Part I: Family Memories and Stories
From Havana, Cuba to Decatur, Georgia
I was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1960, and I came to the U.S. when I was three as a refugee. And I grew up in the most unusual place if you think of it in terms of story. You would have sent me to Miami in a novel. But I ended up instead in this microcosm of a town, this little tiny bedroom community, Decatur, Georgia. Or as you know back then I'd love to say to Decatur, Georgia. Or as my mother would say it with her Cuban accent, Decatur, Georgia.
And that, those two accents tell you how far away these two cultures were from one another. And no one spoke Spanish in Decatur that we knew of. There were a couple of translators. But really there weren't services. There were very few people that did language midwifery, if you will. So whether it was school or anything else, you had to sink or swim. I would tell you that it was horrible, but I believe in real stories. And sometimes it was very difficult and sometimes there were such moments of grace.
I, of course, encountered people who were resistant to this group of bedraggled foreigners who arrived in this little town. But see the town had room for us. It made room for us. Didn't feel threatened and it didn't feel crowded, for whatever reason. And so we entered their churches and synagogues and schools, sometimes on the playground, or in any of those other places, there were people who were unwelcoming, I would say the same number who opened their homes, who taught my mother how to cook, "the grit," while my mother taught café con leche classes to her Sunday school ladies, how to make café con leche.
How our new home came to life
I mostly remember of course at first tremendous sadness, which is part I think of any child's experience when they are a refugee or even an immigrant. The difference of course — refugees don't choose to leave, whether it's a tidal wave, a revolution, a civil war, they usually leave hurriedly, they take nothing with them and they don't know when they'll ever return. So there's a pathos I think involved in that, the children osmose. And it was so different. It was so very different from my island home. It was cold. And I had always felt warm on the coldest night. It was alien, the flora. And we arrived in February, the trees were dead. The bushes were dead. The grass was dead. My father would say el lugar de los muertos. "We have come to the place of the dead."
But much like the topography, spring came. Spring in the south. Cherry blossoms, dogwoods, forsythias, tulips. And much like the spring, southerners came to life as well, many of them. And I'll always remember their names. Dr. John P. Heard, who took Cuban refugees and didn't charge them. Mr. and Mrs. Leslie gave us an apartment above their home to live in. Mrs. Leslie was a survivor from Bergen-Belsen. Her husband was a POW and they met after the war. And it wasn't until I was an adult woman that I realized why she was so kind to me and to my sister. But to me especially. I was three, my sister was ten. She let me walk around and hold her dress while she worked in the garden and just follow her.
It turns out that Mrs. Leslie had taken care of children in the camp. And she died a sort of ignoble death. She fell one Christmas going down an escalator, her arms full of Christmas presents. She lived for a while in a nursing home in a coma. It just seemed like such a terrible death for such a kind person. So what was it like? It was like life.
Why a special neighbor took me in
Mr. and Mrs. Leslie gave us an apartment above their home to live in. Mrs. Leslie was a survivor from Bergen-Belsen. Her husband was a POW and they met after the war. And it wasn't until I was an adult woman that I realized why she was so kind to me and to my sister. But to me especially. I was three, my sister was ten. She let me walk around and hold her dress while she worked in the garden and just follow her.
It turns out that Mrs. Leslie had taken care of children in the camp. And she died a sort of ignoble death. She fell one Christmas going down an escalator her arms full of Christmas presents. She lived for a while in a nursing home in a coma. It just seemed like such a terrible death for such a kind person. So what was it like? It was like life.
Looking for home
There are two things refugees never forget. What they took with them when they left, if anything, usually it's the most precious thing you have, because you have no time. And that's what you run for. Or, well, and I should say, not or, your last look back at the place you will always call home. So be aware that for your children, the smallest thing could be a treasure. A pencil that looks like a pencil they left back home. A book or a story.
I told Martina, the Beautiful Cockroach once in a school and this little girl was laughing and laughing and laughing and then she was crying and crying and crying. And I almost stopped the story. When we were done, I asked the teacher to bring her over. She was from Iran. The story is originally Persian and her grandmother who she left behind would tell it to her. So the Cuban storyteller told her this Persian story and there was home. So refugees are always looking for home.
