Traveling is always magical for me, because I’m not seeing anything familiar so I’m free to be completely present in the new environment where I find myself. (And I do think travel helps me find myself – my humanity, my connection to the larger world and its inhabitants.) I turn my head and am captured by a vision that transports me into a kind of dance with what I see and experience. When I come home, I’m still seeing with the pointed observation that so much unfamiliarity allows me. What happens when I arrive home is also a kind of magic. I find myself newly present in the familiar space that is my home.
Pif Magazine just published one of my poems. It’s titled “After All the Lust.” Here is the URL: https://www.pifmagazine.com/2019/03/after-all-the-lust/
I enrolled in Goddard College’s low residency program for an MFA in Creative Writing that began in July 2017. At my fourth and final residency in February 2018, I celebrated my seventieth birthday. On July 15, 2018 I graduated with a Masters in Creative Writing. The past two years have been challenging and joyful as I worked my way through a creative thesis of over two hundred pages while also reading published authors and writing critical papers about devices and techniques they use to create narrative. I got everything I expected out of this program – an understanding of literary devices such as plot and character development, theme and subtheme, scene and narrative arc. I also got something I didn’t expect. As family, friends and acquaintances began congratulating me, I was told over and over again that I was an inspiration. At first I was flattered that I could be seen as inspirational in any way at all – me – an all-around average, everyday kind of woman.
After a long series of self-directed questions, it slowly dawned on me that compared to my cohorts in the graduate program I was quite elderly. It was a revelation to realize that I was a case-in-point poster child for mentally functional elderly adults. Once I figured this out, I was delighted. I’ve spent a lifetime pursuing dreams like writing and publishing poetry, running marathons, or learning to use a torch so I can create metal sculpture. Clearly, this most recent pursuit – figuring out how to write a good novel – is just one more thing tacked onto a long list. But, still… Me? As inspiration?
I see myself as a dogged overachiever and lifelong student. In fact, I’m rather proud of this internal component, which is so thoroughly built into my personality. Over the years, as I pursued my passions, I often doubted myself. But I had one thing going for me. I believed in my ability to learn and was always ready to take a course that would help me succeed in doing whatever it was I wanted to do. My mother often referred to me as the perennial student, a label I was happy to wear. And this attitude may be what keeps my brain functional, though I believe most of the seventy year olds I know demonstrate very healthy, imaginative minds. There are a few, of course, whose cognitive processes have slowed or stumbled – but not very many of my friends seem to have faded noticeably. Most of us have lived healthy, active lives. We’ve stayed involved in the world at large. We look at our foibles with a sense of humor and often get each other laughing over our missteps. I rather think that a sense of humor is an indicator that there’s a good mind behind all the laughter.
So if I am an inspiration, let it be about believing in discovery. Let it be about trusting that I am capable of learning what is needed. Let it be about my willingness to do the work that will gain a necessary understanding. It’s all about keeping the brain growing, raising your awareness. It’s also about reaching out to people who know the things you don’t. I love a good challenge and I plan to go on running whatever gauntlet catches my fancy for however many days I have left on the planet. Maybe I’ll go for a PhD at age eighty.
Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be led by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.
Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006)
May the New Year begin positive change for us all.
The podcast of my interview at KPTZ by poet and memoirist Sheila Bender is now available at https://kptz.org/in-conversation-pamela-dionne/
Time/Dates: Tuesdays from 3 – 5:00pm beginning September 12 – October 24, 2017. The final session on October 24, 2017 will run three hours (2 – 5:00pm) in order to accommodate a reading by participants.
Location: Writers’ Workshoppe & Imprint Books
820 Water Street, Port Townsend, WA.
You can register for this class after May 10, 2017.
