Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 22, 2014

The Return of Sarah Bone

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Ages ago (late summer/autumn 2011) I started drawing Sarah Bone. I envisioned the start of my career as a graphic novelist, or at the very least a zine-maker, and couldn’t wait to see where that adventure took me. My real-life adventures took me from Maine to Oregon not long after, and Sarah Bone was neglected while I built houses out of mud and learned to timber frame.

Last week she resurfaced, with a slightly new name (similar to myself – I’ve embraced “Sally” since moving to Pittsburgh) and without any hair, for some reason. I’m not sure what she’s been up to recently, but I can imagine it’s been interesting and I know that she has a lot to share. I believe this is just page One of Sally Bone Vol. 1. I might have started writing that comic book at long last! But I won’t get too ahead of myself. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

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You can click on the image to get to a larger one, if need be. The adventures of Sally Bone will continue soon! (Or in another 3 years.)

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 21, 2014

Akata Witch

by Nnedi Okorafor

None of the other books I had picked for #Diversiverse had made their way to me yet, so last Thursday I stood in the YA section of the Lawrenceville branch of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library and just scanned the shelves for non-white-sounding authors’ names. I remembered that I wanted to read a book by Ruth Ozeki, which brought me to the 7 or so books in the ‘O’ section, and my eyes tangled with ‘Okorafor’. A Nigerian-American female author whose book – Akata Witch – had commendations from both Ursula K. Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones on it’s cover? Jackpot!

The book is about an albino girl named Sunny, who was born in the US to Nigerian parents, and taken home to West Africa when she was 9 years old. Three years later the story opens with her still struggling to fit in. She looks Nigerian, speaks perfect Igbo, and is a talented soccer player – but she is so sensitive to the sun that she can only play at night, and she must spend her days beneath a black umbrella or tucked away inside. Her schoolmates tease her, and her father wishes she hadn’t been born.

Sunny’s tentative friendship with Orlu (a boy who stuck up for her in a schoolyard fight) and Chichi (a mysterious girl who lives with her mother in a mud hut and reads incessantly) deepens into something much more powerful when the two kids reveal that they have magical powers – and that Sunny does too. They are all members of the Leopard People, an ancient world-wide race of magic-wielders.  Sunny soon finds herself scrambling to learn how to use her powers, understand her place in this whole new world, and together with Orlu, Chichi, and another American boy named Sasha, track down and prevent the evil Black Hat Otokoto from murdering any more children.

This book was interesting and imaginative…but also a little bit dull, which seems like a direct contradiction! Something about the writing style, and specifically the voices of the characters seemed…flat. I felt like the spark was missing from the narrative, and this puzzled me immensely because the story was at the same time richly detailed and full of surprising quirks. Nigerian culture, and the magical world of the Leopard people poured from the pages. The hidden spaces of Leopard Knocks with it’s market streets and massive library, the way charms and acts of juju worked, the spirit faces that each person wore beneath their real one – all these details were colorful and somewhat familiar, but full of the zest of a different setting. Being transported to West Africa was, to me, just as exciting as exploring the landscapes and rules of a new fantasy world.

The straightforward story-arc with it’s typical hero’s journey did suffer a bit in contrast. Some of the main characters didn’t seem as fleshed out as many of the magical creatures Okorafor came up with (like the large red ghost hoppers that serenaded Sunny at night, or the artist wasp that made castles out of crumbs). Sunny’s friends are all characters commonly found in such stories. Sunny herself was a bit more vibrant, but not remarkably so.

This is the first in a series, I believe, and for all my complaints I will most likely keep reading. Even if this book was somewhat uneven, I liked it a lot and I am eager to seek out more of Nnedi Okorafor’s books. She has won several awards, and one of her adult books – Who Fears Death – sounds particularly interesting to me. I am glad to have stumbled into her in my library last week!

What she is doing with her writing is extremely important, after all. As she wrote in an article that was intended for the New York Times (but was never published):

…it’s a fact that the genre of science fiction was birthed in the West. Few science fiction classics and contemporary works feature main characters of African descent, African mythologies, African locales, or address issues endemic to Africa. And until recently, next to none were written by African writers.

As a Nigerian-American, born and raised in the United States, what distanced me from science fiction novels early on was feeling that I was not a part of the stories; I didn’t exist in them. I suspect the same can be said for many African writers who might consider writing science fiction.

When Okorafor didn’t find herself or her culture represented in sci-fi or fantasy stories, she decided to write herself into the narrative, while also taking advantage of a “literary tool which is practically made to redress political and social issues.” (The rest of her article is worth checking out.) We need more authors being gutsy enough to follow suit, and more readers who are willing to lift their voices and demand more books like Akata Witch.

Of course this is precisely what we’re doing right now through A More Diverse Universe! This post will be the 58th review submitted to Aarti’s list at BookLust, and there will be plenty more added before Sept. 27th brings this event to a close (although it’s never really over). #Diversiverse on, readers and writers!

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Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 19, 2014

Up and down and over and under

It’s been a week of walkabouts. There is a lot of history to trip over in Pittsburgh any time you set out on foot, especially when you wander into older neighborhoods. Last Friday an errand brought me up into the Hill District, where once upon a time Pittsburgh’s African-American culture was rollicking. Famous jazz musicians met to play and compose (Lena Horne and Billy Eckstein called the place home), August Wilson scribbled plays, and Claude McKay named the neighborhoods on “the Hill” the “crossroads of the world”. The Negro League baseball team that played up there – the Pittsburgh Crawfords – claimed two Hall of Fame players: Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. The infrastructure was deteriorating, but in the 1930s-50s the Hill District was a vibrant and important place.