When your child stops in that classroom and something affects them, sometimes they just need that moment. Acknowledge it.
The printed word belongs to all children
My father learned to read when he was 14 years old. He was born into the Cuban depression. His brothers and sisters all read, his mother read. They were all readers. But it was a time of abysmal poverty, gnawing hunger. And when he refused to go to school, because he didn't like the long days and the stinging yardstick, as he said to me once, "It was not my cup of café con leche," my grandmother found out about his truancy and his hooliganism, because he'd also been pelting his teacher with rocks on the poor man's evening constitutionals. My father was six. And she didn't have the time, the energy, she was a woman I suspect long ago defeated by poverty and fertility, she said, "You decide, you don't want to go to school, you're going to work on the farm with your brothers and sisters." And he was delighted.
But by the time he was 14 he wasn't reading, he couldn't read. He had a wonderful life, though. I mean, he would tell me even, he'd say, "Don't tell your mother," my mother didn't like some of these stories, "I was a wild boy. I would spend my days plundering mango groves, chasing guinea hens, going to the river, laying on the rocks like a lizard in the sun. And I'm so sorry Mi hija that you will never, ever experience the joys of a feral childhood." These were the stories he would tell me that I loved.
But he told me once how he learned to read and why. I asked him when I was a young author and I was working more and more with children on the margins of literacy, these little border dwellers in everything from urban areas to tiny rural dusty towns. And I wanted to know, and wanted to understand the mind of, and we think of it as an insult, as a slur almost, of an illiterate person.
There were a couple of things he told me I'll never forget. One was he said, "Do not think that because I didn't read — I could not decode — I didn't have an entire universe of stories inside of me. I was the hero of all of my games. I was a pirate of the river. I was fighting the Revolutionary War," different one than yours. And so forth.
The other thing he told me was that when he did learn to read thanks to an irascible, ill-tempered baker who agreed to teach him, when my father had actually come back to throw rocks at that man, because he had insulted him, when that man taught him how to read my father said it was like the tumblers in a lock falling into place, click, click, click. And from that moment they started with Prince Valiant, syndicated from the U.S. to Cuba, and to this tiny town in Florida and within weeks he said, "We were reading the more colorful obituaries."
And he said his brain had become a kerosene fire. He was seeing words stamped on the heads of nails, words splashed on the backs of iodine bottles, words that appeared you know on storefronts that he's always seen but never seen before. Not decoded them, not read them. And when I said, "But why didn't you try? Why didn't you at some point ask?" And he said, "It was the depression." And this is it, here it is. "Like new shoes and shiny toys I was a poor boy, I didn't think the printed word belonged to me."
If I would leave you with anything, what we see often among our children if we could just understand it as educators, as writers, as literacy experts, as people who just give a damn, if children do not believe the printed word belongs to them why, particularly if they have things like learning disabilities, would they go through the torturous work of learning how to read? How to read English, with its gerunds and diphthongs and thousands of grammatical rules that sometimes seem at war with each other?
You must believe, you must believe, no matter where you come from, the poorest home, paper-poor homes we call them, that the wisdom of the ages printed are there for you at any time and no one can stand between those words and that knowledge and you. No one has that right. That's why literacy matters.
Part II: On Storytelling
How do you tell stories? You listen.
I think every writer is influenced by the manner of their birth, the path their life takes, the people they're exposed to. For me, I'm dyslexic. I'm an audio-dyslexic. I hear phonemes unclearly. Sometimes they're like the visual equivalent of HD and sometimes they're like the old zenith television, crrrr, so I read lips a lot. English is my second language. I'm not the kid you would have pegged as a writer, ever. And rightly so.
Why words? In part because I loved sounds. I loved stories. I grew up with Cuban storytellers and southern storytellers. It was a double whammy. How do you tell stories? You listen.
Origins of great stories
It seems strange because I mean I come from a family of talkers and of storytellers, people who love to narrate. I don't mean people who just create artificial situations, who just extrapolate, I mean, people who can just take something that just happened, the smallest bit of fabric and create an entire quilt. You're mesmerized.
So I've always loved oral storytelling, the listening of it. You have to hear stories for a very long time to understand tension and release, to understand why minor characters matter, to understand why the crone in the wood is so critical, as critical as the hero. And sometimes she is the hero. We don't know it.
