Life Writing as Fiction: Ramon Calhoun’s “Blackanese Boy”

I have mentioned before the value of writing about your life using fiction. Ramon Calhoun did this with Blackanese Boy, recently published. I met Ramon through a Facebook group for half-Japanese people. Most of us grew up during a time when being mixed race was frowned upon. Stares and “What are you” were common greetings. There was residual hate from WWII and racism against blacks was rampant, so imagine being half black/half Japanese, caught between two cultures, belonging to both and neither. And what if you had a Hispanic name? What does it mean to be American? Ramon is my guest today.

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Ramon Calhoun:Ramon Calhoun

I grew up in San Francisco and have lived most of my life here. My father is Black and my mother is Japanese-American. I am an only child. My parents separated when I was very young and I was raised by my mother and my Japanese-American relatives. I thus had very little exposure to Black American culture and traditions besides TV, movies, and radio.  Growing up being immersed in JA culture, I thought I was Japanese. Of course, I never looked Japanese.  There was always this brown-faced, flat-nosed, curly-haired person looking at me in the mirror!  This was brought to my attention from time to time by my friends. Identity, especially racial identity, has played such a strong role in my life. I think this is very much the case for those who are Black and mixed with something else. As an adult, I’ve tried to reconcile the various strands inside me (Black, Japanese, and American). I embrace who and what I am now, but it’s been a long, continuous, and often challenging, journey.

I wrote this book for a few reasons. My identity as Blackanese has vexed me for a good long time. Growing up, I often didn’t know how to identify—with which group? It has changed and evolved over time. I’ve identified at some point as Japanese, Black, Mexican, Filipino, Indian, Hawaiian, and even Italian! It took me a while to actually identify as mixed, as Blackanese. Fact this happened as an adult. Writing the book was a way for me to process these thoughts and emotions and ideas; to try to better understand the struggles I’ve experienced. The struggles that are borne internally as well as those placed on me externally.

Another reason I wrote the book is that I don’t see stories or books that feature people like me (i.e. Blasians) out there. There’s a small but growing body of work that have white hapas (half Hawaiians) in them, but not Blasians. We seem to not exist, at least in literature, in fiction. I wrote the book as a way to fill that gap, to let readers know that people like us exist. I WANT to read stories and books that feature us as main characters and that take our unique experiences and turn them into fiction.

Whether good or bad, the novel relates directly to my experiences. You’re often told to write what you know; well, that’s the genesis of this book. I used myself and my life experiences to create the main character, Rafael Halifax, as well as the other characters in the story. Now I could’ve written a memoir, but I didn’t want to do that. I feel novels have more power than memoirs because of the use of the imagination, the use of narrative style, and so forth. So I used my experience as the basis, but fictionalized it in order to raise it above the level of direct reportage and journalism. The novel, though simply written, went through various drafts. The first one read too realistically and close to my life. With each draft, I tried to remove elements that were overtly autobiographical and to create something more from the imagination. I hope I achieved that.

I hope readers gain some insight about what it’s like being Blackanese—the challenges and struggles such a person experiences in this highly race-conscious country. I’m not speaking for all Blackanese though, but more from my specific experience. I hope readers are moved by the story, and also I hope they’re able to connect with the main character and what Rafael is going through even though they may not be mixed or Blackanese. I hope that via this specific story, the universal can be gleaned, and that people come away with a greater understanding of all people.

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I’ve read about half of Blackanese Boy so far and am enjoying learning about this different perspective. Definitely a different world from my own Midwestern half white/half Japanese upbringing. Main character Rafael not only struggles with racial and cultural identity, but also with his parents being divorced and with coming-of-age issues. This is Ramon’s first book and he’s learning the ropes of writing and indie publishing. Ramon has a good voice and writes good dialog, and I am loving little Rafael—I want to scoop him up and hug him. I’m looking forward to watching him grow up.

Blackanese Boy

 

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Mary Gottschalk: The Writing Process

Last week I posted about my memoir writing process as part of a blog hop. I tagged three writers to post about their writing processes this week, so stop by their blogs today. Writer-editor Jeffrey Penn May  blogs all about writing and his latest book is Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy. Kristin Nador, who also dishes writer encouragements and advice on her blog, is working on a suspense novel. Mary Gottschalk has made a career out of changing careers, and has written a memoir and now her first novel (release date May 1). She is my featured guest today to avoid having her interrupt a series of posts on her blog, A Fitting Place, based on issues brought up in her novel. I enjoyed reading her introspective answers.

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Mary-Gottschalk-Author

Mary Gottschalk –

What am I working on?