The systematic destruction of homes and property seen as sub-standard by the city government, the failed Civic Arena, rioting following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the collapse of the steel industry brought things crashing down around the residents and business owners ears. The Hill almost died – but in the 1980s the city began to invest in the area again and over the past several decades there has been new development and energy there. Some folks call it a renaissance.

Along Centre Ave., Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014

Last Friday I got to see a mural being finished up on the side of a building on Centre Avenue. It features August Wilson and highlights his plays. 10 local kids and young adults worked on it, supported by the Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, which was started in 2002 by an artist from the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Wilkinsburg. There were a dozen folks from the neighborhood standing around watching the progress, and one passing local said proudly to me, “Well now it does look like August Wilson!”

St. Benedict of the Moor, Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014Terrace Hall Hotel, Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014

I passed the Hotel Terrace Hall and wondered what went on there back in the neighborhood’s heyday (or now, for that matter!). The St Benedict of the Moor Church, with it’s statue of the saint welcoming one and all, was another interesting landmark. The views of the city that you can get from the Hill District are pretty special too. Although the best 360 views are from the top – Herron Hill Park in the residential area known as Sugar Top – that day I enjoyed a new-to-me look at my own neighborhood of Lawrenceville.

View of Lawrenceville from Memory Lane, Hill District walkabout - Sept. 12th 2014

Stories about this walkabout inspired a friend of mine, and she asked me to take her up to Herron Hill Park. On Tuesday we set out on what would eventually be a 9 mile walk, for me, through 7  different neighborhoods, up and down some of Pittsburgh’s notorious stairs, across bridges, and through a tunnel.

The Swastika House on Andover Terrace, Sept. 16th 2014

On Andover Terrace, a shady tree-full street that zigs up to the zag of Bryn Mawr Road (by which you can eventually make your way to Sugar Top) we found something that stopped us cold. According to an interesting article about the house above (we felt compelled to Google it before moving on!), the swastika is benign. The original owner had it’s concrete form poured in 1912, at a time when the symbol meant nothing more than good luck. The present owners discovered the existence of the swastika when they had the wooden siding that covered it removed in 1981, 5 years after purchasing the historic home. As you can imagine, they had to decide what to do about it. After researching the house and discussing it with their neighbors (some of whom were Holocaust survivors…) they decided to let it remain – to startle and intrigue passing pedestrian explorers!

View of downtown from Herron Hill Park, Sept. 16th 2014

The views from Herron Hill Park are fantastic, as my friend discovered on Tuesday. Although the foliage is still thickly blocking some angles, the downtown skyline and Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, East Liberty, Oakland, and neighborhoods and boroughs beyond can be easily picked out by an eye familiar with the surrounding hills.

The following day I had to go downtown for an interview (I have since been accepted into the KEYS Service Corps!) and afterward I took advantage of the fact that I was across the street from the Smithfield Bridge.

Smithfield Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014

I have lived in Pittsburgh for nearly a year, but until Wednesday I had not walked across the Monongahela River via the Smithfield, or any other bridge. Completed in 1883, this is a lenticular truss bridge, and is the second oldest steel bridge still standing in the country. I walked across it with lots of other folks – it has probably the most pedestrian traffic of any bridge in the city, situated between downtown and Station Square where many commuters park.

Downtown from the Smithfield Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014

From the Smithfield Bridge you can see the Fort Pitt Bridge at the mouth of the Monongahela, and the Panhandle and Liberty bridges further up the river.

Fort Pitt Bridge from the Smithfield Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014Panhandle Bridge, Sept. 17th 2014

Smithfield Bridge detail, Sept. 17th 2014

The details of the bridge are lovely. It was fixed up in 1994-95 after being nearly demolished, due to it’s age and low clearance above the river. I’m so glad it’s now protected and cared for, since I can think of no finer way to traverse the Monongahela – unless it’s puttering about in a little boat in the sunshine…!

Along the Monongahela River, Sept. 17th 2014

I have a few more weeks of relative freedom before I begin training for my new job (an AmeriCorp program) and I’m sure I will fill my time with more exploring. I went through a rough patch at the beginning of September and really thought I was going to leave the city, striking out for Maine or the West Coast (either direction would have been okay!) I pulled myself together though and sorted out the next step for me, which will be 10 months of service to the youth of the Pittsburgh community. This has pulled my energy firmly back to this city, and as I head into my second year here I am thrilled to be continuing my adventures, and look forward to getting to know the place better.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 15, 2014

The True History of Paradise

by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

I have finally decided that I’m glad I read this book after going to Jamaica. The island country explodes from the pages, it’s mountains and beaches and reggae roads thrumming with the rhythm of African drums, bumping car wheels, goats bleating, feet running, dancing, and the musical lilt of patois. I was sent whirligiging back, and got to see and hear Jamaica come alive again in flashes I recognized and ones that were new to me. History, culture, and people blurred before my eyes. The book is crammed full of JAMAICA, and whether you’ve been to the country or not, a major pleasure of reading it will come from getting to dive right into the rumpus of life there.

There in 1981 and the years before, anyway. This is a multi-generational, multi-century, multi-narrative story. Jean Landing, and her trip across Jamaica on a spring day in 1981, is the thread tying it all together, but the story leaps backwards and forwards throughout the history of the island and the Landing and Darling-Stern families.