When you know your folk tales and your fairy tales and your myths and legends, the "398." section of the local library, a beautiful place to visit that's to me, a very solid place to start with story. But where does your own voice come from? There is no, that's like what's the meaning of life. Everyone wants the answer. I can tell you my answer for me. And that's that … the more you tell the unbearable truths, the closer you come to finding your voice.
Folk tales tell us who we are
When I talk to children about folk tales and why they matter, not fairy tales so much, they took because they have their own truths, but folk tales specifically, fairy tales inevitably were going to have fairies and witches and gnomes and ogres and things that go boogity, boogity in the night. Folktales are exactly what they sound like. It's a compound word. Stories of the people, whether they be the Hmong refugees or they be the Tainos of Cuba or a Germanic tribe.
People as they evolve create their own stories. And those stories are meant to somehow guide that particular tribe and their ethos forward. It's not always a good one. It doesn't have to be. It tells us who they are. "This is who we are. These are our stories. This is how we think we should bury people. This is how we believe we treat the enemy after he's been vanquished, a vanquished foe. This is how we believe we treat the dying or the widow or the orphan. This is how we think fate works. This is how we believe about the afterlife."
They're meant to teach. They're meant to teach what that culture believes. And what's beautiful about them is that the really wonderful ones always have risen to the top and then travel the world. And the oldest Cinderella is Rhodopis and the Gilded Sandal. It's Egyptian.
A secret society of story-lovers
I have never known a time in my life when I did not love stories. And I don't believe that's peculiar to me. I believe there's a whole lot of people like that. I think it's, we're a secret society with a secret handshake.
The art of listening and remembering
There are televisions in restaurants, at the airport, in school, in the smallest place. And even if they're aren't, strangers who once talked to one another in bus stations are now swiping or watching or listening. To me that's not a moral judgment to say we should be cautious.
I don't fear that we will stop telling stories. We're finding ways to tell them now, through film, through blogs, through books and poems and music. What I feel is that we're reaching a place where it becomes difficult to listen to someone else's story, to stop, to be still. You see it requires stillness and attention. And it makes, you have to quiet your own mind to not want also to interrupt and become self-referential.
The art of conversation, which is one of the things that is in danger, I think, and critical to everything from wooing others, to love, to business dealings, to negotiating conflicts. The art of listening is critical to that. And that means that you have to listen to the other person without thinking the entire time, "This reminds me of this, oh, this happened to me, oh that's just like," … and it's very natural because we spend our days twittering and Facebooking, and I do Facebook. This is part of where we live.
I'm a grandmother, what about these young children who are seeing the world through a lens, who can be in a place where a building is burning down and you see a camera taking a picture of them taking a picture of the disaster.
Or a child's birthday party that they're experiencing through the lens. You say well, what's wrong with that? Well, because when they want the story of what happened that day, they will return to the recording. They will not return to the memory. They will not know how to reconstruct it and recount it using words. They will lose the art of story, I think. And I think that would be a terrible loss in this manner. I mean, the way we tell stories, because stories, we have the studies, it actually connects human beings, neurologically we connect when we tell stories. How cool is that?
Part III: On Books and Writing
Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A traveling folk tale
I have a book called "Martina the Beautiful Cockroach." And when I first say the name to children they all go, "Ewww!", because they're kids, and are like, "Tell us more."
Because they love things that are disgusting. And the idea of a beautiful cockroach? Oh, please, how could that be? That's what's wonderful about that story. When I researched that story, as it was nearing publication, I wasn't comfortable with what I'd found. Yes, it was a Cuban folktale because it was told in Cuba from the time even my grandmother's time and before. But it was also Central American.
And then I find this fantastic little book of folklore. It's out of print and it was Persian folktales. And inside there's a story called Mistress Cockroach. And there's Martina. Only in the Spanish version and Central and South American version she has a peine (a hair comb) and a mantilla, a lace shawl, and she sit on a balcon (a balcony).
In the Persian one, she had a purple dress made from the skin of an eggplant used often in Persian cooking. It's marvelous. But the story's the same. It's wonderful, wonderful. So why are these stories wonderful? I think they connect us, that's one of the things. They remind us we're part of one human family, with one narrative that changes clothes or eggplants from one place to the other.
