Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Patricia Hampl calls Leaving Rollingstone “the most important memoir to come out of the Midwest (or anywhere) in years, an indispensable work of American autobiography.”
When people learned that I was publishing a memoir, some of them asked me: Are you old enough to write a memoir? My first impulse was to tell them that a) I am fifty-four and that b) when cardiologists see me, they often weep with despair. So, yes, I’m old enough. Then I realized that “Are you old enough to write a memoir?” is a polite way of asking their real question, “Are you famous enough to write a memoir?” To them, the word “memoir” triggers a very particular set of associations. Memoirs are written by those of us who’ve waged wars, negotiated peace, cured diseases, transformed societies, or, at the very least, married a Kardashian. Regular people do not write memoirs. I might as well have told them, “I’m thinking of having a statue made of myself. Know any good parks where I can put it?”
But I’d argue that what’s been called the literary memoir — in other words, a memoir by someone who is unexceptional except for their ability to write about their experience — is essential and valuable. The advent of the literary memoir is an extension of some big trends in literature and the humanities. We have moved from writing about God in the bible to writing about kings in Shakespeare to writing about regular people in the novels of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. In fact, we read novels precisely because we believe that a human life which might otherwise be unnoticed by history is worthy of attention. It’s not that big of a jump to care about real people.
The word “memoir” itself doesn’t do me any favors. It does, after all, start off with me, which tends to reinforce the perception of narcissism that surrounds the genre. But good literary memoirs aren’t just about their author. They are about that portion of history which the author has witnessed. They are about the estuary where larger historical trends mingle with the individual human life. No other genre can give us the particular insights that come from that intersection.
If Leaving Rollingstone were just about me, it would be a very different book. In the book, there are four lines about the most traumatic romantic relationship of my life — a relationship which left debris strewn over an entire decade — and there are about twenty lines about Spirographs. There’s a single brief flashback acknowledging four happy years at Beloit College — and an essay-length meditation on a book I read in 1995 and didn’t much care for. (It illuminated the book’s themes.) Leaving Rollingstone is about me but it’s also about family farms, small towns, and Catholic schools and their surprising legacies.
It’s useful to replace “literary memoir” with “personal history.” “Literary memoir” has always bothered me because it over-emphasizes the aesthetic. In its sometimes impressionistic way, my memoir was history. It spoke to the closing of schools, the loss of farms, the distinctiveness of a culture, and the influence of a zeitgeist. It spoke for a particular place and time and, most importantly, for particular people. If a president talks smack in his memoir about his secretary of state, the secretary probably has some recourse. But my record of my parents and friends and neighbors in Rollingstone is probably the only extensive record that will be left of their lives.
So while I wrote with the fallibility of personal witness, and the urge to create a shapely story, I evolved some rules for myself. First, you don’t have to be a neurologist to know that memory is tricky. I tried to write in a way that reflected that understanding without belaboring it. With the exceptions of some particularly vivid memories, I tried to report routines rather than events and ongoing impressions rather than momentary experiences; I tried to make it clear when I was passing on anecdotes which might have been rubbed smooth by retelling. I included very little dialogue and flagged the dialogue I did include as conjecture. When I presumed to record what my mom and dad might have been thinking on a particular morning, I used language that made it clear I was making an educated guess.
And you don’t have to be a French theorist to know that, even if memory is a perfect record of the past, human speech is twisted by our relentless agendas and alibis and limited by what Frank Bidart called our “proximate and partial” relation to truth. Given this, I tried to understand the perspective of others and to perforate my own self-justification. I tried to get the main historical facts right. Another way of saying all this is that I tried to act like a grown-up. And that brings me back to the question I started with. Am I old enough to write a memoir? The answer is yes, but just barely.
Ka Vang is a poet, spoken word artist, playwright, and community activist. We are pleased to release her provocative essay The Good Hmong Girl Eats Raw Laab, available as an e-book short for just 99 cents. The e-short is one of our new MHS Express titles.
The piece examines the social and cultural implications of “a good Hmong girl” by addressing these issues: “What does it mean to be a good Hmong girl? Who defines the good Hmong girl? Who practices it and enforces the rules? What are the rewards and consequences for the Hmong girl and her family if she is not a good Hmong girl? Would Hmong culture be diminished if there were no more good Hmong girls left?”
Ka has been busy! She was recently featured on MNOriginal, Twin Cities Public Television’s award-winning weekly arts series celebrating Minnesota’s creative community, and her new book, Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon, produced with the Minnesota Humanities Council and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, is now available.
