Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Writing for Social Change: A 3-Step Starting Guide

Kayla Greenwell
So you’ve decided to write for social change.  You’ve sat down, straightened your workspace, and pulled out your writing materials.  Now what?  The social justice world is huge! It can be daunting for a new writer to dive in, so how do you get started?
Step 1: Pick a Topic You’re Passionate About
There are a lot of social justice issues out there, so you want to make sure that you have chosen one that that you are passionate about.  It could be from your own experiences and familiarity with the subject, or maybe someone you know has experienced this form of social injustice. Or you might choose it because you feel like it is something that you can understand and relate to because you identify with the group of people suffering from that particular type of social injustice. When I write, I focus on gender violence, especially when it comes to sexual abuse. As a survivor, this is easiest for me, because I have experienced it and I believe that sharing my experiences can change the world for other women.  You don’t have to be a victim of social injustice to write about it, but you should become knowledgeable on the subject. Which leads me to…
Step 2: Get Acclimated
Learn everything there is to know on your subject! This is true for any writing, but research is especially important when writing for social justice. The reason for this being that social justice issues are complicated.  They often discuss abstract ideas, they often have multiple sides, and they even sometimes have conflicting belief systems. You don’t have to know everything before you start writing, but you should be familiar with the landscape of the issue and the general arguments from all sides. Be careful of any bias that a source may have.  I like to use Al Jazeera because they are a non-profit news source, so there is less chance of bias, and their writers are credible, informed, and involved.
Another helpful source is the Socialist Worker. They create a helpful platform when it comes to analyzing and following current discussions and debates on a variety of topics. This site is helpful for getting situated into the most current part of the conversation but is probably not best until you have a background on your subject.
Step 3: Write!
Now that you have an understanding of your topic, you can start to write! The amount of writing out there can be overwhelming, but the key to getting started is not losing your own voice in all the information that is out there.  What you have to say matters! Only you can share your personal experience, and that is an invaluable tool.
Forbes Magazine interviewed award winning author Beverly Schwartz in an article titled, "This is Our Time for Storytelling: 3 1/2 Tips for Writing About Social Change ..." Schwartz says, “If you feel a story in you, and you want to let your inner writer out, start a blog … If your inner creative is still not satiated, tell your story through social media, video, photos, murals, or animated comic books. Whatever. It’s your story, your message. You need to find the format that works best for you and your audience.” (Emphasis added.)
So get writing and remember, "A word after a word after a word is power."
* From the poem “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

To Be (Or Not To Be) a Socially-Conscious Writer

Michelle McGill-Vargas
I don’t consider myself to be a socially-conscious writer. I haven’t blogged about the recent grand jury decisions in the Missouri and New York police brutality cases. I haven’t tweeted about Bill Cosby’s guilt or innocence. I haven’t used my experience as a teacher to write short stories about the educational system. The last thing I want to do is chime in about the good, the bad and the ugly of the world. As a fiction writer, I want my stories to entertain; to be the escape readers like me need from the realities of the world. I want publication, not polarization because of my personal views, no matter how many social media “followers” I might gain in the process.
So no, I don’t write about social issues.
Or so I thought.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had members of my critique group or a beta reader point out a theme or issue in my work I had no intention of addressing. I remember writing what I’d thought was just a short story about an agoraphobic woman plotting to kill her new neighbor. Turns out, my critique partners preferred to discuss the emotional scars of rape victims, a theme I was surprised they’d found throughout my piece. One of them asked, “Is this what you meant to say?” I had no answer because I hadn’t meant to say anything. I’d just wanted to tell a story.
Writing may be a solitary activity for me, but I don’t live in a vacuum. I can’t help having an opinion about what I see and hear in the daily news. Sometimes, those opinions find their way into my work whether I want them to or not. As a black woman, I tend to people my fictional world with characters that look like me. And with most of my stories occurring in the past, I can’t disregard the treatment people of color endured in those time periods.
I’ve learned that one can address social issues in stories without banging the reader over the head with it. This past summer, I attended a writers’ conference where author Daniel Jose Older discussed using world building as a way to address social issues. His book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories set in New York City. Through the setting, Older was able to bring up the issue of gentrification while still telling compelling stories. For me, my storylines have been borne from some pet peeve or an unpleasant experience I’ve had.
In retrospect, my stories have included themes of interracial relationships, graphic violence in movies, school segregation, and even preparing for the end of the world. So while I still don’t consider myself a socially-conscious writer, I’d be foolish to think that social issues won’t appear in my writings from time to time. I’d also be foolish not to use those opportunities to not only change my characters by the end of the story, but also to change those who read about them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Winnie-the-Pooh -- a Social Justice Tool

