Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I'm a Poser, Just Like Everyone Else

If you believe my Facebook timeline, I have my ducks in a row, always find the bright side of life, and I smile more than I cry. I have a confession: That's mostly bull shit. 

I'm a story teller and Facebook is a story telling tool. I don't purposely try to tell a fictional account of my life, but when I look through my timeline, I often wish I lived that portrayal every day. I feel confident in saying that most people feel this way about their digital image. I would guess that we put our best selves forward on social media, showing a very limited side of our selves. We show what paints us in the most positive light, our most impressive selves.

This is nothing new. Even before Instagram gave us the opportunity to showcase the gourmet meals we cook all the time, we have been chasing our ideal selves and presenting them as truth. Our fear of what others think keeps us from showcasing ourselves as we most truly are. As a writer, this becomes detrimental when we develop characters because we can miss their dark sides in our effort to make the reader like them. That darkness is what makes them authentic. 

The best characters are flawed, as are the most interesting humans. They have bad days, and think mean thoughts for no reason. We do the same, yet our public images don't show that. When we are brave enough to post that side of our selves, we often cushion it with jokes or quotes to soften the blow. 

When we develop characters, it's easiest to make them joyful, lovable, popular, moral, intelligent, talented and revered. After all, they are our star. We created them and we're proud of them. We want our readers to love them as much as we do. But, that isn't a real picture of the human experience. Pretending it is the norm cheats our readers of a genuine connection with our characters. How is a moody thirteen year-old reader supposed to relate to a character who lives and breathes sunshine 24/7? Why would a sad teen cheer for a protagonist who has everything handed to him, and always comes out ahead? Who wants to read about main characters who easily save the day all the time?

Just as we face challenges and find ways to overcome them, so must our characters. We have to put them in situations that make us uncomfortable. We have to show their vulnerability, their disdains and misgivings. This is what shows our reader what our characters are really made of, and in essence, what they too are capable of. When a character can still be loved with all their flaws and imperfections, we tell the reader that they can be loved as well, even though they are not perfect. This is so vital to young readers, particularly girls.

Raising a daughter with healthy self-esteem is difficult. They are constantly being told that they aren't pretty, thin, blonde, or white enough. Media tells them that their worth is in their appearance, and that it is better to be cute, than brave or smart. I consider myself to be a progressive mom, a mom who exposes her daughter to strong female role models who excel in various areas, yet my daughter constantly worries about her looks, her clothes and what her peers think of her. I can only imagine her struggle if I were not the kind of mom who goes out of her way to introduce her to experiences that bring out her strength and talents. But, with that exploration comes failure, disappointment, and getting back up when you want to give up. These are vital parts of life that we need to know how to overcome. Where does that fit in our Facebook personas? Who tells that story? When will we celebrate the fact that we learn from our mistakes and stop expecting perfection from the start? Maybe we can begin by showing more of our true selves every day on social media and beyond, and stop worrying about creating a facade that looks good on a mobile apparatus. Being honest and bold is the best example we can be to the impressionable youth looking at us for guidance on how to navigate their own lives.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Latina Author in my Neck of the Woods

Sonia addresses the crowd in Perry, Iowa

On Sunday afternoon I had the privilege of listening to Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winning writer of ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY. I read the book back in 2006 or 2007 when it first came out. Warren heard her speak, bought me the book, and had it signed. It has since disappeared (which is weird because I'm fiercely protective of my books, especially those signed by Latina authors), and I've been meaning to replace it and read it again. It's a fascinating story that chronicles the deadly trip Enrique took, as an unaccompanied eleven year-old from Honduras to the United States. He encountered severe weather conditions, bandits who beat and robbed him, hunger, thirst, fear and the constant threat of falling off the train and being sucked beneath it.

