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Book Reviews

FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME by Mariama J. Lockington — book review!


Braided with songs and poetry, this story follows Keda’s journey to know herself. With profound final lines and yes-that’s-exactly-what-it’s-like images, the prose poem chapters shine individually and collectively. Much in Keda’s life is complicated, so she reaches for songs, gropes for her heritage, and digs for inner resources to cope. A few friends brighten her life, but when it comes to truly managing an unstable mother, a mostly-absent father, and a big sister who is less fun and also less nurturing than she used to be, Keda is on her own. Her love of Billie Holiday and the intuitional grasp she has of the Blues give her something to hold on to, but when her summer goes from bad to worse, Keda needs courage. Readers will cheer her on as she finds the strength to speak her own truth.

Find this book on Goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40864854-for-black-girls-like-me

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Writing Life, Writing Tips

Applying to Benn AGAIN–Risking a Re-do

Liam Rector 1949-2007

The landline phone rang, and the when the speaker introduced himself, I almost fell backward. It was Liam Rector, American poet and director of Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He wouldn’t call with a rejection, right? Does this mean I’m accepted? His voice wasn’t comforting; it was gruff. His “Is this Rebecca Balcárcel?” sounded more like a demand than a question.

I had applied to Bennington’s Master of Fine Arts program a few months before. TBH, I wasn’t expecting to get in. In fact, I knew from experience that they sent rejections by letter. I knew because I had gotten that letter a year ago: “Thank you for your interest . . . We’re sorry to inform you . . .” I’d almost cried.

That first application I sent had been a long shot. A long shot that cost $50, a huge sum for me and my wasband (then-husband) — a month of no eating out. With only a handful of poems published in journals and a couple of generous letters from former teachers, I knew my application wouldn’t be the most impressive one. Heck, I didn’t even have a Bachelor’s Degree. I repeat: no BA. Yet, I’d changed my major enough to know that creative writing was my love, and a tantalizing sentence in the program’s promo materials stated that an undergraduate degree wasn’t strictly required “if the strength of the writing warrant[ed] such an exception.” I clung to the wild hope that my work would merit that exception and assembled my packet — poems that I hoped were my best, an essay that I hoped sounded professional, the recommendations, and the fifty bucks. I sent it off in a fat envelope with a line of stamps across the top.

Then came the rejection letter. Sigh . . . I shrugged. I wailed. I ranted that I didn’t want that degree anyway. But I did.When the application period came around again, I didn’t consider applying at first. I’d done it once, with nothing but a bruised ego and a fifty-dollar deficit to show for it. Why try?

But their wonderful ad in Poets & Writers called to me, as did their slogan: Read one hundred books. Write one. If I did re-apply, what would be different? Well, there was my writing life. I hadn’t gone out and won some big award, but I had joined a writing group, subscribed to some lit mags, and performed at an open-mic or two. I’d volunteered to teach writing at any little club or gathering I could find. In that pre-Facebook world, I couldn’t connect to distant writers easily, but I connected to my local community. If I were to apply again, I would have a better essay at least.

I’d also kept writing. And sending out my work. My handful of pubs had grown to more like a dozen. Not that most people had heard of Mystic River Review or Mutant Mule Review, but that wasn’t the point. The point was: I hadn’t given up on myself or my work.

So maybe I could re-apply. But what about the fifty bucks? I couldn’t imagine wasting that amount of money again. We were living on hourly wages, and I was home nursing twins. It seemed impossible that we could squeeze fifty whole dollars out of an already-lean budget. But my wasband said to go for it. “We’ll eat rice and oatmeal,” he said, or something like that. He believed in my work, and he believed in following one’s dream.

And now Liam Rector was on the phone. Not only did he invite me to attend the Bennington Writing Seminars, he also informed me that I was a Jane Kenyon Scholar, one of two entering poetry students to receive the Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize scholarship. I couldn’t have been more shocked. I stammered out a “Yes, I’ll see you in January,” and jumped up and down squealing non-words for the next hour.

