Tuesday, 10 January 2023

An Interview with Joyce Milambiling

Joyce Milambiling is the author of the forthcoming book, The Skyscraper Settlement: The Many Lives of Christodora House (New Village Press), which tells the story of the Christodora Settlement House in New York City’s East Village. She is a Professor Emeritus of TESOL at the University of Northern Iowa and was in residence this past summer at The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. 

Milambiling will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on January 26 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Joyce Milambiling takes the stage at 7:30. Milambiling’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link. 

Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin 

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: Can you explain what the Christodora House is and how you first came across it?
JOYCE MILAMBILING: About seven years ago I found a collection of letters that were housed at the New York Historical Society and which were written in 1918 by Helen Schechter, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, to her English teacher. The lessons, what would now be called English as a Second Language classes, took place at Christodora House, one of several settlement houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Settlement houses were privately funded organizations where children and adults could take classes, join clubs, visit health clinics, and form bonds not only with local residents but also with the “settlers” who lived in the building. Many of the settlers were middle-class women who had recently graduated from college and were intent on volunteering their time and talents in crowded urban neighborhoods during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christodora House has not received as much attention in the historical literature and in textbooks compared with such settlement houses as Henry Street Settlement in New York and Hull-House in Chicago, but Christodora was nonetheless a vital organization that changed lives and was an integral part of its neighborhood. 

JO: Settlement houses have both been celebrated for improving peoples’ lives and criticized for trying to convert immigrants to Christianity and/or enforce cultural assimilation. Where does your work come down on this ongoing debate?
JM: The settlement houses did help with helping immigrants acculturate to U.S. society, but the newcomers were also encouraged by many of the settlement houses to retain and cherish their own customs and religions. The settlement house provided a valuable stepping stone for many immigrant children and adults in their education and careers and resulted in lasting friendships that bridged the fault lines of class and ethnicity. 

JO: How did you decide that this was a subject you wanted to write a book about?
JM: I was fascinated by the relationship between teacher and student that was revealed in the letters as well as the time period in which they lived. This led me to conduct research on the settlement house movement, the history of immigration on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and how an organization like Christodora, which lives on as a non-profit foundation, has stood the test of time. The 16-story building at 143 Avenue B, still called Christodora House, has had a tumultuous history and was in recent years named a national and state historical landmark. My research brought me in contact with individuals in the non-profit sector, one of whom, the East Village Community Coalition, has an office on the first floor of that building. Today, Christodora House consists mostly of privately owned condominiums and was a controversial symbol of neighborhood gentrification in the 1980s. This connection between the past and present convinced me that this was a subject in which I could immerse myself and that would potentially be of interest to a wide audience. 

JO: How has this kind of writing both built on and departed from the kind of research you did during your career in TESOL at UNI?
JM: During my time at UNI my research centered on sociolinguistics, language teaching, and bilingualism. One of the areas in which I presented at conferences and published was language policy, and this often involved doing research on the history of national and international policies, including the Universal Declaration of Language Rights. Even though I am not a historian by training, I have had years of experience reading and analyzing texts written by others from the perspective of a linguist and educator and this helped tremendously during the research, writing, and editing phases of the book on Christodora House. Conducting archival research was new to me seven years ago, but I was comfortable with navigating electronic library databases both at UNI and elsewhere and applied those skills to working with original documents and other artifacts as well as other institutions’ library databases. 

JO: Can you talk about your experience at the Writers’ Colony in Eureka Springs, Arkansas?
JM: While teaching at UNI, I applied and was accepted as a resident writer at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow (WCDH) in Eureka Springs and then returned twice as an alumna, most recently in 2022, the year after I retired. The colony is housed in two buildings and each resident is supplied with comfortable and quiet accommodations, including a dedicated writing room. The Eureka Springs Carnegie Library is within walking distance of the residence and all WCDH resident writers have borrowing privileges during their stay. On my last visit I was able to finish the final chapters of the book on Christodora House and interview several contacts by phone. The peacefulness of the location and the opportunity to meet and have dinner nightly with the other writers in residence both enriched the experience for me.

Friday, 11 November 2022

An Interview with Anesa Kajtazovic

Anesa Kajtazovic is the author of a forthcoming illustrated children's book (title TBA) that offers a firsthand account of her experience as a child during the Bosnian War. Kajtazovic is also a former member of the Iowa house of Representatives.

Kajtazovic will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on November 17—ONE WEEK EARLIER THAN USUAL DUE TO THANKSGIVING—at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m., and Anesa Kajtazovic takes the stage at 7:30.  Kajtazovic's reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link.

Interview by Jim O'Loughlin.