Mari L. Barnes
Vast amounts of research show that by 3 or 4 years old, children living in the United States are aware of physical and cultural differences among people. We also know that they learn the prevailing social attitudes toward these differences, even if they have no direct contact with those who are different.
Our children are the exact opposite of “color blind” and the parental practice of silence on the issue of differences has been instrumental in producing children who are unequipped to move effectively in a world that is becoming increasingly color-filled. We must acknowledge diversity. The differences are real and the children can see them. These differences become dangerous only when either inferior or superior value labels are imposed.
To assist parents in broaching the subject of difference in a way that children can appreciate, we need look no further than Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne.
Christopher Robin (for our purposes, the insulated white kid) is a welcomed visitor to the Hundred Acre Wood. There he interacts with Pooh, Piglet, Kanga and Roo, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl and Tigger. All of the animals differ, physically and temperamentally. Those differences are not ignored; rather, variances are described and frequently help move the story to a satisfactory conclusion.
In one story, Owl's house blows down in a storm, trapping Pooh and Piglet and Owl inside. Pooh encourages Piglet (the only one small enough to do so) to escape and rescue them all. Piglet’s difference saves the day.
Pooh offers many opportunities to discuss the subjectivity of perceptions at a child’s level of understanding. Although Winnie-the-Pooh himself agrees with his friends that he “has no Brain,” his ideas are often clever. He rides Christopher Robin's umbrella to rescue Piglet from a flood and gets Eeyore out of the river by dropping a large rock on one side of him to wash him towards the bank.
Adams, Bell and Griffin (2007) define social justice as both a process and a goal. “The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.”1
The denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood demonstrate social justice at its most elemental. We can begin educating our children in the process of social justice simply by opening the discussion. There are many children’s books that demonstrate friendship, fairness and cooperation. These tools for building a just society are as close as your child’s bookcase.
1Reference: Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook. Edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin.
Mari L Barnes writes for children under the pen name of Mari Lumpkin and for adults as ML Barnes. Her books, Parting River Jordan and Crossing River Jordan are proof that church can be funny. Mari’s company, Flying Turtle Publishing, specializes in books that families can share.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More than Ornamentation: The Importance of the Arts

Janine Harrison
Anyone who thinks that the arts, in any form, are purely decorative is consuming the wrong art.  No matter the type, whether performing, visual, or print, art is necessary.  Shortly before the turn of the 20th century, African American writers, who had long endured slavery and spending virtually every waking moment attempting to meet basic needs, began contemplating the role of the artist in relation to African American identity and the future of the United States.  They gave voice to not only these concepts but also to social injustices so as to begin to change the perception of mainstream Americans about race and equality.  In addition, they released anger and pain caused by a long history of racism and perhaps helped to heal themselves and their readers via release in the process.  In his essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin posits that the role of the writer is to “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Hodgins & Silverman 766).
African Americans are not the only ones whose art have and continue to serve as an agent for social change.  Across artistic genres, we see, hear and read the soldier’s story, the immigrant story, the LGBT fight, the woman’s story, the environmentalist’s plight, and a multitude of other voices of equal significance.  And the worse the economy and the more violent and chaotic our global community becomes, the more audiences need art to not feel alone, to provide or help maintain perspective, and for catharsis.  An argument could even be made that all art is persuasive.  Even art that is created with the intention of being purely aesthetic in nature could be construed to represent the status quo or complacency.  An argument could also be made that art is vital to our thinking.
We live in a world in which art is undervalued, though.  Evidence of this can be seen all around us, from cuts over the past decade ranging from the National Endowment of the Arts budget to programs in the arts in elementary and high schools as well as university liberal arts and social sciences curriculums.  While it is essential that the United States become more competitive among developed nations in STEM disciplines, it is not enough for us to be able to think critically; we also need to be able to think creatively.  Invention, after all, is born of the ability to “think outside of the box.” 
In 1997, Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts.  In a letter to Jane Alexander, NEA Chair, and cc’d to President Clinton, she explained her reasons:  “In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair….There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice.  But I do know that art…means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage” (Rich 99).
Art is more than decorative.  We need it.  We need art in our homes, in our schools and universities, and in our communities. 
Works Cited
Hodgins, Francis, and Kenneth Silverman, eds.  Adventures in American Literature.  New York:  HBJ, 1980.  Print.
Rich, Adrienne.  Arts of the Possible.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2001.  Print.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the brochure “Butterbird Christmas,” December 7, 2014, edited by Dr. Meg G. DeMakas, Family Folklore Foundation, Inc., Blue Moon Publications, Gary, Indiana.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why Should We Write for Social Justice?

