Friday, January 22, 2016

Why the Grateful Dead Will Always Matter

Grateful Dead at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, Oct. 9, 1980. Photo by Chris Stone.

Last summer, after fifty years, the band with which the tie-dye shirt became synonymous, the group that helped to define an era (or certainly its vibe), the Grateful Dead performed a series of shows as a whole group (with Jerry smiling down in the form of a rainbow) for the last time. But like many of the concert-goers who couldn't bring themselves to leave after the final notes of the final "Fare Thee Well," the Dead won't soon fade from time or memory. In 2016, an offshoot of the band, called Dead & Company, is expected to tour, and a Dead tribute album seems to be in the works. And just released from ForeEdge, a lovesong to all things Dead, titled Why the Grateful Dead Matter, by Michael Benson, dives deep—as deep as any Dead guitar riff—into this timeless band's enduring legacy. Here’s a taste. 

by Michael Benson
author of Why the Grateful Dead Matter

Light the song, and pass it around. Don’t bogart. Let it shine, let it shine, stoke it on a Palo Alto stage, until that fire reaches the mountain in Concord, the magnolia fields down by the river, becomes a conflagration of the heart stretched from South Colorado to the West Texas town of El Paso, the twilight purple plain of Wichita, all the way to Europe and the Pyramids of Egypt under a lunar eclipse. Stoke it until it envelops the Earth with an accelerando of Peace.

And that’s the Grateful Dead, not just a band that played songs, sold records, and gave concerts, but a band of sorcerers, conjurers of a rare and different tune, music with a heartbeat and breath, with the perfect tension between dissonance and resonance, suspension and completion, a cynosure for the huddled masses, tie-dyed angel music for spinning the sacred dance of life as a falling leaf at the jubilee, a rolling away of the dew, a movement and groove that gets into the fiber of your skull, spreads like ripples on still water, grows roses along a trellis of bones, messes with the gears of your body clock until you’re on a long, strange pilgrimage jonesing to find the 45-minute Sugaree, waving that flag, driving that train, holding away the despair with a cloak of space and drums, lightening the load until you get up and fly away.

You don’t have to take my word for it. The famous mythologist Joseph Campbell (his book The Power of Myth is required reading in college sociology courses) went to a Dead show and said the music was the antidote to the Damoclean sword of nuclear war.

Jerry Garcia, performing with the Dead, May 10, 1980, in New Haven, CT.

Why does the Dead still matter? Why will they always matter? Sure, because of the genius music, years of trippy listening pleasure—Jerry Garcia’s beam-me-up-Scottie leads and achingly sad vocals, Phil Lesh’s intricate bass lines weaving in and out of everything including the sound system, Bobby Weir’s strong masculine vocals and truly weird and wonderful second-chair guitar, the growling blues of Pigpen, the musicality and lightness of Keith and Donna Godchaux, and the Apocalypse Now rhythm section, the devils, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, all of whom we’ll be on a first name basis with from now on—but there’s a rebel bad boy social component as well. Their first fans thought they were bikers. The band matters because through it the counterculture lived on—ironic because the musicians were more piratical than political. They never turned a show into an anti-war demonstration. Although they were against all violence, their vision of show biz didn’t involve causes. They just didn’t like to follow rules and were constantly trying to get away with shit. But it didn’t matter. The counterculture burbled urgently from deep fissures in the earth beneath the San Andreas Fault and the Dead were swept away in the movement despite their apathy. They were too close to the crack to avoid the deep rifts in society.

America came out of World War II a militaristic animal, intoxicated by its own might, its ability to push enemies around, to purge the world of evil. But the following generation, the kids coming of age in the 1960s, saw military solutions in a different light. The war in Vietnam had no real purpose; it had sprung up like a malignant weed through the cracks in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, a crossfire disguised as a magic bullet that burned Camelot to the ground. While America was spoon-fed Oswald pabulum, an undigested buzz of coup cabal grew into an electronic feedback wail—Dylan at Newport—and radicalized the American folkie-bohemian.

