The Eclectic Mae Claire: “Taboos need to be lifted via pen and paper.”

Author Mae Claire is as multi-faceted as the island of Hispaniola itself. A Haitian orphan, Mae was adopted by Christian missionaries and raised on the Dominican Republic’s North Coast. After attending college in the United States, she returned to the Dominican Republic to teach history and English at an international school. Mae has also become a mother to three adopted children, and, in 2012, she met her partner, Mary. So, is Mae Haitian? Dominican? American? Black? Polyglot? Mother? Lesbian? Christian? Atheist? One thing is certain – Mae Claire is not easily categorized.

Mae Clair has written several novels and memoirs, including Jogging to HellWhat Part of Me Is Saved?, and Larimar. Her books are available through her shop on lulu.com. In this exclusive interview, Mae discusses her 2010 young adult novel P.S. I’m Eleven: Surviving Haiti’s Quake.

Mae Claire, A Novelist of the Caribbean

Mae Claire, A Novelist of the Caribbean

P.S. I’m Eleven is written in English, yet the narrative is certainly not an American style. Would you say the book is set up as a diary or does it follow a narrative pattern particular to the Caribbean?

This book is written in the form of a diary as I traveled to the border of Haiti and jotted down my observations. At some point in the book, when [the narrator] Antoinette is in school, she says that she is writing down everything that happens to her, and that one day she hopes to get it published.

Antoinette’s narration assumes that the reader is quite privileged for being in possession of a book. How do you see reading as a privilege? Do you think reading is a right? 

It is miles and miles to get to a source of education for Antoinette and her best friend. The assumption is that if you have a book, you have the means to get it whether it being via car, bicycle, or horse. In Haiti, checking out books is not a familiar concept. People read the books in the building. I went to visit my oldest daughter in college in August, and I noticed that the facilities are wonderful. I stepped into the library, and it was huge, all air-conditioned and fancy with wireless internet, desks, and everything the kids could ever want. But books? They were behind the circulation desk and were rarely permitted out of the building. Books are sacred, and only privileged people get to read them.

So for [Antoinette], having a book means you are either privileged, or, the concept of book-keeping is quite different. I currently teach 4 year old underprivileged children. Every morning, my routine includes reading a book. My [students] are fascinated by them. [One of the students] does not have any books in her house. When she comes to [my tutoring center] though, she is surrounded by books. Books are also super expensive, and there is usually only one copy of each, so to lose them would be a tragedy. One book would cost about 800 pesos ($23.50 in U.S. Dollars). I sell P.S.I’m Eleven for about 450 pesos ($13.25 US)  and people don’t even dish out the money.

P.S. I'm Eleven  - in Spanish and in English

P.S. I’m Eleven – in Spanish and in English

The book is full of religious imagery – mostly Christian. However, when the Haitian women are burying dead from the earthquake, a polytheistic chanting ritual is performed. I have read that Catholicism is the more official religion of Hispaniola, but what other religious practices exist on the island? Are non-Catholic or Christian practices considered taboo? How do missionaries influence the religious practices of Hispaniola’s residents? 

I think I have infused a lot of my personality and vision into Antoinette’s character, and this is where Christianity has become part of the imagery. I imagine myself in Antoinette’s position. If I had not been adopted at such a young age, I could see myself being her, being all of her.

Religious taboos are not really part of Haiti; if anything, the religions are a mix of everything and anything. They contact the gods, wherever the gods are, at any time, and in any situation. If the Christian God shows himself, then they talk to Him or Her. If the Buddhist God shows up, then that is who they work with. There seems to be little to no discrimination when it comes to their gods.

Missionaries have really created a discriminative perspective on spirituality as they claim that only Jesus can give you life to the fullest. But we know this not to be the truth, as there are many people groups and religious groups experiencing life to its fullest in a much larger spectrum. Missionaries have taught the people of the Hispanola to hate, judge, and discriminate against their own people. Christianity has not taught them to love one another unconditionally, but only to accept one another under certain conditions. Missionaries are the ivory of the ages. They offer food, drink, clothing, and health, and then open up their agenda book. They provide the physiological needs to later say “I told you so”.

What is your writing process like from the start of to the completion of a book? How do you plan your books? Do you have a writing routine? 

My writing process has evolved greatly. As an English teacher, I use writers’ workshop to teach my students how to create a good plan, complete the first draft, work on the second, revise, then edit with a teacher, and then, finally create the publishable draft. But the more I think of that process, the more I realize that not everyone thinks in such a sequence. It is a good idea in theory, but not in life. For me, i always start with an idea, and i build my writing around that one idea. The book I am currently writing, Gracias A Dios, is based on people’s opinions about a God who helps some and not others. I am using my experience and that of other people to formulate and finally create the book. I used to begin by starting at the beginning. But now, like in P.S. I’m Eleven, I at times start at the end. Sometimes you need to know what happens at the end to be able to create a wonderful beginning, middle and refined end.

