Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, my wonderful brother and his equally wonderful wife were in town; Jon is producing a show about Middle Eastern music for PBS, and he brought several of the musicians to the States to perform at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood. It was an exciting, diverse program--everything from Lebanese hip hop to Egyptian street music to haunting Arabic ballads. We met several of the musicians, including Ilham Al Madfai, a guitarist whose family had to make a swift escape from Iraq after his teeange son became the target of Uday Hussein's wrath. It was very moving and humbling to hear the musicians' stories; it reminded me that sharing our tales, sharing our culture, our art, is such a beautiful and important way to build bridges, to realize the Other is not really other at all. Our culture, of course, has developed a nasty habit of demonizing anyone from the Middle East; just today, a group of Muslim clerics were asked to leave a plane because they made one of the other customers uncomfortable. Such intolerance has become frigteningly pandemic. I am grateful to my brother for bringing these musicians to an American audience, for reminding the American people that we're all humans sharing this planet.

After the concert, my family got into a van along with Lebanese singer/songwriter Tania Saleh and her band to head back to the hotel. A wildeyed man who looked a little bit like a dirty and disheveled Santa Claus had been hanging around the front of the theater, pushing his bicycle, chanting something about Death. My daughter was getting very freaked out by him as we stood on the sidewalk, and was relieved when the van arrived and we were able to get inside. The man, however, proceeded to get into a tussle with one of the musicians still standing outside, and ended up opening the van door right next to my daughter and lunging toward her with all his anti-Santa-Claus rage. She jumped across my lap, screaming--I've never seen her move so quickly before. Thankfully someone was able to pull the man away, and we shut and locked the door before he could get back in.

My daughter was deeply shaken, of course. I was so moved to see how this group of Lebanese musicians--men who might be mistaken for terrorists by ignorant Americans--worked to calm her down. One of the men asked her her name. When she said Hannah, he asked if she knew that it was an Arabic name. Hannah shook her head--we had only known it as a Hebrew name. Hannah means "happiness" in Arabic, he told her. "Be your name," he said with a gently teasing smile. He was able to get her to stop hyperventilating, get her to relax, even laugh.

It is direct experiences like this one that can really break down preconceptions and help us as human beings open our hearts to one another. We need more cultural dialogue like this, more avenues toward understanding. I am so glad my brother and his wife built this bridge of music; the show will probably air sometime in April--I will be sure to share the information when the time draws near.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Friday, November 17, 2006

The amazing David Abrams graciously invited me to be a guest blogger on AgathaChristie.com, where he writes a regular blog about Christie's work. You can read how her books helped me through a dark period of my life here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Self Storage got such a lovely review from Booklist:
The Book of Dead Birds (2003), Brandeis’ debut, won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize. In her second brisk, covertly trenchant novel, Brandeis manages to weave Walt Whitman, 9/11, and secondhand goods into a provocative story about the nature of one’s self and the intrinsically human need to find meaning in life. Flannery cherishes an old edition of Leaves of Grass, her only bequest from her long-deceased mother. With Whitman as her spiritual guide, she lives hand-to-mouth with her soap-opera-addicted graduate-student husband, high-strung young son, and escape-artist toddler daughter in a Riverside, California, enclave for international scholars. To make ends meet, Flan buys and resells the auctioned-off, memory-laden contents of abandoned self-storage units. As though life isn’t precarious enough, Flan is drawn into a high-stakes drama involving her burka-wearing Afghan neighbor, the target of prejudice and hate crimes. Executing a marvelous narrative sleight of hand, Brandeis uses slyly insouciant humor and irresistible characters to delve into the true significance of neighborliness, advocate for doing the right thing, and celebrate a Whitmanesque embrace of life. ––Donna Seaman
I am very grateful.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Until I have time to post a real blog, you can find me in a couple of places:

NPR's Novel Ideas: How Writers Create Their Fiction (scroll down to the bottom of the page)


an interview at Mom Writers Literary Magazine

How about them elections, by the way?! I am still beaming.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Happy Election Day, everyone! Please be sure to Give Peace a Vote.

Here is a handy progressive voting guide for those of you in California.

We have the chance to make some real change today--I am feeling very hopeful.
If you want to know what I was reading at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, you can read my dispatch over at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

It is my great pleasure today to welcome Donna Druchunas to Fruitful. Donna is currently on a blog tour to promote her new book, Arctic Lace. I asked her to share how she weaves together writing and knitting and social responsibility (a mix that is central to her life). Here is her beautiful and inspiring response:
Hi Gayle,

Thanks so much for inviting me to post a guest entry on your blog. I am very excited to talk about social responsibility and how it relates to my writing and knitting. It’s something that I think we writers forget about sometimes, when we get sucked into the rat race of book sales or we focus too much on using our writing solely to fulfill our own creative needs.

When I first thought about writing my second book, Arctic Lace, my goals were basically selfish. I had read an article about a group of 200 Native Alaskan women who knit delicate lace using fur from the arctic musk ox. I wanted to know more. I wanted to read a book on the subject, but it didn’t exist! So I set off on a journey to follow my obsession with the story. I thought it would be straight forward and I would write a “normal” knitting book about my discoveries.

However, as I worked through my research, and especially as I traveled in Alaska in 2004, I began to realize that there was a lot more to this story than I originally anticipated. Not only is it the story of a unique style of knitting and an unusual type of yarn, but it is the story of empowering women, of protecting the environment, and of appreciating and preserving cultures that differ from the mainstream.