In the present day Jean has decided to leave Jamaica, putting behind her it’s political upheaval and terrible violence, the streets and houses full of the ghosts of her family (including her tormented older sister), the calculating and imperious gaze of her mother, her beloved blue mountains, and a man who has been and will always be her dearest friend. She travels with Paul from Kingston across the island to Montego Bay, where her flight to America awaits. Roadblocks and soldiers bar their path, mountainous roads send them curling into the jungle – where more ghosts lie in wait – and all along the way Jean finds herself slipping constantly into a parallel journey through her memories and her stories.

Her family history is volatile, a thunderous meeting of race and social standing – African slaves, Chinese immigrants, wealthy Englishmen, Indian merchants, scholars, farmers, madwomen, preachers… Most of the folks whose names crop up on the complex family tree at the start of the book are given a chance to tell their tale – or the part, at least, that fits into the puzzle of Jean’s life. Most of the voices are distinct, the historical settings sketched in with brief, bold strokes. The book is a crazy-quilt, but like a crazy-quilt it is vibrant and beautiful.

Life for Jean and her family has been vicious and voracious, full of loves both passionate and painful. The book presents love in many forms, in fact – the love between parents and children, between siblings, between lovers, between friends, between neighbors, between a person and their political leaders, and a person and their country. Beyond that, though, it examines the actions or lack of action that various types of love inspire, and how love breaks down, or isn’t always enough to mend or save a broken soul – or a broken country.

Jean is also struggling to work out her place in the history of her family, and her country, and the world at large – and as a child of many cultures, in a country with such a rich and diverse history, this proves to be especially headache-inducing. Finding peace with her identity is part of her journey across Jamaica. The author speaks from her heart in this, having been born on the island to multi-racial parents. (She left when she was 19 to go study English literature at Barnard College and Columbia University and has lived in the US since then.) Cezair-Thompson is intimately familiar with the struggle to find and preserve a sense of identity, and appreciation for the ever active roll history plays in our personal stories.

I read this book for A More Diverse Universe 2014 (#Diversiverse), and for my larger project to diversify my reading (seeking out non-white female authors). It was a wonderful place to start, with it’s wealth of female characters and the way it addressed the concerns about identity that I detailed above. It was also well written and told an interesting story (I especially appreciated the skillfully done dialect – I had heard Jamaican patois being spoken without much comprehension, so it thrilled my linguistic-loving heart to see bits of it written out…!) I recommend the book and will certainly read Cezair-Thompson’s other story, The Pirate’s Daughter, next time I get an urge to visit Jamaica!

Follow the link above to find Aarti’s roundup of book reviews. The event runs from Sept. 14th-27th and over 100 bloggers have signed up! My review will be the 19th posted so far. Check back often for more – this diverse catalog will be an awesome resource by the time we’re done for the year. Three cheers!

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Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 9, 2014

Following the Johnstown Flood

I had the chance to get out to Johnstown, PA, on Sunday, to visit the scenes of the Johnstown Flood. Although I didn’t ride the train as I’d planned to, being in a vehicle meant my fellow historians and I could get up into the mountains to view what’s left of the South Fork Dam and the reservoir that was called Lake Conemaugh.

We then followed the path of the flood down through the valley into Johnstown, and visited some other historically significant spots. It’s always strange (but very much part of human nature) to find pleasure and interest in the scenes of a catastrophe. Having read about the flood at length it felt important to me to retrace it’s thundering steps though, and then I inevitably had to share that journey here with you!

Diorama of the reservoir, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Sept. 7th 2014

Starting at the beginning…here’s a diorama of the reservoir at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial museum – the dam is located in the bottom right corner of this picture.

Where the reservoir used to lay, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Sept. 7th 2014

You can still kind of see where the lake lay – the remnants of the dam are on the right side of this picture. While the water is gone, the peacefulness remains. The wind makes waves in the goldenrod and a bit of creek sparkles in the bed of the former lake.

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I’m enjoying a lovely summer day, like many folks who posed here on the dam before me, although they would have had the blue waters of Lake Conemaugh behind them.

What's left of the South Fork Dam, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Sept. 7th 2014

The observation platforms you can see here (I was sitting on the near one in the picture above) are on either side of the gap…

…where the earthen dam burst apart on May 31st, 1889.

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The rushing waters crashed down through 15 miles of twisting gorge before bursting into Johnstown.

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The water came from the left and crossed the center of Johnstown, slammed into the steep hillside on the right of the diorama (this one is located in the Johnstown Flood Museum in town), and turned to follow the valley out through the bottom of this image. The bulk of the flood was hindered by a stone bridge, which is the diagonal bar across the Stoneycreek River at the bottom right of the image above.

Johnstown, seen from the top of the inclineSept. 7th 2014

I took this picture from the top of that hill, so visualize the wave of water coming from the gap in the center of the image and crossing straight to the shadowy foreground. The waters were turned and then partially stopped, as I mentioned, by the stone bridge near the Cambria Iron Company.

The flood waters more-or-less were stopped by the old stone bridge here, Sept. 7th 2014

Debris blocked the arches and a huge fire broke out around the bridge, but it withstood everything and obviously still stands today.

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The exhibits and photos at both the National Memorial site and the Johnstown Flood Museum were interesting to see, but I couldn’t get over the actual visuals – the real mountains and valleys that the flood poured down and through. Today…

Johnstown, seen from the top of the inclineSept. 7th 2014

And Johnstown before the flood…

After the 1889 flood, an incline was built to help folks get out of the flood plain faster in the event of another catastrophe. It starts at the bridge over Stoneycreek River, which you can see at the center bottom of the image above…

The Incline in Johnstown, Sept. 7th 2014

…and rises about 524 feet to the top of the hill at a 71% grade – the steepest in the world. After having dinner at a restaurant at the top, my boyfriend and I rode the incline back down the hill.

