#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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#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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Memoirs -- fact and fiction, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

That time when aliens landed and nobody noticed

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Just outside Roswell, New Mexico, along Highway 285, visitors are greeted by this interactive tableau by artist John Cerney.  You can mingle with the free-standing characters and take lots of photos. Beats a selfie. This image in no way inspired what you are about to read. No way.

When the aliens landed nobody fled in terror or rained down bombs upon their heads.

First of all, there were too many landing in too many different places — and not in large numbers. They came in small manageable groups. This made them seem not so threatening.

Curiously, most of their ships landed in the expansive parking lots of Costco and Walmart outlets in rural and suburban parts of the country.

Naturally, having traveled far through space, and for a very long time, the ships looked every bit as beat up and crusty as many of the cars in the parking lot, especially in the wintery regions and Arizona. They were hardly the gleaming orbs seen in sci-fi movies.

Most importantly, when the aliens stepped out of their vessels, they looked pretty much like us. Only much much more tired. Having traveled 10,000 years in space, that was to be expected.

It wasn’t until much later that we learned the aliens slept an average of three hours a night, so looking kind of haggard sort of made sense. Many young couples with new-born babies and tech programmers could relate, as could RPG gamers and porn addicts.

Oddly enough, the scientists and governments were expecting the ships. There were representatives waiting in the parking lots where each ship landed. 

Each alien was handed a welcome bag.

The bags contained gift cards from Costco, Amazon, various supermarkets, Walmart, and a number of local shops that offered massages, yoga, scented candles, and Slurpees. There were $50 certificates from Money Tree Lending. There were practical items like sunglasses, gloves in colder climes, and sunblock in warmer regions.

The bags also contained free cell phones with unlimited data plans.

Each group was met by a government concierge who taught the aliens how to use the phones — sign up for Facebook and Instagram accounts, how to install apps for Facetime, Yelp, WhatsApp, Skype, and other communication tools, and Google.

They were also encouraged to max out the gift certificates as quickly as possible. This wasn’t difficult considering the 10,000-year journey left the aliens short on lots of critical supplies and hygiene necessities.

In various stores, sales associates smoothly weaned the aliens away from their exhausted gift cards and on to actual credit cards with the promise of no money down and six months to pay.

Works every time.

The aliens were also set up in subsidized housing and given preferred account access to furniture rental companies that filled their condos with slightly scuffed and bruised second-hand furniture at exorbitant monthly rates.

Now, all of this might seem incredibly generous and thoughtful on the part of our government and scientists, especially considering recent national policies regarding immigrants.

In truth, the aliens were being wrapped up in a vast spider web of online tracking. 

An enormous volume of information was being gathered at an incredible rate. Records of every purchase, every movement, every communication were collected and dumped into a vast digital holding tank.

Algorithms were extracting data, building profiles, anticipating tendencies, drawing astute assumptions. In short, within several months we knew virtually everything about the aliens that there was to know — except where they came from. In short, we knew far more than might have been gathered by old fashioned incarceration and interrogation techniques.

For example, aliens preferred processed food over organic. They quickly developed a fondness for vape pipes and cherry-flavored smoke. Online gambling became a big problem, but not in the ways you might think. Not surprisingly, aliens preferred Disneyland over Universal Studios theme parks and Six Flags over all others.

Mind you, there were a few old school types who wanted to strap an alien or two down for some old fashioned waterboarding and genital electrification. If they had genitals. 

Most important of all, the aliens quickly piled up debt and were confronted with very low credit scores, necessitating a hurried migration into the workforce. 

There has been much discussion over whether the government was planning on creating a new slave-wages class all along or whether that was just a byproduct of their data collection scheme. There was no denying that more than a few government agencies were secretly thrilled that this new labor force generally required no more than two or three hours of sleep a night.

The upshot was that many aliens quickly found themselves looking for work and more importantly getting second and third jobs to pay down the debt. 

The aliens were extremely well-suited for jobs as Uber and Lyft drivers, Amazon consumer fulfillment team members,  UPS drivers, and Laser eye surgery technicians as none of these jobs required much human interaction. 

The aliens, being aliens, were unfamiliar with concepts like collective bargaining, union organizing, and livable wages which gave employers, by the best estimates, a good seven years of unobstructed labor exploitation.

As for the aliens, they seemed to have no problem fitting into the scheme of things. They found all this debt business amusing. Less so when their spaceships were impounded by the government to pay for accumulated debt.

But then, they could always send for more. Spaceships, that is.

At first, the apartments with their shabby furniture were a godsend. After 10,000 years in tiny, cramped spaceships, anything would be an improvement.

There were many things the governments and scientists didn’t reckon on. For example, the aliens were excellent history students. A discipline earthlings themselves had long ago abandoned during the Great Fracturing when certain hysterical bloggers declared the End of Truth and the End of History — and millions of followers believed them.

The whole movement was triggered when Earth collectively could not decide whether Nazis were evil — splitting exactly 50-50 on the issue. Also, the existence of God became a massive headache at family gatherings and so the world as a whole agreed to disagree, again, along 50-50 percentages. 