Me today with my Bennington MFA from 2002

Two years later, Liam handed me my MFA at graduation. The take-away, writing friends — and artist friends and engineer friends and linguistics friends and just human friends! — is not only to try again and to not give up. Even more important is the truth that no program or single person, even the formidable Liam Rector, made me a poet. I loved every second of my MFA experience, but the writing itself turned my brain into a poetry brain. And by writing, I mean the re-writing, the dropping the pose and getting down to the real, the self-doubt, the crafting and crying, the reading of the greats, the click of the right word on the right line. And it started years before. The MFA gave me much! Deadlines, community, models. And yes, a sense of legitimacy, which let me say, “I am a writer,” with a straight face. But process made me a writer, not permission.

This lines up neatly with Bennington philosophy, actually, and with Liam Rector’s, but I didn’t know that then. I also didn’t know that my first book of poems wouldn’t come out for eight more years or that my first novel wouldn’t come out for seventeen more years! When I was a beginner with a bunch of words and wishes, clamoring to get in, I didn’t know the door opened to the inside.

Book Reviews

CATERPILLAR SUMMER by Gillian McDunn — book review!

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Compelling and charming! When Cat and her brother get dropped for three weeks at their OTHER grandparents’ house — the ones they’ve never even met! — both of them grow in ways they couldn’t have predicted.

On a North Carolina island, Cat learns some big things: 1) how to fish 2) how to get silent-type Grandpa to talk 3) how to see a bully for more than his meanness 4) how to let her special needs brother fend for himself a little 5) how to eat hushpuppies!

McDunn writes with on-point honesty and a knack for capturing real kid thoughts. The mom-written books within the book add another lens through which both readers and the characters themselves can see the family dynamics. Packed with human insight and tenderness, this book is sure to be a favorite of anyone who loves to see a family knit itself back together, while enjoying bike rides, mini-golf, and hot chocolate! 

Find Caterpillar Summer on Goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40046075-caterpillar-summer?from_search=true#other_reviews

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Book Reviews

THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF COYOTE SUNRISE by Dan Gemeinhart — book review!

cover of MG novel by Dan Gemeinhart

When I found out that I would be on a panel with author Dan Gemeinhart, I thought, “Who is this guy?” I ordered his book and found out!

This guy is an author who tells a good story with sensitivity and artistry. I thought I would like his novel because I have homeschooled, have a cat, and once spent a couple of years in a semi-nomadic state — just like the father and daughter in this book. BUT, I didn’t expect that Coyote’s tale would be told with such emotional honesty. Gemeinhart walks right up to hard truths and writes them down. And the best part? Coyote comes across as a real kid with a funny, smart voice, and the resourcefulness to reach her goals.

If you’re in the mood for a road trip and the chance to meet a crew of inspiring misfits with troubles of their own, this book will be a joy. If you’ve ever noticed that kids and parents sometimes switch roles and have trouble switching back, you’ll recognize the crux of Coyote’s problem — how to protect people she loves from the pain of the past while also coming to terms with it. If you’ve ever wondered how to live in a school bus, you’ll learn that, too!

I highly recommend The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise. It’s a stand-out. Find it on Goodreads here.

Did you enjoy this post? Want to know my own book news? Click here for the latest updates. I’ll send in short, infrequent emails. Promise!

Latina Heritage

By Any Other Name

“Like the ball in the car you’re going to sell.” This is how I explain the pronunciation of my last name, Balcárcel, to bank tellers and airline representatives, my self-defense instructor and my students. My mother invented this phrase after hearing her married name mispronounced as Bar-carcel, Ban-carcel, and Balcar-kell almost daily. I think her trick works pretty well at demystifying the name. The phrase jingles on the tongue, and most people appreciate a hand. In fact, when I graduated from high school, I tried to help the announcer by writing out Ball-car-sell. I thought Mom’s stratagem would work as perfectly on paper as it did in person. I printed my name, accent and all, then wrote Ball-car-sell underneath in parenthesis. I imagined the syllables ringing through the auditorium in pure pronunciation tones. It backfired, and I was almost off-stage before my parents realized, “That’s our daughter up there shaking hands with the principal.” The announcer had mumbled something unintelligible; Dad snapped a photo just in time to hear Barker, the name of the next student.