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: The story you tell in your book is autobiographical. How did you decide on the format of an illustrated children’s book as the way to tell your story?
ANESA KAJTAZOVIC: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people, including educators, ask me what war was like. Like with most war survivors, it’s something that we didn’t talk much about while growing up in Iowa. It’s a topic I never felt comfortable discussing. A turning point for me was being asked in the spring of 2020 by a third grade teacher to speak to her class about my war and refugee experiences. After declining that first opportunity, I felt guilty. Something in my heart changed. I think any time we have an opportunity to educate others, especially children, we should do it. After all, how else can we expect others to understand our story and those of millions who’ve gone through something as traumatic as war? 

JO: Without giving away what happens in the book, can you say a little bit about its subject?
AK: This will be one of the kinds of children’s books on a subject that is difficult to explain to children. My book will make it relatable and easy for anyone to understand how a normal life can change overnight. 

JO: In putting this project together, did you find you had to do any research or speak with family members about the experience, or were you able to draw primarily from the memories you have of that time?
AK: This project is solely based on my own war experience. However, I’ve had a couple of my Bosnian friends read it, and it resonated with them as well. This is not just my story; this is a story of millions of children around the world who’ve survived war. 

JO: A project like this has to involve a lot of collaboration between author and illustrator. Can you describe how that process worked?
AK: Yes, it was an extensive collaborative process with my illustrator. The most challenging part was that it was all done via writing online. We never spoke or had a meeting. It was a lengthy process, but my illustrator was able to capture my vision well.

Monday, 17 October 2022

An Interview with Gary Eller

Eller is the author of the novel True North (BHC Press), which is set in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. He’s also the author of the short story collection, Thin Ice and Other Risks. His writing has appeared in many publications, and he is the winner of the River City Award in Fiction, the Fowler Prize, and the Minnesota Voices Award, among others. 

Eller will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on October 27 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Gary Eller takes the stage at 7:30. Eller’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom Click HERE to register for a Zoom link.

Interview by Nolan Rochford. 

NOLAN ROCHFORD: You grew up in North Dakota, but have now since moved to Ames, Iowa. How has moving away from your hometown and home region affected the way you write about it?
GARY ELLER: I've heard more than one prominent writer advise that distance from the subject or setting—geographic, psychic, temporal, and so forth are necessary before one can write with conviction. I agree. I think these conditions help us achieve a certain detachment that allows us to reach into ourselves for a clear understanding of what happened and what we are dealing with. Certainly, the projection of an appropriate verisimilitude is vital, but that is something that does not come from within. Consider the work of nonfictionalists. Newspaper stories, no matter the writing skills of the reporter, are bereft of reflection—and necessarily so. Quality magazines and other periodicals such as the New Yorker can offer more background and a deeper look. But it is in the works of biographers such as David McCullough and the studied interpreters of our culture such as Joan Didion that we must look to for anything like a complete accounting of a matter. 

NR: True North visits the perspectives and memories of several different characters. Of them, which is the one you enjoyed writing most, and why? Is there any that you found particularly difficult to write, and why?
GE: I enjoyed Dolores, the six-times married retired prostitute (as did, apparently my readers considering their remarks). The bizarre unlikelihood of such a character making her way late in life coming from a metropolitan area to find (a kind of) contentment in a rural, conservative location is extreme. It is a lucky writer who comes upon this arrangement of circumstances. Beyond this, Dolores offers a quality of levity usually vital in a traditionally rounded story. In the case of True North this is especially so as the novel tends to be fairly grim. One reviewer called it “a beautiful aching book.” That pleased me very much. 

The one that gave me difficulty was Richie Lee Peavey. Maybe since he really didn't know who he was, I didn't either. Like most people he was a mixture of good and bad. It's just that he took equivocation to an extreme. Incapable of introspection, Richie Lee could only react. 

NR: Many of the sections in Truth North discuss family and the boundaries within it. When you were writing the book, was this a conscious theme you wished to explore or was it something that emerged in the writing?
GE: I did not plan it as a conscious theme. It just seemed to grow from its existence and from the nature of the characters involved. James Salter, a former teacher of mine, said that if you set out to create an individual you will have a character, but if you attempt to create a generic character you’ll have nothing. Family is the first unit to which a human being experiences allegiance. When that allegiance is threatened by attraction to a power outside it the result is characterized by inner conflict and painful choices. When Harold Peavey decided to refuse to take the step forward he knew there would be personal repercussions. While he was living alone at the time, he still belonged to a particular unit in the form of friends, employers, and people who were close to him who expected him to behave in a certain way. A more personal factor: I didn’t object to the events of Vietnam while they were ongoing partly because my attention was devoted to a tough curriculum in pharmacy school during the violent later peak of that war. Now I regret it. I lost dear friends including my college roommate and in a way I feel as if I abandoned them. Injecting myself into the character of Harold Peavey scarcely makes up for this, but somehow in revealing what I wish had been my attitude all those years ago makes me feel a little better. Thus I've been a protestor forty or fifty years too late. 

