Jan. 19, 2010

Among His Effects We Found a Photograph

by Ed Ochester

My mother is beautiful as a flapper.
She is so in love
that she has been gazing
secretly at my father
for forty years.
He's in uniform,
with puttees and swagger stick,
a tiny cork mustache
bobbing above a shoreline of teeth.
They are "poor but happy."
In his hand is a lost book
he had memorized,
with a thousand clear answers
to everything.

"Among His Effects We Found a Photograph" by Ed Ochester, from Unreconstructed: Poems Selected and New. © Autumn House Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the writer Edwidge Danticat, (books by this author) born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969. She was born toward the end of "Papa Doc" Duvalier's brutal dictatorship, and she said, "While I was growing up, most of the writers I knew were either in hiding, missing, or dead." Her father left for New York when she was two years old, her mother followed him two years later, so she was raised in Haiti by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle worked in a school and would bring home books for his niece to read, and she spent a lot of time with her aunt and other older women in her family, just listening to their stories and conversations.

When she was 12 years old, she moved to Brooklyn to live with her parents, where her father was driving cabs and her mom worked in a factory. She had trouble fitting into her new country, with her heavy accent and all the stigmas associated with Haiti. But she also didn't want to be a traditional Haitian woman, a wife, cook, mother, and housekeeper. She wanted to write, but she said, "Writing was forbidden as dark rouge on the cheeks or a first date before 18. It was an act of indolence, something to be done in a corner when you could have been learning to cook."

She started writing anyway, and wrote an essay about her experience as an immigrant, which she got published in a city-wide newspaper for teenagers. But she didn't feel that she had told her story completely, so she turned it into a short story. She graduated from Barnard and went to Brown to get a degree in creative writing. While she was there, she took her short story and expanded it, and when she was 25 years old, she published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994). It's the story of a young girl named Sophie Caco who is raised by her aunt in Haiti and gets sent to New York to live with her mother, but their relationship is strained by memories of violence and family relationships in Haiti. Eventually, Sophie travels back home with her own young daughter to visit the women who raised her and to try to make peace with her family's past. The book got great reviews, and the next year, Edwidge Danticat published a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak! (1995), also about the experience of Haitians and Haitian-Americans. "Krik? Krak!" is a typical Haitian expression that introduces storytelling. She also wrote the novel The Farming of Bones (1998), which won the American Book Award; a memoir, Brother, I'm Dying (2007); and two young adult novels. This past year, she was chosen as a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

It's the birthday of novelist Julian Barnes, (books by this author) born in Leicester, England, in 1946. His parents were French teachers, and he studied French literature at Oxford. And after he graduated, he spent awhile working as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. He wrote a couple of novels, and then he went back to his study of French literature, and he wrote a novel about a retired doctor named Geoffrey Braithwaite who is an amateur Flaubert scholar trying to hunt down the truth about Flaubert's life. The novel was really about Flaubert more than Geoffrey Braithwaite, and Julian Barnes got to imitate and parody a lot of Flaubert's style and habits and ways of cataloguing things. The book was Flaubert's Parrot (1984), and it was a big success. He's been writing ever since, with a total of 10 novels and two books of short stories, and for a few years, he was the London correspondent for The New Yorker. His most recent book is nonfiction, a mix of memoir and musings about death, called Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008).

It's the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1807). He did not approve of the secession and many people think he didn't approve of slavery, and he was loyal member of the United States Army. But he was even more loyal to Virginia, where his family had deep roots. In 1861, President Lincoln offered him command of the entire Union Army, but Lee knew that Virginia was about to secede, so he declined, left the United States Army, and became a senior military advisor to Jefferson Davis. He went on to serve as General-in-Chief of the Confederate army.

It's the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, (books by this author) born in Boston in 1809. When he was two, both his parents died from tuberculosis, and Edgar was taken in by a wealthy tobacco merchant named John Allan, and Edgar Poe became Edgar Allan Poe. He went to the University of Virginia, and for years he was in and out of the Army and West Point, publishing several books of poems, including Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829). He started writing short stories as well, and we remember him for many of those gothic horror stories, like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher."

But Poe lived most of his life in poverty and sometimes in misery. He would work and work on a poem only to sell it to a newspaper for a few dollars. In 1836, Poe married his 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. She was sick with tuberculosis, and they had no money to pay for heat so Poe trained their cat to sit on her lap to keep her warm. Virginia's mother lived with the couple as well, and Poe was trying to care for them both with almost no money. When he did get money, he often spent it on alcohol. His biggest problem was that he wasn't paid enough money for what he wrote; in 1845, he sold the poem "The Raven" to a newspaper for $15.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
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