Mar. 25, 2007

Some In Pieces

by Darnell Arnoult

SUNDAY, 25 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Some in Pieces" by Darnell Arnoult, from What Travels With Us. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Some in Pieces

In World War Two
the oldest
of my uncles
picked up
dead bodies
dead weight
some in pieces
and threw them
onto the beds
of trucks.
His work spread
far as he could see.
When he came
home he poured
salted peanuts
into a Co-Cola
and prepared
for life
with folks
who could
never know
some things
as long
as they lived.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Bella Cohen Spewack, born in Transylvania (1899). She never knew her father and arrived in the United States at the age of three with no birth certificate. By her early 20s, she had published 40 short stories and her autobiography, Streets; A Memoir of the Lower East Side (1922). She married a newspaper reporter named Sam, and they started writing scripts and screenplays. They collaborated with Cole Porter on Leave it to Me, and in 1948, they won the Tony award for Kiss Me, Kate, the first time the book for a show ever won the award.

It's the birthday of one of the most popular young adult novelists in America, Kate DiCamillo, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1964). For some reason, when she was growing up, she caught pneumonia every winter, and often had to go to the hospital to be placed in an oxygen tent. One year, when she was three years old, her father came to visit her at the hospital with a little wooden village for her to play with. He gave her the pieces of the village, and he made up a story about the chicken and the farmer and the house and the church. She later said of that moment, "Something opened up inside me. There was the weight of the wooden figures in my hands, the smell of my father's overcoat, the whole great world hiding, waiting in the purple dusk outside my hospital room. And there was the story — the story."

She became obsessed with stories after that, and because she was sick for so much of her childhood, she did a lot of reading. After she graduated from college, DiCamillo said, "I talked incessantly about being a writer and read books about writing and imagined, in great detail, my life as a writer. I did everything except write."

So DiCamillo began setting herself a quota of two pages of writing every single day. She published a few short stories in literary journals, but most of her work was rejected. And then she moved to Minnesota and took a job for a book wholesaler, filling orders for bookstores and libraries. She worked in the children's book section, and it was the first time in her life that she really began to take children's literature seriously.

That first winter in Minnesota was one of the coldest on record, and DiCamillo missed her hometown in Florida horribly. She also desperately wanted a dog, but couldn't have one because her apartment building didn't allow dogs. So she began writing a story about a stray dog that helps a 10-year-old girl adjust to life in a new town, and that became DiCamillo's novel Because of Winn-Dixie, which won a Newbery Medal and became a best-seller when it came out in 2000.

It begins, "My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog."

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Flannery O'Connor, (books by this author) born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). As a young woman, she applied to one of the only creative writing programs in the country, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she was almost rejected because the admissions interviewer couldn't understand her Southern accent.

Once she got into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, people there didn't know what to make of her. She never read James Joyce or Franz Kafka, or any of the other fashionable writers of the era. She was more interested in Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. But even though O'Connor was an outsider, her fiction impressed everybody, and she won an award that got her a contract to publish her first novel.

O'Connor was still rewriting her novel in 1950 when she began to notice a heaviness in her arms while she typed. It turned out that she had inherited lupus, the same disease that had killed her father.

She moved in with her mother and forced herself to write for three hours every day on the screened in porch of her mother's house, watching the chickens, geese, and ducks wandering around in the yard. O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, came out in 1952. It got mixed reviews. Three years later, she published the story collection that made her name, A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955). It contains her two most famous short stories: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a silly, annoying old woman whose entire family gets murdered by a man called The Misfit, and "Good Country People" about a pretentious young woman whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman.

Her lupus grew steadily worse over the course of her life, and her writing slowed. She published one more novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She worked on her last book of short stories in the hospital, keeping the manuscript hidden under her pillow so that the nurses wouldn't take it away. She died a little more than a week shy of her 40th birthday.

It's the birthday of feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, (books by this author) born in Toledo, Ohio (1934). She got poor grades in school, but she managed to get into Smith College based entirely on her entrance examinations. After college she went to work as a journalist and made her name with a piece called "I was a Playboy Bunny" (1963) about her undercover experiences working at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in midtown Manhattan. That piece got her a series of magazine jobs writing celebrity journalism. She only began to embrace feminism as a political cause when she wrote an article about the prevalence of illegal abortions, and all her male journalist colleagues tried to persuade her not to publish it. Steinem came to believe that the only way for women to have a real voice in the media would be if there were media outlets controlled by women. So she decided to found Ms. magazine, devoted to women's issues. The first issue came out in January 1972, and no one was sure if it would be a success. It managed to sell out its first printing run of 300,000 copies in eight days.

Steinem has gone on to write several books, including Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983).

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