You seem very in tune with the mind of an eleven-year-old. The book’s narration seems extremely authentic as Antoinette has many understandings of the world, but she still seeks guidance from adults. How did you find Antoinette’s voice? Did anyone in particular inspire you to develop her character? 

Before writing the book, I made a trip to Haiti’s border and spent time helping in a triage two days after the earthquake. I watched and listened and learned. I spoke with kids, around the age of 11. I then documented what i saw, felt, touched, and heard. I came home and then I worked with [cover model] Rocheyli in the summer. Rocheyli is part of the Mariposa Foundation. I spent time with her, at her house, with her family and got an idea of what she wanted in life. I found her character similar to my personality, and the character and voice I wanted for this narrative. I also considered this to be a book I wrote for my 6th grade students at the time. There was one student in particular who reminded me of Antoinette, and so I expounded on that. In short, three to five different kids influenced my writing and making of this character.

P.S. I’m Eleven addresses many topics that are normally taboo in young adult novels: perversion, menstruation, molestation, and lesbianism. Yet, these topics are extremely relevant to the lives of young people. Do you think it is an author’s responsibility to lift taboos? What prompted you to address these ideas through Antoinette’s character?

Taboo is a big word, especially when it comes to children and education. No one wants to step on people’s toes. But, I believe that taboos need to be lifted via pen and paper. If kids are reading it, parents can’t necessarily claim that a teacher has “said” this or “said” that. Alice Seabold’s Lovely Bones is a prime example of topics that are really poignant. My book was not openly welcome even in my school as the principal was afraid to answer questions if parents were to ask. But it is in their library, so kids can choose to pick it up if they please. These topics need to be discussed because children go through these things that are so relevant in their lives. In public schools, kids are dealing with all these topics and more. In private conservative homes, kids are dealing with these topics and more. So sometimes, if a child can read about it, and realize that the main character made it through, they may also acquire the hope that they too will survive. I wanted to address these ideas because i can’t leave them out. If I’m writing about Haiti and poor kids, then the need to include it –  it goes hand in hand. I want my book to encourage kids to ask questions. And hopefully, there is someone who can answer them.

How does the impact of the 2010 earthquake still affect Hispaniola today?
Kids are still homeless, parentless, motionless. No jobs, no money, more prostitution. More fear. Harder to adopt due to new rules, fewer buildings, but a new sense of hope, faith, love.
 

Goals for Summer: Talks with Teachers May Challenge Week #2

The theme for this week’s Talks with Teachers May Challenge is restoration, which is quite a natural fit for teachers approaching summer vacation. Our project for the week is to share a list of 10 or more goals for the summer.

Although I have completed seven years of teaching, this upcoming summer will be my first “summer off” from any formal  teaching or professional development activities. Following my first three years of teaching, I served as a volunteer teacher in the Dominican Republic. Following my fourth and fifth year of teaching, I worked in Boston Public Schools’ summer school programs, and last summer, I completed the required practicum for my reading specialist license at  MGH’s Speech, Language, and Literacy Center.

This summer, however, my primary focus will be on my health and my family with professional goals of secondary importance. Additionally, as I will not return to work from my maternity leave until January, the timeline for my goals extends into the fall.

My Summer and Fall Goals

Family

1. Establish a reading routine with my daughters.

My twin daughters, Sofia and Francine, are due on June 16th. It is really important for me to establish a reading routine with them from infancy. I have already begun to read to them every time that I am riding in the car with my husband driving. We also read to them at night before we go to sleep. Thanks to my teacher friends, my daughters already have a small library of books (in both English and Spanish) to enjoy! I am really looking forward to sharing my love of reading with my daughters.

sf_library

Sofia and Francine’s Little Library Space: the bottom two shelves of one of our bookshelves

2. Create a playlist of Spanish songs for my daughters.

I love listening to music in Spanish. I listen to mainly reggaetone and bachata, however, which I think is better for dancing than a sing-along. I would like to take the time to find some mid to slow tempo music in Spanish to sing along with for Sofia and Francine. (Please comment if you have any ideas!)