It changes manner of dress. It travels now to, maybe to the U.S. And now the story becomes about a South Georgia farmer and he has a cockroach that keeps getting into the corn pen. And he sees he one day seated out there in her beautiful scarf and his fan and that, "How you doing this morning?"
The story behind "14 Cows for America"
I learned of the gift from the Masai in April I think it was after the 9/11 event. And I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, I still do, I was walking to my front door, early morning BC, that's before coffee in my house, I had a mug, nothing in it yet, and I opened the door and there was my New York Times. And there was a compelling picture, for one thing it was very bright, lots of reds, and then it spoke of some occurrence that had happened in Kenya related somehow to the 9/11 attack.
So I go into the kitchen, I pour my cup of coffee, I sit down and I start to read. And I'm first of course captured by the image, I'm a visual person, and so there were Messi women and they were holding this sign written in the most exquisite manner, it said we send these cows to help you 9/11 tragedy. And I thought what is this?
So I start reading and I find out that the story is one of a young man, a Masai who is, was in New York City when the towers fell, who returned to his tribe in Kenya, it's a little more complicated than that, but this is truncated, tells them the story of what happened to us. They had seen Americans as people who had cared for him while he was here, he had lived with many American families while he was at Stanford and so forth, and the chief said what can we do to help these poor people?
And it was decided among the elders and the tribe that they would give these cows to us. It would be 14 cows from a tribe of 500 or so people. This is like the U.S. giving away a couple of states. This is their wealth. If you know anything about the Masai, they have an incredible history. They are wandering tribe. I just couldn't believe it.
It was such a strange and wonderful story. The first to crawl out of the ashes, the detritus of that terrible event. But like all artists I wasn't ready to write about it. I mean, people weren't making music. They weren't writing poems. They weren't doing anything with it, because it's like you're stepping on holy ground, it's not the time.
So some years passed and then I was offered the Carson McCullers Fellowship in South Georgia. And I could only go for a short time. I had children at home. And I went down there to write an entirely book. And while I stayed, you actually stayed in Carson's house, and this is the story that came from there. And I did a lot of research in the interim of course and I interviewed a lot of people and eventually found the young man, Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, and asked his permission to tell the story, because it felt like that was important and respectful. And I'm not that nice, but this one I was pretty sure, God takes seventh circle of somewhere that you went to if you didn't check with Kimeli about this story.
And I said would you like to write? He said no, I don't feel like I can. But he read it and he agreed to it and seemed to have, meant a great deal to him. And to this day a portion of those books go to the tribe.
The legend of King Christian X
"Yellow Star" had some not so small controversy initially because it is a legend. And here we were how dare you tell a legend because it didn't rise up out of the mist of time. And that was my point. And I had to really wrangle with this in my own conscience, in my own soul. I love this story. It didn't, I didn't look for it; it came and sat on my lap and swung its little legs with its paten leather shoes. I was at a festival. I was there to see Donald Davis, incredible American storyteller. I never heard Donald Davis, because next to me sat a man that was, at very least an octogenarian. And he wanted to talk the entire time that Donald Davis was telling his stories.
And I am a Cuban woman brought up by a Cuban woman. I could not tell this elderly man that I didn't want to hear him or he had to be quiet or I was here to hear someone else. I just kept nodding my head and getting more and more frustrated and he just kept saying and have you heard the one about the Yellow Star, because that's an incredible story. You know that King Christian the 10th of Demark actually wore it, blah and blah and blah.
And then the program was over, everyone stood up and started to applaud and I had this niggling feeling that I had just heard something important and I turned around and this gentleman is gone. I don't see him again. I was at the National Storytelling Festival. I don't find him. No one's seen him. I call a friend of mine, a rabbi, Fred Davidow (ph.) and I ask Fred, "Fred, have you ever heard this story?" And this is what happened to me.
He goes, "Well, first of all, I have heard of it. Secondly, what just happened to you sometimes we say in the Jewish faith that the prophet Elijah comes down to earth, tells you something you need to know and bang the little man's gone." And I said, "Ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha." And I laughed with him over it and then later in quieter moments I thought I'd like to believe that, I'd like to think that it was a wonderful moment.
