Hiraeth Portrayed in Art

IMG_3983Many moons ago, I blogged about the Welsh word hiraeth (HEER-eyeth). The word is used to describe a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or even a home which maybe never was. It describes a sense of nostalgia and yearning for lost places of your past.

I’ve thought of that word many times since then, and wondered why we don’t have such a word in our language. Am I the only one who gets this word? Who deeply feels this longing for places in my childhood that I can never return to? I’m pretty sure I’m not.

The above picture was drawn by my Aunt Rebecca. It depicts me (as a small child) approaching my grandma. I love this image. It shows how casual life could be up there in the mountains–my grandma in her fuzzy slippers and floppy hat. She added vines of wisteria for a whimsical effect that I find especially fun. It also reminds me of how much I always wanted to spend time with my grandmother, and in the picture I’m walking toward her carrying my own smaller version of her coffee mug.

If there were a place and time that I could return to for just a while, it would be here–on my grandparents’ porch. I’d share my drink and ask her to tell me stories. To have that moment would satisfy the longing I feel for that place and those people. If you could have that moment, where and when would it take you? Who would you see? What would you do? I’d love to hear your stories.

 

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Discovering Our Ancestry

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Recently I’ve seen numerous ads on TV for DNA kits promising to help you “discover your true ancestry.” I’ve tuned into the PBS program Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates to see people stunned and enthralled by tidbits of information about ancestors from centuries ago. I’ve even briefly explored the wildly popular website Ancestry.com to see what I could dig up about my own family roots.

There seems to be a craving in our country right now to find out where we came from and more importantly who came before us.  What kind of lives did they live? What kind of people were they? It’s no secret that it’s much harder for African Americans to trace their roots due to the poor records kept by slaveholders in the 1700’s and 1800’s. And even if they were able to trace their roots, what would be left for them to discover about the lives of their ancestors?

What if you did trace your ancestry back to enslaved people, and you had the opportunity to visit the very place your ancestors were enslaved? Would you do it? Even more pressing: What if you had the chance to meet some descendants of the people who’d enslaved your ancestors during that visit? It seems far-fetched and unlikely, but it’s exactly what has recently happened at Prospect Hill Plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi.

My second novel, Burning Prospects, is based on the true story of the events that took place on this plantation after the death of Isaac Ross. I’ve found the story fascinating ever since I heard it as a child. But in past years, I’ve had the privilege of talking with those who trace their ancestry back to Prospect Hill slaves. They have gone back to the plantation and met with the descendants of the very people who enslaved their ancestors many years ago. Their graciousness has been an inspiration. I wanted to share two articles recently published about a reunion held at Prospect Hill as well as a link to a video about a young man’s solitary visit to the site.

Alan Huffman, author of Mississippi in Africa wrote an article for The Guardian titled ‘This is surreal’: descendants of slaves and slave owners meet on US plantation. It’s a fascinating read with a brief summary of the case that inspired my novel. His book further explores what happened to a group of slaves from Prospect Hill who went to Liberia, so please check out his book if you’d like to know more.

Just today, I saw a link to an article on NEWSONE, posing the question “Would you Meet with the Descendants of Those who Enslaved Your Ancestors?” It references Mr. Huffman’s article in The Guardian, but adds even more background about the people who chose to attend the reunion and why.

Perhaps the most poignant piece on descendants of enslaved people visiting Prospect Hill comes in the form of a documentary film by Blue Magnolia Films. Please take a moment to watch this beautiful story here.

I’d love to hear your comments. Would you go back? Why or why not?

A Week of Mentorship

From the moment my feet touched the ground at the Highlight’s Foundation property in Pennsylvania, I knew I’d made the right choice. I selected Summer Camp at the Barn from a long list of amazing workshops for the opportunity of mentoring. I shared a van from the airport with three of the talented and generous mentors for the week, and from the beginning I felt welcome.

I discovered fairly quickly after arriving that it wasn’t only the official mentors I’d learn from during the week. The group of talented writers assembled at Summer Camp 2017 taught me more than I’d thought possible. Through critique sessions on the screened porch of the farmhouse, impromptu discussions between activities, and chats during meals, I learned. I grew as a writer. I felt a part of a community.

Here it is, October already, and I’m taking time to reflect on how much this experience meant to me. I’m happy to say that through a Facebook group and email list, some of us are exchanging manuscripts for critique and sharing exciting news. One of our group just signed with an agent, and another was chosen as a mentee in Pitchwars. I’m polishing two articles I plan to submit to Highlights, and have already received feedback from two of my fellow “summer camp” alums.