Bob Weir, performing with the Dead, Dec. 31, 1976.
Anti-Nam protests evolved smoothly from the pre-existing Cold War academic beatnik movement to “Ban the Bomb.” Like the war before it in Korea, Vietnam was a Civil War, a North fighting a South, and there seemed no cause for the U.S. to intervene. What was it all about, anyway? Profit? They said it was about the “Domino Theory”: if North Vietnam—and it’s Red Chinese backers—were allowed to conquer South Vietnam, the other small countries of southeastern Asia would fall as well. To many, the theory seemed weak—who cared who owned the jungle? Eisenhower had warned of the military-industrial complex, which would one day come slouching toward Bethlehem. War without reason was a symptom of the behemoth. The younger generation believed that war existed only to make a few men rich, while sacrificing the lives of American boys who didn’t have the connections to avoid the draft.

American involvement in Vietnam was light until the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin” incident, in which it was reported that a North Vietnamese ship fired across the bow of an American ship, an act of aggression used by LBJ, sworn in on Air Force One on a terrible day in Dallas, as an excuse to escalate hostilities to the jangly tune of billions of dollars and more than 50,000 American lives.

Finally, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, “The Most Trusted Man in America,” said on the six o’clock news that the war was unwinnable. In order to show their dissatisfaction with the world the adults were creating, the youth of America grew their hair long, a fashion that began as Beatles-esque but eventually became anti-military. Youths began to take mind-altering drugs, which they were told by Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey and so many others, would expand their consciousness. Like Jack Kerouac and the beatniks before them, they worshipped the road, all the roads that led to the next Dead show, psychic roads that led to enlightenment.

It was the birth of a movement, initially a fad of psychedelia, from which the Dead were the last survivors.

This has been excerpted from Why the Grateful Dead Matter, by Michael Benson.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My Mother the Architect

This article is reposted from the HBI Blog of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute 

by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash
author of The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq's Last Jews

On October 18th, I spoke at the Iraqi Synagogue in Queens to celebrate the publication of my book, The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews. There were at least 70 people in attendance, and after reading a passage from the book in which I describe being interrogated by prison officers when I was nine years old—looking for a recording device with which to accuse me of espionage, they tore apart a doll my father had given me—I pulled the broken doll out of a plastic bag and showed her to them.

When I’d finished speaking, I asked if anyone had questions. A hand went up in the front row; it belonged to my mother, who is 81 years old. “Don’t just bring out your doll,” she said. “Tell them what we didn’t take with us. Tell them what we had to leave behind.”

Shamash's mother, on a Baghdady rooftop
You see, we did not leave Iraq because we wanted to. We left Iraq because we had been persecuted there, for our Judaism, and when we left we were not allowed to take anything except for a few suitcases packed as though we were only going on vacation. Who takes photo albums on vacation? Who takes rugs, or heirloom furniture acquired over generations, or—in my mother’s case—her most precious jewelry? No one. So we left ours behind in Baghdad, because if the authorities had come across any evidence of our intending to flee forever, they would have arrested us again.

My mother got married when she was eighteen. It was an arranged marriage, to a man 24 years older. She had been coloring in a notebook with Iraq’s young King Ghazi on the cover when she was called downstairs to be introduced to her groom. The detour in life lasted much longer than she’d anticipated.

She still talks about the dormant architect in her, the unfulfilled desire to pursue a desire. It wasn’t just her marriage that derailed her: it was also our exile, which threw her dreams an even greater distance away.

Mehandeesa, she will occasionally still say, with a sigh. I wanted to be an architect. Only two years after we fled Baghdad and had settled as refugees in Amsterdam, my father died of a heart attack. Now my mother was widowed, in a strange country, with four children in tow. How would it ever be possible now to fulfill her dreams of designing the arc of liberty?

How I wonder what her style might have been, what bridge she might have built! But then, who would have told me all those bedtime stories, and analyzed my dreams? In Amsterdam, we lived largely in a vacuum. For Mama, the focus was on survival, on providing for her family. Her role as a mother was intensified, in a sense. There was no room for being what the Westerners call a Supermom. Even though she was. She is. She decorated my spirit. She built bridges no one can see.