So I did a lot of research. And I discovered that there are absolutely no extent documents, there are no photographs. All that exists is a cartoon that came out in the London Times that had the king on horseback with a Star of David saying that he would be the first to wear it. Now there were witnesses who had heard the king argue with a German officer saying, "If you press this issue of the yellow star with Danish subjects I will be the first one to wear it." It was his threat that became legend.
The story of King Christian taking, threatening to take down the flag, same thing. The Nazi flag went up, the king had it taken down. They took down the Danish flag, put the Nazi flag back up. He had it taken down again. Well, now he has a general in front of him and the general says, "You send another soldier to take down that flag and I will shoot him," and the king said, "Then prepare to shoot the king."
It didn't fly again. But the king, I mean, it was difficult. It was a difficult time. And then it didn't fly again for a period of time. Actually I've never known exactly if it just didn't fly throughout the rest of the occupation. And we all know the marvelous story about Lois Lowry, Number the Stars, where she references this legend. And it's told in Jerusalem. He is a righteous gentile. Christian the 10th.
Addressing legends, by naming a legend, we call it a legend. In other words, there's no proof this ever happened. Should we then let legends die? Why do we have them? Why do we have them during the darkest times? Because they're unbearable, because they're untenable, because the things we've witnessed we cannot, our psyches can't comprehend. And so we create mythic characters. We create moments. Some might say "Oh, so that we can pretend what happened didn't happen." I don't think that's it. I think it's to give us a blueprint for the time when it comes again. So I believe we need them.
Co-writing "The Cheshire Cheese Cat"
I think a picture book is, I've always said is sort of you take "War and Peace" and turn it into haiku. And so the challenge is to take out every single possible word that you don't absolutely need. Or that can be seen in the pictures. Why say that the mouse has a red vest when he's wearing a red vest in the illustration?
So although the writing comes first you think ahead, what can I remove? So that it's a process of sort of truncating and truncating and truncating until the story comes very clean. With a novel I loved it, because I kept writing these tiny little short chapters, Randall and I, Randall Wright. And he had written novels before and that's how this story came together. We were at a conference in Utah and we were swapping stories and I told him the one about the Cheshire Cheese Cat. And he said, "Have you written it?" And I said, no, it's a novel. He goes, "I'll write it with you." And, of course, as the writer I went, "My story, my story. My precious, it's mine."
But he convinced me. He said, "Look, you've never written a novel, we could do this together?" And I said, "But we've never … how do we get one voice?" He said, "I don't know, that's the great thing, we haven't been ruined yet. We don't know how to do it right or how to do it well or how to do it poorly. Let's just try." So he flew out and my husband made countless meals for us, we worked 12 and 14 hour days and loved every blessed minute of it.
He would write a chapter then I would rewrite it and then he would write it, because we had an arc, you know, we had a story. And then he would give it to me, we'd do it half dozen of times, a dozen times. And then the person who finished that chapter would sit back and say you do the next one. And then say I would write that one, hand it to him. We'd go through the same process, slowly a voice emerged.
And a lot of, you know, wonderful nitpicking, I don't want this in there, I do what this. And so sometimes you win by attrition.
I've never had so much fun working on a story. It's a gentle story. No one gets blown up, although there's a lot of tension and there are betrayals and there's skullduggery and there is cheese. But it's about the old Cheshire Inn I visited in London with my daughters. And it's marvelous. Samuel Johnson used to hold court there and Charles Dickens not only wrote there there's actually a brass plaque that says this is the place where the author Charles Dickens often sat to write. It was marvelous.
And in the story of course Dickens, it becomes ancillary. He is not a primary part of the story, but you read as he being a writer is observing what's going on and putting together his own version of what he thinks is happening in this inn with these animals. It is an animal fantasy historical fiction, sort of, kind of thing. And a mouse and a cat become friends. And then they don't. And then they do. And then there are many surprises. And some are lost. And some are found.
The inspiration behind "The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!"
The interesting thing about the Rooster book, about "The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!", of course is that I see it really as a Rorschach test. People look into it and they see whatever they're looking to see.