I would highly recommend this experience to anyone interested in writing for children and teens, no matter where you are in the writing journey. You will meet people at varying stages at Highlights that will become a part of your own journey. The generosity of the staff, mentors, and other attendees will remain with me for years to come.

 

Unity

I know I’m not the only one who’s hurting over recent events in our nation. I’m certainly not the only person praying for our country to figure out a way to come together and stop allowing differences of opinion to lead to a loss of civility. One of the best things about America is our diversity, and yet we’ve become increasingly divided.

I wish I had some answers. I wish I could fix things that aren’t working. I wish I had a way to level the playing field and give all kids opportunities. One thing anyone who knows me can tell you is that I love kids. Working with kids is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and all I’ve done as a career and as a volunteer in my community. Some days at work, my precious little patient “J” takes my hand. He doesn’t say anything, but he holds onto to my hand. It melts my heart into a puddle and I yearn make this world a better place for him. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such sadness for my country.

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Even though I don’t have the answers, I’m encouraged that my community is having a service of unity this evening. Maybe, just maybe, if all communities around the country begin listening to each other and addressing issues we can start to see changes. Little changes, when multiplied around the country, can become big changes. I look forward to doing whatever I can do locally to make this community a welcoming place of opportunity and acceptance for anyone who lives here.

Review: The Hate U Give

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Copyright (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)

This novel gave me more insight into race relations in America than anything I’ve read up to this point. One of the best descriptors I can apply to The Hate U Give is “real”. It is raw, it is gritty, it is sad, and it is even funny in places. But I didn’t find it to be sensationalistic or gratuitous. For parents of younger readers, there is a fairly large amount of language, including multiple F bombs—but staying true to form, it is “real” language for the characters in the novel.

The book condemns police brutality, but not police at large. I appreciate the way Ms. Thomas creates a compelling and likable character who also happens to be a police officer. Having a character like Uncle Carlos creates balance in the narrative, making it clear that not all police officers are racist. I found Starr’s family to be compelling and well developed as characters. Every one of them reminded of someone in my own family. Some of Starr’s high school friends might be a bit stereotypical, yet truthful enough that you’ll likely also see similarities to your own high school friends—we all had at least one that wasn’t great for us, but we found him/her hard to “drop” from our life.

I am not a fan of rap music and know very little about the late Tupac Shakur. However, the meaning of the acronym THUG LIFE really made me think. As a pediatric nurse and certified teacher, I’ve spent my life working with young children. I see kids that seem broken, cynical and filled with rage because of the environment they live in. Some of this has already occurred by the time they enter our public school system in pre-K. As adults in our society, we need to work together and listen to each other in order to find real solutions to the causes of suffering. This was a book that was hard to read in many ways, but it was also a book that I needed to read—and I’m glad I did.

***Spoiler alert*** If you haven’t read The Hate U Give, you might not want to continue reading.

Starr’s life is abruptly changed during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Not only does she see her childhood friend gunned down, she isn’t sure for a long while that she won’t be shot herself. It is just her, her dying friend and the armed police officer who just shot her friend—alone on a dark street, until other first responders arrive on the scene. During these moments, the police officer aims his gun at Starr. The terror she feels during these tense moments comes through to the reader. Her internal monologue as she remembers the rules her parents taught her about interacting with police accompany her increasing anxiety as she watches her friend Khalil breaking those rules one by one. I found myself as the reader silently pleading right along with Starr for him to keep his hands in sight, don’t move, don’t argue, etc.

After the shooting, the police officer testifies that he mistook a black hairbrush in the door of the car for a gun. Khalil opened the door while the officer had walked back to his car to check on Starr. The officer saw this as an attempt to go for the gun and shot him in the back 3 times. The horror of the situation is palpable. Yet, Ms. Thomas creates a scenario that is very plausible.

At first she and her parents want to keep her identity a secret. Her parents want to protect her, as she has already suffered enough. Eventually, they help her understand that sometimes speaking out against injustice is worth the heat you’ll have to take for it if you ever want things to change. One of the best things about this novel is the transformation of Starr, as she becomes stronger and more certain in her beliefs. She also reflects on her own biases, and owns up to feeling ashamed of her friends from her old neighborhood once she starts making friends with affluent kids in her private school. My heart ached for her in the scene where she denies to her two best friends that she even knew Khalil when they ask her if the guy that was shot was her old friend. Any one of us who can remember the angst of our teen years will relate to Starr’s feelings in many ways—especially the way we tended to blame ourselves for things that were never actually within our control in the first place.