Shamash and her mother upon arrival in Holland
I remember when she came home from the first day of a potential job that our Dutch social worker had arranged for her. It was as if someone had died. This was shortly after my father had passed away. The social worker had told her that it would be good for her to get out for a few hours a day, to have a purpose, but it wasn’t clear to Mama until she arrived that the job was as a cleaning woman. When she got home, her mood was as if Papa had passed away all over again. She could never even mention that dusty day again. It was if she were in mourning—mourning for her potential.

Today, Mama lives near me, in Queens, where I have a husband, a dentistry practice, and five children of my own. I see clearly now that my having a family and a profession (two professions, if you count writing) is a well-rounded existence that was robbed from her. It was robbed from her like our life in Iraq was robbed from us, like our rugs and furniture and baby pictures and menorah and jewelry were all robbed from us, by anti-Semitism. It was difficult for me, being a child in a strange country, going to a school full of children who looked nothing like me and spoke a different language. But still, compared to my mother, I have enjoyed the express lane in life. When you are derailed as she was—when life is not architecture school but instead learning a new language at 40, familiarizing yourself with new soil, new hurdles, digging deep for courage and chutzpah you didn’t know you had, as though you’d arrived ex nihilo—suddenly it’s too late for your turn, your chance to celebrate your own G-d-given potential.

Or maybe she fulfilled her potential in a different way, building intangible things, through her inspiring nature and her children.

The anatomy my mother was sketching the day she met my father was left unfinished, but she did have time to color in the heart. And the handwriting in that notebook is beautiful, the envy of every high school girl today. She was on her way to liberation and choices. But that was only in the beginning. The beginning is always like this, my mother often says. Hopeful. Still now, when she visits my home, she makes little suggestions as to where I should position my furniture, or she comments on a window’s aspect, its light, the house’s location on the block. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. “Min el sharq illah el gharb,” my mother says with a sigh. They used to tell me I was good with design.

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash is the author of The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews, the most recent book in the HBI Series on Jewish Women. She serves on the board of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq and owns her own dental practice in New York City where she resides with her husband and five children.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

HOLIDAY SALE! 30% Off Select Titles

The season of giving and—let's face it—getting is upon us again, and UPNE is perfectly delighted to be offering a special deal on a dozen of our most popular books from the past year and beyond. Treat yourself and those you love who love reading, why don't you, and pick up these books at 30% off, only at Use promo code WWH30E at checkout. (Sale goes through January 15, 2016.)

Meeting Tom Brady: One Man's Quest for Truth, Enlightenment, and a Simple Game of Catch with the Patriots Quarterback 
by Richard J. King

"Meeting Tom Brady should occupy a spot next to Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes on every thinking sports fan's bookshelf."—Sean Glennon, author of Tom Brady vs. the NFL

A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks 
by Stewart Gordon

"From dugout canoes dating to 6000 BC down to 2013, when a modern cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy, Gordon lucidly shows how maritime activities reflect the ever-increasing pace of globalization."—Richard M. Eaton, University of Arizona

Baby You're a Rich Man: Suing the Beatles for Fun and Profit
by Stan Soocher

"Soocher's cast of mobbed-up producers, cut-out shilling managers, and opera-composing judges reads like Elmore Leonard in the Sky with Diamonds."—Steven Lee Beeber, author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's" A Secret History of Jewish Punk
Dirt: A Love Story 
edited by Barbara Richardson

36 artists, scientists, and renowned writers go wild about the virtues, pleasure, and importance of dirt. Essayists include Vandana Shiva, Peter Heller, Janisse Ray, Bernd Heinrich, Linda Hogan, Wes Jackson, BK Loren, and others. With a foreword by Pam Houston.

The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball 
by Bob Katz

"Katz is a talented writer who provides a vivid account of a world not seen by college basketballs fan. He show the referees' complete dedication to the art of working a game.—Chicago Tribune

Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler 
 by Oliver Hilmes

"Alma's incredible life, the contrasting aspects of her powerful nature, her burning passions, the fierce jealousies and dislikes she aroused in others, make for a fascinating tale that is very well told by Hilmes."
—Henry-Louis de la Grange, biographer of Gustav Mahler
Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food 
by Laura Silver

"A whimsical, mouthwatering, and edifying odyssey through New York neighborhoods and beyond."—Sam Roberts, New York Times

And check out 6 Reasons a Knish is Better than a Bagel!

