“The Gods of Tango: Transcending the Gender Boxes that Society Puts Us In”

An interview with Carolina De Robertis on the Web site DatingAdvice.com, about her upcoming novel, the startling hidden history of the tango, and courage to discover your true passion and follow it against the odds. carolinacover

“The 411: in her most sexually adventurous and romantically bold novel yet, “The Gods of Tango,” Carolina De Robertis explores what it means to blur the lines of gender and find love in a way that transcends societal boundaries.”

Read more here.

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A Profile of Carolina in Credit Suisse Magazine: “On Talent and Success”

Credit Suisse Magazine published a profile of Carolina De Robertis, exploring her early setbacks as a writer, the books and social issues that ignite her, and what she wishes for the emerging writers of tomorrow.

“Carolina De Robertis wrote her novel – the book that led to her international breakthrough as an author in 2009 – in secret. A creative writing professor had repeatedly turned her away when she tried to enroll in her class….” Read more

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Immigrant Voices: 21st Century Stories

The new collection Immigrant Voices: 21st Century Stories features short fiction from acclaimed immigrant writers including Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Daniel Alarcón, Yiyun Li, and others. Achy Obejas and Megan Bayles served as editors.

Carolina De Robertis’s short story “No Subject” appears for the first time in this anthology. adu-imig_1

“Brilliant selections…Immigrant Voices is a book that matters right now.”
The Chicago Tribune

For more information, or to order, click here.

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Uruguay, Little Trailblazer that Could

As 2013 hurtles to a close,  Uruguay has been receiving an avalanche of worldwide recognition. London’s The Guardian called the entire country “heroic” and said that it deserved a Nobel Peace Prize; Foreign Policy named President Mujica among its 100 Leading Global Thinkers for “redefining the Latin American Left”; and The Economist just named Uruguay its first-ever Country of the Year. As a festive top-off, buzzfeed.com published 21 Reasons everyone should move to Uruguay in 2014.

As a Uruguayan who grew up in the diaspora, accustomed to blank stares on telling people where I was from, and as an author of books about Uruguay, there is a profound whiplash that comes with this level of global attention. We Uruguayans often experience our nation, culture, and

Uruguayans celebrate the legalization of marijuana outside Parliament.

Uruguayans celebrate the legalization of marijuana outside Parliament.

realities as peripheral to global affairs. We are a nation of three million people sandwiched between two giants, Argentina and Brazil. We often feel invisible. How refreshing, then, to suddenly be heralded as a trailblazer for progressive change.

What’s spurring all the attention?

Its primary source is Uruguay’s groundbreaking new marijuana law. As of December 10th, this tiny nation became the first in the world to legalize the cultivation and sale of marijuana, a project which aims to combat the illicit drug trade and its accompanying scourge of social violence, providing an alternative to the failing, U.S.-led war on drugs that may well be a model for other nations in the Americas and beyond. In other words: this is not just a law about smoking pot. It’s a law about peace and safety.

There are other transformative policies that aggregate to create this potent moment in Uruguay. Among them:

Uruguay legalized gay marriage this year, becoming the second Latin American nation to do so, and the 12th in the world. Even gay activists have been shocked at how many same-sex marriages have been officiated here since then. (My wife and I had the privilege to attend one: two loving men who’ve been together for thirty-four years. Their friends,

Two men celebrate while holding the flags of Uruguay and Argentina, the first two Latin American nations to legalize gay marriage.

Two men celebrate while holding the flags of Uruguay and Argentina, the first two Latin American nations to legalize gay marriage.

neighbors, and former colleagues swarmed them with love and cheers. I should not have worn mascara.) Although homophobia certainly still exists, the social climate has been changing at a dizzying speed, thanks to the work of activists and remarkable public awareness campaigns like this one.

Voters upheld a recent abortion law in the face of a referendum, and thereby protecting women’s health and dignity. Although the law is limited to the third trimester and places undue burdens on minors, it is still to be commended as the most liberal abortion law in Latin America.