NR: A large part of your novel is dedicated to the discussion of war and the way it interacts between generations, with both characters struggling to come to terms with their draft duties in two different wars. Why did you choose to include these struggles in the writing of True North?
GE: This is also an instance where the personal intrudes with the make believe. Remarkably, discussion of great events was almost never discussed around my family's dinner table. My father was rejected for the military for physical reasons while I managed to run out the clock by staying in school. I can only guess what his attitude was about Vietnam. My guess is that because we lived in a patriotic and fundamentalist community he would have wanted me to serve if for no other reason than to maintain appearances. Though a complicated and compromised pacifist by nature, I see in my vivid memories of the sixties, a reflection of our society today with opposing factions both claiming the moral high ground, and to some extent each doing so with some justification. Historically, we see this has happened often—maybe continually—through the ages. It would not take a cynic to equate the history of humankind with the history of war. 

NR: In the past, you’ve published short stories and your collection, Thin Ice and Other Risks. What are you working on now? Any plans to revisit the Turtle Mountain region in your writing?
GE: I’ve had readers say they'd like to see a sequel to True North. I did leave the precise fates of certain characters open to eventual resolution—Sam Morinville, Vickie Breen, and others. But I'm not actively working on a project like that. (I've had feelers wondering about a film for the book which is keeping my attention on True North.) Evoking the first question of the interview, I'd like to point out that I lived in Alaska for several years and now that I'm entirely separated from that state, I find myself thinking about story lines. Also, I'm a fan of baseball and the game's history. I have ideas for novels and some research roughed out on both these topics for when the time comes.

Monday, 26 September 2022

Jim O'Loughlin at FTRS with new SF novel, The Cord

Thursday 29 September: come in-person for the open mic at 7:00. Stay for the 7:30 featured reading, which will also be live Zoomcast

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Worth of the Harvest Release Reading

If you didn't get to attend Jeff Sears's release reading for The Worth of the Harvest: James Hearst and His Poetry, you can now stream it online. Click HERE to find out more about the first full-length literary biography of James Hearst. 

Monday, 8 August 2022

Anne Myles on What Woman That Was

Anne Myles is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Northern Iowa and received an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poems have appeared in On the Seawall, Whale Road Review, Lavender Review, Ekphrastic Review and numerous other journals. She currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Learn more at annemyles.com. 

Myles’s new chapbook What Woman That Was: Poems for Mary Dyer will launch on August 25 at the first Final Thursday Reading Series event of the season. Join us in the beautiful Hearst Sculpture Garden (rain location: Mae Latta Hall) for an open mic at 7:00 and Anne Myles at 7:30. Myles’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link. Pre-orders of What Woman That Was are available directly from Final Thursday Press and via Amazon.com. 

Interview by Jim O’Loughlin 

JIM O'LOUGHLIN: Who was Mary Dyer and how did you first become interested in her?
ANNE MYLES: Mary Barrett Dyer, born around 1611, grew up in England and came to Boston with her husband and first surviving child in 1635. Her story has several distinct acts. She was a follower of the lay spiritual teacher Anne Hutchinson, and along with other followers her family was sentenced to banishment from Massachusetts in 1637. In 1638, when Hutchinson was excommunicated from the Boston church, Dyer drew public attention when she followed Hutchinson out of the meetinghouse, and it was revealed that she had had a deformed stillbirth, a so-called “monster,” with Hutchinson as one of her midwives. Around 1651, after living in Newport, Rhode Island for a number of years, Mary Dyer left her husband and six children behind and went to England alone, where she stayed for six years. In 1657 she returned to New England as a Quaker. She was repeatedly imprisoned as she violated the anti-Quaker laws of Massachusetts and other colonies. This ultimately led to her being taken to the scaffold twice – first in 1659, when she was reprieved at the last minute, then in 1660, when she was in fact hanged. She was the only woman among the four Quakers hanged in Massachusetts in 1659-1661, whom Quakers refer to as the New England Martyrs.
     As someone who was active as a Quaker in my early adulthood, and as a scholar of early American dissent, I knew who Mary Dyer was. But somehow it was only around 1999 when the story of her following Anne Hutchinson out of the church really hit me. A woman’s radical act of loyalty to another woman: there is nothing else like it in the records of that time. I saw it as an act of love, and it resonated with my own devotion to an older woman who had been an important guide to me, and whom I lost, as Dyer ultimately lost Hutchinson. From that moment I was driven to write about Dyer, to claim her as someone I intuitively understood. She became my personal doorway into the early American past. 