Nazario not only wrote about the experience from interviews, she re-traced Enrique's steps, riding atop the same train cars Enrique rode, referred to as The Beast by migrants because of how dangerous and high risk the ride can be. She endured the breaking points her subject endured. She felt the burning heat that made it hard to hold on to the metal on the train. She nursed the cuts and bruises from branches hitting her in the face as the train moved through the jungle. She shivered during freezing cold nights as the train snaked across the desert at night. As a woman making that journey, she put herself in constant peril as many females are raped during the journey north.

In the process of writing the book, Nazario was changed. She became invested in the stories of these children. She followed the news about how drug cartels took over the trains so that migrants had to fear their threats and violence. They were forced to surrender what little they had to these thugs, most often their clothes, shoes and the phone number of their parents in the United States, who the cartels would call and demand ransom, torturing and killing the kids of those who could not pay.  
How you can learn more and support migrant children.
Nazario made several visits to Honduras, where Enrique began his ordeal. She talked to kids as young as seven who are forced to become drug addicts who have to work for cartels to support their habit. Other kids are forced to be mules and lookouts, even hit men as young as ten. The girls are marked as property for gang members even before their first periods, and they will most likely be raped several times before their QuinceaƱera. These are the lives these kids are fleeing. It is safer to ride atop of a moving train from Central America through Mexico, and walk across a desert to the United States, than stay in their home countries. 

She kept it real. She didn't sugar coat anything. She admitted that as a journalist she shouldn't have become so personally invested. Yet, as a decent human being, how could she not? She was talking to kids who could be brutally murdered at any moment by gang members and drug lords who see no value in human lives - even those of children. She was made aware of her privilege as an American, and it made her want to do more for those who can't even imagine what her life of safety is like.   

Sonia Nazario signs books after her presentation.
The stories and photos she shared were heart-breaking and thought-provoking. I don't know how anyone could listen to them and not be moved to question their own privilege, their humanity and their true heart. This issue is at the forefront of the upcoming presidential election, and on the minds of many, regardless of their political affiliations. She said that her book continues to be updated as new developments happen in Enrique's life as his case to stay in the US progresses. She's written the book over a dozen times, and can probably write twenty more books from the research, experience and accounts she's collected over the years. To my delight (and soon-to-be addition to my bookshelf), Nazario wrote a middle grade version that is often used as part of middle school curriculums.

Sonia signs her latest New York Times cover story
Aside from being an accomplished writer, Nazario is a poised and enthusiatic speaker. Her topic was heavy, yet she inserted humor and lighter fare into her presentation. She shared about her life, and how she got into journalism at a time when they were targeted and killed across Latin America. She brought a guest, a woman who had shared her story with Nazario over fifteen years ago and opened her eyes to the plight of migrant mothers who leave behind children who risk it all to be reunited. It was a great coincidence that the woman, named Carmen, had moved to Iowa and was able to attend the event. Nazario brought Carmen on stage and you could tell that she had the utmost respect, admiration and love for her. That was part of what made Nazario feel so genuine. She's won several awards, degrees and accolades, yet she joked with the kids in the audience, and took her time meeting each person who came through the line to get a book signed or asked for a photo. 

Sonia adds an encouraging message for young readers
As I watched Nazario interact with attendees, I got a warm feeling inside my gut, excitement that one day that could be me. Lately I've been feeling that my writing isn't getting anywhere. That I'm stuck in an endless cycle of revisions that is killing my writing spirit, making me question my dream. Nazario was the shot of reality I needed to reassess my feelings. She didn't get to where she is by letting feelings of frustration and being "stuck" stop her from writing the stories that needed to be told. She kept on, writing version after version of ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY until she had a story that would make it into people's hands. A story that would change the lives of those who learned more about these children, and all they endure to have a safe life with their mothers.