The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy
by Paula Shoyer

"Amaretto cookies, challah beer bread pudding with caramel sauce, and chocolate babka are among the delectable desserts featured in this beautifully illustrated cookbook."—Jewish Book World

Ice Ship: The Epic Voyage of the Polar Adventurer Fram
by Charles W. Johnson

"As splendidly composed a biography of the magnificent vessel Fram as it is a portrait of the courageous men who sailed her into the daunting arctic."—Howard Norman, author of Next Life Might Be Kinder

Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea 
by James W. Graham

"This wonderfully written book takes a well-worn subject—the Kennedys—and gives it as fresh a gust as the sailors on the sturdy, little Victura must have felt a thousand times off the Nantucket shore."—Richard D. Mahoney, author of Sons & Brothers

The Court-Martial of Paul Revere: A Son of Liberty and America's Forgotten Military Disaster 
by Michael M. Greenburg

"The most fascinating book that I have read in a long while. This is not the Paul Revere that you thought you knew. This Revere is pugnacious, snarky, maybe underhanded, and despite the verdict in his court-martial a poor military officer."—John Ferling, author of Jefferson & Hamilton
The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq's Last Jews
by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash

"Shamash's writing beautifully communicates the confusion, imagination, and resilience that she experienced as a child from the trauma, displacement, and possibility of immigration, all caused by anti-Semitism. She weaves her story so well that the reader truly feels what the author has lived."—Jewish Book World

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Afterlife of a Fictional Town

Ernest Hebert, award-winning author of the Darby Chronicles, a classic and enduring series of novels about a fictional town in New Hampshire and its hardscrabble cast of characters—both lovable and hard-to-love—published the final book in the series last year with UPNE. But Howard Elman’s Farewell shouldn’t have to be the end of Darby as we know it. Hebert explains the motivation behind his new web project (created in collaboration with the DALI Lab at Dartmouth College) and how Darby and its townsfolk will go on, well beyond the page, guiding new readers into that world for generations to come. 

by Ernest Hebert
author of the Darby Chronicles

Ernest Hebert's Guide to the Darby Chronicles began with the idea of imagery when I was writing the fiction. Every time I would write a scene I would run a little slide show in my head. Of course those mental images came out in words. Here's an example from page 30 of the UPNE edition of Live Free or Die: "Cooty's main chore was gathering firewood to stoke the small stove in his cabin."

Details about the stove and the cabin would bog down the story line. Same goes for just about every scene. When I write, my goal is to give readers just enough information to follow the action and let them use their own powers of visualization to fill in. Some of my mental images of Darby are clear and in great detail; others are murky; a few are abstract; and sometimes there's no picture at all. For example, I did not know what Cooty's wood-burning stove looked like when I wrote the lines I quoted above.

I always wanted to get these images out of my head onto paper, but I could never draw well enough. Then about fifteen years ago I discovered that I had a knack for drawing on the computer. Yippee! Around 2012 I came up with the idea of recreating Darby visually. I wanted not only to show the imagery that appears in the novels, but to go beyond into details that are not in the books.

Around the same time period that I was mulling over the idea of drawing images of Darby I looked at the John Milton Reading Room, a fabulous website conceived by Thomas Luxon, a colleague of mine at Dartmouth College. Inspired, I set out to create an everything-anybody-wants-to-know-about-Darby-and-then-some website. I began by drawing a map on Adobe Illustrator of the town of Darby. (By the way, a version of that map appears at the beginning of all seven of the Darby books, but only in the UPNE editions.)

I wrote an essay about every place name that appears on the map. Somehow in the alchemy way of creativity the essays led me to write poems, so that Ernest Hebert's Guide to the Darby Chronicles includes a collection of poems by yours truly, though often in the voice of Darby Characters. I never expected to write new fiction, but I felt moved to write a short story, "The Bulletin Board", which appears in the Blog category of my website.