The Senate passed an historic, pioneering, much-needed Affirmative Action Law to ensure employment and education justice for people of African descent. This last piece has not been mentioned in any of the international press, but it’s truly historic, not least because the

Afro Uruguayans bear witness to the senate's vote in favor of affirmative action.

Afro Uruguayans bear witness to the senate’s vote in favor of affirmative action.

measure passed by a unanimous vote, an unimaginable feat in the U.S. The law will reserve 8% of government jobs for people of African descent, who comprise 8% of the population, as well as fill the terrible void in school textbooks on the history of afrodescendientes. Racial discrimination is still a deeply entrenched, serious problem in Uruguay (perhaps this is a future post–I wrote a little about it here), and this bold, needed measure brings some crucial tools to bear in addressing it.

None of this is to suggest that there isn’t still work to be done. Uruguayan society faces many problems, including domestic violence, rising crime, stubborn poverty, and chaotic public schools. This is a nation still recovering from a brutal dictatorship that, in 1980, gave Uruguay the dubious distinction of more political prisoners per capita
than any other nation. Our current President and First Lady, the peerless and visionary José Mujica and Lucía Topolansky, were among those prisoners. That bleak history is not forgotten; it is at the root of this movement, a power source, a fuel.

Social change is a kind of alchemy. I have felt it in the air, living here in

Our fearless leader José Mujica, a.k.a. El Pepe

Our fearless leader José Mujica, a.k.a. El Pepe

Montevideo throughout 2013, watched it flourish. To see that same alchemy reflected in the world’s eyes gives me tremendous, exorbitant hope. The slogan of the World Social Forum springs to mind: “Another World is Possible.”

Yes, it is.

Yes, we can.

Sí se puede. Acá en Uruguay–and everywhere.

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Happy Springfall Equinox

Today is Spring Equinox. Except it’s not. Not here, in the Southern Hemisphere, in the nation of Uruguay, where a fierce brief summer is abruptly coming to a close. In keeping with global warming, the weather here has been unusually wild, hot, and stormy these past few months, and today, cold rain pours down, like a curtain closing on the season of beaches and Carnaval. Fall has blown in, the days are shorter, we are headed into the cold.

A drawing by Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García, reminding us that what we think of as geographically "up" or "down" is an invention.

My parents both grew up in Uruguay, and this was the pattern by which they measured time. But I have spent my entire life – until now – living in the Northern Hemisphere, in Europe and the U.S. I’ve visited Uruguay over the years, but never been here long enough to feel the seasons change around me. I can’t wrap around this inversion of annual rhythms I’ve known since since childhood. I stare at the calendar and dutifully repeat: April is in the fall, September in the spring. I want to believe it. I know it’s true for half the world. But it feels a bit like writing with my feet and walking with my hands. Or crossing a threshold into an alternate world, the kind usually found down rabbit holes or through psychedelic drugs.

My wife, children and I are in Uruguay for a year. We came for many reasons: to make a film, to write and do research, to steep linguistically, to engage with the culture, to grow, to connect. Above all, through our work and our acts and our quietest moments, to connect. Whether this is, for me, a homecoming or a venture into foreign wilds, I still can’t say.

A friend recently returned from Greenland and told me that, in Greenlandic, the word for “weather” is also the word for “consciousness.” What does this say about our ties to the natural world? Our psychic yoke to the seasons? The potency of our inner storms?

My heart is divided between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and perhaps it always will be. There are worse ways to live, worse destinies than stretching your heart over and over in an attempt to encompass everything you love, across the globe. Sometimes stretching your heart means breaking it. You love a place that treats you with unkindness. You love a place you can’t return to. You climb and fall. You call out and can’t tell whether anyone has heard. You feel your solitude, your utter You-ness, your precarious stance between worlds. But it can be a good force, too, this breaking of your heart. It can mold you back together in a new shape, one that’s unrelentingly genuine, a shape like no other, a shape that strives to embrace the world.

What an unrivaled gift, to belong, as we all do, to this mysterious planet. Today it is autumn. Today it is spring. Today there is a turning of the Earth.

I wish you a happy equinox and the most joyous fallspring or springfall you could hope for.