General Summary: As part of her Goddard MFA in Creative Writing, Pamela Moore Dionne will offer 7 workshops once a week for seven weeks at 2-hours each plus a 1-hour reading by workshop participants at the end of the final session. That means the final session on October 24th will start at 2:00pm and go till 5:00pm. (Refreshments will be provided for the reading.) This workshop is offered at no fee for ten participants. The sessions will focus on writing scenes and creating believable characters. The workshop series is open to those interested in writing fiction or creative nonfiction. In other words, if you want to write a novel or a memoir this series can help you build your narrative scene-by-scene and character-by-character. The workshop will focus on developing plausible character arcs within a scene. Interwoven into each session will be an examination of the narrative arc that is essential to storytelling. Excerpts from work by authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, John Gardner, Octavia Butler and Charles Baxter will give us an opportunity to examine narrative technique and also to practice close reading. Students will learn to critique using a system based on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Writing prompts will be introduced as ways to approach already existing work or to stimulate new work. Students will be given time to create writing inspired by the prompts. We will learn how to critique in a supportive atmosphere that fosters each writer’s work. The final meeting will be a reading by participants of narratives created during the workshop. Students should bring writing supplies or laptops to each session.
Poet and writer Pamela Moore Dionne’s work has appeared in a number of journals including Shenandoah and Pontoon. She was a Jack Straw writer and received their Artist Support Grant to record a CD of her Sabina Spielrein Ghazal series. Dionne earned a Centrum residency and an Artist Trust Gap Grant. Her visual art has been published in journals and presented in one-woman shows. Other credits include founding and managing the online art & literature journal Literary Salt. She was also the founder of Discovery Bay Games. Currently she is enrolled in the Goddard College MFAW program.
The Missing Voice of Tyranny in the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible is a novel that uses five different voices to tell the story of Nathan Price and his family who go to the Belgian Congo in 1959 as itinerate Baptist missionaries. The only adult narrator is Orleanna Price, Nathan’s wife. The other narrative voices belong to the couple’s four daughters. Rachel is fifteen when they arrive in Kilanga Village. The twins Leah and Adah are twelve and Ruth May is six. The age differences alone make for distinctive narrative variations as the plot line unfolds. But each narrator also has a personality that reveals itself through her telling of the tale as she sees it. It is a compelling way to tell a story from five different perspectives while giving new information to each retelling of the same event. What this does for the story is layer it in a way that reveals more than a single narrator would be able to do. But the most telling piece of narrative technique Kingsolver uses in The Poisonwood Bible is the missing voice, that of Nathan Price. In a narrative where language and communication – or more accurately miscommunication – act as a central theme we understand that a considered perspective cannot be delivered by a man who refuses to listen to any voice other than his own. He relies on judgmental dogma that doesn’t allow for input different from what he already believes. In the pages of this novel Nathan is a tyrant oppressing his family in much the same way that a foreign government oppresses villagers in places like Kilanga.
The foolhardiness in Nathan’s attitude becomes apparent when he ignores Mama Tataba’s instructions on how to plant his vegetable garden in Kilanga. (39-40) Because of his refusal to listen, he handles poisonwood and breaks out with a painful rash, loses his first crop to flooding and later finds that the plants he has chosen to bring with him from America have no pollinators in Kilanga. So he creates a very showy garden that flowers profusely yet never produces any fruits for his labor. Essentially this is the perfect metaphor for Nathan himself, showy but without substance. Nathan has stepped into a world so utterly different than the one he left in Bethlehem, Georgia that the only logical thing to do would be to listen to locals. They are his only chance to learn how to survive in this new world to which he has brought his family. The villagers know from generations of experience what works and what does not. But Nathan believes God is testing him and to win almighty approval he must bend the village and the land to his will. How very colonial of this man with all of his proselytizing.
Nathan’s missing narrative helps to define him as incapable of self-examination. But more than that it allows his wife and daughters to observe him as though he’s a member of a different species of animal altogether. This creates the right atmosphere for readers to recognize him as a metaphor for a larger concept of usurper. Nathan represents the bullish manner in which the Belgians and the U.S. treat Africans and their national resources in this novel. Nathan with his total disregard for his wife and daughters and his disdain for the villagers he has come to convert mirrors the way western governments colonize third world countries. Kingsolver has chosen to set this novel at a time in history when the Belgian Congo was experiencing the beginnings of a pro-independence movement. This political unrest is mirrored by the burgeoning unrest within the Price family against the tyrannical despot that Nathan Price has become. The way the narrative works in supporting this construct is by showing readers a man who rules his own family unreasonably. He does whatever he decides to do with total disregard for his wife or his children’s welfare. Belgium’s King Leopold II governs his African colony with this same disregard for its citizens’ welfare. Both Nathan and Leopold see their subjects as tools to be used rather than individuals who think and feel and are worthy of respect. In these men’s minds, only the patriarch holds a purpose or position that can be considered as having merit.