3. Take my daughters to the Curious George Room at the Cambridge Public Library.

Recently my colleague Paula Leoni sent me photographs of this delightful children’s reading space at the Cambridge Public Library’s main branch. I definitely want to spend an afternoon there with Sofia and Francine, and I would love to get their pictures in front of the beautiful Curious George murals. Apparently, there are quite a variety of activities, including lapsits and concerts, there as well.

Gateway to Heaven?: The Entrance to the Curious George Room (photo: Paula Leoni)

Gateway to Heaven?: The Entrance to the Curious George Room (photo: Paula Leoni)

4. Bring the girls to the Infant and Toddler Storytime at our local branch of the Boston Public Library.

BPL Roslindale is our local branch of the Boston Public Library, only a short walk from our house. I am looking forward to taking Sofia and Francine to the infant and toddler storytime offered on Tuesday mornings.

Health

5. Take long walks again.

Recently, for longer outings, my husband and I have had to rent a wheelchair for me from a local medical supply store. This is so frustrating as I normally take walks of three to eight miles around Boston when the weather is nice. But lately, I really can’t go more than twenty minutes due to either my lungs or my legs. I really look forward to taking many walks this summer, as I usually do!

6. Connect back into my running.

The most difficult part of my pregnancy, both mentally and physically, was having to give up running. Running has been a big part of my life since 2009, when I completed my first 5K race. I am by no means a very fast runner, but I absolutely love putting on my headphones and going for a long run. It just clears my mind and body of all stress, and I often get my best ideas when running. Running often allows me to clearly think through large tasks or just to be creative inside my own mind. I completed a half-marathon in October of 2012, and I hope to eventually run a marathon, but my post-pregnancy goal is to complete a 5K by the end of September.

salem_whale

Runner’s High: Feeling Great After a Race in Salem, MA in Spring 2013 (Portrait with Whale Mural)

 

Professional Life

7. Find a meaningful 1-credit education class.

I am one credit shy of receiving a higher salary, so I hope to find a 1-credit education class that I can take online. Boston Public Schools History Coach Sharon Ennis suggested  Facing History courses, but unfortunately the online courses offered take place in June, too close to my due date. I think I would prefer to take an online course in adolescent literature if I can find one. (Again, please comment below with any suggestions).

8. Work through Teacherpreneurs

I recently purchased the book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave. From just skimming the pages, the book seems to be a combination of a text book as well as a book that encourages discussion and reflection on the role of a teacher leader. I am at a point in my career where I really want to think about my next moves as an educator, and I think this book with help me to unpack my career desires.

9. Participate in the Talks with Teachers Summer Book Club. 

I just today signed up for the Talks with Teachers Summer Book Club, which is a completely free online book club for teachers in which we will read three books. In June, the selection will be a novel; I voted for Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been on my Goodreads to-read list for quite some time. A non-fiction selection will be chosen for July, followed by a back-to-school professional book in August.

10. Figure out how to participate in a Twitter chat.

I see great chats for educators advertised on Twitter all the time, and I just need to sit down and figure out how to navigate them. (Once again, please comment with any assistance!)

 

Dines Family Book Club October Selection: Bad Land

Bad Land:  An American Romance by Jonathan Rahan

Ginger poses with Bad Land in the Dines Dining Room.

Ginger poses with Bad Land in the Dines Dining Room.

My Review from My Goodreads.com Account

This book mirrors the landscape it describes: slow, meandering, and seemingly endless. Although the tragedy of the Montana homesteaders is worthy of a place in American history, the author fails to make the personal connections between the reader and the subject of the book. Raban interviews many different people along the Montana plains, but his writing fails to make the reader feel as if he or she knows the people. It seems more like listening to snippets of a public radio broadcast than making connections with human subjects. The book gives the impression of an overzealous Brit exploring the wildness of the American West in a cheesy PBS documentary, yet, to Americans, it is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder minus the compellingly simple narrative arcs. Raban meanders through the “Bad Land” of Montana, and every inch seems miserable and gray.

Post-Reading Discussion Questions 

by Jennifer and David Dines

1. Compare the effects of the Homestead Act on the railroad industry to its effects on individual homesteaders.

2. How did personal pride and independence influence homesteaders?

3. What is the role of faith in American invention?

4. How does the Wollaston family’s lifestyle contrast with the environment in which they live?

5. How did the homesteaders’ view of themselves differ from the government’s view of the homesteaders?

6. How did advertising serve as a catalyst for the settlement of the railway?

7. What is the role of debt in middle class American adulthood?

8. How are the grasshopper plagues a metaphor for the homesteaders themselves?

9. In what way is self-sufficiency threatening to organized government?

10. Did the homesteaders realize the extent of their effect on Boston and New York-based investors?

Index Card found in the used copy of the book purchased at Brookline Booksmith

Index Card found in the used copy of the book purchased at Brookline Booksmith

Shutdown 2013: Interview with a Government Librarian

Kara B. (a.k.a. Bollywood Blogger  Filmi Girl) and I have been friends since we attended college together at Berklee back in the early part of the millennium. We were in several bands together, and we have stayed friends for the past decade plus.