Starr’s parents particularly resonated with me. They are torn between wanting to stay in the neighborhood where they were raised and protecting their children from many of the pitfalls that are so common there. Garden Heights isn’t a particularly safe place to live. There are gangs, guns, drug dealers and looting going down. Hearing gunshots sounding at night is a common occurrence there. After Starr’s best friend is killed in a drive-by shooting, her parents decide to move all three of their children to a private school in the suburbs. Eventually, it becomes clear that it isn’t safe to remain in the neighborhood, and the family makes the painful decision to leave. We feel the pain and shame Starr’s father battles over his feelings that he’s selling out and abandoning his home to the gangs. It’s heartbreaking.

The most gut wrenching part of reading The Hate U Give is the realization that this story is the reality for thousands of young black men in America. Garden Heights was a fictitious neighborhood in an unnamed city and state in our country, but it could have been anywhere. For the young boys growing up in this neighborhood, there existed a lack of hope—a lack of the promise of a bright future awaiting them. This lack of hope is mirrored in real communities across this country. Starr’s father was able to leave behind the life of gangs and crime, but he makes it clear to Starr that it’s nearly impossible to do. He was only allowed to leave (without being killed) because he took the rap for a gang leader who was facing his third conviction and would have been sentenced to life in prison. Through his character, as well as Devonte and Khalil, it isn’t hard to see why young men in their situation might make bad choices, even knowing the potential consequences. Starr’s half brother Seven was probably my favorite character. The scene at his birthday/graduation party where he confronts his mother was so beautifully written, yet so painful to read. I found myself rooting for him the whole story, and would have been completely devastated if Ms. Thomas had allowed him to die (which I feared in at least two scenes!).

I hope this book creates honest discussion within communities. It is a discussion we need to have in our country, no matter how difficult it is to openly talk about. Of course, I’d love to hear what you thought of this book.

A Touch of Whimsy

I’ve read some articles recently about how “no one wants their parents’ stuff” anymore. It might be true. Most young people don’t entertain with fine china and crystal. Life is more casual than it was in previous generations. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have registered for china and crystal before our wedding. We never use it, and it brings me no satisfaction stored in a cabinet. I’m certain my two young adult children won’t want it, so it will likely be hauled off to a thrift shop one day.

I try not to become too attached to “stuff” in general. As we are in the process of evacuating for our fourth hurricane, I can’t help but be reminded that stuff can be destroyed in moments. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things collected by my parents and grandparents that I wouldn’t miss–things that I’m drawn to for the joy they bring me.

My grandmother had a wonderful sense of whimsy. She didn’t collect expensive, delicate objects but rather she was drawn to folk art and chunky wooden things. These egg cups were a childhood favorite of mine, and I still love them. They don’t get used, but they sit on top of my kitchen cabinets and the sight of them brings a smile to my face.

Whimsy at its finest!

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The wooden buckets are for salt. They also have spoons and knit caps to keep the eggs warm.
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From their perch high atop my kitchen.

Another strange acquisition of my grandmother came from her time in China back in the 1930’s. She picked up this “puzzle”. How many babies are there? Two or four? I spent many hours as a child turning this over and over trying to be certain of my answer.

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Strange, but oddly captivating.

One of my favorite collections of my grandmother is her Figgjo Flint Norway pieces. I loved drinking from the mugs–sitting next to my grandmother on a porch swing while she sipped her coffee. I’ve been able to add a few pieces to the collection through Ebay, and I’ve given some away to cousins who share the same special memories.

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This milk pitcher has Norwegian Folk art covering it.
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Flip side of milk pitcher.

Do you have any objects from your parents or grandparents that you enjoy? I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for sharing.

The Downside of STEM Designation

We’ve all heard about the shortage of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an official list of “approved” STEM fields. You might find it interesting which careers make the list, and which ones don’t. Here are a few careers that make the list which might surprise you: psychology, communications, anthropology, urban planning, and international relations. The focus to bring more women into STEM fields is meant to help young women. But does it? Why does it matter if a career is designated as a STEM field? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. It matters for students seeking scholarships. Scholarship money is designated for these specific careers by the NSF. A Google search of STEM scholarships creates more hits that I could count. The opportunities for scholarships multiplies dramatically when a student is entering a STEM field.
  2. It also matters for potential immigrants wishing to expedite the process of becoming permanent residents. This quote is from a Congressional Research Service document titled Immigration of Foreign Nationals with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Degrees. 