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He is the former editor of The Circle newspaper and Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for Indian Country Today. We asked him about how he came to write his new book, My Mother Is Now Earth.
How did you decide to write about your mother?
Actually, I never wanted to write about my mother’s life for a few reasons. The first is that I was just a boy when she passed on. There are only so many memories an eight- or ten-year-old boy can gather. And of course, the boy of me had a very limited understanding of the harsh realities of poverty, growing up in a home with a mother who struggled with depression and a father who was lost to drinking.
My mother was extremely private. She shared very little things of her heart. Much of that was because many American Indian women of her generation were the same. The work of survival is always cloaked in social and personal invisibility. So I had little to reveal about a mother who hid her heart. How could I know it? Even my father and older brothers were often puzzled in trying to understand her.
But the other reason is that given we came from such a tough, dysfunctional reality, and that all of us, the sons and daughter, have tried to move on, to remove the pain, to keep the good memories alive, I always felt it invasive to write about those last three years of our mother’s life because I never wanted to “exploit” the shared story I have with my siblings.
Of course, I never gave much of this any thought in depth until I met Ann Regan, my editor at Borealis Books. When I was editor of The Circle in Minneapolis, Ann and I used to have rich fellowship when we met for lunch–talking about potential Native American stories that might be appropriate to for the press. Naturally, she was very interested in Native American memoir. And she often wondered if I would ever be interested in writing one. I began to consider her interest, but after given it much thought I decided I just could not tell even my own story because it was so woven into the tapestry of my collective history with my family.
So why did you decide to embark on this journey of telling your mother’s story?
In the winter of 2008, I was living in Madison, teaching at the University of Wisconsin and taking care of my high school nephew, Nicholas, I used to walk through this community garden across the street from our apartment. I was just moved by the slumber of winter. And I kept visiting that garden until the spring was in full bloom. One day I honestly felt my mother’s spirit in the warm wind, felt her presence within the very living, coming alive, Earth. It was through embracing this wild, wonderful sensation that she was, in fact, one with the Earth, as many–if not all–American Indians believe, she was there and so was her story. I stayed in that “Earth spirit,” if I may, and began the book from that dreamy, lyrical reality. It gave me an opening into the story. It brought my personal memories of my mother and those final three years in northern Minnesota to life.
Often, writing the memoir is cathartic for many writers – a process of sifting through unresolved emotions, experiences that lead to making sense of one’s history. Was this true for you?
Indeed, there was a great deal of coming to terms with the unresolved. I lost my mother quite suddenly. I was a boy. I never knew her beyond the year of her death, 1973. The grief and the painful, painful work it does in us when we lose a loved one was forced upon me. I have never been one to bury pain by hiding in my work or in play. And I’m forever grateful that I can’t avoid pain. I must feel it, embrace it. And in the many years since my mother’s young passing on I have worked very hard at understanding me, understanding how my childhood has affected my adult self.
There is great freedom and healing when an adult finds the courage to undo the past in order find change. Therefore, in approaching my mother’s story there was no grief to return to. The loss of her and its impact on me was complete–had been for many years. Sure, there was sorrow and much pain in reliving those final three years, but at the same time, the sorrow was surpassed by this uncanny realization that as I pressed on in the writing I felt like I was getting to know a woman who was taken from me at such an early age. I honestly believe that I have gotten to know my mother and her hidden heart. Amazing. To think one could get to know a parent beyond the grave is more than healing. It is, as we Indians say, full circle.
Given the trepidation and quite frankly, very real fear of “exposing” your family’s’ story how did you resolve the dilemma of writing this memoir?
First of all, my father passed on in 1989. I would not have attempted to write this story if he were still alive today. Like everyone, of all classes and races, Donald Rolo was quite complex. He could be loving and vicious, defender and attacker. I know he loved my mother deeply and thus, the tragedy of their relationship. But as much as I could attempt to convince him that this story was my own story, about my own memory of my relationship with my mother, his wife, I do not believe he would have received that– and mostly because of his own guilt and shame at how he treated her and their children.
My father being removed from this life allowed me to truly embrace the truth that I “owned,” my personal story of my mother and me. I had a right to tell my story, regardless of concern for siblings. So I went through great lengths to truly “personalize” this story, leaving room for family members to say, “Well, that’s how Mark Anthony remembered it. I have a different recollection.” And that was okay with me. At the very least, my siblings agree that the attempt here was to honor our mother–give her the due of more dignity than despair.
