Letting Life Lead
When I was in junior high school, I would stop home for five minutes, lay my heavy book bag in its corner in my room, and dash back to the door with four books. “Going to the library!”
I strolled between the rear space between the Seventh Day church housed in a former, stone storage building (which had services every night of the week) and Down to Earth Natural Foods. I passed the packed comic book store on the corner, the mom-n-pop video place, and Auntie Anne’s Crafts. Folks waiting at the bus near Recas Pharmacy spoke Spanglish and Kriolu. The major intersection at the flashy Sunday church with the old Ginko tree in front didn’t have a working cross signal so you had to time your sprint to the red light. Madonna, Michael, and rap beats blared from the car windows.
The library and park wasn’t far from the schools. Back then, the city festival would be held on the grounds and piles of books would be waiting out front for a quarter or half-dollar.
The librarian raised her eyebrows at me, peeking over bug-lens glasses while she was reorganizing the card catalog according to Dewey. “Again? Weren’t you here two days ago?”
I’d set the books on the counter and promptly picked four more that I had had my eye on the last time. “Yup.”
She pushed up the sleeves of her loud sweater. “Why don’t you go ahead and take out as many as you want.”
“Really?” I hesitated, narrowing my eyes. “How about twenty?”
“We trust you. Go on.”
I limited myself to ten and stretched my visits to once a week. Around then I started writing as an obsession. However, it didn’t occur to me to write about the people I knew or saw on a daily basis. Instead, super tall people with no connection to me filled my head. They were usually Caucasian and American. With the exception of books like The Island of the Blue Dolphins the vast majority of the young adult and adult fiction featured on the “picks of the week” were homogeneous characters: Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Choose Your Own Adventure. Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t…brown. Even the fantasy and science fiction often failed in diversity. Dark elves weren’t dark skinned but fair (but orcs were dark skinned and dark of heart).
My writing matured and I began to incorporate more of my own experiences and snag snippets from life. I’m fond of writing about Ginkgo trees, older characters, smells of comfort cuisine, multilingual dialogue, and the memories of places long past. I am Dr. Daniel P. Schreber from Dark City taking from one and another, injecting authenticity and a smidge of could-be-true trauma to create something recognizable but wholly new.
“I don’t mean to sound classist, but why would a poor maid speak three languages?” a reader asked.
Being monolingual myself and feeling unsure, I removed the line from the background character that didn’t have prominence in the story other than in a memory of a relationship.
Last week, my students spoke to each other in various forms of Spanish and English after class. I recalled a long forgotten former student from Nigeria who spoke no less than three fluently. Many of my grandmother’s friends and family spoke not only their mother tongue Cape Verdean Kriolu, but also English and Portuguese. My world growing up was rich with diverse faces of all tones in every combination. Living with little was life. The cadence and musicality of ordinary conversation still echos in my mind. Decades later, polyglots are still the rule, not the exception.
The characters I pen are familiars. I write what I know.
I replaced the line; it deserves to be there.
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