2016: Year in Review

Feliz 2017, everyone, and farewell to 2016. Between Syria, Brexit, Orlando, and our electoral apocalypse, it’s hard to separate 2016 from its tragedies. So much rage, so much ache. And I doubt that the headlines of its first two weeks have allayed anyone’s anxiety about 2017. It feels like a thousand marbles are crashing down upon our heads at once, each one representing a different program or ideal that has long been a touchstone for many of us, now racing out of reach. As individuals, we cannot chase after all of them at once; indeed, we’d fall if we tried. But if we strategize about who runs where after what, we have a shot at maintaining our nation’s integrity.

I feel many emotions about 2017: fear, anxiety, dread. But hope is among them—a great deal, in fact. And I attribute that to being a writer. Even when my subject matter tends toward the brutal, I meet extraordinary people because of it. People of wisdom, people of grace. They are the fuel I will draw upon in the (4?) year(s) ahead. …

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Art Against The Wall

Happy Spring, everybody!

I am thrilled to share that my story about artists’ response to the U.S./Mexico border wall has been published this month by the Oxford American. Here is the opening:

The first object revealed itself immediately: a man’s black Reebok, size nine. That there was only one, inches from the iron bars, implied struggle. The absence of dust on the shoe—which coats everything in this swath of Texas—meant it hadn’t been here long.

“It wasn’t when I took my walk this morning,” said Mark Clark, a painter who lives half a mile away.

I noticed a second object in the dirt: a water bottle. Like the sneaker, it was also stranded in the no-man’s land on the other side of the wall, between the eighteen-foot-tall barrier and the Rio Grande. My friend, the artist Susan Harbage Page, saw the bottle, too. After making a photo with her Canon 5D, she slipped her fingers through the three-inch gap between the pylons. She unscrewed the bottle’s cap. Carbonated water fizzed out, drenching her sleeves. She drained and tugged the …

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India at last!

Before summer falls to autumn, I thought I’d share the story of its passage, starting with my trip to the Sangam House near Bangalore, India in May.

First some background: India is the country I have most wanted to visit for more than two decades now. In 1999, I landed a job at a feminist magazine in Delhi, bought a plane ticket and a visa, and even secured an apartment—only to cancel the trip when my dad was diagnosed with cancer two weeks before my departure. Thankfully, he pulled through like a champ, and when it seemed like I could reschedule the trip several months later, I bought a package of Hindi language tapes to start preparing. Every single one of them, however, was blank. Then I visited the local Indian restaurant (in Corpus Christi, Texas) to try to find a language tutor there. Nope: it had just gone out of business. At that point, an Indian friend sat me down and said, “How many signs do you need? It’s clearly not the time for you to go to …

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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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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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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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Labor Day Update

Hope y’all are having a peaceful and relaxing Labor Day weekend. The sun is shining out my window, but as of 5:15 p.m. Sunday, I have yet to greet it: there’s too crazy much to do! Some updates I’d love to share with you:

* Travelers’ Tales just sent me a box full of the latest translation of 100 Places Every Woman Should Go, from Korea. I can’t believe how thick it is–nearly double the heft of the original. Too bad I can’t read a word… though the layout/design/photography is terrific. Here’s the cover:

Que fun, no?

* The Believer has bought my profile of master frescoist Frederico Vigil! I met this extraordinary artist last May, when I was teaching at the National Latino Writers Conference at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, and was so blown away by his latest work–a 4,000 square foot fresco detailing 3,000 years of Latino history–I interviewed him on the spot. I returned to Albuquerque last October for the grand opening of the fresco, …

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Postcard from the Philippines

I’ve been meaning to write about my trip to the Philippines for weeks now, but life keeps intervening! In short, it was extraordinary.

The inspiration behind the journey was the 50th anniversary of the National Writers Workshop at Silliman University in Dumaguete, aka the oldest creative writing program in Asia. Founded by two graduates of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (the venerable Edith and Edilberto Tiempo), the NWW gathers more than a dozen Filipino essayists, novelists, poets, and playwrights around a table for an Iowa-style workshop for three weeks each year. We — the thirty members of Iowa’s Overseas Writing Workshop — arrived just in time to help them celebrate at a gala complete with singing, dancing, “magisterial photos,” and a blow-out feast of lechon (a young roasted pig that is crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and delicious through and through).

From there, we spent about 20 days island-

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Existential Migration

My friend Sree (a Malaysian/Australian writer I recently met in the Philippines) just forwarded a link to a book that seems to encapsulate what I’ve been struggling with for much of my adult life: existential migration. Here’s a snippet from the website of Greg Madison, author of The End of Belonging:

“Unlike economic migration, simple wanderlust, exile, or variations of forced migration, ‘existential migration’ is conceived as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner.

This concept arose from interviews with voluntary migrants from around the world now living in London. The study generated impressively consistent themes such as the importance of trying to fulfil individual potentials, the importance of freedom and independence, openness to experiences of the mystery of life, and the valuing of difference and foreignness as a stimulus to personal awareness and broadening perspectives.

Among this population there is a marked preference for the strange and foreign over the familiar or conventional. As well as the new concept of existential migration, the research proposes a novel definition of home as interaction; that the ‘feeling …

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Intro to Travel Writing

I’m psyched to announce that I’ll be teaching an 8-week, online Intro to Travel Writing class with Media Bistro, from June 7 – August 2. Here’s the skinny, from their website:

Travel the world and get paid for it? Yes, it’s true! Whether a long weekend in Mendocino or a long walk across Nepal, there’s a market out there for your stories, and a proven path that successful travel writers follow. In this course, you’ll learn how to grow your freelance writing career by mastering one of its most adaptable, engaging genres: travel.

Travel writing is a conduit to many parallel genres, from food to art, politics to technology, and the skills and experience you’ll gain covering travel can be applied to all your writings. In week one, we’ll fully assess the travel writing market (magazines, newspapers, guidebooks, websites, blogs, and more) and set individual writing agendas for the duration of class. In following weeks we’ll reveal the inner workings of the field, showing how travel editors think and what they want from their writers. We’ll diagram the many different …

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48 Hours in Singapore

Apologies for the silence: February was one of the most manic months I’ve had in ages. Not only am I teaching two classes this semester, but I am also taking two classes, so traveling has become quite the juggling act. Two weeks ago, I did one of my craziest trips ever: flew 24 hours to Singapore, stayed 48 hours, and then flew 24 hours back. Between the jetlag and the uber-futuristic architecture, it felt a bit like time-traveling!

So what inspired this journey? A travel writing conference sponsored by the beautiful people at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Sixteen scholars and authors from Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, England, and Iowa (!) gathered to discuss the state of travel letters from a variety of lenses and perspectives. Topics included everything from a Bakhtinian reading of nineteenth century women’s writings about Italy to war diaries by Japanese conscripts in the Russo-Japanese War. I gave my first-ever academic paper (well… an essay with a lot of footnotes) called …

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