The Monthly / The Trickiness of Connection

What Was on My . . .

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 11.39.56 AMHi. I’ve been deep in my writer’s cave, lost in other worlds, so imagine my surprise to stick my head out and discover summer is nearly here. I missed Memorial Day. And June is in two days! But it can’t come before my May post and telling you all about What Was on on My . . .

Lawn: The shadow of a helicopter. Delivering two thick olive trees and a bunch of soil up to our lawn above the steeply terraced vineyards. Our Swiss neighbors were yawning at the ho-humness of it all. A helicopter delivering straight to the garden—how drowsish. But this flatlands girl still can’t get over the decadence of it. And excitement! I mean, in Kansas we use pickups and back muscle and garden sacks.

Also, on my lawn, an animal highway. Mostly due to the feast we leave out every night and day. I know, I know, nature is best left to fend for itself. But it’s Spring! And every bird in the neighborhood seems to know that I still haven’t figured out that baguettes don’t last over night. And the baby fox that was born here last year—and then mercilessly had her tail cut off by some hard-hearted person—has returned with her mate. Who could resist? Not my husband. First one egg, then two, then on to leaving sausages. And now, it’s not just the fox without a tail, sightings include ferrets, badgers, miscellaneous cats and omnivorous crows and magpies.

Desk:  A spanking-new Jane Austin Action Figure, because after reading about Shawn Stout’s Austin-Bronte pair on her desk, I was dying to have one of my own. The quill, by the way, does look extremely deadly. 

Screenshot 2014-05-29 16.26.11Dining Room Table: Peonies. Tall vases of lush, fragrant peonies, each and every flower reminding me of my grandmother, who was smart, shy, tatting in the corner, the silent matriarch who spoke only when needed. But also the one who taught me how to bake pies that took Top-Purple at the Harvey County Fair and who gave me money to go to law school, even though my grandfather would have fought it every step of the way had he known.

Mind: The Trickiness of Connection.

In my last What Was on My… I promised to go find Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades, which was recommended by a friend who had read it in her youth in Soviet Moscow. She said it had taught her and most all of her friends behind the Iron Curtain everything they needed to know about friendship.

Well, I found Three Comrades, and although Remarque has some profound things to say about life, and says them in quite sumptuous ways, I can’t say that Three Comrades is now—or would have been when I was younger—my handbook to friendship.

It is—dare I say—a very male book, with a fare amount of the action revolving around stereotypical favorites of the male gender: car racing, auto mechanics, fistfights, heavy drinking, memories of war. But, I don’t think the mannishness of the goings-on is what put me off. I just finished Code Name Verity, which also involves traditional male activities, such as airplane mechanics, spying, motorcycle riding, and memories of war. And that book had quite a bit to say to me about friendship.

Quite simply, Three Comrades failed to respond to my need to see myself in the books I read. I just didn’t have enough in common with it. Yet, my friend’s day-to-day life in 1970s Moscow shared similarities with that of the three comrades in the economically ravaged, politically repressive post-World War I Germany. I’m guessing these shared experiences are the reason she loved this book so much, even though she was a Russian girl and the comrades were fully-grown German men.

Now, all of us, young and old, have a need to see ourselves in the books we read. And this is why diversity is so important. Yet, predicting connection to stories and characters can be tricky.

Truth be told, I have never read a book with a character who is ‘like me,’ whose background is similar to mine. I grew up Mennonite (Amish are Mennonite, if that helps you, although I was raised with cars and electricity and wearing clothes that more or less were like what others wore). But just because I haven’t found a book about a Kansas Mennonite girl-woman, doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen myself in books. After all, I share the human experience with others—and my identity as a woman, and as a Midwesterner, and as so many other things that make up who I am.

I would say that for me personally, out of all the aspects that make me who I am, I’m most drawn to femaleness in the stories I spend time with. Julie and Maddie of Code Name Verity, even through the most male endeavours and ghastly events of war, speak to me as living out fundamentally female experiences. I was drawn to them. I felt I had something in common with them—something more than the philosophy I loved in Remarque’s Three Comrades.