The final blow, of course, was the global disagreement over Black Friday and whether it was worth it. However, the division, along socio-economic lines, was far more complicated than Nazis and God.  

The very poor thought Black Friday was really cool and a great chance to get out of the house at the ungodly hour of midnight to punch somebody else over a Cuisinart blender. The middle-class, most of whom had computers and knew how to use them, thought Black Friday was an ironic joke and possibly racist in origins.

The top 10 percent, of course, kept asking “What is this Black Friday thing?” and “Don’t ordinary people use a shopping concierge?” and finally, “You mean saving money is a thing among the poor?”

With so much division, the world decided that truth and history were too big a burden to carry through life. Half the world found refuge in fundamental evangelical religion and the relief it gave them from thinking for themselves. The other half took refuge in the newly legalized global availability of pot — on which all agreed: ”This shit is way more potent than the stuff we were smoking in the Sixties.”

Oddly enough, nothing happened.

Except for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of aliens.

Mind you, nobody is saying their arrival was timed to coincide with the Great Death of Truth and History. But it is interesting that the aliens held within each of them the entire catalog of human history and a darn good handle on what is true and what is fake news.

They could even tell you how many plastic surgeries each Kardashian had undergone and whether this information mattered in the grander scheme of things.

Sadly, there was no grander scheme.

All grander schemes were buried with Truth and History. It is common knowledge — among at least 50 percent of the people — that grander schemes need Truth and its counterpart as well as history to work.

So, the aliens had been studying Earth for 10,000 years, as they slowly drew closer.

When they landed, there was little that they did not know and still, they were shocked at how hard it was to find a good conversation. They were sure Earthlings would be starved for knowledge. They were wrong.

Any hunger had been supplanted by AI-infused virtual-reality 3-D video games and unlimited calling data plans on their cellphones. Along with grander schemes, Curiosity became collateral damage during the great unburdening.

But enough about the problems of humans. People became fond of telling each other: ”it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

When asked about this phrase, 30 percent attributed it to God, 30 percent thought it was written on the wall of one of those ancient Egyptian triangular things — the same 30 percent thought Egypt was a suburb of Memphis — and 30 percent thought they’d heard it in a song by Queen.

The final 10 percent refused to answer until somebody gave up the names of the three people referred to and elaborated on the phrase “crazy world” which they suspected to be an alienating phrase directed at a societal subgroup.

So, close the books on curiosity. Thank God. Or whomever.

In fact, once the MAGAclass began declaring the end of things, it became like candy. People were declaring the end of all sorts of burdensome stuff like math, culture, credit card limits, economy class, pollution controls, wine, public radio, and XXL-size clothing.

Mind you, XXL clothing didn’t go away. It was renamed “bonus petite” much to the delight of woman wearied of Pilates and bicycling classes.

The absence of curiosity hurt the aliens most of all.

Among the aliens, there was a momentary panic. “Why on earth did we travel all this distance and consume all this time if we can’t even get a decent conversation, much less a good cup of coffee?”

After a mere but very frustrating six months, many of the aliens were ready to reclaim their spaceships — scofflaw boots be damned — and go back where they came from.

The malcontents were gently reminded that there was no place to go back to and that there were 1,000 times the number of spaceships coming up behind them — spaced out in 100-year increments.

Even if they could go back, the traffic would be hell.

“We will just have to make do,” said the cooler heads among the aliens. Little known fact: the aliens do not have body temperature. So the term ”cooler heads prevailed” became something of an inside joke that many extraterrestrials found endlessly amusing.

It is an odd thing to land on a planet where enormous intellectual capacity holds virtually no value whatsoever.

The aliens themselves weren’t sure if this was an enormous opportunity for complete domination or the greatest cosmic joke ever foisted upon an entire planet of clueless, guileless, incurious people.

They would discover the answer soon enough.

I’m sorry, “soon” is a relevant term. The discussion among the aliens as to what their next steps should be took more than 200 years.

During this time the terminally incurious people of Earth completely forgot that aliens had landed. 

And because the aliens looked very much like Earth people, only grayer and more tired-looking, they began getting elected to public office and appointed to the boards of major corporations. 

Some even tried their hand at professional athletics but their consciences bothered them — conscience is another thing to which the influential MAGAclass had declared an end — because of their innate abilities to jump higher than humans, run faster, and read minds.

The last one had been badly underutilized since their arrival on Earth, perpetually leading to disappointment.

At the end of 200 years, a rather wild-eyed young man stood up in a public forum — Family TV Nite at the local pub — and declared an end to the alien invasion.

He was met with blank stares.

At the end of 200 years, the aliens reached a stunning conclusion, perhaps best summarized by the especially good looking and not-so-tired alien named Brian: “Baby, we are sitting on a gold mine.”

Brian continued, “This will be like shooting ducks out of the water. I mean, what it might have been like when there were ducks on Earth. Damned shame about the ducks. I suppose we should have said something 150 years ago when half the Earth was consumed in climate-change infused wildfires.”

Climate change was another thing to which the MAGAclass declared an end.

Prematurely, as it turned out.

To be continued? (Let me know in the comments section!)

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