Fewer Hassles? Don’t make me laugh.

This summer I’m traveling by air on five separate trips. One for family needs, two for business, and two for pleasure. So I figured it’s about time I enrolled in TSA’s “Pre-check” program.

TSA Hassle Free

Wait-times have been making the news this weekend, with ridiculous waits for security that exceed an hour. Some went for two hours in line, and many missed flights. Why? Well, because funding for agents was decreased by Congress, in its infinite desire to “cut government waste”! So while 7000 spots go unfilled, the number of passengers has increased with the improved economy. Simple arithmetic. Even a third-grader can figure this out.

When asked for an explanation, TSA stated that they thought that more people would sign up for Pre-check, and so they would need fewer agents. Really? Read on.

I’d been lucky enough to get pre-check status a few random times and always appreciated the speed-through, although at the JetBlue Terminal 5 in JFK in New York they awkwardly made the lucky traveler cut in line in front of people loading their shoes and plastic baggies with toiletries onto the conveyor belts, instead of having a separate screening. Of course JFK is notorious–I watched an officious TSA agent demand that a 5-year-old answer the questions of where he was going, angrily shushing his mother when she tried to answer for him– so we can’t judge everything by JFK’s Terminal 5.

But with all this travel looming, including two trips involving Terminal 5, I decided that the time had come. I diligently filled out the form on line, and being felony-conviction-free was able to agree to anything and everything. Then came scheduling the appointment.

Joy! There is a center 2 miles from where I live. I clicked. No appointments came up. Was I doing something wrong? No, here was an appointment, for 6 weeks from now! I clicked. Nope. No appointments. But they took walk-ins! Hooray!

The next morning I was there at ten fifteen in the morning, shortly after they opened. Our “center” is located in an HR Block office. There were thirty-two people waiting. I hoped that they were there to get their taxes done late. No such luck.

A half an hour after I had arrived and signed in, a man came to the front. “Who are these people?” He read off four or five first names, including mine. I raised my hand. “Why did you sign in on the appointments page? You don’t have appointments.”

“I wrote a W, where it says, ‘Appointment A or Walk-in W?'” I said.

“Well this isn’t the way we do things here. I’m taking this now and putting up a No More Walk-Ins sign,” he said, taking the sign in sheet. “And all you folks with appointments, come up and put your names on this new sheet.”

“My appointment was for a half an hour ago,” one woman said, as four people got up.

“We’re running behind. An appointment takes ten minutes. But the system shut down, so we’re about forty minutes behind. And as for you walk-ins,” he added with something like glee, “you’re not going to get seen today. Or maybe, if you’re still here at seven tonight, maybe we’ll see you then. But we close at seven.”

I was the last on the walk-in list, and it was eleven in the morning. “Are you the only one working here?” I asked.

“I work for HR Block. That’s who pays me, if that’s what you want to know. I just help out here.” I blinked at him, and he got the message. “There’s an agent they flew in from Tennessee who’s doing the interviews. But she’s the only one, and like I said, we aren’t going to get to many of you.”

“I couldn’t get an appointment,” a woman said.

“Someone beat you to  the last one, then,” he chortled. “Keep trying. They only set them out forty-five days. So keep at it. Or here, call this number.” He handed her a square of paper. Ten people got up to take the little squares.

“The number doesn’t work,” the woman said after immediately trying it. “It says all circuits are busy.”

“That’s because everyone wants an appointment,” he answered. We put the little squares back.

“Should I come back later?” another walk-in asked. She looked to be about seventy five. In fact, except for four people, all the other people waiting were definitely senior citizens.

“If you leave and we call your name you’re out of luck. You miss your turn.”

She sighed and sat back down. I sat for a while. The woman next to me, the one with the appointment, asked if I was going to stay. “I want to see one person called in, then I’m going.”

Five minutes later two women emerged from the back. The newly interviewed Pre-check candidate mopped her brow, smiled and left shaking her head. She’d been back there for forty minutes, waiting for the system to come back up.

And the other, a tall blonde woman, picked up the appointment list. She shook her head, and in a soft Tennessee accent said, “I’m sorry. We just won’t get to the walk-ins today.” She repeated everything the HR Block employee had told us, and again shaking her head, called the woman seated next to me.

“Good luck,” she whispered to me.

“You too,” I answered as I packed up. When I got back to my computer I tried again. An appointment for 44 days from today! I clicked. Nope. I tried again. An appointment for 45 days from today, at 6:10 pm. I clicked quicker this time.

