#smwc2020, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

In a chaotic world, writers play with the traditional structure of novels

Arbol-Literario-banner-2The recently concluded San Miguel Writers Conference and Literary Festival made one thing pretty clear: Playing with time and structure, in the hands of inventive authors, makes for storytelling that is both challenging and riveting.

The chronological timeline seems so passe, when you add up the considerable success of the featured keynote authors.

Consider: 

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#smwc2020, San Miguel de Allende

Delia Owens explores impact of isolation in ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ and discovers millions of friends

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Hal Wake and author Delia Owens dazzle a sold-out Gran Salon Ballroom at the Hotel Real de Minas during the closing night of the 15th annual San Miguel Writers’ Convention. (Photo by Mary Finley)

Select one of the following:

  1. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a stunning debut novel about a young girl who grows up alone in a North Carolina swamp with only Nature to nurture her. Her story if folded within a tale of romance and a murder mystery.
  2. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a science-based allegory about the primal needs of mammals for community and the impact and consequences of growing up outside the socializing influence of the herd.
  3. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a figment of your imagination because, good lawd dahling, everyone knows crawdads do not sing.
  4. The correct answer is a combination of bits and pieces of A, B, and C.

You said “D”?

Yes, you did. I distinctly heard you say “D” under your breath. Don’t try and wriggle out of it now. You said “D”!

Well, you are correct. Continue reading

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#smwc2020, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Poet Juan Felipe Herrera: Tell someone today, ‘You have a beautiful voice’

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Poet and author Juan Felipe Herrera reads from one of his 30 published books at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival #smwc2020 on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.

Prologue: Juan Felipe Herrera was Poet Laureate of the United States 2015-17. He is an artist, a teacher, the author of 30 books across all genres, and he plays a mean harmonica.

As a keynote speaker at the 15th annual San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival, Herrera put the harmonica to good use. He also introduced plenty of “participatory poetry,” goading on the audience to share the load as he read his poems.

Herrera’s commentary is every bit as poetic as his published works. In fact, it was hard sometimes to see where his beguiling banter ended and a poem began.

Herrera’s life was a rough one from the start. His family traveled up and down California in the migrant labor trucks, from harvest to harvest.  Continue reading

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San Miguel de Allende

A night with author Colum McCann in 21 cantos

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Colum McCann signing books after his talk at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference this week.

Colm McCann came to the United States as a young man to write the great novel. When he got there he discovered he had nothing to say. So he bought a bicycle and pedaled out of Boston in search of a Muse. A year and a half and 8,000 miles and many flat tires later, he rolled into San Francisco a changed man.

Along the way, he collected hundreds of stories and made some profound discoveries about people and himself.

Everyone should try that at least once. (My recommendation, not necessarily Colum’s.)

Or, try this. When Tommy Orange was writing “There There,” and found himself in a hole, he’d strap on his running shoes and go for a long-distance run. He ended up with “good solutions and really bad poetry.”

OK, let’s stop here for a moment. Continue reading

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#smwc2020, San Miguel de Allende

Author Tommy Orange, ever in search of the ‘there,’ plans a sequel

TO-ThereThe title of Tommy Orange’s stunning 2018 debut novel, “There There,” is a fragment of writer Gertrude Stein’s chronically misunderstood quote about her adopted hometown, Oakland.

Stein’s “There is no there there,” was a lament on the changing and disappearing landscape of her childhood community, not a commentary on the cultural desolation of the city.

Orange’s novel explores the disappearing landscape of Native American identity. His 12 characters have deep native heritage but live in the city where reading the highway is more practical than reading the flow of a river. 

The word “pretendian” comes up in the novel. Also, Orange says “urban Indian” is a term used clumsily and far too often in a lot of grant writing.

Orange was a keynote speaker at the 15th annual San Miguel Writer’s Conference & Literary Festival in the somewhat constrained “an interview with” format. Even so, it was a most-dynamic conversation.

While Orange may have felt the need to explore his own heritage within the backdrop of one of the country’s most ethnically diverse cities, the success of his book is rapidly elevating him to the role of spokesman for Native America.

Like it or not, he is being turned to often for his insights and observations.

Even “the Native world has been surprisingly warm to my book,” he acknowledged.  “Wanting novels to do the work of activism is tricky.” Orange knows Oakland and loves his community and is most comfortable writing about it.

But spokesman for Native America? That spotlight is clearly one he enters tentatively.

“Being in front of a lot of people is terrible,” he says with a shy smile. but he would hate it if he “were restricted to talking only about my craft.”