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Tips for the Mother-Writer

In honor of International Women’s Day:

 This list began as a series of notes to myself, things I’ve needed to hear these first four years as a mother-writer. I hope something here can be of use to you as well. (As for you fathers, or you writers-not-parents or even artists-not-parents, I see you too; feel free to find resonance here as well.)

1. These aren’t rules. There are no rules. You’re a writer and mother, so mother and write.

2. You don’t always have to love the journey.

3. Love the journey.

4. A paragraph written with spit-up on your shirt will look no worse in print.

5. Hide from your children. The bathroom is good. Caves are good. Child care is better than diamonds (hint, hint, partners, relatives, friends).

6. Take yourself seriously.

Sometimes, my friends, the baby gets to The New Yorker before you do.

7. Steal time to write.

8. Keep your sense of humor. Rinse. Repeat.

9. Read. It’s hard to make the time, I know, I know. But don’t skip it. That’s like a pro athlete who skips exercise. Or a chef with anorexia. Reading is the essential foundation of the love affair with language that lets you make art.

10. Steal time to read.

11. And sometimes you can’t read. Sometimes there’s barely enough energy left to get your teeth brushed before collapsing on the bed without pulling back the covers. I know. Relax. You’re still a writer.

12. Did you hear that? You’re still a writer.

13. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and books are a bit like cities. Try not to get overwhelmed by all the skyscrapers left to erect. Recognize the brick you laid today.

14. When you can’t read: they, too, are text. Your children. They are wondrous and complex enough to leave Homer speechless. You know this, don’t you? So “read” your children. Drink them in. Let them fill the well.

15. Sometimes, when you think that the Muses have abandoned you forever, it’s really just sleep deprivation, and will pass.

16. Sleep. It’s medicine. Steal time to sleep.

17. Take yourself seriously.

18. It’s even possible that the Muses, whatever they are and however you understand them, love that you’re a mother, too. And that therefore they’ll be extra kind to you and hold your visions with extra care until you’re ready. (Is this true? I don’t know. But if the notion works, use it.)

19. Use everything. Your children are dazzling human founts of inspiration. So is motherhood. Even the hard parts. Especially the hard parts. Who knows how you’ll draw on them one day.

20. If you’re reading this at a computer, if you’re decently sheltered from the

In 2009, two months into motherhood. (Note that baby's nails need cutting. Possibly, because I was writing.)

elements, if you feed your kids nutritious food every day, then you’re more fortunate than the majority of the world’s population. You have so much. So, go on, give thanks. And write.

21. Think of all the female ancestors you have in your lineage who secretly burned to write but who, for so many reasons, could not. How many of them? Hundreds? Thousands? Can you imagine their joy that you are here, writing?

22. See #6 (and #17).

23. You are breaking the pattern of centuries if not millennia in which literature was the realm of men and childrearing the realm of women, and it was considered laughable if not downright seditious to strive, as a woman, to do both. You shatter the glass ceiling, not only for yourself, but for future generations of mother-writers, and all the readers that will benefit from their voices. This kicks ass.

24. You are breaking the patterns of centuries if not millennia, etc, etc (see #23). So for God’s sake, go easy on yourself.

25. Your road is full and messy and radiant and unscripted and, quite possibly, perfect.

26. They don’t have to be in conflict, writing and mothering. That’s actually the false construction of a patriarchal (yes, I said it) society. The fact is that writing and mothering are two good roads, nothing more, nothing less. And they are not separate roads, because you exist—because they twine together in you.

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Uruguay, Mon Amour (en español)

(For the original English-language version of this post, please click here.)

Esta nota fue publicada en inglés en este blog el 31 de enero, 2013. Les agradezco a Alex Bratkievitch y Marcelo de León por la traducción.

Estas seis semanas desde que mi esposa, los niños y yo nos mudamos a Montevideo por nueve meses han sido como un torbellino. Encontramos un apartamento, nos mudamos, y empezamos a buscar cosas como sábanas, juguetes y un escritorio con el que transformar el servicio, o sea el cuarto de la empleada, en nuestra Central Mundial (también conocida como la oficina). Disfrutamos del tiempo con amigos y parientes. Visitamos el futuro jardín de nuestro hijo y le amortiguamos el golpe de la transición con nuevos placeres como chapotear en el Río de la Plata o subirse al Gusano Manzanita en el Parque Rodó. Caminamos por la ciudad por horas con la beba a la espalda. En una feria encontramos revistas de hace 100 años, invalorables como material de consulta para la novela que estoy escribiendo. Y trabajamos como burras produciendo el documental que nos trajo acá para empezar.