Kayla Greenwell
"We write because we believe it will matter.
We write to access our own power .
We write to help others access their power." –Write on! Writing for Social Justice
Social justice—the idea that everyone in society, regardless of identity, has an equal chance at wealth, opportunity , and privilege. What does it have to do with writing? Well, the key to achieving social justice is by creating awareness to be used in breaking down the current barriers in society. So how can you do that? What tools can you use? Your words, of course. 
The role of a writer, creative or otherwise, is important when it comes to bringing awareness and educating readers about social justice. At first, it seems impossible. How can just one person change the outcome of so many? How can the writing of one person with different experiences help others that do not share the same background?
It is not just the individual effort, but the individual effort of many than can help bring awareness to the social injustices of our world.  Our words have the power to impact whole communities. We can see this effect in the use of social media round the world, even in countries where the people are heavily censored.  People in Syria and other countries have taken to social media to tell the world of the injustices they have experienced and bring awareness to their struggles.  The people for Ferguson, Missouri are doing the same right now.  People are reading these words and making changes in the hope that these injustices are not repeated.
Words are ideas made concrete, and the power of an idea is immeasurable. We can use our craft to share, educate, and change the minds of those who may not know the damage they do in a world with institutionalized social injustice. As writers, we love our words and we want to share them with others. Writing for social justice is a way to share our words with others in a way that can positively impact and change our society.    
Examples and Resources:
·         Women Write Resistance! Poets Resist Gender Violence, edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman
·         Write on! Writing for Social Justice, created by members of a NYCoRE Inquiry Action Group 
·         Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word, by Linda Christensen
·         Power, Resistance and Literacy: Writing for Social Justice, by Julie Gorlewski

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Rest of the Thanksgiving Story

Kathryn Page Camp

I wanted to add a picture of the first Thanksgiving to this post. Unfortunately, the only ones I found that were clearly in the public domain were also historically inaccurate. The photo at the head of this post is a good example.* The clothing and feathers are all wrong, and the position of the two groups, with members of the Wampanoag nation sitting on the ground and the Pilgrims standing, imply that the Pilgrims were the dominant race. Since a white woman is handing out the food, the picture could also imply that the Pilgrims provided the feast and the Native Americans were simply recipients.
As writers, we should be careful not to make the same mistakes.
When I think of the first Thanksgiving, I think of friendly Native Americans bringing their knowledge and skills and provisions to feed the starving Pilgrims. Without that help, the Pilgrims would have perished.
That’s one of the reasons I like Thanksgiving. It’s the one time of year when we remember the Native American participants as the generous people they were.** That’s a lot better than the frequent stereotype of half-dressed warriors burning homes and scalping “innocent” white settlers.
But the first Thanksgiving is only part of the story. The Pilgrims’ thankfulness to the Wampanoag tribe was an isolated instance. The European immigrants looted Native American graves, raided their villages, and sold the captives as slaves. White explorers and settlers passed along diseases that were new in this country. Since the natives had not built up an immunity, entire communities were wiped out. Then we destroyed their way of life by seizing the land that supported them and forcing them to move into the barren areas we didn’t want for ourselves.
Our white ancestors even sent soldiers to “escort” the Native Americans from the lands we craved to the ones we scorned. These long, forced marches were filled with hardship, and many people died along the way. Some Native Americans, such as the Navajos herded out of Arizona in 1864, were later allowed to return to their homes. But those were the exceptions. The more common experience was that of the Cherokees in 1838. Driven to Oklahoma over the Trail of Tears, they never did get back home.
Those of us with European ancestry have many reasons to be grateful to the Native Americans. But it doesn’t work the other way around.
So when you read or write about the first Thanksgiving, don’t forget the rest of the story.
* The picture at the head of this post is by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and was painted sometime around 1912-1915. It is in the public domain in the United States because of its age.
** I’ve read comments on the Internet complaining that people today think the Pilgrims and the Native Americans merely shared a meal together, or even that the Pilgrims were the benefactors rather than the beneficiaries. I can’t say whether those complaints are valid, but it hasn't been my experience. I learned at school and at home that Squanto and his tribe taught the Pilgrims how to survive, and my children learned the same lesson.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Inappropriate Storyteller - A Cautionary Tale