Sunset in Johnstown, Sept. 7th 2014

The sun set over Johnstown and the moon rose. On a Sunday night the town was quiet – but it’s often quiet these days. It has survived several more large floods, and the steel industry stuck around until the 90s. Now, though, the town is trying, like so many places in this area, to reinvent itself. It may be harder these days than ever before to rebuild, but Johnstown has had plenty of experience with making the best of things and getting on with life. I wish it luck!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 2, 2014

Stone Memories

I went on a walkabout a few days ago and discovered a few new things around my neighborhood.

Kendall St., Aug. 27th 2014

Kendall Street, even steeper than it looks here and still paved in rough stone bricks (flagstones?)

Stairs connecting 56th St., Aug. 27th 2014

An old flight of stairs connecting a missing section of 56th Street

A secret entrance, Aug. 27th 2014

A secret entrance to Allegheny Cemetery

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Old and interesting gravestones

Top of the cemetery wall, Stanton Ave., Aug. 27th 2014

Top of the cemetery wall, Stanton Ave., Aug. 27th 2014

Carvings left on the top of the cemetery wall by generations of children

Dry stone wall inside the cemetery, Aug. 27th 2014

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A lovely dry stone wall in the cemetery

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 1, 2014

Thunder In the Mountains

I think Labor Day is an appropriate day to talk about the West Virginia Mine War of 1920-21. It’s been a recent obsession of mine. I live in a city that has fought harder than many to get and maintain the union, and today one of the largest Labor Day parades in the country will send 85,000 people marching through the streets of Pittsburgh, including AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka. While unions shrink country-wide and Americans forget on a yearly basis about the Pullman Strike (or never learned about it to begin with), it is worthwhile to pay attention to how hard and how long folks have fought to establish unions in this country, once upon a time…

I was poking around in the Braddock branch of the Carnegie Library a few weeks ago, and came across Lon Savage’s book Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21. Hot off learning about the Johnstown Flood, I was itching for more local history, so I took it home and inhaled it. It was a lively and very detailed account of the events, written by the son of a fellow who had fought in this now forgotten mini civil war (on what one might call the wrong side…!).

The strike that developed into an all out war on Blair Mountain began in the usual way – with folks realizing that they were slaves to a coal company (a company that had also more-or-less stolen their land right out from under their feet) and deciding that they deserved better treatment and wages. When the miners decided to join the union, the company sent Baldwin-Felts “agents” to squelch any trouble, and these hired guns took pleasure in kicking families out of their company-owned homes with gleeful violence.

In the town of Matewan, WV, mayor C. C. Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield stood up to the Baldwin-Felts men and sided with the striking miners. There was a sudden terrible street battle, and when the gunfire ended and the dust settled, Mayor Testerman was dead, along with 7 Baldwin-Felts agents and 2 miners. Sid Hatfield was a local hero after this, and continued to fight to protect the striking miners. The next summer, however, he and his best friend Ed Chambers were murdered on the steps of a courthouse in Welch, right in front of their wives.

Rebellion and unrest accelerated into warfare within days, and before long there were thousands of union minors on the march. They were met by state and private police, militia, and federal troops. Whole counties were in open rebellion, military rule was imposed, and before it was all over bombers from the U. S. Army Air Corps had been deployed. The Battle of Blair Mountain was one of the largest civil uprisings in American history, and over the course of 5 days 10,000 union minors sat on one side of the gap and exchanged approx. one million rounds with the 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers on the other side of the gap. Surprisingly few folks were killed, but it took presidential intervention and the United States Army to end it. The miners were willing to battle the coal company and the hated Baldwin-Felts men to the death, but going up against the army of the country many of them had just spent WWI fighting with and for, was crossing a line.

The miners went home, and the whole thing was something of a wash. While the war brought attention to the appalling conditions of the coal camps and the violence the company was willing to unleash against it’s workers, it was a long time before any good seemed to come of it. The union wasn’t fully organized in southern WV until 1935. However, the war did help lead to a much larger and more strongly organized labor effort in the country.

The events leading up to the shootout in Matewan are the topic of John Sayer’s 1987 film, Matewan. Chris Cooper plays a union organizer who helps push the miners toward striking. The cast also includes James Earl Jones as one of many folks brought in by the coal company to work the mine during the strike, and Mary McDonnell as a widow who must let some atrocious Baldwan-Felts agents board in her company-owned house. David Strathairn plays Sid Hatfield (without much enthusiasm).

The director’s choice to focus on a union organizer instead of the compelling character of Sid was interesting, but it worked pretty well and Chris Cooper was quite good in it. The pacing is slow, but the build-up of tension is well done. The soundtrack is full of Appalachian music, the cinematography is lovely, and together this builds such a strong sense of place that it becomes a character on its own. I recommend the movie purely on these merits, but if you’re at all interested in a brief look at the historical events it’s also a worthy tool.

To round out my education on the West Virginia Mine War, I also read Denise Giardina’s 1987 novel Storming Heaven. I really enjoyed it and am pleased to have stumbled across such an excellent writer. It is based on the events of the Mine War, sometimes quite loosely, but starts long before that, tracing the lives of four people who eventually got caught up in the storm.