If the memoir, for you, is not about closure or resolve in understanding your upbringing, then what does this story mean for you?
I believe each and every one of us has a story to tell. We share an equal worth in the family we call the universe. That one might want to tell their story for posterity, greater clarity and understanding, or simply to reminisce, it is all entirely valid. But I believe the impulse to tell our own story is as ancient as with all storytelling throughout the centuries. From cave paintings to the printed word, we tell our story to find meaning, purpose, in order to better connect to our rightful place in the universe. Our lives, our histories are much more than a series of random anecdotes, recurring scenes that haunt or give us joy. Our lives, our experiences add up to a larger, personal narrative–what has been our journey in this life and what will it be beyond this world?
MinnPost, the Loft Literary Center, and the University of Minnesota Press present the Third Annual MinnPost Book Club Blast with keynote author Kate DiCamillo on Sunday, February 12, at Open Book in Minneapolis.
The day’s festivities include the keynote with Kate, fantastic door prizes, and breakout sessions on topics such as running a successful book club, sharing your favorite book club reads, whether writers need a publisher, how writers should promote themselves online, and a memoir author panel with three prominent local writers, including Sarah Stonich, author of Shelter, published by our very own Borealis Books.
The event concludes with a wine and dessert reception and book signings with participating authors.
Tomorrow night begins the eighteenth annual Fireside Reading Series hosted by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library at the Hamline Midway Library. The series features six weeks of readings by acclaimed Minnesota authors.
The events kick off with historian Larry Millet and the latest in his renowned mystery series, The Magic Bullet: A Locked Room Mystery Featuring Shadwell Rafferty and Sherlock Holmes, and conclude on February 18 with Diane Wilson, author of Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life.
What could be better than visiting with Santa at a bookstore? Magers & Quinn has teamed up with Way to Grow, one of the preeminent early childhood learning programs in the Twin Cities, for an evening of refreshments and Sharing with Santa this Saturday, December 3, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. David LaRochelle, author of Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet, will be at the store with Santa to share his books. Do your shopping and 10 percent of your sale will benefit Way to Grow.
On Sunday, December 4, at 2:00 p.m., Red Balloon Bookshop is hosting an event to celebrate Libraries in Minnesota with photographer Doug Ohman and contributors to the book, including some of Minnesota’s best-known writers of books for children and young adults: Will Weaver, Pete Hautman, John Coy, Nancy Carlson, Marsha Wilson Chall, and David LaRochelle. The authors will sign copies of their books, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Libraries of Minnesota during the event will be donated to the Minnesota Library Foundation.
And here at the Minnesota History Center Stores during Minnesota Historical Society Member Double Discount Days, Kim Heikkila, author of Sisterhood of War, will be signing Friday, December 2, at 11:00 a.m, and Brett Laidlaw, author of Trout Caviar, will sign on Sunday, December 4, at 2:00 p.m.
We are delighted to be back in our offices after a nearly three-week Minnesota state government shutdown!
As a segue into our regularly scheduled Tuesday and Thursday posts, here is a mini-roundup of some recent MHS Press/Borealis Books news:
The hot weather did not deter some of us from attending the taping of a future episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern at the VFW in Minneapolis’s Uptown area. Ann Burckhardt, author of Hot Dish Heaven, was the celebrity judge for the show’s hot dish contest. And what was for dessert? Why, entries for the best Jello salad, of course. We won’t reveal the winners. Let’s just say there were some creative entries!
Johnny Michaels, bar manager at La Belle Vie, was recently featured on Esquire’s Eat Like a Man blog and consulted by Minnesota Monthly as to whether beer on the rocks is permissible. Look for North Star Cocktails by Johnny Michaels and the North Star Bartenders Guild this November.
Tomorrow (Wednesday, July 27) Anton Treuer will appear on the nationally syndicated radio program Native America Calling. The Assassination of Hole in the Day, now out in paperback, is the show’s Book of the Month selection.
The City of St. Paul sponsors a bimonthly StoryWalk to “walk, read, learn, and have fun.” Last Sunday our book Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet, written by David LaRochelle and with photographs by Joe Rossi, was featured at Lake Phalen.
Borealis Books author Sarah Stonich has been hitting the road to share her newest book, Shelter, with readers around the state. She’ll be at Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis on Tuesday, August 9, at 7:30, along with Ellen Baker, author of I Gave My Heart to Know This.