La película se llama Afro Uruguay: Forward Together (pueden ver un tráiler aquí o al final de esta entrada). Mi esposa, Pamela Harris, recibió una Beca Fulbright para pasar nueve meses acá, dirigiendo y produciendo esta película sobre los afrouruguayos, su cultura, su historia, su música y los esfuerzos por superar su situación. Hace ocho años que trabajamos en esto, un verdadero proyecto de amor. Me honra ser la coproductora de esta película, lo que en realidad significa que soy una voluntaria que ayuda como puede. Realmente no tengo talento para los aparatos electrónicos pero por lo menos ya aprendí a monitorear el sonido sin sentarme sobre el equipo. Uso unos auriculares grandes, traduzco, hago entrevistas, llamadas, traduzco un poco más, sigo a la gente, escucho. Sobre todo escucho. Estoy descubriendo que el papel del documentalista es de presenciar, profundamente. Y acá hay tanto para presenciar, tanto que merece ser contado…

La activista uruguaya Tania Ramirez.

Dos días antes de que llegáramos al país, una joven afrouruguaya, Tania Ramírez, fue severamente golpeada en la calle por cuatro mujeres que la llamaron negra sucia”, entre otros epítetos racistas (pueden leer más sobre este incidente aquí). A Tania le perforaron el hígado, entre otras lesiones; estuvo hospitalizada por un mes, y todavía está en recuperación. Tania también es una activista y respetada figura pública, y durante el mes pasado el caso hizo titulares, llenó las ondas de radio, e indujo a la nación a hablar sobre la raza. Ayer nada más {el 20 de enero}, el juez dio el veredicto para tres de las agresoras: las declaró culpables, pero no llegó al punto de decir que el ataque había sido un incidente racista o crimen de odio.

Pam y yo hemos estado siguiendo el caso, desde adentro. Aún no quisiera entrar en detalles, por respeto a la gente con la que estamos trabajando, pero sí les puedo decir esto: el martes estábamos afuera del juzgado con los seres queridos de Tania mientras ella declaraba adentro (en el sistema legal uruguayo, a los seres queridos no se les permite entrar con ella, lo cual, desde mi perspectiva de ex-consejera para casos de violación, me parece cruel e inusual). Estábamos paradas con ellos bajo el calor opresivo del verano, apiñados a la sombra del gran Teatro Solís. Filmamos, escuchamos, esperamos. A media cuadra estaban un grupo de los amigos y parientes de las acusadas y otro grupo de hombres con unas cámaras grandes. Eran periodistas de televisión. Miraban a la gente de Tania, los filmaron de lejos, pero no los entrevistaron. Ni. A. Uno.

En el informativo de la noche, la madre de una de las perpetradoras apareció, entrevistada en la calle, a unos metros de nosotros. Despotricó y despotricó, defendiendo a su hija y lo que ella llamó una simple “pelea callejera”. El informativo le dio casi dos minutos. Mostraron imágenes de la gente de Tania, pero no les permitieron que se expresaran. De ver el informativo, uno pensaría que los seres queridos de Tania no querían hablar con la prensa.

Pero yo estaba ahí, yo lo vi. A los seres queridos de Tania no les preguntaron. Todos los principales canales de televisión estuvieron ahí, pero las únicas que entrevistamos y filmamos a la gente de Tania en ese día en concreto, el primer día del juicio, fuimos Pam y yo.