Success! The glorious moment when the system accepted my request had arrived. Two of my trips will have already taken place, and the third will be a week away…and they say it takes at least two weeks after the appointment to get the clearance.

Meanwhile, the lines grow longer, and the system, such as it is, moves slower and slower. Hassle-free? Don’t make me laugh.

No chocolates or roses. Equal living-wage pay, please.

No roses, chocolates or congratulations, please!  Do you know these women? Guess why not!

Who was Anita Whitney?

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Leader and early founder of the American Communist Party, she was an ardent suffragist and working women’s rights advocate who went to jail for her beliefs.

Who was Valeska Bary?

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Working within the government, she advocated zealously for the minimum wage for women with the Department of Social Welfare in California, and went on to an appointment to the Federal War Labor Policies Board in 1918.

Women’s Day was designed to commemorate the women who led the Labor Movement in 1900-1920 and it began as a socialist “holiday”. No roses, chocolates or congratulations please. Just an equal right to work, to fair and living-wage pay, to benefits and to success on our own merits, thank you. ‪#‎WomensHistoryMonth‬ ‪#‎InternationalWomensDay‬

the harlots pen

Read more in The Harlot’s Pen, the story of women in the labor movement in 1920, as told by a woman journalist, through the eyes of a prostitute. And no chocolates, thanks.

Spotlight: 7 easy places your readers can discover you

I interviewed my book club last night. All are women 50 years old or more, and very much part of my reader demographic. They all read at least a book a week. They rarely if ever read romance or science fiction, and read memoirs sparingly. They like literary fiction, biographies, historical fiction and classics.

As a writer, I want to reach them. So do so many of my writer-friends. What to do? So I asked!

I asked, “How do you find books to read?”

Their answers, in order of frequency, were a little bit of a surprise.
1. Recommendations from friends.
2. Visits to indie bookstores, where the covers are turned to face the room.
3. Staff picks at indie bookstores.
4. Amazon “people who bought this book also bought…”
5. NPR book reviews.
6. New York Times book reviews.
7. Oprah and New Yorker.

Hmmm… I was noticing a trend. Are we the only ones still haunting the bookstores? No, it turns out that indie bookstores have grown in the last year. And they influence our generation of reader. This could pose a problem, though, for indie-published authors with no reach into bookstores. But indie bookstores are far more open to hand-selling, or visits from a local author. Hope kindled!

Indie-published writers aren’t likely to get on NPR, NYT, or Oprah, but we can get on our local radio stations, get featured in our home-town papers, and give talks at our community libraries. It’s a matter of scale.

I asked, “Do you ever buy a book because you heard about it on Facebook or other social media?” The answers were again interesting, in part because I asked this as an open question.

1. No, but if I like an author will follow him/her on Facebook.
2. No, but if I see the cover on Pinterest I might look the book up. (That’s a “yes” to me, but I was interviewing, not arguing.)
3. No, but if I like a book I will read the other books, and tell my friends, sometimes on Facebook and maybe post the cover on Pinterest. (another covert yes.)

So, if you belong to a few groups on Facebook, and you’re talking about books, your Facebook friends are listening!

I asked what social media they were on. Again, the answers reflected my demographic. Studies show that women over 50 are all over Facebook! Our results:
1. Facebook. All but 1 member use Facebook, and most visited it at least once daily. Sure, we all started out using it to stalk our kids, but now that they’re grown, we use it for fun, family and entertainment.
2. Pinterest. Half of us enjoy Pinterest, mostly for fun.

I was the only one on Twitter, a couple of us were on Instagram but limited only to closest friends and family. 
So, that’s my book club for you. Maybe interesting… and maybe not.

Readers vary by genre, age, gender, location, and taste. Again, my book club readers may be different from yours. I’m sure there’s a scientist can say this better, but I want to point out that this is a small sampling, and the questions I asked were open ended, so maybe they use Goodreads and no one thought to mention it, maybe because we’re older we’re more likely to rely on brick-and-mortar indie bookstores, maybe the fact that there are no big bookstores in our community right now skews things…

So perhaps you can poll your own book clubs and see where they find their books and share this info here as a comment!