Heather Stamper
            A group of elementary school children were on a tour of their local library.  Part of the tour included a story in the children’s section.  Instead of selecting a picture book to read, the youth resources librarian decided to use oral tradition to tell a Native American folktale from the Pacific Northwest.  It was the tale of the Trickster Raven bringing light to the people. 
To paraphrase the tale, the chief of the Sky People had all the light of the universe hidden in a box and refused to let it out.  Raven infiltrated the chief’s house by turning himself into a hemlock needle floating in the water.  The daughter of the chief drank the water, swallowed the needle, and in the course of time, gave birth to Raven incarnate who then stole the light.
The young children were visibly bored by the story that for the most part went completely over their heads.  (Of course, there was the smarty-pants who had to ask about where babies came from.)  Their teachers looked at each other in shock and couldn’t meet the eyes of the parents who came along as chaperones.
While the storyteller meant well in attempting to share another culture with seven year olds of the Calumet Region, she could have told a local tribal tale or read from an actual book instead of going off the cuff and dwelling on the Raven baby growing in the princess’s belly.
            When you select a reading, it is very important to be mindful of your audience.  A story about conservation might not go over well at a lumberjack convention.  You might get more than a chilly reception with Bears fans if you read that fan fiction about playing for the Packers.  Or as in the case of the Inappropriate Storyteller, you could alienate your potential readers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It Ain't Just a Story: Writing about 21st Century Native Americans

Kayla Greenwell
Last week, Kathryn Page Camp deconstructed the Native American stereotype as she discussed the importance of historically accurate representations in writing. Stereotypes not only make our writing bland and incorrect, but also reflect the institutionalized racism in our society. It’s a lose-lose situation.
It is interesting to think about, if you are writing Native American history—but what if you are writing about the realities that Native Americans face today? Of living on the reservation and dealing with the struggles and prejudices that a 21st Century Indian encounters?
I look to Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, to answer my question. Alexie is the best-selling author of 24 books—and he still finds time to make films and do stand-up. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Alexis pulled from these experiences when he wrote The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Alexie creates a beautifully written, accessible narrative about a young boy named Junior. What is special to me about this novel is how Alexie realistically portrays the difficulties of reservation life. Don’t get me wrong, the book is hilarious. But in-between the jokes and comical insights, the reader begins to see the legitimate struggles of contemporary reservation life: poverty, alcoholism, housing, and employment. To show you what I mean, here is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Halloween.”
At school today, I went dressed as a homeless dude. It was a pretty easy costume for me. There’s not much difference between my good and bad clothes, so I pretty much look half-homeless anyway.
And Penelope went dressed as a homeless woman. Of course, she was the most beautiful homeless woman who ever lived.
We made a cute couple. Of course, we weren’t a couple at all, but I still found the need to comment on our common taste.
“Hey,” I said. “We have the same costume.”
I thought she was going to sniff at me again, but she almost smiled.
“You have a good costume,” Penelope said. “You look really homeless.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You look really cute.”
“I’m not trying to be cute,” she said. “I’m wearing this to protest the treatment of homeless people in this country. I’m going to ask only for spare change tonight, instead of candy, and I’m going to give it all to the homeless.”
I didn’t understand how wearing a Halloween costume could become a political statement, but I admired her commitment. I wanted her to admire my commitment, too. So I lied.
“Well,” I said. “I’m wearing this to protest the treatment of homeless Native Americans in this country.”
“Oh,” she said. “I guess that’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah, that spare change thing is a good idea. I think I might do that, too.”
Of course, after school, I’d be trick-or-treating on the rez, so I wouldn’t collect as much spare change as Penelope would in Reardan
It is sad to admit, but it seems that there are just too many problems in this world for one person to focus on. Unless we are constantly reminded of issues in front of us, we become disconnected with them. I fear that many Americans don’t realize that these pervasive issues still exist today. It seems impossible that issues from a century ago could still exist today, but they do. We forget, but thankfully there are writers like Sherman Alexie to remind us. Alexie quotes W. B. Yeats as the novel opens, and I think it would be a great place to end. Just remember, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More Than Buffalos and Tipis