Like John Sayer’s movie, but in even more detail, Giardina brings to life the Appalachian mountain villages and the rough and lovely folks who called them home. C. J. Marcum picks up the tale first, watching as the coal companies come through and forcibly buy up the land. He manages to avoid working in the mines, and later becomes a socialist and the mayor of Annadel, a non-company town. Rondal Lloyd spends his boyhood in the mines, then escapes the life and becomes a union organizer. Carrie Bishop grows up on the outskirts of the whole coal mine scene, but becomes a nurse and falls in love with Rondal and finds her life changing forever. Rose Andelelli, a Sicilian immigrant who loses four sons to the mines, gets the least amount of page-time but is no less powerful of a character. Carrie is the best drawn among them, and kind of the cornerstone of the story, but all the characters – even the ones briefly met – are well crafted.

As the story progressed I could see how certain characters and events were slipping into the shoes of the real people and circumstances, and this was occasionally heart-breaking. The street fight and later assassination of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were worked into the tale pretty subtly, but I guessed they were coming and was terrified for several different characters before the story sorted out who was who. In fact the switch from pure fiction, in the beginning of the book, to historical fiction later on was very well done and I only noticed because I’d been reading up on it.

There are beautiful passages about the land and about loving people, but the story is never slow. It cracks along, current people and events racing through the mist of ghosts and history that fills those rugged Appalachian valleys. It’s not the happiest tale, but it’s weight is worth shouldering. Even if you’re not interested in the Mine War at all, this is a gripping tale about a part of America that is overlooked and sometimes not very well loved, but very deserving of respect. I highly recommend it. (Giardina has written quite a lot of other books, so this discovery may lead to many more hours of good reading!)

I think this obsession has run it’s course and I can leave the West Virginia Mine War behind for a bit – but I won’t forget it. Folks in WV are struggling to keep at least part of Blair Mountain out of the hands of today’s coal companies and preserve this national historic site. The fight for decent working conditions and wages goes on and on. Labor Day rolls by every year, but we mostly munch burgers and watch baseball, and don’t think about the people who were willing to die (or, equally notable, to kill) for their rights and dignity. Today I’m choosing to remember. I hope you will too.

That said, enjoy your labor-free (I hope!) day, if you’re here in the states. And of course I hope the rest of you have a pleasant Sept. 1st as well!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | August 26, 2014

Reading the Rainbow

Ana of Things Mean a Lot reminded me recently that the third A More Diverse Universe reading challenge was coming up, hosted again by Aarti of BookLust. The challenge is very simple – read at least one book by an author of color and write about it during the week of Sept. 14-27. I was the 87th blogger to sign up for it this year, so one can hope that by the end of that week there will be at least 87 reviews of books that you may not have ever heard of – books whose authors probably had to fight to get them published, books that were repeatedly rejected or overlooked, books that you may not see on the shelves of bookstores or libraries.

I love what Ana wrote here: “Making a deliberate effort to diversity your reading is a way to redress the fact that the world is not a level playing field. It means acknowledging that the best works won’t “naturally” rise to the top. It means a small step towards righting a wrong. And it means enriching your reading life by seeking out valuable perspectives that deviate from the white default.”

In her signup post (which you can reach by clicking the banner above) Aarti recognizes that turning your reading into a political activity can be exhausting. After all, reading is often a relaxing activity, and an escape from the trouble or boredom of life. Why make it complicated? However it is also a powerful form of media, and therefore what you choose to consume becomes very important.

Like Aarti says: “None of us lives in a monochromatic world, and yet the fact that terrifying hate crimes still occur makes it clear that we do not fully understand or trust each other. And maybe part of the reason is because the media we consume does not accurately reflect the diversity of our society. And books are such a massive part of the media we consume that we should demand and fight for those that do represent minorities and those that do present the world from a different perspective than the one we are used to.”

Ever since I was little I’ve turned to books to teach me about the world – both the one I lived in, and the one I imagined. Reading has always been an intentional act for me, and the older I get the more thought I put into it. I began to read more books by female authors on purpose a few years ago, and it did stretch me a bit. I had to work at it, and most years I still wound up with a book list dominated by male authors. This year though, the thought habit is strong and female authors are two books ahead on my list…!

Only 10 books out of 40, however, were written by an author who wasn’t white. This is the next task at hand.

I was drifting in this direction already this year, with my discovery of August Wilson and recent obsession with the Cuba of Margarita Engle’s books. It has also been interesting to explore the library in Braddock, PA. The collection is colorful with spine labels that note ‘African-American Author’. I’ve scanned a lot of library shelves over the years, and have grown familiar with the typical collection found in those of small communities – small predominantly WHITE communities. Braddock’s library collection reflects a much more diverse community, and frankly I’ve never heard of most of the authors whose books line those shelves.

I plan to focus on diversifying my reading for more than just the week of the challenge, therefore, and I’m excited about all the new books I’ll discover! I started making a list the other day, using my interest in Cuba and my recent trip to Jamaica as jumping off points. I realized that I’ve read very few books by Native American authors throughout my life, despite being born just outside a Navajo reservation, so I sought out a few of those too. And all the books I’m aiming to read are by female authors. This was an afterthought, but seemed necessary when I realized that of the authors publishing in Cuba who were then also being translated into English, only about 3 are women. I demand more!