JO: You’ve published academic articles on Dyer. How was it different to write poetry about her?
AM: I’ve always believed that scholarship encodes deeply personal concerns, at least in terms of what we are drawn to study, and I’d articulated some of the private reasons for my interest in Dyer in my academic writing. But around 2017 I realized that I needed to write truthfully about my life without the distancing of an academic approach – and I saw nearly simultaneously that the way I could start to do this was to interweave my life with Dyer’s much more interesting one. That started out as a hybrid memoir project, which I worked on for about a year. But somehow the singular narrative trajectory – her life moving inevitably towards her death, while mine was moving towards what? – became problematic. When in 2018 I transitioned back to poetry, my original creative form in my earlier life, I realized how freeing it was. I could write multiple poems, multiple truths, multiple perspectives, as I explored Dyer’s life and my feelings about it. (I write directly about my life in poems outside this project.) Beyond providing a fluid way for me to consider Mary Dyer, my poems about her, many of them written during my MFA studies, became a rich field for exploring different lyric styles and strategies of address. 

JO: A number of the poems in this collection are “persona poems,” written from the perspective of Dyer. How did you decide to take that approach? What were the challenges in finding the language to represent her immediate experience?
AM: Persona poetry about real or imagined historical figures is a very popular mode in recent years– book-length collections included. So it seemed an obvious approach to try. But the first attempts were terrifying to me as a scholar! Up to that point I had always carefully written about Dyer from the outside, marking the distance of my own subject position, as academics say, and making clear when I was speculating without textual evidence. To enter into her imaginatively and make stuff up felt really transgressive – I felt like they would revoke my PhD! But of course the transgression felt thrilling and freeing too. Yet even now it makes me a little queasy . . . I think the book most people would have written about Dyer would be all persona poetry. But I couldn’t do that; ultimately I am less drawn to historical fiction as a mode and more drawn to writing about and around what is known about her, while still speaking as myself.
     I never struggled with finding a voice for Mary–that was always fun. I think many years of immersion in seventeenth-century discourse and my love of early Quaker thought and writing made it come naturally to me. I wanted her to speak in terms she would have known, and in a voice that evoked her period without being cloyingly archaic. I feel a resistance to persona poems where the characters “talk in poetry” or think like contemporary subjects. I guess that’s the scholar in me still. 

JO: Some of my favorite poems in the book are the ones that directly address both the connection you feel to Dyer and the historical and ideological distance that separates you. Those poems made me wonder what you feel you learned about Dyer (and maybe about yourself) during the process of writing this book. 
AM: What an interesting question! I had reflected on Dyer and the grounds of my identification with her so long, it’s hard to say what I learned about connection and distance during the actual writing of the poems. What I learned, I think, is how essential it is to me to keep articulating that nexus – that the issues of how we long for the past, how we seek connection to it, how the dead look back at us resistantly when we look at them are all a key part of my material and my distinctive style as a poet interested in history. I’ve now drawn on this perspective writing about other figures as well. A big moment was when I came upon the approach of addressing Dyer directly; I’d say this became my favorite way of writing about her, since it allowed me to put the problems of relationship right up front.
     Yet I suppose I did learn a lot about Dyer’s life, specifically through imagining parts of it that aren’t in the record. The Dyer I’ve created feels very real to me now; I sometimes have to remind myself that she is a product of my own mind! I feel closest to her when I summon her embodied experience. Whatever our ideological differences, I know what a stone ledge felt like against her arms; I know at some point her nose dripped when she leaned forward in her kitchen garden. 

JO: Why do you want other people to know about Dyer? In what ways do you regard her as a significant figure in the present?

AM: The story of Dyer’s life–her courage, her agency, her allegiance to those she chose as her people–is remarkable, inspiring, perhaps confounding in any era. Though she is a venerated figure among Quakers, and known to those who study early New England, I want everyone to hear about her. But she has resonated for me at a new level in the years since 2016. Her persistence in witnessing against injustice seems incredibly relevant. As a high-status woman in her society (note that she was always “Mistress Dyer,” the elite designation, never “Goodwife Dyer”), she found powerful ways to deploy her privilege, to make an impact with it, even if her choices led to her death. I realize too how much the struggles she was involved in speak to border politics in the present: who is allowed into a colony or country? What is the penalty for violating the law? And as I’ve grown older, the fact that Dyer was herself what we would call middle-aged (she was about 49 when she died) has also felt important. Celebrating the older woman as heroine, as someone actively determining the course of her life, is moving and meaningful to me.