El nuestro es un proyecto a largo plazo, y va a llevar un año o más para que esas secuencias lleguen al público. Mientras tanto, el tema de la raza en Uruguay es tan complejo y exasperante que podría partirme el corazón. No puedo decirles la cantidad de veces que escuché a un uruguayo decir que acá no hay racismo. Y que acá no hay gente negra, que “esta es una nación de europeos”. Estos son elementos esenciales de la autodefinición de la nación, mantras culturales, y los que los dicen frecuentemente son bienintencionados, amables e incluso progresistas. Es cierto que la pena que siento es personal, como uruguaya casada con una mujer negra, con hijos multirraciales a quienes les deseo la libertad de expresar tanto su negritud como sus raíces uruguayas; pero esta situación nos debería dar pena a todos. La desigualdad nos hace daño a todos, aunque sea de forma diferente.

Quiero algo diferente para este país lindo, idiosincrático, querido. Quiero que sea capaz de quemar su propio racismo y resurgir de las cenizas. Es posible que la confusión y los indignantes desmentidos y las omisiones en el diálogo sobre el caso de Tania sean parte de esa quema; me gustaría pensar que lo son. Las reacciones negativas generalmente son una indicación de que un movimiento está avanzando. Lo hemos visto una y otra vez en los Estados Unidos, con el movimiento feminista, los derechos de las personas gays y la lucha por la justicia racial. Por supuesto, en los Estados Unidos todavía vivimos esas reacciones adversas, pero ellas no han detenido el avance. Por el contrario, a medida que esas voces retrógradas se convierten en anomalías, nos muestran cuánto hemos avanzado.

Hoy, en Uruguay, hay suficiente nafta para el optimismo. Las ondas de radio y los programas de entrevistas y los pasillos de los supermercados están llenos de conversaciones sobre raza. Uruguayos tanto negros como blancos me dicen que no recuerdan que se le haya prestado tanta atención al tema antes. Aunque hay detractores, también es cierto que muchas, muchas personas están indignadas por lo que le pasó a Tania y hablan de tener más conciencia, respeto y justicia racial.

Logo para la Casa de la Cultura Afrouruguaya.

Y, en las últimas semanas, La Casa de la Cultura Afrouruguaya ha causado sensación con una campaña altamente mediatizada para persuadir a la Real Academia Española de que elimine el lenguaje racista del diccionario (un inspirador comercial lleno de famosos lo pueden ver aquí). Las dos noticias son distintas pero se han fundido en el imaginario colectivo, a menudo mencionadas en la misma frase, atizando el mismo fuego.

Uruguay, mon amour, seguí avanzando. Sos incomparablemente encantador, una pequeña joya escondida en el gran cofre de tesoros que es América. Tenés una rica y peculiar historia de movimientos e ideas progresistas. Sos extraño, gruñón, tenés un gran corazón, nadie te iguala en fútbol, mate y usos para la mayonesa. Y sin embargo, como tantas naciones, también estás lleno de un racismo que es el legado directo de siglos de trata de esclavos y colonialismo y silencios que, a pesar de toda su fuerza, pueden ser quebrados, mon amour, mi amor, my love. Vamos a quebrarlos juntos. Aspiremos a hacer un Uruguay mejor, más luminoso, para todos.

Este es un clip de cinco minutos que hicimos el año pasado de nuestra película en desarrollo:

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Uruguay, Mon Amour (English)

Para una versión de este blog en español, haga click aquí.

It’s been a whirlwind six weeks since my wife, kids and I moved to Montevideo for nine months. We have found an apartment, moved in, and hunted down things like  sheets, toys, a crib, and a desk with which to transform the servicio, or maid’s room, into our Global Headquarters (also known as an office). We have enjoyed time with friends and relatives. We have visited our son’s future preschool, and softened the blow of his transition with new joys such as splashing in the Río de la Plata and riding the Gusano Manzanita roller coaster at Parque Rodó. We have walked the city for hours with baby strapped to one of our backs. We have found 100-year old magazines at a street fair that are priceless research materials for the novel I’m working on. And we have worked our behinds off producing the documentary that brought us here in the first place.