A new view of old news: Anti-Muslim Fervor is Anti-Semitic

The Facebook-Twittersphere is awash in worry over the current, very ugly anti-Muslim rhetoric. Trump’s comments are only the tip of this nasty iceberg. What’s left unsaid is how the ground for this wave of bigotry was fertilized by the last two years’ worth of anti-Semitism throughout the civilized world. Notwithstanding the other contributors to this fervor in the United States, with our historical undercurrents of racism and the out-dated and destructive gun laws, without this acceptance of violence against Jews and hate-speech against Judaism, we couldn’t be where we are today.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but when respected universities ban Israeli scholars and scientists from their conventions because a vocal group of students objects to actions by that country’s ruling party and its military, this feeds a belief that religion equates with politics. It allows for a refusal to look at an individual’s contribution to the greater good simply because of his religion. To be consistent, these angry groups would have to ban American scientists because of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan or the bombing or killing of innocent children by American or UN forces, boycott Nigerian intellectuals based on the unrestrained actions of Boko Haram, or Egyptian poets because of rape and killings in the post-Arab Spring. But they don’t.

Very few people object to the demonization of Jews. Entire countries and governments assert that all Jews should be wiped from the face of the earth and we hear only the loneliest voices of protest. Terrorist acts against Jews throughout the world are reported with a yawn, as these have been going on for centuries. But it is this very acceptance that makes “Christian” white people, Americans and Europeans, comfortable with their own hatred of Muslims. It is that same uncritical thinking, that association of a religion with disgusting, evil thugs, that allows Donald Trump to announce his bigotry to the American public and generate only liberal outrage.

In literature, we have an avalanche of stories of the hatred of “others.” The Duel for Consuelo describes in chilling detail the Inquisition’s search-and-exterminate of Jews, and they didn’t exactly love Muslims either. Holocaust stories line the bookshelves, and, if we prefer non-fiction, a glance at the news will suffice.

And yet, despite our knowledge, we have become accustomed to anti-Jewish rhetoric, and barely blink at another synagogue bombing or an attack on a school bus of Jewish children. We nod sagely and discuss the intellectual honesty of banning scientists, poets, intellectuals and scholars because of their nationality, as long as it’s a nationality it’s back in vogue to hate. Otherwise thoughtful and self-proclaimed anti-racists are happy to vilify Jews. Can it be surprising that, seeing the acceptance of religious hatred in America and Europe, anti-Muslim forces are comfortable proclaiming their views?

The argument can be taken further: If we accept anti-Semitism, we empower the likes of terrorist groups, Al Qaida or ISIL, or the next acronym, to attack anything even remotely Jewish. There are whispers that the owners of the concert venue in Paris are part-Jewish, the band playing that night was Jewish, the San Bernardino killers spoke of killing Jews, and of course the cartoonists in Charlie were Jewish. By accepting anti-Semitism, yawning at attacks on Jews, we are complicit in the terrorists’ choices of targets. And when their hideous acts are perpetrated, we cannot react in shock to the anti-Muslim response. After all, we created the climate for just that.

Dropping the F-bomb in a poem

I’ve been reading and hearing a lot of poetry lately. I had the incredible honor of hearing our new US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera a couple of weeks ago, and I was stunned by his graceful yet commanding language. I got to thinking about the use of “Fuck” in poetry…something he did not do (at least in the selections he read to us, nor do I see it in the poems of the two books I bought.)

The f-bomb, as it’s affectionately known, has had its day in the sun as an explosive, shocking, meaningful word. Before the mid-sixties, it was unthinkable to use it in even semi-polite company. The Beat poets didn’t throw it around, it was the province of soldiers, sailors, and crass men. The sixties brought the anti-war revolution, the Fish performance at Woodstock (“Give me an F…!”) and the word made into the teenage currency. Far-fucking-out, you’re fucking kidding me, and Up against the wall, mother-fucker came next. (We had to add “mother” to retrieve its shock value.) Now, even nice women use it (I have no more fucks to give…)

We have new shockers now. White people politely say “N-word” to describe a racist appellation that in the sixties would just have been crass and rude, while Black people have reclaimed its power. “C-word” keeps its power in the US, though people in Britain males call each other cunts quite merrily, and here many women are trying to reclaim the word as well. And young people, who use “fuck” even at the dinner table, say “be-atch” for “bitch,” a word we used with impunity and still do.

I don’t play golf, though I know many people who do. This is not a total non-sequitur…The use of the f-bomb in golf is a lot like the use in poetry. It all goes to the ages and stages of man…and I use that word advisedly.