In the realm of children’s literature, I feel strongly linked to Minli in Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, to Delphine in Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, and to Kiara in Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s Rogue, even though I’ve never taken on an epic journey in China or been shipped off to spend the summer with my estranged mother or faced the challenges of growing up with Asperger’s syndrome.

So, you see, it’s very tricky this need to see ourselves in the books we read. There are no sure and certain predictors. It’s not as if we can grid out race and gender and background and say this book, right here, will speak to you in a personal way about the human condition, your condition. That is why it is so important for publishers to publish (and market) broadly and for the New York Times and other media to review books that reflect the diversity of the world in which we live. The human condition is not one condition, and it should be celebrated in all its variants and beauty.

Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel

Be sure to stop by again on June 10 for the incredibly prolific, New York Times bestselling author, Michelle Knudsen. 

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12 thoughts on “What Was on My . . .

  1. Lovely post, Sandra. I love that I learn more about you with each passing month (pies? Mennonite?) Thank you for sharing these bits of yourself. And thank you for adding your experience to the conversation about diversity in literature. (I would have been wide-eyed regarding a helicopter garden delivery as well.)

    • Thanks so much, Laura!

      Baking is one of my great loves. Creation made easy–thanks to my grandmother. I even took a bread baking course at the Cordon Bleu in Paris once. That was fun–albeit hip-widening.

  2. What a beautiful post, Sandra! And thank you so much for your shout-out for Rogue. I’m thrilled that the character of Kiara resonated with you. I’m glad your fox made it back despite the mishap to her tail–and she has a mate too. I thought of you yesterday, because here in Albany we had a bear up a tree not far from where I live, and I remember us seeing the bears in Bern.

    • Thank you for stopping by, Lyn. I’ve always loved Kiara–and Rogue. And, oh, how I wish I would have been in Albany for the bear. Now, that’s more exciting than a helicopter with trees.

  3. i loved reading this thoughtful post, Sandra. Thanks, especially, for sharing your experience of reading a book that you didn’t see yourself in and then thinking about books that you *have* connected with. I’m eager to think through that same question, and I have a feeling that many of the characters I’ve seen bits of myself in have been very unlike me in big, obvious ways. This reader-character connection business really is tricky, as you say…and that makes it all the more fascinating.

    • It is fascinating, Laurie, isn’t it? Even after finishing the post, I’ve been thinking and thinking about it. And now you’ve got me thinking more. Because maybe we are only really free to see ourselves in characters that don’t look too much like us–at least to ourselves. Maybe that’s where the freedom is.

  4. I love how you described what you were experiencing. It was a beautiful post. I might borrow your Jane Austen figure idea. I have a drawing of L.M. Montgomery that someone had made on my wall–it is cool to see how we connect to our ancestral writing heritage, isn’t it?

    • Thanks so much, Melanie. And DO steel the Jane Austen Action Figure idea because I stole it from Shawn. It just makes me laugh. Proper, dressed in Regent gown Jane, with her deadly quill.

  5. You haven’t found yourself, because you are uniquely you, Sandra. But I’m glad many different characters have spoken to you, like Minli. And now I’m picturing you with that Jane Austen figure. 🙂 I have an action figure of a knight with a sword on my bookshelf. I look at him and smile.

    Would Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz series spark any feelings of kinship, or is she too different?

    Ooo! Olive trees! The changes to your home sound wonderful!

    • Jane definitely makes me smile. I have read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Braun wrote in a very story-telling fashion that makes it hard to get close to the characters. But still, it’s a great story–and a good idea. Thanks Linda.

  6. Wonderful post, Sandra! Reminds me of the 1986 Fresh Air interview with Maya Angelou in which she talks about how Shakespeare could know her heart. The connections with characters is what keeps me reading, keeps me writing. The wonder of it all. Oh, and so glad you picked up a Jane Austen action figure. She brings luck, that Jane.

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