Wednesday, June 11, 2014


                                                                   at the Sisters' House

I have always loved Church Street in downtown Bethlehem, since the days when I took piano lessons with a man who seemed even more ancient than the stone buildings. In those days I memorized Beethoven & Bartok for the dreaded piano recitals at the same time I memorized the history of Count Zinzendorf & the Moravians settling in Bethlehem in 1741. I love walking through history, hearing voices from the past whisper in my ears or breathe on the back of my neck. And I've never ever felt history was over.

Faulkner's words-- "History is not was, it is." -- formed the guiding principle behind my first novel, THE ROAD TO FEZ, in which I explored painful (& wonderful) moments in the history of Jews & Arabs in Morocco through the figure of a beautiful teenaged Jewish martyr, Suleika.

The realization that the past is never really past was also the guiding principle behind last week's Moravian Writers' Conference in Bethlehem PA. The gathering featured keynote speakers Ursula Hegi & Laurie Halse Anderson, as well as a wonderful mix of faculty authors & students at the historic Moravian College campus.


Ursula Hegi


                                                                  Laurie Halse Anderson

Ursula Hegi, born & raised in Germany at a time when no one taught, wrote or spoke about the Holocaust, was forced to fight the oppressive weight of shame & silence in order to write her novel, STONES FROM THE RIVER, & to confront history & responsibility.

Laurie Halse Anderson also learned to silence herself as she grew up, to keep from asking difficult questions about American history that her teachers didn't want to answer. It left her angry, frustrated & confused. Eventually she learned to confront her questions through novels that delved into not only our nation's history but our own personal histories.

Both Ursula & Laurie had to move from silence to words on the page. That act of setting pen to paper & seeing letters emerge may well be one of the most courageous acts in the world. As Ursula explored the painful history of WWII, step by step, uncovering "all the little omissions along the way," she realized the Holocaust could have been stopped. As Laurie researched slavery, she realized that "slavery is not the African-American experience, it's the American experience." But it's only by breaking through the weight of silence that you can "take painful things & turn them into fruitful things."

Walking down Church Street, past the Brethren House, the Widows' House & the Sisters' House, past whispers & sighs, I heard a girl pound on a piano without delicacy or skill, but only an overwhelming need to break through the silence.

Monday, June 2, 2014


One if the joys of watching the BBC America series, "Orphan Black," is that it's all about identity.
Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany plays a number of clones who each struggle for survival against powerful enemies, invasive diseases, & their own personal issues.

Maslany is such a gifted actress, the script so intelligent, & the technical aspects of the production so skillful you often forget you're watching a single actress tackle the roles of all the clones-- four or five major ones, & a few lesser ones. If you watch carefully, you get clues about how a character is born.
It's how she looks, yes, though here we have a number of women with the same face & body.

In the above image, the central figure-- & protagonist of the series-- is Sarah. A fearless, ruthless grifter, Sarah uses men to get what she needs, but is slowly learning to share her heart with others outside her inner circle. Sarah is always in black, often leather--a lean, mean fighting machine-- with dark, sooty eyes. It's devastating to watch her moments of tenderness with her daughter ... & sometimes lover/betrayer.

On the left is Cosima, the "softest" of them all. A brilliant, emotional scientist, she discovers she's in love with a woman doctor (who works for the enemy) at the same time she realizes she may be dying. Her hair is in intricate dreadlocks, she wears glasses & original, artsy dresses-- she puts her unique stamp on everything she does.

On the right is Alison. The soccer mom, a timid White Rabbit, always rushing & glancing at her watch, yet seemingly never arriving at her destination. Every part of her is tightly wound up-- from her bangs to her ponytail to her perky walk-- but inside she drinks & rages, & the result is both comic & moving-- a Stepford Wife breaking free from her coded behavior.

There is also Rachel, the most controlled, power-hungry one of all.

And Sarah's twin-- feral, primal Helena.

But even more important than how each character looks is how she sees. The world is an excruciatingly different place for damaged Helena than it is to prim Alison, & wildly different to vulnerable Cosima than to raw Sarah.

And yet.

One of the most rewarding aspects of watching "Orphan Black" is the realization that different as these women are, & as different as the world appears to them, they are connected in a way their creators never anticipated-- they are sisters. They develop their own uneasy bond, & another of the joys of watching this series is when one of the clones must impersonate another --for example, watching Maslany play Sarah who must play Alison. Mouth tightens, eyes widen, shoulders straighten, & we see Sarah strain to squeeze herself into Alison's rigid boundaries.

The "orphans" were created with a purpose in mind, a task to fulfill, but they went far beyond their creators' original vision & became true characters-- emotionally consistent yet constantly developing in surprising, unpredictable & deeply satisfying ways.

The kind of characters that you want to watch week after week.

The kind you follow page after page.

The kind you want to create.