Ultimately, Nathan is abandoned in Africa by his family and is seen by villagers as an evil spirit who can turn himself into a crocodile. It is the process by which he holds himself separate that sets Nathan up for one small disaster after another leading to a finality he is unable to see coming. He is shunned and eventually killed by villagers who suspect his crocodile-self of causing a group of children to drown in the river. Nathan’s inability to listen, empathize and communicate clearly is what causes his failure as a father, a husband and a missionary. The fact that he doesn’t narrate any of his own story sets him apart as does his inability to communicate with other characters within the pages of this novel. Because of these factors he is never actually able to bring about change in anyone, including himself. He is the only member of his family who doesn’t evolve. The reader is left with a sense of the way arrogance has caused tyrants to fail throughout history.
Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory demonstrates how immigrants bring their home culture ethos with them when arriving in a new country and how that makes assimilation difficult. The novel gives us a view of the better life that many immigrants hope America will deliver. This narrative achieves its purpose using gender issues, race issues, and divided loyalties. Danticat supports much of her premise through Haitian folk tales, which gives us a sense of the richness that is left behind but also of the ways in which oppression can be fostered.
In this view of Haiti during a time of violent political upheaval we meet four powerful women whose lives are affected by the way men value them. We witness the way these women respond to the values, or lack thereof, that Haitian men place on women. “Our men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers.” (Danticat 150) This statement leads Sophie Caco to reflect on something her Tante Atie told her when she was just a child. Atie says that a woman’s ten fingers were given names before she was born. Purpose is embedded in those names: Mothering, Boiling, Loving, Baking, Nursing, Frying, Healing, Washing, Ironing and Scrubbing. (Danticat 151) In this we are given a Haitian woman’s value and begin to see the culture as controlled by men since it’s highly unlikely that these are the only purposes women would list for themselves. We learn from Tante Atie of Grandma Ife’s “testing” her daughters to be certain of their virginal purity. She tells Sophie how debased it made her feel to have her mother’s fingers probing inside her vagina to make sure she was intact. It is not women who value virginity so this is an imposed value that has been accepted as part of the norm that all good Haitian women adhere to in order to fit the standard. That this tradition follows Sophie when she immigrates to America at the age of twelve to join her mother, Martine, is clear later when Martine insists on “testing” Sophie. (Danticat 83) So we are given evidence that assimilation into a new culture and letting go of old traditions is a difficult if not impossible task.
Sophie has been told that America is a magical land of opportunity but she arrives in New York to find her mother, Martine, exhausted from working two jobs. Martine drives a shabby car and Sophie can feel springs when she sits in the front seat. (Danticat 39) Furthermore, the streets of the city are littered with garbage. Sophie’s expectations of a new and better life are suspect at this point in the narrative. She doesn’t speak English and must learn it. The food is unlike anything she has known before and her loyalties are torn between her Tante Atie who raised her and this mother who has only ever been a photograph and a voice on a tape machine. Sophie is out of synch in this new culture but as we move further into the narrative we understand that Martine is also.
To add to Sophie’s difficulties in her new country the novel gives us a view of extreme differences between the richness of her social life in the small town of Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti and her isolation in New York City. In her American school she endures racism that keeps her on the outside of relationships with classmates. Kristopher Hansson in his essay on cultural camouflage says that people tend to hide certain characteristics in order to blend into a social setting that is more desirable. (Hansson) There is no way for Sophie to hide the color of her skin in order to fit in. In contrast to Sophie’s mute acceptance, her mother constantly applies a bleaching cream to her own skin in an attempt to fit an American ideal. But because, initially, Martine lives close to immigrants from her country of origin and socializes exclusively in an enclave that is largely Haitian, she never really achieves assimilation. This plus the fact that Martine sends money home to Grandma Ife means Martine must work one job during the day and another at night. This severely limits her ability to learn American norms in order to adapt to them. Her mother working two jobs means that Sophie is essentially alone in this new country whereas the small town in Haiti where she grew up was filled with community. Clearly there are many forms of oppression besides the political violence Haitian immigrants have come to America to escape.