In golf, if a young man throws his club after a bad shot, it is an unacceptable display of temper, to be chastised and outgrown. If a man in his thirties or forties throws his club, it elicits, “Dude, you should get some counseling for that anger.” And if a man does it in his sixties, “Relax! You’re going to give yourself a coronary!”

So it goes in poetry. A young man throws an f-bomb or several in his poetry and we say he’s passionate. “Harness that anger and you might be a great poet one day.” At 40, we tell him, “There are millions of words in the English language. Can I get you a thesaurus?” But at 60, let me tell you, it’s just a shorter way of saying, “Get off my lawn!”

Showing our face to the world

One of the oddest things about being a writer today is the need to post, blog, publicize and talk, not about our books, but about ourselves. Gone are the days when the books spoke for themselves, and writers could, well, write. Now we talk about our personal lives, our hopes and fears, and share intimacies, all in the name of building a community.

It’s true, there are lots and lots of books out there, and it’s almost impossible, without a big, moneyed machine behind you, to be heard above the noise. How on earth will I get you to read my book? How will I get you to read this blog post, and then, maybe, look at the book?

The truth is that I don’t know. But I am part of the new world order, so I too have learned to share. In fact, there’s a beautiful post about growing up in Mexico today in Arleen William’s Finding Home series. Please read it, and love it and share it! There’s also and interview with me at Indie Book Promo, where I disclose the secrets to writing…among other things.

Do come and share my writing life with me. It’s all part of living today, so join me on line, and let’s live together. Claudia

Coming out Jewish on Passover

And the best matzo brei recipe ever…

In 1967 I came out Jewish with matzo brei. I was twelve when I first tasted the delicacy. Why so late, you may well ask. There’s a reason.

I grew up in Mexico City, and although I always knew at some level that we were Jewish, we just didn’t talk about it. In fact, we never mentioned religion at all. We could talk about sex, politics were on the table every night, books, music, all were fair game, but we danced around the “religion” topic at home and outside. I attended Catholic church with my friends and was never the least bit uncomfortable doing so. I crossed myself, learned all the prayers, and happily went along for the ride. I never thought I was really Catholic. I was just, well, there. Children are pretty flexible that way.

When I was eleven we moved back to the United States permanently. That was 49 years ago, and World War II wasn’t the distant memory that it is now. The soldiers returning from battle and the survivors of the horrors of Nazi cruelties didn’t know the term PTSD, or that it could last for more than twenty years. The reverberations of my father’s wartime service in the US Army and my mother’s trauma as a Holocaust survivor, one of the few in her large extended family to live through it, suddenly became important. I was also a little older, and realized that the reasons we didn’t talk about “it” were pretty darned serious. The duality stopped being quite so easy.

The area we moved to was predominantly Catholic, and I continued to play along. Some of my classmates were Jewish and were teased, not kindly, for it. As a new kid, awkward, semi-foreign and younger than my class, I wasn’t about to join that club.

And so it was the first Spring that we were in the States, when I was 12, that I tried actual matzo for the first time. Perhaps I had eaten it before but I simply didn’t remember. If so, I had to have been very young, and a dry cracker doesn’t exactly stay with you in memory. My father said, “Don’t take this outside. Eat it here.” The scars were still fresh.

But one rainy morning he made breakfast for us, which in itself was a little unusual. In those days my father worked 14 hour days and never touched a pot or pan, but here was something he was going to do.

He took matzos and broke them into a bowl. He ran the hot water from the tap over them and left them to soak while he beat eggs in another bowl with a splash of water from the matzo bowl and a shake of salt. Once he decided the matzos were soft enough he poured off the water and squeezed them out, and added them to the egg mixture. He mushed them around until all the egg was absorbed. Then he melted butter in a pan and poured the egg-matzo mixture into the hot butter. He let it sit a bit, then broke it up with a spatula and turned it a few times until it was no longer “eggy.”

“Get plates.” We got out plates, and then a miracle happened: he took out the sugar bowl and a spoon and began to sprinkle our portions with prohibited amounts of sugar. What joy to three kids being brought up to eat “healthily” well before the health-food crazes!

To this day, that’s how I make matzo brei, though I don’t pour sugar on, I just sprinkle it. It’s the bread of freedom, maybe still a bit under cover, but freedom to be Jewish. With sugar.

Did you expect the Spanish Inquisition?

