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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Using my Anthropology Background in Writing Queen

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Maria Virginia's parents, 2005

Hi guys,

One question I'm often asked is how my anthropology background informs my writing.  I talked a bit about this a year or so ago in an interview with the wonderful blogger Charlotte (You can read the interview here.)

outside of Maria's parents' house

I thought it might be interesting to talk more about my anthropology background in terms of Maria's and my process of creating The Queen of Water-- the book in which I most consciously used my anthropological training.  In the initial stages, I approached this project the way I did my Master's thesis-- listening to Maria recount the story of her life (tape-recorded), asking her lots of questions along the way, and looking at her story (including the language she used) through an anthropological lens-- searching for layers of meaning-- emotional, social, cultural, etc.  (And of course, I also spent time in Maria's native village with her family and read academic books on socio-cultural issues in the Andes.)  The difference with Queen is that I could take it a step farther than my Master's thesis because Maria was an active participant throughout the entire process.  We went over every scene many times and explored these layers of meaning.  Maria is so intelligent, self-aware, and perceptive that we were able to have fascinating on-going discussions about her experiences in terms of class, gender, and ethnicity.

Maria's parents' house (used to be clay, now cement block)

Here's an example: She often described people in terms of their weight and skin color-- features that we talked about extensively; together, we broke down the emotional, social, economic, and cultural meanings of her descriptions.  In the impoverished indigenous community where she was born in the 1970's, it was considered beautiful to be plump, which isn't surprising considering the food scarcity. (Her village was one of the poorest in all of Ecuador.) When young Maria refers to her older sister (who left at a young age to be a maid) as plump, this is considered a good thing because it means she has more than enough food. In contrast, during Maria's early childhood, she was thin because of malnourishment and poverty.  Young Maria also describes her sister as being fair-skinned, which again, she considers a good thing, as it indicates that her sister is now part of a higher social class that doesn't have to work in the fields to earn a living.

Maria's parents' cow

Young Maria notes, with the fascination of a little girl, that the Doctorita (a mestiza) has more body fat than the women in her village.  This sets the Doctorita apart as having money and belonging to a higher social class.  But after Maria has lived with the Doctorita and started to internalize middle-class mestizo values of beauty (as seen on TV, in the exercise book, and expressed by people in town) she becomes critical of the Doctorita's weight. She sees it as a weakness, as undesirable.  As a teen, Maria's bout with anorexia is tied up with these class-related notions of weight and skin color.  She wants to become thin and pale, since that's what she perceives as culturally desirable in her new social milieu. 

Maria's parents' house

I think that as an anthropologist and a writer, it's essential not to impose your own cultural assumptions on other societies.  And it's essential to understand that within each unique society you're dealing with, there are complex, multi-faceted, and layered meanings behind descriptions of characteristics like weight and skin color.  I was glad to have developed this perspective in my anthropology coursework and research-- I think it helped me to not take any elements of Maria's story at face value, but thoroughly explore these cultural meanings together with her... which is one reason the book took six years to write. ;)

view from Maria Virginia's parents' yard

I have lots more about the process of writing Queen on my website... You can read an interview with Maria and learn which elements of her story were slightly fictionalized here.

Okay, Lil Dude keeps bursting in the room to ask if I'm ready to go to the river.... must go now!  Thanks for reading!


Monday, October 17, 2011

walking down memory lane....

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Hi everyone!

I'm wrapping up my Maryland trip now-- I did a visit to my old stomping grounds, Dunloggin Middle School. It's so interesting to walk through the same halls I walked as an awkward 6th grader (yes, I was a very awkward 6th grader-- at that point, my mom still ordered my clothes from the Sears catalog-- she'd get me an array of the same style of shirt in various pastel colors, with mix-n-matched coolots (spelling?) in the same array of pastels.  I did get a little less dorky in seventh grade, and even less in 8th (at least, I thought I did-- who knows, really). 

Here I am with reading teacher Dylana (oops-- I'm probably supposed to refer to her as Ms. ____, but I'm blanking on her last name.)  Very cool lady--  it's so fun to talk  with teachers between presentations.  I wish I could post pics of kids, but different schools have different rules about it, so I didn't take pics this time. 

Here I am with other great Dunloggin teachers... they're obviously all way too young to have taught me.  The last of my teachers retired last year, I think... *sniff sniff*...