In my drawing of Cooty Patterson's wood stove (see top of this post) the challenge was to create an object that would be original and in the context of Cooty's character. The stove would be aesthetic, somewhat practical, but a little dangerous and crazy, too. The stove would have to have a stew pot on a grill, because in the Darby Chronicles Cooty is famous for his stew, which he stocks with road kill and veggies from compost piles and dumpsters. Cooty also collects sticks which he hangs on the wall as art objects. Note the clock. Instead of XXII, I wrote "DOOM," which is a reference to Darby Doomsday, a video game that plays a role in Howard Elman's Farewell. I drew the enclosed image with my finger in the Procreate app on the iPad.

My aim for the future of Ernest Hebert’s Guide to the Darby Chronicles is to give my readers information about Darby, both visual and verbal, that is not in the books. And the characters? What they look like is best left to the imagination.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Watching the Debates? Here's How to Game the Presidential Election

It's like BINGO, but fundamentally better for the 21st century.

Now less than a year from the 2016 presidential election, the GOP candidates vying for the office still number more than a dozen, the Democrats have narrowed to three, and we've only scratched the surface on the calendar of debates—though there's been plenty of excitement so far.

Depending on your political bent, or even your level of tolerance for other candidates within your party of choice, sitting through a three-hour debate can be any combination of exasperating, inspiring, dispiriting, hilarious, at times educational.

Between all the competition to get a word in edgewise and the ding-dinging time limits on the candidates' statements and rebuttals, these performances too easily devolve into canned polemics, nifty soundbites, and the kind of political doublespeak that lets a politician say as much as possible without really saying a thing.

Authors David Mark and Chuck McCutcheon wrote the book on this very phenomenon. Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes collects dozens of examples of the jargon and blather of the players, both elected and those behind the news desk, who make a living out of  misguiding the electorate. (Check out our coverage last year on "How to Talk Like a Politician.")

So, there's no reason why you and your friends can't have a little fun at the expense of these smooth talkers.

In honor of the forthcoming release of the eBook, Doubletalk (on-sale February 2016), Mark and McCutcheon's election season supplement to their first book, we created BINGO cards (like the one you see at the top of this post)—six of them—which you should totally print out and put to good use, abiding by whatever house rules you invent (ahem), when the next debate is on.

(By the date of this post, the next one is the Democrats' turn: Sat., November 14, 9 pm EST, on CBS.)

Click on the following link to download PDFs of all 6 BINGO cards, and have fun. It's gonna be yuge:

Presidential LINGO Game (PDF)

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Inside Story of How Marc Solomon's WINNING MARRIAGE Won Big

by Tom Haushalter
UPNE Marketing Manager

“If I can sell gay marriage, I think I can sell a book.”

That was one of the first things Marc Solomon, author of Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits—and Won, said to the UPNE sales and marketing team when we gathered for lunch in Boston several months before his book's November 2014 publication in our ForeEdge imprint. Although a debut author—of a chronicle of his life's work waging the then-unfinished legal battle for marriage equality in America—Marc came to lunch with questions about book promotion that seemed to be searching for parallels to the grueling public relations campaign he'd been directing (with Freedom to Marry) for years. In other words, this wasn't Marc's first time to the rodeo.

We were all keenly aware of the possibilities surrounding his book, as marriage equality had ascended to being the most important social movement of its time. The end of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), struck down the year prior, made way for several states to begin allowing same-sex unions, and there was an air of inevitability that the Supreme Court would soon hear a case to decide, once and for all, if all Americans, in any state, were free to marry whomever they choose. We weren't worried about establishing a news hook.

But the many uncertainties baked into our plans for Winning Marriage—how soon will SCOTUS take action? And what if they make the wrong decision?—lent elements of surprise that don't accompany every book you get to publish. From that first lunch date through the hardcover's November release, through reviews and a sprawling national tour, through an historic decision and an uncannily timed paperback edition, this book and its tireless, magnificent author found ways to blow away everyone at UPNE. Here are the highlights of our continuous surprise:

They all approve this message

Authors can be fond of loading their blurb/endorsement wish lists with A-listers they’re not sure how to contact, any of whom would be great to have. Marc Solomon furnished us with a list of endorsers that included legendary journalist Bob Woodward, former U.S. congressman Barney Frank, Senator Tammy Baldwin, Wicked author Gregory Maguire, Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti—to name a few! Our success rate on those blurbs was 100 percent. (Oh, and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick wrote the foreword.)