Women from the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines pose with Sonia
While Nazario and I have very different writing styles, as she specializes in adult non-fiction and I in fiction for younger readers, we share the same burden - we want to tell compelling stories that do right by our readers. This is the universal goal of authors who love what they do. I have come to learn that as a writer, you must love it or it will haunt you, drive you crazy because even when doubts and frustrations are high, the need to tell a story is relentless and demands to be honored.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


I've lived lots of places. Mostly I've stuck to the Midwest, but have also called the East Coast home. Yet, that isn't exactly true. Not that I didn't live there, because I did, but that those places were home. When I hear people say that they are going back home, or that they are home, I often wonder what that feels like. I don't feel like I have a home. I've lived in my house for twelve years. But, Des Moines doesn't feel like home. I lived in Chicago for seventeen years. When I visit it doesn't feel like I'm going back home. I was born in New Jersey. Visiting there doesn't bring those feelings, either. It's frustrating and unsettling. I want a place that I would want to return to again and again, yet I can't think of a place that evokes those feelings. If I left Iowa, I can't imagine wanting to return. When I left Chicago I knew I would never live there again. I have never had the desire to live in New Jersey. 


I wish I could say that I've built my home, but it doesn't feel that way. Even when Warren was alive, our home felt comfortable, safe and full of love, but it didn't feel like a final destination. It felt like a stepping stone, a stop along the way to something else. When I was younger, this didn't really bother me. I was fine with this feeling that something else was out there to discover. I knew I was working towards a place that would be home, a place that called me back time and time again. As I age, those feelings are exhausting and cause me more anxiety than excitement. I want to know that I can settle down, relax without wondering what's next. Is that even possible for me? I have no idea. 

The truth is that I don't know what home will feel like. How will I know when I'm home if I've never felt it? Even growing up, I felt that my home was temporary. My goal at a very young age was to get the hell out of Chicago and never look back. When we'd visit New Jersey I was often thankful that my parents moved away from there. While Chicago wasn't perfect, I liked it way more than the East Coast. It makes me wonder, is home a place you create that you want to stay, or is it a place you will always belong? Is home a person who makes you feel like you have the world in them? How do you know when you're home? Is it really about who shares it with you? Over time I hope that life answers these questions and allows me some peace of mind that I am exactly where I should be.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


I love being able to step out of my comfort zone. It's exciting to be in a different culture, seeing ways of life that do not mirror my own. I wish everyone could have that experience several times in their life. It makes you grow in a way that little else can. That's why I love to travel internationally. It's exhilarating and addictive. If I could, I'd visit a different country every six months. 

But, my budget and responsibilities do not allow for this indulgence. As I blogged about earlier, wanderlust is like an incurable disease, and I am grateful that I fed it with a trip to Korea. I was only there 9 days, but I crammed a lot into those days. The friend I went to visit was a wonderful tour guide and hostess and we visited four cities, numerous ancient temples and palaces, beaches, and even found a salsa club. We walked for miles, took tons of photos, and ate foods we didn't know the names of. I drove a moped and we lived to tell about it. We navigated a place where between the two of us, we probably spoke five words in their language, but managed to get to bus terminals and subway stations that got us across the country and back. It was an adventure that I will be forever happy that I got to experience. 

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is eat, so I took lots of photos of the food. I didn't know what all of them were, but I sampled anyway and most were delicious.

My other joy when I travel is learning about the place I am visiting. I didn't know much about Korea's history, but after having learned how they rebuilt after the Korean war, I am in awe. They pretty much had to rebuild from the rubble that was left after the war. That was only 60 years ago. Today, they are the most developed country in Asia, and one of the most developed in the world. Their success is thanks to a lot of help from the United Nations, but it is still a feat to be where they are after the UN declared that they would need 100 years and a miracle to recover from the war. They did more than recover, they became a global powerhouse. It was evident in their excellent public transportation systems and fast internet speeds, even when I was sharing it with 25 million other people in Seoul.

Aside from driving the moped, my favorite parts of the trip were visiting the temples and the War Memorial of Korea Museum.  Here are some photos from each:

Of course, I took tons more photos and ate way more food. All in all, it surpassed my expectations and I would highly recommend visiting South Korea. 

The moped!

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