And don’t forget to check out our Summer E-book sale!
To mark the end of National Poetry Month, the Library Foundation of Hennepin County’s An Evening of Rhyme, Swine, and Wine and Normandale Community College’s Reading Series Event The Second Annual Great Twin Cities Poetry Read take place this week.
At 7:00 p.m. tonight at the Minneapolis Central Library, local poetry legend Jim Lenfestey will celebrate his new, edited collection of poems on the subject of pigs. This porcine anthology, Low Down and Coming On: A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems about Pigs, features the work of 105 poets from around the world and throughout time, including Margaret Atwood, William Blake, Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, and dozens of local authors.
The idea behind the collection came from Minnesota author Bill Holm before he died in 2009. In the introduction dedicated to Holm, Jim roots through the history of pig poetry since Homer, uncovering many tasty surprises. Join Jim and contributing poets Jim Heynen, Jill Breckenridge, and Katherine Grant for an evening of rhyme, swine, and wine. A wine toast will kick off the program, and a book signing reception (with chocolate-bacon cupcakes) will follow.
The event, hosted by Matt Mauch and Dobby Gibson, welcomes the following readers: Steve Healey • Sharon Chmielarz • Meryl DePasquale • Matthew Geunette • Heid Erdrich • David Mura • G. E. Patterson • Sarah Fox • Patrick Hicks • Lightsey Darst • Juliet Patterson • John Medeiros • Sean Hill • Sin Yung Shin • Kris Bigalk • Paul Dickinson • Anna George Meek • Matt Ryan • William Waltz • Jim Redmond • Ed Micus • Mark Conway • Jim Coppoc • Stacia Fleegal • Cullen Bailey Burns • Francine Sterle • Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen, and Kyle Adamson.
The poetry read is a fundraiser for a heart transplant for Dean Young. See the Facebook event page for more information.
“What does it mean to be a Minnesota writer? It means obsessing over the sound of the Mississippi River. It means writing about small towns. It means you’re a refugee who refused to speak as a child.
“It means writing about butter. It means New York might find you provincial. It means you’re not as stressed out as New York writers about your status. It means you write about Chicago. It means you grew up on a farm and saw your dad kill a cow with a pitchfork. It means your characters have secrets.
“It means watching a girl flirt with your husband in a St. Paul wine bar–and wishing she’d flirt yet more.”
Annie Baxter interviews eight Minnesota writers: Charles Baxter, Kao Kalia Yang, Nicole Helget (author of the Borealis book The Summer of Ordinary Ways), Philip Bryant, Steve Healy, Robert Hedin (editor of the MHS poetry anthology Where One Voice Ends Another Begins), Katrina Vandenberg, and Matt Rasmussen. Check out the web page for audio and excerpts.
A veritable who’s who of Minnesota’s best-known writers of books for children and young adults will testify to the special significance of libraries in their lives this Thursday, April 21, at 7:00 p.m at the Minneapolis Central Library’s Pohlad Hall to celebrate the publication of Libraries of Minnesota.
With images by Doug Ohman, photographer of the Minnesota Byways books, which include the well-loved Barns of Minnesota and Cabins of Minnesota, and essays by Will Weaver, Pete Hautman, John Coy, Nancy Carlson, Marsha Wilson Chall, David LaRochelle, and Kao Kalia Yang, Libraries of Minnesota is a rich exhibition of Minnesota’s beloved libraries. The book is a cooperative project of the Council of Regional Public Library System Administrators and the Minnesota Historical Society Press, funded by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Thursday’s event is sponsored by the Library Foundation of Hennepin County, the Metropolitan Library Service Agency, and the MHS Press. Doug will give a visual presentation of photos from the book, followed by anecdotes from the contributors. Books, including select titles by the authors, will be available for purchase at the event courtesy of Magers & Quinn Booksellers, and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Library Foundation of Hennepin County.
Last week’s Star Tribune Variety section featured a slide show and excerpt from the book. You can also see a preview of the book on the KARE11 website: Doug and Pete talked about the project on the air this past Saturday.
The image below is not from the book but is featured today on the popular website boingboing and originally comes from the L. A. Library via the Boing Boing Flickr pool from Bart King. Since it features a kid in a library with a copy of a book by another beloved Minnesota author and illustrator, Wanda Gag, we thought it worth sharing!