Spring Update

Today marks the spring equinox, but it’s still snowing like mad up here in the North Country. Never have I spent so much time indoors as these past three months, though I’ve learned that the best way to deal with a long hard winter is to embrace it by cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, maple-tapping, and swilling hot toddies around the fireplace.

So 2013! It started with an investigative reporting trip to South Texas (subject of my next book about living in the borderlands) and then I returned to upstate New York to teach travel writing and an introductory creative nonfiction class at St. Lawrence University. I’ve also been hosting the Viebranz Salon Series, which entails throwing glitzy catered parties featuring local writers and musicians every couple of months at the Kohlberg House, and partaking in our Writer’s Series. In February, I had the honor of introducing one of my literary heroes, Rebecca Solnit (whose Field Guide to Getting Lost is an endless source of inspiration). In March, I had the great fortune of hearing Pam Houston …

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48 Hours in Quebec City

Up here in the North Country, the surest sign that there will, in fact, be an end to the long, dark months of subzero nights and triple-fleece days is not the melting of snow or the emergence of squirrels or the arrival of V-flying geese, but the curlicues of fragrant steam rising from tiny wooden sugar shacks out in the forest. It is maple-tapping time in upstate New York, which means all the trees are wearing tin buckets around their waists, which emit a marvelous plink-plink sound when the sap trickles out. I have, in the past two weeks, discovered the joys not only of hot maple syrup slow-boiled in a sugar pan for six hours and drizzled over oatmeal, but also maple butter, maple cream, maple lollipops, maple cookies, and maple leaf-shaped lumps of maple sugar.

Another sign that spring will someday surface: a weeklong break from university life! My family flew out to join me for a road trip to Quebec. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’ve been working …

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Going Down Under

As 2012 fades into memory, I wanted to share one of its personal highlights with you: my two-week journey Down Under. I could say its impetus was the NonfictioNow Conference, held this year at RMIT in Melbourne and sponsored by my alma mater, the University of Iowa, but the truth is, I’ve been dreaming of Australia since I was eight years old and started swapping stickers with another little girl there. I’d send her Lisa Frank stickers of rainbow unicorns; she’d return fat envelopes spilling with kangaroos in boxing gloves, koala bears with googly eyes, and scratch-n-sniff jars of Vegemite, all of which seemed impossibly otherworldy to me. Australia was the first place I ever hoped to visit.

Counting from the moment I rolled out of my driveway in Canton, New York to the instant I pulled up to my hotel in Melbourne, it took 38 hours to get there. Rather than collapse into bed, I called my dear friend Sree, whom I met last year at the Overseas Writing Workshop in the Philippines, and she …

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The Torture of Solitary

April marks the 40th year anniversary of solitary confinement of the Angola 3 (two elderly Black Panthers doing time in Louisiana). The Wilson Quarterly just published an essay I wrote about their plight, and the tens of thousands of other prisoners enduring this mental torture in the United States. Here is the opening segment:

Here is what I knew about Joe Loya before stepping into his car: During a 14-month stretch in the late 1980s, he stole a quarter-million dollars from 30 Southern California banks by donning a tailored suit and, occasionally, a fedora, striding up to bank tellers, and, in a low and smoky voice, demanding all their money. His panache earned him the nickname “The Beirut Bandit” because, he said, “no one could believe a Mexican from East L.A. could be so smooth.” He was finally bum-rushed by undercover agents while reading the newspaper at a UCLA campus café. (His girlfriend had tipped them off.) As he served out a seven-year prison sentence, he grew increasingly violent, once …

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A Sort of Homecoming

I’m happy to announce that The Florida Review has just published the first chapter of my thesis/next book. It’s called “A Sort of Homecoming” and here’s a little taste:

I am so starved for company, even a dead man’s would do.

Stamping on my boots, I follow a trail leading into a desert jungle thick with yucca and mesquite. Rain is so scant in this swath of South Texas, trees grow out instead of up, fusing together like brush. In some patches, you can’t see but two feet beyond. But it’s noisy here—gloriously noisy. Beetles munch through mounds of deer dung. Orange-bellied orioles and dust-colored sparrows twitter from treetops while flocks of chachalacas cluck about. My boots trample footprints, paw prints, hoof prints.

A chain link fence appears up ahead, enclosing acres of cleared land. The ranch hands call it Cowboy Cemetery. I pace among the graves, peering at the sunken stones. In the olden days, families carved the names of their departed into planks of wood and thrust them into the …

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Introducing Pico Iyer

As some of you know, I’m on the verge of completing my MFA at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Last night was the highlight of my entire experience here: I was asked to introduce my literary idol, Pico Iyer, at a reading he gave for some 250 writers and students. I thought I would share it here, as a tribute to my long-time muse.