Ah, the deathless #MontyPython line! Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisitionnnnn! But in Mexico in the 1600-1700s they most certainly did. I had the great honor of addressing the conference The Golden Age of Jewish Spain, sponsored by the Coalition on Ladino Legacy in Los Angeles this past Sunday, February 8. I was in some pretty spectacular company. My topic will be the Conversos and Crypto-Jews in the Shadow of the Inquisition (Mexico, 1690-1711), but will be focused on literature, rather than history.

The conference was sold out! (Maybe because there were tapas and Flamenco dancers…) So here I’ll share some of my talk, for those who didn’t make it to LA on Sunday. Enjoy!

THE SECRET JEWS OF MEXICO 1500-1700

My perspective is that of the writer, who looks to history for inspiration. My books, Josefina’s Sin and The Duel for Consuelo, are historical fiction set in 1690 and 1711 Mexico. I do my research, of course. I study the history of the time, but history is the story mostly of men, of the powerful and famous. Fiction lives in the interstices between the facts as known or believed to be true by historians.

My books are the stories of women, and in The Duel for Consuelo, the story especially of women caught in the web of the Inquisition for being Crypto-Jews.

Being a Jew in Spain in the 1400s was a very risky thing to be. Being a Jew in Spain after 1492 was deadly. And being a Jew openly in Mexico in 1690 was insanity.

Conversos (converted to Christianity at the point of the sword) and their descendants were fiercely persecuted. Any hint of Judaizing, or secretly practicing their old religion, was ruthlessly ferreted out by the Inquisition, which led Conversos to the practice of haciendo sábado, or “doing the Sabbath.” This involved ostentatiously working on Saturday so the neighbors could see them, eating pork in public, and putting on other displays of Christianity. Nonetheless, many continued their Jewish practices in secret.

If they were “lucky” they converted and eventually got out. As we have heard, some went to the New World, including Mexico and Peru. Even there, the Inquisition had full power. In fact for personnel reasons including the lack of supervisory man-power in the hierachy on site, to use the modern language of Human Resources, the original priests who went to the Colonies had full inquisitorial powers.

Mexico was something of a haven for the secret Jews, or Crypto-Jews at first. With so much novelty there was less time to spend ferreting out Jews, and more emphasis on political alignment. In the 1520s, Hernando Alonso was burned at the stake as a Crypto-Jew, but his main fault was being a supporter of Hernan Cortés. As the Inquisition’s order was Dominican, and that order opposed Cortés politically, Alonso was targeted for his vehement support of the wrong side. Diego de Ocaña, on the other hand, also convicted by the Inquisition for Judaizing, was an open supporter of the King (and therefore anti-Cortés) and so only his goods were confiscated and he was exiled back to Spain. He returned to Mexico eventually and became a notary, an honored position in local government.

In the latter part of the 1500s and the early 1600s Portugal became more adamant in its persecution of its own Crypto-Jews, and those fled to the slightly more hospitable Spain, and from there to Mexico. Because Portugal had previously been more tolerant, those Jews had far more knowledge of their traditions and Hebrew prayers than the Spanish-decent Jews, so upon their arrival in Mexico they brought new life and knowledge to those who had long lost their ways.

They also brought the attention of the Inquisition to these new arrivals, along with a flurry of prosecutions of Portuguese-descent possible or actual Jews. However, their arrival coincided with a major expansion of the Mexican economy, and the Inquisition moved on to other concerns: bigamy, witchcraft and blasphemy.

All that changed in 1642. The Portuguese were at war with Spain, and Portuguese Crypto-Jews were suspected of conspiracy. Hundreds were persecuted in Mexico, the estates of those convicted were confiscated and a few were burned at the stake. The Bishop of Puebla declared the Secret Jews of Portuguese origins to be a big risk to Mexico. As he then became the Archbishop of Mexico and subsequently the Viceroy, his edict against the Portuguese Conversos brought an end to the relatively safe lives of the Crypto-Jews.

One of the ways that Crypto-Jews were “caught” was through denunciation by family servants. Clues to Judaizing included reports of special dishes being prepared on Friday before sunset, to be kept warm on banked coals through Saturday, or preparation of meats involving draining all of the blood from the meat before cooking. Even cleaning the house on Friday, or bathing by women on Friday before sunset, all could lead to a denunciation. The meticulous records kept by the Inquisition are a fertile source for recipes and housekeeping customs for Crypto-Jews of the era.