Kathryn Page Camp

As a child, I was fascinated with Native American history. Well, that isn’t quite accurate. I was actually fascinated with the Native American culture and lifestyle back before the days when they were herded onto reservations or integrated into white society.
I grew up in Chippewa County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There were no Native Americans in the immediate area at the time, but there were plenty of historical reminders that they were the original inhabitants. My father got a month’s worth of vacation every year, and we spent many of those vacations traveling around the United States (as well as spending time in other countries). On those U.S. vacations, I visited and learned about various Native American sites. All of that peaked my interest.
One thing I quickly learned was to discount the stereotype of nomadic hunters chasing buffalos and living in tipis. Although many of the plains dwellers fit that stereotype, using it is like saying that all modern-day Americans live in stately homes surrounded by Magnolia trees.
The way Native Americans lived was dictated by their environment. Their primary means of obtaining food ranged from farming to fishing to hunting animals to gathering plants, and they often used a variety of these methods. Their shelters ranged from tipis to grass houses to wood homes to adobe apartment buildings such as the pueblo shown in the picture above. The plains dwellers lived in tipis because they needed something that was easy to pack up and move and because the materials (buffalo skins, for example), were easy to come by.
In parts of the Southwest, on the other hand, game was scarce and many Native American groups relied on farming. Since clay was plentiful and people didn’t have to move around to find food, they built permanent structures such as the one pictured above.
Then there were the Chippewa and others who lived off of the forests and rivers of the upper Midwest. They tended to move often during the summer and stay in one place during the winter, or sometimes the other way around.
Native Americans did whatever they could to adapt to their environment.
So if you want to write a historical novel that includes Native Americans, do your research. Putting buffalos and tipis in Florida makes as much sense as populating California with Southern accents.
And someone will notice your error.
The photograph at the head of this blog is from a slide my father took in 1965 on a family vacation to the western U.S. This picture shows a Native American pueblo in Arizona. I don’t know if it was an original structure or—more likely—a reproduction built for the tourist crowd, but it is one of the buildings that peaked my interest. In any event, it shows that not all Native Americans lived in tipis.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Researching Domestic Violence

If you are writing about domestic violence, where do you find resources to help with your research?

The following websites discuss abuse and provide links to online resources.

Then there these print sources mentioned in the October 15 blog post:

  • Steiner, Leslie Morgan. Crazy Love. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009
  • Weisman, Larua Madeline, ed. Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. USA: Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013.

 Of course there are many other resources, but these provide a start.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing Realistic Fiction about Domestic Abuse

Kathryn Page Camp

I’ve never experienced domestic abuse or gender violence, so why am I writing a blog on the subject? Partly because it’s this month’s theme and we were short of volunteers to write the posts. But there is more to it than that.

As writers, we are not limited by our personal experiences, and we often write fiction about issues we have never faced. Any good writer can tackle an initially unfamiliar subject after reading up on the matter, talking to someone who knows, or doing both. Because of the time limitations, I concentrated on the second method and asked a good friend who has experienced domestic violence first hand.

My friend and I met on a writer’s loop several years ago. She was using a pseudonym, and it was more than just a pen name. She was trying to disguise her identity to make it harder for her ex-husband to track her down. She eventually went back to her own name, and that’s when I learned her history.

In preparation for this blog post, I e-mailed my friend and asked if she could recommend some memoirs or realistic fiction for me to read. Here is her response:

I can’t recommend a good memoir or fiction on domestic violence. I read two that were free downloads, and both were disappointing because the women got out of an abusive relationship and went into a normal one and everything was happy and perfect, very unrealistic. Some women either struggle for a long time with their own short comings and failures or jump right into another abusive relationship. Why? We think we deserve it. And we believe we don’t deserve to be in a happy, normal relationship.

