Stories for writers

oatesI’ve had to read many interesting stories since enrolling in a fiction class as part of my MFA studies. I wanted to pass along some of the titles.

The following stories are housed in Joyce Carol Oates’ book entitled Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. You can read them online by clicking on the story titles.

“Aren’t You Happy For Me?” by Richard Bausch

An excellent example of how a story can be constructed using mainly dialogue. How would you react if your 22-year-old daughter phoned one day and said that she was engaged to a 63-year-old man?

“That Evening Sun” by William Faulkner

Written in 1931, this is a dark and disturbing story about a white family’s reaction to the fears of their black servant, Nancy.

“In the American Society” by Gish Jen

Told from the point of view of a Chinese-American girl, this story looks at a family’s attempt to assimilate into American culture and sheds light on the immigrant experience.

“Father’s Last Escape” by Bruno Schulz

If you’re a fan of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you’ll appreciate this story. In this story, the father turns into a crab which the mother later cooks for dinner.

“Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges

A short autobiographical work that looks at the private versus the personal self. It ends with the line, “I do not know which of us has written this page.”

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

heaneyI had never heard of Seamus Heaney until I visited Northern Ireland, my husband’s family of origin, in 2004. We were visiting with a cousin in County Tyrone when I picked up a book on the coffee table and asked a room full of family: “Who’s Seamus Heaney?” I heard a gasp, followed by silence, then quiet mumbling.

It became the family’s mission: Educate the ignorant visiting Canadian about County Tyrone’s most celebrated poet – which they did with great passion and joy. The trip became a crash course on Heaney – his life and his work, and the impact that he had on his readers around the world.

I was very sad today to learn of his passing on Friday, August 30th, at the age of 74.

Read more about Heaney:

“Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize-winning poet, dies” – CBC News

“Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74” – New York Times

Biography – Poetry Foundation

1995 Nobel Prize Lecture –  youtube

Seamus Heaney Facts – Nobelprize.org

Inspired

Statue of Lincoln by the Ohio River, Louisville Waterfront Park

Statue of Lincoln by the Ohio River, Louisville Waterfront Park

In a letter to a friend, Abraham Lincoln wrote about his visit to Louisville, Kentucky in 1841. He was sitting on the waterfront (where I took this photo) and saw enslaved African-Americans on their way to New Orleans. He was deeply disturbed by what he saw and wrote: “That sight was a continual torment to me…” I was recently in Louisville and was intrigued by the city’s rich history. Kentucky was a border state during the American Civil War, and Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to it. Slavery continued to be legal in Kentucky until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified. Today, the city of Louisville is a beautiful and culturally rich state. It was chosen as Lonely Planet’s top US tourist destination for 2013.

More on my visit to Louisville.

Dream, set goals, celebrate

My daughter Claire's graduation, June 2013

My daughter Claire’s graduation, June 2013

June and July – the months of graduations, commencements and convocations. Over the years, I’ve attended them as a student, as a teacher, and most recently as a parent and as a guest. This year, I have had the honour of speaking at two ceremonies. The following thoughts highlight the key messages I was trying to convey.

Do take the time to celebrate. Like the Roman god Janus, graduation has two faces – one looking back, the other forward. In other words, graduation marks both an end and a beginning. Celebrate your accomplishments. Doing so will make you feel good, and energize you to be excited about what is to come.

Learn the difference between dreams and goals. Since I was an immigrant child learning English, I have dreamt about publishing a book. It was during my five years in the Creative Writing program at U of T’s School for Continuing Studies that my outlook and attitude towards writing shifted. I moved from having dreams of writing to having goals of being published. There are significant differences between dreams and goals. Dreams allow you to be lazy; there are no deadlines and no accountabilities. Goals, on the other hand, require focus, action, and adherence to deadlines. It takes little effort to dream and to fantasize. It takes a lot of hard work and planning to reach your goals.

Dream, set goals, celebrate. Repeat.

[This entry also appears on the 11th Floor Writers’ blog.]

Beyond the corner variety store

A play by Ins Choi

A play by Ins Choi

I finally saw Kim’s Convenience. What a great play! It made me laugh, and when it hit a little too close to home, it made me cry… The play, written by Ins Choi, takes place in a Korean-owned convenience store in downtown Toronto. I’ve wanted to see this play for a while now and wrote about it in an earlier blog. The play begins its national tour next month.

Read more about the play:

The Globe and Mail review

National Post theatre review

Prism International

Two books

I have a tendency of reading more than one book at a time. Right now, Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life is sitting on my nightstand. It’s what I’m reading at home. Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Café is in my bag. It gets read everywhere else, especially in my car as I wait for my daughter during her piano lessons and band practice.

A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee

A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee

Lee, a Korean-American writer, immigrated to the States in 1965. A Gesture Life weaves some heavy issues into the storytelling, including the treatment of Korean comfort women by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II – something the protagonist witnessed during his years of military service. Needless to say, it has a profound effect on him that lasts a lifetime.