After 1650, the presence of Crypto-Jews essentially withered in Mexico. Where there had once been an extensive system of safe houses and patronage, these broke up and the remaining Judaizers were on their own. Their practices became more and more individualized, morphing into strange offshoots of traditions. They lit candles behind heavy drapery, observed the Sabbath covertly on Saturday, and attended Mass on Sunday. Many acquired a taste for pork.

Some Jews only knew one blessing, many knew no Hebrew at all. Knowledge was passed down in the family, sort of in a telephone game, and with each generation the practices became more idiosyncratic, further and further removed from their origins. Tortillas and chocolate replaced matzo and wine during Passover. Some believed that the Messiah would come in their time, to Mexico. Burial practices, such as adding a pillow of dirt to the coffin replaced a burial in virgin soil. Fasting on particular dates following a death, such as the eighth or thirtieth day, replaced the traditional periods of Jewish mourning. These were examples both of adaptation to the New World and a loss of understanding of the actual rituals and traditions.

Josefina’s Sin is set in Mexico in 1689. Lured by the imagined grandeur and adventure of the viceroyal court, Josefina, a sheltered landowner’s wife, accepts an invitation to the Marquesa’s court, to mingle with the cultural elite. What she finds is an overwhelming and complicated world within a world, with its own rules, etiquette, backbiting and gossip. And its temptations, passions and treacherous passages.

Amidst this drama Josefina finds herself drawn to the nuns who study and write poetry at the risk of persecution by the Spanish inquisition. As I noted, the Inquisition had other fish to fry, if you’ll excuse the pun, besides Jews. Intellectuals, women who exceeded the boundaries set for them, any hint of lack of orthodoxy, was red meat for them. Josefina meets one nun in particular, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who teaches Josefina about poetry, power, and the nature and consequences of love, all in the shadow of the Holy Office.

I’ve been secretly in love with Sor Juana since my undergraduate days. I wrote my senior thesis on The Feminism of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (it was the 70s) and I was fascinated by a nun in the late 1600s who challenged a bishop, asserted women’s rights to study and learn, and who at the end was forced to renounce her beliefs and sign her confession in her own blood.

Near the beginning of the book is a passage that I will read to you, where Josefina first encounters poetry. She encounters a strange man in the market place, and he reads a poem from Joseph, son of Eli, and Moises, son of Habib. These are two Jewish poets from the late 1400s, and are found collected in The Dream of the Poem.

Josefina’s infatuation with poetry is launched by this Jewish poet, and by the poetry of the Songs of Solomon.

I explore the theme of the Crypto Jews of Mexico in the next book. The Duel for Consuelo picks up the thread at this point, with a woman who knows only the Sabbath blessing for the candles, and whose grandmother said it with such a ferocious Mexican accent that she was spared by the Inquisition.

RESOURCES

Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews. David M. Gitlitz, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, 2002.

To the End of the Earth: A history of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Stanley M Hordes, Columbia University Press, 2005.

A Taste of Honey. David M. Gitliz and Linda Kay Davidson, St. Martins Griffin

http://vanorabennett.com/blog/how-the-inquisition-found-secret-jews-in-spain-by-sniffing-their-kitchen-smells-and-rooting-through-their-garbage/

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Marranos.html

http://forward.com/articles/9216/in-spain-inquisitors-tracked-conversos-by-their-fo/

http://tracingthetribe.blogspot.com/2009/12/tex-mex-jewish-food-traditions.html

 

Heart-wrenching Tale of A Midwife in Puerto Rico, early 1900s

Today I have the rare pleasure of interviewing a famous blogger (The Writing Life) and soon to be famous author! Please enjoy this conversation with Eleanor Parker Sapia, author of the upcoming novel A Decent Woman.

Here’s a brief bio, and then…away we go!

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Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker, inspire her passion for writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago a second time. A Decent Woman is her debut novel. Eleanor has two adventurous and loving grown children, currently lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia.

Thank you for having me, Claudia! I appreciate your kind invitation and the awesome opportunity to interview with you!

What is your book’s genre?

My book fits nicely in many categories, Caribbean Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Latina Fiction, and of course, Historical Fiction. My editor describes my book as a combination of Historical and Literary Fiction. A high compliment!

BOOK COVER SEPT 2014

Please give us a brief synopsis of A DECENT WOMAN.

Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in town.

 

Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal, and preserve Serafina’s honor, her new marriage, and her place in the world.

 

Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.

What is the publication date of your debut novel, A DECENT WOMAN?

We are shooting for Spring, 2015. I’m very excited about the book launch, and can’t wait to hold a copy of my book!