We have gathered here tonight for the pleasure of hearing Pico Iyer discuss his latest book, The Man Within My Head, about his lifelong fascination with the writer Graham Greene. The irony of giving this introduction is that, for the past 12 years, I have been fascinated with Pico Iyer. So, before he dazzles us with what it’s like having Mr. Greene inside his head, let me share what it’s like having Pico inside my own.

It started with an essay he wrote for Salon in 2000 called “Why We Travel.” Having spent years trying to justify my own wanderlust to my family, I was startled …

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Interview with Carolyn Nash

One of the sweetest joys of teaching is reveling in your students’ successes. So I was thrilled when I arrived home yesterday to find RAISING ABEL in my mailbox. I worked with its deeply talented author (who is publishing under the name Carolyn Nash for this project) last summer at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She astounded us all with the power of her story about raising two adopted sons, one of whom had suffered extreme abuse in his previous family. Here is an interview she recently conducted about adoption, writing, and life. 

Tell us about yourself.

I am the very lucky mother of two sons, 21 and 6. I say lucky because they are adopted and I swear I got the two best in the world. What are the chances? I mean one, sure, but two? Unfortunately, my older son didn’t come to me until he was almost 4, and much happened in his early years. My younger son came to me at 3 weeks and is deliciously obnoxious as …

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As y’all may have heard, Latino Studies has essentially been banned in the state of Arizona. My amazing friends at Nuestra Palabra, a literary arts organization in Houston, Texas, are currently organizing a Librotraficante caravan to Tucson to smuggle “wet-books” across the border.

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Free Online Class!

Something exciting is brewing over here:

The International Writing Program at the University of Iowa has recently started hosting international distance-learning courses that pair classrooms from such far-flung areas as Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Egypt with Iowa City. I’ve just been invited to teach an online course on International Issues in Creative Nonfiction: Immigration with Mariana Martinez Estens, a journalist and poet from Tijuana, Mexico. It’s looking like I will have at least one slot available to offer readers of this blog.

Here are the deets:

As a class, we’ll be reading four books about immigration: Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, What is the What, by Dave Eggers, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, and Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. We’ll be writing brief (350 word) academic and creative responses for each book; writing two 5-6 page workshop essays; participating in two sessions of Elluminate (which is like Skype on steroids) with our colleagues in Tijuana (all of whom write and speak in English); and commenting on each other’s work. The creative responses will …

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The Michelangelo of New Mexico

I am so happy to share that The Believer has just published my profile of master frescoist Frederico Vigil in their November/December annual arts issue. Writing and publishing this essay was a year-long endeavor, which seems daunting until I realize that’s only one-tenth of the time it took Vigil to paint the fresco in the first place. It was a deep honor to pay tribute to an artist I profoundly admire. Here is a taste of the essay:

Frederico Vigil is afraid of heights.

“When I first went up here to paint the ceiling, I would clench the bottom with my toes como chango, like a monkey. I clenched so tight, my two big toenails popped off.”

A scissor-lift ascended through the middle of the watchtower. The enormity of Vigil’s latest work—a four-thousand-square-foot fresco depicting three thousand years of Latino history—became even more apparent from an elevation. There was Benito Juárez. A steam train blazing out of California. Oxen pulling carts along the Camino Real. A smirking Cervantes. Each image gleamed as if painted a moment …

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Interview with Wendy Call

The loveliest aspect of living in Iowa City is that practically every writer waltzes through at some point. This Tuesday (10/18) at 7 p.m., Prairie Lights will be hosting Wendy Call, author of myriad stories and essays as well as the just-released No Word For Welcome, a book of narrative nonfiction exploring how economic globalization intersects with village life in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. We shared an epic meal a few nights ago, trading anecdotes about the writing biz:

Tell us about your journey toward becoming a writer.

I grew up wanting to be both a scientist and a writer. When I was seventeen, the latter seemed like a pipe dream, and the former, a rational career choice. I wrote “biology” on the “intended major” line of my college application and never reconsidered that choice. I probably should have. At the end of every semester of my college career, I received a strong urging to reconsider – in the form of a grade report that highlighted my facility in the humanities and …

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Interview with Mary Jo McConahay

Exciting news for all you Latinistas out there: journalist and documentary filmmaker Mary Jo McConahay has just released a new book about 30 years of travels across southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. Along the way, she witnessed the transformation of the Lacandon people, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and the onslaught of the drug war. Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest was recently named “Book of the Month” by National Geographic Traveler Magazine.

Maya Roads documents your thirty-year experience — I was going to say love affair — with the Central American rainforest.  We’re talking jungle here, right? As in, eight-foot snakes?

We are talking jungle, its beauty, magic, and violence, too, but also unforgettable people, archaeological digs, ancient towns and the crown jewel of the region’s colonial cities, San Cristobal de las Casas. Classic Maya rainforest cities such as Palenque, Tikal in Guatemala and the city of paintings, Bonampak, are reached fairly easily these days by travelers, even though they are …

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