My list so far then:

Jamaican Authors -

The Hills of Hebron by Sylvia Wynter

From Harvey River by Lorna Goodison

The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Cuban Authors -

Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban Women edited by Mirta Yáñez

Disconnect by Nancy Alonso

Havana is a Really Big City by Mirta Yáñez

Everyone Leaves by Wendy Guerra

Native American Authors -

Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling

Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan

Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story by LeAnne Howe

Night Sky, Morning Star by Evelina Zuni Lucero

Ravensong by Lee Maracle

About half of these books are somewhere in the Pittsburgh library system, which is nice, but part of the challenge is to diversify your own shelves, so I have a good excuse to buy a few books! I was startled and pleased though to find The True History of Paradise sitting on display at my local branch today, so I guess I’ll be getting right to it.

I encourage you to join A More Diverse Universe – it’s so easy, and I suspect it will be ridiculously rewarding too. I can’t wait to discover a new favorite book!

It’s worth noting that L of omphaloskepsis writes about diversity in lit most Fridays, and has a really good collection of lists on her blog!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | August 25, 2014

Reggae Roads

Somewhere over the states - Aug. 13thCuba - Aug. 13th

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fly over Jamaica - Aug. 13th

I usually hope for a window seat on an airplane, but it was absolutely necessary when I flew to Jamaica on Aug. 13th. I wanted to see the moment when I left the North American continent for the first time. I was not disappointed. The clouds were spectacular, the ocean was way down there, I saw Cuba when we roared over it, and Jamaica from the air was a fluffy emerald wonder.

Customs and immigration navigated, I came bursting out of the airport into Jamaica’s hug of sun and humidity, and was soon comfortably installed in one of Clive’s airport transfer vans – on the wrong side of the vehicle! Left-hand drive is just one of many relics of British colonization. Once I had gotten over my surprise I rather enjoyed the phenomenon. The Red Stripe that I clutched for most of the ride from Montego Bay to Negril also helped. (Michael, my driver: “What would you like to drink during the ride – water? Beer?” Me: “…Beer? Yes, beer, thanks!” Me, thinking: Oh ho, I ain’t in the States anymore…!)

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I clutched that beer because driving in Jamaica is pretty exciting. The main roads are in decent shape, but smaller roads have potholes that rival New England’s after a bad winter. I say smaller, but all the roads are small, and there’s a a whole lot of activity on them. Cars, bikes, people walking, goats crossing… Jamaican drivers are honk happy – and good thing! They drive fast and break hard, zip around corners, pass joyfully whenever they please, and honk the whole time. They honk to say hello, to warn that they’re passing, to make the goats pick up the pace, and to alert pedestrians to tuck in elbows and watch their toes. I walked a lot while I was in their country, and I grew to love the cheery “Peep peep” of their horns (which sound nothing like the deeply angry “HOOONK” of American car horns). I could have hip checked most of the cars that passed me but I actually never felt like I was going to get hit. (On the other hand, I was nearly smashed in a crosswalk by a thoughtless Pittsburgher on my first day back…!)

Entrance to the hostel where I stayed - Aug. 15thAug. 15th

Michael dropped me off at the gates of Judy House, on West Land Mountain Road, Negril, after spending the hour drive chatting about his country and his plans to go travel in the States soon, (and about how he’d stubbornly stayed in his little wooden house during the last bad hurricane and been fine!) I found my way through the lovely maze of Sue’s garden (the owner is Sue, I don’t know where ‘Judy’ comes from) to the back of the property where a backpacker hostel comfortably hosts the more adventurous tourist. Sunny decks, sheltered hammocks, outdoor baths, and cute cabins built from corrugated tin, painted lilac, are scattered throughout the garden. The place is guarded by Brownie, a sleepy, content Golden Retriever, who never bothers to run off the number of small semi-wild cats that flit about and come begging for nibbles or tickles. The garden – and indeed the whole island – is full of plants that came straight from the Tropical Fruits & Spices room at Phipps Conservatory, not to mention heaps of glorious flowers, including bougainvillea bushes as big as horses.

IMG_3748I flung my things on my bed in the dorm, then caught a ride from Sue back into downtown Negril. There a friendly Australian girl (a co-hosteler) and I exchanged money and marveled at grocery items in the Hi-Lo Supermarket. The food-stuffs there had a definite British influence, with dozens of imported crackers and cookies. There was also had a well-stocked cooler of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. We were invited by everyone we saw to “Come into my shop”, “Take a ride in my taxi”, “Exchange money with me, my rate is better”, and we wandered among them and around the Sunshine Plaza while it suddenly poured. Vigorous thunder and lightning accompanied the storm, so we scuttled into a tiny Jerk Shack to wait it out and eat some dinner.

I had Jerk pork, which I ate in wonderment – finger lickin’, bone suckin’ good. Across the road lightning sizzled and sparked into the ocean, multiple strikes searing the horizon at once. I checked the time – 4:30 p.m. – and fervently hoped that the beach-side wedding I was scheduled to appear in at around the same time on the coming Saturday wouldn’t be graced with a similar storm…

My new Australian friend walked back to the hostel when the rain let up, and I set off to find my American friends at their resort on the beach. Skirting around puddles and trying not to get run over by route taxis, I made my way through the small center of Negril and started across the bridge that spans the Negril River. A tall, somewhat tattered Jamacian man with long dreads bundled up on his head said “Hello lady,” to me as I passed him. When I responded with just a smile he said with some insistence, “Hello, stop please, one moment, can I speak to you?”

I stopped and turned to him, and he grinned hugely. “I’m Paul,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Welcome. What is your name?”

“I’m Sally,” I replied and I shook his hand.