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates

Fong-Bates is a Chinese-Canadian writer. I’m only a couple of chapters into Midnight at the Dragon Café, which was recommended to me by a friend. The book was the 2011 One Book Community Read for the city of Toronto.

The boy ate an apple

appleOne of my goals this year was to read books by writers of Asian heritage, or to read more stories with protagonists of diverse backgrounds. I regret that growing up and all through these years, I haven’t made it a priority to expose myself to stories told in multicultural voices.

Through high school, university, and college curriculums, I have been exposed to a wealth of brilliant writers, from Chaucer to Hemingway, and many Canadian writers in between. I didn’t even stop to consider that all the stories I read were told from a Western perspective. This has had an interesting impact on me as a reader and now as a writer. I assume every character I read about is white unless told otherwise. I’m not alone. When I wrote ‘The boy ate an apple’ on the chalkboard and asked a classroom full of students, “What ethnicity was that boy?” All of them, even the black and Asian students responded, “white”.

As Canadian educators, writers, and readers, we need to do a better job of promoting diverse voices and experiences. It is 2013, yet the reading lists for Independent Study Projects in senior English classes haven’t changed much since the 80s when I was in high school. To throw in the odd book by a black or Asian writer to “modernize and update” the list isn’t enough.

 

Recommended Read:

Requiem by Frances Itani

Requiem by Frances Itani

I recently finished Frances Itani’s Requiem, a story about Bin, a Japanese Canadian struggling with loss on many levels. Although set in 1997, the story takes readers back to 1942, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians in British Columbia were interned, in what is one of Canada’s darkest periods in history.

April Poems

April flowers bring...

April flowers bring…

Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Organized and sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets, Canada has acknowledged April as National Poetry Month since 1999. The United States introduced the idea in 1996. Great Britain celebrates October as their National Poetry Month.

Sometimes I struggle through a poem, lost in the words or its meaning. I love the freedom that comes with reading them. There are no right or wrong answers – there shouldn’t be. You can read a poem, and it is yours to interpret; yours to personalize. I love how some poems make me feel. Like music, they can provoke me to tears, to laughter. Or they can leave me thinking, reflecting. Sometimes, they even leave me confused and dazed.

A few of my favourites:

The Cross of Snow by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A haunting poem. Longfellow’s wife burned so badly when her dress caught on fire, she died shortly afterwards.

i carry your heart with me by e.e. cummings
One of the best love poems ever.

I Am in Need of Music by Elizabeth Bishop
A classic.

And in honour of both National Poetry Month and the month of April:
Always Marry An April Girl by Ogden Nash

My favourite Canadian poets include: Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Catherine Graham.

More on National Poetry Month:

Celebrate National Poetry Month with CBC Books

National Poetry Month FAQ

St. Paul’s Square or St. Pauls Square?

apostropheWow – there really is an organization called the Apostrophe Protection Society.  It exists in England and thanks to its founder, John Richards, the apostrophe that had been banned from local street signs in Mid Devon, England, has been lifted.

Apparently the apostrophe debate has been ongoing for years there (see here). Town Council had argued in favour of removing the apostrophe. They stated that they were receiving too many complaints from the public about the proper use of apostrophes, and that the apostrophes were confusing the GPS systems.

As a former ESL student and ESL teacher, I could only imagine the confusion the absence of an apostrophe could create for students learning English. St. Pauls Square – does it belong to Paul? Or are there many Pauls?

More on this:

Grammarians rejoice as English town drops apostrophe ban

Apostrophe Protection Society

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss (paperback)

Proper Apostrophe Usage – Purdue Online Writing Lab

Life lessons

Autumn Birds by Ko Kil-Ja

Autumn Birds by Ko Kil-Ja

My mother, Ko Kil-Ja, discovered her talent and passion for Korean brush painting when she took up the art while recovering from breast cancer.  Today, she is a prolific artist who has had her work showcased in several exhibitions. In honour of her 70th birthday, I decided to post some important life lessons that I learned from her.

1. The world owes us nothing.

The reality that is my mother’s life – war, immigration, illnesses – suggests that the world can be a battlefield of obstacles and challenges. Conflicts can come at all levels: societal to personal, and everything in between. Watching my mother navigate through hardships has taught me the importance of being independent and self-reliant, especially as a woman. This is one of the most crucial lessons that I feel all women must learn if they are to achieve true self- fulfillment.

 2. We must give and give freely.

Whether it is through her charity work, her art or her teaching, my mother’s commitment to the world around her shows her belief that we should live life for a purpose greater than ourselves. Throughout history, all the great people have embraced this way of thinking and lived for a strong purpose. More than just a responsibility or obligation, this belief allows us to develop a sense of connectedness with others and opens our hearts and our minds.

3. Our passion can become our sunlight.

Finding her passion for meditation and painting, I believe, has changed my mother’s life. It has allowed her to embrace life fully and become the person she was meant to be. There is purpose and fulfillment in each day. There is beauty.

The wonderful thing about pursuing passions such as painting and writing is that they allow us to keep learning and growing as we move toward mastery.  We can not only enjoy the sunshine but can bask in its warmth and glow.