Poem of the Week, by Albert Goldbarth

21034365_1822136601133837_3288638729780497471_nHurricanes and earthquakes and floods and the ongoing human cruelty inflicted by our elected employees against their fellow human beings. Jeez. It’s enough to make me understand (a tiny bit, anyway) why religious people start tossing around terms like “the end times.” Screw that, though. Enough good people determined to make the world better will do just that. Let us be like the whales in this strange and unforgettable poem by Albert Goldbarth, and sing to each other.

 

Forces, by Albert Goldbarth

It’s different for the spiderweb: 
the only architecture 
in a five-block radius not 
undone by yesterday’s tornado. 

Out at the More-4-Less, strands 
of uncooked spaghetti were driven, 
unbroken, like nails, through concrete. 
Different levels: different forces. 

I remember when Anna told me 
about the deep-sea dive that almost 
killed her, hammered and disoriented 
and tossed like debris in the middle 

of two converging vectors of power. 
That’s what she said. The whales 
only knew they were singing 
to each other. 

 

 

​For more information on Albert Goldbarth, please ​click here.

Pablo and Birdy: Immigration Story #4

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrWhat sticks with me about this tiny story, more than anything, is the fact that when she told it to me, my grandmother used the term “slavery” with regard to her grandfather. As a child, I thought slavery was confined to the U.S., the great and irredeemable horror and shame of white people owning black people. But according to my grandmother, there were slaves in Denmark, white slaves, and my great-great-grandfather was one of them.

As a child, that word “slave” haunted me. Now I know, thanks to Google, that he must have been not a slave, exactly, but a serf, a villein, who was legally bound to the land and the landowner.

My ancestor supposedly did not have a last name, as he was a serf. But when he was a young man, his landowner’s son fell into a river and nearly drowned. My great-great-grandfather jumped in and saved the child’s life. As a reward, his Danish owner freed him from his indentured servitude and also gave him his own surname, “Hoff,” followed by “beck,” which means river in Danish. (Or so I was told; I don’t speak Danish.)

And my ancestor, now a freeman, and bearing the last name of Hoffbeck, made his way to America to seek a new life. Which tends to be the story, with the single and huge exception of those who lived here before the white conquerors came and claimed it for their own, of pretty much every other American family.

* * *

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” 

Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #3

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrMe on the way to the airport and halfway into a deep conversation about religious extremism (any religion) with my Somali-born Uber driver: “It horrifies me. How does the longing for purpose and passion that every young person has turn into the belief that their god is the only god, and that their god justifies murder and mayhem and terror?”

Him (31 years old, handsome, laughing, who along with his Somali-born wife works full-time on different shifts so that they can trade off taking care of their four little kids): “I will tell you something. I almost became one of them.”

Pause.

“Um. . . you did?”

“Yes. After we fled the civil war in Somalia we lived in Nairobi for three years and I went to a new mosque. I was 18. And the leader taught hate. I began to be filled with hate and to think that others should suffer and die.”

“What changed?”

“I felt my heart turning hateful. And I decided to bring a notebook to the mosque with me for one week. I had one column Hate and another column Love and I kept track of what he was teaching. At the end of the week it was all hate. And I stopped going to the mosque.”

“And now? Did you find a mosque in Minneapolis that feels right to you?”

“I don’t go to any mosque anymore. I don’t raise my kids in any religion. If I want to pray, I pray inside my own head. My religion is two words only. You want to know what they are?”

“I do.”

“Don’t hate.”

* * *

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #2

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrI’m thinking of Cheng right now. He was a skinny, small kid with huge black glasses who always wore a plaid shirt and big tie shoes, a student of mine long ago when I first moved to Minneapolis and took a job teaching Mandarin at a big urban high school. Cheng sat in the front of the class. His voice cracked frequently. He was full of a nervous energy and he had a nervous laugh to go with it. He had one friend, a near-silent boy with dark, dark eyes. Cheng’s parents had a tiny Asian restaurant and they worked nearly around the clock in it. Cheng’s time outside school was spent on homework and washing dishes at the restaurant.

Chinese was an elective, meaning that no one was forced to take it, which translated into a classroom full of students from all walks of life. Some were focused on futures which included college, others on vocational schools, others on high school graduation.

Many were first-generation immigrant students who, as a result of the Secret War in southeast Asia (which preceded the official Vietnam war),  had grown up in refugee camps in Thailand. Their families were originally from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. Most of them spoke English with a strong accent and unconventional grammar, and they studied Chinese because it was an Asian language, closer to their own than German or French or Spanish.

At parent-teacher conferences, if the parents of my immigrant students came, their children came with them to translate. Many of their parents, who had lived powerful lives in their native countries and had been forced to flee because of direct threats to their lives, were either unable to find work in this country or worked intensely hard shifts at minimum wage, barely able to support their families. My students constantly navigated a delicate balance between dutiful child and not-quite-adult interpreter of all things American for their parents. 

I used to have a potluck party at my house every June, to celebrate the end of the year. We set up badminton on my tiny city front lawn and set out food on the dining table inside. All my students were invited.

