is never enough time to follow up on all of the writing ideas and book recommendations and intriguing conversations that arise from my work with students.

What is your favorite thing about China? Any advice for new travelers to China?

I love seeing China through my daughter’s eyes. She feels so comfortable and happy there and is always willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt, which is an important lesson in the fascinating and exasperating attempt to bridge the gap between two vastly different cultures and languages.

Any advice for new travelers?

The differences in Chinese languages and English, particularly the way we use tone, mean that we even express emotions differently so there is so much potential for misunderstanding. Sometimes Americans translate differences in the ways we use tone as hostility. For instance, many adoptive parents travel to their children's orphanages and are sure that their requests are being ignored or turned down when in fact they are often not being understood. Last summer, we returned to my daughter’s orphanage for a second time, and I had a very specific request. I kept getting answers that sounded like “no,” but I kept rewording, pantomiming, re-enacting, whatever I could do to get the question across because I wasn’t sure that I was being understood. Sophie wanted me to give up, but I asked about 24 times in 24 different ways, and suddenly someone got it and once that happened, everyone was eager to help us. Sometimes people will seem to be saying no because they don’t understand and they’re embarrassed and want to save face, and you have to be persistent and keep your sense of humor if you want to communicate.

Do you plan to write again about the opportunities and challenges of your adoption experience?

To me, the joy of creative nonfiction is the chance to explore subjects that nag at me, about which I have questions, not pat answers or resolutions. So it's natural that, as an adoptive parent, I've found myself writing about the subject quite a bit. I've always loved learning new things, and creative nonfiction is a way to do that--to ask questions and do research and share the process and the results with readers. So I don't really consider myself an adoption writer or an adoption expert, but just someone who uses writing as a way to explore the challenges I face. My daughter is thirteen now, and I’ve got a lot of other projects in the works, and I’ve vowed not to write any more about us or adoption—but I’m working on a couple of essays about our time in China last summer. And there’s an adoption story in my family history that I’d like to write about at some point. In the end, subjects choose you more than you choose them, so who knows?

What are your hobbies/interests outside of your profession?

As a single parent with two jobs, my schedule is almost always maxed out, and my survival strategy is to not compartmentalize, but make everything a part of everything else—all that to say that there aren’t a lot of boundaries between my professional and personal life. I’m a parent and I’ve written a lot about parenting, and when I’m obsessed with something, say, fiction about time travel—I can create a course in time travel fiction. My daughter is a gymnast and I spend a lot of time at meets, so I find myself immersed in a world and a language that at first felt foreign to me, but I enjoy learning about it and imagine writing about it someday. Other hobbies and interests (all of which I have also written about) include travel, music, and dance (I was part of a tap dance group for several years.) I read voraciously—fiction, memoir, psychology, children’s and young adult literature, poetry. My daughter and I read a lot of the same books at the same time on our Kindles when we were in China last summer. I’d laugh and she’d say, “Oh, you got to THAT part” or she’d groan and I’d say, “Oh, I know, I thought so too.” It’s one of my favorite memories of our trip.

Why did you decide to write about your experiences, instead of sticking to fiction?

I started out as a fiction writer. I preferred the disguises of fiction even when what I was writing was autobiographical. So I wrote a story about a 20-year-old who honeymoons in the Lily Tomlin Shrine Room of Rosalea’s Hotel in downtown Harper, KS, and questions her ill-conceived marriage and her whole existence. I wrote another story about a woman’s terrifying experience of being awakened by an intruder shining a flashlight in her eyes. I wrote another story about a burnt out crisis counselor who has what feels like a psychic experience.

None of those stories felt like they were quite working, and eventually I realized that they made a lot more sense when I admitted that I was the 20-year-old in the Lily Tomlin Shrine Room, a place that became even more bizarre and surreal and less a seemingly strangely placed symbolic element when it was clear that it wasn’t a creation of my imagination but something that had really existed. I was the woman who had encountered the Flashlight Man, and I was the exhausted domestic abuse counselor who woke in the night at the moment a neighbor’s husband set her bed on fire. I came to understand that fiction was actually pulling me away from the stories I needed to tell. Casting those stories as fiction was like observing them through gauze; stripping that away, and addressing what had really happened, and why, restored the drama that fiction had drained away. But I still write fiction, too. It’s freeing to be able to make stuff up sometimes.