A deluge of media

Marc takes his seat on NBC's Meet the Press.
Here’s another embarrassment of riches. The media coverage for Winning Marriage was like turning on a fire hose. From reviews and stories in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, U.S. News & World Report, Slate, and Politico, to excerpts in the Advocate and New Republic, and a sit-down with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press—the sheer volume of exposure wasn’t just a boon for the book. Given the timing of its release, the book became the media’s most reliable source for illustrating how far the marriage equality movement had come—and how far it had still to go.

Where in the world isn't Marc Solomon?

As the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, Marc was never one to sit back and watch the returns come in. True to his word, he sold his book like he sold gay marriage—not that the two weren’t one and the same! At some point, I’ll admit, I lost track of where in America Marc was on a given day, or where he’d be the next. From bookstore readings in Boston to house parties in Los Angeles to college classroom visits in Chicago and St. Louis, he spanned the country over the course of several months.

Countless people, from all walks of life, shared their own stories as part of this movement. Reflecting on the warm reception of his book, Marc says, “I especially loved hearing from younger people, in their 20s and early 30s, who weren’t necessarily paying attention to the early marriage battle in Massachusetts [in 2003], who didn’t realize how intense and focused the fight was even then.”

The Decision and the Revision

By now we all know how the story ends. On June 26, 2015, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ended the nationwide ban on same-sex marriages. Victory celebrations ensued. There was only one problem. The story, as told in Marc Solomon’s book, was incomplete. It needed the final chapter!

We were preparing for this, though. And Marc was probably the most adamant that the paperback edition of Winning Marriage, due out in early fall of 2015, be revised to include an afterword on the historic SCOTUS decision. I do not exaggerate when I say that on the day the decision was handed down, Marc began writing that last chapter. And he turned it in for editing a few days later—the deadline loomed that closely.

Now we can confidently say that the Winning Marriage paperback is the whole story.

“The playbook for progressive causes”

Marc Solomon with the amazing Freedom to Marry team
Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising aspect to the publication of Winning Marriage is its value to other ascendant social justice causes. Publishers Weekly, for one, saw it all along, in its review calling the book “a manual for how to craft a successful political movement in the future.” Later, it was U.S. News & World Report deeming it “the playbook for progressive causes.” Consequently, in recent weeks, Marc has been sought-after as a speaker for a range of organizations, including the Rockefeller Family Fund working on women’s workplace equality, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Nature Conservancy combatting climate change, as well as litigators for reproductive freedom and organizers for criminal justice reform, hunger alleviation, and economic inequality.

As Winning Marriage becomes enshrined as not only the definitive story of the marriage equality movement in America, but as a guide for any movement to come (see these applicable lessons that Marc learned), Marc Solomon has himself moved on to the next chapter in his career, recently joining the team at Civitas Public Affairs Group, a firm that consults with an array of advocacy campaigns. I believe they know full well the indomitable force for good they’ve gained in Marc.


This post goes up in honor of University Press Week 2015 (Nov. 8-14), and today other fine UPs are sharing their favorite "surprises" from the past year. So follow the links to the press blogs below and keep reading!

University Press of Florida
University of Michigan Press
University Press of Mississippi
University Press of Kansas
University Press of Kentucky
University of Nebraska Press
University of California Press

#ReadUP #UPWeek

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Transgender Voices Breaking the Silence

"The Traits of Both" by Soraida Martinez

by Jackson Wright Shultz
author of Trans/Portraits: Voices from Transgender Communities

I distinctly remember the first time I ever read an entire book without help.

Shortly after my third birthday, I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed as they bustled back and forth through the doorway connecting their bedroom to the bathroom, preparing for the day ahead. I read slowly and methodically, practically shouting the words into the bathroom to make sure my parents could hear the groundbreaking story of the freckled, red-haired boy’s trip to the park.

I had successfully blundered through several pages, but when at last I arrived at a word I didn’t recognize, I wailed for someone to come read it to me. My mom, a reading teacher, ignored my plea for help, but called mechanically from the bathroom, “Sound it out!”

With no small amount of indignation, I formed the sounds of each letter slowly with my tongue. I struggled to make sense of the noises I heard myself producing, but an ever-stubborn child, I kept at it until the disparate phonics morphed into recognizable syllables. When I finally made sense of the text, I bellowed the offending word into the bathroom and continued my recitation with newfound vigor.

