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Hoppin’ John Fiddle Fest

Things I Seen, Things I Done at the 7th Annual Hoppin’ John Old-Time and Bluegrass Fiddler’s Convention in Shakori Hills, North Carolina:

* Getting asked “Where’s yer fiddle?” by every other person I pass, and “Where’s yer banjo?” by all the rest

* A guy who stands nearly seven feet high, naked beneath his overalls, walking through the forest playing a ukulele

* A woman with the voice of a Dixie angel, strumming a guitar with a strap depicting The Last Supper

* A boozy woman telling her boozy husband, “You’d never keep me home if I had a voice like that,” to which he replies, “Well I wouldn’t want you to. If you had a voice like that, we’d have ourselves a destination.”

* Three fiddlers, two guitarists, a banjoist, and a stand-up bassist huddling beneath a tarp in the forest, playing fiercely through the rain, and then, when their song draws to a triumphant finish, introducing themselves to each other

* An older woman with tattooed breasts wishing to sit, finding a chair occupied by a banjo, picking …

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Code 500

On this day celebrating Mexico’s Independence, I toast the Oxford American for publishing my essay “Code 500,” about witnessing the aftermath of a border-crossing in the desert jungle of Brooks County, Texas. Below is an excerpt; please email me for the full story.

The first thing Brooks County lead investigator Danny Davila wants to know is whether I have a weak stomach. We are sitting in his cramped office at the sheriff’s department in Falfurrias, Texas, on a sweltering July afternoon. Before I can respond, he slides a three-ring binder my way. “The Dead Book,” he calls it. Inside are dozens of laminated photographs of the remains of the 34 undocumented immigrants who have died in the county’s scrub brush in 2012, presumably while sidestepping the nearby U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint.

“This is the American dream,” Davila says, spreading his arms wide, as if to signal beyond the cedar-paneled room, “and this is where it stops, right here.” He thumps the binder with his forefinger.

I grasp the Dead Book with both …

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Sweet Caroline

Hola from Carrboro, North Carolina—the first place I have ever visited without a return ticket. What brought me here? Well, tomorrow, I’ll be starting a new job as Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. That’s right: in twenty-four hours, I’ll be nomadic no more. A radical life change, to be sure, but if there is a place on this planet where I am capable of settling, this is it.

Getting here was quite the journey. Late June, I packed all my books, files, and shoes into 64 boxes and watched three strangers load them into an eighteen-wheeler and haul them away (along with my credit card number). A few days later, a friend and I piled in to Kimchi (the little red Hyundai I reluctantly purchased last summer, after a lifetime of auto-avoidance) and commenced an 800-mile road trip from the North Country to the Deep South.

One stop of note was Ithaca, New York, a place I’ve …

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Dizzy in Karachi

I first learned of Maliha Masood’s work while editing Best Women’s Travel Writing back in 2010. Tim Leffel of Perceptive Travel nominated her return-to-motherland essay “Breaking Frontiers” for the anthology, and it deeply resonated within me. Having left her native Pakistan for the United States as a teenager, she too understands the complexities of identity. So I am happy to announce the publication of her new book, Dizzy in Karachi: A Journey to Pakistan, just out with the Seattle house Booktrope. It recounts her return to Pakistan after landing a summer internship in Islamabad.

Tell us the story behind the title of your book.

The title is a play on words. Dizzy has a dual meaning. It refers to Dizzy Gillespie, who performed in Karachi back in 1956. The concert was a huge success and nurtured an entire generation of Pakistanis who were influenced by American pop culture, my father among them. He was a major jazz buff while growing up in Pakistan. Then one day, out of …

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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 …

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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, …

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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 …

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