And it may be one political position, it might be another. It might be, you know, they might relate it to current events, they might relate it to history. To me it's very fundamental. I got involved years and years and years ago with Amnesty International. And I'm a member of PEN, which is freedom to write. It's an apolitical organization. Don't care where you come from, you have the right to speak your mind or write your mind in this case.
And initially when I first worked on it many, many, many years ago, it was born of an incident. It was a graphic novel in my mind. That's now I saw it. And it was a much harder story to read. When it was picked up by Scholastic a few years ago, two, three years ago and we sort of … we looked at it and reconfigured the story to make it a picture book.
I was concerned how we could make this work, because what you're really reading is after many interviews with prisoners of conscience I started, because I'm more left brain than right, plotting where the points of commonality in these interviews, where do we, where am I hearing the same story again and again and again? Well, you were hearing first threats, then loss of your own freedom, then your family was kept from you, they couldn't come to visit you, even in prison.
Then it goes to torture, which of course we weren't going to be able to work into a picture book, and then death. And how can you tell this story and not frighten the children? But can how you bring up citizens that will guard the freedoms that are the foundation of any free society if you don't remind them, that you don't have to like someone else's song, but they have the right to sing it?
And when you start shutting down that person and this person and this person, it is not going to be long before it comes to you. This isn't an original thought, this has been said again and again and again. I love him because he's kind of cheeky. And I saw him with a lot more personality but ultimately have come to see that what Eugene, how Eugene Yelkin , who's wonderful, a Russian illustrator, drew him, came from his own experience. He wrote Breaking Stalin's Nose, a Newbury Award Honor Book.
The way he drew the rooster, the rooster is stalwart. I love that word. He's stalwart and true. And he's not trying to make a point. He's not trying to convince anybody. He's just trying to sing a song. So what I love about it when I said it's a Rorschach test, I'll go to schools, I'll read the book, I usually tell stories, but this one I read.
And I always wonder what are they going to get out of it? And at the end I ask them because I don't believe in propaganda for children. That isn't what this book is meant to be. I believe it's meant to tell them they have a voice and they must guard it. They must keep it. They must be true to it.
Because if they lose it they can get it back, but it's a hard row to hoe. So I asked this kid, after I read the book, it's not that long ago, so what do you guys think it's about, and I call on this one little boy, because the whole time you can just see him, the machinations and he has his own book in his lap and he's looking and he's flipping back and forth and he's coming … and I said you, right there. Umm, I think he said, in that kind of inexorably honest voice that only a child can have, I think that whatever bad thing that happens to you, you can always find something to sing about.
Well, I'd never thought of that one. Which is why we don't tell them what the book is about, we ask them what do you think this book is about?
The sounds that roosters make
I'll go to schools, I'll read the book, I usually tell stories, but this one I read and I tell the children your job when I say and he did is to sing kee-kee-ree-kee. Oh, the enthusiasm, oh, the passion these children have.
So it's really fun to read to children because they're waiting for their cue. And so it has, it maybe that it has that. And also I love kee-kee-ree-kee. And some kids just told me that they did a study on all the ways that roosters, the rooster onomatopoeia sounds vary from country to country. And they came up with like 70. And it's impossible that there were 70. I think these were sweet little children that wrote to me. I think may have been 17 and they just thought 70 sounded better. I don't know. I have not done the field work on this.
But I do know there are many. In Russia there's an entirely different sound than there is in Central and South America or in Europe. So maybe that's part of it too is this sort of cool thing. This one little girl did say why didn't you say cock-a-doodle-doo? And I said, well, because this story, because I am a Spanish-speaking American, and I love the story, I placed it in a Latin country and I wanted him to have this onomatopoeia sound of kee-kee-ree-kee.
New stories about mean squirrels and best friends
You always have different stories coming. I have two coming up with Scholastic. "Rita and Ralph," which is a retelling of an old librarian's hand game.
So Rita and Ralph up the hill and down the hill and up the hill and down the hill. And it's about meeting in the middle. And in the fractious world we're in it's about best friends who have a fight and each goes all the way over here and then only to end up in another fight and the other one goes all the way over here and end in another fight and now they're both unhappy and they're both angry and one morning they just do what they've always done the go down the hill and up the hill and they meet in the middle.
And it's … I love … but it's very simple and it's for young readers.