In a subsequent e-mail, my friend described her initial experience with the healing process.

After twelve years of being married to an abuser, I left and was directed to a support group.

All of the group members spoke negatively of men, as if there were no decent ones left on earth. Several members were under the care of a doctor for various conditions, including depression and insomnia, and needed medications for them. Years of low self-esteem had disabled them. A couple were on welfare. Some were overweight, dressed in sloppy clothes, used no makeup and didn’t even comb their hair, as if they didn’t care what they looked like.

One of the members was still working through healing thirty years after being free of her abuser. She had forgiven him but kept talking about needing more time to heal. How long does it take to get over something like that? Genuine healing takes time and is different for each person.

Does that mean things will never get better? Of course not. As far as I can tell, my friend is now relatively well-adjusted. She explains it this way:

But I changed counselors. My new one used encouragement. She pointed out all my good traits and the strong characteristics I still had. She doled out positive reinforcement but also helped me get a good job, a place to live and even a supportive church. Other people reassured me that I could have my own dreams, pursue them and reach them. I became so busy focusing on what I could do and what I could become that my past kind of faded over time.

Even so, she has not remarried and plans to spend her remaining years as a single woman. I have another friend who has what appears to be a happy second marriage, but it didn’t happen until she had been divorced for a number of years. The healing process for both women took a long time, and some scars remain.

So if you are writing a novel about domestic abuse, research the subject and make the story true-to-life. This includes the ending. It’s okay to end with hope or to have your character take the first steps along the road to healing. But don’t create a Shangri-La.

Instead, talk to someone who knows. Then make it realistic.


The picture at the head of this blog is an etching by Richard Newman, first published in July 1795. It shows that spousal abuse isn’t new, nor is the husband always the abuser. In the second panel, a husband begs for mercy while the wife threatens him with a switch from a bush or tree.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Anatomy of Abuse in Prose and Poetry