I have just completed my first novel, A Fitting Place, about a woman who finds solace in a same sex relationship after her husband of 15 years leaves her. This unexpected and passionate relationship offers an intimacy Lindsey has never known. Before long, she finds herself ensnared by the same destructive inter-personal dynamics that plagued her marriage. Unable to blame her dilemma on traditional gender roles, Lindsey is forced to look in the mirror as she seeks to define what she wants from this—or any—relationship. Freed from the straightjacket of societal notions of friend, wife, and mother, Lindsey calls on inner resources she never knew she had, as she sets out to build a new life for herself and her teenage daughter. The premise of this debut novel is that opportunities for personal growth are greatest when you step outside your comfort zone. A Fitting Place is an uplifting story of the human potential we all have.

I have now turned to marketing. In the first stage, I’m reaching out through social media as well as my own mailing list to an audience interested in literary fiction that deals with contemporary social issues, including the subject of sexual fluidity. In a second phase, I will reach out to university level programs in psychology and women’s studies as clinics that deal with family relationships and/or issues of sexual identity.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The premise behind both my memoir and my novel is that opportunities for personal growth are greatest when you step outside your comfort zone. From a psychological perspective, the term “comfort zone” encompasses behavior patterns formed during childhood, patterns which may not be productive or healthy in adult relationships. By stepping outside of your comfort zone—whether by choice or by circumstance—you exponentially increase the possibility of personal and professional growth. My writing is also distinctive because I like to utilize metaphors to emphasize the universal themes that underlie my stories:

Sailing Down the Moonbeam (a memoir) – Sailing is a powerful metaphor for everyday life:

  • It is impossible to control your environment, whether it’s the weather or a possible job promotion. You enjoy life much more if you recognize that your control is limited to your own thoughts and actions.
  • Very few things in life work out the way you planned. Expectations leave you vulnerable to disappointment, while living in the moment opens the door to opportunities you didn’t expect.
  • All too often, you end up in a different place that you intended to go, both in relationships and in careers. Our focus should be on the journey, not the destination.

A Fitting Place (a novel) — The metaphor in the title applies on multiple levels:

  • The Biblical notion of “right and fitting” – that some things are just meant to happen in exactly the way they do happen
  • The image of a puzzle – the idea that it takes time and experience to understand how all of the pieces of our life fit together
  • The image of a dressing room – a place where you try on different costumes. In the novel, my protagonist is “trying on” a different lifestyle.

Why do I write what I do?

I have been a risk taker most of my life, not out of an excess of personal courage, but the consequence of a high level of curiosity and low tolerance for routine and repetition. My willingness to take risks has opened some amazing doors for me, including my 3-year sailing journey at age 40 as well as the opportunity to work in several different countries and cultures. A key lesson from all of these experiences, but most particularly the sailing journey, was that control over life—and death—is largely an illusion, and you will be happiest if you focus on making each moment the best you possibly can. My goal, in writing both my memoir and my novel, was to share that lesson from different perspectives.

How does your writing process work?

Like many authors, I go through multiple drafts, but I see the process in three distinct stages.

  1. Development of the story arc. Once I have the story in my head, I will write it down in far more detail than “plot points,” but both the characters and the scenes are relatively undeveloped. After two books, I now realize this occurs because I am, by nature, logical and analytical, and need to be sure the pieces “fit together.”
  2. Developing the characters. My second draft is focused on developing the personalities of my characters—making them sympathetic, identifying opportunities for conflict and tension, and finding their idiosyncrasies. In many cases, it means adding scenes; in others, it means cutting out scenes that are really backstory.
  3. Heightening the emotion. In the third draft, I go through scene by scene, looking for ways to increase the emotional temperature, whether the scene deals with internal or external conflict.

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Mary has tagged Sharon Lippincott, a well-known life writing resource. Stop by Sharon’s blog, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing, next week to read about her writing process.

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Blog Hopping: my writing process

I am posting today about my writing process thanks to writer-poet Jan Morrill tagging me to answer certain questions about this as part of a blog hop. Jan is author of The Red Kimono, a novel about a Japanese-American girl interned with her family in the Rohwer, Arkansas, camp during WWII. Maybe you’d like to try to win a copy of her latest book, Life: Haiku by Haiku, by submitting a haiku on her blog during April, which is Poetry Month.

Question 1) What are you working on?

My focus is more on encouraging others to write down some of their life stories or those of their elders. I’m particularly passionate about gathering stories of our WWII generation who grew up in a near history most of us can’t imagine. Personal stories tell what really happened, what history books don’t tell or can only gloss over. Currently I’m working with a military veteran putting together his memoir of life as a medic in the Korean War. I am learning a lot from him. A horrifying lot.

Question 2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I pretty much stick to writing (and reading) about history and culture. I like to learn, and life is too short for all the learning I want to do. I like to work with everyday stories of everyday people. Ordinary people are special, too, and their stories are worth telling, at the least for their families. Some have been downright astonishing. I don’t write slick, commercial-interest stories. I am more of a ghostwriter and editor, so I keep the voices of the people telling their stories. They are not MFA grads, so I write their stories or clean up their work to make it read nicely and to make sure the stories have structure. I work hard not to insert my writing style into their stories. The biggest compliment I can get is that the family hears their loved one speaking in the writing and that they learned something about that person they never knew before.