“Sally,” he said. “Sally. I look at you, I see you walking, and I wonder what is her mission?”

“I’m going to meet my friends,” I said quickly.

“You’re here with friends? You’re here on vacation?”

I said “Yes,” and he looked at me rather pointedly. “You walk very quickly,” he said.

“Ah. I’m walking too fast maybe?”

“Yes! Relax. You’re here to experience life!”

“All right,” I said, “I’ll walk more slowly. I was forgetting!”

We stood on the bridge while cars and bikes and people rattled and romped by and chatted for awhile longer. The man guessed that I was a Virgo, like himself, laughed a bit, got me to confirm that he might be a little bit psychic, was pleased with himself, and let me go finally after I promised to continue on my way at a slower pace.

He didn’t ask for my number, or wonder where I was staying, or claim that our energy vibed well together, and didn’t ask to get to know me better, or beg me to show up at some bar or beach-side concert later that night, didn’t comment on my outfit or call me pretty – all things that other Jamaican men said to me, rapid-fire, as I made my way up the beach that day, and here and there in Negril for the remainder of my stay. I learned to dance away from such encounters with relative grace (most gave up after I mentioned my boyfriend) and wasn’t too bothered by them. I wish that I could have had a real conversation with these guys, but like the men selling sun hats and friendship bracelets and ganja at the edge of the ocean, they seemed to me to be trying to sell something as well.

Salty Dog - Aug. 16th

The famous so called 7-Mile Beach (really it’s about 4 miles long) is a curve of white sand tickled by deliciously warm ocean, bordered along it’s length by resorts and restaurants. I found my friends – soon to be bride and groom – enjoying their first pina coladas of the trip not far from the resort where they were staying. We trooped further up the beach, running in and out of the water, until the sun set in a stupendous blaze of color. There’s nothing quite like a sunset over the ocean, especially when you’re facing west.

Sunset over the Caribbean Sea - Aug. 13th

I spent the evening with my friends exploring the beach and went back to the hostel late, where I curled up under my mosquito net and slept soundly. Roosters crowing woke me early and by 7:30 a.m. I was outside scribbling in my journal, listening to distant reggae and nearby goat sounds, and wondering what my first full day in Jamaica would hold.

As it turned out, it contained a long walk down West End Road to the westernmost point of Jamaica, a visit to the lighthouse there, a delicious late breakfast of saltfish and ackee at Just Natural, a boat ride while my friends parasailed, many beach-wanders, dinner at Juicy’s, and a ride in a route taxi home to my hostel bed.

View looking north from South Negril Point - Aug. 14th

Cliffs line the coast to the south of Negril

Negril Lighthouse - Aug. 14th

Negril Lighthouse, built in 1894. One of the earliest concrete lighthouses, it’s built on top of a tank of water 14 feet deep which helps to keep it stable and balanced if there’s an earthquake. The lighthouse keeper told me that it’s come through many hurricanes without flinching, even when the ocean has flooded right up to it’s base. He also wished he had known I was coming – he’d have made me breakfast…!

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“Jamaican breakfast”, which most places means saltfish and ackee (a savory fruit that looks like scrambled eggs above), dumplings (served fried here, with a banana jam), and other fruit. I ate in the shady garden at Just Natural and enjoyed fresh papaya juice too. Those round green things are guineps, a very odd fruit with sweet gooey-ness wrapped around a big pit. You pop them out of their skins and then just kind of suck on them.

Friends parasailing - Aug. 14th

My friends putting their heads in the clouds

I’m so pleased that I stayed at the hostel, in what is known as West End. Even in the off-season, the hustle and bustle of the beach with it’s relentless drive to delight and entertain tourists, was a bit much for me. I loved going back to my little hostel bed, and waking up to the sound of chickens being fed and workmen building a house down the road.

West Land Mountain Road - Aug. 15th

On Friday I tromped the 10 minutes down West Land Mountain Road and around the corner to CJ’s, a tiny shack restaurant with a roadside porch where some fellows playing Dominoes welcomed me and shouted for CJ. He came from the kitchen and washed a table on the back porch for me, then fed me brown stew (chicken in a rich brown sauce) and a boiled dumpling and breadfruit and several other fruits or veggies that had a potato-like consistency.

I sat watching the ocean for a bit, then a fellow caught sight of me and asked if he could join me. I said yes, and he sat down and explained what I was eating, then told me that CJ was his cousin, and that his father came from further up West Land Mountain Road. His mother owned a little restaurant down the road, and he worked there. He boasted about his Domino skills and sent his good wishes on to my friends for their wedding and marriage. He was lovely and interesting, and I was pleased to have met him.

I spent the rest of the day with my friends and the growing group of wedding guests. I met another nice Jamaican man who decided I was altogether too sun burnt, and slathered me with aloe straight out of the plant. It was wonderfully refreshing, and did take the pink out of my skin somewhat. I bought a bunch of aloe from him, anticipating more burning… Later in the day we caravaned to Rick’s Cafe, which was kind of terrible (terribly white) but there’s no doubt that the Jamaican divers who flung themselves into the sea were a spectacle to behold…!

A diver getting ready to jump, with the Negril Lighthouse behind - Aug. 15th

I stayed with the bride that night, and we spent the next morning dodging the groom and finally swimming in the ocean. I can swim quite well in warm salty water, it turns out…! The wedding went off with a few hitches (the rain I’d dreaded came right when it was supposed to start…of course!) but it turned out all right and everyone had fun. We thought when a Chinese fire lantern crashed into the sea that there might be some bad luck involved, but were immediately gifted with a visit from a sting ray, so good luck all round!

