Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Kathleen Takes a Walk In the Park

The Eagles are a cross-cultural family. We've integrated our share of suburban neighborhoods, first after moving off the reservation in North Dakota, and now in Minnesota. I take an optimistic view of the American melting pot, and I write about cross-cultural relationships with a romatic flair. But if I had written the scene I observed during our Sunday visit to a nearby playgroud with our grandchildren, my editor would have said I had taken it too far. I swear, for an afternoon the United Nations occupied a tiny bit of territory in white bread SUBURBAN Minnesota. And it inspired me to ponder time and the river flowing, motherhood and apple pie.

A recent article in the Minneapolis paper touted our state as a refuge for interracial couples--one of the highest percentages in the country--and the city boasts lots of recent immigrants. But we live in suburbia, where the scene when took our 2- and 4-year-old granddaughters to a small playground on one of our many small lakes still seems unlikely to me. At one table a large Chinese family (I think Chinese--my ear for languages is limited) shared pizza from Papa John's boxes.

A family possibly from India tried out all the playground equipment with their little ones. The boy wore a knotted headcovering in the Sikh style. Dad's headcovering was visible beneath a basball cap, and Grandfather wore the traditional turban over his. I had to do some research to discover that the knotted covering is used to manage the hair, which is never to be cut. Mom wore Western clothing. They spoke a lanuage I didn't understand--I know India is a land of a thousand languages--very frustrating for a writer. We're eavesdroppers, you know.

Soon another Asian couple arrived with their little boy. Mom claimed a swing next to the one my 2-year-old occupied while Dad followed their toddler around. Mom was doing something in a notebook, but she exchanged a few comments with us. A white family entered the scene speaking what I believe to be Russian. Then came an American English-speaking couple--white mom, black dad, two little girls. A city cab dropped off two tall, willowy Aftrican girls wearing jeans, T-shirst, and flowy, waist-length hair coverings. It was windy, but those scarves were firmly attached, and they fascinated my granddaughters. We had just been playing dress-up using scarves as princess veils. The older girls communicated with our little ones in the way of children--gestures, laughter, and a shared desire to swing, twirl, climb and just play.

And all the while here's the granddaughter of a 19th century Swedish immigrant who wanted nothing more than for his children to blend--no language, customs or dress from the old country--sitting beside her American Indian mate of 35 years, whose 19th century grandfather had seen his customs and religion, not to mention his home, ripped away by immigrants. And here we are in this melting pot, sharing the playgound experience with people who look and talk differently. But we're all here for the same reason: right here, right now this is a safe place for the children to play. Across the globe people are fighting over the differences, and in too many neighborhoods bombs are falling on the playgrounds.

So I'm a writer of women's fiction, and I want my books to sell. I also want them to matter in some way. I know that entertainment matters, but my question is: Without going (shudder) totally "literary," is there room in what we're calling "women's fiction" for a blend of reality and happy or at least hopeful endings? Or do we simply need to get away from it all with a fun read?


Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Ah, Kathleen. One of my favorite subjects behind erotica. :) My call is that lit written for women doesn't have to be maudlin or open-ended to matter.

We just don't get considered legit by the boys if we go for facile. Then we women take it to heart and think our lit has to bleed in order to count.

Because I have, and have had so much reality to deal with, I like to get away with a novel that is well done, plain and simple.

But as you know, I prefer my ending happy to hopeful.

Good subject!

Betina Krahn said...

Oh, Kathy. What a moment that must have been. Surely one of the more memorable in an otherwise long, boring summer. (Not that summers with granddaughters are necessarily tame!)

I can see how it would leave a lasting impact and have you pondering the impact of what you/we do. I've been dealing with this a lot myself. I'm feeling an urgency to write from the heart, and I'm so daunted by the prospect that I think everything I write is crap. It was so much easier when all I wanted to do was make people laugh.

Then I stop to think and, damn, the world really does need a good laugh these days. Some of my most memorable "fan" letters have been from people who were facing something awful and needed some laughter and hope and found it in one of my books.

I don't have any answers for this dilemma. There's room in publishing for all kinds of stories these days. And readers are smarter than we sometimes think. . . they "get" more from our stories than we realize.

I think we have to please ourselves with what we write. It's not being self-indulgent. . . we have to trust the Creator/Universe to use our work where and when it is needed.

Helen Brenna said...

I think Betina hit the nail right on the head. There room for all kinds of fiction because there are all kinds of readers. I like funny books just as much as serious books. It all depends on my mood. One thing I won't give on is what Michelle eluded to - the book has to be well-written.

anne said...

diversity is one of the big things that attracted me to the twin cities, and something i will really miss if i ever get my butt in gear and get out of this cold, cold, cold place!

i agree with betina. i think there's room for both kinds of stories, they just have to be marketed right. i like both happy and sad. i write dark books, but i HATE most oprah books. the victim abused and raped by father, uncles, boyfriends. blah blah. gets married, becomes alcoholic, is beaten by husband. blah, blah, blah. does the same thing to her kid. kid dies. blah blah.

Kathleen Eagle said...

I agree on the Oprah books. Absolutely. Adults who go through life blaming their parents are really boring. No, I want noble if rough-around-the-edges protagonists in my books. I want them layered and human. Humor is good. Desire is good. Sex is good. I just want to dig a little deeper. I want the struggle to feel real. I want a hard-won payoff, and I want hope. Not simple black and white, but genuine reason to believe. Isn't that sort of romantic?

Betina Krahn said...

You bet it's romantic! And if the Fates are listening. . . ditto for me!

Candace said...

Who says "reality" and "happy endings" are mutally exclusive? Yes, the world is full of death and destruction and fear. But it's full of beauty and hope and happiness, too--and those things matter as much as the bad, scary stuff. More, I think, because we need the beauty, etc. to get us through the tough stuff. At least, that's my take on it. Just call me Pollyanna.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Hey, Strib readers, did you see today's front page? Article about minorities moving to the Twin City 'burbs. See what the Eagle family started?

anne frasier said...

i think the huge increase in homicides and violent crime is driving people to the suburbs. gangs seem to also be on the rise. maybe the paper said that. now i'll go read it. :D