Question 3) Why do you write what you do?

I like to capture personal history before it’s lost. Maybe you’ve heard how every person is a library, and when they leave this earth their library is gone. I want to save these libraries full of history, adventure, and perspective. I also think it’s important for families to keep their own history alive, to know where they came from, their traditions, and what their ancestors lived through. If one generation doesn’t care, the next might.

Question 4) How does your writing process work?

I keep myself very busy, pulled in all directions, so it’s hard to find blocks of time to write. I have a part-time job, too. I don’t have a specific time set aside each day, but my usual time for writing is at night, after supper and any chores, and often I stay up pretty late, sometimes to 3:00am. Since I work with true stories, mostly I’m just editing them and doing research to make sure they are historically and culturally correct. Typically, I work with a series of short stories. I have to edit individual stories and then figure out how to put them together in a way that makes sense. Each story needs a good beginning and a wrap-up end, and there has to be an overall beginning and ending to the series. Of course, the real author has to agree with everything I write. I go back through and edit for consistency and flow. Lots of editing!

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Next Monday hop on over to the blogs of the writers I’ve tagged to hear their answers to these questions. (I’ll be hosting Mary Gottschalk on my blog next week since she’s in the midst of blogging a series of posts exploring issues found in her new novel.) Memoir and life writing are considered narrative nonfiction, so we can learn from writers of both nonfiction and fiction.

Jeffrey Penn May, of AskWriteFish.com, has received several short fiction awards, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and an excellent book review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he has recently published his humorous narrative Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy.

Kristin Nador, who is currently working on a contemporary suspense novel, encourages creatives to find their own unique voice at her blog, Kristin Nador Writes Anywhere, where you might find her discussing writing craft, creativity tips, or Pinkerton the Cat’s latest adventure.

Mary Gottschalk, who came to creative writing late in life, is the author of a memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeamand a soon-to-be-released novel, A Fitting Place, about rebound relationships and stepping outside one’s comfort zone.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: On Story

Last week I went to see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at our local library. Her latest book, Americanah, just won the National Book Critic’s Circle (NBCC) prize for fiction. Adichie is more beloved, however, for the award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel of love set around the Biafran War (yeah, look that up). She wrote that story to “honor the collective memory of an entire nation” as well as to honor her grandfathers who died as refugees from that war. She doesn’t write memoir, but like most fiction writers she uses real experiences, real people, real culture and history to create story. As a writer, Adichie says she “feels one step away, observing and looking for story to write.”

What caught my mind about Chimamanda Adichie was her TED talk of 2009, which I found while researching prior to her author event here. Her delivery of The Danger of a Single Story is amusing but passionate, worth listening to and not just because of her beautiful way of speaking.

“Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”

What does this have to do with memoir and lifewriting? For one, the characters in our lives don’t have a single story, they are three-dimensional people with perspectives based on their own experiences. Don’t make them all good or all bad (that goes for ourselves as main characters, too), and you might consider putting a bit of backstory into your characters– usually hints or short explanations, not long, distracting side stories. Why might they have acted the way they did? Second, the single story needs more stories to create a fuller picture. One person’s experiences in time and place are not representative of everyone’s in that time and place. This makes your story important to the grand drama of history and culture, or to the story of recovery and healing. Let’s write, and let’s read.

Note: The film Half of a Yellow Sun will be released this July

DSCN4951

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Oral histories and interviews strike gold

While writing Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, my mother’s stories of everyday life around WWII in Japan, my eyes were opened to the gold of all personal stories, especially of culture and history. Sure, I had heard plenty of Mom’s childhood stories of getting lost, hunting for tadpoles in rice paddies, and celebrating fairytale-like legends, but when I grew up and she told me how she survived during the war, history came alive as I never knew it before. My school history books never said anything about that part of WWII! They were full of dry overviews from the US viewpoint. They never said anything about the internment camps in the US for the Japanese-Americans either. See Mustang Koji’s Masako and Spam Musubi blog for stories about his mother’s family’s survival during WWII in Japan (thanks to Jan Morrill, author of The Red Kimono, for directing me to Koji) .

Memoir author and lifewriting workshop leader Susan Weidner was recently on a writing retreat in Tucson where she met fellow lifewriter Patricia Preciado Martin. Susan interviewed Patricia about her passion for gathering personal stories of Mexican American culture and history, including folk tales. After Patricia got tired of seeing Mexican American women portrayed as stereotypes, she gathered stories of real women and published Songs My Mother Sang to Me. Hop on over to Susan’s Women’s Writing Circle blog to read her post, Stories of Women in the Southwest, about Patricia’s important work. Patricia talks about doing research before interviewing a subject. Knowledge of the person’s culture and the history and sociology around the time of his or her earlier life does help identify important questions to ask, but don’t let that stop you from doing an interview. Once the stories start coming out, you may find yourself like a curious child sitting big-eyed at a grandparent’s knee—full of questions.