I'm doing some author events at Mount Saint Mary's College in Maryland now... and this lovely librarian, Becky (I think that's her name-- my apologies if I got it wrong!)-- she gave me a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary for the little altar in my writing trailer.  Isn't that incredibly thoughtful and sweet?!  Thank you, Becky, for coming and for the delightful gift! I LOVE it!

Here I am signing books after the event ... with such great teachers and students! Earlier, we had a yummy dinner of crabcakes, which I can never get enough of on my trips to Maryland.) And my wonderful Aunt Liz came for the dinner and event. (She always gave me books as gifts when I was young-- she was very supportive of my writing aspirations early on!)

About a half hour before my ride came for the presentation, I was in the hotel room, planning to somehow make my hair look less poofy, put on a bit of makeup, go over my slides, and relax a bit, when the toilet overflowed (no fault of my own, I swear! In fact, it overflowed on a test flush-- the water level was weirdly low, and I had an inkling something wasn't right, so I did a test flush... and water started gushing out FAST-- within seconds the bathroom floor was completely underwater!  I ran for help (okay, in retrospect I realize I should've raced to the valve and turned it off, but I was wearing socks and that seemed icky.)  Luckily, my stuff survived and the carpet didn't get wet, but it was a bit of a frenzy getting my stuff out of that bathroom  and room and into a different one before my ride came... needless to say, there was no relaxation, presentation-going-over, etc...

It's interesting-- the craziness reminded me a presentation I did at the library a few years ago on the Day of the Dead celebration.  Right before I was supposed to start the presentation, I had to give the Heimlich Maneuver to a woman choking on a piece of pan de muertos.  The bread piece came out, she resumed breathing, and then, just a minute later, I started my presentation.  Plenty of adrenalin was racing through me, but it was the good kind, the life-saving kind.  My heart was pounding in a good way-- I felt elated that this woman (who I didn't know) was alive!  And I didn't feel  at all nervous about the presentation because a life-or-death experience puts any remnants of speech anxiety into perspective, you know?

Okay, I think I'm rambling now... it's late and I'm  going to sign off and maybe stream a sit com before bed. Thanks for reading!


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Where I've been hiding....

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Hey yall!

Busy-ness has kept me away from this blog... my apologies!  Here's what I've been up to:

Hangin with friends!  Here are Amy Kathleen Ryan and Lauren Myracle -- we're celebrating Amy's new release-- GLOW!  This is an incredibly exciting futuristic novel -- if you haven't read it yet, you should-- but be aware it'll keep you up way too late at night...

Here's Victoria Hanley, brilliant fantasy author and woman of many talents, giving Amy (who's a new mom) a much needed massage.  (And then she gave me one!  Heaven!)

Todd Mitchell (author of The Secret to Lying, one of my all-time fave books), pouring the champagne...

So much fun...

 So, other stuff I've been up to... doing presentations and book club talks with Maria Virginia for The Queen of Water!  She's been in town for about 6 weeks , so we've been squeezing in lots of events before she goes back to Ecuador.  It's been amazing and heart-warming for her to talk with so many people who've read her story-- it's meant a lot to her (and to me)-- we both thank everyone who came to our events this fall!

Here we are at Front Range Community College, where we first met when I was an ESL teacher and she was a student! (That's ESL teacher buddy Sarita above.)  Maria wanted to be sure to get the American flag in the pic-- she loves the USA-- it's nice to see my country through her eyes.

I've also been conferencing! I did a lunchtime keynote for CLAS (Colo Lang Arts Society) in Golden. Here I am with a teacher from Centennial Middle-- her school is reading Red Glass as a One School Reads book... I"ll be visiting them in the spring-- exciting!

I lived in Golden for a summer when I was about 20-- I worked at a restaurant downtown which required that I dress like a cowgirl. I remember reading lots of mythology collections from all over the world that summer, and writing lots of short, fantastical stories.  I loved hanging out in a little park by a dragon sculpture, writing in my notebook.   This trip brought back good memories of my summer there... here's the view from my hotel patio... so pretty:

Writing news: I've finished up copy edits for The Jade Notebook (Feb 2012 release), and am now waiting for page proofs.  I'm getting ready to do an author visit to my old middle school in Maryland, then a visit at Mt. St. Mary's College, then my 20th high school reunion... should be interesting!

Thanks for reading!