Rebecca in her graduation gown with her parents in their back yard

We laughed about it later, but I admit to some disappointment. I didn’t gasp—no surprise that the predictable happened—but I did sigh. Practiced as I was at not letting mispronunciation bother me, it pinched a little. It reminded me that even the progressive educators who loved having a Latina in class, and even the announcer-speech teacher who prided himself on crisp consonants and a broadcast-worthy baritone couldn’t step into another language easily. And though I had attended school in this district from fifth grade on, no one had quite figured out Balcárcel.

Every first day of school had been a name nightmare for me. The teacher would start calling roll at the front of the room. When a long pause followed a name like Anderson, Scott, I knew the teacher’s brain was stalling out on mine. Added to her distress at seeing Balcárcel, my nickname Bequi appeared next to it. Bequi is pronounced “Becky,” as people with some knowledge of Spanish might guess, but the combination—Bequi Balcárcel—stumped every teacher I had.

As a girl, I coped by disassociating myself from my name. I couldn’t afford to take every mispronunciation personally, so I pushed my name out of myself into its own realm. There it could be stepped on, twisted, or ignored without me feeling stepped on, twisted, or ignored. I didn’t want to impose on people by coaching them on my name. It took too much time and yielded flawed results. The wrong syllable stressed, the hard c pronounced soft, the soft c pronounced hard. I waved away the sounds and took this approach: people could fumble with my name like a doorknob, and I’d let them in just to hear the rattling stop.

I don’t blame folks for stumbling over three syllables and an accent mark. I agree: Balcárcel looks intimidating. The accent, especially, seems to snuff out most people’s will to even hazard a guess. But if someone does try, I now applaud the effort no matter what comes out. The knob- rattling bothers me less than it used to. My local grocery store wants its employees to greet every customer by name. Every week I say, “Close enough” with a smile. My own children don’t have the pronunciation mastered, so I’m not expecting the grocery staff to catch on anytime soon. Maybe I’m mellower because I’m letting my name creep closer. I’ve brought it in from the back shed and given it a place in the living room. Instead of distancing myself from my name, I see it as a fun facet of who I really am. It’s no longer painful to hear Bancursel. The complexity of my name reflects the complexity of my identity, and no one can know me or my name fully on a first encounter.

Despite the difficulties, or maybe because of them and the attention they stirred, I kept my name when I married. My Guatemalan father always joked that I’d marry an American named Smith and lose my heritage. In fact, I married a man named Stith. I could have changed my name and stopped chanting “like the ball in the car you’re going to sell,” but I couldn’t face going from three syllables to one; just listen to that monosyllabic thud after the three-syllable “Rebecca.” Besides, I liked my name. And maybe Dad has a point. My name might be the most Latin thing about me.

“Bequi” sledding in Iowa

Growing up monolingual in Iowa did not instill much fiesta flavor. My Spanish was spotty, and though I knew some lullabies and phrases like “I am ten years old,” I couldn’t hold a conversation with my grandparents. When they visited one year, flying all the way from Central America, I sang for them and smiled a lot, but I couldn’t tell them about my teddy bear collection or read them a story I’d written. For a week, the adults volleyed words over my head. It felt like verbal keep-away. Later, equipped with four years of high school Spanish, I visited Guatemala. My grandmother was no longer with us, but I was able to tell my abuelo about college plans and my hope of learning guitar. For two weeks I played Latina, but I’m still more salt than cilantro.

As much as I love my Balcárcel family, the music, the food, and the all-night dancing, I’m a visitornot a native. My bi-lingual cousins live in the States — kids whose parents both immigrated. Priests conduct their weddings in Spanish, and they make homemade tamales. They include me, but I stand on the other side of a border. Instead of tamales, I make a green bean casserole that appears in church cook books across the Midwest. Their homes feel foreign. My name is a valid passport, but the country isn’t home.

