Jan. 2nd, 2017

kittenyarns: (cupcakes)
Day 2: In your own space, share a book/song/movie/tv show/fanwork/etc that changed your life. Something that impacted on your consciousness in a way that left its mark on your soul.

There is a book I read when I was quite small, and still learning English, called Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. It was given to me as a gift for my birthday, from my grandmother. This, she told me, is a book about another little girl who feels like she doesn't belong. I remember staring at the light brown cover, with a picture of a lake on the front, and running my fingers across the moons replacing the 'o's in the title. I remember curling up on the soft sheep blanket in the corner of our home, in the spot furthest from the fire, and starting to read it, not expecting much since my grandmother had never been particularly good at choosing books for me, a girl who read high fantasies and murder mysteries more than anything else.

The pages were soft already; folded and dogeared. It wasn't a new book. My grandmother had purchased it from the library in the next village over, where she got most books in English for me, because there were hardly places to buy books at all, where we lived, let alone ones in a language no one else speaks with any fluency. Only the kids at my school were expected to be good at English, anyway. The other kids in our respective neighborhoods referred to us as "the Americans" even though half of us had never seen America, and weren't even sure that's where one of our parents might be from. I was one of the rare kids that knew both of my parents and was secure in the fact that I hadn't been an accident or a cultural misstep. That knew exactly why my skin was darker and why my otherness wasn't socially disqualifying. Still, I loved English, and I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to be the best at it, because it was a skill that felt like it should have been my birthright, even if the words felt strange on my tongue.

I never expected, really, to identify with a character the way I identified with Sal. If I'd been older, I'd have realized, like my grandmother did, that Sharon Creech was someone meant to write for kids like me. Sharon Creech grew up straddling cultures herself; deeply aware of her Indigenous American roots at the same time as she reached for a sense of mainstream Americanism that was constantly kept just out of reach for her. All of her books brush upon this idea of wanting to blend in, and that desire is so important, so easy, for me to identify with. I spent most of my childhood longing to fit into my surroundings. To stop being stared at in the market. To stop having people touch my hair in the street or have other kids I'd known my whole life taunt me in the language we all grew up speaking together, because the words must hurt less when the language didn't belong to me.

But as I sat there, wrapped up in the blanket my grandmother had made by hand, English book open to the first chapter, I found someone else who was being crushed by the weight of others' expectations like me. And it hooked me. I devoured the rest of the book, with its important lessons and wonderful Americana and sprawling cultural roots. I imagined the rural parts of Ohio and Kentucky through the backseat window of Gramps' car. I was Sal, determined to finally grasp the truth of the world in my own two hands. 

While Walk Two Moons is, first and foremost, a story of forgiveness and family, it is also a story of learning to understand yourself, and your place in the world. From a writing perspective, this is the book that taught me the importance of everyday characters. That taught me that you didn't need a complex plot to tell a very complex story. That made me face the idea that I wasn't alone in my displacement, and that a book had the power to do that for others, too. I started writing my own stories because this story finally lanced a wound I hadn't realized was infected, and let me start to heal.

From a personal perspective, it taught me empathy. To look outside myself, and wonder if there was more to the story than my own personal narrative.

This book doesn't have anything flashy to recommend it. There is no fast-paced mystery, no high-fantasy magic. The characters are simple and mundane, and you've met them all before, at school or your job, at the grocer's and the dry cleaners. They are normal people with normal problems, and they struggle with things that are tied around their ankles like lead weights, making them move forward at a crawl. But I ended up seeing myself in them, in Sal especially, so much that when things started to shift under her feet, I cried. (I don 't cry.) And isn't that its own kind of magic?

Even to this day, I can remember long pieces of dialogue from this book. The image of blackberries smeared across Sal's mother's mouth. The loneliness of abandonment, the aching open wound of wondering, and even the kid who tied her hair to the chair. (That happened to me too.) Sal is lonely and different and afraid, but she is never the villain for it. I love her.

There's a moment in this book that crystalizes her change in perspective: 

It seems to me that we can't explain all the truly awful things in the world like war and murder and brain tumors, and we can't fix these things, so we look at the frightening things that are closer to us and we magnify them until they burst open. Inside is something that we can manage, something that isn't as awful as it had at first seemed. It is a relief to discover that although there might be axe murderers and kidnappers in the world, most people seem a lot like us: sometimes afraid and sometimes brave, sometimes cruel and sometimes kind.

I remember this lesson every day. And when I write, I try to make all my characters as mundane and ordinary and wonderfully realized as Sal. Because one day I want to write a character that makes someone grip a book a little tighter, wrapped in a blanket and skimming words in a language they've dreamt of claiming, and say something like: "this character is so much like me."

I've read this book a hundred times, and I'll probably read it a hundred more. I won't offer a summary, because even I wouldn't know how to summarize it. Maybe something simple like: a girl finds herself, and comes to accept that being different, being lonely, being afraid... that those aren't the end or the beginning of anything. They're just a part of the journey, and you don't have to make that journey all by yourself.