Danticat uses Haitian folk tales to further demonstrate the affect of Haitian culture on Sophie and her family. Tante Atie, Grandma Ife and Martine all use these tales to demonstrate Haitian ideals that control women and men. They repeat these tales to the young and malleable Sophie. In fact, Sophie is so inculcated by the stories that she returns to one before she breaks her own hymen. It is a story of the bleeding woman who seems incurable. The woman visits the goddess Erzulie who is femininity embodied in Vodoun religious practices. In this myth, which Sophie repeats to herself, the bleeding woman must give up being human in order to stop bleeding. She must become something other, be it plant or animal. As the woman considers her options she thinks of the animals that are captive and those that are free. She chooses to become a butterfly. At this point Sophie destroys the part of herself that has held her captive to her mother’s “testing.” So stories are also part of the culture that stays with us when we immigrate to a different country. They are often the guides that teach us how to be who we are expected to be within any ethos. In this instance Sophie chooses a freedom myth to give her the courage to change her current paradigm.
Arthur W. Frank, professor of sociology and core faculty at the Center for Narrative Practice in Boston has written several books that examine the way narrative story works within any culture. One of his major premises is this:
“Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided.” (Frank)
That Danticat uses folk tales throughout Breath, Eyes, Memory tells us she is fully aware of the importance of these stories and how they influence behavior within a group. We are given subtle yet persuasive evidence of the power of one’s first culture when Martine insists on “testing” Sophie years after both she and her daughter left Haiti and immigrated to America. Even Tante Atie and Grandma Ife display the importance of these tales in their responses to each other, which are often delivered in story parables. When Sophie attacks the cane in the field where her mother was raped, Grandma Ife and Tante Atie shout the traditional Haitian storyteller’s question of “Ou libere?” (Are you free?) (Danticat 238)
In contrast to the way men in Haiti are represented, once we reach New York we are given a different male archetype. Martine’s lover Marc is Haitian but evolved enough to accept Martine as she is. He is even welcoming to her daughter Sophie. Sophie’s husband, Joseph, is accepting of who Sophie is. He doesn’t react except to worry about her when she leaves without telling him that she’s going to visit her family in Haiti. But these men are only lightly sketched into the overall story because Danticat is tightly focused on the four women at the narrative’s center. And in a novel so bound to the idea of immigration it is mostly Sophie and Martine who struggle with assimilating in a new culture.
We do have evidence that Sophie is Americanized when she goes jogging while in Haiti. This is in distinct contrast with the behavioral norms of women in her country of origin. Sophie notices the puzzled expressions on faces as if people are thinking, “Is this what happens to our girls when they leave this place? They become such frightened creatures that they run like the wind, from nothing at all.” (Danticat 158) There is other evidence that shows Sophie has assimilated further than her mother did. For one thing, she sees a therapist regularly. She is also a member of a women’s therapy group. None of these are things her mother would have seen as helpful for a “good Haitian woman.” Sophie will never totally reject her cultural heritage. Her family ties bind her to some traditions. She, though, has the option to pick and choose what she will keep. She is the transition between cultures and her daughter is the first of the American line of the Caco family.
In spite of the bleak first impression Sophie has of America and her divided loyalties between what was and what is, by the end of the novel we see that she has managed to find her own place in the new culture. Through her women’s group she has an avenue to assimilate without losing herself and all of her traditions.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.
Hansson, Kristopher. “Camouflage” in Orvar Löfgren and Richard R. Wilk, eds. “Off the Edge: Experiments in Cultural Analysis. Ethnologia Europaea, Vol 35. Museum Tuscalunlanum Press, 2006. Excerpted and reprinted in Camoupedia. http://camoupedia.blogspot.com/2010/03/cultural-camouflage.html
Frank, Arthur. Letting Stories Breathe: 2010. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9676.pdf