When the Musk Ox Project, as it was first called, began in the 1950s, it was headed by a Vermonter named John Teal who had a vision to domesticate the musk ox and to create a cottage industry that would provide income to Native Alaskan people living in rural villages. At the time, the only job available to most women was to be a man’s secretary. Several of the women who were very influential in the birth and development of the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative, as it came to be known when it was incorporated, were hired as secretaries. Today, however, the co-op’s director is a woman, most of the people who work in the retail shop are women, and the Musk Ox Farm’s manager is a woman. My how things have changed! But the lack of economic opportunities that provide independence for women is still a huge problem around the world.

In Eskimo villages around Alaska, life for women is more difficult than it is for those of us who live in cities, suburbs, and even in rural towns in the lower 48. Because the villages are so remote, the cost of every-day items is outrageously high. When I visited Unalakleet, a village of 600 on the West coast of Alaska, I went to the general store and did some comparison shopping. A pack of hot dogs cost $7, a gallon of milk, $6.99, a quart of apple juice, $4.59, and one pound of low-quality chop meat cost $3.49. In addition, most of the food available was processed and frozen, and the selection of fresh, healthy items was all but non-existent. At the same time, jobs are scarce, often seasonal, and usually go to men first. This is true all over the Yukon Kuskokwim River Delta, where most of the knitters from the Oomingmak Co-op live. With so few opportunities to make money and little healthy food available for sale even at high prices, the people there still depend primarily on traditional food gathering techniques for their survival.

Most of the Yup’ik people who live in the delta want to preserve their Native traditions and live off the land, but that does not eliminate the need for cash. Today snow mobiles have largely replaced dog teams for winter transportation and aluminum fishing boats have replaced kayaks for summer travel. Both of these vehicles run on purchased fuel. Traditional fur parkas have been replaced by modern Polar Fleece and ready-to-wear winter clothing. Indoor plumbing, heated houses, and computers have become necessities of life in Eskimo villages, just as they have for the rest of us. These are just a few examples of how modern technologies are being incorporated into the traditional subsistence lifestyle. And all of these things cost money.

Knitting gives women in these villages the ability to make money while they travel to fish camps and berry picking areas in the summer, preserve food for the coming winter each fall, and care for young children or elders throughout the year. (There have been a few male knitters in the co-op but none are actively involved today.)
Traditional Yup’ik society was much more egalitarian than today’s capitalist culture. Wealth was often redistributed at annual feasts and ceremonies, and families took care of one another in a way that is not common in modern American society. The changes that have come, in many places just over the past 40 or 50 years, have not been easy for many Eskimo people to accept. They struggle to maintain the important aspects of their culture while adopting modern tools to help them gain a stronger political voice and to make life easier for themselves and their children.

One of the most basic values of the Yup’ik people is the protection of the environment. A core philosophy is to make sure that any decision made and any action taken is not only right for the current moment, but also for the future of the next seven generations. It is often difficult for the older Native people to understand how the actions of those of us so far away in the lower 48 and around the world can impact their environment so destructively. And yet they stand almost powerless as they watch the polar ice melting and the sea swallowing their villages. At least two of the member villages of the Oomingmak Co-op will have to be moved due to erosion caused by global warming. In addition, the loss of polar ice disrupts the food chain, as marine mammals are forced to change their normal migration paths. While politicians in Washington ignore the scientific data that does not support their ideology or the goals of corporate lobbyists, Native Alaskans are watching their lives and livelihoods being washed out to sea.

In addition, the musk oxen that provide the fiber for the Oomingmak knitters, are not suited to living in warm climates. The animals evolved to live in a frigid, arid climate and they can overheat in temperatures as low as 70 deg F. They also cannot survive in deep or wet snow. Their hooves are suited to dig only through shallow snow to find food in winter, and they are so well insulated that if they are caught sleeping in an icy storm they can be frozen to the ground and die. With the climate in the arctic changing at a much faster rate than in other parts of the world, the future of the musk ox is, at best, in jeopardy.

As I learned about these things through my research, I decided I would have to incorporate all of these ideas into my book or I would be selling my readers short. Although some of the topics I discuss can be controversial, and I might have been advised that to talk about these things could diminish my book sales, I decided that I had to speak the truth that I learned.


Here are a few links for those who would like to help the Oomingmak knitters or other socially-conscious knitting related groups:

The Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative sells unique hand knitted items, knitting kits, and musk-ox related gifts. The profits of the co-op are distributed annually to member knitters. A portion of my royalties for Arctic Lace also go to the co-op, and the book can be purchased directly from them, as well as at local yarn and book shops around the country.

Lantern Moon is an organization that sells beautiful and functional handcrafted products that provide income, education and self-reliance to Vietnamese women and their families.

Mango Moon sells recycled yarns and other products that help provide income and independence to women in Nepal.

Himalaya Yarn is a small company offering mostly handspun and hand-dyed yarns made with recycled and Nepal-grown fibers. The company provides business opportunities for local people. For instance, its recycled silk yarn is handspun by women’s cooperatives and the profits support women’s shelters and programs.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Good luck to everyone embarking upon National Novel Writing Month! I am not going to register this year, but I am going to try to keep up with the NaNo word count (around 1700 words a day) and see if I can finish the first draft of my novel-in-progress this month. After my time in Virginia, it feels do-able. We shall see...
I have a new essay up at Common Dreams about CODEPINK's latest campaign, Walk in Their Shoes.
Rest in peace, Uncle Vic. We love you.