The second one is "Mean Squirrels." It's got to be done. Too many mean squirrels out there. And so my granddaughter who's seven inspired this story. And it's really wicked, because you know collective noun for mean squirrels, a spite of squirrels and so forth. So it's just been so much fun coming up with sort of this book and not making mean squirrels even the villains. They have something to learn.
A novel inspired by my father
I'm working on a novel about my father, although he is fictionalized, completely fictionalized in the story. And it's called the Book of Unintended Consequences. It's about a boy who does not read in Cuba in the ‘30s. And his father dies during el Machadato, the depression, named after Machado, the president at the time.
And so he lies. And the book begins with, "Benno never intended to be a liar, a thief, nor a murderer, but by his 16th year he would be all three. You see Benno was born good, he wasn't born well, the son of a cane cutter couldn't ever be called well-born. He was born good, the way some people are born left handed or gifted at cyphering. All this happened because of a book. You see books can be dangerous."
And I love working on this. I have spilled blood on this thing, psychic blood on this thing. I mean, it's like every time … my dad was dying, it was very hard, so as he was passing, I told him that I was working on this book and he was coming in and out of a fog.
And I said Papi I'd hoped to have this book finished. And he said, I said you know it's really about you. And he said how about that, you know, be humble. I said I'll try. But I said it's about you. And he reminded me why I started it. He had asked me once if you do not write some of these stories, Carmen, who will tell the stories of poor people, of ordinary people,
who make up I'm sorry most of the world? And I love the stories of real people.
And so I've been listening to his stories all my life, he lived to 93, and I've done a lot of sort of, I don't like narratives that are led by isms of any sort. I wanted to tell the story that was as honest and true as I could make it about the conditions then, but also about this boy and the people he met and have you feel that you really knew Cubans, the ones that came up out of the soil, the Taínos, the Espanolas, the Africanos, the ones that make up this very complex, and I believe beautiful people.
Writing is a marriage between language and story
Writing is a strange marriage, and I say strange, I mean not always friendly, between story, the thing that happens, that we're trying to narrate and language, the specificity of the words that we choose to tell that thing that happened. We've all read tremendous books where the writing was so gorgeous, Jane Smiley is one of them that you want to weep. We've also read wonderful books where the writing was exquisite but when you're done you're left cold and comfortless.
By the same manner I think everyone's experienced a book that was maybe badly written, I mean, there were sometimes when you almost winced if you're a word person, but you couldn't put it down, because the story was so compelling.
And so when great writing comes together with those two things, when you have fabulous writing and a story that just grabs you by the throat and won't let go, that's when we come up with things like we have Dostoevsky and we have all these fantastic writers. I mean, whether it's Tennessee Williams or it's Dorothy Parker or people who knew … all very different … Hemingway, who knew how to turn a phrase, but they also knew what story was.
A metaphor about the writing process
Authors always you know have something coming, because books are not just born. Well, occasionally they are. Patricia McKissack, god bless her, she used to say that some just gestate forever and some are like Athena that is born fully formed out of Zeus's head. And that was the best to me ever metaphor for the writing process.
Carmen Agra Deedy reads an excerpt from "The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!"
Hi. My name is Carmen Agra Deedy and this is my newest book, The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet! I'm going to read a little bit of it to you today.
"Once there was a village where the streets rang with song from morning til night. Dogs arooo, bayed, mothers, ohhh, choo, bochoo, crooned, engines brrrmmm, brrrmmm, hummed, fountains warbled and everybody sang in the shower." La cucaracha, la cucaracha. (Spanish) Wow.
"For everyone and everything in this village had a song to sing. And this made La Paz a very noisy place. It was hard to hear. It was hard to sleep. It was hard to think. And no one knew what to do. So they fired the mayor. Like you do. And now they were a very noisy village without a mayor. So they held an election. Only Don Pepe, promised peace and quiet. He won by a landslide. The next day a very polite law appeared in the village square. No loud singing in public por favor. Things were getting better already.
But more laws soon followed. No loud singing at home. No loud singing. No singing. Basta, quiet already! Until finally the noisy village of La Pass was silent as a tomb, dun dun dun dun. Oh, dear. Even the tea kettles, (whistles), were afraid to whistle. I don't like this one little bit. Do you?