“STEM visa” is a shorthand for an expedited immigration avenue that enables foreign nationals with graduate degrees in STEM fields to adjust their immigration status to legal permanent residence (LPR) without waiting in the queue of numerically limited LPR visas.

3. For those in education, it certainly matters when applying for grants. I found numerous programs awarding grants to increase STEM funding for schools.

To be perfectly clear, I’m certainly not opposed to STEM programs in schools, STEM scholarships or recruiting foreign graduates of STEM fields to our country. What concerns me is the false message it sends to young women: STEM fields are the ones that are empowering and are more valuable to society than fields such as nursing. This simply isn’t a good message for our daughters. We are being led to believe by reports (based on the NSF list) that only about 25% of STEM professionals are women.

To me, this begs the question, “Why is nursing not considered a STEM field?” Obviously there isn’t engineering involved, but what about science? My bachelor’s program in nursing required, 2 Biology courses (with labs), 2 Chemistry courses (with labs), Anatomy, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Microbiology, Pharmacology, numerous Psychology courses, Anthropology, Sociology, Statistics, and more. I wouldn’t have survived a shift in the pediatric ICU without putting the Math I learned in college to good use in calculating drug dosages or IV drip rates. To pull the correct dose of medication from a multidose vial requires the use of ratios and formulas that wouldn’t be possible without a good working knowledge of math. I would love to have someone explain to me how a psychologist or urban planner has a higher knowledge of math, science or technology than I do as a nurse.

But, if we include nursing as a STEM field, it throws off the numbers, doesn’t it? We couldn’t believe that women don’t have opportunities in STEM professions because the percentage of women in STEM careers would change dramatically if we included nursing into the NSF list of STEM careers.

In an article for PBS News Hour, Dr. Denise Cummins brings up some interesting points. Surely nursing has more intrinsic value to society than many other professions which garner higher pay and prestige. She points out that as more men enter the profession of nursing, things have started to change. In 2011, the percentage of male nurses increased to 10% of the profession from the 3% in 1970. This revealed a gender gap within the nursing profession with the average female nurse earning 16 percent less than the average man in the same job. The problem, it seems, is that women tend to undervalue ourselves and have traditionally been willing to settle for less.

According to Dr. Cummins, “When men move into traditionally female-dominated professions, the salaries and status levels of those professions rise because men demand—and get—more for the work they do.”

This leads me to believe that we have a bigger problem in society than can be fixed by pushing young women into the fields that society considers “important” and is therefore well-paying. We need to encourage young women to find a career they feel passionate about, have aptitude for, and will offer the flexibility needed to juggle the demands of potential future families—then empower them to negotiate higher salaries and have a better sense of their own worth in the workforce.

The bottom line, in my opinion, comes down to funding. Hospitals are largely private “for profit” institutions in our country. The bigwigs controlling the purse strings of these corporations don’t want to pay nurses the salaries commensurate with their education and expertise. Yet they have no problem paying their executives huge salaries. Leaving nursing off the list of STEM careers allows hospitals to justify the chronic under-staffing (which favors cost saving measures over patient safety) and lower salaries.

Do you think nursing should be considered a STEM field? I would very much like to hear your opinion on this. Please take a moment and comment. Thanks!

Hoping It’s the Highlight of my Summer!

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Copyright Highlights Foundation

I’m all set to attend my first ever week long writing workshop, and this is a big one. I will be traveling to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to participate in a “Summer Camp” for writers. I’ve sent in a writing sample and will be paired with a mentor for the week. There will be time for writing, honing my craft, networking with other authors, and a little bit of fun! I will blog again about my experiences there, but I know I will learn a great deal about writing books for young people.

Here are some pictures of the facility:

I’ll update the blog once I’ve arrived. Wish me luck! 🙂

Book Sale Next Month!

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Christopher Nolan’s upcoming summer blockbuster movie, Dunkirk is being released next month.  Over 40 authors from the Facebook Second World War Club have joined together for the “Dunkirk Week WWII Epic Novels Sale”. From July 21-27 (the opening week of “Dunkirk”), we will discount a selection of our books to 99 cents to bring you more riveting tales of WWII from around the world.

This is a great chance to discover some awesome WWII stories. To find out more, go to:http://alexakang.com/dunkirk-book-sale/

The Power of Language

A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.

Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.

When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese AmericansHe makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.

It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.