Janine Harrison
As you may or may not already be aware, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Indiana Writers’ Consortium is devoting October’s blog posts to writing about this important topic.  Adrienne Rich states in her work, Arts of the Possible, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”  Considering the fact that 20 to 25 percent of women will experience some form of gender violence in their lifetimes, a statistic that has not changed in over two decades’ time, it is imperative that physically and sexually abused women see this dysfunctional world represented on paper, so that they may feel less alone, to assist in the processing of their own abuse, and to find or strengthen their own voices, voices to be added to this conversation.  The question that victims of abuse may find daunting while attempting to write about such experiences is:  How do I approach the subject?  In the following paragraphs, I will begin to answer this question by analyzing abuse prose and poetry excerpts.
In her memoir, Crazy Love, Leslie Morgan Steiner addresses abuse directly.  In a scene that takes place shortly before she marries her abuser, Conor, and marks the first instance of abuse, she writes:
     He grabbed my shoulder and turned my body to face his.  His skin was stretched tight across his cheeks.
     My heart seized as if I’d stumbled upon a snake on the path behind our house.  I saw a pink blur of his hand as he slapped me hard across the face.  My skin stung as my teeth cut through the soft, wet flesh of my mouth.  My head jerked back.  Conor grabbed my throat, pushed me against the wall, and tightened his grip.  He shook my whole body back and forth.
     Don’t.  Scream.  Like.  That,” he spit through clenched teeth.  With every word my head hit the office wall, my neck bending like a Gumby doll.
     I couldn’t take my eyes off his face.  I could smell his shaving cream but could not breathe.
While Steiner is able to illustrate the abuse that she endured directly, I recently learned, however, that only a small percentage of victims of abuse are able to confront it “head on” upon the page.  What other approaches exist that can still honestly and effectively address the issue while still allowing writers to face their experiences in a manner perhaps less anguishing?   
In her Wounds of Passion:  a writing life, bell hooks chooses to use third-person point of view (POV) to depict difficult memories:  “She remembers somebody big hurting her body, being lost and nobody finding her but the bad man, who brings her home.  She remembers that he wears the color blue, that he tells her not to tell anybody.  She remembers the fear.  Not much else.”  In the preface, hooks discusses her POV choice, stating, “I move back and forth between first person narration and third person.  I conceptualize the third person voice as that part of myself that is an observer—that bears witness.  At times I also use the third person as an attempt to distance myself from the pain.  The inclusion of the third person narrator who has both critical insight and an almost psychoanalytic power that enables critical reflection on events described is an act of mediation.”  I would also argue that many writers, by nature, live in part in the moment and in part as observers, as witnesses, in our daily lives, and that by virtue of this natural state, when we experience abuse, we are even more so divided, becoming, in effect, nearly two individuals.  Abuse or memory of abuse can be virtually an out-of-body experience.  It seems fair, then—organic—to also represent it thusly in print form. 
In the poetry anthology, Women Write Resistance:  poets resist gender violence, edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman, approaches to such discussion are varied.  In “Common Law,” by Grace Bauer, for example, she never mentions abuse, choosing to discuss instead the reasons the abused woman stayed:
Because he wasn’t always bad.
Then because he was all you had.
Then because of the baby.
Because he said sorry.  And never again.
Because your mother said maybe if you tried
a little harder.  Because your father said nothing.
Because you knew the neighbors were talking
And you wanted to prove them wrong.
Though they were right.
Thought they never called the cops.
Even so, abuse is at the work’s core all the while.  Please also note Bauer’s use of second-person point of view, which simultaneously places the reader in the role of the abuser and allows the poet additional emotional distance from the subject.
Similarly, Mary Stone Dockery refers to gender violence only in the title of her prose poem, “After the Rape”; she uses second-person point of view as well.  Interesting, too, is her use of extended metaphor—of a wasp that has landed on the persona to discuss the rapist and the repercussions of having been violated.  Dockery begins, “You wore the same jeans for a week without washing them.  You couldn’t find a good reason to undress and your nude legs, wet twigs, threatened to snap beneath the weight of your bend.” The woman eventually kills the wasp.  The poet then shows the consequences of rape in her final line, “When you tossed the wasp out the window, you imagined that it disintegrated mid-air, but instead it fell to concrete and you walked by it for many days after, aware of its rot.” Her use of metaphor not only allows for psychological distance from the material but also a fresh and vivid approach to addressing it.
Gender violence persists as a global issue.  This means that we must add new voices, fresh voices, to this discussion, to not only help those who have been affected by it, but also to argue that confronting the issue is still necessary—that domestic and sexual abuse still has us firmly within the grasp of its two strong hands.  While I have only explored a few possibilities here, there are many creative approaches for addressing the subject that allow for the writing experience to be emotionally bearable.  Whether as abused or witness, please be brave and add your voice.  We must fight back.
Works Cited
Bauer, Grace.  “Common Law.”  Women Write Resistance:  Poets Resist Gender Violence.  Ed.  Laura Madeline Wiseman.  USA:  Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013.  24.  Print.
Dockery, Mary Stone.  “After the Rape.”  Women Write Resistance:  Poets Resist Gender Violence.  Ed.  Laura Madeline Wiseman.  USA:  Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013.  49.  Print.
hooks, bell.  Wounds of Passion:  a writing life.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1997.  Print.
Rich, Adrienne.  Arts of the Possible.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2001.  Print. 
Steiner, Leslie Morgan.  Crazy Love.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.  Print.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Importance of Finding Your Voice & Poets Who Have Already Found It

Kayla Greenwell
Since 1981, the United States has acknowledged October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, yet domestic and gender violence are still some of the largest unsolved social issues of our time. Twenty-five percent of women will face domestic violence in their lifetime and twenty percent of women will fall victim to other forms of gender violence, such as sexual abuse and rape.  If you take the time to do some math, twenty percent of the female population of America is approximately thirty-one million, according to our most recent census. That means at least thirty-one million women are affected by some form of gender violence in their lifetime. Still, with so many females marred by these horrific crimes, these issues are rarely discussed.   It seems so straight forward it’s silly, but in reality we don’t talk about these things. Only 40% of rapes are ever reported.
Breaking this habit of silence and talking about these issues is the first step in dismantling a society that universally condones gender violence. It’s not easy, but it is necessary for survivors and supporters (both male and female!) to step up and fight these issues.
So how do we find the right routes for our voices to take? How can we be heard? I think we should pick up on what the writers of the anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence are putting down. Over 100 women American poets challenge the current narrative on gender violence and use their experiences to help bring to light the issues that many other women face but let their fear and shame choke their voices.  The synopsis of the book states that, “The critical introduction frames the intellectual work behind the building of the anthology by describing how poets break silence, disrupt narratives, and use strategic anger to resist for change. Poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act.”  Do you see what can be achieved by doing this?  
They are writing about their experiences and using poetry as a platform for social change.  They are not just sharing their experiences, but challenging us to change our lives so that these experiences will never be repeated.  They know that they do not just speak for themselves but for the thirty-one million women in America who have or will experience some form of gender violence—whether it be domestic or otherwise. 
In an overwhelmingly busy world, sometimes we forget that our words are powerful.  We can use our writing as a platform to let the world know that gender violence is unacceptable, and we are done staying quiet. So pick up a pen, and challenge our current world. Change our narrative.  Speak loudly and, if you are afraid, remember those who cannot lend their voice. Together with our words we can do anything.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Latino Voices in U.S. Literature