Bride and groom - Aug. 16th

I stayed that night near the beach at a bungalow some other wedding guests had rented, and spent another morning swimming in the ocean. Our friend the sting ray was still around, and we kept calm and collected and in the water with it for awhile. What a stunning creature…! In the afternoon, after much debate, we chartered a van and driver to take us to Mayfield Falls. The bride picked the excursion and made vague promises about waterfalls and mineral pools, so we expected a bit of hiking and a dip in the river. We got quite a bit more than that…!

"Reggae roads" - Aug. 17th

Seaburt picked us up and drove us the hour or so into the jungle. The roads got smaller and more rough until we were driving on real “Reggae roads” as Seaburt called them with a grin. “You like dancing?” he said as we bounced around. I rode in the front and got the best views, somewhat hampered by a brief, heavy afternoon rain. We passed through small communities and and a sugar plantation, and then started to go up into the mountains. I thought West Virginia had narrow, twisty-turny mountainous roads…! Jamaica takes the cake though – and beyond being narrow (one lane!) and curvaceous, they are potholed, lack guardrails, and are the front yard, sidewalk, and hangout space of the folks that live on them. Homes that would make lovers of the Tiny House movement drool (brightly painted, pretty wood details) are scattered across the steep slopes, some with their butts hanging out over empty air, corners balanced on stacks of cinder blocks. Seaburt honked a lot (“Peep peep!”) and drove fast, but he slammed the breaks at an especially good vantage point so I could take a picture. We also stopped at a little store owned by a friend of his, and were given several bunches of guineps to suck on.

Heading into the mountains - Aug. 17th

We were met at the road by our guide for the falls – a small, barefoot, muscular man named Comfy – and after he greeted everyone with fist-bumps, we traipsed down a flight of stairs and across a bridge to the office and bar of the place. Waivers were signed, water shoes were rented, and then Comfy and the staff started taking away our possessions. Boys had to empty pockets, the bride had to give up her phone, they didn’t think I’d want my big palm-leaf hat. “How wet are we going to get?” I asked. “Soaked. You’ll be soaked,” they said. Comfy promised to put my camera in a water-proof bag and then made us strip down to just swim suits.

Off we trooped. We reached the river, and Comfy told us the water would feel great if we just jumped in right away. And he canon-balled in. I looked at the groom with apprehension. I don’t really swim, and he was taking time during the trip to get over an actual fear of water. He had floated for the first time that very morning. But we both kind of shrugged, and then followed the others in – splash, splash, splash, SPLASH!

We hiked straight up the river, in and out of pools both shallow and deep. Comfy was an excellent guide, telling us precisely where to step safely and where to sit so we could get a water massage under the falls. He took pictures for us, and guided the groom and I around the especially deep spots. I did successfully swim for it at one point, and was proud of myself.

Enjoying the pounding water - Aug. 17th

On our way back, walking through the jungle on a little ridge above the river, Comfy showed us ginger and turmeric roots and pointed out cocoa trees and a pineapple bush. He was funny and charming, and has been guiding tourists up the falls for 16 years. We commented on his bare feet, and he said proudly, “I’m a jungle boy. Tough feet!”

I bid farewell to my friends that night for what turned out to be the last time, as I never managed to get ahold of them the following day – my last full one in Jamaica. It was a relief to return to the hostel and the West End. I had fun on the beach for sure, but the hotel bar food wasn’t as good as what I’d eaten in the little shack restaurants, and all those delicious pina coladas put a dent in my wallet…! It was interesting to have these two contrasting experiences of Jamaica though, and while I was an American tourist in both scenarios, I didn’t feel as much like one in the West End.

I spent much of that Monday at the Canoe Bar, a restaurant at the bottom of West Land Mountain Road right on the West End’s only little bit of beach. I swam, ate yummy food, drank Red Stripes, and read Cold Comfort Farm. I walked into Negril to do some shopping and hit up the post office, started packing, and then went back to the Canoe Bar for more swimming and dinner and the sunset.

Sunset at the Canoe Bar beach - Aug. 18th

I rose early enough on my last day to go down to CJ’s for breakfast. This time he made me his version of Jamaican Breakfast, with saltfish and ackee, a boiled dumpling, and all those mystery fruits/veggies. He introduced himself to me officially, and was sorry to hear that I was leaving. “Why?” he asked, and so had a few other Jamaicans. “I don’t know,” I replied. I was just starting to dig in to Jamaica, to find it’s rhythm. Going back to the States seemed like so much foolishness.

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But I went, regardless. My driver, another fellow who worked for Clive’s Transportation, was late picking me up. He apologized profusely, but I told him, “Never mind, I’m not in a rush to leave!” All too soon I was back at the airport in Montego Bay though, and the rest of my day was spent in endless lines and on crowded planes where I didn’t get the window seat.

Still, it was nice to see that Pittsburgh skyline when I burst out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel in my boyfriend’s truck at 1:30 in the morning. I’ve been back for almost a week, and I’m managing my wanderlust pretty well. I do want to go EVERYWHERE now, but I’m content to stay here for a few months! I had a fun, wide-eyed experience in Jamaica, but next time I travel abroad I want to do it with more intent. I want to dig into the culture more, talk to more people, get my hands dirty.

In the meantime, I have precisely that to do around here! The adventure is always at hand, the game is always afoot.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | August 8, 2014

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Allegheny River at the bottom of McCandless Avenue, Lawrenceville

 

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