Jackson Wright Shultz
I don’t remember which seemingly difficult word became the source of my triumph; I don’t remember where we were going that day (although, I know it must have been an important event because I was wearing a rather formal dress with several scratchy layers of crinoline); and I don’t remember much about the book, save for its orange and green cover. Yet, I do remember the empowerment I felt when I finished the book.

Later, as we drove to whatever event dictated that I wear such an uncomfortable dress, I peered out of the car window, calling out the words on every street sign. After twenty miles of my commentary on mile markers and speed limit signs, my elder sister implored me to stop. (I steadfastly refused.) From those road signs, to the entirety of the children’s section of the local library, I began to read everything I could find. In retrospect, I think I was searching, in vain, for the smallest indication of a character to whom I could relate.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally found the character I had been searching for. As I read Leslie Feinberg’s lesbian cult classic, Stone Butch Blues, I turned each page with a combination of unbridled excitement and dread. The novel details the coming of age story of Jess, a young butch lesbian who, after a lifetime of ridicule, begins taking cross-gender hormones to more closely align her physical appearance with her masculine identity. Although Jess is never specifically labeled as transgender, the trajectory she follows resonates with many transgender and nonbinary individuals.

While this was not the first transgender narrative I had encountered, it was the first story in which I found critical pieces of myself reflected. For the first time in my life, my voracious reading had led me to a protagonist with whom I could wholeheartedly identify. Like Jess, I didn’t necessarily identify strictly as a man; however, transitioning seemed like the next logical step in the progression of my own gender identity. I came out as transgender shortly after finishing Stone Butch Blues.

By virtue of navigating my body away from the gender I had been assigned at birth, I fell under the broad umbrella of “transgender” and found myself a part of a vibrant community of individuals who identified and expressed their genders in fathomless ways. The more I talked to other transgender and nonbinary individuals, the more I realized that there are so many important and recurrent gender narratives that have somehow been omitted from the current body of work on transgender issues. I set out to write Trans/Portraits to tell the stories of transgender and nonbinary people in their own words in an attempt to correct this egregious erasure.

In conducting my research for the book, I didn’t know exactly what I would find, but there were certain themes I expected to encounter—medical and workplace discrimination, familial strife, and encounters with prejudice—but there were other discoveries I hadn’t predicted. Of the many dozens of transgender and nonbinary individuals I interviewed, I was surprised to learn that nearly all of them were involved in activist endeavors.

One of the men I interviewed, pseudonym “Greg,” aptly summarized this phenomenon: “I feel that a lot of trans folk become activists, not because they necessarily want to, but because there is a certain amount of need. […] As you deal with prejudice on a daily basis, you start picking and choosing which battles are the most important to you and then you start educating the people around you. Even if they never intended for it to happen, I believe most trans people become accidental activists.”

I was also surprised to find that I was not alone in my childhood literary pursuits. “Wendy” told me, “When I was a kid, I learned to read at a really early age. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Even though I didn’t consciously realize it, I was desperately searching through literature to find any glimpse of other people who were like me.” Several other interviewees, including “Catherine” and “Erik,” echoed this sentiment.

Learning that there were others out there searching for the faintest glimmers of themselves in the literature crystallized my desire to find and archive stories that broke the narrow mold of how transgender identities are usually conceptualized. My intent was to tell stories, like mine, that were not often expressed in transgender literature.

It was critical to me that this project provide a platform for voices that, even within transgender spaces, are often left out of the conversation. As “Bella” pointed out, transgender history has often been whitewashed, and the stories of trans people have frequently been left out of the conversation. “Our voices have been silenced long enough,” she told me, “It’s about damned time that somebody let us tell our truths.”

Ultimately, writing Trans/Portraits was a labor of love. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to connect with so many remarkable trans and nonbinary individuals and that I was able to provide a platform that allowed each of them to share their incredible stories. Although I began writing this book with mild uncertainty about what I would find, the positivity and diversity I encountered in collecting these stories allowed me to finish this project with hope that others who are still searching for their truths might find themselves amongst these pages.