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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Living in the North Country

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I recently left my cozy writer’s pad in Iowa City and moved up to the North Country.  Where’s that, you ask? I could say “upstate New York,” but to some folks, that indicates anything north of the Bronx. No, my friends: the North Country is north of the Catskills, north of the Adirondacks, north of Syracuse, even. The only thing we’re south of is Canada (and that’s just 20 miles away). It is the most isolated corner of the Empire State, a starkly beautiful region of rolling hills and glimmering lakes and pine trees you can breathe.

So what is it like living in a town of 6,000—nearly half of whom are undergrads? Well, I hadn’t been here a week when I opened my back door one morning to find an armload of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions piled atop the mat. Whoever left it wrote no note; it would be a month before a colleague mentioned it was her husband. “We just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood,” she said. Indeed. There is …

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Count On Me

I am so proud to announce the release of COUNT ON ME: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships, by the amazing Latina networking organization Las Comadres. Editor Adriana Lopez gathered some top-notch Latina writers–including Esmeralda Santiago, Lorraine Lopez, Sofia Quintero, Reyna Grande, Michelle Herrera Mulligan, and our beloved compadre Luis Alberto Urrea–and asked them to write a tribute to their closest friend (or comadre). The result is a deeply moving anthology of a dozen essays that officially goes on sale September 4!

Here is a taste of my own contribution to the anthology, “Road Sisters.”

We were hungry, we were tired, and we were lost. Daphne was in the driver’s seat; I was navigating (and failing). We had been driving for three hours by that point, searching for Chilchinbito – a village so tiny, it didn’t appear on our Arizona atlas. We had been told that the Cowboy family might host us for the night, but they had no phone to confirm this. And so, we were relying on faith, blind faith. Faith …

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48 Hours: Twin Cities

With one month left of Midwest residency, I’m scrambling to see as much as I can. Last weekend, a friend and I hit the Twin Cities—a bucket list destination for me, as Minnesota was the second-to-last state I had yet to explore (Hawaii being the final 50th). We spent weeks plotting the trip, prioritizing food and art. Here’s the skinny:

ST. PAUL 

F. Scott Fitzgerald is St. Paul’s sacred son, so our first quest was tracing his route to literary fame through one of the city’s prized neighborhoods. (This helpful site provided the deets.) The historic homes here were beautiful: Queen Annes with scalloped woodwork and wrap-around porches alongside Romanesque brownstones draped in ivy. I especially liked the snippets of prose engraved in the sidewalk, including this poem by Carlee Tressel called “Second Love”:

He kissed the girl in the ballerina skirt. It was a long one— like the kiss— drenching her sneakers in tulle.

Most of the sites were scattered along Summit Avenue, which Fitzgerald famously (and drunkenly) ran up and …

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Spain & Lisboa: Let’s Go-a!

Friends: I have returned from one of the most restorative viajes I’ve taken in a long, long time: two weeks in Spain and Portugal (well, Lisbon anyway). The impetus was the 8th International Conference on Chicano Literature in Toledo, where my good friend Santiago landed us a slot on a panel, and an invitation to speak at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. But really, who needs a reason to roam around Southern Europe? You pack your Don Quijote and Pessoa and you go-a.

I arrived to Madrid on a 7:30 a.m. flight and, without having slept in 22 hours, raced off to see my friend/former student Tomas, who lives in a fabulous apartment owned by Penelope Cruz’s agent in the Malasana district. Much rejoicing ensued as we hit the cobblestone streets. Two prized finds: Ojala, a most excellent boutique where every item is designed and hand-stitched by Paloma del Pozo  (and where sleep-deprivation almost induced me to buy a 285 Euro flaming red raincoat that would have required the …

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Life on Refinery Row

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am currently writing a book about social justice issues in South Texas. Earth Island Journal just published a chapter of it concerning Dona Park, a community on the outskirts of Corpus Christi that has long suffered the effects of living in close quarters to the city’s petrochemical industry. Here is a taste (with photos by Carrie Robertson of Third Coast Photo):

For three generations the Foster family has worked for the petrochemical refineries of Corpus Christi, Texas. They’ve lived there too, smack in the middle of Refinery Row—a 15-mile stretch of industrial development that is one of the thickest concentrations of refineries in the nation. Citgo, Valero, and Flint Hills Resources (formerly known as Koch) run two sites apiece, with a gas processing unit, tank farms, and a slew of chemical manufacturers shuffled in between. For three quarters of a century, this futuristic forest of pipe and steel has not only been the landscape of the Fosters’ lives but the source of their livelihood …

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El Gran Midwest Viaje

In less than two months, I’ll be leaving Iowa City, my home of three years. Due to my lack of (car) wheels, my knowledge of this city consists of a one-mile radius, and I know even less of the state. So I was thrilled when two dear friends from Washington DC swept me up for a three-day road trip.

Our first stop: the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library. (Did I mention these friends were from DC? Yes indeed: one is a political biographer and the other works for the Obama campaign, so presidential libraries are their thing.) As it turns out, this man Hoover was orphaned in West Branch, Iowa at the age of 10, educated at Stanford, honeymooned in China during the Boxer Rebellion, became a wildly popular president without ever having run for political office before (and then became a dreadfully unpopular one after the Great Depression), and then retired at the swanky Waldorf Astoria in NYC. After getting our history fix, we romped around Main Street, which consists of …

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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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