Marimba players in Antigua, Guatemala, 2007 visit

I used to be comfortable staying on my side of that border. With an Anglo mother, I grew up able to pass for white. Further, people rewarded my whiteness. My perfect English, my punctuality, and my way of telling a story directly rather than taking a long, winding ramp, marked me as Americanized. Perfectly assimilated. In school and on the job, this works beautifully. I blend into the dominant culture like a top-level spy. Except I’m a double-agent. I truly seem white in most ways. When my parents first tried to teach me Spanish, I wouldn’t speak it. Embarrassed by the too-colorful dresses and the trumpety mariachi music, I ran from my heritage. When I wanted to rediscover it, I found it difficult. Balcárcel is a slim link to a world that I, for the most part, lost.

A few years ago, I learned something else about my name. The byline that goes with this essay shows my first name as Rebecca, but it was supposed to be “Rebeca.” My parents wanted the Spanish spelling. My father laughs at English’s use of doubled letters. “Two c’s?” he asks. “Why not three?” My middle name, too, is misspelled on my birth certificate. Lee should read “Li.” Again, the English version won out. According to family legend, this is an family friend’s unintentional doing. Somehow the paperwork went through her hands rather than my parents’. So I’m Rebecca Lee instead of Rebeca Li.

Sometimes people ask why I don’t correct my legal name. A Latino poet recently wanted to know how to spell Rebecca before autographing his book for me. When I explained the mistake, he looked over his glasses and said, “What are you going to do about that?” He’s a big man, with a commanding presence; I told him to inscribe the book to “Rebeca.” However, at home the name looked odd, like a pair of shoes that seem to fit in the store, but turn out to be the wrong size. I am so used to the misspelled version that it feels more appropriate. Maybe “Rebecca” is more appropriate. The poet wanted me to embrace my heritage by changing my name, but my full name, as is, reflects my heritage pretty well. My English name first, my Latin name last.

My perfect name would be Rebecca Li Balcárcel, combining the two languages. Actually, this is what I thought my name was until I received my social security card at age sixteen. “Lee” looked awkward then and still does. It also pricks my heart because Li comes from my father’s nickname, Lico, pronounced Lee-coe. With this tie to my father accidentally cut, I feel even more unmoored. I wince when I sign legal documents that require my full name. I found myself telling the Li-Lee story to the mortgage broker. She simply handed me the pen. The names should sound the same in the ear, but they don’t to me. I imagine that I can hear the correct spelling when I say my full name, and that the written version is wrong. It’s only one letter, a single line of ink and a dot, but it makes me my father’s daughter. I might speak Spanish only in present tense, and I might never learn the love songs my grandfather wrote, but Li is my rightful middle name. Still, to change it would cost more money than I can justify, so I’m letting that layer of Anglo lie on my name for now, a dusting of bleached flour on a browned pastry.

These days I go by a few other names, such as Mom and Professor. These spare me hearing the mispronunciation of Balcárcel. In fact, I tend to be on a first-name basis with the world, asking folks to call me Rebecca as soon as I meet them. I don’t want to get rid of my last name, though. As long as people can imagine a ball in the car they want to sell, I’ll keep letting folks give it a try. Maybe I agree with Shakespeare; a rose would smell as sweet even if called a rosse. I can live with an extra c in my first name and the floundering over my last name. Even the Lee. I’ve learned to embrace the mess, the beautiful bang that resulted from my parents’ collision. I’m picking up the pieces I like and making collage that suits me. When people ask my name, it leads to conversations about Guatemala, my mom’s Peace Corps service, the Northern regions of Spain, and my father’s immigrant story. Then I hear about their ancestors or their love of soccer. My name gives us a kick- off, and an exciting get-to-know-you game begins.

Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Segue and editor Eric Melbye, who published this essay in Issue 8, Fall 2009.