And for sure this night, he wasn’t.

Orange is a registered Cheyenne and Arapaho. His father was from Oklahoma and his caucasian mother was not.

“I love Oakland,” says Orange. Oakland doesn’t get written about much because the New York-based publishing world is narcissistic, “which is why you have 10 million books about New York City.”

“The block I grew up on had seven other kids my age. All were bi-racial, from lower-middle-class families.”

While Orange’s characters struggled with identity, he does not personally share that problem. “My father clearly looks native. It was always clear what we are. I am native and feel that to be true. There was no confusion.”

Clarity, yes, but not without conflict. Orange’s mother came from Evangelical Christian stock, his father of the Native church. “My parents fought constantly,” he says.

Orange started “There There” within weeks of finding out that he was going to be a father. “I started taking everything seriously,” he said. Up to that point, he was doing a lot of personal writing, mostly “experimental and unreadable.”

What’s next for Orange? “I’m following up in the most sell-out way possible, “ he says with a grin. “A sequel”

The rights have already been sold.

The writer Luis Alberto Urrea sometimes worries openly about being perceived as “the border guy” because he writes often and so well about Mexican-U.S. border culture and conflict. I wonder if Tommy Orange will someday be referred to as “the Native American guy.”

For now, he is philosophical. “I was born into a political situation,” says Orange.  “I accept that is a part of my life.”

You can easily sense that  Orange has much to address through his craft, without ever leaving the realm of Native America.

“We have a lot to learn from Native America,” he observes.  There is the Western attitude that land is meant to hold dominion over, versus the Native view of people as caretakers.

Native Americans live in a world of “microaggressions” which Orange can recite in a rapid cascade that leaves him “somewhere between hopeful and feeling doomed.” 

The appropriation of Native imagery for sports mascots is an example. The government oversight of blood-lines and certification of degrees of Indian blood. The bum-tag of alcoholism as a propensity somehow tied to genes or a “stupid enzyme theory.”  

Observes Orange, alcohol is a cheap and readily available commodity to all people facing pain in life, all people under stress and low income.

The painful history runs deep, beyond microaggressions and into raw, horrific violence. The use of rubber bullets, dogs and ice water cannons against natives fighting for their environment at Standing Rock. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which the U.S. Army murdered as many as 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho, two-thirds being women and children

The frustration, pain, and anger in Orange is palpable. “A lot of people are in a rush to get to the healing state,” he says. “But they still haven’t reached the acknowledging state.” 

“How does that get done?” somebody asks.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It is not up to Native Americans who have been marginalized and oppressed.”

And, “Indian is a word we get to use and anyone who is not, shouldn’t.”

The comments win applause and it makes you wish that Orange had been given an unfettered platform on which to address his own thoughts, rather than constrained by the interview format with nice-guy Canadian Hal Wake at the helm.

Tommy Orange unleashed. Now that is a sequel worth waiting for.

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#smwc2020, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Welcome to the many rooms of author Madeleine Thien

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Madeleine Thien signing books after her keynote address at #smwc2020 on Wednesday.

If the author Madeleine Thien were an Air B&B, there would be a waiting list 600 people strong to occupy her rooms.

The rooms of her imagination, the rooms of her research, the rooms of metaphor, and tangible rooms of exacting detail. The rooms of her prose and connectedness to the great minds of 20th Century theorists and the early Enlightenment, 17th-century rationalists hunted and scorned by church and body politic alike for questioning the composition and very existence of their God.

What brilliant yet challenging rooms they are, in the prose of Thien.

Spinoza’s rooms, for certain. And Martin Heidegger’s. And the adjoining and more intricately appointed rooms of the mind of his acolyte and lover, Hannah Arendt. Philosophers all who wove brilliant thoughts, existential transports, with universe-spanning concepts that transcended time, space, and dimension. Continue reading

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Rants and raves, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Sending a photo through artsy filters unearths emotions missed in the original — but is it art?

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This is what you get when you step out your front door around 7 a.m. in San Miguel de Allende. Not every day but when it happens you whisper a little prayer of thanks to the photography gods. (Then curse the limitations of your sad and old iPhone.) But taking the photo is just the beginning of what you can do.

I am not a photographer. I am a guy with a used iPhone who takes pictures.

I emphasize “used” because the newest phones seem to be veering awfully close to mimicking the abilities of a decent camera.

Mine is not in that class.

Even if I had a new phone with the latest camera technology, or even if I owned a halfway decent camera, I would never call myself a photographer. Continue reading

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