Cheng was more nervous than usual in the weeks preceding the party.

“When is it?” he would ask. “Where is your house again? What should I bring? What time does it start? Is everyone invited?”

On the day of the party, I was outside welcoming students and directing them where to put their potluck offerings. A big, old, rattly car pulled up to the curb. It was stuffed full of adults and children, Cheng among them. They all poked their heads out the window, chattering in a language I couldn’t understand. Cheng emerged, clutching a big brown take-out bag. He ran up the walk toward me, then turned around and ran back to the car, which was belching exhaust at the curb. The people inside urged him on and he came back to where I was waiting on the steps.

“Mai Laoshi (my teacher name), here you go!”

He pushed the heavy bag into my hands and crouched down to untie those big lace shoes. He placed them carefully on the steps (it’s customary in Asia to remove your shoes before entering a home) and made his way into the house.

I looked in the bag. Six heavy take-out containers full of stir-fried shrimp. No rice, just shrimp. Jumbo prawns. I knew that all that shrimp had come from his family’s restaurant. How much had it cost them? I looked down the walk at that big family car, still lingering at the curb, dark heads still poking out the window, watching me. I smiled and waved, and so did they. Eventually they pulled away from the curb, still looking back at me. Cheng’s mother put her hands together and bowed her head. 

When I went into the house, Cheng was leaning up against the kitchen counter. He looked so unsure of himself. His plaid shirt was tucked into his black pants. His sock-clad feet looked even bigger than usual. 

“Cheng, stir-fried prawns are my favorite dish,” I said. “Thank you so much for bringing all these shrimp.”

He looked up. He was about to cry.

“Mai Laoshi,” he said. “This is my first party. I don’t know what to do.”

* * * 

 

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

Pablo and Birdy

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hr

McGhee’s tender tale of the search for home, belonging, and identity smoothly incorporates elements of magical realism and powerful allusions to the refugee experience. Publisher’s Weekly, starred review.

A quiet, memorable, fantastical tale beautifully complemented by Juan’s illustrations. Kirkus, starred review.

Friends and future friends, please welcome Pablo and Birdy, my brand-new novel for children and anyone who used to be a child, to the world. 

The novel is about Pablo, who lives with Emmanuel, his adoptive father, and Birdy, his beloved parrot, in Isla, a Key West-like town of fisherpeople and shopkeepers.

Pablo doesn’t know who or where he came from, and the unanswered questions of his past hurt him to think about.

But local legend tells of a mysterious Seafaring parrot –whose existence has never been verified– a parrot who holds within itself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who can reproduce those sounds under special circumstances. 

Is the legend true? If it is, would a Seafarer be able to tell Pablo where he came from? If he had a family before he arrived in Isla?

And if he did, did that family . . . love him? 

Twin Citians, I hereby invite you to a launch party at the wonderful Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul on August 23rd at 6:30. I’d love to see you there.

I’ll be making additional appearances (listed below) in New York City, Mississippi, Georgia, South Dakota, Vermont and Massachusetts this fall, and I’d love to meet some of you at the readings. 

August 19, Jackson, MS. The Mississippi Book Festival. Panel presentation on middle-grade fiction, followed by a book signing for Pablo and Birdy, 9:30-11:30 am

August 23, St. Paul, MN. The Red Balloon Bookshop. Launch party, reading, discussion and signing for Pablo and Birdy, 6:30 pm

September 2, Decatur, GA. Presentation on Pablo and Birdy at the Decatur Book Festival, 3:15-3:45 pm

October 27, Barneveld, NY. Unity Hall. Free public reading, discussion and signing featuring both Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back, 7 pm.

October 28, Liverpool, NY. Barnes and Noble. Public reading, signing and events for both Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back.

October 29, Chelsea, New York City. Books of Wonder. Panel presentation, reading and signing for Pablo and Birdy.

November 2, Shelburne, VT. Flying Pig Bookstore. Back-to-back readings, discussion and signings for Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back. (Come for the children’s novel, stay for the adult!)

November 4, Plainville, MA. An Unlikely Story. Back-to-back readings, discussion and signings for Pablo and Birdy and Never Coming Back. (Come for the children’s novel, stay for the adult!) 4 pm.

Please send me your immigrant or refugee stories

Friends, my new novel for children, Pablo and Birdy, will be out in August. Publishers Weekly just gave it a starred review, calling it “a tender tale of the search for hopablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrme, belonging, and identity (that) smoothly incorporates elements of magical realism and powerful allusions to the refugee experience.” 

That reference to the refugee experience is why I’m posting here today. I’d love to hear from you if you have a personal immigrant or refugee story to share with me. I hope to publish one story per day on my blog this August, similar to the tattoo stories and dog stories I did in celebration of Tell Me a Tattoo Story and Percy, Dog of Destiny.

If you’d like to be included in the line-up, please email me your story and a photo (of you or something related to your experience) if you wish.

Email: alison_mcghee@hotmail.com

I greatly look forward to hearing from you. Thanks!