What type of reader will enjoy your book?

Of course, I hope every person on this planet enjoys my debut novel! I believe readers who like books about history, women’s studies, early feminism, sociology, midwifery, alternative health practices, and healing practices, will enjoy A DECENT WOMAN.

Is your protagonist based on a real person?

Yes, the character of Doña Ana is based on my maternal grandmother’s midwife, Ana, who was present at the births of my mother, two aunts and my uncle. Not much is known about Ana’s background nor are there any known photographs of her. My grandmother thought she was Cuban, and my aunt thinks Ana was from the island of Martinique. My grandmother and Ana were life-long friends, so I had many family stories to work with, but it’s amazing no one knew more about Ana. I created a past and a life for her as the only midwife in Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The characters Serafina and Antonio are loosely based on my maternal grandparents, and their very colorful marriage. My grandmother divorced my grandfather in the 1930’s, and they remained together (and happy!) in Puerto Rico until his death in 1983.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote the book for many reasons! I was born in Puerto Rico and love my island; many friends don’t know a lot about Puerto Rican history, and I wanted to share what I knew and discovered through my research. I like to think the book is my love letter to Puerto Rico, and a tribute to the women of the island, past, present and future. It’s an invitation for readers to discover the Puerto Rico I know and love through the eyes of Puerto Ricans who remained on the island. My story does not include the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, about which many wonderful books are written.

Most importantly, there can never be enough diverse heroines in literature for me, and Ana Belén is a strong Afro-Cuban woman/heroine.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I’m happy you said ‘some’ because I have so many favorite authors! Current favorites are Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Milan Kundera, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Isabel Allende, Jack Remick, and Cecilia Samartin.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing a second historical novel, FINDING GRACIA, based on my walk on the medieval pilgrimage path of El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James, in Spain. I kept a journal on my walk, and always knew I’d write a book about my experiences. It’s the story of two women from very different walks of life who meet on the path, and learn important lessons about life, themselves, and their place in the world while searching for grace and forgiveness. This book should be out in summer 2015.

I’m also researching and writing the sequel to A DECENT WOMAN called MISTRESS OF COFFEE, also set in Puerto Rico. The book begins in 1927 with Serafina and her daughter Lorena, and for the first time I’m including a real historical figure–Lolita Lebrón, a Puerto Rican freedom fighter. I’m excited about both books.

Website?

www.elliesbookz.wordpress.com Check it out!

Where can we find your book when it comes out?

You’ll find my book wherever books are sold, and of course, on Amazon. If your bookstore doesn’t carry my book, ask for it, and they’ll order it for you!

Thanks so much for having me, Claudia! I’ve enjoyed my time with you!

When Art Matters #jesuischarlie

As a writer I join the thousands of voices responding to the horrors in France yesterday. I should be better at putting into words the anger and disgust I feel at the massacre of Parisian cartoonists and the two policemen who were gunned down with them at Charlie Hebdo. While the civilized world expresses its shock we marvel at the power of the cartoon to incite this unpardonable violence.

Once again we are reminded, art matters. Words matter, songs matter, pictures and theater and dance matter. We express the orthodox and the outrageous, the pedestrian and the political. When art challenges or offends it fulfills one of its missions. When art delights, soothes or comforts, when it enlightens or surprises, then too it fulfills its mission. And when human beings lose their lives for the right to create this art, art matters.

My son, an actor, has said he wants to create theater that matters. While he would love to make a living wage, his goal is to create, through performance, selection, production or education, art that changes the world. Maybe the world of one audience member, or maybe a nation, but ultimately a theater of change. To him, art has always mattered.

Cartoonist Stephan Pastis posted today, “If a little cartoon can threaten your belief system, get a new belief system.” Brilliant though he his, I must disagree in part with him. A cartoon should threaten your belief system, make you think and worry, infuriate you or challenge you. That’s its mission. Your belief system, if it’s any good, should be able to respond to the challenge, and you should be able to analyze, accept or reject the purported insight of the cartoon. But where we agree is that the cartoon matters.

To the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, art mattered. To the policeman responding to the gunshots, who too gave his life, service to his city and its citizens mattered. To Salmon Rushdie, to the Scandinavian cartoonists, to film-makers in the McCarthy era, to all of us as writers and artists, actors and policemen, lawyers and teachers, art is the change we want to see in the world. An MFA can be more powerful than an MBA. It’s all in how you use the weapon, isn’t it?