Some people left the village singing loudly, others stayed behind and learned to, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hum. The rest were just grateful to have a good night's sleep for crying out loud, which is like singing but not really. Seven very quiet years passed. Then one evening a saucy gallito and his family wondered into the village and roosted in a fragrant mango tree. When the rooster awoke the next morning he did what roosters do, he sang kee-kee-ree-kee.
As his rotten luck would have it, the mango tree grew beneath, oh, no, the cranky mayor's window, uh oh. ‘You there,' groused Dom Pepe, ‘no singing, it's the law. What's the matter with you?' ‘Well, that's a silly law,' said the merry Gallito. ‘Smell the sweet mango tree. How can I keep from singing?'"
That's all you get. But children I promise you the rooster will be alright in the end.
Part IV: The Gift of Dyslexia
The gifts and challenges of dyslexia
I love talking to kids about the process of writing and they want to know how I learned to write and how I learned English and you know especially children who perhaps they were born in the U.S. but they don't have strong language facility. And I say first of all when I was a kid I talked like that, okay? And say jas … and they all do the jas, which is lots of fun. So we sort of loosen up.
And I begin by talking about language acquisition, how I learned to acquire English, but inevitably it leads to it was a more difficult process because I'm dyslexic. And I tell them that I see it as the most marvelous gift. That, yes, it is called a disability and changing the name doesn't make it anything less than that. It is not the norm in other words. It is not the way many people learn. It is the way some people learn. And dyslexics have the strange advantage of seeing the world from the slightly different perspective.
And I sometimes explain to them you know some people go through the wood, A to B, it's quick, and it's very efficient. But some of us, dyslexics are among them, we take the scenic route. And the things we discover and the places we see, and the ways we get eventually to the other side, make us very often interesting people. It can also be excruciating. It can be tiring. It can take you longer. It takes me five times longer than anyone else to learn anything.
But when I learn it, I learn it forever. I learn it from the bottom up, from the inside out. I want to know every way it works. I want it to be on a hologram, so I can get it. And I tell kids if a second language dyslexic refugee can grow up to write books, you can do anything, simply anything. Sometimes it's just one more step. The end of the woods, right there. One more step. Truly.
Learning things on a profound level
I'm dyslexic and English is my second language. And I should not be writing books. Not by any metric. But I love words and I love stories. And what I tell children is I found dyslexia to be a strange gift. It's always made me look at the world a little bit differently. It isn't just about words, it's about processing. It's how you process the sounds you hear, language, mathematics, music. And sometimes things just take me longer but I learn them deep.
I go deep. There's horizontal learning and there's vertical learning. And I think one of the things that dyslexia can give you if you stick with it is the ability to learn something on a very profound level.
Carmen Agra Deedy has been writing for children for over two decades. Born in Havana, Cuba, she came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1964. She grew up in Decatur, Georgia, where she lives today.
Carmen began writing as a young mother and storyteller whose NPR commentaries on All Things Considered were collected and released under the title, Growing Up Cuban In Decatur, Georgia. The pithy collection of twelve stories soon garnered awards, among them a 1995 Publishers Weekly Best Audio (Adult Storytelling) and a 1996 Parents’ Choice Gold Award.
Her children’s books have won numerous awards.
The Library Dragon was her home state’s choice to represent Georgia at the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach was presented with the 2008 Pura Belpre Honor Award, the 2008 Best Children’s Books of the Year (Bank Street College of Education), the 2008 International Latino Book Award, and the 2009 ALA Odyssey Audio Award (Honor), among others.
14 Cows for America, is based on a gift Americans received from a Maasai village in Kenya, following the events of 9/11. The book is a New York Times Bestseller.
Her first chapter book, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale, is a story of deception, intrigue, and derring-do that reveals the unlikely alliance between a cheese-loving cat and the Cheshire Cheese inn’s mice in Victorian England.
Carmen has spent the past 20 years writing and telling stories. She has been an invited speaker at venues as varied as The American Library Association, Refugees International, The International Reading Association, Columbia University, The Smithsonian Institute, TED, The National Book Festival, and the Kennedy Center. In those 20 years, Carmen has told stories to hundreds of thousands of school children. They remain her favorite audiences.