The film is called Afro Uruguay: Forward Together (you can see a five-minute trailer here or at the end of this post). My wife, Pamela Harris, received a Fulbright Fellowship to spend nine months here, directing and producing this film about afrouruguayos, their culture and history and music and struggles for uplift. It’s been eight years in the making, a true grassroots labor of love. I am honored to be co-producing this film, which really means that I volunteer and serve however I can. I have no talent at all for gadgets but I’ve gotten better at monitoring sound without sitting on the equipment. I wear big headphones, translate, conduct interviews, make phone calls, translate some more, follow subjects around, and listen. Above all, listen. Documentary, I am learning, is a form of Deep Witness. And there is so much here to be witnessed, that deserves to be told.

The Uruguayan activist Tania Ramírez

Two days before we arrived in the country, a young Afro Uruguayan, Tania Ramírez, was severely beaten in the street by four women who called her a “negra sucia,” among other racial epithets (you can read more about the incident here). Tania’s liver was perforated, among other severe injuries; she was hospitalized for a month, and is still recovering. She is also an activist and respected public figure, and for the past month the case has made headlines, filled airwaves, and shaken the nation into talking about race. Just yesterday, a judge handed down a verdict on three of the aggressors: he ruled them guilty, but stopped short of calling the attack a racist incident or hate crime.

Pam and I have been following this case closely, from the inside. I’m not quite ready to go into the details, out of respect for the people we’re working with, but I will say this: we were outside the courthouse with Tania’s loved ones on Tuesday, while she was inside giving testimony (under the Uruguayan legal system, no loved ones were allowed to enter with her, which seems cruel and unusual from the perspective of a former rape crisis counselor like me). We stood in the oppressive summer heat with them, huddling in the shade of the grand Teatro Solis. We filmed, listened, waited. A half block away stood a cluster of the defendant’s friends and relatives, and another cluster of men with big cameras. They were television reporters. They stared at Tania’s loved ones, filmed them from afar, but did not interview them. Not. A Single. One.

On that night’s television news, one of the perpetrators’ mother appeared, interviewed on the street, just yards from us. She railed on and on, defending her daughter and what she called just a “street fight.” The news spot gave her almost two minutes. They showed footage of Tania’s loved ones, but gave them no voice. One might think, watching the news, that Tania’s loved ones were unwilling to speak to the press.

But I was there, I saw it. Tania’s loved ones were not asked. Every major TV station was there, but the only people who interviewed Tania’s loved ones on camera that particular day, the first day of proceedings, were Pam and myself.

Ours is a long-term project, and that footage will take a year or more to reach the world. Meanwhile, the topic of race in Uruguay is so complex and maddening that it’s almost enough to break my heart. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a Uruguayan say that there’s no racism here. Not to mention that there are no black people here, that “this is a nation of Europeans.” These are utter staples of the nation’s self-definition, cultural mantras, and the people who say them are often well-meaning, kind, even progressive. It’s true that this heartbreak is personal for me, as a Uruguayan married to a black woman, with multiracial kids for whom I wish the freedom to embrace both their blackness and their Uruguayan roots—but it should also be all of our heartbreak. Inequality hurts all of us, even if in different ways.

I want something different for this beautiful, idiosyncratic, beloved country. I want it to be able to burn down its racism and rise from its ashes. It’s possible that the messiness and outrageous denials and omissions in the dialogue over Tania’s case are part of that burning; I’d like to think they are. Backlash is often a sign that a movement is working. We’ve seen that in the States time and time again, with the feminist movement, gay rights, and struggles for racial justice. We are still living inside those backlashes in the U.S., of course, but they haven’t stopped the movement forward. On the contrary: as those retrograde voices become anomalies, they show us how far we’ve come.

Today, in Uruguay, there’s plenty of fuel for optimism. The radio waves and talk shows and supermarket aisles are full of conversations about race. Black and white Uruguayans alike tell me they haven’t seen anything close to such attention to the topic in their memory. While the voices of denial are there, it’s also true that many, many people are outraged about what happened to Tania and speaking out on behalf of increased awareness, respect, and racial justice.

Logo for La Casa de la Cultura Afrouruguaya

And, in recent weeks, La Casa de la Cultura Afrouruguaya has been making waves with a highly public campaign to persuade the Real Academia Española to remove racist language from the dictionary (you can watch the inspiring and star-studded TV commercial here). The two news stories are separate, but they have fused in the public imagination, often mentioned in the same breath, stoking the same fire.