Lucrecia Guerrero
The United States is a cultural patchwork made up of indigenous peoples and immigrants from all over the world.  Our literature is all the richer for this great diversity of voices that color uniquely American stories with a variety of hues and textures.   One of the cultural patches in our American quilt is being celebrated September 15—October 15: Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month. 
My own writing reflects my mixed Latino/Anglo heritage.  I grew up in a bilingual and bicultural home on the U.S./Mexico border, a place where cultures meet and blend. 
My mother, a wonderful story teller, introduced us kids to her hometown of Ashland, Kentucky by sharing anecdotes about family and others.  Mommy sang us English and Irish ballads, a legacy of stories hundreds of years old.  She prepared soup beans and baked pones of cornbread in an iron skillet; served bowls of warm peach or apple cobbler with cream drizzled over it; and fried up platters of fried green tomatoes.  She showed us her love—and shared her heritage—through her stories, her music, her cooking. 
My father, in turn, connected us to our family ties in Mexico.  He told us stories of maiden aunts who searched for Pancho Villa’s treasures.  Papi introduced us to traditional dishes from different regions of Mexico but mostly from his state of Puebla, food influenced by indigenous people and the Spanish and French: salpicón, a cold salad of seasoned beef on romaine; mole poblano, a savory chocolate sauce; chiles enogadas, poblano chiles stuffed and covered with a sweet sauce and pomegranate seeds.   He took us on driving excursions through Mexico, pointing out different customs and historical backgrounds as we went along. 
As I am fond of saying: I grew up eating biscuits and gravy with a jalapeño on the side.  This statement is true, both literally and figuratively.  And, for me, it adds another layer to my life’s experiences—and to my writing.
Among the U.S. Latino writers, you’ll find a great diversity of styles and stories.  So many that I can not do them justice in such a short article.  On this IWC blog, Kathryn Page Camp mentioned books for young people and children.  Julie Demoff-Larson, in her blog contribution, focused on the Nuyoricans, writers of Puerto Rican heritage writing out of the New York area.    
Maybe your tastes run more toward the fantastical:  try Manuel Lopéz’s The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and experience his intelligence, wit, and insight as he regales you with these strange stories.  And, yes, zombies are included.  Or if you like the experimental, Daniel Chacón’s Hotel Juárez short stories and flash fiction bring to mind the writing style of Jorge Luis Borges. 
If family drama or the fantastical is not for you, you might want to try a mystery: Desperado, a Mile High Noir by Manuel Ramos is one I really enjoyed.  Perhaps you prefer something with more indigenous influence.  In flesh to bone, Ire’ne Lara Silva weaves stories steeped in the myths of the indigenous people of Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. 
I’ve barely dusted the surface of the wonderful literature available in the U.S. Latino category.  I hope you’ll be moved to sample some of these uniquely American voices that will introduce you to the “exotic” while anchoring you in stories that deal with universal themes, those human concerns that pull you into a well-written story.
Lucrecia Guerrero’s short works have appeared in journals such as Glimmer Train and The Antioch Review.  Chasing Shadows, a collection of linked short stories, was published by Chronicle Books.  Tree of Sighs, her award-winning novel, was published by Bilingual Press at Arizona State University.  She is currently at work on a second novel, tentatively titled Midnight in Mad River.  She lives in Indiana and is available for presentations and to facilitate creative writing workshops.