Me (l) and Kara B. (r) play in our band Anti-Love Project at Great Scoot in Allston circa 2003.

Me (l) and Kara B. (r) play in our band Anti-Love Project at Great Scott in Allston circa 2003.

Fast forward to 2013.

The Philadelphia Water Ice Factory: Kara B. and I two weeks ago... striking poses at H Street NE DC

The Philadelphia Water Ice Factory: Kara B. and I two weeks ago… striking poses at H Street NE DC

This morning, Kara B. granted me this interview about the effects of the government shutdown on a federal librarian working in our nation’s capital.

Literacy Change: What is your job?
Kara B.: I’m a librarian for the federal government. My job is completely nonpartisan. Tracking down accurate statistics or digging up hard to find articles or recommending background reading on a certain policy topic, I make sure that our patrons get the information that they need to do their jobs.
LC: How does the government shutdown affect you?
KB: I am on unpaid leave with no guarantee that I will receive backpay. That is my biggest concern at the moment: how big a financial hit will I take from this shutdown. And for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees in the same situation–not to mention the hundreds of thousands more forced to work without pay–it’s really insulting to see certain segments of the media play this shutdown off like a joke. Our jobs, our professions, our lives are not being treated with respect.
LC: I understand that you were out and about in D.C. yesterday. What was different from a normal weekday?

KB: There was a very strange mood in the city yesterday. Many employees were required to go into work for a few hours in the morning in order to shutdown their offices and when I went out for a walk around lunch time I saw a lot of aimless looking people in suits. Rush hour on the subway in the evening was eerily quiet.

LC: What do you plan to do with your time during the shutdown?

KB: Because my family and friends are in similar situations, we’re going to try and get through it together. I spent yesterday afternoon having coffee with a furloughed friend from IRS and today my father, who is also furloughed, and I are going on a little day trip to Southern Virginia. I plan to spend as much time away from my computer and the television and the news as possible.

LC: Are there any books you are hoping to read during the shutdown?

KB: Unfortunately I was too busy on Monday to assemble a reading list of work-related books to check out but I may use the time to catch up on the stack of books on my bedside table, which includes:

A Trip to the National Book Festival

On Saturday, my mom, my husband, and I visited the Library of Congress‘s National Book Festival, held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This post is a brief photoessay about our wonderful day at the Book Festival.

 

Let's Read, America!: The 2013 National Book Festival was a two-day celebration of American literary life.

Let’s Read, America!: The 2013 National Book Festival was a two-day celebration of American literary life.

Let's Read, America!: The 2013 National Book Festival was a two-day celebration of American literary life.

Let’s Read, America!: The 2013 National Book Festival was a two-day celebration of American literary life.
Upon arrival, this wonderful volunteer presented us with our orange bags and the beautiful book festival poster.

Upon arrival, this wonderful volunteer presented us with our orange bags and the beautiful book festival poster.

We added a new member to the Dines-Westervelt Family: The Cat in the Hat!

We added a new member to the Dines-Westervelt Family: The Cat in the Hat!

We also spotted that curious little monkey...Curious George!

We also spotted that curious little monkey…Curious George!

Inside the Pavilion of the States, visitors could learn about authors from each U.S. state and territory.

Inside the Pavilion of the States, visitors could learn about authors from each U.S. state and territory.

The states and territories were arranged by region.

6 Young Man with Map

Visitors could get a map and receive a stamp from each state. This young man, a student in the D.C. public schools, was proud to tell me that he was almost finished!

13 New Mexico Display

Each state had its own display table.

12 Massachusetts

At the Massachusetts Table

At the Hawaiian table, volunteers wore beautiful tropical dresses.

At the Hawaiian table, volunteers wore beautiful tropical dresses.

7 Your Map to Some Great Books

My completed map with stamps from all states and territories

What Book Do You Think Shaped The World? (My Answer: The Odyssey by Homer)

What Book Do You Think Shaped The World? (My Answer: The Odyssey by Homer)

9 What is a Book

What is a Book? I loved reading the responses written by visitors for this display.

I came home with about 40 pounds of teaching resources including a dozen full-size posters, over 500 bookmarks, and at least 30 large state maps. I hope to make the National Book Festival an annual family tradition!