Uruguay, mon amour, keep moving forward. You are lovely beyond compare, a small gem hidden in the great pirate chest of the Americas. You have a singular rich history of progressive movements and ideas. You are odd, grumpy, large-hearted, unparalleled in the realms of soccer, mate, and uses for mayonnaise. And yet, like so many nations, you are also riddled with a racism that is a direct legacy of centuries of slave trade and colonialism and silences that, for all their power, can be broken, mon amour, mi amor, my love. Let’s break them together. Let’s set our sights on making a better, brighter Uruguay for everyone.

Here’s a five-minute clip of our film-in-progress that we made last year:

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Words for Leila Abu-Saba, 1962-2009

I once had an amazing friend called Leila Abu-Saba. She is still my friend, even though she died three years ago. She was an incredible woman, large in every way—six feet tall, a great mane of hair, a large laugh, a far larger heart. When she lost her fight against breast cancer, she was forty-seven years old, and she left two beautiful boys, a peerless husband, a popular blog, and a beautiful unfinished novel set in Lebanon, her homeland.

My dear friend Leila Abu-Saba, who died in 2009.

For two years after her death, I co-edited this manuscript with Leila’s widower and another dear friend, the novelist Micheline Aharonian Marcom. The book is now with a literary agent, and the journey I’ve taken with it has taught me a great deal about grief, friendship, spirit, and the ancient, essential power of art.

Above all it’s affirmed, for me, that love is actually stronger than death. And that the beautiful things we do while we are here matter more than we imagine.

I’ve written an essay about Leila—about loving and losing her, and about what it meant to take in her novel as though it were an orphaned child—and it’s just been published in the anthology Count on Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships. It’s edited by Las Comadres para las Américas, and amazing Latino writers, from Luis Alberto Urrea to Reyna Grande, can be found in those pages. If you read this book, you’ll find extraordinary gems inside.

I will be reading from my essay, “Every Day of her Life,” on Friday, November 9, at 7 pm, at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland. Come join me if you can. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt:

The first line of Leila’s book didn’t quite fit in chapter one, but we couldn’t cut it. To me,

The anthology COUNT ON ME, published by Atria books in September of 2012.

it seemed to hold what Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk calls the “secret center” of a novel. So we placed it before that, on a page all its own:

A daughter whose village is lost to her forever belongs to the world.’

Leila is in that sentence. She still breathes there. Somehow, she managed to forge a single line that sweeps up into its syllables all the sorrow and triumph and yearning of her tremendous heart.

There have been times when I’ve despaired about the limits of the manuscript as we received it, the holes we cannot fill, the continued writing only Leila could have done. As we approach the end of what we can do for the novel and prepare to offer it to publishers, I have to accept that we’ve done the best we can, done what Leila would have wanted for us to do. She will never have those two extra years of health in which to finish the book on her own terms. No amount of work we do will give that time back to her.

But the heart of writing is never about the end result. What matters most is knowing, like Lily at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, that you have done everything you could to realize your vision. And when I read that first sentence of Leila’s—and other sentences in her book—and feel how much she left us, how much she gave her art, something in me silently shouts Leila, darling, querida, comadre, no matter what happens from this moment forward, you did it. You did it. You did.”




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Of Birth and Hazelnuts

A baby hazelnut tree, sprouted in California from a nut gathered in Prepezzano, Italia.

Another kind of creativity has come to fruition for me this summer.

Four weeks ago, on July 15th, 2012, my daughter arrived into our living room. I’m pleased to say that all went well in a natural home birth. In an unexpected twist, I gave birth standing up. And she is healthy and lovely and has a full head of hair that I can’t resist adorning already with glittering barrettes (this is my second child, but my first girl).

On the day that she was born, hazelnuts from Prepezzano, my ancestral village in southern Italy, sprouted in California for the first time. I’d gathered the nuts when we visited two years ago, and my wife had finally put them in soil here on our deck.

Growth. Roots. Beauty. The most ordinary miracles.

Welcome, hazelnut trees. Welcome, Luciana.

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