Songs My Mother Sang to Me

Posted in capturing memories, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, heritage, history, multicultural, storytelling, traditions, war stories, WWII | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Wil Haygood and the Butler: memories almost lost

DSCN4833Wil Haygood, journalist and author of The Butler: A Witness to History, was the keynote speaker today at the St. Louis Public Library, formally starting off Black History Month in St. Louis. Formally, because programs started on the first of February, and a free screening of The Butler movie was a few days later. I missed the movie and will have to see it, but I have Wil’s book, surprisingly slim at 95 pages including photos from the movie and an essay about African Americans portrayed in Hollywood movies. I had expected some big biography, but Eugene Allen, the butler, died only 16 months after Wil Haygood first spoke with him. And sadly, Helene Allen, Eugene’s wife, had died in her sleep only a few days after that first meeting. The book is about Haygood’s experiences finding and befriending Eugene and about the filming of the movie, which is not about the real Eugene, but incorporates some of his stories.

Wil Haygood is a good speaker, one who knows how to pause at the right moments. He kept us enthralled with his story. An audience member commented during the Q&A, “Your story of coming to tell the story is a story in itself.” That was true; how Haygood found Eugene Allen and got his stories was fascinating stuff. Haygood believed Barack Obama would win the presidency after he saw three white girls crying on the sidewalk one day and found it was because their daddies were refusing to speak to them because they were going to vote for a black man. If young ladies in the South were daring to rebel against their daddies . . .  Haygood the reporter wanted a story about a black person’s thoughts about the first black man elected president, thoughts from someone who had worked in the White House and been around during the civil rights era. On a tip, Haygood’s 57th call to the Eugene Allens in the phone book hit the jackpot.

After interviewing Allen and his wife, Haygood posted an article on the history of blacks in the White House that ran in the Washington Post on the day of Helene Allen’s burial – three days after Obama was elected. “A Butler Well Served by this Election” brought letters to Eugene and to Wil from all over the world, many expressing sadness that Helene died one day before she could have voted for the first black president.

Helene had been the one telling people her husband had important stories. She died happy, announcing to their son the night before that someone had finally come to write down those stories. After listening to Eugene, an astonished Haygood had asked him whether anyone had written his stories down before. Eugene answered, “If you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.”

Do you know anyone worthy enough for you to write down their stories? You never know.

Wil Haygood wearing a tie clip given to him by Eugene Allen, given to him by John F. Kennedy.

Wil Haygood wearing a tie clip given to him by Eugene Allen, given to him by John F. Kennedy.

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Seasons of Our Lives: Women’s Memoirs

“Each woman is a story waiting to be told,” says Susan Wittig Albert, author of Writing from Life and founder of Story Circle Network, an organization that teaches and encourages women to write and share their life stories. After writing my mother’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, I came to believe this sentiment, too. Not to say men don’t have important personal stories, but women, even today, are usually the backbone of the family and the carriers of the hands-on, in-the-trenches stories of everyday life. Their stories don’t usually make it into history books.

Seasons-of-Our-LivesI follow authors Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett and their Women’s Memoirs website which inspires and teaches women about writing their life stories and sometimes posts some of them. A couple years ago, they held a contest, inviting women to send in their short personal stories based on a season. Winning stories were featured on the website, and mine was one of them. Matilda and Kendra have just published four e-books of these vignettes, Seasons of Our Lives for spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

For 53 hours, beginning February 1 at 10:00 a.m. CDT, all four e-book volumes will be available for only $.99 each through Amazon’s Kindle* Store. Prices will increase by $1 each 53 hours until they reach the regular price of $3.99 each. The stories are sweet, sad, funny, poignant. Each is followed by a takeaway and writing tip from the editors, to help you reflect on the seasons of your life and hopefully prompt you to write your own stories. My story, A Child is Born, is in the spring volume. If you purchase one or all of these volumes, please support the writers by leaving Amazon reviews.

Seasons of Our Lives:  Spring
Seasons of Our Lives:  Summer
Seasons of Our Lives:  Autumn
Seasons of Our Lives:  Winter

*Note:  You do not need a Kindle to read these e-books. When purchasing, you are given options for reading, and can choose another type of e-reader (except Nook), including your pc or Mac.

The sale countdown:

February 1, 10am CST, $.99
February 3, 3pm CST, $1.99
February 5, 8pm CST, $2.99
February 8, 1am CST, $3.99 (regular price)

Posted in book talk, inspiration, lifewriting, memoir writing, writing prompt | Tagged , , | 10 Comments